- The Stunt Couple Fight, and: The Rhein
In a trailer that smells of sweat and Mexican beer and worse-blood from mistimed punches, rust, musty yellowed scripts, processed cheese spread and stale crackers, sour salty breezes filtered through smog-the stunt couple fights again.
He has her backed into a corner, her thin face half in shadow. Mascara puddles under her eyes and dips into her wrinkles. Never beautiful, she could almost be mistaken for women who are: thick cheeks, a bit of an overbite, a round bulb at the end of her nose, a short neck. Her hair creates the real-life glamour-silky, golden, framing her face for effect.
"How dare you," she whispers in a voice half Lauren Bacall.
He can sense her open hand before he sees it, a graceful, forceful arc, like the homerun swing of a baseball bat. An open hand and snatches of the vanilla polish on the tips of her fingernails; he feels a cool wisp of air inches in front of his face, and his head snaps back; he flinches; he reaches for his jaw and scowls.
"Watch it, sweetheart," he mutters. "Next time, I hit back."
"You wouldn't dare," she breathes.
The argument could have started about the flowers her old boyfriend sent her anonymously, or the way he looked at the waitress who presented his Wonton soup with both delicate hands last night, or a misunderstanding created by a lost telephone message that might have explained everything, but this is how it will end: a broken chair and five shattered plates; blows and ducks, a somersault, two cartwheels; desperate shouts that thump the walls and are punctuated with dramatic, gasping pauses; threats, pleas, an interrupted call to the police; and finally, then finally silence, an embrace as she collapses into his arms, exhausted, and they promise to never, ever fight again. [End Page 137]
It was just a small group of children from the kindergarten-maybe ten and their teacher. They stood at the edge of the Rhein like it was the edge of the world, inspecting stones and soot, careful not to wet the toes of their shoes.
"Father Rhein is fast. Strong," the teacher said. "He carries little children away."
They planned to picnic on the rocky beaches of Oberkassel, where old women walk their dogs unleashed and a shepherd sometimes leads his sheep over thick grass. The teacher was trying to spread a blanket and shout directions about unpacking sandwiches when one of the girls turned back toward the river.
If any adult had seen her go, her footsteps would have seemed more a woman's than a girl's-graceful, assured, irreversible. Her thin red hair whipped her face, curled around her neck; her eyes, wide. Father Rhein was a dark, swirling crystal ball. She could sit on his lap and he would whisper her fortune.
The girl stepped into the water without breaking stride. Waves pushed her white leotard; she could feel the current tug her ankles. But to her it was a comfort, a hush of fingertips against her forehead before she fell asleep.
She could not hear her teacher's shrill instructions, the gasps of her classmates. In the face of this river of red gold, she knew only that she didn't need cucumber and tomato sandwiches, not really. As the hem of her dress moistened, Father Rhein crept up her thighs and she lifted her arms out for an embrace. Just then she felt sharp, bony fingers jerk her shoulders, yank her back to shore.
The teacher was angry and rough, but the lapping water drowned out her threats and the girl paid no attention. Instead, she smelled damp earth and fish-she stared beyond her teacher and watched her small form float away. [End Page 138]
Rachael Perry's first collection of stories, How to Fly, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is currently at work on a novel.