The day is an eighty-watt bulb. Cool air hisses through the car's vents. A Texas flag flaps on the bank's flag pole across the street, under the larger American. The wire holding them aloft pings against the metal pole. My daughter asleep in the car seat behind me. Wife and son in buying groceries. Thomas Mann cracked open on my knee. I'm ignoring him and writing down people I see with a new Waterman rollerball, a pen that shouldn't blot the page and still has some barrel pop.
An old man walks by at a forty-five degree angle. He carries an umbrella. A mole on his left cheek twitches. He wears no rings and moves at a glacial enough pace that I can see there is no imprint of a band on his wedding finger. That brings a wide loneliness to his shuffling. His clothes dark and loose. The skin around his eyes knuckles. Those bunching wrinkles lock his gaze forward, limit the periphery of his vision. He doesn't notice my noticing; he can't. He is a man of singular goals now, time having atrophied the small muscles of the eyes that the young employ in their far-flung gazing. A narrow world lunges at him. The grocery store door opens automatically for him, but he still pauses there at the threshold. Halts and takes a deep breath that doesn't enlarge his chest. The store swallows him.
The sun glares off the windshield of a nearby truck. It washes the parking lot in a clear light. An oven-hot slice lays across the dash, my knee, the scar on my left wrist. I hold my pen a moment and write it down anyway. Move my forearm, shadow slips across the wrist.
My daughter stirs. I freeze. Stay asleep. Stay asleep. Stay asleep. Please.
A man approaches the car carrying an empty gas can. A small gas can that's been used. He's black. I wave him away.
Green shirt. Puffy cheeks. A snarl of chest hair crawling out the top of his shirt. He waves the gas can at me, silently entreats.
I have a five. It's suddenly rectangular and vivid in my pocket. I think about it. If I don't give it to him, if I don't roll down the window, I know what it makes me. I jerk my thumb over my shoulder, mouth the words: sleeping baby.
He holds up the gas can. One gold tooth glares brightly for a moment. That small glint there casts a larger light on another scar we labor to conceal. He doesn't understand -- or doesn't care. His shoes are brand-new. Perhaps he has just been caught off-guard, without money and a hollow tank. It happens.
I wave him away. Damn, it man, I want to yell. You don't understand. She's asleep. She's asleep! I can't ruin that. You don't understand what we've been through. To roll down the window is to allow a boiling noise inside. A double ear infection! Her throat a scurrying of red claws. I can't open the window, despite what it makes me look like.
He moves away. His puffy cheeks harden with small outrage. He shakes his head and moves off between the cars. The flags have furled, look wet and wrinkled on the pole. The wind all around has faded back into the emptiness from which it emerged. The ink on this new pen has bled through the paper. I turn the page and look at the impressions of the letters. A faint typography of elder ills and injustice. I can't see the little motions of the people moving around now. Unable to read them. Blots themselves, fuzzy at the edge, faint. The clear light fogs. The ac vent lets out a steady cold air. Mann heavy on my leg. My daughter stirs. Her eyes open. There is a moment there that I think perhaps she'll be ok, that maybe she's better, that the medicine has begun its necessary work. I look around for the guy with the gas can, but he's disappeared. In the rear view mirror, I see her start. Her cheeks darken. Eyes brighten with tears. I close The Magic Mountain and snap the rubber band around my notebook as my daughter lets loose the red claws camped in her throat.