Laughing Man

by Teresa Burns Gunther

Desiccated leaves litter the cobbled lane Alister runs across. It’s near dark as he climbs the church’s steps, inciting an eruption of pigeons. Startled, he kicks out, curses.

“Bloody flying rats.”

A woman wrapped in ragged shawls, growls at him from where she sits spraddle legged on the stone steps. Seeds fill the expanse of her skirt that makes a table of her massive lap where birds perch and peck. The spectacle of her horrifies him. He turns away.

“Darling,” Deirdre said, when she’d called earlier, “Meet me tonight.” She texted an address. “Under the laughing man. You won’t be disappointed!” As always, her voice elicited his arousal as he imagined her pouty lips, saw her toy with her thick, dark hair. He never says no.

He buttons his trench coat against London’s chill and circles the church, searches its roof line of bizarre gargoyles and buttresses. He finds no laughing man. His doubt prickles with annoyance. He checks his watch. She’s late. Again. And their nine-year gap nags at him.

A red double-decker, its windows steamed, stops at the kerb but no one gets off. Bird lady, wide bum swaying, lumbers aboard. The birds leave, too.

He feels his aloneness keenly as fog lowers, intensifying the gloom.

Discovering that she chose a church for their destination he’d allowed himself a second of hope. That she’d twirl, cup his cheeks, kiss him, finally say Yes! He proposed seven months ago but she keeps stringing him along.

She wanted to show him a gargoyle? Why? He searches his memory of past conversations and comes up with nothing more than her teasing.

He texts: Where are you? No response.

At a sound above him, Alistair spins around, sees only a stone monkey. Did its head turn? No. Now even the dark is playing tricks.

“Five more minutes,” he threatens no one and sits on a cold step. A horned creature with bulging muscles and murderous fangs perches above him on the wall. Alistair pulls his trench coat tighter, closes his eyes, wonders where she is.

A taxi pulls up and he stands but an elderly couple get out. They are rumpled in comfortable unison. They hold hands. The man in a tweed cap says something to the woman in her puffy coat. She throws her head back and laughs, then turns, cups his cheeks, kisses him. They stand, smiling into each other’s wrinkled faces and Alistair feels robbed. Was one of them once unattainable? Did one of them have to wait? How long?

Alistair turns back to the church, eyes the gargoyles with their lascivious grins that tell him he’s a fool. He hurries out from under their cold and stony gaze, desperate for warmth.