A lobster boat was puttering near to the shore. Men in rubber pants pulled up their traps. There was wood smoke in the air, which is a smell I like. We kept walking. I scuffed the dirt in streaks with my heels. I looked at Mr. Flint and I thought, the rhapsody of entry, and then I didn’t say any more.
A few minutes later, we reached the luncheonette. We got a table.
“I’m buying,” said Mr. Flint. “It’s a celebration.”
I got fried chicken. Mr. Flint got the Reuben sandwich. I picked the skin off the fried chicken. I like the breading, but not the skin. The skin is too wet and bumpy. I stacked little pieces of the broken breading on top of the meat. That way I could eat just the breading.
Mr. Flint announced, “The white knights, formerly Caelwin’s allies, catch him and try to mate him with the inferior, watery beauties of Pelinesse. Those are no women for Caelwin—fine ladies taken up with needlepoint and the gentle arts. Weaving. Giggling in their snoods. He will not go to stud to improve the bloodlines of those anemic decadents.”
“In the new story?”
“The wizard Arok-Plin, thirsty for the blood of the young nations of the north, seeks him, too, riding out of the desolate lands of Vnokk. He wishes to use Caelwin’s life-strength in an amulet that will give him the power to melt metal with his very gaze. How do you like that? Would you like to have such an amulet?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what I’d really do with it. I mean, you can bust metal with stuff now and I never need to.”
“Ah. Right.” He nodded.
I was just trying to answer truthfully, but now I could see Mr. Flint was a little hurt about me not liking his amulet. So I said, “I have about every Caelwin story you ever wrote.” He still didn’t say anything, so I asked him, “How did you get such a big imagination?”
“By never ordering from the menu of life, except à la carte. By letting my own heart beat so strong that my body jumps to its rhythms. Do you understand?”
I nodded. But then I thought about it and I said, “You ordered a lunch special.”
“I like the pickle.”
“I mean, you didn’t order a separate side. You just got the Reuben basket.”
“I don’t have anything against fries. What’s got into you?”
“I thought à la carte meant you ordered everything separate.”
“I wasn’t talking literally. Don’t be a chump. Anyway, why are you stacking up all your fried on your chicken after you just pulled it off?”
“I just like the fried.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m the one who has to watch it.”
I said, “Tell me about my mother.”
R. P. Flint got a look on his face that was either worried or angry, and he chewed real slow and hard, chops full.
Now I couldn’t bear to look at him, so I played with the paper placemat instead. I rolled a corner of it around the handle of my fork.
“How are you boys doing here?” the waitress said. “Still working?”
“I am always working, kindly Ruby,” said Flint. “So long as breath and mind persevere.”
“You were going to write a sonnet about me on my apron,” she said.
“Sure. I’m a couplet short of a quatrain. Think of something that rhymes with ‘carbonation.’”
“This should be good.”
I offered, “Inflammation.”
“Real cute,” said Ruby about me.
“Ain’t he the bee’s knees?” said Flint, wriggling a finger.
I explained, “He had an affair with my mother.”
The waitress looked at Mr. Flint with a friendly kind of disgust and then said, “Prince Charming. Excuse me. I have a date with a side of mashed.”
When she was gone, Mr. Flint told me, “I wish you hadn’t said that. You can’t just say things like that.”
“It’s true. If you didn’t want people to say it, you shouldn’t have done it.”
Mr. Flint chewed again.
I said, “So?”
“So you knew her in high school.”
Mr. Flint took another bite of his Rueben. He wiped pink sauce off his lips with his napkin. He half-shrugged and said, “Okay. We knew each other in high school.”
“Did you date her then?”
“Did I…? No, not really. Not what you could call ‘date.’ You know, this is a colliding of worlds. You here. One world runs into another one.” He sucked at his teeth. “Think about this: I could have Caelwin stumble on an electrical citadel. With a field of static energy like a veil of light and a buzzing sound. And in the citadel could be some creatures from another planet with ray-guns and all. But I’m worried how it would be, with a sword yarn mixing with a space yarn. What do you think?”
“You’re…You aren’t answering.”
“You haven’t asked any question.”
“When did you see her again?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about this, pal.”
“But now I asked a question.”
“She’s a gorgeous woman, your mother. You must know that. If she’s ever in the dumps, you’ve got to tell her that. Tell her people think she’s gorgeous. You’ve got to make a woman realize how they delight men’s eyes. Because otherwise they all think they have lousy figures or bad hair.”
“You’re not answering.”
“I don’t have to answer a thing. Your mother is a delicious woman. That’s all you’ve got to know. Do you have to go to the john?”
“Because you have your legs all screwed up like that.”
“Sorry,” I said, and unwound them. I told him that my mother always says I need to sit like I’m willing to take up more room.
“She’s not wrong,” he said. “She’s a smart woman, your mother. Smart as well as beautiful. It’s one of the great mysteries that people take up different amounts of room. I mean, you think of, for example, a guy like me, normal sized, and a short little guy, let’s say he’s five two or something. We both have these thoughts and these feelings, but mine extend through more of the universe. More of the universe is made up of me. No matter how big his thoughts are, when it comes down to it, more of space is not him—and more of it is boiling with R. P. Flint. It’s a question of how much you fill. Isn’t that funny?”
“Where was the hotel?”
“You don’t let up.”
“I read your letter.”
“You read my goddamn letter.”
“She tore it up.”
Mr. Flint wiped his mouth with his napkin, creased it into a square, and threw it down on his plate. “Look, kid, you’ve met me. Here we are. That’s it. Now you know me. You’re done. We’re right in town. Let me give you change for the bus. You go back home and tell your mother I’m here whenever she wants to come up and see me.” He stood up. “Get up. I’m paying. You need to use the john.”
“I don’t. That’s just my legs.”
“You have a long trip ahead of you.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Why? What do you want to learn?”
That stumped me. I didn’t answer.
“What do you want to learn?”
I didn’t have anything to say.
Mr. Flint took his coat from the hook on our booth and he put it on and the moment was passing. He said, “I’ve got to go. Our hero is tied to a pillar, about to be gored by a pterodactyl.”
“You said it might be a bat.”
“I just said that to make conversation. That’s the stupidest goddamn idea I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“No stupider than a pterodactyl.”
“A pterodactyl has a beak. It can rend, like the heaven-sent eagle that disemboweled Prometheus. A vampire bat would just crawl all over him and, I don’t know, nibble.”
“Things that crawl can be awful.”
“Are you getting cute?”
I didn’t understand him. He was trying to get past me to the door.
I tried to say something, but Mr. Flint held out his hand and interrupted me. “It was nice meeting you. Real nice. A pleasure.”
I shook his hand.
I said, “I’m not going.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to know what it was like.”
“Laying your mother?”
“Don’t you say that.”
“I can’t tell you anything.”
“Why not? Where did you meet? What did she say to you? What did she tell you about my pop?” I asked him. “What did she say about me?”
Mr. Flint looked stumped. He pressed his thumbs hard against the table edge and watched them whiten. He lifted his hands and put them in his pockets.
“Jesus,” he said. “I need a beer.”
“What did she tell you?”
Mr. Flint picked up the bill and took out his wallet and thumbed through it until he had enough money. He put the money down on top of the bill. “You have a quarter?” he asked me.
I wasn’t giving him any change.
“Look,” said Mr. Flint, in a different kind of voice, “I haven’t seen your mother since high school.”
I put my hands in my underarms. I didn’t say a word. Mr. Flint snorted and frowned.
“It’s true,” he said. “That’s how it really is. I write her letters, she never writes back.”
“I read the letter. You said that you met her in a hotel.”
“I read it.”
“I know I wrote that. Okay? But I didn’t meet her.”
“You said in a hotel. At least once. Maybe more.”