The Big Pants
Spin the Wheel
The Ad Said
The Blue Bird
Sometimes a visitor got onto the property, just as far as stepping over the ditch. The postman only stopped his car, and almost never did, only for bills.
It was not a mystery; people knew an old woman lived in the Lewis house, alone. They saw her, but rarely, when she would come out to sweep snow off her porch. The meter reader had not seen her ever, he told Ray. But old and alone himself, living at the bottom of the hill, making birdhouses and putting them on the lawn to sell, Ray told his daughter it was the kind of habit people got, something they did to keep up, when they did nothing else.
“Does she get food?” Mary Anne had asked, in a voice that allowed he was making Mrs. Lewis up.
“I see a white van go up that way. It’s not like I watch all the time.”
She swept her porch of snow, not leaves. Not acorns, and a heavy crop of these littered the steps. The lamp, seen through the front glass, came on at night. There was an armchair with its back to the window; now and then a figure moved, difficult to make out, but for the movement. The window had a fog of grime. The curtains were never pulled.
There was another thing, and few people knew about it. Those who knew would not have said they knew.
Ray had been up fairly often, in early years. He’d had success, bringing her a Christmas box, shooting a little breeze. Weather’s not too bad. Quiet holiday’s the best kind, ma’am. And good luck to you…happy new year.
His daughter had subscribed him to fruit, that he didn’t want, but the critters did, so every day Ray would bowl out a grapefruit or a pear, wait to see the raccoons sneak after it. But he had gone, as with the hat and scarf set, carrying the carton taped back up in its paper, filled with apples that had come soft, to knock on Mrs. Lewis’s door.
That last time, she had answered. “Oh, Ray, I haven’t got a thing!”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. It’s the season.”
He was pleased she knew him to be Ray. It was all right, Mrs. Lewis was all right…in the head, then… She could pass away, and there’d be no reason he had to be the one to find out. Her mister must have passed away.
“What you think she lives on?”
“Social security, I guess.”
And Ray took this as discretion, since the postman would know.
The big windstorm just Sunday had peeled back the tar paper that Ray, spending a summer’s worth of energy, had stapled up, hoping it would stop the leak. His porch he had constructed from plywood and decking ten years ago, and the job held up okay…only the bolts fixing it to the trailer didn’t hold, and the porch had fallen askew, a gap growing from earth to roof.
But he used the porch for a junk room, and the junk was all garbage he wouldn’t pay to have hauled. He had suspected the floor was going, but hadn’t known until the corner where ice built up slumped in.
Thoughts of winding down, because you had no money and no gumption left, made Ray peer up the hill. Whenever he passed the front window, the distance and a heavy growth of scrub made it hard, but Ray began to think he was seeing a limb down, a nest of black lines clawing over the gable. He thought she would probably not do anything about it.
Or…there would be two of them up there, and someone would find out after a while, and they’d knock at Ray’s door and say, “You’re the closest neighbor. You don’t mean you didn’t see anything?”
His daughter didn’t want him at home with her. Ray, also, if he was going to die, wanted to be here in his living room, sunk in his chair, watching a gospel show on TV, hearing the choir sing. He made up his mind he’d have to climb that hill. Call someone, if it looked bad.
He pictured, as the road steepened, flagging down the white van. A handy thing, if this were its day. Settle the question, if the driver was a home helper, tuck away that news for Mary Anne.
He thought he should have put on a hat…
No, let the people, whoever they were, deal with it. He could forget Mrs. Lewis, be glad at last that he could.
Wind gusted, yellow leaves fluttered down to a zigzag line, skirting the roadside. The clouds seemed wanting to spit a little rain. He reached the point where the angle of the hill, if he cut across the ditch, would be just as testing to his lung-power as to keep going, and turn where the old lady once had a drive.
Weeds and saplings had taken this over. He ought to tell easy enough, then, if van tracks had pressed into the tall grass, and he saw no sign of it. He didn’t like coming through this way, having to wedge round right next to the outhouse.
But getting to the porch through the yard meant looking out for gopher holes…it was chilly today…maybe not so much it would kill the mud daubers that had sealed the window sash with their nest, sandy columns all down between the glass and screen.
The glass grey over the kitchen sink, showing an oval of light from the parlor. He came to a standstill.
Looking at the little door, as ever just an inch or so cracked. He heard someone give a chuckle.
“You from down the hill.” The man used a tree branch to swing himself, coming up over the rise of the slope behind the privy.
“That’s right, I knowed ya.”
“You’re one of those…” Ray cast an arm towards the Spaulding property, not remembering the name that might be this stranger’s. A rail fence edged where the hill dipped into Spaulding’s hollow. When the farmhouse had renters, there had been a pony, Ray always seeing it hang its head, sag the barbed wire, stretch its nose to browse the other side.
“Yeah, I come back.” He gave Ray his hand. “My name’s Joshua. I got a little camper trailer I put up where they tore the house down. I don’t know what they was thinkin. They was gettin rent for it.”
“Bee in the bonnet.”
“That sign been up every time I come past for a couple years now. You ever see anyone out to look?”
“Nope,” Ray said.
Joshua grinned. He and Ray both laughed. Joshua smacked Ray on the shoulder, guiding him, shooting a look at the outhouse as they shuffled by. Once they got past the split limb, and the roots knuckling bare ground under the oak tree, there was room enough to tread up the porch steps.
“You here to look in on Mrs. Lewis?”
Ray thought he’d leave the job to Joshua, if the Spauldings’ squatter said he was.
“Looked in through the glass a couple times, and she ain’t anyplace I can see. But you and me go on inside now.”
Their shoes cracked acorn shells, Joshua’s high-tops leading Ray’s sneakers. Joshua grabbed the rusting handle, and with another grin, swung open the screen. The front knob was tortoiseshell porcelain, didn’t even catch, the lock an inside bolt, as Ray knew from those few times he’d set foot in her living room.
“Just puttin my head in.”
But just to say this to Ray, he held back. Then Joshua twisted the knob and unstuck the door from the carpeting it snagged on.
Letting his new friend do the yelling, Ray slipped in too. The room had a chill, faded into the blue sofa, the rust rug, the shiny drapes open on their traverse rod. A smell. Of old smells settled together…some cellar to it, and frying oil, dirty bathroom and wood smoke, perfume or the sweet odors they put in dish soap and toilet paper.
“Hey, ma’am, Mrs. Lewis!” Ray tapped the bedroom door.
“You let me check that bedroom,” Joshua said. “See if she got a basement. Could’ve took a fall.”
Ray stepped into the kitchen. He inched to have a look… Though she lay there, between the red metal cabinet under the sink, and the metal-legged table with the red top. He eyed the window, bending slow to his knees. The table and counter had dead wasps all over.
Her housecoat was heaving, taut on fat round shoulders; she breathed as an old person breathes, labored in unconsciousness.
“Nothing to do with that branch,” Joshua said. “Broke out a window, but the rug was dry. I can get a couple panes of glass, replace that…barn down there got lots of old junk. Clean up.” He laughed. “Clean up all them.”
Something came pattering down over Ray’s back. Joshua crunched foot-to-foot past the sink, walking on insect shells, and crouched to look Ray in the face.
“Come on. We can get her in that bed.”
Ray had a nice wireless phone, from Mary Anne, and hadn’t brought it with him. He never remembered the battery, and had to charge it anytime he wanted to make a call.
“Need an ambulance,” he said.
“I’m gonna get the heavy end, and you get the legs.”
At this, if he had been in some way contending with Joshua, he gave in. They turned her, to carry her face up, and she gagged out a stream of spit. She coughed as they hefted her round the stove. She did not come to.
The closet was standing open…probably it had been. Ray saw that Mrs. Lewis kept blankets stacked on the shelves inside. They lowered her to the corded spread.
She had no phone of her own that Ray could see, nothing much on the bedstand but religious pamphlets and a lamp with a fissured brown shade. Noise caught his ear, a motor zooming loud and quieting, axles banging over ruts. It got closer, closer, then cut off.
“Joshua!” A woman shouted.
“Just get in here!” he shouted back.
Ray let Mrs. Lewis’s head sink on the second pillow they had propped her against, murmuring to one another half-sentences of advice.
“Breathe a little better that way.”
“Get them dentures.”
It was true. In her fall, her upper plate had loosened. Her exhalations, forced around it, sounded unwell. Neither man wanted to reach in.
They heard the spring of the screen door whinge, the woman call out, “No, goddamn, don’t you even!” She came to stand in the bedroom doorway. Ray could hear children yipping in the yard.
“You let em out the van? Keep em away from that privy.”
“Josh, is that her?”
He snorted that she’d ask, beckoned the woman to change places with Ray, steering Ray by the shoulder again, back from the bed.
“You don’t have to worry, now. You go on home, if you want.”
“I didn’t look,” Ray said, “out in the living room, to see if she’s got a phone.” He wasn’t harping. He just wanted to know. “Or, if that van drives okay…”
“Drives good. But old Mrs. Lewis don’t need any hospital. Tamera’s gonna look after her. You get me, Ray. Say they wanna put her in a home. Be kind of a problem. Cause of that out back.”
He jerked his head.
There had been a time when Ray, bringing a space heater of Mary Anne’s that he’d thought Mrs. Lewis might use more, had got no answer to his knock. He had taken a little stroll. He had meant to try pounding the kitchen door. But you get curious, passing by an old-time privy, wondering what it looks like inside…
She was at his back, saying, “Ray, what you want?”
It had been normal after that, her thanking him. Him showing her what the buttons did.
“At least the power’s on.” Tamera’s voice was coming from the kitchen. “I’m gonna boil some water. Lindy, get in here! I got a chore for you.”
Joshua’s spouse came into the living room, holding a dust mop. Ray hadn’t meant to stand wandering like that, ruminating. He put his hand on the tortoiseshell knob.
“You folks come down the hill if you need anything.”
By Christmastime, the side of the camper trailer blocked the outhouse mostly from sight. Ray had seen his neighbor carry up a number of things from the Spaulding barn—bricks and lumber, three windows…all broken, but enough good glass to fix up a whole one. Joshua always, after that first day, coming and going. The van came and went, Tamera and the kids, into town and back. Ray, bringing his ladder, helped with one or two jobs. They had fit a pipe to the chimney for a new woodstove; after the first deep freeze, Ray had knocked wasps’ nests from under the eaves, while Joshua put up gutters.
They had allowed him to look in on Mrs. Lewis.
Tamera had her sitting up in a chair, and when the bedroom door swung back, she was slumped there, asleep. But she lifted her head, and gave Ray a black-eyed stare.
Less to eat turkey and more for the new satellite dish, Ray joined the family at Thanksgiving, not seeing her this time. The bedroom door was closed. If nobody got to use that room, it made for a snug house. Out here was a sleeper-sofa pushed opposite the old sofa, shelves with toys and kids’ books, an ironing board, a beanbag chair, the TV and the new woodstove.
Ray had the impression, from the pride and delight Lindy and Eric took in folding out and repacking the sleeper, that it was their own bed.
“How’s the old lady?” he bent down to whisper.
That brought giggles.
Today he would spend the twenty-five dollars Tamera had given him for the Sam’s Club card, his daughter’s gift. Worth fifty…but what did he have to buy himself for fifty dollars? He rode to town in the van, these days, when Tamera did her shopping. He had bought stockings, prefilled with candy and crayons, and a couple jigsaw puzzles they had at the grocery store, for the kids. They had a lot of stuff at the grocery Ray hadn’t expected. Tee shirts and socks, Christian books, decorations, toasters, pots and pans. Everything he was used to buying was at the crossroads gas station he could ride his bike to.
The postman had asked, handing Ray a red envelope sealed with a foil sticker: “Old Mrs. Lewis got renters?”
Ray lied, a little. He wasn’t sure why. “Relatives. She’s still living up there, but they’re taking care of her.”
It was dusk, and they were getting ready to drive into town, up and down the hills, to look at the Christmas lights. Ray had been sent out back with the keys. Tamera was hunting coats; Joshua, his wallet. The van sat chugging, almost failing, coming steady again, heater going full blast. There was a moment, and the white winter sun hadn’t vanished. Ray shuffled up to the privy door. A fly was buzzing here, even in the cold. The crack was a little wider.
Nothing to stop him pushing it open.
But something did. Some sense that he would not be wiser, for knowing more about his new neighbors than was good.
He went back, and got in the death seat, next to the driver’s.
The Big Pants
“Someone has got a watch.”
They all knew it. Two, in point of fact, green as well as blue light bumping from the floor, modest hemispheres glowing where the exercise demanded pitch dark. The lights rose, converged, shed themselves on Toby’s face; apologetic voices came murmuring from the whiteboard area, where Toby could be made out, sitting on his stool.
“No, no,” he said. “Well”—louder, he was addressing them all—“that spoils things. But it’s all right.”
He got rid of the watches, and it was then very dark. Tom touched knees with someone to his right. He was hating this…something had always been weird to him about touching people. He had spent most of his life never doing it. Soon Toby was going to say, “Everyone hold hands.”
Toby was rustling out there.
Yesterday, Tom had been commanded to his feet in front of twenty others. Two eighty-three…he had squeaked the number onto the whiteboard, and put his name next to it. That was not so bad. Perry was 508. Well, he really, manifestly, was.
“No judgment, no judgment,” Toby kept saying it. Tom was not judging. Maybe Perry, held back by his oxygen tank, had the easier gig.
Coming to the cafeteria from the morning hike, Tom had been a little concerned to find breakfast a buffet. He had gone on a diet once that was all portion control, little packages of pretzels and cookies. Stuff you could stand to eat, but no discipline. A handful of days later, he found he had crunched through a hundred dollars’ worth of stuff he could have got store-bought for a few bucks. Here were boiled eggs, fruit salad, almond milk smoothies…but seconds, thirds…couldn’t you overdo eggs? Wouldn’t four pieces of toast with organic fruit puree still be a lot?
“That would be,” he told Jackie, who sat opposite and had spilled his orange juice, knocking her tray against his, “four hundred calories, maybe more like five.”
“What?” She was splitting her egg with a fork. “No, why should it? Maybe I won’t have an egg then.”
“And what have they got against coffee, I wanna know? No, I’m talking about, if you had four pieces of toast. You could.”
“But you know, it’s the setpoint. You’re supposed to find it.”
They had got this far along. He would not normally have lit into conversation with a woman. In a bar, he couldn’t have done it. Toby Messerman, who charged four thousand eight hundred and sixty-three dollars for a seven-day retreat, might yet offer a bargain.
They were—although right away Tom had learned the rules, sincere in trying (because he would like to make friends) to keep his language in accordance with Toby’s directives—fat, every one of them. He was fairly certain, to judge…no, to gauge, by the sound of breathing, that he was holding hands with two men. Toby would have language for this occasion too…but Tom could coach himself.
“Grow up,” he said, under his own breath.
“Can we truly feel ourselves equal to all beings, faceless, disembodied, communicating via mind alone, all our worth measured in spirit and intellect? I can’t see your faces. I suspect you are somewhat abashed.”
Toby asked them why this was so.
“Because…” Tom found complete darkness had tampered, for one thing, with that self-consciousness that would have kept him from thinking aloud.
“Um…intellect.” He meant nothing by this. But Toby, with enthusiasm, said again, “Yes, yes!”
“Um. That’s all I got.”
He heard Jackie’s voice. “I guess, you would feel sort of okay, just being stupid…or being rude to other people, even. Because, I mean, when you’re fat, everyone is rude to you. They treat you like you’re stupid. But…intellect…”
“I want to thank you for that,” Toby took her up briskly. “This is all very productive. You’ve got to the point at once. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Having no shell to scuttle back into? You find it challenging, this idea of being anyone’s—everyone’s—intellectual equal?”
Toby’s next act was to make certain of their faces, however hidden from scrutiny, coming over abashed. “I will tap one of you to begin. Envision yourself wholly empowered, no longer the prisoner of other people’s opinions. Become that physical ideal you seek, the you that you have joined our fellowship to find. As of this moment, you are empowered to achieve your life’s passion.”
Tom saw where this was going. He groaned, hunched his shoulders, and bowed his head, stopping his ears against the embarrassment of auditing someone else’s. He hoped that if he must be tapped, he would be tapped last…after braver subjects had given him the trend of things.
Fingers came to rest for an instant on the back of his neck.
He was second. How, Tom wondered, could Toby get around in the dark without kicking anyone…maybe he took secret pleasure in kicking people…
“And why not…?”
Toby finished his dialogue with John, whose passion was “helping kids”. A youth camp. John would have to buy a piece of land somewhere. He ran out of steam, mumbling about crowd funding.
“Please?” Toby said.
“Uh,” Tom answered. “I kinda wanna have one of those pictures…you know. Like when I can get into a thirty-two waist. Put on the jeans I’m wearing now. Like on my Facebook page. A big pants picture.”
“Yes. Tom, is it? We do, in fact, post our success stories on our own website.”
This was dismissal. Toby rustled. He found Luisa.
“Toby, I want a good place to live. Right now I live in a trailer. I mean the kind that pops up into a tent. Five of us, my husband and my daughter and my two grandchildren, even though we only have to sleep there. Most of the time I’m at my job, and Leon is at his, and Manuela…”
“Well. Luisa. I think we have gone a bit astray.” Toby fell silent.
The silence went on. Tom, feeling this suspension to be what it seemed, a penance, and the fault considered his, asked himself if he had a passion.
“My family,” Luisa said. “They are my passion.”
Jackie was having a number of unworthy feelings. She had caught herself a moment ago, standing by, waiting for Luisa, realizing she expected Luisa to take the lead. She didn’t know what Luisa did for a living.
“Now, I suppose,” Luisa asked her, “we each pick from one of the cages?”
Latch hooks were holding the lids tight.
“Do you get deer?” Jackie had asked this of Toby, when, sparing a minute, he had trotted down to direct them.
“Ah. Why the cage? I’ll tell you.”
But saying so, he went off, seeing Perry come through the double doors supported by the arms of Gerda Messerman and one of the Messerman sons, equally tall and muscular. Jackie found herself bending over lettuces.
Of all things, lettuces made a puzzle. Tomatoes, peppers…carrots or beans… Those you could pick only one way.
“Leaves? Or should I root out the whole head?”
“I can’t do it.”
Luisa straightened from her own cage, planted in beets, on the greens of which she had tried an exploratory tug. She rubbed her fingertips against her tee shirt. “I don’t have gloves.”
They were far down the slope of Toby’s garden. Or the Community’s garden, they were to think of it. Helping his wife settle Perry on a bench, Toby stood at the hilltop, shading his eyes, under the corrugated shadow of the compound’s Teaching Center.
His words, now the women had paused all movement, came to them from on high.
“Clear cut…where was I? Yes. Within a year’s time, what had been our woodland grove would sprout again. Nature is very efficient that way; but you would see no more of the lady’s slippers, the trilliums, the hart’s tongue ferns…”
Gerda mowed across the ferns. “So, the same with antibiotics. You have killed off everything that ought to be there, in the gut…and something else will grow in its place. Junk.”
“Most people,” Toby said, “have it backwards. As you see, Perry. You have to restore your health before you will ever lose weight, rather than lose weight to restore your health.”
Luisa stared up. Tom, trug over his arm, came to stand with them, third in line. Sixteen other conscripted laborers downed tools and rose, drawn onto the grid of crushed stone.
(Local stone, not to unbalance the soil’s mineral profile. Some irresponsible people will put down pine straw or bark mulch, Toby had told them. “Burns like tinder. Which, of course, it is.”)
“You hear?” Luisa whispered.
Tom laughed, and Jackie saw something eager light his eye. He was going to make a wisecrack.
“Toby’s wonderful, isn’t he?”
Making her voice hushed, if not awed, she moved to block. Jackie had an indiscreet question for Luisa. Whether or not she liked Tom…by and large she did…she couldn’t laugh along with him. Not at Toby’s expense.
Toby took courteous leave of Perry. Gerda was already down the steps. She spoke, in her ringing exercise instructor’s voice, many paces before coming close enough to join them.
“I am going to surprise you. I think you see that I am lean and fit?”
“How many calories do I eat each day? Let me tell you. Three thousand. Yes, three thousand! That is five hundred above what is meant to be the limit. So the experts would say I will gain a pound every week. Now I have something to say to you about the body. Why does the body make fat?”
John answered, from the other side of the cages. “So we don’t starve to death. And I think maybe it regulates temperature, too.”
“Now,” Gerda said, “if you were thirsty, and you drank a teaspoon of water, that would not help your thirst. If you had another teaspoon of water, it would not help. Suppose you could not drink at all, for hydration, but could only eat. There is water in bread, for example. How much bread would you eat, if all your water had to be got that way?”
Her audience murmured among themselves.
“Two thirds of my food is raw. This takes great energy to digest. So that my metabolism will not lose power, I eat four ounces of protein, and have a shake each day made from avocado, almond milk, frozen tea cubes. I will teach it to you, when we’re in the kitchen this afternoon. But you see, that if you needed potassium, or if you needed selenium, and you could gain only a very minute dose at a time, your body would crave—like a thirst—all the food it could take in, until you had got enough.”
“However.” Toby strolled to stand next to his wife. “For the supermarket shopper, or the restaurant diner, getting enough may be impossible. Jackie…you had asked about the cages. Yes, the plant kingdom is most susceptible, more so even than ourselves, to microwave sickness. The air around us, even as we stand here, teems with radio transmissions, from across the spectrum of frequencies, and from every direction. And these, of course, are radiation. The invisible assault is terribly unhealthy.”
It made sense. Even about the time he’d had his third ear infection, stuff was out there, some public debate about overtreatment. Perry had been a fat kid by the sixth grade, not just chubby, like his Mom said, but to his own mind gross…struggling on stairs, goggled at with exasperation by adults, who seemed to think he could work harder. At something.
Maybe it had been the amoxicillin. Maybe he starved for trace elements ground into pepperoni sausage, some mineral in a cow’s fodder that could find its way into a bacon cheeseburger. Maybe he was stuffing his face when the answer was just a pill.
But that was being hard on himself, which his sister had told him to stop doing. He had been eating a lot of oatmeal, trying to fill up on it; this latest endeavor just before the Sunday he’d called her and told her he was going to swallow a bottle of ibuprofen. Perry could laugh about it now, a little. He had a lot of medications to choose from.
He had researched it on the internet, begun to wonder if a bottle would be enough for a man of his weight. Or whether he hadn’t been taking way too much to begin with. Ironic. But the misery was real, the reason he hadn’t thought it through. His nephew, he figured, found him an embarrassment, and if it seemed tempting to join in with a peer group, to laugh and keep secrets, he couldn’t blame the kid.
Telling Uncle Perry had been an act of heroism, not deserving of punishment.
Face red and half turned away, Jason got the words out. “There’s some people, who are like, stalking you. They take vids…um…you know, like when they see you out someplace, and… So like, they send an alert, they invite people to watch you…getting out of the van, or whatever.”
The impact hadn’t landed all at once. For a few days, he hadn’t needed to go anyplace, and Perry from long habit did his shopping at the earliest hour. The Walmart parking lot at seven a.m. was sparsely filled; he could get his van into a handicapped space, and taking the time it took, clamber out. Which was the tough part, to exit on the passenger side without holding up traffic—and yielded not-always-predictable results. The van was modified with a bench seat, well back from the steering wheel, pedal extensions. He had a stepstool with rubber grips, and a cane he used, because it was hard otherwise to get leverage.
Of the two evils, there was no lesser. He could buy a few items, turn up shopping twice a week, imagine someone’s saying (it wasn’t much to imagine a thing often heard): “Fat dude’s back!”
Or buy two or three weeks’ worth at once. “Check out that shitload of pizzas!” There was a laugh, a snigger, that went with these comments, and Perry had come to know this, too.
So he was familiar with this particular devil.
But he had never had such a sense of himself, as viewed through a camera lens…he had felt anonymous, going about his business, absorbed in the job at hand. Sometimes in dry, cool weather, he might leave by the carport, through the special door, down the concrete ramp, and if he didn’t feel his asthma likely to kick up, walk without the tank to the end of the block and home…exercise being good for you…
Thinking, since he never saw anyone in these early morning hours, that no one saw him. He had prided himself, even, on the bullying’s being a lesson, that had gifted him with a better understanding of what a person could suffer in this world—and that if he hadn’t known these things, what would he be, after all?
Maybe also a bully.
But he had always had his house as a haven, and could shut the door when he preferred being alone.
His nephew’s information had given Perry a sense of being under the eyeball, and raised a scary possibility. For these people, cruelty wasn’t mere opportunism—it was activism, obsession. A thing they sought when they weren’t getting any. And if there were people like that, Perry knew himself vulnerable, horribly vulnerable.
Yet the call hadn’t been, as the armchair psychologist would have it, a cry for help. He was asking Debbie to advise him on a decision. What you would want with anything that might have consequences you hadn’t thought of—
Fresh eyes. If his sister had told him, “Never mind ibuprofen. I’ve got something better…”
Paul Messerman, sharing Perry’s bench and busy with his Chromebook, took the smile as an invitation.
“Hey, you okay for a while?”
Perry turned up the palm of a hand. “Listen, if you’ve got stuff to do…”
No, he could’ve gone either direction. Debbie had started coming by daily. Jason had not come…and this was easier all around. At the end of a month, Deb had told him about Toby Messerman. She was emailing back and forth with Gerda.
“You have to look at their website. They have so much stuff. And you won’t need to fly…it’s a few miles from Sonoma.”
Yeah, life…it’s all stuff, Perry told himself.
The Messermans had bagged a big one. They were charitable on price. A five hundred pounder’s before-and-afters should give great publicity value. He felt cynical about this…what was seven days? But he would be the soul of loyalty if they succeeded; delighted, if at length dropping three hundred pounds by the Messerman Method, to let Toby and Gerda use his image.
“Luisa, you said…”
Jackie froze, and Luisa, without much to go on, smiled and gave a prompting nod.
“You said you live in a camper.”
“Well, we do. It’s funny.”
She was going to explain this, how it was funny, but Jackie rushed on. “But, I mean…I’m sorry…it’s kind of expensive, this place. Isn’t it?”
Luisa meant, yes, it is expensive; but no, don’t be so anxious. The question did not offend her. No, she told Jackie, she had paid the full price. She had used her own money. If the Messermans gave discounts to needy cases—they might—Luisa had not asked, and couldn’t say.
They were all gone from picking vegetables to gathering eggs. The chickens roamed too under wire mesh, with a coop for roosting, a generous yard, and unmown “mixed herbaceous groundcover”, in which to forage for insects.
“Healthy chickens…healthy meat and eggs. More than that. You may laugh, if I tell you that a chicken has an intelligence, and that she, like any of us, unfulfilled, unchallenged, bored, stressed by the conflict between her ancestral urges and her imprisoning limitations… Our chicken’s gut will digest poorly. Her hormonal state chemically will be one of crisis. This will not feed us well.”
Toby also had told them they would find the work peaceful, inside the Faraday cage, and that it was—unpressured humans interacting with quiet-minded chickens, both species content and purpose-oriented—a beautiful thing.
“Eggs,” he said, holding one up. “And very small portions of meat. Never red.”
Yes, it was a beautiful thing. Toby Messerman was a genius; Luisa had known it from the first, when she’d heard him on the radio.
There was a woman named Belinda, who complained. She called their quarters a barracks. “If they’d asked another thousand or so for a private room…they have private rooms… This boot camp crap is just an exercise.”
“But,” Jackie said.
“But I signed up for it? Fuck that.”
The lights were out. The Messermans, opposed to every sort of interference with nature, did not flank their compound with security lighting. Yet the dormitory was not pitch… Jackie remarked on this. Luisa had expected it. Now and again, to keep from being fined, or, disastrously, having their home impounded, Leon would move their camper well outside the city.
In an uncertain voice, Jackie probed on, tackling Belinda’s finances as she had Luisa’s. “I guess…maybe…if you could afford a private room…”
No one spoke.
“But Gerda said it’s important for us to have our routines shaken up…”
Jackie mumbled something further, after a second abortive tack, on snacking habits. Belinda continued single-minded.
“They locked up our phones! We’re only allowed to make calls from the office! I mean, you don’t call that boot camp? I’ll never fall asleep. I wish I could at least check my mail.”
“Oh, shut up,” someone else said.
Luisa then told her thoughts over to herself. She was waiting to give Jackie the rest of her answer…about the funny ways of circumstance. Her job was full-time, and permanent, for what that meant. Her daughter also, as a casual, worked at Pacifica Terrace. Because of the children, Manuela could not be on call at all times, and got from her supervisor a number of sly put-downs, to make her feel bad for not taking midnights and holidays.
“Don’t accept it,” Luisa told her daughter.
Leon got insurance for those times he was cutting brush, and crossed fingers the rest of the time. The children and her daughter needed adding to her own…and that was a lot of money from her paycheck. Luisa cleared a little above seventeen hundred a month. She tried to put at least four into savings.
So it was, that if any place close to Pacifica Terrace had been a possibility for renting, her family would suffer, having found a place to settle. Manuela would have to enroll the children in a school. Which Luisa wanted done, very much…but without a doubt, this made for expense after expense.
The problem with rent was not whether you could afford it, whether you could save enough deposit money to secure a nice apartment, not that alone… Gambling on a roof overhead, you could sacrifice all you’d put by. If I lost my job, Luisa thought, or if—she touched her crucifix—Leon had an accident, the money would just leach away.
And if you had to find yet another place to live…well, maybe there would be no place you could hope to pay for. Having sold the pop-up, they would be left with the car.
So they camped. But that, as she’d told Toby, was not so bad if you were only sleeping. They ate at Carl’s Jr, Krispy Kreme, Denny’s, anyplace with pizza. They took the kids to libraries, parks, shopping malls. She and Leon figured, with their savings, to find a cheap little house. They might try Oregon…California was too much. They would pay cash, do the fix-ups themselves. Luisa was confident of this, that nursing assistants were needed everywhere.
“But, Jackie,” she whispered. She wanted to tell, and it would be good for the others to hear, even if she disturbed them a little, what a good husband she had. “Leon said to me, it’s the future you save money for, and if you get sick, there is no future.”
“Now, what you think about dating?”
Absentminded, Jackie had been on the verge of giving Tom a considered answer. There was no reason she could think of not to. Date. She hadn’t been divorced before… Maybe, by a premature launch, people really did get shocked. It occurred to her he was feeling her out. Or asking her out. She might have just managed a lukewarm acceptance.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “Maybe it’s not much of a thing for you.”
Or an unintended insult. “No, Tom…”
“My problem is, I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a skinny girl. Like that, I mean. At a bar, say. Or, you know, you get invited to a wedding.”
They had a free period, three to four-thirty, just before kitchen duty. There was nothing to do but walk the grounds; and being exercise, this didn’t count as free, exactly. The compound had no television. The computers were in the classroom. They ate no supper, because a long fast at the end of the day accelerated weight loss, and reset, by Gerda’s estimation, the hormonal cycle. Lights out was the time darkness fell. Reveille, the crack of dawn.
They took a morning lecture at attention, accomplishing, Toby said, two tasks at once. “Time is precious. One ought always to think in these terms.”
“Yes, to stand properly correctly positions the hips and shoulders, straightens the spine, allows the abdominal organs to uncompress. You will breathe more deeply, and your liver and kidneys will clear toxins from your body with more efficiency. This is an exercise you can do for ten minutes every day.”
They did…and Gerda’s dictum persuaded Jackie. She felt empowered (a little), standing tall, and her neck had stopped hurting. Paul Messerman also had them align in two squadrons, as he called these. He had taught them a simple command, to pivot right or left at the sound of a whistle, in columns to make for the cafeteria and breakfast.
Belinda had decamped. She had gone with a threat of legal action—unwarranted, Jackie thought. Toby hadn’t said he wouldn’t refund a portion of her money. Maybe the inmates (she caught herself using Belinda’s word) were accomplishing the Messermans’ farm and household labor, but Jackie found the week doing for her what Toby and Gerda claimed to offer—breaking her routines, teaching her what to eat and how to cook it. Or mostly how to lay it on the plate raw.
As to insults, this came to her slowly, while Tom talked on, about a friend baiting him with a promised hook-up, and then…
“He lames out, you know? He’s like, c’mon, ask one of the bridesmaids. Yeah, free comedy show, fat guy dancing.”
He thought this colleague, not so much a pal, wanted less his company than his fifty bucks in the honeymoon pot.
Jackie began to think Tom was asking her opinion—if she understood him—on what he ought to say to the sort of girl he’d like to date. The skinny sort. It was their last day, and she was back to socializing with Tom.
She was not on the moral high ground.
Her lawyer, taking a sideways approach to it, had let her know he was disappointed. “Well, there are other ways of getting that information, but if you’d happened to back up those files…”
“I don’t know what that means, backing up files.”
She faced him down, when of course he was her ally, not her enemy. And Jackie did know what he meant…or anyway, knew how to Google. She wouldn’t call Brendan the enemy, either. But her lawyer would like it if she considered their relationship adversarial.
She had come to Toby Messerman thinking that a thirty-six-year-old fat woman, who had never had a job outside her husband’s studio, needed to get sleek. Not that Jackie wasn’t encouraged seeing people of size sass back…but she thought in real life the competition wouldn’t bear it. Brendan as sole authority on her skills, her only reference, might tell a caller (insert chuckle, faintly incredulous), “Sure, why not give her a try?”
Or dig a little deeper, pull out that plum of damning faint praise: “It’s not that she doesn’t work hard. She just needs more experience.”
She needed to make contacts of her own.
But poking her nose in other people’s business had taught Jackie that with few exceptions (and Belinda notably hadn’t warmed up to her), they were all…not poor, but struggling. Most had scrounged to pay for their stay. It seemed unlikely to her now the Messermans would, out of pity, discount the fee, return part in cash…although this would come in almost heartbreakingly handy. She had used three cards to pay for this week, months ago a done deal, and too bad for Brendan…
But too bad for Jackie, of course. He would gain from this sneaking of hers, in haggling delays, point-outable faults in her character.
So how long did it really take to lose sixty pounds, her settle-for-it, size ten ambition? But eighty, getting down to a six? A six, good God, she could hardly picture herself…
Gerda said be slow, concentrate on habits, not calories; on the life you lead, not the clothes you wear. “Because the only way evolution understands fat, is as a mechanism to perpetuate survival. You have so many more of these cells in your body than a slim person, and the cells, by design, hormonally control your behavior. And so you see, to win, you have to starve them without their suspecting.”
The Messermans were good, but to carry on with their program…
Maybe it wouldn’t be possible. Jackie wasn’t in charge of her life right now. She had begged a spare bedroom from her sister, who resented (and the conversation needn’t take place, Jen had a way already with everyday remarks: “Jackie, I hate to bother you when you’re watching TV; Jackie…oh, well, I guess we can keep the door shut if you’re not making your bed…”) that rent could be only a promise.
She had to find a job. Her scheme, her justification for Jen, had depended on her meeting people, gaining their empathy, having a common experience to override the lack of positive reviews, simply making herself liked by…
By the celebrities she’d fantasized about.
Tom seemed to like her. But Tom lived at his parents’ house in Pasadena. He said he was a debt collector. He told her he wanted to get out of it.
Well, he had got her agreeing with him on Doug’s black shirt and navy tie combo. If women liked that hipster/gangster thing, Tom would add his boss’s style points to his thin-guy list. But he hadn’t believed in it.
“Another thing I don’t believe…”
He saw Jackie wander off, before he was done talking. Down in the valley some co-op, in conjunction with the Messerman compound, farmed rows of shining greenery in cages; that radio-free veg the Messermans sold to their clients, along with the online courses. A flag flew next to a pole barn, in and out of which workers in black tees wheeled carts loaded with crates of produce. The flag had a tree of life design, tangled roots and branches forming continent-shaped gaps, the globular whole flanked by the letters EF.
Cool, Tom thought. He thought also that there was—he itched to get to his phone—something about that EF. Something he’d heard…a little negative.
The other thing he didn’t believe (the point lingered, so he finished the conversation with himself) was that, once at home, he would stick for even a day with the Messerman Method. The website’s promise tantalized—you could eat more, they said, not less. There was a secret to weight loss that had nothing to do with counting calories.
He didn’t know if being thin could be so rewarding you’d just maybe buy yourself a new shirt, stop for a sip at a water bar, check your reflection along the way… Find all that worthwhile, fair compensation, while you starved to death. But he knew that to be miserable and still fat was the dealbreaker. It had been with every diet Tom had tried so far.
He did not feel unconvinced of the Messermans’ rightness; he no longer suspected the Method too good to be true. Yes, he could swallow it, hook, line, and sinker, now…
Now they’d gone all in, weaned from their first two days’ “transitional” meals. He believed it with a wholehearted lack of commitment. He was not going to get up four hours before he needed to start work. He was not going to eat a 1200 calorie breakfast of nothing but raw fruits and vegetables (easier going, if, like the Messermans, you spent most of your day outdoors). He was not going to do this again, to the tune of 800 calories, at lunchtime, end with a protein smoothie and a piece of chicken, or a boiled egg, rigorously fast afterwards from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
He was going to get himself, tomorrow, a cheeseburger, some curly fries, maybe a milkshake. And coffee.
Jake and Paul were walking Perry down by the chicken house. Putting it like that was probably uncharitable. Jackie, Tom thought, would call me on it. She thinks I’m the obnoxious guy.
Well, I am…
I always end up being. Why is that? No, I’m jealous… Jealous of Perry, who’s ten times worse off than me.
He reconsidered. Maybe, in some ways, Perry wasn’t. He had his own place. He worked in customer service, sitting home taking help desk calls for three or four companies. I gotta ask Perry, Tom counselled himself, how much he’s making.
He saw Luisa was with them, too. All day, the Messermans had been pulling a few of the twenty aside, asking for a private talk. Being what he was, a telephone goon, Tom’s first accounting for this had been rubber checks. But the chosen were going around beaming, and smugly.
“Hey, John,” he called out.
John strolled over, eyebrow raised.
“What’s that EF?”
Tom said this for an opener, pointing at the flag. The habit was sort of ingrained—engage the other guy first, then hit him with the real question.
“Earth Fighters. Iffy, kind of paramilitary, tree huggers. You didn’t hear Toby say? Maybe you didn’t.”
Say what when? Tom thought, and answered himself. When the guy they didn’t really want around, wasn’t around.
“The Earth”—John was trying Toby’s accent—“is our mother. Ha!” He dropped the accent. “Probably mother with a capital M. Anyway, she needs soldiers to fight the battle. I don’t think he said it exactly that way. Something about recycling useful people. The ones who have been discarded by society.”
“Well then, what’s wrong with the people he doesn’t pick?”
“So…he didn’t pick you?”
“I don’t want anything to do with it.”
A chanting group came jogging, in what looked like formation, over the rise of the hill…well, not group, Tom thought…a couple squadrons, I guess. He looked askance at Paul. Paul squinted back, and giving Perry his arm, veered off with him towards the main compound building. Tom and John edged from the path, making the way clear.
These men and women were not yet thin, but seemed ultra-fit. Their leader was a stranger to Tom, and wore the same black uniform as his…uh…
He asked the question aloud.
“We are the puma. The earth belongs to us. We are the whale. We are the timber wolf. We are the cave bat. We are the honeybee. We are the sky, the forest, and the sea.”
The chant faded. Jackie and Luisa walked up.
“Fighters.” It was Jake Messerman, remaining with them, who answered. “I don’t think you’re ready, Tom, but ask yourself…what do I call giving my all? Can I do it? Do I think there’s enough at stake?”
Tom looked at Luisa. “You?”
Her face, not smug, struck him as enlightened, maybe…something like that. But she shook her head.
“I think Leon will say yes.”
Jackie gave Tom an embarrassed smile. “I haven’t made up my mind.”
So what—he tried it—do I call giving my all?
His dad might have asked him the same thing. “If you hate your crap job, Tombo, what’re you doing? You’re living here free, why don’t you get a degree in something? Why can’t you learn a trade?”
Get a student loan. Tom’s heart went out to the people he talked to, guilting them, as coached by Doug’s tip sheet: “You think it’s fair, ma’am? You were made a deal in good faith, weren’t you? And you’re not holding up your end. Are you? Would you call what you’re doing right? Wouldn’t you feel better if you gave just a little? How about fifty a month?”
Those were a lot of questions. Jake’s. His dad’s. The script’s. Had he ever tried seriously to answer them?
“Okay, listen, don’t tell me I’m not ready. I know what’s at stake. It’s all gonna collapse around us one day, right? The planet’s at the tipping point, and when you tip, you fall. Yeah, I know that.”
Tom said other things, with a kind of passion he hadn’t suspected himself of, and Paul, coming back down the path, Gerda and Toby, following their son, completed the circle.
“You’re confined to this place. You, and one relative. Spouse, kid, sibling.”
The speaker prompted. He spotted examples in the crowd, and pointed. And each of those he pointed to, three or four among a group of reporters, off-duty sheriff’s deputies, and protestors, laughed…by this self-conscious laughter, becoming vaguely united.
“You get four square miles to forage and hunt. That’s your territory. Altogether the woods can sustain ten people. Five separate clans. Of two!” He made a comic lunge, pivoting on his stick at the end of the semicircle he’d been pacing. Two girls in shorts collided with each other, backing away.
“There might be other human beings in the world, but you don’t know anything about them. You venture to the edge of the woods, and the landscape you see is scary. Alien, confusing. Now, except if you were starving, or you got the short stick in a turf war with the other humans, or the woods itself disappeared…a fire, say… You’d never try leaving. You’d never search for any other home. It wouldn’t occur to you, it wouldn’t cross your mind, that there could be other people, living other places. So how vulnerable is the human population in our little patch?”
Someone asked a question. It came out in parts, with a crooked elbow and a hand palm-out, that rose and fell.
“You’re thinking of mice,” he said.
“Mice and toads.” She turned to Laurel. “What are they called?”
Laurel gave her sister a face of bewilderment, exaggerated on purpose. Why did Rachel think she would know this? Today, Laurel had been briefed for the first time by Duffet.
“The Eastern Whitefoot. Mouse, right? Course the American toad could work for what we’re talking about… But it’s not really endangered. Ask Amanda.”
Amanda shook her head and frowned.
“But the Saw-whet owl, for example. We count two breeding pairs. The Black-backed woodpecker. Habitat here could sustain a population. Never seen one. How about Frazey’s checkerspot? Butterflies can do surprising things.” He paused, and most of them nodded, but no one asked, “What surprising things?”
He finished, not ready to discuss the checkerspot. “But you have the right idea, Laurel.”
Well, I didn’t say it, she thought. It was her name Duffet remembered, not her voice. He had locked his eyes on hers.
“Some of them,” she gave him, “can never really leave this place.”
Not good. She was clustered off with two other women, Rachel and the Bog Ranger. But why, Laurel thought, am I being sarcastic? Amanda’s got nothing to do with sides. Park officer, then. Amanda was in uniform and unable, without cause, to climb the fence onto the Jenkins property. Laurel supposed a ranger could pursue; had even a duty to keep the suspect in sight, if any of Penfold’s people committed an offense inside the preserve.
No one knew where Duffet camped at night. He was a legend, like Bigfoot…often reported, never verified. Most of the Boggies (Laurel supposed she could now call herself one) came out to rally only by daylight. The Jenkinses, owners of a pharmacy in town, not well-to-do, not even militant, except that they were outraged by the Boggies’ contentions, had been driven to patrol their land with shotguns. They had escalated the trouble in a frightening way, by accepting help; help they probably—their better selves—didn’t want. The Free Landers’ camp was conspicuous, a ring of Broncos and Cherokees, defiant bonfires burning through the night. And music, that visitors to the bog had complained about.
If Penfold culled Jenkins Woods, built a road and changed the drainage pattern, grinding up the topsoil and opening the canopy, it would change the bog, its biome. There was a borderline of dry, mixed forest, and some of the rarest plants could be found only here. There was competing science.
Harry Penfold had furnished his own ecologist to speak at the press conference. The bog was not a pristine environment, Penfold’s man pointed out. Until the mid-eighties, it had been mined for peat. The bog was in a constant state of restoration, with only parts open to the public.
“…and you’ve got your plank walks cutting through, you have all the signage, guided tours, there’s a road, packed-in gravel, that the Bog Alliance uses to access the dam area. And they have to be coming and going all the time, checking pH levels in the flooded zones… They teach classes out here. My point is, this is not a natural area. Not in any true sense. Otherwise, you’d have nature taking its course, trees taking over. The volunteers have to go root those out. My point is, you people complain that Mr. Penfold, who has permission from the Jenkins family to log their land, will encroach on the bog—you imagine this will happen, you haven’t proved it—as though the Boggies weren’t encroaching, as though Fish and Wildlife wasn’t encroaching.”
He had got applause for this. One mayoral candidate was canvassing sympathy, playing capture the flag with the Free Landers, embracing property rights, galloping away from white supremacy. There would not otherwise have been a press conference. But the gathering afterwards had turned into a picnic/free-for-all.
Duffet began to wind up. He stopped to clear his throat, laughed, in a short-tempered way that made Laurel wary. Duffet’s reputation was mixed. He had been a tree-sitter in the forests of the Pacific northwest, served six months in jail and two years’ probation for repeatedly vandalizing chicken trucks, and his followers tried hard to view with tolerance that question of ‘normal’, with which the Jenkins supporters thwarted most of Duffet’s statements. Duffet was the leathery, sinewy, bearded exemplar of the man who lives alone in the woods.
But one might fairly say that with the Free Lander, he shared eighty percent of his genes.
“So if I start choking after a while, just ignore it.” He barked out another of his bitter laughs, and talked himself back to his lost place. “What I’m trying to say…what I’m trying to say… We got a preserve here, we got a refuge two counties over, we got a national forest upstate. Maybe a rock formation gets to be a national monument, maybe an estuary gets to be a bird sanctuary. Thing is…”
He moved his hands, groping after the thing. “The sundew. The sundew drops its seeds right where it blooms. A mouse, a deer, a crow, puts its foot down, foraging, and if it has someplace else to go, it carries the seed packed between its toes, and plants a sundew in some other bog. The crow might still have a chance, maybe the deer. The mouse is pretty much stuck at Rust Creek. And the other two, while they may range outside our bog, aren’t likely to make their way to some other bog. Rust Creek is one of only four protected boglands in the state.”
A woman and her husband, Tara and Dennis…Carpenter, was it?…maybe Carter…
Closed in on Duffet, Tara asking him a piercing question about habitat corridors. One or two in the group tarried at the fringe of their circle, offering over-conscientious nods as Duffet elaborated his point. The rest returned to the line of cars parked along the road, their right-hand wheels (some stubbornly left-hand, drawn up nose to nose) banked on the ditch.
Tara was a type, Laurel thought. People had these intense little exchanges about things they knew already, things they talked about and emailed about. As though to make an inventory of the group’s phrases, touch base on commitment: I say “habitat corridor” to you, you say “tipping point” to me. Tara, introduced to Laurel, had shaken hands; she had thrust hers out first, but her eyes throughout this formality sought escape.
Laurel had thought of a friendly remark. “I really liked that photo you posted, the sunset and the blackbirds…all the amber light and contrast…” She fell into meaningless praise-words: inspiring, beautiful…
Tara drifted off, making what seemed to Laurel a pretext of hailing Dennis, murmuring she had to tell him something. Am I teacher’s pet, Laurel thought, because I’ve been given an assignment? Where is this friction coming from?
She was to camp here for two nights, spend two days counting checkerspots.
“We’re past the egg-laying season, so it’s safe to pin them.”
This conversation, she had been having with Rachel before Duffet arrived, late for his talk.
“I don’t want to kill a butterfly.”
“You don’t have to.” She shook her head at Rachel’s open mouth. “No, I mean, I will kill them. You don’t have to.”
“Probably. But the Frazey’s is hard to identify. You know…” She tried this again. “There’s nothing dangerous, camping. I have a GPS…transponder, whatever… I have a phone. The Free Landers don’t come into the bog.”
They might, Laurel supposed. It was easier to envision Duffet stalking by moonlight. And Duffet the Wildman wasn’t dangerous, either. “If you’re not into it, you’ll be bored.”
“No, I can help. I said I would.”
“You’ll be sorry,” Laurel said.
The sad thing, maybe the ironic thing, was that at the heart of the bog, signal strength, phone reception, looked fine. Two towers could be seen, on not-so-distant hilltops, already—or always—lighted red. It was dusk, and with Amanda, Laurel and her sister were hiking a mile deep along the plank walkways. Soon they would beat their way over dry ground onto the slip, an elevation of sand and pebbles that had avalanched into the bog a century ago. Somehow 1920 hardly seemed so. In the days of canals, dredge taken from Rust Creek had grown into a man-made hill. They had forgotten its nature, the county fathers, while the mound with no bedrock grew a meadow. Picnickers had spread blankets. No one, luckily, had died. Now asters, goldenrod, waving grasses, these and others indifferent to topography, remained on the slip, sowing unwelcome seeds.
Bare spots exited the public zone, climbing through burdock, a young grove of sumac and black locust, to a leveled clearing, padlocked storage shed, portable toilet, and outdoor table, belonging to Fish and Wildlife. As for tenting, the women had their choice of any clearing on the slip.
“But,” Amanda began.
An awkward moment for the three of them, women failing to take the initiative, watching each other falter instead of hoisting gear. Amanda, of a younger generation, not owing Laurel her assistance, only her guidance, moved first. She grabbed the zippered tube of nylon. Rachel caught one handle of the cooler, Laurel the other, and the sisters lurched forward in the officer’s wake.
Amanda laid the tent on top of the table. They heard the clacking of its fiberglass exoskeleton. Her radio squawked two messages that Laurel heard only as static, and that Amanda ignored.
“You heard the weather report?” she asked.
“Um,” Rachel answered.
“There’s a twenty percent chance of a thunderstorm tonight. So you wanna go back to your car. You don’t wanna be out here in your tent. Out in the open.”
“If you get stuck, get away from your tent, and get rid of your pack. Look for lower ground, but stay away from water.”
A chime sounded from Laurel’s windbreaker. She pulled the phone from her pocket, tapped the screen. She had a new Twitter follower: Fuglee@lesdack69.
“It’s my stalker,” she told Rachel.
Rachel’s eyes shifted to Amanda, and her cheeks seemed to puff, a volume of words she would rather not say before a stranger gathering inside her mouth.
“You good?” Amanda asked.
“Night,” Laurel said.
“See you later,” Rachel said.
“Oh!” Amanda said. “By the way. Does that thing lock? We don’t have bears. But we could have a bear…you know, there are bears in the state…”
“It sort of snaps.” Laurel showed Amanda how the cooler fastened. Amanda said, “Okay, good luck.” She had been trying, since the first stars began to show above the dying sunset, to leave them. The sisters wanted her to go.
“Anyway,” Amanda said, “if you did see a bear, you shouldn’t try to scare it off. Just leave the cooler alone. Black bears almost never would bother anyone, though.”
“So… Thanks for helping. See you tomorrow!”
Laurel, cheery enough to release, as she hoped, Amanda’s conscience, stop her searching her mind for the next warning, and the one after, cut in with this.
Their names were signed to the terms of the permit. They had assumed all risk. And they would not be hit by lightning, mauled by a bear, assaulted by a Free Lander…these threats no likelier, during this window of exposure, than being killed by a meteorite, or abducted by organ harvesters.
“No! Don’t put your end down til I say!”
“What difference does it make? It’s a tent.”
Rachel stood angling her phone, right, left, moving it closer, farther. She was using a leveling app. “It’s raining, Laurel. You want your sleeping bag where the tent’s not sitting even?”
“Too bad we didn’t bring a shovel.”
She feared a hint—prickly as the two of them were together—of double meaning might have rung in this.
“Well, there’s no place the ground’ll be even,” Laurel amended.
“Listen.” Rachel threw her bedroll inside the flap, ducked in, and remained there. Laurel listened to raindrops, the fulsome plop they made against the hood of her windbreaker.
Rachel’s voice came out. “You should call the police on those people.”
Now Laurel heard a country singer, the crackle of an energy bar unwrapped. Her sister might do this…be on the phone, snack and play music, put busyness between them. The sojourn would end, and they would not have spent it together. Rachel was nervous, out of her element.
Laurel’s own phone played a snatch of rock organ.
“Laurel, hey! I can’t get my wife. She there?”
Rachel muttered, “Oh, Jesus!” Her hand came out. “You’re gonna trash that song.”
“No.” Laurel hunkered down, peered through the flap, saw by the light of the screen a space barely big enough for two short people to stretch out. More likely, draw up knees and face the walls, neither of them able to uncramp a leg without waking the other. She had bought the tent brand new, expecting to use it alone. The cooler was new. The windbreaker and hiking shoes were new.
“Why would you buy stuff?” Rachel had asked. Meaning, how can you spend money, when you haven’t got any?
Because this is the only thing I’ve done for ages, the only place I’ve gone. I like spending money.
“No,” Laurel repeated, sighing and clambering in. “It’s okay.” She tugged her pack to the entry and unstrapped her own bedroll. “I love that song. I was sixteen or something, when it first came on the radio. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.”
“You better cancel your notifications.”
“Rachel, they don’t control me. I don’t change my life for them. And how could I call the police? Who are they? Maybe not Free Landers. It’s just these little spates they go through, inventing things, stupid name-calling that’s too cowardly to even be name-calling. The whole thing’s kind of train-wrecky, you know? They’re just giving themselves guilty knowledge. I’ll be in the nursing home one day, and they’ll still be out there, twitching whenever something reminds them. I mean, one of them might grow up and run for sheriff, or preach at a church, or something.”
“I don’t know what to think about you.”
“Then don’t. Don’t worry.”
She appreciated what Rachel was doing—what she thought she was doing—too much to start something sisterly, competitive and carping…
They were only half-related.
Laurel, eighteen (Nixon president, a laundry room’s black and white TV, the only available to watch), had let Rachel, five, camp out in her apartment. Laurel had been the adult, unassailable.
Now Rachel was the adult, her bossiness unrelenting after Debbie had died. She had told Laurel what to bring to the supper, what to wear to the service, what her stepmother had wanted her to have.
Laurel pictured her Dad, squirming in his recliner, digging out his penknife to slit the wax paper on a package of cinnamon grahams. The artificial tree, the white tinsel garland that smelled like old plastic bag, the fat green and orange bulbs. On the coffee table (blond varnish, rings scored deep) sat a tub of peanut butter, vanilla sandwich cookies; the last inch or two of fluff from Debbie’s marshmallow fudge, the fudge itself. Bottles of root beer…root beer, not everyday RC, for Christmas. Popcorn.
Laurel had kept her boots on…it seemed like sense if it was going to thunder, and they might have to head back to the car. In the space of half the tent’s floor, the stealth endeavor of freeing herself got out of hand in a hurry.
“Jesus, I’m not asleep. We’ve only been in here five minutes.”
For two or three minutes more Laurel was able to sit alone, outside on the cooler, thinking of poor Debbie, her Dad—and how the bog resembled a glowing bowl, so much light of civilization to be seen everywhere along the horizon. The rain had stopped.
Rachel’s head came out.
“Is that lightning? I think I saw it flash over there.”
“You wanna go sleep in the car? I mean…we would just have to stick to the path. I didn’t really notice how far we came in.”
“No. Hey, what?”
“Vanilla cookies and peanut butter. Graham crackers.”
“Oh, yeah, dipping em… That was Dad’s thing.”
It was how little they really knew each other. They had had these holidays…Laurel visiting, happy her Dad seemed settled in with Debbie, but bored in their house, miserably eager to leave them.
The house had caught a constant rise and fall of grinding motors and air sucking along the concrete barrier. Its acre was framed by a river so-called, shallower than Rust Creek, and a drainage ditch beside a gravel road. House, carport, and metal shed, hemmed in by woods.
Her Dad with his salt lick, the baby fawns that came right onto the patio.
Not having a car, Laurel had waited at her apartment for him to pick her up. Then waited for Christmas to end, sometimes walking the property, sometimes watching TV. She had played stuffed animals with Rachel. Giving them voices, hopping them around.
Debbie didn’t cook; she set things out from the refrigerator.
At twenty-five, Laurel had told her father: “I have stuff to do, Dad. Is it okay if I skip it?”
She hadn’t spent Christmas with them after that. She had sent cards, and for a while had still asked Debbie, “What do you guys need?”
Her stepmom would say: “Oh, hon, I got more doodads than I know what to do with.”
Rachel said: “You know, you should come over for Christmas. Or Thanksgiving, if you want. Maybe that’s easier.”
“What if I asked you to come over?”
The LED lantern put out its blue oval, not light enough to read faces by. The calculation behind this silence was…of course…
What kind of place does she live in, these days? Is it clean? Is she serious?
“We could potluck, Rach.”
Laurel wasn’t serious, or hadn’t been. But why not insist on this right, too? Rachel—from watching talk shows, she thought—around the time January resolutions would be featured—had decided they were sisters and ought to be better friends.
See more of each other. She had emailed this.
Laurel had emailed back that she was out of work, was drawing her retirement, and volunteering, to keep busy. She was volunteering…
To be seen by neighbors going in and out of her house, verifiably known to have friends. She was building an armor of normality. You needed that, when you were over sixty, and alone.
“I don’t want you buying a turkey, or getting started thinking your dishes aren’t good enough, or you need to get the carpets cleaned, or anything…”
“Too bad. I’d have gone for one of those mail-order hams.”
Rachel missed a beat. Then she laughed.
“No, you should come,” Laurel said.
“Well, okay. You mean Thanksgiving.”
“Bring Alex, if she’s home.”
“She won’t be. Jeff’s Mom could be. Visiting.”
Jeff’s mother had four grandchildren and two greats. The littlest lived with his niece in Las Vegas; but this was “close” to Rachel’s mother-in-law, flying up from Scottsdale. The toddler and the warmer climate received most of her attention—but when she visited east, she visited long. Laurel knew this from Rachel’s stories; outside Jeff, she had never met any of the family.
“She stays with us, and then she goes to Bren’s and so forth. I’d have to ask her.”
Bren… Laurel wasn’t sure who this was. Rachel, to read her voice, was ticked. Because the invitation itself was upending, or because Jeff’s mother set up camp in Rachel’s guest room and made declarations: “I brought my own mattress.” (She did. It inflated, theirs sitting for a month propped against the wall.) “I need the car Saturday. Give me your card so I can buy my food.” (The diets, and the ailments they were meant to cure…)
“So, email me when she gets there. It’s my job to invite her.”
“Hmm!” Rachel said. “That’s true.”
“I don’t care if she says no.”
“You and me.”
Laurel was about to say, “We should try to get some sleep.”
She was now hosting a dinner. She ought to run a plan through her head, drowsing. But a noise, that had been coming on in stealth, grew insistent enough to have a definite character. The character was of plodding feet.
“Oh, it’s not a bear!” Rachel said.
They heard it shuffle, halt, cough.
“It’s Laurel!” Laurel called out, hostessy already.
“Ladies! It’s Dana! Dana Jenkins.”
“Not that creepy guy,” Rachel said, low, not out of earshot. But she meant Duffet.
“Dana, are you alone?”
“Yes, ma’am. I wonder if you remember me?”
Laurel hadn’t seen Dana since high school, forty years past, and couldn’t recall his picture turning up on the Boggies’ website, or the local paper’s. He was probably fat and grey. He had probably seen her picture, since Duffet included this in the fanned array of team photos on the home page. She hadn’t liked Dana in school, and didn’t like in general people who had treated you as a punchline getting matey decades later with no acknowledgement.
But then again… “Why are you ‘ma’am-ing’ me, Dana?”
He grunted into the light of the lantern. “You sound like my wife.” He gave a nervous laugh.
“Why are you here?” Rachel said.
“Keeping an eye on things.”
“What things? This isn’t your land. Aren’t you breaking the law?”
They heard his coat sleeve swish, saw his arm rise against the sky, pointing.
“You know what it’s like out here when the moon’s full, and you’re camped up on the ridge? Everything lit up like a stadium. Unbelievable. You can watch deer go across. We used to see owls…one time maybe a coyote. Maybe not.”
He eased down, onto the seat of his pants, putting a palm on the cooler. “Think they’d let you have a little campfire out here?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Well, I’m not here to make trouble. Kind of cheerful, having a fire. We used to do hotdogs and marshmallows.”
“Uh huh. A cookout’s nice.”
Rachel, speaking softly to a crazy man and gripping her phone, was backing; she was behind Dana, standing and above his head, dipping hers like someone who searched for a big stick, or a rock.
Laurel said: “How’s your family, Dana? How’s the business?”
“And is that good or bad?”
“Good for the bank.”
She hadn’t heard this news. It came to her she’d stopped getting flyers from Jenkins. These had gone straight from the mailbox to recycling.
“But you’re logging,” Rachel said.
“Nope. We got held up on that.”
“Well, Jeff, my husband, thinks if the land belongs to you, it’s not right what those people… That Duffet…”
“You think so too,” Laurel said.
“I really don’t care. I just know what makes sense.”
“It doesn’t though. It’s like any kind of thing between neighbors. It’s like…you don’t want someone putting a bar next door to you, staying open til two am, drunks parked all over your street. But your street is zoned, so no one could do that.”
Dana said: “It’s not up to me, anyhow.”
She could have answered, “It’s up to the courts.” Laurel’s wish was not to convert Dana, but to move him along. “The woods are family property, in a sort of trust? Only…your brother doesn’t live here now.”
“Wouldn’t make any difference to Rocky. He thinks we’d plant walnuts or something, if Harry logged it out. Maybe lease the scrub around the bog for training exercises…”
“What, the Free Landers?”
She had bleated this, and Dana said, “No, the liability’s not worth it. Not to me, and I gotta have some say, since I’m the one handling things. Land doesn’t pay the way people get it in mind.”
“Laurel,” Rachel said, her voice with a calling-to-account edge, “I’m going to bed.”
Rachel had it in her to be inspired by Facebook memes that coached take risks, challenge yourself, and Laurel was proud of her sister for that…for being not too much in thrall to Jeff’s worldview, for keeping calm.
In respect of Dana…the two of them alone now.
“The strip on this side of the road is all you’d have to donate. Just don’t let Harry pollute the creek.”
He told her an irrelevancy, rather than hear this. “Rocky’s running a security business in Denver. From college, from high school, all he wanted was to get out there.”
“He doesn’t care, you mean, that you sold the business. But he’d care if you cut him out of the profits.”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“But you don’t care. About any of it? Anymore.”
Dana made a noise, a high-in-the-nostril snort. “I remember working the cash register. Up front of the store, not the pharmacy, summers. We put price stickers on everything. Ka-zing. Ka-zing.” In air, his hand worked the gadget. “Another job I did was pull stuff off the shelves when it expired. My dad was a son of a bitch for that. People were always messing up his shelves. So, my mom was working the counter and I brought her six boxes of Contac. I said what else does Dad want me to do? She was on the phone, she put up her hand, so I stood waiting. She had her bag open, sitting on the floor, under the counter. She was moving, pacing, you know? Writing something down. I saw her bump one of the boxes…it fell off into the bag. I didn’t say anything because I knew it was on purpose. I saw her knock another one in.”
My mother, Laurel thought, got in trouble with the neighbors for not making me go to school. When I went to live with my dad, I never caught up. You remember me, Dana.
Harry Penfold’s paneled office, the glass ashtray with the chipped corner…
Harry leaving his cigarette perched in a dimple, smoke wisping up in her face, while on the phone, cord stretching and compressing, he swiveled in his chair. She had gone after Harry at the start of all this, thinking herself well placed to speak to him about the bog.
She had dismayed him with her age.
“Laurel? Lil gal Laurel, got in my files?”
Drunk. Harry, she supposed, couldn’t think of himself as seventy-eight, so it amazed him the twenty-year-old he’d hired in ’76 was now sixty-one.
But Dana’s job story was leading to some other confidence.
“You know Harry?” he said.
“So you know Stonemill Market is empty. They got that off-road bike dealer, and they got that one restaurant.”
“I can’t think of the name,” she said, because he’d paused here. She could picture the metal grid inside the oval of the damaged sign.
“Uh. Who cares? No, I’m saying, if you drive by at night you see Harry…or you see his storefront, the open door at the back and the light coming out of the office. I don’t know why, it makes me think all of us are, the whole town is…condemned, in a way. I’m not saying this like I want to…”
“You mean poor Harry, sitting tight in his ruin, reminding everyone he perseveres, he sticks by his own—even if the rest of us won’t.”
“Yeah. That’s good. Guess you do know Harry. Just parked at his desk, is what I figure, getting tanked most nights. Locks up about nine o’clock and then he wants to talk to somebody. I’m there in my garage. It’s true…”
Dana’s clothes rustled with a shrug.
“I watch TV where I don’t get bothered. I got a twenty-seven-year-old kid home from college. My wife thinks I should suck it up and look for a job. Neighbors probably say, there’s fucked-up Dana, getting pissed. Not true.”
“You were in your garage and Harry came knocking.”
“He wanted to drive out this way. He told me to stop the car at the top of the hill. He got out, and I thought he was gonna puke or take a leak, and after I listened to about four or five songs on the radio, I got out too, and yelled for him.”
“And you’re saying…he’s just gone?”
“What you think, Laurel?”
It depended on whether Dana meant, what should I do? Or of Harry Penfold, what, really, did she think?
Here in the bowl, with civilization circling, the bark of a deer or the whinny of a screech owl were only ambient noises, competing with the slam of a car door, shouts that flared over dim music from the Free Landers’ camp, fire or emergency sirens carrying from the highway and filtering through pockets of housing along secondary roads.
Was it reasonable to call the sheriff so soon? Harry would turn up in a minute. Being drunk, he had probably taken his leak, then headed the wrong direction. Was there any reason not to approach the Free Landers and ask their help?
She was tempted. She would say, “You know who I am. Laurel Elbertson. One of the Boggies.”
Out of ten people, no matter how they traded garbage among themselves, only one or two could look you in the eye and spew hate at you. Of this, Laurel was fairly confident.
Shouts, suddenly, without the ragging note of a boy’s camp, where all the wind was on the first syllable—“Move it!”; “Shee-it, dumbass”—volleyed up, and these pitched opposite.
“Look out!” “Come on!”
Dana shoved himself up from the ground. Laurel pushed off the cooler. Above the hilltop a cloud was roiling, lit orange from beneath.
“God,” he said.
“Oh!” This was Rachel, emerging from the tent, ripping Velcro. “What’s on fire?”
Now, where the slump’s shadows had been inky, flame pulsed down a flickering movie-reel light, and it was the bog that grew submerged in blue.
“I don’t know what it can be,” Dana murmured. But he began to walk, then jog, down the plank way, making for the road.
“We’d better go,” Laurel said. “I don’t see how we can stay.”
He had tended to stick to his mother, a forty-nine-year-old reverted, with his doubts about Laurel, to dependent apron-stringing. But Jeff got over it. He quit mumbling asides to Rachel and found himself able to chat with his sister-in-law. Even to laugh apologetically when his mother said: “Laurel. Did you make this turkey?”
“It came from Mrs. Penfold.”
The news accounts had reminded Harry’s wife—a woman Laurel had met once or twice—of her existence. Their charity might be mutual. This might be the first holiday of her marriage Mrs. Penfold had an excuse to stop the rituals, cancel the heavy preparations.
Laurel had also invited Dana Jenkins and his wife; calling him, getting her. After sitting down to write a note, she had realized she didn’t know if the twenty-seven-year-old dropout was a son or daughter.
“Oh…I’ll have to see…we might stop by…”
“You really don’t have to. I just figured the more the merrier.”
Dana came on. “Laurel! How bout Christmas Eve, our place?”
It was amazing how people who might have a dog shaking clouds of dander into the household air…or conversely, coat every surface with Windex, worried about other people’s kitchens being clean enough. Laurel had scrubbed everything, dusted, vacuumed, boxed books and junk mail, pairs of shoes, research materials. Put everything in the garage. She had bought two pies at the grocery—not for preferring store-bought to homemade, even to spare labor—but to calm nerves, to say that she had.
“I didn’t bake these, sorry.”
“Seriously, don’t bring anything”, she had told her sister, and Rachel had brought stuffing, a sweet potato casserole, a big tin of mac and cheese. Jeff’s mother loaded her plate with these, maybe for her daughter-in-law’s sake. But she relaxed into turkey and gravy, and in the course of taking over the conversation, noshed through pie and sandwich cookies.
Harry Penfold, lit like a sparkler, staggering among the Free Landers, had found a crony, a man named Bill Krantz, with whom he shared a violent fantasy.
“Nah, I thought he was blowing off steam. Whenever he’d go get drunk, he’d talk like that, how we’d burn those Boggies out.”
“You mean,” the WRUS reporter asked, “Mr. Duffet?”
“He didn’t say that, any name, no.”
He might have said it. Duffet, eco-warrior, was practiced at evading authority. He lived in a pop-up camper, towed with his truck up a different back road every night. The tent and truck sported camouflage. The headlights of a passing vehicle might easily miss Duffet’s bivouac. But he stalked the bog close, sticking to the same few spots, getting into Jenkins Woods, using night-vision binoculars to spy on his enemies.
The Free Landers had circled back.
Bill Krantz told the reporters he hadn’t known it was missing. “I kept the can in the truck bed. It was for the cook stove.”
Duffet was working on emails, sheltered in double darkness. His siege mentality required that he drape a blanket over his head to blackout the light of the screen. For once in his life, the intruder had been real, creeping in stealth from the trees.
The sound came of kerosene glugging from a can, Duffet alert at once to the implications. Harry also, though he denied it, had muttered, going about his work, and when he struck the match, startled himself. Duffet heard a shriek, a curse, and a crashing retreat.
Flames leapt. He was trapped in a cloth-covered enclosure, in a ring of burning fuel.
But, for this attack (and a variety of others), Duffet was long prepared. The blanket was wool, organic and fire-resistant both. He wrapped himself in it, poured the contents of his canteen over his head, unzipped and burst, hitting the ground, rolling himself over and over, scuttling on his belly into cover, and crouching, waiting, until he heard the sheriff’s deputy say, “Is he in there? I can’t smell anything…like, you know…”
As far as Duffet knew, and as he explained it, the woods might have been swarming with Free Landers, waiting to finish the job.
The Free Landers took this indignantly.
“Nobody gave a goddamn about Duffet. Harry was just fool drunk. But he’s gotta answer for himself.”
“Now, I’ve got something for you.”
She wasn’t hurt seeing both faces, Rachel’s and Jeff’s, reflect some inner coaching. They were making tentative moves as a family. The vibes might weaken and die. Probably, they would.
“Don’t worry, it isn’t Boggie-prop.” She needed only to reach behind, to the little painted cabinet, Debbie’s legacy. “Maybe you don’t want it. Just a kind of souvenir.”
Not repelled, or faking it, Rachel said again, “Jeff, look at this!”
Laurel had gone back, the day after the fire, to dismantle the campsite…and seeing no reason not, she had stayed a few hours working. Rachel’s butterfly, pinned and framed, was not a Frazey’s checkerspot. They were too rare.
But it had spent its short life and would not mate again.
Spin the Wheel
If you don’t mind has to count as a question. By rights, you’d have to have a reason for minding… So then you’d have to know what was in it for you, or figure out if the other guy was setting you up.
Cause sometimes you get a foot in, doing a favor.
But try thinking all that without looking like you mind. I said, “Nah, go ahead. I’m listening.”
And that right there’s the thing. I feel like I got positioned.
Most times with these shows, they would hold a raffle. So whenever you got called out to fill a seat, you were not supposed to let on you were not, like, organic.
And you were really not supposed to play for prizes.
But it depended. If they walked up and down the rows with a bucket, you had to throw your ticket stub in. Delaney’s rule was you could eat the food, but you better hand over anything you won. His clients wanted the stuff back, so it’d be good for the next event.
I saw a lady I knew worked for Delaney…a colleague, I could say, cept his people got nothing to do with each other…put a little crimp in hers. She got called for an iPhone, and man, could she shriek!
So, I gotta figure, I’m not actor enough to play the bigtime. Why they didn’t teach me the crimp. This time, I should have said to the guy talking, who I didn’t otherwise know, what’s the game? I mean, why you want me to play? Even the idea some of us are more inside than others is a little weird. How come Delaney doesn’t ever wanna say, stick around for a while…
Come see me downtown?
I’d go wrong, though, I could work out that much, if I talked like I knew what was up, when I didn’t know what was up. I’d look like a spy.
So I said: “What’s your name?”
And I said, cause he wasn’t talking: “Oh, yeah?”
“Try it again.” He gave me the scenario the second time. He showed me what he had in his hand, a stick that was like the handle of a hammer, with a table-leg thing on the tip.
I mean like a rubber skid…
Maybe you don’t get me. But it was a stick.
“It’s real easy, chump. The money squares are all gonna show from behind, with the light shining through, bright red, easy. And if it slows down, looks like it might stop, you just nudge it along. Suspenseful. Everybody’s gonna go, ooooh-whoooah!”
He smacked his forehead, making this noise, acting it.
“And nobody sees me?”
“Don’t hop around too much.”
It was always like that, you couldn’t tell when someone was joking. How would they pull this kind of stunt, less they had it down already how to light the stage?
I ended up having to crouch low back of the wheel, wearing what Butch told me, black. Sweats, tee, shoes and socks. Cause as it turned out, they had these strobe lights either side…from sitting in the audience, you’d think the noise and lights was just a lotta razzmatazz.
They had four people to come up and play. There were yellow squares with prizes that were junk they were unloading anyhow. There were two loser squares, blue ones, and I was supposed to let a blue one go. I mean stop.
But not the red ones. Don’t let a red get by.
“Marie! It’s your moment of truth! Are you gonna keep the My-T-Kwik, or go for the big bucks?”
Marie told Butch she was going for the big bucks.
The first guy had not won anything, so he was out.
The second guy won frozen steaks, but he didn’t mind trading them, he said, for the big bucks, so he and Marie got to have a showdown if the last lady crapped out.
The wheel went fast, too many times for me to count, then it got slower…
Then it got really slow, and the red square came inching.
The thing that was messing me up was the audience hooting and carrying on, lit, I guess, on that hard seltzer tea they were drinking. That was on top of all the boom, boom, boom from the speakers. I felt like, if I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t move my hands. It was weird. And I had lights pulsing into my face from both sides.
Whooooah. Whooooah. Whooooah.
That’s how Butch had em going, the crowd, the wheel clacking past the arrow. So I got that nudge in maybe a second too late. A second isn’t much, but it must have looked like the wheel came to a full stop. And then it bumped ahead.
There were boos.
Butch said, “I see that happen all the time. C’mon, Marie. You’re up.”
And the audience started hooting again, right off. It couldn’t hit the red. But I wanted to be extra careful.
Marie gave it a big heave, and at the same time, I leaned in. Only, see, I was crouched down there for a while. One of my feet was asleep, and you know how it is, you don’t feel it til you move. So…far as I could tell, a couple things happened. The wheel rocked back on its stand (that was Marie), and I sort of fell against it.
In other words, it might have been okay, and I might have been okay, but coming together like that…
I mean, it’s hard for me to thread out just how the crash did happen. The cord on one of the strobe lights got yanked out of its extension. My feet ended up sticking out from under the wheel. Someone killed the music.
Butch said, “Who are you?”
Marie said, “Oh, my god!”
“I was just,” I said, when the guy with the steaks lifted the wheel off me, “trying to catch a rat.”
I had the stick in my hand. I shook it. “You know, I didn’t want it scurrying out there, scaring people.”
So Delaney said…
He was there the whole time, watching from behind the partition back of the food table, peeping out through the hinge.
“That was completely stupid. I mean, that was amazingly stupid. Butch is a pro, lucky for you. What would you have done if he hadn’t known what to say?”
Now, again, this is what I was complaining about. How is it my problem he picked me to do a job?
I said, “Yeah, Butch is a pro. Good thing.”
Delaney said, “But I like the rat. That was pretty okay, thinkin on your feet.”
He heard himself. He laughed about it for a while.
Then he said, “You gotta come to my office downtown.”
This is one of the bigger things, this teaching of lessons. We descend a hill, soon to stand among the cattails at the lip of the frog pond, with Andrée and Sam Magruder, a man who may be her father. Here is Leo Magruder’s daughter, coming down, holding out her phone in one balancing fist. Reddening mosquito fodder, she has something against long pants in the late spring, and much against concession, against investing herself in this outing, to dress for it. But jealousy makes her party to it. She wears rubber thongs with her white shorts, a bubblegum pink tee shirt. Her name is Melody.
She might be Andrée’s sister. The resemblance (vague, Andrée thinks) had caught the eye of Sam’s friend from the beach. Sam is telling Andrée, see there…hilltop’ll be leveled first, fill moved down here. Get rid of this. Pause. Bullfrogs plonk, toads trill. A dragonfly drones up fast, hovers near Andreé’s nose; Sam thwacks it with his fisherman’s hat. New drainway, carry the runoff down the culvert.
“But,” she says. She thinks he should make it easy, though she is stuck for an easy way to say this. If he owns the house, and is only going to sell it, he should let Mom buy it, even if she can’t. I mean, Andrée thinks, all this time he gave her nothing for me. Cheesy.
So, she was going to say, it’s kinda nice. A nice little pond. Segue to making her point from there.
“But how come…?” Melody says. Then starts over, calls him by his first name. She is his niece. “Sam, maybe the kids would like the pond.”
Your kids? Andrée thinks, and she asks aloud, “So you’re gonna buy the house?” This seems a bad thing to say, even had Andrée not let her voice air her suspicions. And she wouldn’t, a minute ago, have thought Melody was here for any reason, other than to vie for attention, to shove herself in front of the incomer. Something compressed in Melody’s face has made her cheeks puff. She’s angry; but thinking better of what she might have answered.
Sam is quiet, thinking of the joke he ought to make, wondering whether he can make it, or if a man can’t talk about that stuff now…thinking of his wife, her celebrity shows, the way she puts down other women when they feud.
He is released by the whumping of athletic soles on dry clay, the clink of ice in glass. They look up, to what they call the ridgetop, though the hill is modest enough. Andrée’s mother has lemonade. She raises the pitcher in her hand.
In the kitchen, iridescent lint on the black stovetop. Andrée’s mother says it only shows in the sun. In the sun, rings of grease around each knob also show, and the path of the wipe-down, satiny streaks from three fingers and a thumb on a paper towel. Not that it matters. Andrée will do this cursory job if her mother says to; otherwise, she cleans nothing, and her mother not much. The dirt is more standoff than habit.
Why should I―
And why should I, right back at you.
Sam gets inside the refrigerator and hunts a bottle of water. While he roots, rump up and head down, no one can pass that way. Andrée strides in by the side door, at the culmination of an exasperated little tussle, Melody slow and slower, Andrée at a standstill. Melody taking this half-courtesy as offense.
Andrée has gone first, shrugging at Leo’s daughter in passing. She thinks, I couldn’t say anything… What am I supposed to say?
After you, ma’am.
But knowing her way around the house, she soon has the upper hand. Melody must follow Andrée into the living room, single file through the passage, past the closet’s louver door, the toilet left, washer and dryer right.
Now Sam is no longer in the way.
Melody eyeballs the glasses that Andrée’s mother has been filling with lemonade. Rejected once, Karen pours on, lining them up. Andrée watches Leo’s daughter touch a finger to the stovetop…but not quite. She draws it back. She glances at the fiberboard étagère where Andrée and her mother get their plates, their coffee mugs, and cereal bowls. Andrée considers what Melody projects. But who cares? Dust is probably good for you. If you have a soft immune system, you get sick anyway.
She glides to the counter by the refrigerator, and takes two glasses, holds one out. “You want this? Melody.”
But her relative takes it. She thanks Andrée. She calls her Andrée, and not Andrea, as she used to, resistant to correction.
Melody says: “Sam, how many bedrooms does this place have?”
It does not yet occur to Andrée to bridle. The question seems oddly phrased, that’s all, as though Leo’s daughter and Sam had been in the middle of a conversation.
“What…” he says. “This place here?”
Sam aims a forefinger at the kitchen floor. He says the same thing: “You mean this little house here?”
He doesn’t say Karen’s house, because he has already purchased it from her. It has become property. But the understanding had been that the house would be demolished; that it affected the planned-for view…
That a 60s ranch with scalloped siding and a bad roof wasn’t…
Companionable, say. With the other side of the highway, Sam and Leo’s investment behind the noise wall.
“Two bedrooms,” says Andrée’s mother. “Just two.”
Melody puts something into her nod, an extra, theatrical, “I see, I see.”
Andrée begins to see.
Andrée already, to her mother’s chagrin, lives rent free. But she gets it, how Sam might need six months or a year, maybe more, to build his house. Leo has talked to her about inspectors. You do so much work, you wait for the inspector. Say Melody pays nine hundred rent. That’s what…fifty-four hundred, up? Save that, you could buy a car, for one. Andrée tries to catch her mother’s eye. Could Karen have missed this?
Well, too bad about the pond for the kiddies. Hope he bulldozes it tomorrow. She doesn’t really hope this. Andrée has always liked carrying her coffee out the sliding door, seeing deer and rabbits, now and then a hawk, or a coyote. She remembers how Leo scoffed. Coyotes! She is still indignant. They have pictures of them all the time, on the community bulletin board thing. Online.
“Sam,” Karen says, picking up from Melody this effect of echolocation. Her words bounce off Sam and Melody hears them. “Show her the bedrooms.”
This is good for Andrée as well, this shot, because Andrée hasn’t picked up since Buel came over Sunday afternoon. She has not made her bed… Not that she would. So, sure, have a look. She goes into the living room and switches on the TV.
She scans the channels for a comedy show, or a scary movie. These are the only things Andrée watches. And they’re kind of the same. She has never not laughed at a scary movie. This one, that she settles on, is called Snowfall. Title in frosty letters; O a skull. She’s seen it. The serial killer jeers at the ghost. Too bad. He plods the snow with his back to the camera, wearing the same buffalo plaid the creepy caretaker wears. Or vice versa. They both plod.
Andrée takes her thumb off the button and watches as the smart girl and the dumb girl, the panicky guy, the hero, the token black guy, get spooked by a nasty bang, bang, bang at the door. The hero volunteers to go check. He laughs, nervous.
“But it’s only the wind.”
She says this aloud, smiling. He latches the screen. The lamp blows out… Just as the hero’s eye falls on a trail of footprints across the porch. Andrée laughs now, in anticipation…because pretty soon the gang’ll hear the knocking again. This time, it’ll be the panicky guy. The heels of his shoes, swinging.
But that’s how it goes, Andrée thinks. Aren’t these clichés really punchlines? Aren’t you supposed to laugh?
Her mother comes in and sits beside her. She closes her mouth. She hates her mother doing this. She feels Karen looking at the glass on the table. The iced lemonade is sweating on a flyer of pizza coupons. Buel says businesses price things the way they want. “Dollar up, dollar down. Coupon is just to make you buy something you weren’t going to.”
But Andrée’s mother has plans to take advantage of every bargain; they have stacks of flyers in the magazine rack, expiring.
“Is that man dead?” Karen asks. And that’s the thing.
Andrée couldn’t even relate this story to Buel. So your mother asked, “Is that man dead?”
But…because I was laughing. Because she comes in and talks about things I’m doing as if I was part of some alien culture. She doesn’t understand. She’s interested, but baffled.
“I just turned on the TV,” Andrée says.
They are both distracted by voices outside the picture window.
“Get out of here.” This is Melody. What’s she talking about? The expression is Leo’s.
“What?” he says. “You can walk faster than two miles an hour.”
Andrée thinks maybe it is Leo. This is Leo’s argument… You don’t need a car to live out here, you’ve got the bus coming to the supermarket, over at the shopping center. And the shopping center’s only another mile from the foot of the road, where the highway crosses. If Andrée had a real job, she would take that walk twice a day.
By Leo’s calculation, it would cost her thirty minutes at the most.
Leo was her Grandpa. Only because he was an old man to Andrée, and because she had no other grandpa. And because, sometimes, he bought her ice cream. But as far as that went, it could have been Sam. Andrée and her mother have moved three times, from one manager’s unit to the next, in different buildings Leo owned. He likes her mother doing that job.
Karen understands Leo’s philosophy.
One day, catching Andrée home from school, Leo had taught her this, too…maybe by accident. The Palisades had a bike rack near the dumpsters. She was trying to walk the center rib like a balance beam.
“Kid! Get down from there!”
She jumped. He came round the side of his black car and opened the passenger door. A woman’s feet wearing sneakers swung to the asphalt. Leo left her to fend for herself.
“Cracking open their skulls this time of day… Is that Karen’s kid?”
“In the office.”
“Go see your mother. No…wait. Come on with us.”
He was selling the property. He rattled each unit’s knob, the woman following him (her tennis skirt and visor, Andrée thought, were like from one of those catalogs, with the electric scooters and inflatable pillows, that old lady tenants got) along the hallway from one concrete stairwell to the next.
“Every one of these is rented,” Leo told her.
Then, peering at Andrée: “They gotta sweep the rug. What’s that doing?”
He pointed to a ceiling panel, askew in its slot over the exit sign. Leo kicked away the door stop, a smashed pop can, put a hand on Andrée’s shoulder, guided her onto the landing—and shut the door in her face.
“Kid!” she heard him yell. “Is that locked?”
“Yeah,” she called out. Had he heard?
She twisted the knob back and forth. They were gone. Andrée shrugged, jogged down the stairs, came the opposite way to the parking lot. Leo at that moment was stepping the woman off the curb, his two hands touching her elbows.
“Karen has some kind of software she uses. I don’t know anything about it. You can get your numbers from her. Over that way. See the sign.”
The office was a garage-sized building on an island in the middle of the lot. The woman scooted ahead, looked over her shoulder, stepped up to the door, and looked over her shoulder again. Leo, hand hooked in a pocket, flapped just the fingers, saying without saying, “Get on.”
The office door opened and closed.
Leo was never polite to his prospects, and it never made much of a difference. That was part of his philosophy.
“Most people think this is a way to make money, property. Kid, I’ll tell you a secret. All I need to unload a place is get it rented.” He was walking away, down the incline, under the concrete arch, out to the sidewalk. He was speaking, and so Andrée supposed they were having a talk. This might be one of his grandfatherly days. She could hear in the neighborhood somewhere the jingle of an ice cream truck.
“Say, for the sake of argument—” Leo said. “I don’t mean the Palisades. Easy numbers.” He paused for a second or two. “Say twenty units, thousand a month. I’m gonna tell someone like Mrs. Chickering, over there”―he jerked his head towards the office―“you could pull in two forty grand a year, gross, with this place. Huge write-offs. Under ten years, it’s paid for, then it’s all gravy.”
“But it isn’t,” Andrée guessed.
“I said, could. If you want to be in the rental business, maybe so. I never tried it.”
The two of them strolled up the street, coming to a shaded corridor between two hacked-off curb maples and a yew hedge along the complex’s brick façade. The foliage trapped a strange, cold smell of storm drain and basement laundry, cigarette smoke, and softener sheets. Leo began to stretch his neck. He looked up the street like he was looking for his car, which made no sense.
“I ask you,” he said.
If he asked, Andrée would try to answer. She stepped back, hands on hips. “Gravy.”
“Twenty thousand. Ballpark figure. People think that’s money. You lose a tenant, you gotta fix the place up. You get water in the basement. Some kid graffities the arch…” He doffed his straw hat, and jabbed it behind him. This was true. The arch was well-coated with spray-paint. Andrée felt like Leo wanted her to rat on someone.
She had no friends in the Palisades. Maybe she would rat, for ice cream.
“Another thing to fix. Place looks like trash, you’re not gonna get a decent tenant. See how they can nickel and dime twenty grand outta you before you know it? It’s all pie in the sky, rentals. All the money I ever made in property was from turnover. I don’t keep a place two years. Two years,” Leo added, “would be a long time.”
And then, at the sunny corner ahead, she saw the ice cream truck pull up, into the prohibited space in front of the bus shelter. Two sat there inside the Plexiglas. Both stood. One was Leo.
Andrée had been twelve at the time. She had known Leo four years. Or thought she had.
“Hey, Sam,” he said.
Leo seemed to have imparted, on that day, all the wisdom he intended for Andrée. Leo in his khakis and blue shirt, oxford; his twin, khakis and broadcloth. One shirt lighter, one darker. Would it strike anyone…supposing you didn’t have the visual in front of you?
Not that Leo is mean. He is…chummy, maybe, rather than nice. He calls his accountant his “crunch guy”, and tells Karen he doesn’t want to know. But Sam is nice. A Mrs. Chickering might never notice the color of a shirt. She might blink, and ask herself, “Now, what was I thinking?” Maybe Sam and Leo don’t play this game to clinch a deal. Andrée has never seen the Magruder twins together since.
So maybe her mother has never piled on tenants for Leo, not bothering to vet them, so at those times he decides to sell a property, he can boast it’s full. Karen did buy this little house. And she should have known Leo’s game—pay it off, rent it, gravy. Then her boss, the book owner, came back with a different, not so great deal…
But Karen bought it, eight years ago, after Andrée had moved out of their apartment. She has been back under her mother’s roof for two years.
It seems to her Karen has chafed only since her last birthday, since she passed the age of twenty-five. As though a dropout who can’t hold a job must undergo some maturation approaching thirty, from roadblocked to hopeless.
They are not friends; but they are having an experience together, eavesdropping. Yesterday’s fight over the laundry makes Andrée reluctant to speak. She thinks the look on her mother’s face is not conciliatory; Karen still simmering with last night’s exasperation, just lukewarm after hours on the back burner. She is not so agog as Andrée over Melody’s scheming. The grumbliness she feels may encompass Leo’s daughter, but with a penetrating eye on Andrée, Karen is focusing the beam.
Saturday, Karen had asked if she had anything to wash, so Andrée scooped up everything from the foot of the bed, the chair back, the bathroom rug. Sunday, Karen had taken a carload of boxes to the new place.
So I was like, you want me to help, and she was like slo-o-o-w pause… And no, I can do this. That’s how she answered…
On the phone with Buel, Andrée riffled the basket of folded things. Tuning him out, she rummaged again. It was all jeans…one black sweater, navy towels, her black work pants.
She called Karen.
“What do you want when I’m driving?”
“Mom! Where is my shirt?”
Her mother muttered something. Andrée heard a squeal, the revving of an engine, then: “I am not washing a white shirt with a bunch of jeans. If you needed it, you should have got those sheets off your bed and run a load yourself.”
“Oh, who cares.”
Who cares, Andrée meant, about separating whites, Jesus. Besides, the shirt already has a couple of stains.
“All I mean is,” Andrée talked right past her mother, “if you told me, I could have done it. No problem. But you didn’t tell me!”
She is beginning to hate this job too.
“Y’absolutely. The girl’ll get you.”
Buel, talking to a customer. He roots in his pocket after the electronic lozenge Andrée saw him stuff there, playing with it, a second ago. He wrinkles his brow, purses his lips, moves his jaw sideways. Where did that key get to? When he’s finished kidding the customer, he will fake handing the key to Andrée, snatch his hand up over her head when she reaches for it. Wearing her unwashed polo, she has just got to the lot…but tries saying to the customer, “Blue Ford?”
“No.” He scratches his nose. “White.”
So…not a bad guess. Almost prescient. Which white Ford doesn’t matter; this type is easy to find. Some of the customers still use actual keys.
Her mother tells her: “So win the lottery! When you work, you have to do things you don’t like.” Karen can, and does, deal aphorisms with fluency and conviction. But Andrée’s mother spends her days in an office by herself.
“I hardly make enough to live on.”
So she says. She has taken a bedroom in a friend’s apartment, and told her daughter—like a warning—that she has to invest every dime from the house sale in her IRA.
Andrée, if Leo would have hired her when she’d asked, would do her mother’s job for half the pay. “Learning on the job, Leo.”
“Yeah, great. Who’s supposed to have time to teach you?”
She would almost work for half minimum wage, only to be alone and unharried, at times there was nothing to do.
Last job, she had to suck it up and go begging, to Hayden the head cashier. Hayden could be friendly in low gear, but on a dime shift to hyperreactive and vengeful… As when Andrée got her register locked, when a customer got shitty, wanting to pay for groceries with returned merchandise.
“You stand around like that, Andrée, I have to think I’m giving you too many hours.”
“Jonas!” Since the ass-manager had smacked her with her own name, she smacked back with his. “What do you want me to do?”
“When you run out of stuff, you need to ask someone.” Side nod to Hayden.
This was good. Jonas got paid more than the cashiers. What was up with this popping out of corners, hinting he was going to fire you…why not manage, then, if that was his job?
She could spend ten minutes dickering around with the Windex and the paper towels, cleaning the belt; she could go to her locker and say, “I’m just looking for my medication.” It was a good lie one of the other girls had taught her. No one wants to know what’s wrong with you.
Andrée thinks her mother would like her to embrace an ethic never really exercised by Karen herself. Karen’s career has been the result of her special relationship with Leo. Not that, as Andrée guesses, sticking to a sucking job, the way her mother would like her to, won’t in time gain you something to show for it. Maybe a raise, twenty more cents an hour. Andrée, helped by a gift card someone dropped on the floor, just bought herself a suede jacket, property she didn’t have last year. That’s getting ahead. She might get a house one day. (Though she doesn’t understand what good owning a house has done her mother.) She might even get an education.
A year ago, giving school the third go-around since leaving twelfth grade, she took out a student loan, and signed up for a certificate program in Office Administration. She did it for Leo, so next time she asked him for a job he couldn’t say: “Sure, when you get some experience. I don’t need a check-out girl.”
In the whole class there were no male students. Andrée exchanged a sheepish half-smile with another girl, acknowledging they’d be losers if they actually worked on their project, and both bent over their phones. At the end of the class, the teacher clapped his hands. “Okay, everyone.”
They all left.
Enough of that. She signed up for online units. She began to think you could do anything…or nothing…and when the school gave you a certificate you would just use it as currency.
“I know about office administration, because I got this. See?”
But Andrée doesn’t see why a miserable grind, years of it, makes the painstaking acquisition of things, even real estate, a substitute for life. And since last time at the store, she left the whole mess in the middle, walked out on him, Andrée thinks Jonas will not take her back again.
She had to park her mother’s car uptown for an interview, that ended up just a bunch of women in a room with plastic chairs along the wall, and kiosks, where you filled out a form and got your picture taken.
Picking up the car, she asked the guy in the booth, “Do you hire people?”
Maybe she phrased the question a little weirdly (her brain taxed by red asterisks, and the refrain: A required field is missing). He made a joke. “Yeah, we tried cats. Couldn’t see over the wheel.” He enjoyed his joke. He beckoned, as he chuckled, summoning from behind the fence―via a bleat over the loudspeaker―a slender, dark young man, who wore a white polo shirt, black pants, and a yellow vest.
The lot boss grinned sideways at Andrée. “Go for it, bud.” A sort of narration. When the employee faltered his way around the padlocked fence to reach the window, the guy tapped his wristwatch and yelled: “Lunch! Get the booth…right? LUNCH!” Again and again the staffer nodded; each time, he caught Andrée’s eye, as though she could tell him anything. Each time she nodded back.
“You come on with me,” the lot boss said. “I’m Buel.”
She guessed she was having lunch with Buel; and that she was paying her own share.
“You like kebobs, hummus, that kind of thing.”
Andrée, having nothing against kebobs, answered: “Sure.”
“Mom!” This was what she thought Buel had yelled out to the man in the apron. Another joke, she supposed. She shrugged…trying, while she was at it, to shrug his fingers off her shoulder. Buel kept nudging her forward. The owner, as Mom must be, offered his hand.
“Andrée,” she said. Then she got it. Buel had given her his one name; he was getting hers. He had asked her off the bat, as they strolled up the street, if she had a criminal record.
Had she ever been sued? (Jeez.) Did she pay taxes last year?
“Not paid them. I file. I always get a refund.” Maybe he would ask how much. This buffet/carryout place had been only a block from the lot, the walk a short one. Buel swung a chair to a bistro table by the window.
“Andy!” Nicknaming her. “So, you want a pita wrap? Lamb?”
“Chicken.” She hadn’t seen a menu. “Diet Coke.”
They ate, and when she got to the explanation, that there had been too much (she had not heard Buel utter a four-letter word)…too much junk, to put up with, at her old job, he swallowed the bite he was chewing, chugged his iced tea, and began his harangue.
“Exactly, exactly. You see how it is…are you gonna walk in someplace and say, give me whatever job you got pays the most? Like they would. Yeah, put me in senior management, right now. You know, you can make a hundred thousand a year, and still get social security? You ever make more than thirty, Andy?”
“Thirty!” She’d been about to say, ha! twenty—but Buel wasn’t really asking.
“So what happens when you retire? After the system keeps you down your whole life? I mean…if you were one of the privileged ones from the start, great for you. This is a government program that’s supposed to keep poor people from dying in a dumpster… The richer you are, the nicer handout you get. So it’s like, rich people, always nagging the poor about saving their money, right? How are you and me gonna save our money?
She opened her mouth. He went on.
“Then you wanna bitch on folks who have no chance to earn any more in their lives than they’re stuck with, for not buying into the Cadillac healthcare and the platinum IRA! Trust me, if you’re the designated loser, the world’s gonna make you lose.”
She walked with him back to the booth, liking him a little more…thinking too he was kind of a weirdo. He gave her an application form to fill out. He sat on his own stool. The only place for Andrée to sit was the wooden step under the door. She scribbled in the spaces, hunched over the clipboard, and Buel, when she handed it up to him, commented, “Porterville Road. You seen the little green house, right where Porterville comes out on thirty-two?”
The little green house, his, is a double-wide trucked to the lot and put up on a block foundation under a row of mature spruce, trees grown tall enough to have lost their lower branches. She stumbles from Buel’s gravel drive over layers of cones, some fresh and waxy, some old and rotting.
Sly, through the rolled-down window of her mother’s car, he had asked Andrée, “You gonna give me a ride home?” But Buel stayed in the driver’s seat, and Andrée ended up the passenger. At a wide spot, where a culvert crossed the ditch, and the turnoff was disguised by a stand of yucca, he swung in without a heads-up.
“Come on inside.”
She likes Buel for not cutting his grass, which habit to her mother would be a red flag. As he unlocks and ushers, he is telling her: “See, ten bucks an hour is money to you…but for these people, they can get by on five, easy. Cause they all live in the same apartment. Back where they came from, five bucks an hour would be like big-time, mega-rich.”
Buel, Andrée thinks, is sort of a racist.
She can agree with him powerfully one minute; the next, his attitude makes her wary. She backs against a sofa, sits under a picture window, under a blind with the pull-cord broken. A brown and puffy matching loveseat sits opposite, under metal-bracketed shelves stocked with DVD’s, electronic refuse, and a pair of work boots. He slides back a louvered door, exposing computer and router, vertical files packed with folders and manila envelopes. Of these, he jerks down one, and bows it open under her nose. Andrée’s eyes pop to see it full of cash. He taps the space bar and the screen flashes on.
“Here’s my spreadsheet. See, the company runs four lots in town. I’m gonna go ahead and call you Andy for everything but the stuff we have to submit for taxes.” She hears him mutter, to himself. “I guess Andrée could be a guy’s name…but I won’t worry about it.” Louder, he says: “I just don’t want two Andys working one place at the same time. See―” This time, he really wants her to see. She hates spreadsheets, but gets in close and peers down. Fields blocked out in yellow and pink. She sees him type “Andy” on some of the blank lines. Then he’s typing her social security number—that on the application, she had just given him.
“I don’t get it,” she says.
“You get two-and-a-half dollars. I get the other two thirty-three. I work the Andys a full shift, sometimes OT. Course that’s a different Andy. Extra hours,” he grins at her, “cover a lot. Most days you’re gonna get fifty, maybe seventy dollars. Not bad for doing nothing…you go ahead and get yourself a job, right? But…”
In a studied way he turns to his keyboard, and does not look up at her. “You could get me another number. Or a couple. The business isn’t just parking cars. Anyway, most days I don’t need you to come in. Once or twice a week I need you…it’s like with a building. You understand that. You’re complying with the law, you have to have a couple renters you wouldn’t normally want living there, just in case. Now and again the inspector needs to see a real person. So the Andys get their five bucks an hour. If one goes overtime, that’s just gravy for you and me.”
Then, he gives her five hundred dollars.
So Andrée has sold her social security number. She owns nothing, nothing that can be confiscated or repossessed—four pairs of jeans, a nice jacket, a phone…so what? She thinks, how does it hurt? People get their ruined credit fixed all the time. The ads say so.
She has so far not taken his hint to rifle her mother’s tenant records. She knows he wants retirees, old people easily confused, as Buel thinks; able to earn a certain amount working, without screwing up their benefits. She is either helping to exploit undocumented workers, or helping them make a new life, escape being forced back to their miserable homelands.
“Seriously, it’s a great thing for them,” Buel says.
His Andys, his Jasons, his Tinas, don’t know what they’ve done. Buel fills out all the paperwork. “If one of them can’t make it in, she’s laying low from the cops or looking after the kids, another one can take the shift. They all use the same ATM. You can’t do that.”
It’s true. Andrée has worked places where you can’t take a sick day when you’re really sick. All this sounds a nice, subversive argument…but too glib, coming from Buel. Andrée’s only certainty is that she cannot go to the police, unless she has the courage to tell him first: “Too bad, I’m gonna rat you out.”
She’s signed on with Buel, taken an advance from him, a sum of money she can’t pay back. Imagine.
And since she can’t shake this off, she won’t. She will herself be jailed, Andrée guesses. Buel, career criminal, probably knows ways to pass off the blame. Maybe fraud is a cooler thing to get arrested for than, say, beating someone up. Or stealing. Of course, she is stealing.
Her mother might be (but isn’t) neighborly with Buel. The first Sunday Karen came home to find Andrée with him over, she did not even put on her customer face…an act Karen can do for any of her tenants, even those disputing notice. Even their evictions given Leo’s nod on her own recommendation.
I’m really sorry, she can say, eyes and voice. It’s all out of my hands.
She had shaken Buel’s hand as though, offering it, he offended her—his touch putting he bite on her like a bloodsucker.
Karen could ask Leo; but Leo won’t have heard of Buel. And why think there’s anything to hear? But her mother knows Andrée can be found at home most mornings, sleeping in; afternoons, watching TV. Karen’s comments of late are sarcastic as shit. Andrée wonders whether Buel’s persuasions, his hints she could really start living if she would get the numbers for him, will tip the balance, then…next time she and her mother fight.
She drives the Ford with her feet off the pedals, letting it roll by itself inch by inch, backing it round the tight corner, edging past the purple Audi. She’s being laughed at. The two men point and backhand each other in the gut. But this is as safe as she feels, driving someone else’s car, work at which she remains inexperienced.
When the customer has left them alone, she comes up to the booth.
“Buel? Can I move in with you?”
Now Andrée is passing his house, on foot. She finds herself caught at the trailing edge of a revelation. Not a good one. The picture, vivid enough to be seen whole, had come prodding the corner of her eye a couple of days ago, when Sam brought Melody. It was painful to be Buel’s idea of a joke, when she’d been herself…not just serious. Andrée is foundering. Buel is the only friend she really has. She’d thought he might at least like her.
He had, at least, stopped himself. Tried backtracking, before she turned and walked off the lot.
“No, Andy, I mean…”
She stands on the other side of the highway, and stares at the house. What does he do at night, that he doesn’t even want someone around to talk to? For no reason, the motion sensor ticks his porch light on.
Last September, her mother had dropped beside her on the sofa. “What would you say if I told you Sam Magruder is your father?”
Andrée remembers the moment as both gross and comical. She doesn’t blame Karen for this—maybe, with such a topic, there is no optimal broaching, no way to keep the brain-smiting imagery at bay.
“God, Mom, who cares?” she’d answered.
Thanksgiving weekend, they had taken a trip to South Carolina. A condo Leo was selling. He wasn’t along. Three bedrooms and a sleeping porch, Sam and his wife Shelley, Melody and her kids. Karen and Andrée. The weather was in the 70s. They ate turkey fried on the beach by a friend of Sam and Shelley’s, who had brought his oil drum fryer and a long electric cord, and who talked through dinner about people the Magruders knew. Melody took her kids places. A water park, a zoo.
Andrée could not have foreseen the misery. It might have been fun. She never gets to go to the beach. The Magruders are okay people. She didn’t catch on why her mother―who had honest-to-goodness attended a seminar during this vacation, leaving Andrée to splash along the strand in bare feet and rolled up pants, alone―had kept making little comments, nudging her into a relationship with Sam…that Shelley, for one, seemed to find an imposition. Although she smiled at the new daughter-figure. She was kind.
So I’ve looked at it the wrong way, Andrée tells herself. I wanted to feel sorry for Mom. But maybe Sam never asked her if she would sell to him. Some ache that seems to emanate from Andrée’s jaw and the back of her neck, produces a searing flush, one she can feel rise in her cheeks. She pictures her mother saying to Sam:
“I need her out of the house.”
Words as blunt as that.
Sam and his wife seem to Andrée too grooved in together. They come to decisions like strollers calling to each other from opposite sides of a wall, joining hands when they reach the end. All this dull ordinariness, this enviable life of friends and travels, comfortable profits from “labors of love”… Sam’s words, his idea about the houses he builds. All this makes Andrée doubt that Sam can have cheated on Shelley. It had to be Leo. Leo’s divorced; he wouldn’t have a problem. He wouldn’t anyway.
She sees it, though. The phrasing of her mother’s question calculated, not comic. What would you say if…
Leo’s fatherly advice to Andrée would be: “You oughta live while you’re young enough to enjoy it. Don’t worry so much.” He’s told her this already. Sam, doling more conventional wisdom, would do a better job. And since Andrée won’t listen to her, Karen would like her to hear it from a man. From Dad.
She does hear it: “Take whatever work you can get, hon. Find someone to bunk in with. Save your money for a few years. Things’ll get better.”
She knows this; she just isn’t sure she can do it. Losing twice every day, taking crap at some dismal job; crap at home from some online match: “Roommate needed, ASAP.”
She’s been at peace for months and months now, happy in the little house.
Climbing the hill, she passes a garden. The house is painted burgundy, its trim, teal. Its gables are pitched, fairy-tale Gothic. At the top of each, a little gingerbread. It’s like a ski chalet in the middle of an organic lawn, a lawn that shimmers with bees. Bees buzz over swaths of dandelion and clover. And the earth is rich, black loam, new-tilled. They will have planted the lettuces, the radishes, the peas.
For the second time on this trudge home, she stops and stares at someone else’s. The stakes are in. The shoots are emerald green. The mailbox says Miller. By the late summer, the Millers will have a sign out: TAKE WHAT YOU WANT. They love this garden so much, they grow rows and rows of vegetables they can’t use.
Andrée remembers a book bought at the Miller’s yard sale. A woman lived in a tent, grew vegetables, bartered to get her old farmhouse fixed. She didn’t have a job. The people she met were nice. They helped. They cared.
You could buy a tent at a yard sale, Andrée thinks. Leo has other properties, besides his rentals he flips. He says: “Land is good. It’s people you don’t want on a piece of property.”
If she tells him her plan, he’ll let her, she thinks. He’ll laugh, and he won’t care if she’s bidding for charity. He’ll be curious to see how it comes out.
She wonders if Buel has loaded her debit card. She wonders if he can just unload it, when he gets a peeve at her. Mrs. Miller is waving from the window. Andrée waves back. She feels embarrassed again.
The accent came fleetingly to his attention—
And he saw no reason to care about it. People came from different places. Milton’s hand moved fishlike, a swath of metal buttons cleared by the gesture. Everywhere they wanted punchcodes.
Easy getting them, though.
“Hey, I locked myself out.”
She jabbed out sixteen digits. “You must be new.”
As this was impossible, he hadn’t tried following her finger with his eye. Though he liked jotting this stuff down…funny how you could come back four years later, and the code would be the same. Milton had charity to sell, another memorial to beg for the building of. People hated to say they wouldn’t give, but often enough they ended up feeling convinced of it. And the picture of the dead soldier was one he’d used for a few years now.
Be rich, putting that across, someone said. Or someone’s television said. He put his ear flat against cold paint. Milton had taken the elevator all the way up, muttering to himself, “Start at the top, Champ.” That was six floors. The house, he was sure, had a couple more, stairs only. There was a weird little lobby across, that hit you when the door swooshed open. Ugly carpet, fiber berbered into clusters of blue and green. Hard to make those colors clash.
And the window was wire inside glass, splintered. Because these shards couldn’t fall out, no one would fix it. Then also a chair, that would have had a seat made from vinyl straps, but all it had was a metal frame, and a pair of straps to rest your shoulders on.
He looked at all this, looked at the end of the hall, where a tall window above a slab of marble was cranked open. Milton thought he would see a roof, not a drop to the pavement…so someone could go out there. He thought he heard the accented voice again, and that she really was out there, speaking to a friend.
She had to have run up the stairs. Six flights, pretty good shape.
He strolled along that way, rapping knuckles on both doors. On impulse, waiting for an answer, Milton edged sideways, leaned out the window…and got a shock. The girl had a short ponytail, beach sandals on. He saw the hair bob, a sole smack the heel of a foot. For a moment she was within his sight, at the corner, her fingers between the bricks, swinging herself out over nothing. He thought she had actually entered this silent apartment he stood outside of.
City kids…even the girls! Sheesh.
What to do, but knock loud?
No…Christ! someone said. This was live, Milton thought. He wanted the angry SOB to feel sorry, come out and yell in his face, and feel sorry…that all the guy at the door wanted was a donation. People were not always sorry, of course, and the hero angle did not always play on their bad consciences. He knocked again, let his knuckles strike sharp, with no special character—no impatience, no wise guy rhythm.
“Anyone at home?”
The girl put her head through the crack, after a sequence of noises, that sounded to Milton like greater precautions taken than a bolt and chain. He thought she’d moved a piece of furniture. She hadn’t been careful to keep sarcasm, or maybe real exasperation, out of her voice.
He could see over her head that the room was not furnished, and a man inside crouched on the floor, intent on something the door blocked from view.
“I think you should let him in.”
Whoever said this, they could or not, so far as Milton cared. He was going to ask for ten bucks, and if that was a lot, five. He had no rules about visible wealth, or visible poverty. There didn’t seem to be any, as to whether people gave or not. The ritziest neighborhoods, where a few dollars was tip money, they might as easily call the cops.
The girl was giving him chin-up scrutiny. She backed away, widening the gap. Milton said at once, “I’m collecting. Your good deed for the day…huh?” He had the brochure in his hand, and held it out to her. He saw for himself there was a mattress on the floor, a stack, one that had grown and tipped, of plastic silverware and restaurant styrofoam…ketchup packages inching off like slugs, a water bottle sitting half-full. The woman lying on the mattress seemed groping after this.
“Give him the phone. I like it.” The crouching man stood. He gave Milton a face that didn’t smile, while the eyes mocked. The hand dangled a gun by the trigger. “Yeah, bud…think you can remember what I look like?”
Milton found himself pleading with her, the one who seemed, for their short acquaintance, almost a friend, backing a step into the hall, asking her with a glance, down and up, will you stay there, between me and the gun, will you let me go? With more time to think, he might have asked himself, could this guy honest-to-god shoot me? What’s the use?
She flapped into the trash pile, moving away from Milton. He braced his shoulders, tensed up, a signal he’d made up his mind to run…and the guy caught him. An uncompromising clench of the belt at Milton’s waist. He was inside the apartment, and heard the door shush into its frame at his back.
The woman on the mattress was sitting up crosslegged, drinking the last of the water bottle. She had short dark hair, cut in bangs across the forehead. She was wearing yoga pants and a tee shirt, both grey, like a pair of pajamas. She made a cheeky gesture for Milton, pointing at her own face, waggling the bottle in her hand.
“I think he doesn’t see the news.”
“Um…you don’t really want me here,” he tried.
“You wanna give him the phone? I’m serious.” The man was at the window, talking over his back. Milton’s friend checked her watch.
“You can get us something to eat. I guess you have money.”
Milton had only the twenty he always carried, a couple of Sacajawea dollars he kept because he was unlikely to spend them…and pockets weighed by the usual loose change. He hadn’t got a donation yet today.
“I want cereal. That’s what I really want. He could go to a grocery store.”
The man whipped round from the window and stooped by the mattress. “Take it!” he told Milton.
This needed a paraphrase. It made no sense. Milton repeated his orders. “Take your phone. Go to the store…how come I wouldn’t just go to the cops?”
“The cops know we’re here.”
If this was the guy’s apartment, Milton guessed he could wave a gun around—he could do what he wanted. So if they were making him go out shopping, better find a newspaper. It was her face, the one on the mattress, he should know from someplace.
He said: “So what? Right? I’m by myself, I can just light off, can’t I…?”
“Yeah, but you’re gonna help us. You’re an angel, chump…what’d you say your name was?”
The guy laughed. He laughed for a minute. “Okay, cause we’re asking you to. We got nothing to eat, like she said.”
Milton was carrying the phone. He was following the signs. The phone itself, fancy little gizmo, gave him the address, and a map to find the shopping center, and he could wake it anytime he felt lost. He shouldn’t get lost. It was only six blocks to the highway, and there were traffic lights he could see from here. The sidewalk had given out with a truncated curb and a manhole cover, but the stores were on the near side. Easy to step along the grass by the ditch. He would get cereal and milk, bologna and bread, bananas, cookies…ice cream, everything he could tote that a twenty would buy.
He figured he’d go ahead and get ice cream. His friend wanted it, and the man had made her blush, heaping too much contempt on a small hope.
“Jesus fuck, be melted by the time he gets back.”
They expected him to come back. He had the punchcode on a scrap of hamburger wrapper, in his pocket. “You see a car with an open window, toss the phone in. You know your way once you get there. Don’t bring it back with you.”
Milton took himself on a parking lot tour, a nervous amble to the rear entrance of the building, where two metal doors at platform height were closed, and the shade of concrete walls meeting smelled like damp basement. There was a car here, just at the curb, with its trunk lid popped. Not many eyes. No one Milton could see standing close. He did a rude thing, improvising—propped the heel of his shoe on the bumper, and made—since he had buckles, not laces—to run a finger around his sock, like he’d picked up a pebble. He wouldn’t have called the drop smooth.
The glass door lurched itself open, and Milton spent some change on a 7-Up, chugging it down before moving from the hot foyer along to the cold fridge aisle. It occurred to him too late that maybe the instruction had been literal. Maybe there was a particular car…maybe he hadn’t been getting rid of the phone, but passing it to another gang member. Well, he had got rid of it.
The pints looked almost as costly as the half-gallons. He spent long moments standing before the open freezer case, wanting suddenly to know what pleased her. Maybe she would roll her eyes at him if he bought cheap. On the wall above the checkout line was a TV, and he caught, glancing up, the dark-haired woman’s face. She had on a red blazer…it was the hairstyle, the bangs, that made him look twice. It had to be her, anyway, or what was she talking about? She was in the news for some reason.
The cashier peered at the carton. “I never had that kind. Is it good?”
It was not the chocolate he thought he was taking a flyer on, but peanut butter. A thing you would never expect. “Yeah, hon,” Milton said. “Listen, what’s that story they had on a minute ago?” They were talking now, he could slip this in normally enough. “That lady, with the guy, getting in the car.”
“Oh, her. She’s supposed to be a witness at that guy’s trial. Not that guy. You know who I mean. She’s been missing for a couple days.”
“You sell papers?”
Well, yeah, it was going to be awkward. Very awkward. The ice cream was getting soft; he needed to hoof it back to the apartment. The story was not on the front page. There was no way to riffle through without sitting down. The one he cared about, anyway, would give him the jaw-drop when he handed her peanut butter. But the other one…he made himself think…guy who was having a trial, famous enough the girl had said: “You know who I mean.”
So he ought to know.
“It’s something weird. I’m sorry.”
Milton had come up empty, going over all the scuttlebutt he could recall. City officer canned for some dumb remark, a bad fire, foreign soccer team coming to play at the arena. He had marked the numbers down wrong, or he couldn’t read them. He didn’t think these stupid mechanisms locked up on you, though…so he looked at the nine that might be a four, the one that might be a seven. and tried them both ways.
The apartment door was standing wide open. After Milton had backed inside and pulled it shut—white plastic bags swinging, one on each arm—the only person he saw was the one he hated.
“Gals leave already?” He asked it for something to say. The gun was not now anyplace he could see.
“Better get that stuff in the fridge. What’s weird, buddy?”
“Gals,” Milton asked again, miffed into insistence, “take off?”
The guy got tight next to Milton in the little space between fridge and counter, yanked at a bag—Milton dropped his arm and let him have it—ripped into the cookie package. Mouth full and spewing crumbs, he said something. Milton brushed his shirt, and rather than, “Say again?”, came back without patience: “What’s your name?”
“Steven.” Or maybe Stevens, he was giving his last name. Milton couldn’t tell because the guy had gone to swigging milk from the carton.
“She wanted cereal. You think that’s kind of rude?”
“Go in the other room and stick your head out the window.”
Now, he told himself, I’m being insulted. But then he thought about her.
He went and had a look. He had to make some noise…grunting, drawing breath, clacking a little, with his pocket key ring banging the wall under the sill.
“Hey ya,” Milton said, low as he could. A head came around the wall.
This, spoken like the guy was a joke to them, preceded laughter; a couple remarks in whatever their language was.
The head returned, and Milton said, a little stiff: “Catch ya, hon.”
“No,” she told him. “Get back. Hell back.”
Sure. He caught her, touching her above the hips when she landed, steadying her on her feet.
He said, “I don’t know your name. I’m Milton.”
She crossed to the kitchen, twisting away. He stood for a second wondering if he couldn’t make his girl like him. She was pouring milk over cornflakes.
“I got ice cream,” Milton said.
Their names, but he might have got them wrong…he only heard what he thought he heard…were Katrina and Lusanne. Maybe Katherina was the name of his girl, the th said like a t, like they did in places. Her sister had been here longer, and her accent was easier, but her name was harder to be sure of. Milton stood for a while, then sat for a while. He got up to pace, and was letting the three of them eat everything, before it occurred to him he was taking a big thing for granted.
He should test them right now, say, “Okay, I helped you out. Gotta go.”
If they were making him stay, he’d be getting pretty hungry. He sat again on the floor. It was too much to climb on the mattress with the girls, but he took the side she was sitting on. He took the last cookie, left in its plastic untouched.
“So when’s the party break up?” he said.
“Listen,” Lusanne said. “You can’t leave. Not this minute.”
“I’m not asking to. I mean, not if you still need me some way.”
She got to her feet, padded around the mattress perimeter. She leaned, and hugged him. “How nice you are, Milton. Scoot over, Kat.”
Settling, Lusanne said to Milton: “It’s right of you to help. You think this is a crime, what we’re doing here.”
He glanced across to the counter, where the guy was propped on elbows, scraping the ice cream carton, licking the spoon. Milton wasn’t a perfect law-abider. He thought he gave people a good feeling about themselves. People liked doing charity; it was a kind of service he gave. He got a few bucks, that way, to live on. If this wasn’t charity, what was…? Wanna force a guy his age to work, or something.
He was making mistakes, though. Coming back from the store, he had got himself half convinced of it…that whatever this bunch was trapping him into would make the sentence, when he got arrested, tougher, the fine bigger.
“All you need to do, if anyone asks, is tell them you saw Steven holding us up. He had a gun. Answer everything you can truthfully answer.”
“You see,” Katrina said, “when you have money, you can borrow money. If you borrow a lot of money, you can invest it, and if you turn over the investment fast enough, or keep your creditors off long enough, you can walk away…”
She waved a hand, looking for a word, or phrase.
“Yeah, that’s the basic scam. The mother of setups, if you’re set up to start.” Milton gave a chuckle.
“You think. My sister could tell you the scam is men who make promises. That’s why we’re here, instead of home. Camber isn’t divorced. So,” Katrina said, “they won’t get married. Camber has an expert, who always comes to testify when he gets sued. This time, he isn’t getting sued.”
“No, this time,” Lusanne said, “he’s been charged with securities fraud. But his expert will still do what he does.”
“How you mean?”
Lusanne put her hand over Milton’s eyes. The contact was sudden, and he felt a little buzz of flattery, that she would.
“Now, what does Steven look like?”
The buzz died. Steven, he would have said, looked like a son of a bitch. “Um. Brown hair.”
“I have brown hair.”
“Muscle. Sort of crouches and moves around fast.”
He heard Katrina laugh. He felt Lusanne’s hand relax.
“Not yet.” That was his girl. “Ask him about me.”
“Ponytail. Light brown. Pretty face.”
“What’s pretty?” Her voice said, who cares about that?
“Never mind.” Lusanne let Milton see again. “Just think, if I said…like… It’s a big responsibility. A man could go to prison. You might back off, describing Steven. Brown hair is not much.”
“So the expert gets under the witness’s skin?”
“Or the jury,” Katrina said. “Camber’s lawyer makes them afraid their names will get out. You can say a lot, you know, when you talk about being careful.”
“I’ve made my deposition,” Lusanne said. “So it’s all known. But I’m not testifying. He’ll only be acquitted.”
There was one thing weird. “How come the stuff with the window?”
Milton rose and went to the sill. A line of masonry decorated the rear façade, supporting the window cuts, jutting inches, room enough for reckless feet to edge. And he saw it now, this empty center was a dip between apartment houses. Flat roof below, AC and vent hoods.
No one would see the girls escape, unless they—the cops, whoever—set up shop in one of those units across the way.
So his girl had gone off to get food, and he’d talked to her and made her worry.
Steven said, close at Milton’s back. “Okay, guys, it’s really time to clear out.”
Milton shook his lapels. The son of a bitch had wanted him to jump. He turned, and they were all standing. Were they leaving him on his lonesome, to add all this up?
Truthfully. He repeated Lusanne’s stress. I didn’t see her do it the first time. What do I know? He pictured his hands on Katrina’s hips and told himself, maybe I’m not seeing that either, like it was a memory. Maybe I’m making it up.
“People have to do their jobs. Janitor…building sup. Jot down their little report. Can’t hurt.”
Steven plunked on the floor in Milton’s old place, laughing. “You get the phone, right? Jessup has his own security. Rich fuck. He’s thinking he’s in good shape right now. He doesn’t care if they find Lu, rather they didn’t. Just wants to cover his ass.”
Jessup. Camber Jessup, sure. A guy who could have made himself up, monikered with this mask, this name that conjured no picture. About a Milton or a Steven, people had an idea. Jessup had sold tonic water, something like it, on TV…yuppie crap, if there were still yuppies. Later he’d sold risk, betting against disaster. Hurricane seasons had been mild for a while, that was the phrase Milton remembered.
“He’s been scaring people for years, can’t take the chance, can’t pass up the chance. So Jessup oughta understand. This time, he’s not gonna put it across. No win to crow about. See, the charges were no good. I got off. They can’t touch me.” He was imitating Camber Jessup, in the way people did, just making his voice high. “Nothing this time but ugly rumors, digging into people’s heads.”
Lusanne came to stand in front of Milton. Too creaky to rebuke the son of a bitch, Milton worked on his posture, facing her more or less like a gentleman. She moved as though she would hug him, but at last put her hand over his, leaving it for a moment. “Milton, you have to go first. You won’t see us anymore…if you’re lucky. But you won’t forget, please? Only answer truthfully.”
He had lost this day.
He had lost the money in his wallet. Would they even send him something in the mail? No, they couldn’t. No contact, or he’d screw up as a witness. Milton shuffled down the street, making it slow, his exit from the scene. Of course he would help his girl, if he ever got the chance.
One more, over his shoulder…but the windows were on the back alley. If they would’ve waved goodbye, you couldn’t know it. He might show up here sometime, pictured himself punching in the code—
Nah, stup, he counselled himself. None of them are from this neighborhood.
The sisters must live on the lake, in a high-rise, a penthouse.
On one of those boats, maybe.
The Ad Said
The ad said: “Girls wanted. Good wages.”
Also: “Must pass physical exam.”
“You’re crazy,” their mother said.
Hester smacked Hermina’s arm. “Come on! Let’s go down to the corner.”
The corner meant the drugstore, where they might take a bet on a baseball game, if the radio was going and the guys were at the counter. The sisters rarely cleaned up. Hester, who was tall, would get in front of Hermina, block the view of her from the angled mirror opposite the cash register. Hermie would lift them something small, but needed…a jar of Ponds, false eyelashes, a packet of emery boards.
“Are we crazy, Hettie?”
Hettie blotted her lipstick—tomato red her shade when their mother was not there to comment—and snapped her compact. “I think it’s war work. That’s why they don’t say too much. Is a white slaver gonna advertise like that?”
“Well, I’ll go, if you can’t get off.” Hermie grinned. “Way over there, on the other side of town. If I got hired, I’d have to get a room…”
“Too bad. You’d hardly ever make it home for a visit.”
They laughed. They subsided, ducked into the store, and grabbed stools.
“Nah, I’m chucking it,” Hettie said then. Hettie made thirty cents an hour at the candy factory. “We’ll room together.”
But that day, there was no job offer. Not even a chance to reach the front of the line. The woman who walked this, clipboard in hand, asking names, addresses—“Are you over eighteen? What’s your place of birth?”—had given them hope, at least. She wore a suit-jacket and skirt, glasses, hair rolled tight. So much respectability made Hermie sure her sister was right. War work. Real money.
“Okay, everyone. That’s it. Come back tomorrow.”
The sisters had nothing left. Lunch, they’d had to spend what was going, stuck for choice with a sort of workers’ canteen, in this neighborhood of mostly factories.
But if there’d been a seat on the bus, they would have grabbed it, and dreamed up a dodge when it counted. The sister act had got them out of bus fares before.
All the women seeking this work filled even the aisle, and a couple dozen crowded the curb, only to see the bus pull away. The driver was a crabby bastard, too, yelling at stragglers on the steps:
“All the room there is! Rest of you get back…lemme close the damn door!”
“You trying to get cross town?”
In silent embarrassment, those assembled—no longer a group—had begun to edge and shuffle, pacing themselves to separate from one another.
And if they had a friend to speak to, speaking low.
“You two,” the woman said, coming up beside the sisters. “Cross town?”
Hettie spoke. Hermie got shy with strangers.
“See that bridge?”
It was coming on sundown. But yes…
There was chainlink around the yard, then a broad, empty field. Another fence and another field, stretching to the river and its sickly fringe of trees. Girders in a sprawled rectangle…then faint street lights, a line of glass bubbles, off beyond.
“That’s Regisville. There’s a subway depot at the college. You can connect up, any other place.”
She left them at the corner, saying this, and the sisters, throwing thanks, watched her pick up to a trot, thumb towards town at a truck that didn’t slow.
“It’s a railroad bridge,” Hermie said.
“What else are we gonna do? Maybe there isn’t any other bus.”
They giggled at first, when Hettie’s heeled shoe, then Hermie’s, slipped in patches of mud, where tractors had mashed weeds into hummocky rows. Bravado got old, by the time they had scrabbled over the second fence. They pieced their way down the ditch and up, and stopped, in full darkness, to take inventory. The lights that beckoned from the suburb shone brighter. And yet they seemed of a size with those that pooled here and there on warehouse lots, from where the girls had come.
“I’m freezing,” Hermie said.
Her sister shrugged. “Hup, two, three, four.”
An hour ago, funny.
“Seriously,” Hettie went on. “We’ll have to pick it up. Forget the shoes. Forget the stockings.”
They marched. They counted cadence. It grew apparent—a moon had risen—that the tracks were built up well above the field. They would have to climb an embankment of cinder and gravel. And the planks, the bed of the bridge where the rails were laid, had gaps of many inches between. So crossing, even, would be no stroll in the park. You could tell that from here.
Hermie burst out laughing.
“You wanna sit down and rest?”
“No, they’ll have chairs at the station. We’ll have to move careful, soon as we get into town, see if we spot anything in the gutter.”
“Yeah…I wish we had just a dollar, so we could get coffee and a snack someplace.”
That was how the sisters shorthanded their mother’s saying.
Along the rails was a place to go by foot, a narrow depression, not clearly intended…or clearly not intended…for public use. A wrong step would scrape your heel, maybe lose you a shoe—more rotten luck if it happened.
“Look out you don’t lose a shoe!”
Hermie said this aloud. You could thwart mischance by letting it know you were on to it. Course it would skulk off disappointed and lunge at you some other time.
Hettie wasn’t moving; she was leaning on a beam. Hermie stopped, took her own tight hold, and looked down. True, the river was kind of horrible. You didn’t see it from this angle, the current in the moonlight, wrinkling and frothing at the pylons, dark middle of it sliding under the bridge…and a cold, sorrowing smell.
Then, there was a sort of fish.
Or something pontoon shaped, glowing from its belly, faint and phosphorescent. Big for a fish. Moving start-stop, like a buoyant sack.
It snagged, and rolled.
“It’s a man, isn’t it?”
It was shaped like one—it had arms and legs. It had a head with earholes and no ears, a flabby gash dividing the hair, that matter-of-factly exposed the skull and did not bleed.
It was under the bridge…
And they heard the train whistle. Neither spoke. Both looked wildly to the right and left. They were at center, with no better answer. Hermie, leading the way, took off, making for the Regisville side.
She did call out, “Hettie, come on!”
She thought also, hurtling herself in leaps, landing teetering, gathering into the next, that a train would slow down, it ought to, going where there were houses. But which end was it coming from? That, she couldn’t make out.
Her final landing knocked one shoe off—but by the strap, it held. The whistle so close at her back, heaved Hermie’s shoulders and raced her heart, but she was down the embankment, tripping, tumbling to a sit. She put a finger inside her heel and dragged the shoe back on.
This task was enough to think about. Maybe stupid accidents always happened like that…
You got your routine out of kilter, and you didn’t have time, when it…the train…
But what about that man in the paper the other day, the gas explosion, just from switching on a light in his kitchen?
He wasn’t expected home. His wife had put her head in the oven.
Their mother had said, the three of them drinking tea around the table, “You girls! Stop that! Giggling…what’s funny?”
Or the woman, it must have been in the summer, who had sat back against a window screen, at her own party…
You didn’t have time, Hermie told herself, to think of what you should do.
The train thundered onwards, and when the red lights of the last car were tiny, the whistling gone prolonged and slow, the creak of metal now ticking muted and sedate, she stood. She looked, through the dark, at the bridge…and it was only a silhouette over the river.
The Blue Bird
Something buzzed, up like wind can at times, when it slices between gutter and roof. The noise escalated, out of the hinterlands of notice, into skull-gripping alarm. A shock came, too loud to be heard, so loud it was seen instead—a shuddering together of all things, a tablecloth trick that left every glass and plate, lamp and vase, intact where it sat.
The impression of the flash sat on the eyeball. No one was harmed by this; sight returned. For a day, to step outside with ringing ears, and not be certain the brown sky was not ringing, through its fall of cinders, made everyone feel they would wait to be told…
What it was, what they might do.
Electricity was out, wireless was out, water soon ran out, and before some had the sense to fill containers. Then it was necessary for neighbors to creep from their houses and knock at doors. The sky was orange, now, in the evenings; sulphur yellow by day. Breathing seemed all right. If anything, because no one was driving, the air smelled cleaner. Or it smelled strongly of ozone, and this seemed fresh.
One or two from the neighborhood, going out to see if the groceries were open, had met a blockade at the end of the street. Their car radios flared into life…an electronic voice saying the city was under emergency orders.
Stay in your homes. Keep vehicles off public thoroughfares. Wait for instructions.
A truck came on the fourth day, when the sky had turned blue, and when they’d begun to feel that the thing—as they individually named it to themselves—might not have been disaster, only anomaly. Or, if disaster, far away. They began to wish they had looked, while it was happening, and could better remember it.
They came out, mostly in ones and twos, fringing the street either side. A few families from their houses, and clusters of renters…a straggling of singles from the two corner buildings, bulged the line.
The announcement was that food and water would be distributed, that those in need of medical care would be transported, and that the estimated time of the outage was three to seven days.
Keep vehicles off streets.
Since it was just an announcement, the truck moving at a footpace, flagging arms ignored; since the windows were too dark to see what sort of official was telling them this, Gitana wondered: “Do they mean three days from today…or…”
She spoke aloud, knowing neither man flanking her. One said, “Probably seven days from next week.”
“Have you heard anything?” she asked. The other shrugged, turned away and made for his door—and she had really meant her question for the friendlier one.
“I have a crank radio for emergencies,” he told her. “Kind of eerie, if that’s the word, what’s coming over it. Like someone left a line open in an empty room…and something crazy’s going on just outside, but you can’t quite hear… Bloop, bloop, wah, wah. A lot of static. I keep it going in case the news ever comes on… Here,” he said, “you wanna come inside for a minute? I’ll show you.”
“My name is Gitana,” she told him.
“I’m Dave. Everything’s a mess.”
For days toilets hadn’t flushed, showers could not be taken, dirty dishes mounted. Gitana hadn’t changed clothes; she doubted Dave, layered in pajama top and jacket, had either. She told him it was okay, and didn’t apologize for herself.
The radio sat buzzing. The buzz came rhythmically, a pattern that might have a cause. Now and again the noise broke into fragments of voices.
They sounded like voices… Like cries or shouts.
“So it’s coming back, a little.”
Gitana and Dave hadn’t met…even so far as she knew, to pass in the hallway. He offered a bottle of water. “Go ahead.”
She wanted this water. All she had were drinking glasses filled and lined up on her kitchen counter. But she didn’t like taking it, someone else’s emergency cache. The etiquette seemed wrong. She stood for a moment while Dave stood, holding the bottle in his hand.
“I went to the store last week. I had a whole case. Now I have exactly eleven. But they’re supposed to bring supplies tomorrow, right?”
“How do you think?”
“Back of a truck.”
“Why don’t they, if they’re out there, come and tell us something? It’s funny all the services go out, like it was a bomb or an asteroid, but they can fix them…they say in a couple days… So then you’d think it wasn’t. There’s someplace they can get food. They said medical help.”
Dave said: “Well… After the electric comes on, there oughta be news.”
She thanked him for the water. “I have to get back upstairs.”
They’d had one of those friendly congruities of feeling between people not ready to be friends. Dave had faded back to distance, accepting this non-answer answer, rejecting the invitation to speculate.
And Gitana forgot soon enough, after she’d left him.
As to the promised distribution, at sunrise she made for the street, and found boxes stacked in the stairwell, blocking the mailboxes and basement door. A stranger was there, a woman in a blazer and cap.
But she was only dressed this way. She shrugged at Gitana’s question.
“I would just take what you need. It doesn’t look like stuff’ll run out.”
The water was in five-gallon jugs, tough on upper-floor residents. There was milk in cans, cheese and chicken in cans, crackers, raisins, powdered soup. There was instant coffee. Pointlessly, a box of plastic silverware.
“Did you see who brought it?”
“I know, but did you see them?”
The woman ripped the tape, emptied a box and started filling it, disproportionate in coffee, grabbing cocoa, off-brand cookies. Someone else arrived and set to work, endorsing the woman’s pattern as official.
Packets of cutlery and powdered soup began to litter the floor.
Spoons and forks snapped off their handles, a salty onion smell rose, brown grit grinding underfoot. Gitana had been going to heft the water upstairs first, but gave up on kind thoughts, and decided to fill her own box.
Two more arrived, through the door and not the building, breaking the silence. But the words exchanged were imperatives and admonitions.
“Gimme a sec.”
“Don’t take all that…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!”
Gitana toed away a rolling can… Shrugged, and snatched it up. She jumped down and grabbed a water jug.
In the middle of the afternoon, someone knocked at her door.
She sat eating crackers, her book laid aside (all these fictional mundanities—bad marriages, kids rebelling—grown so hopeless). She swiveled a chessboard, playing white, then black. When she looked, there was another box, small, its contents sheathed in bubble wrap. Inside were two flashlights.
The hall was empty.
But the box had come a minute ago, the floor above, if they worked in logical order, still to finish. She stuck a flashlight in each pocket of her robe, thinking of these as precious, a thing not to have stolen, while her money, her gold jewelry…
She left her door standing open, as she would not have in the past.
No electric, no elevator…and only one staircase that gave onto the parking lot. She darted to the fourth floor.
Someone in a worker’s vest bent, one hand on a trolley, the other in the act of dropping a box.
He grunted, standing, and said, “Hey.”
She glanced at his chest, looking for a badge. “What happened? What was it?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
He stared into the space between her body and the wall. He shouldered the trolley and made for the exit.
Gitana did nothing yet. She walked back slowly, turning things over.
A terrible accident, the experience of it no different for her or anyone else, in this pocket of the wider world. But you were hired, summoned face to face…it must have been like that.
Given a task to do. And so you would ask this official, this soldier or emergency worker—
No one had touched the boxes. They were all there, resting on carpet before closed doors.
The worker’s instructor had said to him… Don’t speak to anyone?
Now it was too late, she knew she ought to have followed, caught him before he drove off, shouted: “Where are you going? Who gave you this job?”
She thought of this competing mystery.
She knocked, and called, “Hello?”
Whoever lived here had gone someplace. They had all gone someplace. She went pounding and rattling knobs, got to the landing and turned to watch. No door tentatively inched back. No head craned out.
Gitana began to plan an expedition. For one night more she would bide her time, venture it when morning promised hours of light. The idea was the angel on her shoulder’s, batting down suggestions from the other side, that this desertion was eerie. Dave’s word.
Days ago she had walked alone with an umbrella against the ash, to the line of barricades where people were turning their cars…
She could spare some water, stopper the sink and wash. She could put on fresh clothes, fill a thermos, pack snacks, writing paper and pen, and take another walk. Her camera still had life in its battery.
Behind her building a fence topped a hump of grass that separated the parking lot from an off-limits retention pond. The fence lay flat. Around the pond would be the short way, cutting past the outer streets and landing her downtown.
She pointed her camera, zoomed to get a better look.
No movement of uniforms, no flashing lights, no traffic at all. There was a park area belonging to a psychiatric clinic, a concrete bench under a black plum, an abstract sculpture showing human forms embracing. The gate, opposite, of a condo complex.
A block farther was a bookstore—that her lens could not reach—but in the coffee niche, she knew, was a bulletin board. It would be consolation enough to find the store open. Gitana was beginning to feel singled out, as though others had been evacuated; as though, invisibly, she had been assessed and found unqualified.
“Hey, I forget your name!”
Gitana turned and saw Dave, his hand fall away from the stairwell door. He jogged to her, stepping over the yellow bumper, nodding at the camera. “Getting some shots.”
“Gitana,” she told him. “Did your radio come on?”
She wanted to ask, half-serious, if they were the only two people left in the world. But it sounded like a line, and she was hardly flirting.
“Did they give you flashlights?”
She spoke tramping over the unmown grass where violets and dandelions grew, and where she saw not a bee hovering, not a robin foraging.
He fell in behind her. “No. For some reason, I’m persona non grata down there. You saw how they blocked me in when they brought the stuff.”
“Oh. Are you the only one in the basement?”
“Seems like. You don’t really keep track…I mean, I wouldn’t. Is every place on your floor rented?”
Two thoughts had come at once…to share with him the weird emptiness, the boxes in the halls untouched, and that he should go take one, why not? She looked at him, and instead of either thing, said, “Why are we waiting?”
They were at the bench. She sat, positioning the camera. She trained the zoom, and caught a human being. Furtive in movement, dressed in white jumpsuit and dark glasses.
“For the power, I think,” he said, and stood near her, but didn’t sit.
“It’s not going to keep us all quiet, promises.”
“Well, but we don’t need anything. We don’t want to get in the way. I guess we’ll know what’s up when we see the news.”
“Do you have a mother and father?”
“I have a mom.”
“So do I. I’ve been telling myself everybody’ll be in a panic, trying everything at once. I mean, for me, I don’t take it as a desperate problem, because we’re adults… I want to know she’s okay, but I don’t have to step on other people’s emergencies to know it.”
“But you think about it…you’ve gone over it in your mind, haven’t you, what you’re going to say when you call? What she might say to you?”
“She’ll say, you okay? And I’ll say, fine, how bout you?”
“No,” Gitana said. “You’ll say, what does it look like where you are? Was there fire? Was it like an earthquake? Are a lot of people dead? Did a bunch of officials come and shut things down and leave you without explaining?”
“Well, words to that effect, sure. But first things first.”
“So,” she told him, standing. “Here’s what I’ve decided for today. I’m going to Glimmerings. I’m putting a note on the board, get in touch with me. I don’t care…”
She raised her voice. Dave was comfortable with his set expressions, and she had no use for another.
“…that the power will come on in a day or two, and that we’ll get to see a press conference and listen to a statement. I want to know if what I saw was what other people saw, what they thought. When it happened.”
Flatfooting up the slick park pavers, speeding along the pebbly walk…after a minute, she heard him there, a pace behind.
“You mean the bookstore.”
“I know it’s the other way. I saw someone up here, who might be one of them. I tried asking already. Only I hadn’t got mad yet, you know? I let myself be put off.”
This place had been a coffee shop. Would be, if the world was really normal, again in a day or two. The person had tinkered with the lock, body blocking the handle. Inside, more than one moved; from tables under windows to the service counter, light receded to shadow.
No one had announced martial law. She was free to walk the streets…she ought to be free to speak as she chose. She banged the window with a fist: “Hey! Open up!”
The figure looked at her through its aviators. It sipped from a paper cup.
Dave, seen over her shoulder in reflection, seemed to offer a sheepish smile. Gitana raised her camera and snapped a picture, the reflection catching the swing of the lens cap and the flash.
“They’re not coming out,” Dave said. “You walking on down?”
He turned, and made for the intersection. Maneuvering himself in charge…
But no. Leave it aside, she told herself. It was handy Dave had been willing to be her companion on this errand.
Gitana this time caught up. And here, on the multi-laned street that exited to the beltway, something had happened. They saw two cars parked in a loading zone, doors and front seats removed. Vandalized…stripped for evidence… No signs about the darkened storefronts, or the clean pavement, of disorder.
From below the overpass came the sound of engines, almost the everyday highway traffic. Opposite was an outlet store, organized as ateliers, each with one designer’s seasonal failures. The façade was sheathed in glass, huge photographed scenes printed on. Gitana had never shopped here.
An inside door stood open. The outside door was unlocked.
She saw two women parting hangers on racks. The light was natural, not enough…but above the escalator, and beaming from an office behind, were fluorescent fixtures, on.
“There you go,” Dave said.
TV screens hanging on adjustable arms over the sales counter popped, a pulse of music timed to catwalk quick-cuts shooting a prism of color into the dark space. Fashion news.
“I can’t change the channel. Sorry. It’s set to loop.”
One of the women had moved to the register. “Are you looking for anything special? We just moved a bunch of stuff to clearance.”
“No…” Gitana said.
Dave had his phone out. He was being sensible. She felt for hers, saw the battery at three percent, let the news play with the sound off, idly shunted apart cardigans. The chyron gave the temperature…a thunderstorm warning… A code associated with this she had never seen, and couldn’t decipher: a blue pentagon with a number three.
A reporter came on, microphone in the face of a woman wrapped in a blanket, but smiling, her captioned words crawling: “We’re pretty lucky.”
The first clerk had acknowledged it. The other hadn’t. She was more the normal, then, in her way. Gitana, feeling under scrutiny, pressured to go along, picked up a jacket.
“Listen, are we still together?” Dave asked her. “You need me for anything?”
“Go home. I’m fine.” She moved to the mirror.
She dropped her knapsack, switched on the light, stepped into the kitchen to check the refrigerator. She dumped puddled water from the ice bin. She turned the cold tap, wondering if that was overconfident. But air burst, and a stream flowed steadily.
She backed into the living room and picked up the remote. The news channel showed three women on lounge seating, two resting their hands on books. One reading aloud from hers.
They were not personalities Gitana had ever seen. Someone had found them, told them: “We have no programming. Improvise.”
Past midnight, having cleaned, she carried on with the impulse. Still dressed in a pointless cardigan (though it had cost almost nothing), Gitana looted her own possessions. She filled a laundry basket with things to get rid of. She turned all hangers the same direction, put blacks with blacks, reds with reds, blues with blues.
All the while her TV screen segued into broadcasting the ordinary; at the last, before she switched it off, a music countdown show. Hits of the 80s. People who had disappeared or died anyway.
Her mind, as she fell asleep, told her go to work tomorrow. You’d better.
At the Center of Industry Museum, the botanical gardens across the road, Gitana pulled into the bus lane, put her blinkers on, waited a full ten minutes.
Because the street carried no traffic to obstruct.
No one stood expecting her when she reached the zoo. Here she would circle, and change the sign from south to north.
Worried about the animals, she even had got out—breaking a rule—and gone walking up the entry path. At the visitor’s pavilion the shutters were down. No one collected tickets. She saw a uniformed guard in the distance…
It was always in the distance, these days, you got a glimpse of authority. She passed through the aviary, the snake house, coming out to the cheetah enclosure. The cats were sleek; they circled eager, as though the missing humans gave hope. She smelled popcorn.
“Is there any charge?” she asked the man at the booth.
He grinned, lifting eyebrows, and pointed to the sizes.
A number of them, the ones you spoke to, were like that. Her fancy was that they knew another language, and the secret of their being here required this pretense…that they were not strangers.
But she was herself almost isolate now, as one of the past people. Gitana might say that she was the stranger.
“This one goes uptown. To the hotels?”
For abandoning her vehicle, she had acquired a stowaway. She saw a yellow wad of paper, trash…but on her seat, where she could not have dropped it. She knew also that it was hers.
The bookstore Glimmerings had stood untenanted, but with its light burning. Gitana had edged in, called out, finally pulled a pin from the board and put up her note. At the time she had thought the appeal no longer necessary.
Please get in touch with me.
Every day, her phone service flashed area codes available to be called. Not yet her mother’s…but the sense of things being done brought inertia; it was pacifying.
“Sure, hotels. You’re not getting off at the garden?”
He sat on a bench seat facing the opposite window. “See, the problem always was…”
He broke. She drove the two of them onto the highway.
He started again: “The men who studied these things could see the pattern, looking at history. Martial law would be invoked; a dictator would rise. He might be austere, himself, kind of mystical. The mobs would be attracted. But his circle—
“Those people would take anything they wanted…plunder til nothing was left. Insurrection would catch fire. Still, no one understood what triggered the moment, exactly. The whole rotten cabal would get themselves hanged. So then the question became, how do you induce in people a will to do what you want them to? You can’t by asking, not by ordering, not bribing. None of those things work with the masses, because there can never be enough to go around.
“The scientists custom-built a molecule…they learned one with a polarity, an element that would attach itself to targeted nerves, would align, say, positive or negative. Yes no. Stop go. Someone walks into the room…you feel angry. You hate that guy. Another person, you fall in love. Could be a guy…”
He laughed, meaning himself. “It’s chemistry. I mean it’s not us in control. You see what I’m saying…it was the dust. Dust mattered. All those detonations were only to raise a cloud, and in that humongous cloud were all these engineered molecules. That you would breathe in, that I would breathe in. So from a distance we could be summoned. We would choose, believe we’d chosen, never question. If we were supposed to leave our houses, we would leave them. The dust would work on most people. But there would be some percentage where it didn’t take. Or not strong enough. You. Me. That guy you were with the other day…”
“Dave. I wasn’t with him, though, really.”
And now Gitana wondered if she felt this reservation, said this, because they didn’t want her attaching to Dave. She had come out of darkness rebellious, questioning. Dave seemed a placid, go-along guy. The woman could hold no sway over him if she disliked him.
“So where’d they go?” the man asked.
She eased her bus to a standstill; gained at this stop a rider. Gitana’s informant fell silent.
And her day was nearly over. By a supervisor she didn’t know…a new person…who had pointed to her new schedule on his screen, she’d been given a few short hours. As with all things now, one or two of the other drivers were acquaintances.
She had not been able to speak to them.