ARTIFACTS • by Martha Crisalli

“You seem lost, can I help you?” As she turned into the side street from Third Avenue, Laura felt disoriented. The sidewalk was crowded with people, but one concerned stranger stopped to offer assistance. She swallowed her pride and handed him her instruction sheet. “You’re on the right track,” he assured her and pointed to a recessed glass and steel building mid-block. Confidence restored, Laura made her way to the entrance where a young doorman opened the door with a flourish and pointed her in the direction of an information desk.

It pained Laura to admit she was lost. She’d walked these very steps in this very location hundreds of times. She knew this neighborhood well, it had served as a second home, but that was then, back when this place was a movie theater, and this was now. She took her place on line at the information desk and smiled at the thought that this used to be a box office. The line was long; it seemed to be the destiny of this spot to keep people waiting. Back then, she’d spent many an hour waiting right here on line to buy tickets for a movie, waiting right here for Gary to arrive.

Laura was chronically early. She spent half her life killing time. Her inner clock was way out of sync with the rest of the world and she was obliged to wait while the rest of the world caught up. Gary’s inner clock was way out of sync with the rest of the world as well, but in the opposite direction. He never wore a wristwatch; time meant nothing to him. Laura used to spend much of her life waiting for Gary.

The line moved forward, then and now.

Gary was a born entertainer. A graduate of Clown College, he’d worked for a year with a circus and never stopped believing that life was a carnival. No matter the season, he always wore a tweed sports jacket, a long plaid scarf that billowed behind him, and a fedora hat like Indiana Jones. Since he habitually ran late, he was forced to eat on the run, carrying a small grocery bag under his arm from which he pulled snacks and soda.

For a husky person, Gary was surprisingly light on his feet. As he approached the line at the movie theater and realized he had a captive audience, he would break into a dance that drew everyone’s attention. It was as though he always had music playing inside his head. If the music were Latin, he’d break out in a mambo. If it were Strauss, he’d break out in a waltz. He was late, he caused Laura anxiety, but you had to admit the man had style. How could you help but love him?

While he finished his routine to scattered applause, Laura would go about the business of buying the tickets, and when he reached her on line, he would pull her into a Hollywood embrace and kiss her in the style of Bogie and Bacall. Sure, he was playing to the crowd, but she knew his heart was in it. After a brief stop at the refreshment counter, they would find a couple of seats, make themselves comfortable and settle in to enjoy the show.

The woman at the information desk glanced at Laura’s instruction sheet and pointed her to an elevator which carried her to the fourth floor. As the doors opened on the second floor, she remarked that this must have been the old movie theater’s balcony. When they arrived at four, she stepped out. True to form, she was early. People were already waiting, so she helped herself to a cup of coffee and took a seat. “Is this your first time?” the woman sitting next to her inquired, and Laura nodded in the affirmative. “Well, this is my fourth week. The tough part is that you have to come every day, but once they get you set up, it goes very quickly and it doesn’t hurt.” Laura was relieved to hear that and gave the woman a warm thanks.

Laura tried to remember the last time she’d gone to the movies with Gary, but she couldn’t. There were too many times and they all blurred together. Perhaps if she’d known it was the last movie they’d see together, she would have chiseled the memory into her brain, but mercifully neither one of them knew, so she had no reason to distinguish it from the others.

Now this location was a cancer center. Her surgery had gone well, they caught it early and the prognosis couldn’t be better, but a lifetime of fearing cancer was hard to shake overnight.

“Laura, the doctor will see you.” She mustered her courage and followed the nurse into the oncologist’s office.

The city is an archaeological dig whose layers are made from memories. Movie theaters turn into cancer centers, diseases once dreaded become treatable. People who were once so important, who seemed irreplaceable, move on and new people come along to fill the void. But as Laura discussed plans for a cycle of radiation, she wished she could peel back the layers to a time when a former clown with a flair for entertaining people would dance his way to the movie theater and coax a smile to her face.

Martha Crisalli comes naturally to flash fiction. Brought up in a family of soap-box orators, hot-headed rabble-rousers, spellbinding story-tellers and passionate speakers, she learned early in life to keep it brief if she wanted to be heard.

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Every Day Fiction