As a boy he loved to lick his own fingers. He stirred sugar into glasses of water and poured the mixture over his hands. It didn't take him long to discover a simple rule: the faster he moved his hand under the water, the sweeter his fingers tasted. As he poured, he experimented with new forms, flapping his hand like a pigeon's wing, trembling like the floor of his mother's station wagon, lapping his fingers like tongues over the heart of his palm. He learned to love watching himself. Licking, he discovered his hand: the crevices between fingers, the crust along his right thumbnail, the unhealed sore on his left wrist.
As a younger boy, he had swallowed great heaps of sugar fresh from the C&H bag. Although he dried his spoon on his shirt between dips, the sugar in the bag kept crusting over. His mother noticed, but he questioned her complaints. She let him eat candy bars. Was it the bag she worried about? Or having to wash all the spoons? They reached a compromise--he could scoop all the sugar he wanted, but he could only use one spoon--and once that spoon was tainted by spit or tap water, he couldn't dip it into the bag again. After some experimenting, he learned to scoop six or seven spoonfuls into a glass of water before starting to stir.
Watching him disturbed her--he was never satisfied. The spoon clinked bleakly against the glass. Water lapped onto the counter. "Drink it already," she begged. "I can't stand watching you." She learned to leave the kitchen each time he dragged the C&H bag out of its cabinet. From the living room, she'd hear the spoon clinking against the glass for half an hour at a time. After a while, she stopped noticing. Those 30 minutes, that was time she could use to talk on the phone, or, later, to steal away to her bedroom.
He grew to be a handsome man. Women were drawn to him. It was true he licked his lips frequently, but never carnivorously. Never as a threat. Still, the habit troubled them. His lovers began to notice tongues on every lip. Thick ones. Lumpy ones. Crusted ones that needed a good brush. How often did people really lick their lips? It was like blinking--they could overlook it a thousand times, but if they noticed it once they were doomed to see tongues flashing everywhere like neon signs. They no longer enjoyed tying their shoes or fastening their seat belts. On autumn days subway handrails and elevator walls looked slimy as snake skins. They took to wearing gloves. They bought Chapstick by the carton.
In bed he tapped his fingers lightly along their ribs, brushed his wrist against their knees, drew pinkie circles on their stomachs. The courtesy of his hands taught them something: other men didn't really touch, they grabbed. His tongue swept across their ankles, and, when they were ready, he knelt on the floor, hoisting their legs over his shoulders. There he was, where they wanted him to be. Down there most men were windshield wipers--they could vary speed but not direction. But he was artful, capable of changing speed, direction, emphasis, texture, shape, pattern.
There were no problems they could point to--no biting, no slurping, no issues of hygiene--but after a few minutes they became uncomfortable. They became convinced that as he slithered from side to side he was working his way deeper into them. They were a spiral staircase he was descending. They slid their fingers through his hair, checking on him. If they did not stop him, he would open them too wide. He would never stop.
They slid away, across the sheets, but wherever they led he followed. "Come up here where I can see you," they said. "You're missing all the fun." They pretended not to notice his disappointment.
Afterward, they felt guilty whenever they saw him. They couldn't figure out why. He always had to say it first. He wanted to break up.
The mothers didn't know what to do about the old man. He stacked his socks and shoes and wristwatch in the grass. He sat down in the sandbox. His weight had robbed him of his looks.
They tried to reason with him. They only needed the sandbox for an hour between noon dismissal and nap time. He covered his mouth with his hands. Behind his fingers, his jaws were moving. The mothers sat in their plastic lawn chairs, separating their children on the jungle gym from the old man in the sandbox. The children ducked between their legs to wave at him, and to make faces.
He loved the glittery sound of sand on his tongue. It was like radio static, a promise that hadn't been kept. He let it run through his fingers fist over fist, like a rope climber. The faster he poured, the louder it sounded. And he loved the crust that formed when the sand sponged up his spit. It sat on his tongue like a stone, pinning his tongue to the floor of his mouth. After a lifetime of following his tongue into trouble, this was a chance to sit still. A chance to see the sparrow sitting on the cement drinking fountain, the red scarves the mothers wore in wintertime, the tiny shoelaces on the children's feet. A chance finally to see past his own hands.
As the mothers became more comfortable, they stopped keeping such close watch on their children. Their fears about the old man seemed unfounded. He was as harmless as the swing set. He just sat there. One of the children raced through the line of mothers and tapped the old man on the head. Another dropped a leaf on his toes. The old man didn't blink, hardly even seemed to breathe. Soon all the children were playing in the sandbox, climbing up his back, leaping from his shoulders, poking his eyes. Won't see him tomorrow, the mothers said. But the next morning, there he was. The children treated him like the jungle gym, as something to be used but not poorly. The mothers envied his patience, his gentleness. They left candy bars and ham sandwiches by his shoes.
At the end of the day, when the children were gone, he coughed, he bent at the waist, he prodded the sand with his fingers until it dropped thickly through his lips. He loved hearing it plop down on the wooden planks. His throat ached all night, and cold water bruised him. But he could see. As he fastened his watch, he looked down. There was the sand he had just coughed up, a thick, brown thumb on the white wooden plank. There were brown stains along the board, remnants of other days. There were things inside him he had never suspected.
But he was greedy. The sand he poured in the morning wasn't enough. Afternoons, when the mothers turned their backs, he started sneaking quick fists of sand into his mouth. His ears hummed.
The mothers noticed their own children first. One of the boys vomited on the sidewalk; sand poured with snot from a girl's nose. All the children were swallowing it now. A few of them were coughing. He opened his mouth, to warn the mothers, but no words came out. One woman screamed when she saw the print on his tongue. The others screamed in sympathy before they even turned around. They grabbed their children by their elbows.
No one came to the park anymore. Even the bums thought it was too empty. The old man kept waiting. He kept pouring more sand. One day he poured too much. When he tried to cough, the rock on his tongue slid down his throat. Struggling to breathe, he kicked the plank he was sitting on. The pain was so bright he could not see the swing set, or the monkey bars, or his own footprints.
All his life he was searching for something sweet.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Emily Flake.