BURN • by Karen Bridges

One early Monday morning in August, the air was already shimmering when Charlie came into work. He inhaled broiling asphalt and rubber, with a hint of smoke. Blinding rays glinted off rows of windshields. He rolled up his sleeves and cursed himself for leaving his sunglasses at home.

First he moved five cars to their promotional display spaces, each one a stale inferno that made him gasp as he folded his tall, angular frame into the driver’s seats. When he was done his pastel blue shirt had turned navy under the armpits and down his back. With a paint pen he scribbled “$6,999” across two Buicks, a Lincoln, a Jeep, and a Ford. Nine was his favorite number to write, but the heat took all the fun out of it.

He waved to Manolo, who was hosing the cars down. Wildfires had been burning all summer in the mountains, ash had accumulated on the cars overnight. Charlie wanted to ask Manolo to spray him with the hose, but thought better of it. His outside work was done for now, he could go inside to the air conditioning until a customer showed up. He fished keys out of a damp pocket, but through the window saw that Gloria was already there. The bell on the door jangled as he pushed it open. Sometimes he heard this bell in his nightmares.

“Good morning,” said Gloria. Her voice he heard in his dreams. “Coffee?” She was from a small town on the East Coast, and she pronounced coffee like “cawfee.” She also pronounced “orange” like “arnge” but his favorite was the way she said “mediocre” like “meaty okra.” Although she rarely talked about her younger years, he had the feeling that she had once been wild and reckless. This impression was formed in a single exhilarating moment when he thought he saw the outline of a tattoo on her back through the thin fabric of her dress.

Charlie smiled and took the cup, grateful for the heat as an excuse to hide his blush as their fingers brushed. The phone rang and she turned to her desk; he went to his own tidy cubicle. There was paperwork and emails to tend to, which he finished before his coffee. A methodical man, he drew satisfaction from a cleared ‘to-do’ list even while the absence of tasks made him anxious. He pushed two fingers into the blinds on the window, cautiously spread them apart, peering into the lot for customers. There was only Manolo, languidly rinsing cars and mopping his forehead.

“Hot today,” he remarked. He stuck to professional topics, avoiding the boundaries of the personal that his imagination ran wild with. They spoke of weather, customers, television shows and pet anecdotes. He knew Gloria loved spring best. She was patient with customers, especially women. She’d read that women got cheated when buying used cars. Her favorite show was Seinfeld and she had all the DVDs. When he learned this, he let himself imagine the two of them spending a weekend on the couch, in their socks, ordering pizza while her two cats draped themselves over them.

These were his favorite moments, between customers, phone calls, emails and paperwork, while his innocuous words hung wherever words lingered, waiting for her response. These liminal moments bristled with possibility.

“Over a hundred,” she said.

“Feels like it.”

“More coffee?” She smiled, genuinely he knew, because the delicate violet skin around her eyes crinkled. He did not want more coffee. It made his erratic heart beat faster and his sweat glands more prolific. But he said yes, every time, his only way to prod a boundary.

The risks were great. Charlie did not want to make Gloria uncomfortable. He also did not want to expose his vulnerable heart. The thought of her leaving if he crossed a line was too much to bear—he would leave of course, if he were ever so foolish, but then he would be without her, which was also too much to bear. But if she did accept his vulnerable heart? What great possibilities there were, for happiness and misery. He must wait for a sign.

He walked to her desk, where the coffee maker sat on a file cabinet. The burner, left on to keep the coffee warm, scorched what was in the bottom of the pot into an acrid brew that coated his tongue all day, but he could not bring himself to refuse it. Her mug said “ONE CAT SHORT OF CRAZY!” with a crescent of bright pink lipstick on the rim. She wore red in the fall, a wine color in winter, coral in spring. He held up his mug, she poured, too quickly, a slosh of near-boiling coffee spilled onto his hand. He yelped and dropped the mug.

“Oh no,” she cried. Charlie stooped for the mug, but she took his hand. He froze mid-crouch.

“It’s alright,” he started to say. But she was not looking at him. Her head was bent over his hand, he saw her dry scalp with fine streaks of gray hairs. He smelled laundry detergent. Before the words came, her lips were on his hand, at the apex between his thumb and forefinger. In an instant he was blinded and sweating again as though he were outside with the sun glaring off the windshields. Just as quickly she let his hand fall and ran to the kitchenette.

He picked up the mug, intact, off the ground. Gloria returned with paper towels and dabbed at a damp spot on the carpet.

“It’s okay, it was just a splash,” he said. But she kept dabbing.

“I’m so clumsy,” she said, standing at last. “Here,” she attempted again, this time pouring into his cup. Her eyes crinkled, but the phone rang and she was back at the desk.

He returned to his cubicle, a smudge of pink lipstick on his hand.

Karen Bridges has an MA in English and Creative Writing. She lives, writes, and reads in Portland, Oregon.

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