Somewhere, where the heavens only close, an angel was falling. The newsman told me. Told us. He's trained to sound like he's telling me, I suppose. His pixilated face appeared grim, his jaw-line that I had always admired seemed to fall into disrepair�a beard seemed to appear out of nowhere on his cheeks. He spoke of the coming end�though with prescribed vernacular and technicalities that, in a moment, were as unimportant as my sudden desire for a real, porterhouse steak with saut�ed onions on top. And a glass of Cherry Coca Cola with a maraschino cherry bobbing within. No stems.
The newsman said that it was the result of divisions—political, bureaucratic, or whatever.
Standing there, I suddenly remembered my second grade teacher, Miss Oliver. Dressed in a tight skirt with a tucked-in blouse, her hair held in a firm bun atop her narrow head. I remembered how she brought two students to the board and gave us division problems to solve. The first person to get it right was the winner, of course. I don't remember ever winning anything other than a wink from Miss Oliver, which accompanied me throughout my teenage years as the beginning of multiple fantasies. She told us the importance of division, "It shows you how numbers can be broken apart into pieces, reassembled, and then broken again."
I turned off the television set and tossed the remote into a potted plant I bought off the internet for a quarter of its true value. I informed Marsha of what the newsman told me but she already knew. She had just gotten off the phone with her sister. Marsha's face was blank, waiting for me to implant some emotion onto it. I asked her if she was hungry. She asked where I put the keys.
I held Marsha's coat behind her. For the first time, I saw the way she contorted her arms like an escape artist in order to fit her large arms into a coat that I heard a faceless passerby deem "a shade too small." She lowered herself into the car with her back perfectly straight so as to not rip the seam of her favorite coat. Like a mental patient on furlough, contained and wrapped.
I turned off our street and onto the main road through town. It was morning. The sun was colored brightly, as if by the spastic hands of a child. The on-ramp to the interstate was a half-a-mile down and I could see the line of cars backed up all the way to the McDonalds. Some people were getting out of their respective vehicles and walking up the ramp and onto the endless stretch of government asphalt, maybe running with their children's hands within their own, running and kicking their heels, turning their heads over their shoulders like they'd be able to see it coming.
As I drove, I recollected the details of Miss Oliver—stoic, steeled, and frustratingly sexy. I remembered how her classroom collected the beams of nine o' clock sunlight, illuminating the dust unsettled from the wooden floor. I remembered how Miss Oliver walked like a debutant, shifting her hips from beneath her skirt with enough torque to make any young boy nauseous with dormant, unfamiliar want. I remembered how, in the second grade, Miss Oliver made us recite the many pieces which assemble a nuclear weapon—blasting cap, plutonium, tamper, reflector, core. And following our group chant, she gave a free pencil to the student who could dive beneath his or her desk the fastest. She would walk the rows of desks and fix our form—"Cover the back of your head with your hands. You are a turtle. You are your shell. Duck into your shell."
I made a slight detour to the steakhouse, where one car was in the parking lot—one of those bastardized muscle cars, fitted with jackass wheels the size of tractor tires. The car was painted with flames, licking the sides.
A man sat inside the car, crying into a newspaper, wiping his eyes with the print. He was smoking a cigarette that looked like a joint. It was a joint, I decided, as we stepped out of the car. His windows were down and the thick smell wandered the parking lot on tip-toes. There was a time, maybe an hour ago, where I would have phoned the police or knocked on the man's window to inform him of the dangers he was partaking, but I only turned my head to meet his eyes and nodded slightly. He nodded back and blew his nose into the classifieds. He held the joint up, permitting me a drag, should I choose. I shook my head and waved goodbye, with my hand held up like a half-salute. He returned the gesture.
I held the open the door of the restaurant for Marsha. The restaurant had emptied out. Or had already been empty. It was two in the afternoon. One waiter was inside, sitting at the bar, quaffing a tumbler of some amber solution, tucking his head deep into his shoulders like a sick vulture. His cream bow-tie was undone and hung from his collar. He turned and greeted us between sobs, taking two menus and leading us through empty chairs. He was sauced and his cheeks were stained with wiped-away tears. His chest still heaved unexpectedly in ghost tremors of his weeping. He said, "Excuse me" each time they did as he seated us at a large booth.
The televisions lining the restaurant had been turned off. I handed the menus back to the waiter and ordered two porterhouse steaks with sautéed mushrooms on top and two cherry cokes with maraschino cherries in each. He nodded and went back to the kitchen.
Miss Oliver had brown hair, which spiraled from her head in thick strands, like vines wrapping around her slender neck. She had us write a paper of what we would do in the event of a nuclear attack. For the paper, she instructed, imagine that you are at your house. What do you do? Looking back on it, remembering it, I think Miss Oliver had probably overstepped some sort of code of ethics. But sitting at the booth, waiting for my coke, I remembered the paper pretty well. I wrote that I would probably just sit outside and wait to die. Miss Oliver wasn't pleased with the answer, "You wouldn't hug your mother and father? You wouldn't tell them that you love them? You wouldn't get on your knees and pray to God?" She made me go to the board to perform division drills.
"We won't have time," Marsha said. "Steaks take awhile." She took her phone from her purse and setting it on the table. "There aren't any other workers here. He may not even be a worker. He may just be some guy off the street. Are you going to call your brother?"
"I left my phone at home."
She leaned across the table. "Greg, how would you like to spend these moments?"
The waiter returned with our Cokes. The cherries had stems, but I didn't find the heart to say anything about it. I saw his bottom lip break as he forced out a "Two Coca-Colas," before hurrying back to the bar. I plucked the stem from the cherry and tied it into a knot, pulling at both ends until it split.
Marsha had to cough. I could see it in her face. But I knew she wouldn't raise her hand to her mouth because it would severely threaten the integrity of her favorite coat. It occurred to me just how I would like to spend those final moments. I didn't want to hug her, or tell her that I loved her. I had already done all of those things thousands of times before.
"Just cough, Marsha. Just do it. The sleeve will rip. I don't care. The waiter sure doesn't care. Just do it already. Jesus, just cough already."
Her face went blank. Her jaw swung in its suspension like a tangled yo-yo. "Greg…"
"It's stupid not to cough because you're afraid your coat will rip."
"This is my favorite coat. What is this? What are you doing?"
"And it's too small for you. It's way too small for you. You cannot convince me that there wasn't a larger size."
"It looks good on me."
"No. It doesn't. It looks awful. You look like a red can of biscuit dough being baked."
"You told me it looked good on me. You said I looked like that one actress from that one movie." She looked deeply at me, the color having fled from her face. Her lips curled and pursed. She seemed to nod. "Your new glasses make you look like you have a lazy eye."
I clapped my hands together beneath the table. "I think I do have a lazy eye. A very mild lazy eye. I've noticed it more lately."
"Me too. I didn't want to say anything because I know how self-conscious you get."
"You didn't say anything because you know that if you did, I would remark about your coat. The coat that is intended for someone much smaller than you."
"Shut up. You weigh more than me."
"No, I do not."
"Our scale at home saves the weight of the last person to use it. It flashes the previous number in bright lights when you step on it. You use it before me. You weigh 250. I weigh 240."
"I weigh myself at night. That's why. You weigh yourself in the morning. If anything, we weight the same."
The playful bend to her lips collapsed and her brows dropped. "Greg, I don't like this. This is horrible of us. We've never dissected each other like this. I hate this. I'm so sorry. Thirty-one years and we've never been so cruel. And today of all days, sitting here waiting to—"
I leaned across the table and grabbed her arm, massaging her coat with my fingers. "No, no, keep going. This is perfect. Marsha, this is perfect. This is brilliant."
She pulled her arm away and cleared her throat. "I hate your friends. All of them. I can't stand a single one. They're all just terrible human beings. Terry smells like a barn and Joseph is a drunk."
"They don't like you either. They say your food tastes like shit and sometimes I agree with them when you're not around."
"You take too big of bites to digest correctly and yet you wonder why it hurts when you go to the bathroom.
"I have hemorrhoids. From forcing your terrible food out of me."
"You snore at night and I have thought about suffocating you with a pillow in your sleep. Not too seriously, but it's very annoying."
"I can't stand it when you shiver. It's fake and I hate it. You do it because it makes you feel young. I don't know why it makes you feel young, but I know it does. That's why you do everything you do."
"Your cologne smells like a hospital. Some days like a retirement home."
"You sound like you are going to kill yourself every time you pick up a phone call. So depressing. People talk about you, you know."
"Your siblings are both very stupid people and I act dumb when I'm with them. I don't know if its survivalist adaptation or just a queer sort of imitation."
"I hate when you read. Anything. You breathe through your nose. And you read terrible books. And you read so terribly slow. It's painful to see you take fifteen minutes per page."
"You read books about love. Unrealistic love and you compare the male character to me and then frown and pout all night and I can hear the dreams in your head—dreaming about Mister So-and-So, riding a white horse across the hills."
"And you read books about cowboys holed up in Mexican prisons, fighting through half of the Mexican army just to return home to his dog, Skip. You tell me which is more unrealistic."
"Your new shoes look uncomfortable and it's embarrassing when other people notice it when we're walking down the street. You can see it in their eyes. Then they look at me like I should tell you that you look like a fool. And I just have to shrug like, 'what do you expect me to say?'"
The whole table began to shake. She grabbed the table and shut her eyes, turning her head up and I saw her lips moving in an uncoordinated prayer. I tapped her hand on the table and pointed to her phone, which was ringing and vibrating, shouting and convulsing in a syncopated gyration. She brushed a stray hair from her eye with her hand and looked at the phone's screen. She decided not to take the call and took a sip at her Coke, tipping her head to the straw while keeping her back perfectly straight.
Miss Oliver showed us reels of films—mushroom clouds lighting through the desert sky like a bubble bursting beneath water—houses stripped of their sidings and roofs, standing bare and naked in the red, yellow spectrum of ignited wind. She stood in the back of the class with her arms crossed while the films played, nodding her head and glancing out the window occasionally. When the films were over, she would have us write a paper on what it would feel like to be dissected by the blast of a nuclear weapon. I remember writing that it wouldn't feel like much at all, but after Miss Oliver's comments, I revised it to say that it would feel like a million needles threading through my skin.
"What comes after this?" I asked. I listened, tilting my head so that my ear was to where I hoped the sky still was. I waited. For a sound, for a whistle, for a cheer, or for a cry. I only heard the slight murmurings of the disjointed ceiling fan above our table. I wondered if that's what it would sound like. Like a falling fan, still spinning half-hopefully, bringing a slight breeze in its wake, using our breathe to pass air through its propellers.
I pointed to a rip in her coat.
She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. The broken, dissected seam of her coat left her goose-pimpled flesh exposed. We wanted to say it, but we laughed, instead.
Marsha's full-body laugh turned into sobs. Her shoulders shook up-and-down and she laid her head on the table, weeping onto her paper placemat. She stopped, suddenly, and sat back upright. "That felt very, very good."
"Are you scared?"
"Good. Me neither."
We watched the waiter at the bar, fully-drunk and propped up by the wooden counter. He flipped through the channels of television, running his hands through his hair again and again until he finally laid down on the floor, tucking his knees to his chest, holding his hands over the back of his head.
Marsha and I looked out the window where masses of people filed onto the interstate, walking with pillowcases of food slung over their shoulders. Children were carried on parents' shoulders. Their distant lips moved in patterns of last words, reminders, and affirmations. Marsha and I watched this in a settled silence, comfortably knowing that anything we wanted to say would be set back a few million years, reemerging from the primordial ooze, seeping from whatever remainders the god of division would be kind enough to leave behind. So we waited, instead.
BIO: T.j. Martinson is a graduate student at Eastern Illinois University, working towards an MA in Creative Writing. His work has either appeared or is forthcoming in the Heavy Feather Review, Pithead Chapel, The Milo Review, The Penwood Review, The Magill Review, and others.