Friday, June 10, 2011

I have spent years tracking down Antoine Melcher. The Melch, as he's known in the underground circles. We thought he was a rumor. A legend invented by snowballing whispers. A myth.

But here, this warm Friday, I sit across from him in the dingy light of an old diner, staring into the fluorescent light-reflecting puddles collected at the bottoms of his rheumy eyes. Each knuckle is the size of a ping pong ball, and when he holds his coffee mug between his wrists to slurp a mouthful, his fingers curl out in every direction like tree roots. I've tried to tuck my disgust for the elderly aside for just this meeting, but it's harder than I thought. What even are those fuzz patches? What even?

"I just want to know," I manage to say while choking back my gorge and looking down into my own cup of coffee. Rows of fluorescent tubes shine in the ripples of the opaque brown pool just as they do in his eye juices. He waits for me to finish, but more out of reluctance to gather the strength to speak rather than patience.

"I just want to know if it's true."

He doesn't move. The awkward silence makes me fidget. What is wrong with old people? Do they understand only their own suffering? Silently planning my suicide before the age of 40, I reach for my cup then pull away, imagining the dusty taste of his eyes in my mouth. He takes a long, piercing wheeze of a breath and, with concentration and fumbling claws, curls up a corner of his coat sleeve.

I lean to peer, terrified at what fresh hell of unfortunate skin saggage and fuzz patches lay up there. But what I see, what I see is described so clearly in all the myths passed down about The Melch, myths that have been as inspiring as they have been impossible: dozens, hundreds of temporary tattoos piled atop each other so thickly that the layer is practically another skin. The individual images of tattoos are lost in superimposition, but I swear I see at least one zebra on the underside of his wrist, lounging on a chair or perhaps a folded piece of gum meant to look like a chair, sipping from a rainbow glass.

"Yipes," I whisper.

"One for every pack," he says wetly. The first words he has spoken to me. A bit rude, really. I did pay for the slice of pie he gummed one mouthful of before pushing aside.

He then spends nearly five minutes trying to fish something out of his coat pocket. I finally reach across the table to try and help, but he coughs directly onto my hand. I draw it back in disgust, and when I look, it is splattered in rainbow specks of spittle. I immediately wipe it off on my lap but the rainbow is soaked into my skin.

"You have been marked," he tells me, having finally gotten the item out of his pocket. With much embarrassing effort he grabs both of my hands and presses it into my palms. God, his skin is like lukewarm paper. He smiles at me now, his lips and toothless gums stained a deep coffee brown from the decades of the mixing of food coloring, and I look down at the pack of Fruit Stripe gum I hold in my rainbow-mottled hands.

When I look up he has gone. That old magic bastard! I think, before I realize I had been having an episode brought on by extreme terror-disgust and had been sitting there for several minutes staring at the gum.

I turn to look out the window behind me and catch just a moment's glimpse of his coat disappearing down the street. He and the back of his rainbow-colored Rascal to me and his face to the wind.