flash fiction by Molly Marks
That sad bicentennial summer, fried pig skin hardened in Grandmother’s throat. Her face plumped as airways clogged with pork rind. A white plate dropped from her fingers. They were in Boston’s Chinatown, at a buffet, standing next to heat-lamped beef tongue, and snake beans. Her son, Patrick, patted her back, as if she simply needed encouragement.
“There, there, mother. Swallow gently,” he said.
Her grand-daughter, Sylvia, continued stuffing fish balls, and tiny plastic cups of pickled ginger in her swim-bag. Her deflating floaties dripped water over steamed buns as she troweled through a gelatinous stew of fruit juice and mutton. The dried ends of her long ponytail dipped into garlic paste.
Writhing in fear, Grandmother a squeezed a simmering metal bowl, searing the tips of her wrinkled fingers, than began hawking on a board of charcuterie.
“Mom?” Patrick asked, “Are you all right?”
His brain swelled with memories of elementary health class, when his portly teacher busted the head off a simulaid choking manikin. Patrick imagined the head of his mother gliding across the restaurant, falling into a crock of blood sausages. Despite his fear of decapitation, he attempted the Heimlich Maneuver. He stood behind her, supporting her chest with his left hand, and leaning her forward with his right. Similar to burping a baby, he roughly slapped her back in quick succession.
“There, there Mom. It’s going to be alright.”
Aware that her father was distracted, Sylvia squished a Belgian waffle down the front of her bathing-suit, and hastily reached for the syrup. The sap came out quicker than anticipated, glazing her middle. Horrified at the prospect of being stuck to the ugliest one-piece ever made, Sylvia turned towards her father. He was humming Sarah McLachlan, In the Arms of an Angel, cradling Grandmother like a baby. After he finished singing, he rolled Grandmother under the desert table, and suggested to Sylvia, they leave immediately.
Hand in hand, they dashed through the public gardens, swerving through iPhone flashes and George Washington aficionados. Floppy hats shading gabby ladies, floated through a lagoon on Swan Boats. A bored horse gazed longingly at a street vender who was drizzling caramel over peanuts. A strung-out summer-camp leader wearing knickerbockers and tube socks, encouraged children to swim under the Ether Monument. Tiny sandals and yoyo’s flung on grass patches, as kids climbed over the concrete wall, into a tub of green water. Patrick stormed his way through the crowd, pushing through a cluster of children who were afraid to swim.
“Dad,” Sylvia pouted, suddenly stopping, “you’re walking so fast.”
Patrick slung his daughter over his shoulder. Udon noodles, and egg tarts fell from the unzipped pocket of Sylvia’s bag. One of the camp boys, who felt like nothing ever good happened to him, watched as a perfect slice of Chongyang cake crumbled on the pavement.
“Cake!” He yelled, diving towards the crumbs like a bird on stale bread.
The campers, trained to do anything for snacks, leapt from the fountain, and charged after Patrick. Patrick assumed the children knew somehow, that he’d abandoned his dead mother at a buffet. They know, he thought, they’re on to me. He wanted to tell them the good things, that he sprinkled flakes into an empty aquarium, mashed Aricept, Lisinopril, Remeron into hot oats, left a tiny saucer of tuna outside for feral cats, knitted his mother’s housecoat, and explained daily to his mother who he and Sylvia were. But he’d forgotten to learn the Heimlich Maneuver. He should have been taking lessons on air, and preparing for dangers of Manchurian cuisine. His brain flipped through a manifestation of should-haves. Sylvia strained his biceps. He could no longer carry her.
Patrick set Sylvia in a bed of tulips. Green goggles wound tight around her forehead, cutting off brain circulation; something he should have realized as a caretaker. There were other things: syrup was everywhere, her flip-flops were on the wrong feet, and he should have put Neosporin on the blisters. It appeared as if a turkey’s snood was growing between her big and long toe.
“Darling, I absolutely love you but it’s time for you to find a new home,” Patrick said, noticing for the first time, that Sylvia and his mother do the same thing when their alarmed: place two fingers on their bottom lip and faintly hum.
He kissed her sunburnt cheeks and squeezed her pudgy body, which smelt like the public pool and poorly salted ganache. Sylvia watched as he disappeared underneath a curtain of willows. Usually she liked hide-and-seek, but her arms were tired from doggy-paddling, and a swarm of ravenous kids were about to attack. She threw her bag at the wolfish kids and screamed for her father. A whistle blew and everyone’s head looked towards the teacher.
“Doodle-bugs!” She screamed, “Get into line, right now! Just because we have a little fun does not mean we act like animals!”
At one point Alison might have been the type of teacher who handed out extra pieces of bubblegum and believed in a child-centered approach. Now she held her whistle like whip, pinching the ear of a squirming boy — making it clear that she’d choose termination if it meant momentary control.
A neat line formed at her feet. Only one child stood to the side. A gnarled ugly duckling. A misfit. A girl unfit for Outdoor Adventure Intensives.
“If you don’t get into line, right now I will…”
Sylvia imagined being shoved through a deli slicer and abided. The whistle blew and the children marched. What could Sylvia say? Father was hiding. Grandmother was eating. There weren’t any grownups to convince this lady she wasn’t a camper. It pained her, the way her bathing suit straps cut into her shoulders. There was no choice but to follow.
Molly Marks is a graduate student in the MFA program at Chatham University. Her work has been published in Lime Hawk Literary Press and SLAB. She lives in Pittsburgh, where she is writing her second novel and building art installations.
image courtesy of Raphael Biscaldi via unsplash
Originally published at Fiction Attic Press.