(This is a response to the daily prompt from 9/8 by The Daily Post)
He set a venti caramel frappuccino on the table a twisted the wrapper off the bottom half of a straw before I looked up from my notebook. He was stocky, six-foot, with a buzz cut and a ball chain just visible beneath his collar. He picked up the frappuccino and nodded to me.
I set down my pen, feeling unsettled. I had a thought of who the man might be, but it had been thirty-plus years since I had last seen him. My memory was a beast compared to most people’s. Until I knew what was going on, he was a stranger to me.
“Maybe,” I said after watching him for a long minute. I examined the Starbucks cup, trying to see the name written on the side. He noticed and turned the cup away.
“You sometimes go by the name Genette Wood. Is that correct?”
His hazel eyes weren’t giving me anything. I looked for anything–familiarity, humor, condemnation. His expression was trained and inscrutable.
“Everyone with Wikipedia knows that’s my pen name.”
“Good. I’ve been looking for you.”
“What did I do?” I always assumed I was in trouble when someone of authority addressed me out of the blue. Maybe it was Daddy issues. Maybe it was being raised in the Church. Either way, authority and I had a love-hate relationship. This man stank of authority.
He drank down the rest of the frappuccino and sighed. “Never enough coffee in these things.” I wanted to tell him that he might do better by getting actual coffee, but I stayed quiet. Maturity taught me there was never a need to ruffle unnecessary feathers. “You put in an inquiry to the North Dakota Department of Vital Records regarding a male child born in 1985 or 1986 who would not have had a father listed on the birth certificate.”
A spark of excitement lit my fingers and I reached for my pen and paper. “I did.”
The stranger produced a manila envelope. “There are one hundred forty-seven names on this list.”
He was just going to hand me the list? My heart raced, and I started to extend my hand for the envelope. I had dreamed of this moment since I was sixteen and found out about the illegitimate son my dad fathered with the local pastor’s little angel. My father didn’t know the boy’s name. He couldn’t remember the preacher’s daughter’s name or when the affair exactly happened, but he knew enough for me to place a few well-aimed inquiries.
The stranger pulled the list back. “Give me one good reason–”
“Oh, cut the bullshit. Why travel all this way to withhold the information?”
The inscrutable look faded for a minute and he smiled. “It’s possible I just wanted to meet you. World-famous author and all.”
“I have book signings exactly for that purpose.” To emphasize my irritation, I pulled out a bookmark and signed it. I pushed the paper across the table. “There’s your souvenir. The list?”
“I am surprised at you. I thought you liked to play games. Take on adventures.”
“That depends on my partner. You’ve given me nothing to work with.”
“I’ve given you nothing?” He spun the empty Starbucks cup in semi-circles, always making sure his name faced away from me. Leftover caramel prevented me from reading the name through the plastic. “I’ve given you the confirmation that your brother probably exists.”
I furrowed my eyebrows, irritated with his stupid “game.” “I already knew that.”
He leaned into the table, setting his elbows on the surface. “I am a huge fan.”
This needed to be over. If this really was the man I thought, the one from thirty-something years ago, he had changed. Lost touch. “I have other things I need to do.” I picked up my notepad and put it into my briefcase. He said nothing, only watched.
I stood to leave, calculating how to take the manila envelope on my way out the door.
The grab went better than I anticipated, and I headed for the door. The envelope with the names felt heavy and final in my hands. He remained at the table, his hand still posed as if holding the information.
“I thought you were supposed to have a good memory,” he said. His voice was quiet, intense. I felt my mind slip away, remember a conversation about science fiction novels versus movies. His voice had sounded that way then.
I couldn’t turn around. I had made a habit of not revisiting my past whenever possible. “I have an amazing memory.”
“But you don’t remember me?”
Stocky, six-foot tall, buzz cut, hazel eyes. He hadn’t changed as much as other people our age. I knew him instantly. I remembered his black uniform. I remembered every argument, every feeling. “I’m sorry. Should I?”
He was silent for a long time. “I . . . I had hoped.”
I used my thumb to play with my wedding ring. “I meet a million people a year.”
Heavy hands weighed on my shoulders. I closed my eyes and performed emergency meditation to calm the sudden eruption of hormones. “Good luck finding your brother.” He held the door open for me.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
He shook his head. “I’m bound to misread one person every thirty years or so.”
The afternoon sun weighed on us. The military cockiness that had turned him into an unreadable puzzle had melted. He didn’t look sad. He looked tired. I wanted to drop my act, but I was too far in. I couldn’t admit now that I knew who he was as soon as the caramel frappaccino landed on my table.
I made a snap decision. “You have to understand, sir, that I can’t remember everyone I crossed paths with thirty years ago. Not even ones I drove sixteen miles to visit at work three times a week. Not even ones whose thoughts I could finish after a few days. Especially not ones who disappeared with their fiancees after four months, never to be heard from until now.”
His black sedan pulled out of the parking lot several minutes later. He understood.