The Center of the Universe
Tony Bonds

A liquor display just past the automatic doors at Ralph’s caught Dave’s attention. He crossed his arms and compared the savings on bourbon versus vodka. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a little kid with sandy brown hair watching him from the produce department, behind the nectarines. The kid froze like he’d been caught cheating, then he leapt out of sight behind the bread aisle. Dave squinted, puzzled. His hangover was severe, his eyes burned from being awake.

In the over-the-counter medicine aisle, there was Pediatric Electrolyte for Infants and then there was generic Ralph’s brand Ped-lite. He picked up a grape flavored bottle of the cheap stuff.

“Dave Woods? Is that you?” said a plump woman wearing a splotchy rainbow coat. “It’s Betty.”

Dave squinted. “Betty,” he said.

“From the First Baptist . . .” she prompted.

“Ahh, right. Sure. How are you? Still working with couples who can’t have kids?”

“Yes I am. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you and the missus, you guys have any luck?” She smiled, nodding at the Ped-lite in his hand.

Dave broke eye contact. Her smile remained.

“A little early, isn’t it?” she said darkly, pointing at the bottle in Dave’s other hand: plum brandy.

“This is for my hangover,” he said, shaking the purple Ped-lite. Then he displayed the brandy. “This is back-up.”

Betty’s smile did not falter; she tilted her head. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. You never struck me as a family man, Mr. Woods.” She spun and trotted away.

“Asshole,” said Dave.

From halfway up the toilet paper aisle, Dave saw the kid with sandy brown hair again, watching him. His tennis shoes squeaked up the soup aisle as he ran out of sight.

Goofy kid, Dave thought.

Dave put the brandy and the purple bottle on the counter and looked at the girl with braces behind the register.
“Howdy, Dave,” said the girl.

Dave nodded his head. “Joleen.”

“Lookin’ sharp. How’s the real estate business?”

“Booming,” he said.

She smacked her gum and rang up the bottles and put them in a paper bag.

“Gettin’ ready for the holidays?” she asked.

“Not really.”

“Well, I hope a bottle of cheap liquor ain’t your wife’s Christmas present,” said Joleen, grinning.

Dave handed her a twenty with his left hand. Her eyes flicked to his fingers.

“Loose your wedd’n ring?”

He took his change and grabbed the paper bag. On the way out the door, when Joleen was out of sight, he plucked a Ralph’s application from a display and shoved it in the bag. He unlocked his blue Chevy Nova and put the bag in the passenger seat. When he stood up he looked across the parking lot, there at the open glass doors stood the boy.

The kid did not run away this time. He watched Dave, his eyes smoldering. He held something in his tiny left hand. A ball, or a piece of fruit. He lightly tossed it in the air and caught it. Then he tossed it again, higher this time. And then again, higher. The boy no longer watched Dave, but the object going up and down. His other hand began tossing a second object as high as the first one. The boy was consumed by concentration, watching them fly through the air. When the left one was at its apex, he tossed up the right one. Dave was impressed. The kid was juggling nectarines, or whatever they were, without missing a beat. Dave gave the boy an exaggerated salute.

The boy smirked and lobbed into the sky, one nectarine, and then the other, straight to Dave. Dave looked into the sun and covering his head he scoured the sky for the falling fruit. But the nectarines never came down. They never pelted Dave or made a sound when they hit the pavement. The kid had been pantomiming, the nectarines were an illusion.

“Nice trick,” shouted Dave. “You should be in the circus.” The boy just stood there and put his hands in his pockets.

“You lost, kid? You need help or something?”

He didn’t move. He looked like he was waiting for something.

Then Dave rolled up the sleeves of his button-down. He looked at his left hand and showed the boy an invisible nectarine. His fingers moved and it rolled around, he squeezed it a couple of times as if to say, see? He pretended to toss it high into the air, he looked up, then back down at his hand. His wrist flicked back and his fingers closed around the nectarine.

Dave looked sideways at the boy, and raised his other hand which held not one, but two nectarines. He cast one, high into the air, then another. While catching the first one he threw the next. Those thrown by the right hand were caught with the left, and those thrown with the left hand were caught by the right. The nectarines, plump and golden orange, flew twenty-five, thirty feet through the sky. In a spare between lobs, Dave reached into his pocket and pulled out a fourth nectarine and tossed it lightly behind him. He kicked it with the heel of his foot so that it glided gently over his head and in front of his face. Like a lion, Dave snapped his teeth forward into the skin of the nectarine and juice flooded his mouth. His nose wrinkled and told the boy it was sour. Dave began to juggle the three other nectarines with his left hand only. With his right, he removed the sour nectarine from his mouth and spat. Tossing the bad nectarine over his shoulder with one hand, he used the other to pluck an untasted fruit from the air. He bit into it, frowned, shook his head, and spat again. This nectarine he abandoned by tossing it to the side. Still juggling two nectarines in his left hand, Dave grabbed one with his right and held it under his nose. It smelled sweet. He opened his mouth wide and bit in. “Mmuumm,” he said as he chewed. At the last minute he noticed that a nectarine was still in the air, and dropping. He positioned himself and caught the fruit expertly in his back pocket.

Dave sniffed the nectarine that he had not yet bitten into, raised his eyebrows, and tossed it out to the boy. The boy’s eyes widened and he held his hands out in front of him and shuffled backwards and caught it. He turned it over and over with both hands, grinned hungrily, and sunk his teeth in. Dave smiled and the boy gave a thumbs-up.

Dave took another bite of his nectarine, it tasted homegrown, nurtured. It tasted like cool cobbler after a warm Sunday dinner around a family-sized table – a table big enough for all the people he’d ever known, and next to it a smaller table for the kids.

He picked his teeth with his thumbnail and waved to the boy and the boy waved back. Dave sat down in his car. After he shut the door, a woman he had never seen stormed out of the store and grabbed the boy by the arm and jerked him. The boy dropped his nectarine and watched it roll into the street. He struggled to break free of his mother and retrieve it, but the woman slapped the boy across the face and began to yell at him. Dave could hear the clucking; he wanted to do something. The woman dragged the boy, kicking and punching the air, back into the store.

Dave sighed and backed his car out. Suddenly, the boy burst through the open doors. Without looking for traffic, he bounded into the parking lot and picked up the nectarine. He caressed it, smelled it, touched it to his cheek. Dave waved again but the boy was lost in the palm of his own hand. As Dave drove away, he looked for the boy in his rearview mirror, but he was already gone.

Click here to read the rest of issue 163

About the Author
Tony enjoys the writings of Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Haruki Murakami to name a few. When not reading or writing, he is mostly focused on playing the ukelele, baking, and drinking beer. If he could be any animal, he would be a howler monkey.

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