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Fiction #46
(published June 28, 2001)
The Tightrope Walker Story
by Katie Williams

The stuff that teeth are made of is harder than the stuff that lips are made of. I know this because I'm looking in the bathroom mirror at the place where my tooth has gone straight through my, or my lip has made way for my tooth, whichever way you prefer to think of it.

I've got Vi'let (no "o", please) on the portable phone, and she says, "What'd he do this time?" Then she sighs, like she's bored of this already, but underneath her voice is like a rubber band stretched tight.

"Just a push," I tell her.

"How big a push?"

"I knocked my chin. All it is is that I bit my lower lip, like right through. How do you know if you need stitches?"

"He's gonna break your face someday, I hope you're aware," Vi'let says.

I finger the tooth-shaped hole, the tooth escape-hatch, ready made for my tooth to shoot out of my mouth and far off into the sky. It's not bleeding anymore, but the edges are still slippery and colored new red.

I can hear Vi'let on the other end of the phone clicking her tongue against the back of her teeth in a way that lets me know that her mouth doesn't approve of mine. Then the Vi'let-clicking stops because the line's gone dead. And the line's gone dead because Joe unplugged the base of the phone in the living room.

There he is at the other side of the bathroom door rapping his fingertips on the wood and crying soft. A few times calling out my name.

My best story, the one that I can tell people at bars to make them stop for a minute and say 'hey, look at you,' is that when my grandmother was my age she was a tightrope walker in a traveling circus. My mom used to tell me about her, and she even had an old advertisement which she kept wedged in the frame of her dresser mirror: a pen sketch of a girl lipstick-smiling and displaying a length of long white leg. The top of the ad read: I am the tightrope walker. I walk at death-defying heights.

"It was funny," my mom told me, "when your grandma was first getting sick, before we knew, I used to walk in on her in the kitchen following a line in the linoleum straight across the room. So careful, she'd be walking heel to toe, like it was a rope."

Joe tries the knob, and when it doesn't turn, he doesn't force it. He goes back to small pleadings, the words of which are fragile creatures, much too delicate to crawl through the wood of the door and to my ears. There's a small window in our bathroom, and I walk over to it, press my face against, and the glass is cold and hard and good to my wounded face. The window hasn't been opened since we moved in, but it looks like with a little force it'd give.

I didn't know my grandma; she died when I was little. Sometimes, though, I imagine her. Tall and proud she'd walk through the circus grounds. She'd have developed the ability to recognize each and every beast simply by the smell of its piss. She wouldn't wear a fancy beaded costume, just a plain black leotard, because wearing beads meant sewing beads on. And when one of tent-pitchers would try to brush his hand across her modest breasts, like maybe it was an accident and maybe it wasn't, she'd be serene, take up the hand, place it firmly in his other hand, closing the two up around each other.

I even figured out why she walked that rope. You might think it was for fame, or some idea of grace, or maybe just for a paycheck. Really though, I bet secret and deep she hoped for the wrong step, the misplaced foot, to be sent tumbling into the dusty embrace of the ground. She was hungry for the fall. We're all just in mid-air anticipation, waiting to be touched by something and anything.

The bathroom window is only four feet above the ground. I know I could wiggle through it headfirst. And the spring grass, dark and wet, I can already feel it on my palms. Not today anyway. Today I turn and walk to the bathroom door. Heel toe. Heel. Toe.

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