I’ve perfected all the smiles and they’re in my wallet like credit cards. When I’m lugging my grocery basket on the bus home and the driver tells me ‘hey, it could be worse,’ I pull out the ‘Amen’ smile. That one’s tearing around the seams, I use it so much. When my boss gives me weekends and reminds me of all that extra money I’ll get—the money I wouldn’t need if he paid me right, like I can pay my kid when he’s eighteen for all the missed Saturdays and he can spend it on love —I got a smile for that too. ‘Sure thing, boss!’
Cause you need smiles in this world. Everybody needs to know the party’s still going on. The burdened hordes can keep up with vodka and energy drinks, and for a night forget that they can’t keep up with the rent, cable, car payments and power bills. The masses are too beaten to fight, so they slap smiles on their faces like bandages and drown themselves until they stop feeling the wounds.
You’re not born with them, you know… smiles. Hell, you’re born, if you’re lucky, into light so bright it burns your baby corneas and your ears’ first taste of air is a bitter cocktail of beeps, exhausted cries and the screech of a wheelchair as they cart away some shriveled husk that you’ll one day become. Life is rough, and they say a kid that young can’t smile ‘cause they don’t know how, but maybe it’s ‘cause nothing’s giving them a reason.
I’m in the ER today, and I have Charlie’s smile on. It’s one of the very few smiles that I grew rather than made. Five floors up and six years ago, I was bouncing off the sedated walls of the waiting room, burying my nerves in a flurry of phone calls and texts. Yes mom, she’s still in labor. Don’t fly down the highway to get here, take your time or we don’t need diapers right now, they have stuff and the friends who were already giving me fathering advice, having gotten a jump on progeny. Even Billy Dickson called, but only to tell me to get that DNA test, brother… she’s a good girl, but you never know.
Man, the smile when they put that little warm wriggling lump in my arms made me blossom inside. The corners of my mouth quickly found north, and they stayed there long enough to make the cafeteria staff just know. Got me extra fruit cups, it did.
I think the worst thing is having to teach him that he’ll have to wear his own smiles like shields, that his frowns and tears will attract the little vultures on the playground like blood in the water. First graders come out of their diapers ready to taunt the poor kid without that new seventy-dollar game they’ll get tired of next month. He has to smile to hide the truth from them, so he can hide the truth from himself. Last week we played Go Fish with a stack of past-due bills on the card table.
It broke my heart that he brought a stick in to show-and-tell that he found on a walk we took, cause walking’s free and we do it every Sunday while my friends are taking their brood to the movies. I’m caught between keeping everyone who knows me in the dark, so I can show Charlie pride, or being the neighborhood charity case and giving him a chance at having some of the things he deserves. If I could afford to, I’d never stop drinking.
The receptionist behind the desk is giving a big balding guy in a sling her best thousand-yard stare. There’s a fixture where a flat-screen was, empty of its precious cargo. Maybe there was a three-a.m. brawl over which late night show sucked the least. They need a radio in here. Even slow jazz would be a good blanket to cover the echoes of sniffles and suffering.
“I feel icky, dad,” Charlie says, his big brown eyes sad enough to cloud the sun and turn on the rain. In fact, as I look out the window, it’s threatening.
“Chucky, hold on, bud. They’ll fix you up.”
“I counted, and there are ten. Ten people ahead of us,” he says.
“That’s good, Chuck. How about this, do you want to try counting, or your ABCs? Maybe time will go faster.”
“I just want to go to sleep but my tummy won’t let me.”
I squeeze him hard, not too hard on account of his tummy trouble. We wait. Charlie leans up against the armrest and tries to get comfortable. I get up and walk over to the magazines, hoping to God they have something for his age. I glance back at the receptionist, her name’s Gloria, and I hate the fact that we’re in here so much, she waves when her eyes catch mine.
Trapped in her thousand-yard stare is Charlie and me, in the ER so much, any ordinary
spectator would assume some manner of abuse or neglect, but Gloria only assumes that the clinic is still boarded up, and Doctor Willsey can’t take us without insurance, and we’re in here every time Charlie gets a bladder infection, which has become his curse. And in the backfield of her thousand yards, she knows that the ER doctor, whichever doctor, knows to give us a sample of the antibiotics, because it’s winter and we have electric heat and the pharmacy is getting tired of filling partial scripts, no matter how humbly I ask. Just once I wish I could get our heads above the water line.
I wave back to Gloria, and from the center of my back, behind my heart, I feel the tingle that tells me I’m gonna peel the skin off my soul once more, so I can reach into it and pull out a brand-new smile.
Liam Sweeny is a writer and disaster responder from upstate New York. His work has appeared online and in print in such periodicals as Thuglit, Pulp Modern, Spinetingler Magazine, All Due Respect and The Flash Fiction Offensive. His collection of shorts, Street Whispers and the latest in his Jack LeClere detective series, Presiding Over the Damned, are loosed upon the world.