When the man mentioned chewing gum, the woman cringed. The child gyrated around the topic like a wound-up toy, jabbering about the millions of gums (swinging her arm panoramically), the best one for blowing bubbles, the gum wrapper chain that was handed down from her grandmother. Then turning to the man, the child cried, Can we please please please buy some gum?
The child’s mother glanced at the man– was he annoyed by the child’s whining? And if so, could she shut the child up and somehow redeem the day that had only just begun?
The man had phoned earlier that morning to suggest an outing at the old Cliff House, the historic landmark perched on a bluff overlooking Ocean Beach. My favorite childhood spot, he’d said, his voice relieved of the burdened tone the woman had come to expect. My favorite childhood spot. She’d felt a sudden, surging buzz, like the moment a guzzled cocktail hits the bloodstream.
It was a rare summer’s day in San Francisco, the view from the bluff almost too perfect: an unblemished sky, a passive sea polka-dotted with boats. The odor of fried food beckoned from the nearby diner. Families and couples spilled out of cars, laughing with the bluster of people who have temporarily escaped the numbing tentacles of their lives.
I NEED GUM! cried the child, shoving her short, dark bangs up and away from her forehead with both hands. Before the woman could yank her arm and mutter a warning, the man bent down and spoke into her ear. The child skipped after him as he strolled to a souvenir stall, purchased a bright red package for her and cigarettes for himself. The child stuffed three sticks in her mouth and chomped away as if the gum were her very last meal forever. The man smoked, his face relaxed. The woman secretly watched him. He turned slightly and asked if there was anything she wanted. No, there wasn’t. If ever there was, it would be something the man wanted to give to her.
Yes, she liked him that much. Once, she had even whispered that word– long past midnight in his apartment, their bodies rosy in the neon Cocktails sign outside– but the man’s silence made the word oafish, an unwanted giant in the room. After that, the woman found other phrasing: she’d arrange fragile red poppies in a green vase, or paint her toenails a pearly hue, or pore through cookbooks for a dish to make for him. For when she was with the man, halos sprang out around the most ordinary moments. Even in his absence, he lingered like a sacrament on the tongue, fortifying as it dissolved.
His cigarette finished, the man led the woman and her child down the steps to a small building with a faded sign: Le Musée Méchanique. Just inside, another sign explained that most of the mechanized exhibits were made during the 19th century. From an attendant the man exchanged a bill for a large quantity of quarters. He slid two in a slot for a giant plaster woman named Laughing Sal, who wore sausagey curls and a frozen leer. Fifty cents got you three minutes of her canned jollity, giggles morphing into shrieks, until Sal seemed in danger of choking on her own mirth. The child stared, her hands clasped over her mouth. The man squatted and placed his arm around her tiny shoulder. The woman watched from a few yards behind, oddly embarrassed, as if Sal were a real woman surrendering to carnal pleasure.
Sal’s screams ended abruptly, silenced by an unseen hand. The three meandered through the museum. The child spent quarters at will, sliding them into the slots as much for their satisfying clink as for the anticipation of what happened next. When the coins ran out the man cashed bills for more. He put several at a time in the child’s hand, though she repeatedly dropped them, some rolling away to places where they could not be retrieved. The child skipped along on tiptoe, her chatter shrill and urgent. As they went from one exhibit to the next, the woman rested her hand on the man’s arm, but she had trouble keeping it there, as he would break away to point something out to the child and laugh with her about it.
They squeezed into a photo booth, the man with the child on his knee, the woman wedged in behind. The man showed the child where to look and when to smile, as the camera’s eye snapped four moments onto photographic paper. The three exited the booth and waited, while some hidden machinery went chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk. The man explained that inside was a tiny person who dunked a strip of paper into magic liquid, capturing them forever. When a photo strip appeared in a slot, the man lifted the child up and she snatched it. Each frame caught the faces of the man and the child– bulging eyes, protruding tongues– and a sliver of the woman, who carefully tucked the strip in her purse.
They watched as tiny people with red smiles rode a toothpick Ferris wheel. A hottentot wiggled in a grass skirt. A Chinese gentleman reclined in an opium den and smoked a pipe. Next was a miniature execution, witnessed by a priest with a mechanical nod, yes, yes, yes. When the little wooden head rolled to the ground, the child clapped her hands, chomping away on her gum. The man smiled at her happiness. The woman put her arm around the man’s waist, and this time he did not move away.
Then the child’s face clouded. Her gum, she quivered, had stuck itself to her hair. The woman looked. A pink wad clung like a parasite to the child’s dark little head. The woman asked the man what he thought should be done about it– she’d often enlist his help in small matters that she normally handled on her own. She liked waiting to hear his answer while he thought the problem through. He’d seem annoyed at such questions, yet gruffly satisfied to be called upon to fix something. There was nothing to be done, he said, but to cut it out. He sent the woman off to the neighboring diner to borrow a pair of scissors. She returned to find the man and the child sitting side by side on the stone steps, watching a boat ply its way out to sea. She told him that the restaurant kitchen could only offer them a knife. She handed it to him.
The man crouched near the child. He told her not to worry, it wouldn’t hurt, it would be over in a moment. The child’s face paled as the man took hold of her gum-ridden lock. A bubble of drool gleamed on her lip. The man fixed his eyes upon the knife, sweat beading on his forehead as he sawed away. The woman studied them silently, resisting the urge to wipe the child’s mouth. Though she rarely looked at her child without irritation, something in the little face now made her chest tighten . A version of her own longing, in miniature: a tiny life with tiny hoarded joys, a heart held close like a smashed toy that nobody will bother to fix. Maybe I ought to. . .thought the woman, and a maternal fire flared up, then quickly fizzled out. She sighed. When the lock of hair was finally in the man’s hand, he smiled at the child and put it in his pocket. The child’s head now had a bald patch but the man told her that in time the hair would grow back and hide any evidence of the cutting.
The woman expected the man to call the day to an end, perhaps suggest a meal in the diner whose happy sheen was fading with the setting sun. Instead, he asked the child if she would like to see the camera obscura, which he explained was a giant camera that could see everything in the world. The child seemed tired, but replied that she would. They all walked to a small building that overlooked the ocean. The man paid a fee at a window.
They entered a round, dim room– empty, but for a huge silver bowl sitting atop a pedestal in the center, and a contraption suspended near the ceiling that turned slowly on an axis. The man brought the child close to the bowl and explained how it was filled with everything the giant camera saw with its roving eye. He pointed out the crashing waves, the drifting boats, the sea gulls dropping muscles on the rocks to smash them open– as the camera’s lens made its 360 degree orbit. The landscape was fuzzy, as if appearing in one of the old hand-crank movies they had looked at earlier. The bowl’s reflected light gave a ghostly cast to the faces of the man and the child. The woman shuddered.
Wait here, the man said, and walked out. A moment passed, and the giant camera’s eye moved away from the sea and panned across the balcony of the restaurant. Then the man appeared in the bowl, smiling and waving his arms. The child watched his tiny form and laughed and waved back at him. The woman moved closer to look at the man. She knew such hovering and staring would have annoyed him, were he aware of it.
Look! the child pointed. The man’s form was shrinking. His smile blurred, then faded until his face was a blank oval. The child began to cry. Someday soon he would disappear– the woman knew this– and take nothing with him. Long after, the woman and her child would sit silently together and look at the photo strip with its four tiny images, remembering the feast of perfect moments. All of the man’s small gestures– reaching past the woman to lock the car door, changing bills for quarters, cutting gum out of the child’s hair– that somehow made up for what he would never say.
The woman led the child away from the silver bowl, out the door and away. The camera’s eye had moved to the sea again, and the pale image of the waves, endless to the horizon, was beautiful in the dim light.
Melinda Misuraca's work has been published Natural Bridge, The Best Travel Writing 2006, The Portland Review, Salon.com, among others. She has taught in the graduate writing program at New College in San Francisco. She lives in Northern California.