story by eric m martin
At her straightest and tallest, she must have been five feet tall. A small smiling girl who became a short smiling woman; a smiling bride with a soft smile softly hovering on her face five feet above the ground.
She’s not five feet tall anymore. She bends at the waist and walks slowly with her hips angling backward, her head pushed forward, a triangular figure in loose clothes.
In her sweatpants and sweatshirts she might be actively shrinking but she isn’t upset about it. She seems comfortable with her elfish geometry. She has grown accustomed to the empty space in her clothes.
She’s so short she has to look up at our pastries in the counter display. When she first came into the shop I had to yell down to her, “What would you like?”
“Oh. Oh,” she smiles, “I’d like a coffee, a small coffee.”
She has a tendency to lift her hand in the air when she speaks and kind of croons and clucks with a barely discernable brogue. She nods in a jolly way at being heard and understood.
That first day she said, “I grew up in England. I grew up in England until I was seventeen.” Then she smiled that hovering, soft smile; nodding.
It holds her entire set of desires, that smile, and it sets them out like a bag for you to fill.
Beneath a head of grey speckled, dark hair cut short, the smiles say that everything is so simple, everything she wants is so innocent and so easy to give.
I want to give it to her.
But I can’t.
Stooped now and small, the old woman looks like she once had the things she now wants. When she was still five feet tall she had the easy, simple things that have escaped from her while gravity and time did their work.
She has known those things and lost them to the process of charitable burden, of children grown, of husbands dead.
There is a principle called the first law of thermodynamics. Very simple. Poetic, really.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed.
Earth is characterized by a water cycle very much like this first law. Water never disappears. It can be neither created nor destroyed.
If there is a puddle and the puddle dries up, the water doesn’t just disappear. One tiny bit of water says goodbye to the other tiny bits of water and floats off and up on its own little gas cloud of energy into the sky.
When it gets there, having risen thousands of feet, the water molecule joins with other molecules of its kind that have also risen to this place, other tiny little bits of water that did not get sucked into the dirt of the puddle and did not stay in the roots of plants.
“You’ve been really nice to me,” she says. The smile is like a chisel scraping, rhythmlessly, inside my chest. Scraping against a string tied there too tight, ripping it tendon by tendon.
Her coffee cup has no lid. The contents steam. Her triangle shape moves to the door and in her hand the coffee cup tilts wildly.
She is going to the bus stop, saying goodbye.
Pushing the door open to leave, the cup finally tips too far and coffee spills all over the floor.
Smiling, she says, “Oh.”
Two steps in science and mathematics were made simultaneously by different people. Darwin developed and published his ideas on natural selection at the same time another scholar named Wallace published a nearly identical theory. In the end, it was Darwin who put his stamp on the idea. There is something particularly Darwinian about the idea today. Something of his personality is in it.
There is nothing of Wallace in it.
Calculus was supposedly the same way.
I find myself wondering sometimes: If the laws of physics had been discovered by someone else would the world be a different place?
I take her cup and refill it, put on a lid for her, and give her the cup again.
The chisel starts doing something to me when the first drop of hot coffee hits the ground. I can hear the chord snapping like a bridge cable, the wires stretched too far. The small wires that make the cable break from the outside in.
One by one they break and recoil. The vibration fills me then recedes into the distance.
This is what it’s like: When it begins to happen, you think that the sound has been flung out, over the land, into the silent spaces you can’t see, without diminishing, traveling out and out; a vibration screaming intact through the invisible world which started in a breaking bridge in your chest.
“You’ve been so nice,” she says again.
I try smiling and watch her go.
When she held the thing in her hand, the proverbial thing, she must have known it for what it was because the smile today is fully aware of the fragile precious thing that it calls to. The smile knows.
I can’t keep myself from imagining that the fragile thing the smile asks for looks just like her. A young girl grown old. A small person smiling for a lifetime, asking only the simplest question, will you give me this little thing, this kindness, or…?
Where has it gone, the thing the smile clearly knows?
It can’t just disappear. Nothing can.