A typical fall day — ektachrome® blue sky (for those who recall film-based photography; anyone under forty won’t have a clue), crispness in the air like the first bite of a golden delicious, an excavated wardrobe of warmer wear stratified since the last spring thaw — Andy loped into the coffeehouse, joined the shortish line, placed an order for latté (without the affectations of “skim-goat’s-milk-decaf-no-foam” in a voice for others to acknowledge his discernment, thank you very much), left his credit card — “I’m waiting for someone, so add their order to my check, please” — and spied a table in the back left corner as the shop remained busy with late lunching.
Andy’s fashion statement today was neither average nor even median (remember he is a mathematician by vocation); his style, if you could name it, is casual neglect, which only reinforces the geeky stereotype of an actuary. Crouched at the table, chilly fingers wrapped about the cup (but more as a place to put them than as a source of warmth), his hands always seemed to belong nowhere or to someone else.
Parties of two, three, or four chatted, the conversational template of those who do this at least once a week. Andy was alone but not even remotely lonely, though it may have looked otherwise to anyone who noticed — which no one did. For this was a date, a border-line tryst (he hoped) with someone new at the office. After ten minutes passed, then twenty, hope morphed into melancholy.
Then, at his shoulder, there was someone, cup in hand, looking for a place to sit. “Please,” Andy found himself saying, “Sit here. I feel guilty hogging a table for four.” The guy sat down.
“Someone was supposed to meet me. Guess I’ve been stood up.”
“I’m Chuck, by the way. Do you mind if I take off my jacket?” he said, standing. “It’s stuffy in here.”
He was about six feet tall; chest somewhere between pecs and not-pecs, though you couldn’t tell which way they were tending. As he put the jacket on the back of the chair, Andy gaped. A pair of translucent wings unfolded from Chuck’s back, mosaics of iridescent brown and grey; more moth than butterfly. They emerged from parallel slits on the back of Chuck’s T-shirt — how did he put that on? — and, now fully unfurled, extended above his head and below the buttocks. A barista calling out an order broke Andy’s concentration; his eyes darted from side to side, wondering why he was the only person in a crowded restaurant surprised at the presence of a fairy. Yes, a stout six-foot male with late-in-the-day stubble, resembling a middle-aged biker, but nonetheless a fairy. He expected a guest appearance by Edmund Spencer or Rod Serling to make the appropriate introductions
“Don’t worry. No one but you can see my wings. To them I’m just another guy or they don’t notice at all. You know, that bothers me sometimes,” Chuck admitted. “I’m an S.E.P.: Somebody Else’s Problem,” explaining a bit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — which Andy had wanted to read but never got around to — where anything inexplicable gets that kind of response. “I could literally hover two feet off the floor and be ignored. You see me because I’m your case worker. Think of me as a fairy-god-brother.”
After an astonished “You’re my wha—?” the rest of the sentence lodged in Andy’s throat. “So do I get three wishes or something?”
“Hey! I’m not some damned genie. Besides, that m.o. was epic failure,” Chuck explained. “Nearly everyone blows the first two on the way to Number Three anyway. They generate a lot of bling but little long-term benefit. We’ll work together toward something lasting“, adding, “You O.K. with that?”
By now Chuck was sitting. His wings straddled the chair seat and reached well above his shoulders, glowing like Chartres as late afternoon sun reached the restaurant’s corner tables. Andy had a tough time not staring. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he apologized, “I haven’t seen a fairy since ‘Maleficent’ and you’re no Flora!” Then he studied Chuck’s steel grey eyes and the wings took second place.
In the following weeks, Andy didn’t see very much of Chuck but he heard plenty. Throughout the day, at the office or the market, in work and social settings of every sort, Chuck became a disembodied voice perched in the vicinity of Andy’s right ear — guiding, reminding, instructing, cajoling, exhorting, inquiring, sometimes laughing, but always limited to a short phrase or even a single word: Listen to his voice; he wants something. — She cares about you. — Why’d he say that? — Ask her advice. — Trust your instinct. — Smile! “It’s in the eyes,” he said later over coffee at what had become their table. Andy had to agree.
Progress wasn’t a straight-line graph, but gradually Andy learned to listen; to hear the discrepancy between what and how something is said. Body language, too. In time he gained confidence, read situations and exercised better judgment. Then one afternoon, back at the shop where it all began, it was Graduation Day.
“I don’t expect any kind of diploma or certificate but there is one thing I’d like to ask, if it’s not too personal.” “Sure,” Chuck smiled. “What’s that?” Andy was suddenly attentive to his coffee. “Could I kiss you once before you go?”
If you’ve never seen a fairy’s blush, it pales the Northern Lights; tangerine-pink washed across his cheeks and Chuck’s eyes surveyed the room for help. There was nothing in the instruction manual about a farewell kiss. But his panic, like snow on water, dissolved as they moved closer.
So did that pair of wings. Andy looked down to see if he was still standing on the floor, fully expecting to find them hovering those aforementioned two feet above it. What he saw, instead, was the pile of silvery dust that had been silky wings only moments before. And this time, other people did notice: strangers in their vicinity approved with smiles.
Later that night, Andy discovered an enormous tattoo on Chuck’s back where the fairy wings had been.
* “Hard Fairy” is a title borrowed from British composer Graham Fitkin, from a work for soprano saxophone and two pianos (which should be played at my memorial service, if there is one).