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Language Barrier

Story by Thomas Cooper (Read author interview) December 23, 2010

art by Gay Degani

I’m avoiding Jorge, the man without the tongue. In the kitchen, he slouches on the counter next to the wet bar, checkered flatcap pulled low over his eyes. When I glance over, he’s watching me, making shapes with his hands. For the past five years he’s come up at the stroke of midnight and wrapped me in his arms, like we’re kindred spirits. Brethren. Tonight he’s staring at me as if he wants to repeat history, but I’m not going to let it happen.

It’s a family party, my wife’s side. Meringue music, dancing, cousins of cousins, friends of friends. Arepas and pastillos and drinks, lots of them. People are getting shitfaced and a mustached man is doing a fandango with a plastic Christmas tree. Everybody’s South American except me. They smile and pinch my side, call me Barba Roja. That’s usually the extent of our communication because there’s a language barrier.

My wife’s on the patio beside the pool and men are checking her out. I can’t blame them. She seems to glow under the bug zapper, skinny brown arms and long black hair catching blue light.

I wave and she waves back. Then she laughs into her cell phone.

“Whatever you do,” I told her before the party, “don’t let Jorge ambush me after the ball drops.”

She promised.

There’s nothing wrong with Jorge, except for the missing tongue, and the fact that he follows me around as if we know one another. I don’t know why he’s taken such a shining to me, but he has. Once I asked his mother how he lost his tongue and she told me it fell out after his wife died. His childhood sweetheart, guerilla gunfire in Quibdó. Jorge didn’t talk for ten years after that and one day his tongue was gone, like a mollusk out of a shell.

Bullshit, I assumed. Fairytale stuff.

Now Jorge steps up to me and semaphores with his hands. It looks like he’s building an invisible birdhouse.

“You want something to eat, Jorge?” I say, checking my watch.

Still, with the hands.

“Want a drink?” I ask.

He shows me his palms.

“I’m going to the bathroom, Jorge,” I say.

But the voices are already growing shrill, bodies drawing closer together, men and women counting down. On the patio, my wife smiles into her phone, tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear, beautiful even this far away. I move forward but Jorge steps closer, gesturing in a language he thinks I understand.

About the Author

Thomas Cooper’s short stories have recently appeared in New Orleans Review, Pindeldyboz, Beloit Fiction Journal, Quick Fiction, Opium, and elsewhere. His chapbook of flash fiction, Phantasmagoria, is forthcoming from Keyhole Press.

About the Artist

Gay Degani has been nominated here and there for Pushcart consideration, Best Small Fictions, and a few various and sundry honors including the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). Her micro “Abbreviated Glossary” appears in the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fictionedited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro. She occasionally blogs at Words in Placeand is currently working on another novel of suspense.

This story appeared in Issue Thirty of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty

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