bright as maraschino cherries

Up on the beach, Ellen did warrior pose in her bathing suit, legs split like a cheerleader’s, arms stretched toward the sun. Ellen often told Bennett this yoga pose filled the body with nobility and strength, beckoning the power of the sun. She loved doing yoga, any time, any place, but Bennett thought it was more appropriate done in a gym or at home – inside of four walls, anyway.  It seemed flamboyant, even provocative, her need to contort her body into strange shapes for the whole world to see.

Ellen’s ten-year-old daughter Wendy lay on her towel, scowling at a book about weather.  Bennett wished both of them would come into the ocean and bodysurf with him, although the waves this afternoon were sluggish and quite dull. This wasn’t how Bennett had envisioned their vacation.  In fact, in Bennett’s detailed itinerary and daily schedules, he planned for considerable togetherness. Ellen was older than he, forty-eight years to his forty-two, and sometimes it seemed as if she was in charge, determined to have her own way.

He bobbed in the waves and watched them through his green goggles. The heat was stifling, like warm air blown out by a grumbling furnace, and he wondered how they tolerated the glaring sun. He closed his eyes and toppled backwards into the waves like a felled tree, then rolled in the shushing surf, trying to wash away his unease.

When he came up for air, Wendy had joined Ellen in downward facing dog pose, their rear ends jutting up to the sky, their hands in the hot sand. Treading water, Bennett watched as a dark wiry man circled them, checking them out. A camera hung around his neck. He looked like one of those sleazy types, all knotted-up under the skin. The beach here was as wide as a ten-lane highway and Bennett felt far away from them. He shouted Ellen’s name, but over the dull roar of the wind, she didn’t seem to hear him. She seemed equally oblivious to the man.  She was probably in her yoga-zone, inwardly removed from the world.

On this stretch of St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, palm trees shaped like green Koosh balls on sticks fluttered in front of yellow-stucco houses with red-tiled roofs.  A red lifeguard stand stood empty.  A platoon of seagulls strutted across the sand on bowlegs, chests puffed out and feathers ruffling. Bennett lost himself for a moment in the scene, until he caught sight of the man again.

He deliberately turned away and looked out to sea.  A red-and-white striped sunfish skimmed across the glistening ocean.  Cloud bundles hugged the horizon, but it was all blue overhead, a sultry, blustery blue.  He took a long, slow breath and lay back, letting the waves carry him.  He closed his eyes and the backs of his eyelids glowed pink, lit up by the sun.

He hoped this vacation would help him decide about Ellen.  It was the five-month mark in their relationship, and he wondered if he should dive in for the long haul, or if he should break things off altogether. He tended to make misjudgments about people and too often found himself stuck in unhappy interminable relationships.  His last serious girlfriend was a waitress by night and a songwriter by day. She wrote lyrics that spoke of abusive partners and suicide and excruciating sadness.  It took him a long time to realize that he couldn’t bear to be with any woman filled with such despair.

He didn’t know if Ellen even wanted commitment.  He only knew her first husband was unfaithful, leaving her for another woman.  She told Bennett the most important thing to her was that a man be what he appeared to be. She’d had enough of deception and heartbreak; she just wanted to be happy.

Ellen was emotional about so many things that Bennett had a hard time telling if her passion for him was anything special.  He thought about her all the time, but mostly his thoughts churned about her feelings for him. He didn’t like this fence-sitting. He hoped to come to some feeling about their relationship, some sense that Ellen was the one – or not.  Bennett was tired of being alone and didn’t want to waste anymore of his life on dead-end relationships.

When he stood up again, his feet sinking in the sand under the receding waves, he saw the girls doing cobra pose, lying on their bellies in the hot sand.  They pushed their upper bodies up, heads back, backs arched.  They stuck out their tongues through wide-open mouths.  The tightly wound man stopped in front of them, squatted, and spoke to them.  Ellen said something to the man and nodded. As they held their poses, the man walked around by their feet, which they had extended top down, soles up.  He crouched next to their feet and lifted the camera to his eye, snapped a picture, then moved to another angle, focusing on their feet, then snapping again.

Bennett felt a strange prickling along his backbone.  He shook his head like a wet dog and resolutely strode out of the water and up the slant of shore.  He didn’t really want a confrontation with the man, but he felt something inside him gnawing to get out.  By the time he reached them, the man was traipsing down the beach away from them, his back hairy and slouching.

“Hey, aren’t you guys sweltering?” Bennett tried to be nonchalant, as he threw his goggles on his American flag towel and stuck his black rectangular glasses on the bridge of his nose.

“I’m boiling up. Come on, Wendy, let’s get wet.”  Ellen stood up, shaking out her wavy red hair, lifting it off her neck. Her hair often air-dried into unwieldy waves, strange shapes that startled Bennett.

Wendy clambered to her feet and stared at the clouds on the horizon.  “That looks like a storm way out there,” Wendy said.  “It’s safe, isn’t it?”

“It’s fine, Wendy,” Bennett said, a little impatiently.  Wendy continually worried about storms, tornadoes or hurricanes.  Bennett had figured out he had to be firm with her on matters of weather or her fears would paralyze her.

She squinted at the ocean and gingerly made her way down to the surf, sticking her big toe into a tattered wave.

Bennett reached over and held Ellen’s hair up, blew on the back of her neck and kissed it.  “Who was that man?”

Ellen pulled her eyebrows together, baffled.

“The guy with the camera.  Who was he?”

“Oh, him.”  She shrugged.  “He wanted to take pictures of our feet.”

“Pictures of your feet?” He was flabbergasted but tried to keep the alarm out of his voice. “So you just let him?”

“Why not?  I’m sure he’s harmless.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little bizarre?  It seems kind of creepy, that some weirdo wanted to take pictures of your feet.” His voice rose despite his efforts to stay calm.

“Well,” she said,  “now that you mention it, maybe it was a little strange. I guess I just found it funny.”

“What about Wendy?  What if he posts her feet on his bedroom walls?  He probably gets off on all those feet when he goes to bed at night.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Even if he does, so what? He’s gone now and he doesn’t have a clue who we are.  Let’s not let it ruin our day.”

He felt exasperated that she didn’t understand why it was so disconcerting to him.  “So you think it was okay?  No problem at all?”

“I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal.  Sometimes, Bennett, you just need to loosen up.”

“OK, fine, let’s just drop it.”  He said it, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to let it go.  It would linger inside him like a digestive worm, chewing away at his insides.

************

They had driven all that day from Washington and had stopped for the afternoon here in Georgia, on their way to Orlando. It was a long tedious drive down I-95: flat shimmering roads, fields of brown corn and tobacco, huge garish billboards hollering YOU NEVER SAUSAGE A PLACE! YOU’RE ALWAYS A WEINER AT PEDRO’S!  ADULT TOYS – WE BARE ALL!

In the car, the three of them seemed destined to drive each other crazy. When Ellen took her turn driving, she drove too fast and too close to cars ahead of her.  Bennett asked her please not to tailgate the huge tractor-trailers: “I don’t want to be decapitated!”  When Bennett drove, she nagged him about piddling along in the right lane, constantly in the way of merging vehicles.

Ellen and Bennett bickered about whether to listen to Ellen’s Andrea Bocelli CD or Bennett’s Jeff Foxworthy comedy CD (“If you see a sign that says ‘Say no to crack,’ and it reminds you to pull your jeans up . . . you might be a redneck!”).  Even Wendy waded into the argument, begging to hear Three Doors Down. Bennett finally came up with a plan that, at least temporarily, calmed everyone down.  They would each get one half hour to play a favorite CD. As mother and daughter grudgingly agreed to his plan, they stared silently out the windows of the ’88 Olds Cutlass at the tidal flats and mangroves, the Spanish moss and pink-blooming crepe myrtles.

Now, with the sun going down on their long day of travel, they gathered their things to leave the beach. As soon as they got back to the car, Ellen opened all the windows and doors to the Oldsmobile to cool it off inside.

“Would you keep an eye on the car, while I go into the bathhouse to change?”  Ellen asked, rifling through her stuff in the trunk. They had dropped their suitcases at the hotel and Ellen had thrown a change of clothes into the car. They planned to go directly to dinner from the beach.

“Damn, I should’ve brought a towel and some soap and shampoo to clean up.” Ellen pushed her oval tortoiseshell glasses up on her head. Bennett stared at her hair, which in the moist wind looked like it had run through a food processor.

“You’ll be fine just the way you are,” Bennett said.

Ellen and Wendy disappeared into the ladies’ room in the public bathhouse.  Bennett stood waiting for them.  He looked at his watch and, startled, saw they were behind schedule for dinner.  He decided that instead of wasting time, he’d close up the car and take a shower too.  He carried his things into the bathhouse.  As he stood in the warm shower he sang aloud one of his favorite American anthems, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, a song that people didn’t sing enough, in his opinion.  He thought again about the strange foot-fetish man and tasted something sour in his mouth.  He shook his head under the streaming water and lathered up under his armpits.

When he finally came back outside, gleaming and wet-haired, Ellen leaned against the car, holding her duffel bag in front of her.  As he got closer, he realized she was glaring at him.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“You know, I asked for a simple thing, for you just to keep an eye on the car while we changed.”  She blew a huff of air out.  “Now I’m miserably hot and I’ve got to get into this oven to bake some more.”

“I didn’t want to waste time standing around.”

“Can I have the keys, please?”  She grabbed the keys out of his outstretched hand and quickly unlocked and opened the doors, rolling down the windows as she did so.  She threw her duffel bag into the car, and plopped down in the passenger seat.  “Let’s get out of here.  I feel like a sweat hog now.  I want to eat dinner, just get it over with.”

“Come on, Ellen.  I want us to have a good time.”

“Well, now I feel disgusting.  After sitting in this hot box, I’m going to be even nastier by the time we get to dinner.”  She slouched in the seat and stared straight ahead.

Bennett started the car and lightheartedly asked Wendy what she wanted for dinner.

“A Caesar salad and chocolate milk,” she said glumly, fiddling with a callous on the bottom of her foot.  “You sure it’s not going to storm tonight?”

Bennett sighed.  “I’m positive.” He steered out of the public parking lot, toward the town of St. Simon’s, past cinderblock houses and disheveled yards.

 ***********

Ellen had delivered videos to Bennett and other clients, as part of her business, Door-to-Door Videos.  Their early interactions were limited to an awkward exchange of videos for rental fees, standing in Bennett’s condo doorway. She brought him doses of happiness in the form of comedy videos: Laurel and Hardy: Laughing Gravy, Three Stooges in Orbit, Tootsie, and Crocodile Dundee. When she came to his door, he often caught himself staring at her freckles, just a smattering, like cinnamon sprinkled on toast, across her nose. So few freckles for a redhead!  She was attractive, but . . . something was missing.

Then, five months ago, Ellen came into Hour Eyes, where Bennett worked as an optician, for new glasses. Ellen looked sullen on that morning she wandered into his red-carpeted office with its walls of floating, gleaming lenses.  She was upset that the optometrist had sentenced her to glasses. She had never needed them before, and she wondered if they were necessary now. Bennett believed, from long years of wearing thick corrective lenses, that the world was a different place behind glasses, somehow safer, clear and comprehensible.  He reassured her, in his soothing voice, that the glasses gave her an air of sophistication. As she sat at his station, looking in the silver-rimmed mirror, he brought her frames he thought would flatter her, finally bringing the oval tortoiseshells. The glasses gave an extra glimmer to Ellen’s eyes and Bennett knew then that her beauty was complete.

When she came back the following week to pick up her glasses, Bennett invited her to his house that night.  She came by after her video deliveries, close to midnight, and they sat on Bennett’s leather couch, knees touching, eating Cracker Jacks and watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Ellen’s laughter was as bright as maraschino cherries, and Bennett felt the weightlessness of pure pleasure.

 *************

Bennett planned their stop in Georgia, only five hours from Orlando, so the next day they’d have time to explore Canaveral Seashore.  That next morning, they drove endlessly past miles of scrubby tropical plants and thick prickly bushes.  Bennett stopped so they could walk up Turtle Mound, a hill formed over a midden of shells discarded by the Timucuan Indians in centuries past. A sign explained that a shell midden was like a garbage dump and so gave clues to the Indians’ existence. As they hiked up the wooden walkway through the heavy foliage, Wendy squealed and swatted at her arms and legs.  “I’m getting eaten alive by mosquitoes,” she hollered, jumping like a grasshopper.  “I hate this place, Bennett.  Why’d you make us come here?  This is gross!”

Ellen slapped herself on her neck and then her arm.  “My God.  We’re getting the blood sucked out of us!  I’d call this Vampire Mound!  Nice place, Bennett.”

Wendy and Ellen ran back down the wooden walkway, yelping the entire way.  Bennett shook his head.  He wondered why he bothered to come up with these ideas.  He meandered down the walkway to the parking lot, swatting at mosquitoes lackadaisically.

What was it about women?  These two, anyway, were so vocal about their emotions.  He liked to think he kept his emotions under control.  Whenever uncomfortable feelings arose in him, he immersed himself in Comedy Central or old Seinfeld reruns on TV, or he read comics like The Far Side.  He himself wasn’t a funny guy – he could never remember jokes and wasn’t witty in general – but he loved to laugh at people in comic situations. The laughter took the edge off his anxieties or anger.

Yet, he didn’t feel deep-down happy.  Something ate at him.  Some unmet need.  He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he felt like he had a big hole in the middle of his rib cage.

Funny, Ellen’s passion was one thing Bennett had loved about her when he first met her.  She felt everything in life magnified a hundred times.  She practiced yoga and meditation in order to harness that raw emotion, which she admitted often caused her problems.  Her emotions were just out there, splayed across the universe like the aurora borealis.  He admired her ability to feel life deeply, yet he often felt intimidated, even frightened of her.  He never knew what to expect.  Too often when he was with her, he felt as if life had lost all semblance of predictability.

 *************

As they drove through New Smyrna, a black and orange butterfly flew into one of the windshield wipers and stuck.  Bennett turned on the windshield wipers, thinking to dislodge and set it free, but instead the soft yellow part of its body smeared across the windshield.  Wendy and Ellen both screamed when he did it.

“Oh my God, Bennett.  Stop the car!  Now!”  Ellen yelled, pointing at a dusty parking lot next to the New Smyrna Speedway.

He pulled off and stopped the car.  Gently, he tried to extricate the lovely butterfly from the windshield.  Surprisingly, it was still alive, barely fluttering its wings.  He pulled it free and set it carefully on a patch of grass alongside the parking lot.

When he got back in the car, Ellen had her hands over her mouth.  She said in a trembling voice, “Well?”

“I think it’s just barely alive. I don’t know if it can fly.” Bennett’s hands shook, but he tried to modulate his voice, so he wouldn’t alarm Ellen.

Ellen burst into tears.  She put her head into her hands and her shoulders shook with muffled sobs.  Bennett put his hand on her knee.  “I’m sorry.”

“I can’t believe we hurt that beautiful guy,” said Wendy quietly from the backseat.  When Bennett turned to look at her, he saw tears streaming down her cheeks.

 ************

At Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Bennett loved Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.  Sitting in a round pod, he shot lasers at gigantic toy targets with the letter “Z,” and amassed points.

“This is for babies,” Wendy said as they climbed out of their pod.  “Let’s go ride Space Mountain.”

The old-fashioned roller coaster zipped through an inky sky filled with twinkling stars and comets, and it jolted Bennett from side to side. Wendy and Ellen screamed piercingly throughout the ride. Bennett came out with sore arms. He didn’t tell them, but all he could think about during the entire ride was that he was going to get his arms or his head chopped off.

The girls loved the ride and wanted to repeat it right away. He protested. If they didn’t move on, they wouldn’t see everything on their itinerary.  Bennett had jotted down a plan the night before and they had all agreed to it.  Besides, he wanted to use the Fast Passes, which would enable them to bypass long lines.  That took planning.

“Oh, forget our plans.  Let’s just go with the flow,” Ellen said. “Don’t you want to ride again?”

“Not really.  Maybe I’ll go ahead and get a Fast Pass for Big Thunder Railroad while you’re doing Space Mountain again.”  He was irritated that they always ganged up on him and got their way. He had a sudden feeling of insignificance.  As he walked to Big Thunder Railroad, he berated himself for not saying anything.

Ellen insisted on eating lunch before riding Big Thunder Railroad, so they missed the Fast Pass time slot.  She decided to go after lunch anyway, even if she had to stand in line.  Bennett refused to stand in line when there was a perfectly good way to avoid it. He prodded them to go on their way, and he agreed to meet them at the end of the day.  Ellen claimed he was pouting. He insisted he was just making the most of the day.

So, while Ellen and Wendy rode Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Bennett climbed the Swiss Family Treehouse.  Later, after he got hot and cranky walking through the crowds alone, he wandered into the Hall of Presidents.  There, watching the Animatronic figures of the American presidents, including George “Dubya” Bush, Bennett found himself getting all choked up as they fidgeted and talked about freedom in America.  By the time they were finished, Bennett had tears running in thin streams down his face.  He was too embarrassed to go out into sunlight with the crowds.  So, he stayed and watched the show two more times, choked-up and teary-eyed throughout.

 *************

The guidebook said EPCOT was an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but Bennett thought it was closer to a community of yesteryear. A teenager manning a drink kiosk near the Morocco pavilion said EPCOT stood for “Every Person Comes Out Tired,” which Bennett thought was a more accurate acronym.  Bennett felt tired from this whole attempt at a vacation.

Ellen and Wendy’s favorite attraction at EPCOT gave Bennett the creeps: Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.  Everyone wore plastic 3-D glasses into the show.  On the screen, the characters released a slew of mice from their cages, and as the mice came toward the audience, the lights went out.  Bennett felt little mice feet running over his feet and legs and yelled like a banshee.  Ellen and Wendy screamed and pulled their feet up into their seats.  Afterwards, the girls thought it was hilarious and peered under the seats for whatever had felt like mice.  Bennett felt shaken and irritable. Even in the sultry August air, he shivered just thinking about those reckless mice.

 *************

At Sea World, immediately after the entrance gates opened, a voice boomed over the loudspeaker asking people to pause for the national anthem.  Bennett, Ellen, and Wendy all stood at attention, hands over hearts, and listened to The Star-Spangled Banner. Bennett felt that choking feeling in his throat.  His emotions lately seemed to be harder to contain.  He felt afraid suddenly that things weren’t working out with Ellen and Wendy, and he saw a lonely road ahead of him: day-long marathons of I Love Lucy and empty nights drinking beers and chuckling half-heartedly at the Marx brothers.

They walked past a couple of scarlet ibises, coral-colored flamingo-like birds. Ellen, astonished by their brightness, insisted on taking pictures. “Look, they’re the same color as we are!” she said.  Bennett hadn’t even noticed, but all three of them wore coral-colored shirts.  Ellen directed Bennett and Wendy to stand on either side of the ibises, creating a brilliant frame.

They continued directly toward Kraken.  On the floorless roller coaster, their feet hung loose, although the cars attached to the coaster rails at the bottom.  Bennett looked at the first steep climb and tensed up, grabbing the metal bar in front of him until his knuckles glowed. They clanked and clattered to the top, crested the hill.  Bennett held his breath as the bottom fell out from under them.  They free fell down a steep, horrific drop, then twisted through corkscrews, curves and loops that turned them on their heads.  They sped through a tunnel of mist.  When they finally got off, Bennett’s knees felt like pudding.  The ride had wrung him out.  Ellen’s hair stood out in every imaginable direction and Bennett laughed.

“I know, I know.  My hair looks like a twister,” she said.  “I knew I was ruined in that tunnel of mist!”

She looked so silly that Bennett wanted to hug her.  But Wendy was already walking fast to get back in line, and Ellen followed quickly behind her. “We have to ride again before the lines get too long.”

“I’ll pass,” Bennett said, disappointed.  He waited near the exit.  He hadn’t even bothered to make up an itinerary last night.  He didn’t care anymore.  He felt that he and Ellen were doomed. He watched as random people clattered by on the coaster. Soon, he caught a glimpse of the two coral shirts zipping past.  The girls’ distorted faces froze in screams and their feet flopped like wet laundry on a windy day.  Bennett’s heart still pounded too fast from his last ride and he leaned against a wall, waiting.

When they got off the coaster, Wendy beamed.  “That was fantastic!  I could do that all day.”

Ellen trembled, but smiled just the same.  “Oh, Bennett, that was so exciting!  Are you sure you don’t want to do it again?”

He shook his head as they rushed to get back in line.

While they rode Kraken a few more times, Bennett wandered nearby, going in and out of air-conditioned gift shops.  It was dreadfully hot and his T-shirt stuck to his sweat-drenched torso.  He walked into a cave that said Penguin Encounters and stepped on a moving sidewalk.  It transported him through an Antarctic environment that was twenty-two degrees behind a glass wall.  Hundreds of tuxedoed penguins stood on rocks, preening and socializing, diving and swimming.  Bennett couldn’t believe this colony of stiff little men, all dressed up with no place to go.  There were so many of them, stoic little fellows standing right in the midst of the elements, unafraid of deep freezes and high winds.  He wondered at them as the sidewalk carried him back out to the sweltering day.

After seeing a flurry of dolphin, sea-lion, killer whale, and ski shows, they went to see Cirque de la Mer, mainly to get out of the heat.  It was in a huge indoor auditorium, and Bennett was relieved to have an air-conditioned reprieve.  They sat, too tired to talk, and Bennett looked around at all the people in sun-visors and tank tops wandering down the aisles.  They looked as wiped out as he felt.

He heard scattered laughter in the auditorium.  Ellen nudged him and pointed, “Look, Bennett.  Look at that guy.”

A young man carrying a hard suitcase circled an oblivious obese woman in the aisle.  He wore an old-fashioned black suit, a white shirt and narrow tie, and a floppy felt hat.  His black curly hair, cut in one length all over, hung almost to his shoulders.  Totally silent like a mime, he startled Bennett when he blew a shrill whistle that hung around his neck.

Bennett watched as the mime followed closely on the heels of a bearded man walking down a row to an empty seat.  As the guy turned to sit down, the mime squeezed quickly behind him into the seat.  The bearded man sat on the mime’s lap and promptly jumped up in shock.  His drink flew out of his hand and splashed on the floor.  The mime jumped up and ran away.  Bennett and the girls laughed heartily.

The mime next put his arm around a kinky-haired blonde who was walking behind her boyfriend.  The mime turned around with her and led her down a row to an unoccupied seat between two people.  After pushing her gently into the seat, the mime grabbed the arm of an Asian man sitting next to her, and placed the man’s arm around the blonde, who laughed.  Meanwhile, her date, left standing in the aisle, looked around frantically, wondering where his girlfriend went.  By this time, Bennett, Ellen, and Wendy were laughing hysterically, along with scattered groups in the audience.

The show started and the mime disappeared.  In all seriousness, dancers in Inca costumes gyrated on stage and acrobats did balancing and trapeze-like feats.  After the spectacle, the performers left the stage and the mime reappeared.  He flexed his muscles and then started picking burly men from the audience. To Bennett’s surprise, the mime pointed at him and gestured for him to come up on stage with the others.

Bennett was astonished, appalled even, that the mime chose him.  He shuffled up to the stage, feeling scrawny and insignificant next to the other five volunteers.  He stood hunched up on the stage and wondered why this thing was happening to him.  He wanted nothing more than to go back to his seat, to enjoy the show in anonymity.  Shaking his head vigorously at the mime, he pointed back to his seat, and said firmly, “Hey, I’m, not doing this.  I’m going back to my seat.”  As he started to walk off the stage, the mime grabbed the back of his shirt and tugged him like a pawn to the back of the stage.

Bennett looked at the crowd of people and felt terror like a blown-up parade balloon growing inside him.  He started sweating, feeling hotter than he’d been all day out on the blazing asphalt.  He looked around for an escape route.

Meanwhile, the mime took four of the men and placed them at four corners of an imaginary square. He wrapped tape around one guy as if he were a mummy, and then wrapped the rest of the tape around the other three guys, forming a boxing ring on the stage.  He threw Bennett and a tattooed man into the ring, handed them each a pair of boxing gloves and mimed for them to duke it out.

Bennett put the boxing gloves on his trembling hands, then bounced on his feet.  The tattooed guy came at him and Bennett flung out his arm and hit the guy sloppily, his blow glancing off the man’s upper arm. Bennett felt spastic and knew he must look like an idiot.  He hopped around in circles, darting right and left to avoid the other man’s punches.  At one time, he sat on his haunches, rolled backward, and rocked back and forth on his butt.  The audience roared with laughter.

He stood up again and felt his cheeks heat up.  He couldn’t seem to let loose and go with the punches.  He was too stiff, a mannequin.  Why had he let the mime put him on the spot like this?  He fell backward and lay flat-out on the floor.  That was it!  He’d refuse to get up!  Refuse to participate in this charade.  This wasn’t in his plan, anyway, for him to make a fool of himself in front of Ellen.  As he lay on the floor, eyes closed, he heard the audience howl with laughter again.  When he opened his eyes, he saw to his surprise that the mime was leaping over him like a fussy ballerina.

Bennett popped upright, but remained seated on the floor.  The mime grabbed Bennett’s tattooed opponent by the back collar and tossed him out of the boxing ring, to hoots and claps from the audience.  Then the mime stripped off his clothes, all the way down to green-silk gym shorts, a scrawny bare chest, and mismatched socks.  He pranced around Bennett, who continued to sit on the floor, dumbfounded.

Bennett shook his head at the utterly ridiculous mime.  Unexpectedly, he burst out laughing.  The mime bounced and his skinny arms flailed in every direction.  Bennett felt a surge of energy. He shrugged at the audience and pushed himself to his feet.  He pulled his own shirt off over his head, tossed it out of the boxing ring.  He was as spindly as the mime.  They looked like two skinny marionettes in some poorly choreographed dance.

The theme song from the movie Chariots of Fire commenced over the loudspeaker.  The mime slowed his movements to the rhythm of the music, slugging the air as if underwater.  Bennett laughed aloud and fell right in with the mime, moving his arms in erratic slow-motion punches.  The audience laughed uproariously.  Bennett rolled his shoulders, shook and loosened his arms. He hammed it up with the crazy mime in a languid punch-drunk boxing match in this makeshift ring.

He peered into the audience.  He saw Ellen and Wendy, glowing in their coral shirts, pointing at him and screaming with laughter. Ellen clapped and clapped, her face framing a stunning smile.  Her cheeks were scarlet, radiant with wonder.  Bennett threw another lopsided punch, buoyant on his dancing feet.