Afternoon Miniature 1.16.22

from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

The Boy climbed into the back seat and folded his arms in defiance but did not cry, for it was not his style.

“Buckle in,” she urged, and then turned over the car engine and flipped on the heat. She adjusted the rear-view mirror before throwing it into reverse, and in so doing, caught a glimpse of the shadowy contours in his angry face.

“Want to tell me what that was all about?”

“He came at me with a metal syringe. Metal, mom. Who the fuck still uses a metal syringe?”

“Watch your language.”

She eased the car out of an impossibly narrow space, carefully avoiding another car on one side and the squat cinder block building on the other; at that moment she wanted to destroy its entire brick-clad façade. It would not take much, she imagined, although who knew—the brutalist structure looked like a bomb shelter.

A half hour earlier they had waited obediently in a dark room suspended in time, an unfortunate collision of Colonial American and mid-century modern décor, she mused. Turned wood posts reached to the ceiling from a knee wall separating the main waiting area from the entrance vestibule, mercifully allowing in at least a little natural light. The furniture had come full circle and would probably look fetching in one of the tony downtown lofts just a few blocks away, but was careworn and beleaguered in this dim setting. Fake wood panels stopped about a foot shy of the ceiling, and so a small shelf had been installed to conceal the seam where a measured remnant above it met the lower panels; a row of decorative plates marched across it painted in snowy Currier and Ives landscapes. Back issues of National Geographic and Ranger Rick magazines were arranged neatly on tables at either end of the sofa; even the reading material here was out of step with time.  

The hissing of dental machinery escaped an examining room in the back and spilled past reception and into the waiting area. The entire place reeked of disinfectant. Over by the reception window, perfect people flashed appliance-white smiles on the covers of glossy brochures that conveyed the secrets of proper dental hygiene or the warning signs of gum disease. The man behind the desk might have been one of them, were it not for his wan demeanor. Today, though, he’d show another side of himself, like a shape-shifting demon in a sci-fi thriller. He would not smile politely and offer to schedule the next appointment as he usually did, but instead years of pent-up white American male frustration would bubble up inside him and explode out of his lid like a pot left too long on the stove. “If he weren’t allowed to behave that way,” he would spit, unbelievably, through clenched canines.

She didn’t linger to listen to the diatribe, but instead shoved a check for services not rendered across the counter and walked out.

She knew they’d never go back there again and was relieved. She had grown weary of the aging man in his barber-style jacket who popped into the room for five minutes after each cleaning to tell her how ‘gorgeous’ she was. She always felt so vulnerable tipped way back in the chair, staring up at a minuscule cartoon character on the ceiling tile and trying to avoid eye contact with him while he explored the occlusal nooks and crannies inside her mouth. Satisfied, he always placed a heavy, passive-aggressive paw on her arm, a little too close to her breast she thought, while he held court using language like ‘gal’ or ‘little lady’ in a way she imagined Frank Sinatra might have. She never had the nerve to object to it, and had to admire the child who finally did, thus paving the way out of this hell for them both.

Frank Sinatra and his entire family would be at church on Sunday, though, and there was no escaping that. They’d sit way in the back and march down the aisle single file for communion at the altar rail, looking so out of place. Frank’s impossibly meek wife would walk with her head bowed reverentially and hands clasped in front of her skirt. Then came the shape-shifting adult son, now well into his thirties, and behind him, his adult sister, nearing age 40 but dressed as she might have in fifth grade in a Peter Pan-style blouse, knee-length skirt, knee socks, and sensible loafers. Her long hair would be combed to one side, held in place by a single dime store barrette; from time to time her wireframe glasses would slip down her nose, and she’d poke them back up at the bridge with her middle finger, like a nervous tick, and in so doing appeared to flip the bird at a gilded ascending Jesus behind the altar.

This habit did not escape The Boy’s notice and would inspire him to laugh aloud in church one Sunday morning. Somewhere, his mother imagined, their creator was laughing, too.

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