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by Paul Smith

“What?” she asked.

We had said nothing for a long time. We were sitting on a park bench, staring at clouds. I was enjoying her company. There was not a cloud in the sky, a worry in my head. There was nothing in my head. I’m a man. Oh, and there were some clouds — just a few.

What, indeed. Could I speak of that vacuum between my ears, without anything being sucked out of it besides a few molecules of nitrogen, oxygen and possibly Budweiser? I took a chance and opened up.

“Nothing, honey, nothing at all.”

Clouds started appearing on the horizon, and on her face. “You can tell me about it,” she coaxed.

“I was just enjoying your company,” I said.

“What else?”

“Nothing else.”

“Is it about us?”

“No, nothing.”

“So that’s it? We’re nothing?”

I felt something sharp poking me. The park bench had splinters. One splint me in my buttocks. Thunderheads amassed in the east, promising a downpour, a typhoon, a nor’easter, a hurricane bigger than Katrina.

“No,” I insisted. “Everything’s fine.”

“No,” she said, pouting. “You’re hiding something. Something’s wrong.”

“OK, you’re right.”

“How dare you agree with me,” she bristled. “We’re having an argument.”

“OK, you’re right.”

“That’s more like it,” she said.

“I was thinking that nothing was on my mind because I’m a man and that made me feel guilty.”

“A second ago you said you were thinking of me, and now it’s nothing. So I’m nothing, right?”

I had come to that fork in the road I dreaded. I swerved to the right.

“I lied. I was not thinking of you. I was thinking of oxygen, nitrogen and Old Style.”

“You were thinking of nitrogen, oxygen and Budweiser.”

I hung my head. “Yes,” I gulped.

“So you have lied three times. First, about hiding things. Second, not really thinking about me. Third, Old Style versus Budweiser and the order in which you were thinking about nitrogen and oxygen. Technically, four things. We’ll let it go at three, though.”

I felt like St. Peter. “I’m thirsty. Will you buy me a beer?”

“Never!” She got up. “Forget it, Pete.”

“Please, honey.”

She was fuming mad. Her arms were folded. Her jaw stuck out like a jib on a schooner. I could go for a schooner of whatever right now.

“I’ll give you one more chance,” she said. She held up one lonely finger. It reminded me of the wrong turn I took back at the crossroads. “If you tell me one thing.” She paused.

“What?” she repeated.

Back to square one. I could not tell her “nothing”. That would be the truth. That never works. I was thinking about all those clouds that were there and were not there at the same time. What is there and not there at the same time? My mind. My mind is all over the place. I focus on what is immediate. I remember looking up and then her talking and being thirsty. I wanted something tangible, whatever tangible meant.

“I have splinters in my buttocks,” I announced.

“What?” she asked. She had a look at my backside. “You have splinters in your buttocks,” she agreed.

We left the park. It was full of splinters and rain and wrath. The wrath, partially dissolved in splinters, came along with us. The wrath was foamy, like the head on a schooner of Budweiser.

Paul Smith writes poetry and fiction. He lives in Skokie, Illinois, with his wife Flavia. Sometimes he performs poetry at an open mic in Chicago. He believes that brevity is the soul of something he read about once, and whatever that something is or was, it should be cut in half immediately.