Seated on a bench in front of Hill's Five-and-Dime at the corner of Mulberry and Main, Reis Gaffney peeled the wrapper from a purple Tootsie Pop and leaned into the bouquet of artificial flavor. His friend, Paul Herrin, sat down beside him and spread his short-sleeved arms along the top of the wooden backrest.
"You gonna eat that thing or have sex with it?" said Paul.
Reis ignored him and held the Pop at eye level, reflecting on its beauty, its inner meaning, its containment of the universe in one simple snack, as if a priest to a Communion wafer on Sunday morning. He lowered the Pop to his mouth and drew a single lick over the purple candy shell.
"One," said Reis.
He turned the Pop a quarter-revolution and dragged his tongue up the ridge.
"Two," he added.
Another quarter-revolution and another lick.
"You've got to be shitting me," said Paul.
Reis was in cadence and could not be interrupted. One-Mississippi, quarter-revolution. Two-Mississippi, lick. Three-Mississippi, "Four." One-Mississippi, quarter-revolution. Two-Mississippi, lick. Three-Mississippi, "Five."
Three young boys on Stingray bikes pulled up to the Five-and-Dime and dismounted. Two boys went into the store while the third, sidetracked by the mechanical interplay of Reis and his Tootsie Pop, approached the bench.
"What'cha doin', Mister?"
"Don't bother him, kid," Paul grunted. "He's on a mission."
"Thirty-seven," said Reis.
The two boys emerged from the store and joined the third in front of the bench. They each removed from comic strip wrappers little pink bricks of bubble gum.
"What's he doin'?" said one to the other.
"Countin' the licks," the first boy replied.
"The licks to the center?"
"The licks to the center."
"He'll never do it," added the third.
"No shit," mumbled Paul to himself.
"Eighty-nine," said Reis.
Drawn by curiosity and the prospect of festivity, a crowd gathered around them. Businessmen, meter maids, workers in hard hats. Street sweepers, window washers, shoppers in high heels. Young mothers pushing strollers with rattling babies and old women pulling tag-a-longs with leafy green produce swelling from paper sacks. They all came to share in spontaneous delight that was spilling through cracks in the shell of monotony.
A hot dog vendor wheeled his cart up the sidewalk and stopped at the gathering crowd. He chucked the wheels and hoisted a yellow-and-red umbrella. Steam from the cart enticed probing noses as a ratty brown dog with a broken tail, circled and hopped at the feet of the Hungarian in apron and paper cap.
"Hot dogs. Get your hot dogs here. Mustard. Relish. Onions and peppers."
Reis turned the pop another quarter revolution and licked.
"Two hundred and twenty-five," he said.
From the opposite direction came an ice-cream vendor, images of Good Humor plastered and crowded on either side of the cart. He pulled a string and jingled a bell and a chorus of jubilant children swarmed to the man in white suit and white cap.
A street mime snuck onto the scene from the north, with white face, white shirt, white gloves, red pants, and red-and-black suspenders. He pretended to climb an invisible ladder then found himself caught in invisible rain. With a white-gloved hand he frantically cleaned an invisible window to the world.
"Four hundred and fifty-one," said Reis.
On the perch of a silver unicycle, rising above the head-line of the murmuring crowd, a juggler tossed upward and then caught downward a swirl of red clubs in astounding, cascading flamboyance. Down the sidewalk came a honking, red-nosed clown, with a posy of helium balloons in each hand. The children shouted favorite colors; red!—yellow!—blue!—green!, then weaved and danced among the sprightly crowd as the refrain of a familiar Chicago tune, through an open window above the Five-and-Dime, sang of Saturday parks on the Fourth of July.
"Six hundred and forty-one," said Reis.
Pencil and pad at the ready, a reporter approached the scene and forced his way through the crowd. He placed one foot on the bench and leaned his body forward, elbow on knee.
"Word on the street is you're close to discovering the answer to one of life's greatest mysteries. What have you to say about that?"
Reis paused and studied the Pop from every possible angle. It was mostly Tootsie, with a single leaf of purple curled against the chocolate center. He rose from the bench and handed the Pop to the kid.
"Here kid," he said, "throw this out for me, will 'ya?"
The kid looked at the Pop, then up at Reis, and finally back down at the Pop.
"But mister," said the boy, "you're not done yet. There's still some purple on top."
"That's as far as I go," said Reis. "If I go to the end, you know, count the last licks, there will never be reason to do this again."
The kid shrugged and tossed the chocolate remnant in the trash. He mounted his bike and the boys rode off to catch frogs or corral imaginary villains.
The crowd dispersed with a collective buzz of what-ifs and maybe-next-times. The juggler hopped down from his perch on the cycle and slipped the clubs into a pouch at his waist. The hot dog vendor folded the red-and-yellow umbrella and wheeled his cart up the street. Jingling faded as the Good Humor man followed the crowd back to daily routines. All that remained was the frantic mime, trapped on the wrong side of an invisible box.
BIO: Richard Osgood lives in a city on a river where the north meets the south. His fiction can be found in Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Hobart, Clockwise Cat, The First Line, Lit Chaos, and Mud Luscious.