Short Fiction ~ Eleonora Balsano
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 15
I am not fast enough, bright enough, pleasing enough. They’ve kicked me out fifteen minutes into my shift. As I walk home, the pin on my name tag biting my leg from inside my pocket, I spot the billboard.
Hey student, a debt-free, happy life awaits you. Get a sugar daddy? It says in yellow characters captioning the picture of a young woman looking down to her right, where a gnarled hand touches her collarbone. The insecurity in the question mark unsettles me. Why not an exclamation mark, an infusion of confidence, a solution offered to those desperately looking for it?
We’ll put you in touch with one of our clients in a jiffy! Chirps the lady on the phone. An hour later I receive a call from a private number. The voice on the other side is a soft baritone, deep and warm like a knitted scarf.
I say I am not a student upfront, in case that’s a deal breaker, but he just murmurs never mind, never mind and chuckles like a doting grandfather from a 1960s sitcom.
We agree to meet for tea.
He arrives with a drooling bloodhound in tow. I don’t know many old people, so I can’t give him an age. Anything above sixty-five probably. Or more. Or less. I am not sure what age my parents would be now.
We have oolong tea and scones, he butters them for me. I wonder whether that’s what sugar daddy means; our first meeting is certainly high in carbohydrates.
They drive me home and wave goodbye, the old man and Pluto the dog beside him.
We could go to the Luna Park next time, he shouts as I walk away. I hear myself say yes, yes!
That night I dream of a large Hello Kitty Mylar balloon flying away from me, towards outer space.
In Coney Island, we have pink candy floss and I tell him about the last family, their quirks about food, how I stashed it under the bathroom sink in case they locked the cupboards.
Am I oversharing? I ask him on the Ferris wheel.
There’s candy floss in the sky! He replies. His eyes are shining.
On our third appointment, the old man offers to cook for me.
I climb the stairs to his apartment and as the door opens, I gasp. A giant Mickey Mouse is bobbing his head at me.
‘Hey everybody, it’s me! Do you want to come to my Club House?’ Mickey says, clapping his yellow-gloved hands. The old man is trapped inside, like a fly in a jar.
We have a Mickey lunch of hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog that we share with Pluto, then the old man shows me around his house. Every room has a theme: his bedroom is a triumph of Minnie Mouses and Mickeys holding hands, the spare bedroom is filled with Donald gadgets, and the bathroom is decorated with red ribbons and black mouse ears.
Do you like it? He asks, taking off his Mickey head. He’s red and sweaty underneath.
I say it’s extraordinary, which in a sense is true.
The old man has four children and eight grandchildren, but he hasn’t seen them in a decade. He can’t remember why. There’re many reasons and then none, he says, staring at his Mickey patent black shoes.
There never is one reason, I say.
There’s always one too many, he says.
We lie down on the Scrooge-themed carpet and stare at the ceiling, covered in glow-in-the-dark stars.
Will you find them when it’s time? He says.
He turns toward me and pulls down his collar. There’s a lump on the right side of his chest. A chemo port, he explains.
I say I will tell them about this place.
A few weeks after that, I find a new job at a bookshop. I still make almond lattes and soy cappuccinos for a living, but when there are no clients, I can leaf through the books.
The old man and Pluto come by every Wednesday and wait for my shift to end. I walk them home and sometimes bake a Grandma Duck apple pie for them. He doesn’t wear the Mickey costume anymore but he keeps a pair of ears by his bed.
One night the police call and say the old man is dead. The neighbors called 911 because of the putrid smell next door and they found him on his bed with Pluto at his feet, both looking like they had been asleep a very long time. He’d left my number beside the ears.
I wear his Mickey costume to the funeral. His children and grandchildren look like they’ve never tasted hot diggity dogs.
He loved you very much, I tell them through my Mickey grin.
Then I waddle away, towards the light outside.
Eleonora Balsano is an Italian-born writer living in Brussels, E. U. Her short fiction has appeared on Fictive Dream, Reflex Fiction, Bandit Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Retreat West, Twin Pies Lit and elsewhere. Eleonora is working on a novel and is represented by Zeitgeist Agency.
Tweets @norami. eleonorabalsano.net