by Damon Barta

It sat in the center of my hand like some lackluster pearl. I could tell the old man knew it was missing. His face twitched when his fingers felt its absence. He had to wonder now: would it work? Would his prayers have any effect at all if he came up one short?

I am not a cruel person, just a curious one. When it had rolled up to my toe, three possibilities had occurred to me. Keep it. Return it. Feed it to the pigeon that was on its way to claim it. The last of these would have been satisfying in only a fleeting way, and I'd dismissed the second thought immediately. Not because I am cruel, but because I am curious.

It was made out of cheap material, which is probably why the whole thing had come apart so easily. He'd stumbled coming out of the church, and his beads had hit the ground. He held hungry and indiscriminate pigeons at bay with his cane as he plucked the beads off the cobblestone plaza.

He had to hurry. He didn't count as he retrieved the beads and reattached them to the plastic "chain." He thought he'd gotten them all. When he surveyed the plaza for outliers I covered the lone remainder with the toe of my boot and drew casually from my cigarette, nodding noncommittally at his searching gaze. When he looked away I picked it up.

We'd both been coming there for a long time. That's how I knew what he'd do next. He sat down on the bench opposite mine, clutching his mostly reconstituted rosary, and bowed his head. The violent shaking in his hands became a barely perceptible tremor as his fingers moved across the beads, his muttering faintly audible through the breeze that blew between us. He didn't actually know how many beads were supposed to be on the chain, but he relied on routines, and when the rhythm of a routine was disrupted things came apart. His hands began again to shake violently. His mutter became a stutter.

If I were cruel, I would enjoy this. If I were truly curious, I would be satisfied. I would pretend to have just now found the last bead and give it back. I am neither cruel nor curious.

Inside the building beside us, they tell us that we must recognize a Higher Power to get well. Some of us pretend it is the God of Gothic architecture and Papal decree when it is really just a certain number of plastic beads. Others insist in all earnestness that it is a hot-fudge sundae. My Higher Power is having someone else's Higher Power in the palm of my hand.

I reach towards a passing pigeon and open my hand. It comes slowly at first, wobbling warily, then breaks into a manic tap dance. I close my hand and it stops, cocks its head, and wobbles on down the plaza.

I am neither cruel nor curious. I am recovering.

BIO: Damon Barta once lived in a place where he could see for miles in every direction. He now lives safely among trees. His work has appeared in several print and online journals. Selected fiction can be found at http://damonbarta.site88.net/.

Also by Damon Barta:
Conventional Moors
Josie's Party