Turning Thirty-Two

      You always ask if my mother knows I smoke. It’s growing old. But I still laugh, then ask about Albert again.

      Your son scares me with his crooked face, his crazy eyes, his chipped teeth, his stuttered laugh that sometimes breaks into violent shrieks while he drools thick strings down his stubbled chin.

      But you sell cigarettes to minors, so I come into your mildewed blue store that smells of stale urine, the occasional whiff of Pine-Sol, all enclosed behind unwashed windows displaying piles of death-preserved flies.

      It’s always gumballs first. Now Albert starts squealing on the floor behind me because he’s wound rope too tightly around his thickly muscled wrists. You run quickly to your wild child, whose twitching fingers slowly turn purple.

      You untangle him with great care, murmuring streams of soft Chinese words, stroke his muscled shoulders, ease his sharply sing-song groaning. Pulling a saturated ball of liquid tissue from your pocket, you wipe delicately at mucous streaks and tears on his cracked lips and thick neck.

      Then you reach him out a gumball from the same glass jar with the same moist hand, leaving your delicate fingers stained red and blue.

      Now he’s quiet, sucks intently, so you come back to me and ask, “Something else you like?”

      “Yes, please, a pack of Marlboros.”

      Your narrowed eyes peer over gold rims and thick lenses. “Your mother, boy, she know you smoke?”

      I start laughing to avoid your stare. “How’s Albert?” I ask.

      “Oh, he fine now. He good boy. Today he thirty-two.”

      On the sidewalk I stare into the bag. I see your candy-colored fingers grasping sticky tissue to dry your man-child. I hesitate, then drop it in the trash.

      I strike a match, light my cigarette, and wind the pack’s plastic wrapper around my finger.

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