November 22

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He’s been sitting on the sidewalk for an hour, the umbrella man, his collar too tight, his feet falling asleep.

He looks around and this is what he sees: the plaza, the county jail, the freeway sign, the book depository. Everything.

He checks his watch, fiddles with his socks and twirls the umbrella over his head to pass the time. Not long to wait now.

He gets up. Stretches his legs, lifts his shoulders. He rolls his head to relieve the pressure building in his neck. He knows what’s coming: a headache, a bad one, barrelling towards him.

He sees the knoll, the records building, the underpass, the signs for Main and Elm and Houston.

They said no one would come, but the crowd is thickening, three or four deep in places.

He feels a stab between his shoulder blades, a creeping tightness in his neck. He forgot to take his pills this morning, too distracted. His coffee too, his morning ritual. He never skips his coffee, and would maim a child for one right now. A small white cup of black coffee with two sugars. Some pecan pie. Cream. A smiling waitress with a tight uniform and a happy disposition.

They’re getting closer now. He can feel it in the air, in the low hum of the crowd. He twirls the umbrella again. Almost drops it. The crook handle is wooden, sturdy, but one of the rods is broken. It’s his wife’s umbrella and the whole thing is lopsided and shit and he told her it was a waste of money even though she picked it up for next to nothing at the church sale. She dismissed him with a wave of her hand, like she was swatting a fly, and said all he had to do was fix the rod for Christ’s sake and tighten the canopy and it would be as good as new. He’ll bin it later, when he’s done.

There’s a place he knows, not far from here. A five-minute walk on the other side of the plaza. They have red-and-white tablecloths, air-conditioning, booths with padded leather seats. Seats you can sink into, get lost in. The coffee is bitter, the way he likes it.

It’s almost time.

He sees everything. The men in suits, the tramps with the polished shoes, the babushka lady with the camera. He’s been watching her, the babushka lady, observing her. Dark glasses, black curls spilling out from under her headscarf. The headscarf is pink, maybe orange. He can’t tell from here, and it doesn’t matter. He stops and smiles when she points the camera at him. She’s too far away, and there are too many people now, but he imagines he hears the camera click. He imagines it goes click! click! click! Three quick clicks, maybe four.

He watches the babushka lady turn, the camera hiding her face. He watches her watch the woman with the child on the grass. The woman and the child were here when he arrived. They brought sandwiches, a ball. There’s no sign of the ball now. The boy, he’s five or six, has his hand over his eyes, squinting into the sun. He grabs his mother’s hand and tries to drag her down the slope towards the road, maybe to retrieve the ball, but his mother digs her feet in and stands her ground. This is the best spot, this is why they got here so early, and she’s not moving, not now.

He sees it all: the car approaching, the flags, the police outriders, the crowd inching forward as one. He walks towards the mother and the child, is almost there, when the mother looks away, towards the trees.

Something has caught her eye: movement, a flash, white light, behind the wall. She freezes. Does what any mother would do and pulls the child towards her, hits the ground hard, on top of him, keeping him safe. Something has happened, she doesn’t know what, but she can hear it, feel it, behind her, all around her. A collective gasp, air being sucked in. A pause, then a wall of noise. Everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time.

***

The man with the umbrella pours himself another cup of coffee from the pot on the counter. The headache hasn’t materialised, not yet, but he knows it’s on its way and nothing will stop it. His left eye twitches, another sign. He’s heard coffee helps, or makes it worse, he’s not sure. He takes another drink anyway.

The waitress is outside, on the sidewalk. He watches her through the open door, can see her staring off into the distance, back towards the plaza. A passer-by stops, they hug awkwardly and the passer-by moves on. The waitress stands completely still, lost, her hands by her side. No, she says. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

The man with the umbrella takes his coffee outside. It’s cooler here, under the shade of the awning. Quiet, despite the sirens in the distance. When he’s finished he hands the cup to the waitress and walks off without a word.

***

The waitress will find the umbrella later, on the padded leather seat in the booth. She’ll pick it up and inspect it, but she won’t open it. She’ll think it’s a perfectly good umbrella and she’ll take it with her when she leaves, even though they have a lost and found box and they’re supposed to wait a week before they can claim anything. She’ll not realise it’s broken till later, when she’s almost home, when the heavens open. But she won’t mind.

 

Gary Duncan’s stories have appeared in Unbroken Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 100 Word Story, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. His flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices.

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