SUNDRESS, FINGERNAILS, FACE by REFE TUMA

Sam pulled back his cheeks, exposing tooth and gum. The flesh of his face bunched at the corners of his eyes like fabric. He hooked his bottom lip and drew down until the frenulum turned white and burned. He shook his jowls and conjured an exaggerated smile, eyebrows arched and wild. He frowned, sneered, laughed, wept, pulled up his nose and snorted. His reflection was a strange avatar, a man much older than he remembered.

There was a knock at the door.

“Do you need anything in there?” the woman asked.

“No, thank you. Just finishing up.”

Sam turned on the faucet and washed his hands, pumping the soap bottle with extra force so the woman would hear it. He watched his eyes in the mirror as he dried his hands, then exited the bathroom.

“Sorry,” Sam said. “I don’t mean to inconvenience you.”

“It’s ok,” the woman said. “Do you—is there any room in particular you’d like to see?”

Sam surveyed the hall and pointed to a door at the far end. “Is that where you sleep?”

The woman nodded.

“I suppose it would be,” Sam said. He turned and moved slowly down the hallway, decades-old wallpaper rippling beneath his outstretched fingertips. The woman followed a few steps behind, hands clasped in front of her. When Sam reached the bedroom, she stopped and came no further.

“May I?” Sam said, motioning toward the door. The woman said nothing.

Sam took a deep breath and turned the knob, exhaling with the sweep of the door. Inside, the walls were peach-colored and spare, adorned only with a narrow shelf and a framed map of Scotland. Sunlight filtered into the room through sheer white curtains. A wooden desk stood along the far wall, bills and torn envelopes fanned out across it. The woman’s bed was tightly wrapped, a single pillow resting against the headboard, Wuthering Heights bookmarked on the stand.

Sam stepped into the room and approached the window. Floorboards groaned beneath his feet, thirty-two years louder than when he last traversed them. He knelt and ran his fingers under the windowsill until they caught on a small gap. He smiled. The gap was too narrow for his adult fingers, so he pried the wood back just a bit. Quietly, to give the woman no cause for concern. He lowered himself onto one elbow and peered into the space between wood and wall. His smile faded. The space was empty but for a thin-legged spider that drew up into the shadows, away from the sudden bright. Sam remained for a moment before he sighed and climbed to his feet. He appraised each of the four walls, pausing to pull back the curtain and peer out the window before walking out of the room.

Sam shut the door behind him and lifted his hand from the knob, glimpsing his distorted form in the brass. The woman pressed her body up against the wall as he passed her in the hallway—like the spider, drawing back from Sam. Sam dropped onto the couch in the living room, laying back his head and rubbing the bridge of his nose. The room hadn’t been at all how he remembered it. It felt smaller, as places from a person’s past often do.

Now, with his eyes shut tight, it was Sam who felt smaller. Shrinking. Collapsing.

Whatever hope or confidence he’d mustered to come here, fading.

“You’ve taken good care of the house,” he said at last.

“Thank you.” The woman was quiet for a moment, then drew a sudden breath. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”

Sam looked up at her, startled. She stood near the front door, holding a cell phone in her hand, turning it over and over with her fingers.

“Yes,” Sam said. “I’m truly sorry for the trouble.” Sam pressed on his knees and lifted himself off the couch, his joints cracking and popping. He shook his head and laughed.

“Look at this old man,” he said. An impression remained in the cushion where he had been sitting, rising slowly and filling in until it disappeared and no trace of Sam’s presence was left.

The woman cleared her throat and opened the door.

“It was kind of you to open up your home,” he said. He rubbed his palms on his jeans and wondered if he had been sweating during the entire visit. “I’m glad—I’m glad it has you.”

The woman nodded and closed the door. Sam heard the bolt slide into place. In the glass door, his face was shadow; a silhouette against trees and houses and cars glowing in the sun.

Sam let his engine idle as he took a final look at the house. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out an old photo of himself as a boy. He stood in front of the very same house, wearing light-blue shorts and grasping a hose in one hand. Half the image was missing. He rubbed it between his fingers, tracing the torn edge, struggling to complete the frame in his mind. The pattern of her dress appeared—yellow flowers. Sunflowers, with brown centers. Green paint on her fingernails. Bare toes curled into the grass. These were in sharp focus, easily retrieved. Sam let his breathing slow, settling into the vibration of the engine. He stared into the rearview mirror, searching the dark pools of his eyes.

Her face. If he could only remember her face.

::

About the Author: Refe Tuma is a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominated writer with stories and essays in The New York Times, Necessary Fiction, the Wigleaf Top 50 Long List, and elsewhere. Refe’s first book, What The Dinosaurs Did Last Night, will be published by Little, Brown and Co. on October 28, 2014. (Preorder it here.) Refe goes by @RefeUp on Twitter if you’d like to say hi. Extra points for correct pronunciation (reef).

Story Song: “I Need My Girl” by The National