Friday, January 12, 2007

Chapter Two: Alphabet Soup

In Which Compass Gets a Lesson on Alphabet Soup

It was the central, sad joke of Compass’ life that she was one of those rare individuals whose father had died in childbirth. Jeremy Jones was in the hospital lobby buying flowers for his wife and new baby when his jokester brother rushed in, blurted, “triplets, it's triplets; two girls and a boy!” and rushed out again. Jeremy, terrified, bought a pack of cigarettes (these were the days when you could buy a pack of cigarettes in the hospital shop or for that matter, be surprised by triplets), stepped outside to smoke one and was promptly hit by a garbage truck. Compass was seven minutes old. She knows this because his watch stopped at the moment of impact. She still has that watch. It still says 8:38. Her birth certificate says 8:31. She is capable of this much math. That seven minutes, that handful of time when they shared the same world, existed simultaneously, breathed the same air, has colored all of her life since. She is aware of every morning’s 8:31, and she often finds herself breathing shallowly until 8:38 flips to 8:39. At 39, she’s older now than her father ever was, and every year she adds makes her feel both guilty and lucky.

Her self-styled fairy godmother is actually her gay neighbor, Todd. Todd is tall and handsome and sets off gaydar like some sort of radioactive hot-pink fanny pack. Like most of the gay men Compass knows, he isn’t any of the convenient, conventional stereotypes of gay men – he isn’t fey and frilly; he thinks Liza Minelli was better in Arrested Development than in Cabaret, and he only lisps when heavily dosed with Novocaine. And yet, he is unquestionably gay – his shirts are, perhaps, two sizes too small. He has great abs from pumping iron but can’t climb six flights of stairs without having to bivvy overnight somewhere between the fourth and fifth floors. He holds his cigarette a shade too far out from the center of his hand, too close to the top knuckle. He once said “fabulous” and sounded ridiculous, and yet, his inability to bring off that word had more to do with inexperience than inappropriateness. Compass has no life and has therefore spent far too much time trying to put her finger on the elusive quality that had her romance organs shutting up shop on Todd before they’d even spoken.

Todd was doing a project for a class. He was supposed to use all available research tools to track his family origins. Because doing this often involved harassing Mormons, it was a task he took on gleefully. Once finished with his own family, he’d launched into researching the histories of everyone on his floor. To keep him happy and occupied, Compass provided him with birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, everything she had or could pry away from her mother. Todd came over now, several family documents in his hands and a worried look on his face.

“What’s up?” Todd never looked worried. It was part of his charm that they could be together in a plunging elevator and chances were, Todd wouldn’t look worried. Compass wasn’t eager to try out this scenario, but the smart money would be on Todd having placid-face.

“I don’t know if I should say anything.”

“Well, you’re already several words to the bad on that, so you might as well spill. What is it?”

"It's just that . . . . things don’t match up here.” He waved some important looking papers under her nose.

“Todd, I've got to leave for work, like, 15 minutes ago. Don’t match up how?”

Todd’s worried face grew another wrinkle. “Maybe you should talk to your mom.”

Now Compass had a worried face to match Todd’s. "Come on. I already know what’s in a Fuzzy Navel. What more could she possibly have to teach me?"

It was a polite fiction between them that Compass didn’t talk to her mother because her mother was an alcoholic. She was an alcoholic, but Compass didn’t talk to her mother because, additionally, the woman was a vicious hemorrhoid of a human being.

Fortunately, Todd's love of drama was stronger than his reluctance to be bearer of weird and world-changing tidings.

“The blood types. They don’t work out.”


“Genetically. They don’t work.”

“Don’t. Work.”

“Right.” Todd spread the papers out on Compass’ only table. “Your dad’s death certificate lists him as being a Type B.”

“Okay. . . .”

“Your mom’s an O.”

“Uh huh . . .”

“Baby, you’re an A. An A minus, even. See here on your birth certificate?”

“Always the underachiever.”

“You’re not getting the point. Didn’t anyone teach you about genetics?”

“Don’t get all snooty with me, Mr. I-Took-a-Class; you didn’t either six months ago.”

“Baby, it’s not possible. Your dad had to be either an A or an AB to have an A child with an O. Get it?”

“Wow,” said Compass, through lips that had suddenly gone numb. “Look how smart you’ve gotten. It’s all alphabet soup to me.”

“ ‘Albabeb soob’? Oh. Maybe you’d better sit down.” Todd pulled out a chair, poured a fat cat off the seat.

“All right, [aw ribe],” Compass agreed, amiably, though she remained standing. It was rather pleasant, just standing here, though her knees had gone a bit wobbly. A moment later she realized it was rather pleasant, though unexpected, just lying here on the floor. Her fatter cat came over and batted at her nose. Todd shooed the cat away, helped Compass up and into the chair.

“I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Compass rubbed her lips with one hand, hoping the feeling would come back. When she spoke, it was painful in more ways than she wanted to list.

“So my dad wasn’t my dad.”

“It looks that way. Unless your mom isn’t your mom, but that’s tough to fake.” Todd smiled, just a little, but Compass didn’t, so he quit.

“Is there a chance of that?”

“I doubt it, Baby.”

“Seven minutes.”

“What’s that?”

Compass cleared her throat. “Seven minutes. My father was a father for seven minutes before he died. He spent most of that time buying cigarettes and looking for a place to smoke them. Would you want to spend your only seven minutes of parenthood setting a bad example?”

“I’m sorry, Compass. He would have loved you.”

“Turns out he wasn’t ever a father at all.”

“You know that this means you could still have a father out there somewhere.”

Compass cranked her head up to look at Todd. “The A to my mother’s O?”

“Or the AB.” Todd smiled and this time Compass joined him, just a little, just for a second.

“You’re sure about this. You’re sure Jeremy Jones played no part in my paternity?”

“I called my prof. to double check. There are wild and weird mutations that can happen, but the chances against it are pretty astronomical.”

“Well, I feel a little like a Martian right now.”

“Insert joke about heavenly body here?”

They both stared at the complicated cracks in Compass’ linoleum and didn’t smile.

“I suppose I should try to find him.” Compass followed one crack in the linoleum to where it disappeared under the refrigerator.

“Only if you want to, Baby.”

“If he turns out to be a great guy, I’ll have a great father, thanks to you.”

“And if he’s a jerk?”

“Then I’ll go back to believing my father is dead, genetics and your prof be damned.”

“Fair enough.”

“It’s all alphabet soup anyway.”

“Just soup,” Todd agreed.

Todd took her hand, and they stayed like that, her sitting, him standing, both of them staring at the floor, for quite awhile. Compass was very late to class that day.

1 comment:

Ash said...

The first paragraph almost made me cry. (And I am not even PMSing.)
Gotta love the gay neighbor. I hade two gay neighbors for a while and I miss them so much.