By Laura Allnutt
Mary used to believe that falling stars meant something more than space dust burning through Earth’s atmosphere. She used to believe in wishes and miracles and stardust memories, the stuffs of songs and poems and lullabies. She didn’t remember when those stars became nothing more than pummeling meteoroids, but she did remember the last time she saw one.
It was the last day she saw Izzy at the cafe in downtown Baltimore, where she served designer beverages to customers whose names she knew as well as the drinks they chose and who knew hers and left good tips. Every day, the cafe played jazz on a loop—Sinatra, Cole, Bublé, and Adele—except on Thursday nights when the city hopefuls crooned into an open mic. On the marble counter was a gold cash register that chimed and clicked with big typewriter keys, a new model based on an antique. The floor was vinyl wood, and the walls were plaster, artificially aged, nostalgic but new, the facade of meaning. On the wall hung framed photos and drawings from local artists, her favorite of whom was Izzy.
Izzy should have been a junior in college, but life had handed him two part-time jobs and a weekend gig to support his mother and his little sister, Gia. He drank a dirty hippie every day at 3 p.m. while he sat and scribbled in a sketchbook, long black braids falling over his shoulders which hunched up tightly as though he were Atlas carrying the world. He’d drawn the monochromatic on the front wall, the one of her hand passing a steaming cappuccino in a wide ceramic cup on a saucer to a waiting customer.
“Hands tell stories,” he told her. “You’ve got giver hands.”
She looked at her long, creamy white fingers, cracked and red at the knuckles from the dry fall air. They told the story of a girl who’d graduated college sum laude with a degree in accounting, a profession in which she could keep her hands smooth and manicured while bringing home a decent middle-class income, far from what she was earning at the cafe, where she barely made enough each week to cover her phone bill and gas and still throw a few cents at her student loan. Every day, she applied for new jobs using her parents’ internet at their suburban home where she still lived in the same room she’d grown up in, with the butterfly murals on lavender walls.
“You have creator hands,” she said when Izzy looked at his own. They were smooth and rich as mocha but smudged by pencils and charcoals.
His words made her notice other people’s hands, people like Reuben, the elderly veteran who came every morning for a cup of half caff with whole milk, no sugar, whose left ring finger was empty but narrow at the base where once a wedding band had kept it young with love. He always tipped his change and sat in the far corner by the window with the morning paper, his routine to guard against the aloneness of this second part of his life that he’d always suspected would come but had hoped never would.
She noticed the hands of the lady in the burqa, who came only once to purchase a box of fresh croissants. She paid with cash, her hand reaching out from yards of fabric into the naked air. Mary remembered how she'd wanted to ask the woman’s name but didn’t, wanted to bid her a good day but didn’t. It unnerved her to meet a person without a face, a voice coming from somewhere inside the woven fortress. The fingers were long and brown and steady, and Mary felt the foreign compulsion to touch them. She didn’t, of course, because she was also afraid of this woman, and instead held out a turned-up hand, letting the women drop the money awkwardly into her palm and leave, the only customer whose name she never learned.
There was Gus with his thick, brick-laying hands who only ever ordered a black drip coffee; Nikki and her short, bitten-off nails, whose fingertips were callus from guitar strings; and Kim with dirt from his urban garden staining his cuticles.
“You can build a whole psychology around hands,” Izzy said. “Maybe someone has—I don’t know. You know they’re one of the most difficult things to draw? Took me a while to get the thumb right.” He gave her a thumbs up for effect, and she laughed.
But Izzy took a job in Philly that fall.
“I’ll be working with my cousin in his restaurant,” he said. “Full-time work for almost double the pay I make now.” His smile could break the world, and Mary was aware of the cracking inside herself. “Just think . . . Philly!”
She smiled too but without any effect on the universe. “Won’t be the same in here without you,” she said.
He shook his head and laughed and looked her in the eyes. His smile went limp for only a second. “You’re gonna get outa here,” he said.
He returned at the end of the night, when she closed the cafe, and walked her out to her car parked across the street under an American flag, limp and lifeless in a windless night, hanging from a pole attached to the doorway of a barber shop. They talked about the clear sky and how they would still see the same moon even when he was gone. Then the star fell, and Izzy said, “Make a wish,” but she didn’t.
There were days after Izzy left when Mary thought about going back to school. She loved college, and the temptation was strong. She made mostly A’s and sometimes B’s and a one-time C from the professor whose hands were blotched with liver spots and freckles, but she valued experience over grades and pushed away the guilt of less-than A’s.
And then there was Ryan, blond, handsome, and studious. “If I don’t study enough, I won’t get into a good law school,” he often said when she wanted to go out.
But she never sat alone in her dorm to pout. She joined her friends and cheered at games and ordered a medium popcorn at movies, never telling him or anyone that she hated being the fifth wheel at football games, was embarrassed to go to the movies in a group and have nothing to press her lips against but a striped straw, nothing to hold in her hand but a fist of napkins.
It hurt but didn’t surprise her when they broke up after graduation.
“I’ve just got to be serious about my career,” he said. They were standing under a large oak tree, a thousand cheers and pictures snapping all around, and them still in their robes.
She didn’t say, “So do I.” She also didn’t cry or ask why or make a scene. She nodded and shrugged and said, “Good luck,” and hugged him stiffly goodbye.
She realized later that she couldn’t remember his hands, not even how they felt on hers or what he did with them when he wasn’t holding his smartphone or textbook. It bothered her that she’d forgotten or perhaps had never noticed. She assumed that he wouldn't remember hers either.
But there was more to college than there was to life back then. Every morning, she awoke with a sense of duty, however small, to prepare for her place in the world and glean from every moment. She’d pay for these moments for what felt like the rest of her life, but the loans didn’t matter then. What mattered was the joy and the hope and the anticipation of the next step.
Now a loan mattered because she understood its time-stamp on her life, how it marked her years in how many hours she could clock to throw her earnings at the debt for a degree that was supposed to make her life worth living. Another loan for another degree was out of the question. She shoved the thought aside and brewed a double-shot espresso.
Mary’s father took her breakup from Ryan harder than she did, believing that life begins when you settle down and start a family. “You college kids today have your head in the clouds,” her father often said. Then he’d launch into his favorite story about his grandfather, John, a World War 2 vet who returned home to wife and daughter and resumed his old job as a garbageman. He took on a second job as a grocery store clerk to make ends meet. “He didn’t worry about finding some dream job.” He always said the last two words with a pucker, as if they tasted of sour milk. “He lived in the good old days when the American dream was just a man providing for his family.”
Mary never asked him if the American dream was only ever a man’s dream or what the female equivalent was. If she asked such things, he became defensive, as if she were belittling his traditional role as head of the family—like the time when she was just thirteen and asked why her mother didn’t also go to work.
“You and your brother are my work,” her mother had said. “I’ve never wanted more than this life.”
But Mary didn’t want that life. She couldn’t see herself waking up each morning to pour cereal for her children, pack their lunches, put them on the bus, do their laundry, clean their house, help them with homework, make their dinner, give them baths, and put them to bed every day for the next twenty or more years. Perhaps she was selfish and lacked her mother’s gracious, self-sacrificing spirit. Perhaps she knew she couldn’t measure up to her mother’s maternal excellence and didn’t care to try. Perhaps she didn’t want more as much as she just wanted different.
“Didn’t we give you a good childhood?” her father asked.
Yes, she’d had an excellent childhood; some would even call it idyllic. She and her brother, Michael, had everything they’d needed and more: a safe neighborhood, the first handheld game systems, America Online. They’d grown up believing that the world was full of dreams and opportunity. The world was their proverbial oyster—until it was not.
Mary was twelve when the Twin Towers fell, fourteen when her brother joined the army, and sixteen when he did not return from Iraq. Perhaps this was the day she’d stopped believing.
Michael had believed in the stars and stripes, that it was good and right and noble. She kept a picture of him in uniform framed on her dresser. In the picture, he stood, hand over his heart, cap in hand. Now his cap was somewhere in the Iraqi desert, blown from his head like the rest of his body when he stepped on an IED.
Her parents rarely spoke of Michael, but when they did, it was with the assertion that Michael understood the American dream, that he’d shot quite literally for the stars and given his life for all fifty of them.
She landed her fifth real interview a month after Izzy left, and unlike the previous four, this one was nearby, an entry-level accounting position at a small advertising company in Baltimore a few blocks from the cafe.
Dan Patrick conducted the interview, his wide pink face carrying a smile that rested there even when he didn’t mean to be smiling. But his brown eyes were kind, and his receding red hair reminded her of her father, who’d worked in various banks his entire life. She’d inherited his skill at counting money and balancing numbers.
“It’s entry level but with growth potential,” Dan Patrick explained. He sat with his right leg extended over his left, rocking just slightly in a black office chair as he asked questions and jotted notes on a clipboard. “How would you describe your career goals?”
She watched her inquisitor click the end of the black pen in and out. The clicking mimicked the seconds passing, in one moment and out the next, fleeting, meaningless without words and actions to define them.
“I just want my life—my job—to have purpose,” she said.
He stopped clicking the end of the pen and chuckled, much like her father, as if to say, “You millennials . . .” But then he nodded and scribbled again on the clipboard.
Mary didn’t know what could be wrong with striving for purpose. Her youth had landed in one of the few decades without political turmoil, untainted by major wars—Civil, World, Korean, Vietnam, Cold. Children like her grew up under the notion that the world was only improving, the USA was at the helm of progress, that dreams come true. She’d lost her belief in dreams, but she still believed in purpose.
“Well, it’s been good meeting you.” Dan Patrick extended his hand and smiled. “You should hear from our office about what’s next.”
Mary stood and shook his hand.
It was with grounded relief that Mary accepted the job, a profoundly improved salary, and a moderate studio apartment in the city. She felt privileged to use her education and provide herself a comfortable living doing something she liked. She was not unhappy, but she did feel that her life still lacked purpose. What did it matter in the scheme of things whether the numbers balanced except to prosper her company and avoid insulting Uncle Sam with unpaid taxes? Something was lacking.
Her desk was in the cubicle in the farthest corner by a window. It offered a glimpse of the harbor, and when the sun reached the old brick building ahead, its rays dispersed over the city with the hope promised in every new day. Sometimes she watched the people treading the sidewalks, the man in the fedora always in a hurry, the woman jogging in purple pants, the woman with the brown briefcase who always carried coffee in her right hand. Mary wondered what she drank and what story her hands told.
On the cork board above her new desk, she tacked a small calendar, a small garland of baby’s breath and twine, and a photograph of the cafe on her last day of work. She didn’t have an eye for photography, so the picture captured on her phone was crooked and bore little artistic interpretation. It was just a shot taken from behind the counter, her view of the previous seven months, minus Izzy. It comforted her, and on days when the numbers became blank figures on meaningless digital charts, she found herself looking at it more than she looked out her window, especially once the snow began to fall. The snow had always ushered in more guests to the cafe, bundled and shivering and waiting for her to craft the antidote for the cold.
Now the only hands she saw were those of her fellow accountants, Nadeem and Makenzie. On most days, she saw only the tops of their heads, brown and blonde. They usually talked about their spouses, children, or politics.
Now the only coffee she made was in the pot in the break room, where she even brought a bag of ground beans from her cafe to brew for her office. But she couldn’t get it to taste the same. The cafe provided double-filtered water streamed into the highest quality machines, and this coffee came from the tap, poured into a common brewer. No one complained about it. Many even thanked her for the improved coffee. But Mary knew that there was something better than this, and so she could not enjoy it.
She tried to think of other things, things other than coffee and steamed milk, people’s hands and Izzy’s face, numbers, and charts.
“What are your goals?” Izzy had asked her once. She was sitting at his table on her break. He was sketching, and she was sipping a wet cappuccino. Goals, he’d asked, not dreams because a goal is tangible and accessible.
“To get a job using my degree,” she answered, “to live purposefully. What about you?”
Izzy chuckled and reached over his shoulder to work at the tension in his back. “To be a successful black man,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
He chuckled and switched arms, stretching and working his upper tension. “A lot of black men never make it to much. My grandpa fought in Vietnam with the hope of an Army pension. He came home with a messed-up mind and put a bullet in his head. My Pop grew up with a stepdad that pushed him around, cut him down. He only came around when he needed cash for a drink. Stole cigarettes from the High’s one night not long after Gia was born. A cop shot him dead in the back.” Izzy shrugged. “He made bad choices, but he didn’t have many options, you know? I want options for me, my mom, and my little sister. I want to take care of them.”
Mary nodded. “So, you want to be a rich black man.”
“No, a happy black man.”
Outside her window, the snow fell in large, fluffy clumps. It dusted over the city quickly so that it looked like a scene someone would’ve framed for the cafe. Mary pressed her fingertips against the glass to feel the cold, and she noticed that her knuckles were no longer red and cracked but smooth and white and soft. “Giver hands,” Izzy had said, but what was she giving?
Her fingerprints lingered on the glass when she pulled back her hand, the cold freezing them in clear sight. They were swirly and strange, these parts of herself she’d left behind yet still remained with her. They imparted themselves on every object she touched and gave away, her very identity, herself. She’d never considered before that every gift contains the giver. She looked at her hands, the fingerprints on the window, the photograph of the cafe on her cork board. The snow was coming faster, each cluster of ice reflecting the streetlights like a thousand stars falling from the sky. She wanted to catch one in her hand and bottle it up and send it to Izzy.
She pulled out her phone and sent him a text. “How’s Philly? Baltimore’s covered in snow.”
In a few moments, she received a reply. “Philly fell thru. Back in Baltimore with my mom. Meet for coffee sometime?”
“Tonight?” she replied.
They met at her cafe just a few hours later. They were still outside under the falling snow when she met him in a long hug. They knocked the snow from their boots at the door and ordered their usuals before sitting at a table in the corner, under the picture of her hands.
“How long have you been back?” Mary asked.
Izzy chuckled, looking down into his cup. “About that.” He wouldn’t look her in the eye. “I never left.”
“It fell through, like I said. My cousin said he couldn’t hire another person after all.”
“I’m so sorry, Izzy.”
He shrugged. “It’s OK. Would’ve been hard taking care of my mom and Gia from so far away.”
She nodded and sipped the warm foam from the rim of her cup. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was disappointed . . . for myself and in myself.”
“But it wasn’t your fault.”
He forced a laugh. “But I got a new plan. Got a job in a restaurant down the street. Figure I’ll save up and apply for a loan or something and get an online degree in business.”
Mary looked beyond him, out the window to her car parked in its old place in front of the barbershop beneath the flag. It had coiled around itself as if to keep warm from the snow. If Michael were there, he would have gone outside and taken it down ceremoniously. He’d have brought her with him, ignoring her shivers, and shown her how to fold it honorably.
“I’m sorry that this is your America,” she said.
He laughed and shrugged.
“I think you should put your artwork online and set up stands in farmer’s markets and such.”
He looked up at her and smirked.
“I’m serious!” she said. “I’ll help you.” Then she took his hand in hers. “We’re in this life together. I’m here for you.” She felt a spark, as if their fingers were flintstones reacting to each other’s touch. The spark was life, and she knew it would burst into flame the more she gave of herself.
Izzy smiled and sighed, his shoulders relaxing, his thumb caressing hers.
Outside, the wind caught the flag, unwrapping it from its post, the stripes unfolding, the stars falling into place.