I never wanted to admit that I saw them, too: your parents, sucking the tar of spilled instant coffee off each other’s fingers. Same as us in the cafeteria, taking each other’s fingers in our mouths, easing off the grease of salad dressing and pizza sauce and potato chips. They thought they were invisible to us from the gift shop’s coffee station, a sad Sterilite table covered with sheet plastic. But they were there with the other chaperones, heaping spoons of Folger’s instant into tin prospectors’ mugs. The coffee crystals graveled into the tin, throaty as crampons loosing grit from a rockface.
Instant coffee crystals: whoever refined that phrase from the ore of language came from the same stock as the tour guide at the Seldom Seen Coal Mine. He peddled sterling bands inset with pinhead-small flecks of coal and crowned with princess-cut, grackle-shiny, chunks of anthracite. “They’re diamonds waiting to happen,” the tour guide said. “Yep, future diamonds, but still pretty enough. Call them coal miners’ promise rings.” He pinched a band between thumb and forefinger, gave it a QVC swivel so the coal’s facets caught the light. “Just five dollars,” he said.
Five dollars promised three foiled blocks of knock-off Velveeta at the Riverside. Add a loaf of pillow-dense bread from the Saint Joe’s food bank, and a coal miner’s promise ring could stuff me on grilled-cheese for a week or more.
Even then I knew the value of a dollar, though you’d never credit me with that.
The boys bought the rings and made tease-proposals to us, there in the gift shop aisles. I wanted your promises, not theirs. But we were almost teens and couldn’t take their rumors, the censure whispered in the instrument storage room or the lighting cage in the auditorium wings. I sacrificed a moment of your love, an afternoon to detention, for our secret: I thrust my palm into the face of your proposal, shoved you back into the plastic shelf of polished coal jewelry. The rack gave and coal rings scattered along the linoleum’s fake stone pattern.
Call it a dress rehearsal, for that much later night on the chip-and-tar stretch of the old Buckhorn road, when I found your Dodge Viper before the Smokeys did. First the coal rings, then your car: a caltrops of black and sterling, metal and debris, gravel and gromets and bands, wet and luminous and pooled in grackle black-and-green puddles of antifreeze and oil. When I found you there my phone was a dead promise in my hand, the cab of my old Ford smelled loamy from the asphalt-dark coffee (with a slosh of Jameson) that oiled my veins, lubricated my brain.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the Associate Editor for Fiction and Poetry at Modern Language Studies. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in publications including The Massachusetts Review, CHEAP POP, Clarion, and Passages North, and his work has also been selected for inclusion in Best Microfiction 2020. He is an instructor and Coordinator of Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.