Ever look at a drop of water through a microscope?
—In biology class, like everybody else. Why do you ask?
Because I’m convinced it can’t be a coincidence.
The resemblance between the ciliated unicellular organisms you see frolicking in moisture under magnification and the figures on paisley shirts. Remember paisley shirts?
They were big when we were in high school. As a matter of fact, I happened to be wearing one the night I attracted the notice of a man with no lips.
Not a bit. In place of a mouth, he had only the hint of a slit, so that I didn’t take it as a compliment when I caught him staring at me in the subway.
—I don’t suppose you were dumb enough to encourage him by sustaining eye contact?
Even as a kid, I knew better than that. On the reasonable assumption he was a lunatic, I looked straight back down at Madame Bovary.
—That’s not a book anybody of my acquaintance would have been reading in high school.
I wasn’t reading it, I was studying its cover, on which a greasy type with a twirled mustache and bushy side-whiskers was peering over the plump bare shoulder and down into the cleavage of a woman in a billowy dress.
—That’s why you bought it—for the cover?
Who said I bought it? It wasn’t mine. It belonged to Marian S., the girl I was returning from a date with. No, take that back. It didn’t just belong to her, it was an extension of her person. Every page of it was imbued with her fragrance.
—So you stole it from her—is that what you’re saying?
Nothing of the kind. She lent it to me, in connection with a commitment she’d made to raise my level of civilization.
—What made her think your level of civilization needed raising?
She lived in the Village in a brownstone. Her parents taught college. I lived in the Bronx in a housing project. My parents worked in the post office.
—I see. And it didn’t bother you to be condescended to in this way?
Not by her. I was only too happy to be pizza dough in her hands. Why do you think I was wearing that paisley shirt? For shit sure not because I liked it.
—But to get back to the lipless man who was also susceptible to that shirt …
By all means.
—I assume he was still staring at you the next time you raised your eyes from your book?
Worse than that, when I got off at my station, he followed me down into the street.
—It was night, you say?
—I bet you never ran so fast.
Alas, he turned out to be faster and ended up leaving me with no choice but to stab him with the pocketknife I failed to scare him off with. Luckily for me, the cops didn’t put any effort into clearing the case, no doubt because—as the papers reported—he was an escapee from Bronx State Hospital with a long record of assaults. I’m only confessing to the homicide now because the statute of limitations has expired.
—You seriously expect me to believe such a preposterous story?
Not for a minute. All the same, it’s a good deal more interesting than what actually happened.
Nothing. When I looked up from my book the second time, the lipless loony was gone, never to be seen by me again, except in an occasional nightmare.
—So what you’re telling me is that—apart from this complete nonevent—you made it home without incident from your civilizing date?
That’s about right. Since nobody had bothered to wait up for me, I didn’t even have to fend off the usual questions on my way to my room to snort Madame Bovary.
Stephen Baily has published short fiction in New Pop Lit, Bullshit Lit, Ink Sac, Mercurius, and some fifty other journals. He’s also the author of eleven plays and three novels, including Markus Klyner, MD, FBI (Fellow Traveler Press, 2021). He lives in France.