CONVERSATION THEORYby Ben Paris
Their neighbor’s adult son, Pedro, home from the institution for the holidays, peeked at them through the sliding glass door while they ate breakfast. Frank and Louise tried to ignore him. Frank finally gave in and waved. Pedro waved back. He stood in his mother’s backyard for a minute, watching them, then retreated inside the house.
Frank had been up early. The weekend deal: he got the bread and newspaper, she made breakfast.
There was an omelet and a pot of coffee on the kitchen table when he got home. They sat and ate.
“What's this?” Louise held the New York Times in the air so Frank could see it.
“Iraq?” There was a headline about the war.
“No, the writing—your handwriting on the paper.”
“New graffiti on the corner,” Frank said. “Been seeing it around.” The letters were angled, jagged, without the curves one expects to see in English. He’d seen it on his way back from the deli, black spray-paint on an empty concrete wall.
“Why do you care, Frank, if they write on the walls?”
He broke off an end from the baguette, split it, and placed a forkful of the omelet inside. The crust was hard and difficult to chew.
The newspaper lay flat on the table in front of him; he looked at it while he ate. Frank pretended her question was rhetorical and didn’t respond.
* * * * * *
They watched a movie that night, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. A character in the movie, the hero’s sidekick, was along on the trip to record the flora and fauna that hadn't been recorded before then. It was pre-Darwin, set in the nineteenth century.
“Imagine being alive when the world was new like that,” Frank said to Louise. They sat next to each other on the couch.
“It's a movie, Frank,” she said.
“But imagine it.”
After twelve years of marriage, he still loved the way she chewed popcorn, slowly, one kernel at a time. She sat on the couch with her knees tucked under her body.
The Times was sitting on the coffee table in front of them; Frank examined his handwriting.
“Watch the movie, Frank.”
When it was over, Frank stepped outside to smoke a cigar. He walked around the block. Pedro sat on the concrete steps in front of his mother’s house, between two potted rhododendrons, chain smoking, the usual pile of butts on the sidewalk next to him. Marta, Pedro’s mother, who had been living in her house long enough to have paid off the mortgage, invited Frank and Louise to his fortieth birthday party a couple of months ago, but they had “a function” at the university.
Frank nodded when he passed, more acknowledgment than greeting.
“Give me a dollar,” Pedro said. When he was in town, he always asked Frank for something when they’d meet on the street.
Frank said, “No,” and kept walking.
He stopped at the corner and smoked his Montecristo, a gift from his father-in-law. It made him grandiose the way cigars do. He stood in front of the graffiti and imagined the kid with his spray paint can; the footwork, the sweep of the hand, the way the kid would skip first, then run away.
Frank stood there smoking and felt grateful for the things that were good in his life, the weekends away from work, the time to smoke a cigar and daydream the way he liked to do. He kept walking to the next block before he turned around toward home.
Pedro was still sitting on the steps when Frank returned.
“I saw her,” he said in a sedated garbled drawl.
“The girl who wrote the graffiti.”
“You did?” Frank had never said more than “hello” or “no” to him before; had avoided him successfully in the eight years they’d lived in Jersey City. He had a red pocked alcoholic face, a close-cut gray mustache to go along with the goatee, and small, isolated brown eyes.
“You were just there, standing in front of the wall.” Pedro looked up and down the block nervously. “You have a cigarette?”
Frank said, “No.”
“You have a match?”
Frank had a lighter. Pedro took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and put one in his mouth.
“I thought you didn't have any cigarettes?” Frank said, lifting the lighter toward Pedro’s face, clicking it lit.
He laughed with a forced, inauthentic, “oh, ho, ho.” “I didn’t say that. I asked you if you had any. Just wanted to talk.” He inhaled hard and long, as if he were trying to hurt himself.
“What does she look like?” Frank turned the cigar between his thumb and forefinger, examining it gratefully.
“Small. Black cap, hair tucked underneath. She runs fast.”
“I figured it was a guy.”
“Me too. She passes here all the time.” He took a deep drag of the cigarette. “You have a dollar?”
Frank said “No,” then felt through the keys and coins in his pocket. He took out two quarters and handed them to him before he left.
Louise was watching the news when Frank walked in the house. “Iraq,” she said.
There were images on the television of upended Iraqi tanks and US soldiers in sand-colored uniforms.
Frank stood in front of the television with his hands in his pockets. He looked from the screen to Louise and back at the screen. Louise picked crackers from a bowl and placed them on her tongue, communion-like.
Frank took a handful and pushed the crackers into his mouth.
“He knows the girl who's been writing the graffiti,” he said.
“Hmmpf.” Louise turned her head. “He's retarded.”
“Retarded isn't exactly the right word.”
“Well, we don’t really know what’s wrong with him, do we, honey? Whatever he is, he's not normal.” Louise didn't turn from the television. A general was standing in front of a group of reporters, speculating about the location of Saddam Hussein. At the corner of the screen, there was an inset of live battlefield video.
“They're blowing the place to smithereens,” she said. “You wonder, don't you Frank, why they couldn't work things out, avoid all this.”
“You do wonder,” Frank said. He started away from the television and up the stairs to the bedroom. “Although if you ask one of them, they'll say they tried; the UN and all that?”
* * * * * *
Sunday morning Frank had errands to run at Home Depot and wanted to get there before the crowd. He bought the Sunday Times and a baguette at the Italian bakery, and left them on the kitchen table the way he usually did.
On his way out, he examined the wrought-iron fence in front of their house for rust. The house was only fifteen feet wide, attached on both sides; a pint of paint would do. He checked the concrete steps between their front door and the sidewalk; the cracks were opening wider. He'd get some caulk to fill them.
He took the long way to Home Depot, through Liberty State Park, and past the university where he worked as an administrator.
At Home Depot, Frank stood in the caulk-and-paint section, with an orange plastic basket in his hand. He scanned the paint rack and pulled down a pint of black Rustoleum.
Frank turned toward the girl standing next to him.
“Do you think,” the girl pointed to the cage where the spray paint was locked, “do you think you could get a couple cans for me?”
Frank looked behind him, then turned to the girl and put his finger on his chest, “Me?”
The girl scanned the area to see if she was being watched. She spoke with a sad declivity and an accent he couldn't place.
“They won't sell it to me.” Her eyes were clear, like the water in a wishing fountain. “I'll give you the money.”
Frank shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He looked around as if he were an accomplice. “I don't know,” he said, looking up and down the aisle. Then: “Sure, why not.”
“Good.” She put a crumpled ten-dollar bill in his hand, and held up three fingers. “Three cans, the cheap kind.” She glanced around with understated clandestine drama. “When you leave the store, just walk to your car and I'll meet you there.” She disappeared into the windows-and-doors aisle.
Frank stepped out into a main corridor looking for someone to unlock the spray-paint cage. The salesperson had a photo of herself with two children pinned to her uniform. She wore a thick, leather lifting-belt around her waist. He held up a pint of the black Rustoleum paint. “This is the best paint to use for a wrought-iron fence, right?” Frank said. “It'll keep out the rust, won't it?”
“Sure will,” she chirped. “Best product out there.”
“Thanks,” Frank said. “I'll have a few cans of that stuff too.” He pointed at the spray paint.
“Sure thing.” Turning the key in the padlock, she grinned at him and winked: “You're not going to be running the streets spraying the walls with graffiti now are you?”
Frank laughed and dropped the three cans into his basket.
* * * * *
The exit doors opened by themselves. Frank stepped outside and stood there for a few seconds admiring the tawdry beauty of the idle smokestacks on the horizon. The air was still; cool without being cold. An otherwise quiet December morning, and Route 440 teemed with cars dashing headlong toward Staten Island and west to US 1/9. He looked both ways for the girl. There was a quickening in his steps. He felt part of a scheme, and it felt good.
He got into the car and tossed the bag of paint on the passenger's seat. He saw the girl approaching through the back-view mirror. Frank leaned over and rolled down the window; he swept the bag of paint on to the floor.
“You got it?” she said, leaning in. She pronounced the letter “t” with an awkward exaggeration. Frank reached across the seat to open the door. But it didn’t work. He looked at her sheepishly while he tweaked the handle until the door finally opened.
“Right there on the floor. The receipt and the change are in the bag.” Frank started the car. “I’ll give you a ride,” he said.
She sat and slammed the door shut, unzipped her backpack and shoved the paint inside. “Thanks,” she said.
It was more trees or earth than flowers or perfume, the scent of her that Frank was trying to place. He put the car in reverse, backed-up, and pulled out onto Route 440. He lowered the volume of the radio.
“I know you,” the girl said.
“The university, maybe. I work there.” He turned right off the highway.
“I've never been to the university,” she said. “You can drop me off on the next corner, up there near the diner. As long as it's a few blocks away.”
Frank pulled over toward the curb. “Where are you going?”
Frank put the car into second gear and pulled back into the middle of the lane. “I'm going downtown too.” He took a left and drove past the university, across Kennedy Blvd, took another quick left and then a right down Stegman, and up the Turnpike overpass.
She looked out the window. “A new way for me. My first time in this neighborhood.”
“The back roads,” Frank said. “It's longer, but no traffic.” He gestured at sky and the water on the right. The Statue of Liberty stood solitary and green in the harbor.
“So close. I've never seen it from here.”
“The advantage of having a car.”
They descended the ramp into the park. There was a warehouse on the right with a corrugated roof. “Look at the empty walls,” she said.
“You're the one,” Frank said. “You're the one spray-painting the walls downtown?”
“It's me, yes.”
“I can't figure out what it says. Why would you write something if no one understands what it means?”
“Certain people do. I don’t really care about the others.”
He could see her breath against the passenger window.
“Born,” she said. “It says 'born'.”
“Oh,” Frank said. “Born.”
“My brother's the real Born,” she said. “But he tags the walls 'born' where he lives. Brazil.” She turned from the window and looked at Frank. “They won't let him in.”
“No visa. They said no.”
“He's there. You're here,” Frank said.
They drove through the fenced-in brownfields at Liberty State Park; danger signs from the former chromium dump were visible from behind the swamp reeds on one side, manicured grass and gardens on the other. They passed the silver geodesic Liberty Science Center on the left. Frank was surprised to find himself wishing she would somehow be able to tag the dome.
“So you write 'born' on the walls here in the US,” Frank said. “And your brother writes 'born' in Brazil.”
“Yes,” the girl said. “That’s what we do.” She stared out the window at the park. “We take pictures sometimes of the walls, and send them back and forth. We had a good family once.” She turned her head toward Frank. “Good guy, my brother,” she said.
Frank took his eye off the road long enough to see her shoulders lift and straighten, a shrug that stuck, something like respite for an instant.
They drove under another Turnpike extension, past the new commuter Light Rail station and the new gigantic parking lot. Frank pointed at the “born” tag on the giant pylon that held up the road above. The girl nodded.
Frank started to ask her a question, but he felt her curl inside herself. The longer the quiet lasted, the more comfortable Frank became, and the more comfortable he felt the girl becoming. They took a right onto Pacific and bounced through the potholes to Montgomery. Before the Sunoco station on the left, there was a defunct billboard with another “born” tag. This time the girl pointed and Frank nodded.
They took a right into downtown Jersey City. After a few blocks, she said, “This is good.”
Frank pulled the car over after he made the right turn. They idled in front of the concrete wall that she’d tagged, around the corner from Frank’s house.
She pulled the handle to open the door.
“You have to mess around with the handle,” Frank said. He started to stretch over her, but it felt awkward. “One second.” He jumped out of his seat, ran around the back of the car, and opened the door for her from the outside.
“Born.” Frank pointed with his chin at the wall. She smiled for the first time since they met. “Who knows,” Frank said. “Maybe he can still come some day.”
“Maybe,” she said, walking away.
Frank looked around for a place to park the car. The only spot was in front of Pedro’s house; he sat on the steps, elbows on knees, smoking. Frank pulled in to the spot and waved to Pedro. Pedro waved back.
“So there she is,” Pedro said. “That was the girl! She was in your car!” He was beaming as if he were in love, it seemed to Frank, or as if he had made a new friend.
“That was the girl,” Frank said. He felt himself glowing too. “She’s the one, yes. That’s her!” Frank stretched his neck to see if she was still there. She was bouncing down Third Street, a half-block away, with what seemed to Frank like levity in her steps.
She stopped and turned. She glanced up and down the block, the way she did in the aisle at Home Depot.
Frank gasped at Pedro: “She stopped! She stopped!”
Pedro bounded from the steps like a shortstop turning a double play. They stretched their necks so they could see down the block. She looked back at them and grinned. Then she opened her backpack with the poise of a master. She took out the paint, tagged the wall, and put the can back in the pack with a one-motion sweep.
She didn’t run or skip. She turned and saw the men pumping their fists timidly, as if they’d just won a game, but were afraid to celebrate. She smiled and shrugged, the same way she did when she talked about her brother in the car.
Ben Paris lives in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, where he makes a semblance of a living as a tour guide, translator, and English teacher. His work has appeared before in Fiction magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Posse: Potentially, might be . . .