Cliff knocked over his oversized coffee mug, saturating the newspaper he had just settled down to read. The black liquid soaked through the paper like maple syrup on a stack of flapjacks. He scudded to the bathroom to salvage the sopping mess with Frieda’s hairdryer.
With the wet newspaper draped over one arm like a maitre de, he used his other arm to fumble through the cabinets. Empty-handed, he resolved to peel apart each layer and let it dry naturally. Each page was thronged with creases and some of the print had bled through, stenciling it to the page beneath. It would probably be illegible by the time it dried, but he didn’t have time to get another one because he had to get ready for the retirement party that Frieda had wasted a whole month preparing for.
Cliff studied the stranger that stared back at him in the mirror. His once blond hair hung loosely on his head like a wad of bleached corn silk. His bald head, now peppered with liver spots, peeped through at the top like a sparrow egg. His lids hung over his eyes like a canopy, shading a sharp fluorescent blue light.
Frieda’s shrill voice shattered his concentration. “You bout finished primpin? The kids are waitin for us.”
Cliff yanked his favorite “festive” shirt off the hanger, a pale yellow Tommy Bahama button-down with palm leaves. The couple pulled up to Fresh Catch, his favorite seafood joint, in his cherry red Cadillac Deville, a gift his company gave him for selling his five thousandth car.
Frieda had reserved a private room, even though it was just the family, and decorated it herself. The fish nets on the wall were draped with a generous supply of paper streamers that hung limply in the air like shriveled black seaweed. The “kids,” Scott and Katy, were both seniors at Jackson State University. Scott was an English major; Katy was studying interior design.
“Happy Retirement!” the twins chimed in unison.
“Thank-ya, thank-ya.” Cliff bowed, flashing his white veneers like a row of piano keys.
“Y’all ready to order?” Cliff settled in, carefully avoiding the splinter jutting from the driftwood bench.
“Already taken care of; got two Fat Catch platters,” Frieda announced with sugary impudence, patting Cliff on the back.
Cliff’s smile collapsed, wondering if she would dice his food once it arrived to the table.
“Well, let’s open presents!” Katy suggested, moving a small parcel across the table.
Katy latched onto his hand before he could rip it open. “It’s vintage jacquard. Mom may want to re-use the paper.”
Shaking his head, Cliff cut a surgical slit with the knife from his silverware bundle. Probing through the aperture, he uncovered a colorful figurine.
“It’s a paper weight,” Katy answered her dad’s befuddled look.
Cliff stooped down to examine the monstrosity a little closer. It was a hunched over fossil of a man with draping, leathery skin. His knobby elbows protruded out, leading up to a clenched golf club. A gaping, toothless grin dominated his shrunken head.
“The golf club detaches and doubles as a highlighter,” Katy continued.
“Aahhh, thanks Katy-Bug,” Cliff uttered, relieved that it served some function.
Cliff quickly clawed through Scott’s wrapping paper, certain no one needed to salvage yesterday’s comic strip of Calvin and Hobbes.
“Now you have time to catch up on some reading,” suggested Scott.
Cliff stared at the title, unable to ignore the glaring parallel.
“Doesn’t the title kind of give away the ending, Son?” Cliff garbled through a mouthful of hush-guppies.
“Death of a Salesman is a classic, Dad. It’s the motif that makes it brilliant,” Scott asserted.
“I’m going to have to get a doggie bag,” Cliff changed the subject, rubbing his bulbous stomach.
“Nothing like Fresh Catch leftovers!” Katy rolled her eyes, kissing her dad goodbye.
“Sometimes I think it’s better the second time around,” Dad countered.
The ride back to the house was silent, except a rehashed interview session in which Frieda interrogated Cliff to determine if he had a good time, and Cliff agreed by nodding his head rigorously.
Cliff escaped to the bathroom, eager to assess the status of his newspaper. The evaporated coffee ruffled the edges of the paper, reminding him of the original Declaration of Independence. Cliff popped the top off his golf club highlighter. Looping a yellow halo around a blurb in the job classifieds, he smiled, thankful he had not thrown this paper away.
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