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; but Ray, old and alone himself, living at the bottom of the hill, making birdhouses and putting them on the lawn to sell, told his daughter it was the kind of habit people got, something they always 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 six inches or so of porch outside the rail. 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 generation’s worth 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; he’d had success in early years, 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 tried to find things he would use.
She’d subscribed him to fruit, and he didn’t want it, but the critters did, so every day he’d bowl out a grapefruit or a pear, wait to see the raccoons sneak after it. But he’d also, as he had with the hat and scarf set, gone carrying the carton taped back up in its paper, filled now with apples that had come soft, to knock on Mrs. Lewis’s door. That last time, she’d answered.
“Oh, Ray, I haven’t got a thing!”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am. It’s the season.”
The phrase didn’t mean a great deal. 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?” He’d said it to the postman.
“Social security, I guess.”
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. He’d constructed his porch from plywood and decking, ten years past, and the job held up okay…only the bolts he’d used to fix it to the trailer wall didn’t hold, and the porch had fallen askew, a gap growing wider from earth to roof.
But he used it for a junk room, and the junk was all garbage he wouldn’t pay to have hauled. Couldn’t pay. He hadn’t known the floor was going too, not until the corner where ice always built up on the windowsill slumped in.
He wasn’t bothering with it anymore.
But 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 the 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’d 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. Didn’t you 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 climb the hill. Call someone, if it looked bad.
He thought he should have put a hat on.
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, after all, tuck away that news for Mary Anne.
Then he could forget Mrs. Lewis, be glad at last that he could.
No one passed. Wind gusted, yellow leaves came down in a zig-zag 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 she’d once had a drive.
Weeds and saplings had taken this over…he ought to tell easy enough, then, if van tracks had been 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 what had been the outhouse.
But getting to the porch by way of the yard meant looking out for gopher holes…it was chilly today…maybe not so much it would’ve killed the mud-daubers that had sealed the window sash with their nest, sandy columns all down between 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, they’d kept a pony, and Ray had always seen it hang its head, sag the barbed wire, stretch its nose as fenced animals did, 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 down the house. 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 come out to look?”
“Nope,” Ray said.
Joshua grinned. He and Ray both laughed. He smacked Ray on the shoulder, guiding him, shooting a look at the outhouse as they shuffled by. Once they got round the split limb, and the roots knuckling bare earth under the oak tree, there was room enough to jog up the porch steps.
“You here to look in on Mrs. Lewis?” Ray asked. He 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 seized 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.”
He held back, just to say this to Ray, having twisted the knob and unstuck the door already from the carpeting it snagged on.
Letting Joshua do the yelling, Ray slipped in too, and the room had a chill; the blue sofa, the rust rug, the shiny drapes open on their traverse rod. A smell. Of old smells settled in 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. “You 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 even in unconsciousness.
“Nothing to do with that branch,” Joshua said. “Broke out a window, but the rug was dry. I can get one, couple panes of glass, replace that…barn down there got a lot 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 when 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’d been in some way contending with Joshua, he gave in. They tilted 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 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’d 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 (as he described it to himself), 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’d 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…and he’d taken a little stroll. He’d meant to try pounding on the kitchen door. But you get curious, passing by an old-time privy, wondering what it looks like inside.
She’d come out the back way, 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.”
She came into the living room, holding a dust mop. Ray hadn’t meant to wander 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, bricks and lumber, three windows, all broken, but enough good glass to fix one, from the Spaulding barn…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 projects. They’d 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’d let him 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 then she’d lifted her head, and given Ray a black-eyed stare.
Less to eat turkey and more for the new satellite dish, Ray had joined the family for Thanksgiving, and hadn’t seen her that time. The bedroom door was closed. If nobody could be using that room, it was a snug house. Out here, only a sleeper-sofa opposite the old sofa, shelves with toys and kids’ books, an ironing board, a beanbag chair, the TV and the new woodstove.
He 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’d bent down to whisper.
That had brought giggles.
This Monday, he’d used the twenty-five dollars Tamera gave 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’d ridden into town in the van; he did these days, when Tamera did her shopping. He bought a couple things they had at the grocery store, for the kids. They had a lot at the grocery Ray hadn’t expected. Tee shirts and socks, Christian books, decorations, toasters, pots and pans. He been buying everything at the crossroads gas station he could ride his bike to.
The postman asked, handing Ray a red envelope sealed with a foil sticker, “Old Mrs. Lewis got renters?”
Ray lied, a little bit. 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 need stop him just 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. In point of fact, two watches, for green light as well as blue bumped 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 that’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. There was something weird to him about touching people. He’d 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 people. 283—he’d 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, would have the easier time.
He’d been a little concerned, coming to the cafeteria from the morning hike, to find breakfast a buffet. Tom 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. 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’d sat opposite and 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 the egg then.”
“And what have they got against coffee, I wanna know? No, I’m talking about, if you had five pieces of toast. You could.”
“But you know, it’s the set point. 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 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 use in accord with Toby’s directives—fat, every one of them. He was fairly certain, thus, 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 breath…that, and his words, as he hoped, not audible.
“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 saving 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. “Well, I mean…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, mutely, hunched his shoulders and bowed his head; and 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 Tom’s neck.
He’d been tapped second. How, he wondered, could Toby get around in the dark without kicking anyone…maybe he would take secret pleasure in kicking them…
“And why not?” Toby finished his dialogue with John, whose passion was “helping kids”. Yes, a youth camp. John would have to buy a piece of land somewhere. He had run out of steam, mumbling about crowd sourcing.
“Please?” Toby said.
“Um…” Tom answered. “I kinda wanna have one of those pictures…you know. Like when I can get into a thirty-two waist…you know, 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. You know, I live in a trailer right now. I mean, the kind that pops up to a tent. With 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…”
“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’d caught herself, a moment ago, standing by, waiting for Luisa, realizing she’d 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’d trotted down to direct them.
“Ah. Why the cage? Well, I’ll tell you.”
But saying so, he’d gone 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. This was planted in beets, on the greens of which she’d 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…the Community’s garden. Toby, helping his wife settle Perry on a cushioned bench, stood at the hilltop, under corrugated shadow thrown by the roof tiles of the compound’s teaching center.
His words, now the women had paused all movement, came to them from on high.
“Within a year’s time, what had been our woodland grove would sprout again. Nature is very efficient in that way…but you would see no more of the orchids, the trilliums, the maidenhair ferns…”
Gerda mowed across the ferns.
“So it’s the same with antibiotics. You have killed off everything that ought to be there…and something else will grow in its place. Junk.”
“Most people,” Toby said, “have it backwards. As you see. You have to restore your health before you will ever lose weight, rather than lose weight to restore your health.”
Luisa shaded her eyes and stared up at Toby. 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, these paths were. Some irresponsible people put down pine straw or bark mulch, Toby had told them. “Burns like tinder. Which, of course, it is.”)
“You hear?” Luisa whispered.
Tom cleared his throat, and Jackie, looking over her shoulder, saw something eager light his eye. He was going to make a wisecrack.
“He’s wonderful, isn’t he” She moved to block, making her voice quiet, if perhaps not awed. Jackie had an indiscreet question for Luisa. Whether or not she liked Tom…by and large she did…she didn’t want to laugh along with him. Not at Toby’s expense.
Toby could be heard above taking leave of Perry. Gerda was already coming down the terraced steps. She spoke, in her ringing exercise instructor’s voice, many paces before coming close enough to join them.
“I’m going to surprise you. I think you see that I am lean and fit?”
“How many calories do I eat every 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 six feet away, on the other side of the double row of cages. “So we don’t starve to death. 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?”
She was rhetorical this time. Gerda narrowed her eyes, and nodded. 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 butter, frozen tea cubes, crushed. 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 could only gain a very small 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 said, strolling along 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 we ourselves, to microwave sickness. The air around us, even as we stand here, teems with radio transmissions, coming from across the spectrum of frequencies, and from every direction…and this, of course, is radiation. It is terribly unhealthy.”
It made sense. Even at about the time he’d had his third ear infection, there’d been stuff out there, some public debate, as Perry recalled, about overtreatment. He’d been a fat kid by the sixth grade—not just chubby, as 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 was 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.
But that was being hard on himself, which his sister had told him to stop doing. He’d been eating a lot of oatmeal, trying to fill up on it, this latest endeavor coming just before the Sunday he’d called her and told her he was going to swallow a bottle of ibuprofen.
Perry could laugh about this now, a little. He had a lot of medications to choose from. He’d researched it on the internet; then begun to wonder if a bottle would be enough for a man of his weight. And whether he had not been taking way too much to begin with. Ironic.
But the misery was real. Depression was the reason he hadn’t thought it through well enough, that Jason might get hurt too. His nephew’s telling him had been a real act of heroism. Perry figured his family found him an embarrassment, and if it seemed tempting to join in with a peer group, to laugh and keep secrets, he couldn’t have blamed the kid. Jason’s embarrassment, face red, half turned away, had been evident.
“There’s some people, who are like, stalking you. They take vids…um…you know, like when they see you out someplace. So like, they send an alert, and they invite people to watch you…getting in the van, or something.”
The impact hadn’t landed all at once. For a few days, he hadn’t needed to go anywhere, and Perry from long habit did his shopping at the earliest hour. The Wal-Mart parking lot at seven a.m. was sparsely filled; he could get his van into a handicapped space, and clamber out…which was the tough part, exiting on the passenger side without holding up traffic, and yielded not-always-predictable results. He’d had the van modified with a bench seat, set back from the steering wheel. He had a rubber-footed step and a cane he used, because it was hard otherwise to get leverage.
He had learned that of the two evils, there was no lesser choice—he could buy a few things, and turn up shopping often, imagine someone’s saying (it was not much to imagine a thing he’d heard in reality): “Fat dude’s back.” Or he could buy two or three weeks’ worth all at once. “Check out that shit load 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’d never had such a sense of himself, as viewed through a camera lens…he’d felt anonymous, going about his business, absorbed in the job at hand. He had sometimes, in dry, cool weather, gone out to the car port, through the special door, down the concrete ramp, and if he hadn’t felt his asthma likely to kick up, walked without the tank to the end of the block and back…exercise being good for you…thinking, since he never saw anyone in these early morning hours, that no one saw him.
He’d prided himself, even, on the bullying’s being a lesson, that he’d been gifted with a better understanding of what a person could suffer in this world—and that if he had not known these things, what would he be, after all? A lout. Maybe also a bully.
But then, he’d always had his home as a haven, and could choose to shut the door when he preferred being alone.
His nephew’s information had given Perry a sense of being under the eyeball at all times, and had 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 of course, if there were people like that, Perry knew himself vulnerable, horribly vulnerable.
But the phone call hadn’t been, as the armchair psychologist would have it, a cry for help. He’d asked Debbie to help him make a decision. That, in its way, was asking for intervention—as you’d want to with any decision that might have consequences you couldn’t think of for yourself. 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, seemed to take the smile as an invitation.
“Hey, Perry, you okay for a while?”
“Listen, if you got stuff to do…” Perry turned up the palm of one hand.
No, he could’ve gone either direction. Debbie had started coming by daily. Jason had not come once…and this was easier, no doubt, on both of them. At the end of the month, she’d told him about Toby Messerman. She’d been emailing back and forth with Gerda.
“You have to look at their website. They have so much good stuff. And you don’t have to fly, Perry…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. Out of a five hundred pounder’s before and afters, they would get great publicity value. He felt cynical about it—what was seven days? But he would be the soul of loyalty if they succeeded; happy, at length having dropped three hundred pounds by the Messerman Method, to let them “use his image”.
“Luisa, you said…”
Jackie froze here, and Luisa, without much to go on for answering, smiled instead and gave a prompting nod.
“You said you lived in a camper.”
“Well, we do. It’s funny.”
She’d been going to explain this, how it was funny, but Jackie had then rushed on. “But, I mean…I’m sorry…it’s kind of expensive, this place, I mean, isn’t it?”
Luisa meant, yes, it is expensive; but no, don’t be so anxious. The question had not offended her. No, she told Jackie, she had paid the full price. She’d used her own money. If the Messermans gave discounts to needy cases—they might—Luisa had not asked, and didn’t know.
They’d all gone from picking vegetables to gathering eggs. The chickens also roamed under wire mesh. They had a coop in which to roost, a generous yard, 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, being like any of us, unfulfilled, unchallenged, bored, stressed by the conflict between her ancestral urges and her daily 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’d 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 when she’d first 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.” And having distracted herself, sharing this, Belinda then finished: “This boot camp stuff is just an exercise.”
“But,” Jackie said. The lights were out. The Messermans, opposed to every sort of interference with nature, did not flank their compound with security lighting. The dormitory was not pitch dark. Jackie remarked on this; Luisa had expected it. Now and again, to keep from being fined—or, disastrously, their home impounded—Leon had to 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, having taken this second abortive tack, about 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’m never going to sleep. I wish I could at least check my mail.”
“Oh, shut up,” someone else said.
Luisa then told her thoughts over to herself. She’d been waiting to give Jackie the rest of her answer…about the funny ways of circumstance. Her own job was full-time—and permanent, for what that meant. Her daughter sometimes 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.
Even Leon would come on as a housekeeper, when it was not the wildfire season. There was always cleaning to be done in a nursing home.
Leon got insurance for those times he was cutting brush; the rest of the time, he could not—the children and her daughter needing added to her own…and that was a lot of money taken from her paycheck. Luisa got a little above seventeen hundred a month, take-home, and tried to put, of this, at least four hundred into savings.
So it was, that if any place close to Pacifica Terrace had been a possibility for renting, her family would suffer, for having found a place to settle. She would have to enroll the children in a school. Which she wanted, very much, to do…but without a doubt, this made for expense after expense.
Then, of course, the problem with rent was not merely whether you could afford it, whether you could save enough deposit money to secure a nice apartment; but that then, you had sacrificed 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 be gone.
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.
And so they camped. But that was, as she’d told Toby, not so bad if you were only sleeping. They ate at Carl’s Jr. They took the kids to libraries, parks, shopping malls. She and Leon had figured, with their savings, to find a cheap little house. Probably they would go to Oregon. California was too much. They would do all the repairs themselves. Luisa could find work…nursing assistants were needed everywhere.
“But, Jackie,” she whispered. She wanted to tell this, 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…you save money for the future, and if you get sick, there’s no future.”
“Now, what you think about dating?”
Absent-minded, Jackie had been on the verge of giving Tom a considered answer. There wasn’t a reason she could think of not to. Date. She hadn’t been divorced before…maybe, by a premature launch, people really did get shocked. And then 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,” he went on, “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 five, just before returning to the cafeteria kitchen to fix dinner (afterwards to wash dishes). There was nothing to do at this time of day but walk the grounds; and being exercise, the activity 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 had persuaded Jackie. Her neck had stopped hurting. Paul Messerman also made them align in two squadrons, as he liked to call these, and had taught them to obey a simple command, to pivot to the right at the sound of a whistle, in columns making for the cafeteria and breakfast.
Belinda had by now decamped. She had done so 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) had been doing the Messermans’ farm and household labor, but Jackie found the week had done for her what Toby and Gerda claimed to offer: broken her routines, taught her what to eat and how to cook it. How, in most cases, to lay it out on the plate raw.
As to insults, this came over her slowly, while Tom talked on, about a friend who’d baited him with a promised hook-up, and then…
“Lamed out, you know? He was like, c’mon, ask one of the bridesmaids. Yeah, that’s funny, fat guy dancing.”
He’d thought this colleague, not so much a pal, had wanted only 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’d come back to socializing with Tom.
She was not on the moral high ground.
Her lawyer, she could recall, had, with a funny look on his face, and taking a kind of sideways approach to it, 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.”
Jackie faced him down, when of course, he was her ally, not her enemy. And she did know what he meant. Anyway, she knew how to Google. She wouldn’t call Brendan the enemy, either…but her lawyer would have liked it, if she’d consider their relationship adversarial.
She had come to Toby Messerman with the thought that a thirty-six year old fat woman, who’d never had a job outside her husband’s studio office, needed to get sleek. Not that Jackie didn’t like seeing people of size sass back; she believed in attitude…but thought that in real life the competition wouldn’t bear it. Brendan as sole authority on Jackie’s skills, her only reference, might tell a caller, “Sure, why not give Jackie a try?” Or he might dig a little deeper in the mine of faint praise and say, “Oh, yeah, Jackie’ll work hard for you.”
She needed to make contacts of her own.
And then she’d found out, poking her nose into other people’s business, that with few exceptions (and Belinda notably had not approved of her, or any of the others here), they were all…well, not poor, but struggling. Most seemed to have scrounged to pay for their stay. It seemed unlikely to her now that the Messermans would, out of pity, discount the fee, return part of her money in cash…though this would have come in almost heartbreakingly handy. She’d used three cards to charge the cost of 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, haggling delays, point-outable faults in her character.
How long did it really take to lose sixty pounds? This was Jackie’s settle-for-it, size ten ambition. Eighty pounds, getting to a six? But Gerda said be slow, concentrate on habits, not calories; 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 does, 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 carrying on with their program…maybe it wouldn’t be possible. Jackie wasn’t in charge of her life right now. She’d had to beg a spare bedroom from her sister, who resented (and the conversation needn’t take place, Jen had an incredulous 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 really 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 the sort of people who could give her one, gaining their empathy, having a common experience to override the lack of positive reviews…simply making herself liked by them.
Tom seemed to like her. But Tom lived at his parents’ house in Pasadena. He said he was a debt collector. And had told her he wanted to get out of it.
Well, he’d got her agreeing with him on Doug’s black shirt and navy tie combo. If women liked seeing that hipster/gangster thing going on, Tom would have added his boss’s style points to his thin-guy list. But he hadn’t believed in it. Another thing he didn’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 tee shirts 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 was lingering, so he finished the conversation with himself) was, once at home, he would stick for even a day with the Messerman Method. The website’s promise had enticed—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—he’d never been there—if being thin could be so rewarding, maybe you’d just go buy yourself a new shirt, go sip at a water bar, check yourself in reflections…find this worthwhile, fair compensation, as you starved to death. But he knew that to be miserable and still be fat was at length the deal-breaker. It had been with every diet he’d tried so far.
It was not that Tom had been left by this week unconvinced of the Messermans’ rightness; he no longer suspected the method too good to be true. Yes, he could believe in it now; now they’d gone all the way in, weaned from their first two days’ “transitional” food. 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 (no doubt 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, and end with a protein smoothie (however high in “good fats”), and a piece of chicken, or a boiled egg, rigorously fasting 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 Messerman and Paul were walking Perry, down there 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, he concluded. 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 different 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 now beaming, and smugly.
“Hey, John,” he called out.
John strolled over, eyebrow raised.
“What’s that EF?”
Tom decided 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’ group. You didn’t hear Toby say it? Maybe you didn’t.”
Say what when? Tom thought, and answered himself. Sometime 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. “Probly mother with a capital M. Anyway, she needs soldiers to fight the battle. I don’t think he said it exactly that way. And 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 I should say. He looked askance at Paul. Paul squinted back, and giving Perry his arm, veered off with him up the hill, towards the main compound building. Tom and John edged back from the path, making the way clear.
These men and women were not yet thin, but they 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, 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 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?”
Yeah, 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 made a deal in good faith. Didn’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?”
And those were a lot of questions. Jake’s. His Dad’s. The script’s. Had he ever tried seriously to answer them?
“Listen,” Tom said. “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. I know that.”
He 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 in this place. You, and one relative. Spouse,” he said. “Child, 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!” Now he made a comic lunge, pivoting round on his stick at the end of the semicircle he’d been walking. Two girls in shorts collided with one another, 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 frightening, ay-lien, 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, 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.” Tentative. She turned to Laurel. “What are they called?”
Laurel gave her sister a face that showed 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.” He answered Rachel. “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, then, 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 Amanda the Bog Ranger. But why, Laurel thought, am I sarcastic? She’s got nothing to do with it. Amanda the park officer, then. She was in uniform, and unable, without cause, to climb the fence onto the Jenkins family’s property. Laurel supposed the ranger could pursue, though; had a duty, in fact, to keep the suspect in sight, if any of Penfold’s people committed an offense inside the bog.
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 by that name) 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 then 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 there through the night. And music, that visitors to the bog had complained of.
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, as Penfold’s man pointed out; until the mid-eighties, it had been mined for peat. The bog was in a constant state of restoration, anyway, with only parts open to the public.
“…and you’ve got your plank walks cutting across, 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,” he’d repeated, “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 the Fish and Wildlife service wasn’t encroaching.”
He’d got applause for this. One mayoral candidate had been 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 had afterwards turned into a picnic/free-for-all.
Now Duffet began to wind up. He stopped to clear his throat, then 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 jail time 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 angry Jenkins supporters thwarted most of Duffet’s statements. Duffet was the leathery, sinewy, bearded exemplar of the man who lives alone in the woods. Yet one might fairly have said 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 in mud, and plants a sundew in some other bog. The crow might 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 that 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 asked 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 tilted along the road, so that their right-hand (some stubbornly left-hand, drawn up nose to nose) wheels were 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’d thrust hers out first, but goggled her eyes through this formality. 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’d fallen, then, into meaningless praise-words: “really great”; “beautiful”…because Tara had begun actively to drift off, making at length what seemed to Laurel a pretext of hailing Dennis, murmuring that she had to tell him something. Am I teacher’s pet, Laurel thought, because I’ve been given an assignment? Where is the friction coming from?
She was going 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’d been having with Rachel before Duffet arrived, late for his talk…what he’d been up to, beyond knowing.
“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, I have a phone. The Free Landers don’t come into the bog.” They might, Laurel supposed. It was easier to envision Duffet stalking around under the moonlight. And Duffet the Wildman wasn’t dangerous, either. “If you’re not into it, you’ll be bored.”
“No, I can help.”
“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, was fine. Two towers on not so distant hilltops could be seen, 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, nearly a century ago. Once, in the days of canals, it had been a man-made hill, dredge taken from Rust Creek to make the passage for cargo traffic deeper and straighter. They’d forgotten it, the county fathers, and the mound in its shallow topsoil had grown a meadow…daisies, bee balm, ironweed. Waving grasses. These and other weeds, indifferent to their topography, remained, sowing unwelcome seeds.
Until 1920 picnickers had spread blankets there on the fourth of July.
Today, a trail exited the public zone, climbing through a border of burdock, a young grove of sumac and black locust, reaching a leveled clearing, a padlocked storage shed, portable toilet, and outdoor table, belonging to Fish and Wildlife. As for camping, the women had their choice of any clearing on the slip.
“But,” Amanda began.
They’d had an awkward moment, the three of them, women failing to take the initiative, watching each other falter instead of hoisting gear. Amanda, of a younger generation, and though she did not owe Laurel her assistance, only her guidance, had moved first, grabbing the zippered tube of canvas—the pop-up tent. Rachel then 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: @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 sunset’s dying rim, 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.
They’d signed their names to the terms of the permit. They had assumed all risk. And would not be hit by lightning, mauled by a bear, assaulted by a Free Lander…these possible threats no likelier, during this window of exposure, than being killed by a meteor, or abducted by Bigfoot.
“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’s gonna be even,” Laurel amended.
“Listen.” Rachel threw her bedroll inside the flap. She followed it, ducking in, and remained there. Laurel listened to raindrops, the odd, 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 organ music.
“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, and saw by the light of the thrust screen that the space was barely big enough for two short people to stretch out. More likely, draw up knees and face the walls (if tents had walls), neither of them able to uncramp a leg without waking the other. She’d 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. She’d meant, 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 began unstrapping 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 the 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. It’s all kind of train-wrecky, you know? I figure they’re just giving themselves guilty knowledge…I’ll be in the nursing home one day, and they’ll still be out there, twitching when something reminds them…I mean, one of them might grow up and run for sheriff, or something.”
“I don’t know what to think about you.”
“Then don’t. Just 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 had once, eighteen or nineteen herself (Nixon had been president then, the laundry room’s black and white TV the only one there was to watch), let Rachel, five years old, camp out in her apartment. Laurel was the adult, unassailable.
Now Rachel was the adult, her bossiness relentless after Debbie had died. She’d told Laurel what to bring to the supper, what to wear to the service, and what her stepmother had wanted her to have.
Laurel saw her Dad squirm in his recliner, digging out his pen-knife to slit the wax paper on a package of graham crackers. On the coffee table (rings scored deep in the blond varnish) was a tub of peanut butter; vanilla sandwich cookies for dipping. Debbie’s marshmallow fudge. Bottles of root beer—root beer, not everyday Coke—for Christmas. Popcorn.
She was not dreaming, just remembering.
“Hey,” she said.
She’d kept her hiking boots on…this 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 endeavor got out of hand in a hurry, stealth moves Laurel tried, pushing herself to her knees.
“Jesus, I’m not asleep. We’ve only been in here five minutes.”
And, having disentangled her feet from her sleeping bag, for two or three minutes more Laurel was able to sit alone, outside on the cooler, thinking of poor Debbie, her Dad—of how the bog resembled a glowing bowl, so much light of civilization to be seen everywhere along the horizon. The rain had stopped.
Rachel crawled out.
“Is that lightning? I think it’s flashing over there.”
“Do you wanna go? I mean…we would just have to stick to the path. I guess I didn’t really notice how far we came in.”
“No.” Rachel said. “Hey what?”
It was how little they really knew each other. They’d 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 was near an overpass; it caught a constant rise and fall of grinding motor and rushing air, sucking along the concrete barrier. Its acre was framed by a river shallower than Rust Creek, and a drainage ditch beside a gravel road: house, carport, and metal shed hemmed in by woods.
Her Dad had liked his salt lick, the baby fawns that came right up into the yard.
Not having a car, Laurel waited at her apartment for him to pick her up. Then she waited for Christmas to end, sometimes walking around the yard, sometimes watching TV. Playing stuffed animals with Rachel. Giving them voices and hopping them around. Not helping Debbie…Debbie set things out from the refrigerator; she didn’t cook.
At twenty-five or so, Laurel had said: “I have stuff to do, Dad. It’s okay, isn’t it?”
She hadn’t spent Christmas with them after that. She’d sent cards, and for a while asked Debbie, “What do you guys need?”
“Oh, now, hon, I got more knick-knacks than I know what to do with.”
Rachel, having after a minute caught the allusion, said: “Oh, yeah, dipping ’em. That was Dad’s thing.” She added, “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, turned down dim inside the tent, put out one sharp blue oval, not enough light to read faces by. The calculation that brought the silence was, of course: what sort of place does she live in, these days? Is it clean? Is she serious?
“We could potluck.”
She wasn’t serious, or hadn’t been. But why not insist on this right, too? Rachel—from watching talk shows, Laurel thought—had around the time January resolutions would be featured, decided they were sisters and ought to be better friends. See more of each other. She’d emailed this.
Laurel 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 talk to people. She was building an armored defense of normality. You needed to, 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 was gonna buy one of those mail-order hams.”
Rachel missed a beat. But 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 had a brother and sister. His mother had four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. The little ones lived with Jeff’s niece in Las Vegas…but all this was “close” to Rachel’s mother-in-law, who flew up from Scottsdale. 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 out, up to Bren’s house and so forth. I’d have to ask her.”
Bren…Laurel wasn’t sure who this was. To read Rachel’s voice, she felt ticked at having to ask. Because the invitation itself was upending, or because, as Laurel’s sister recounted it, Jeff’s mother arrived, to set up camp in the guest room, and made declarations: “I’m bringing my own bed” (she did…it inflated); “I need the car Saturday”.
“Email me when she gets there. It’s my job to invite her.”
“Well, 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 mind.
A noise that had been coming on them 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 him shuffle, halt, cough.
“It’s Laurel!” Hostessy already.
“Ladies! It’s Dana!” he called back. “Dana Jenkins.”
“Not that creepy guy,” Rachel said, low, not out of earshot. But then, she meant Duffet.
“Dana, are you alone?”
“Yes, ma’am. I wonder if you remember me?”
She hadn’t seen Dana since high school, many 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 had included hers in the fanned array of team photos on the home page. She hadn’t liked Dana, and didn’t like in general when people who’d treated you as a punchline, came up decades later with no acknowledgement…as though an old, shared experience made everyone pals.
But then again…
“Why are you ‘ma’am-ing’ me, Dana?”
He grunted into the light of the lantern. “You’re like my wife.” He gave a nervous laugh.
He wasn’t getting it.
He wasn’t making Laurel out old…or if he was, she couldn’t be bothered. He was making her out forbidding. Of course, the same might be true of his wife.
“Why are you here?” Rachel said.
“Keeping an eye on things.”
“What things? This isn’t your land. Aren’t you breaking the law?”
“You know what it’s like out here when the moon’s full, and you’re camped up on the ridge…” They heard his coat sleeve swish, saw his arm rise against the sky, pointing. “Everything’s 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 out a palm to balance. “They let you have a little campfire out here?”
“I didn’t ask. I guess it would tell on the permit…” Her permit was in her pack. And there was no reason for Laurel to raise the point.
“Well, I don’t wanna make trouble. It’s kind of cheerful, having a fire. We used to do hotdogs and marshmallows.”
“Yeah. 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 didn’t want anyone present making trouble.
“How’s your family, Dana? How’s the business?”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Good for the bank.”
She hadn’t heard this news. On review, Laurel thought she’d stopped getting flyers from Jenkins. These had gone straight from mailbox to recycling bin.
“But you’re logging,” Rachel said.
“No. We got held up on that.”
“Well…Jeff, my husband, thinks if the land belongs to you, it’s not right. 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 in a bar next door to you, staying open ’til two a.m., having customers park all over your street. But your street is zoned, so no one could do that.”
“It’s not up to me, anyhow.”
To this, she could have answered, “It’s up to the courts,” or anything to similar effect. Laurel’s wish was not to convert Dana, but to move him along. She prompted, instead: “It’s family property, in a sort of trust, but your brother doesn’t live here now.”
Those were some facts from Duffet.
“Wouldn’t make any difference to Rocky.”
“Laurel,” Rachel said, her voice with a calling-to-account edge, “I’m going to bed.” A pointed exit with dignity was not an easy thing to make, when this meant hunkering down and climbing through a tent flap. Nor did Rachel’s point budge Dana.
It was in her sister to be inspired by books and TV shows that coached: take risks, challenge yourself, and Laurel was proud of Rachel for that…for being not too much in thrall to Jeff’s worldview, for keeping calm.
Then there was Dana, the two of them alone now, two statements of his hanging in the air, begging. What’s not up to you, Dana; what makes no difference? She asked him the second.
“Money. More than that…the idea of some kind of Jenkins…um…”
“Not legacy. I wanna say getting what’s coming to us, but not like that. Rocky’s got a security business in Denver. But I mean, clear across the country. From college, from high school, he wanted to get out there.”
“He doesn’t care if you sell the business, if the land gets logged. But he’d care if you cut him out.”
“Yeah, just like that.”
“But you don’t care. Anymore.”
He made a noise. A high-in-the-nostril snort. “I worked the cash register…up front, not the pharmacy, summers. We used to put price stickers on everything. Ka-zing. Ka-zing. That was another job I did. Pull stuff off the shelves when it expired…my dad was a son of a bitch for that. People were always messing up the shelves. So my mom was working the back counter and I brought her six bottles of Excedrin. I said what else does Dad want me to do? She was on the phone, she put up her hand with the pencil in her fingers, and I stood waiting. She had her bag sitting open on the floor, under the counter. She was moving, pacing, writing something down. I saw her bump one of the bottles…it fell off into her bag. I didn’t say anything because I knew it was on purpose. She knocked another one in.”
My mother, Laurel thought, got in trouble with the neighbors for not making me go to school. I went to live with my dad, and I never caught up. People put the taint on you, decide you’re a loser and it would be embarrassing to talk to you. You remember me, Dana.
She didn’t say it.
The thought had just come idly, in the way she’d pictured, at the beginning of Dana’s story, Harry Penfold’s paneled office, the glass ashtray with the chipped corner, on the counter above her head, Harry leaving his cigarette perched in a dimple to wisp smoke in her face, while he paced on the phone, the cord stretching and compressing. She’d run into Harry, at the start of all this, thinking herself well placed to speak to him about the bog…and dismaying him with her age. Harry, she supposed, couldn’t think of himself as seventy-eight, so it amazed him the twenty-year-old he’d hired in 1976, was now sixty-one.
But Dana was telling her this, leading up to some other confidence.
“You know Harry?” he said.
“So you know Stonemill Market is pretty well empty. They got that off-road bike dealer opened up now, and they got that one restaurant.”
“I can’t think of the name,” she said, because he’d paused here.
“Uh. Who cares? No, I’m saying, if you drive by at night you always see Harry…or you see his storefront, you see the open door at the back and the light coming from the office. I don’t know why, it makes me think all of us are being…condemned, in a way. I’m not saying this like I want to.”
“You mean poor Harry, sitting tight in the midst of his ruins, reminding everyone he’s got perseverance, he sticks by his own—even if they don’t.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s good. Guess you do know Harry. Just parked there at his desk, is what I figure, getting drunk most nights. Locks up about nine o’clock and then he wants to talk to somebody. I was in my garage. It’s true…”
Dana’s clothes rustled with a shrug.
“I watch TV out there. I got a twenty-seven year old kid home from college. My wife thinks I oughta suck it up and look for a job. People driving past 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, and yelled for him.”
“And he’s just gone?”
“What you think, Laurel?”
It depended on whether Dana meant, what should I do? Or, of Harry Penfold, really only asked her opinion.
Here in the bowl, with civilization circling, the bark of a deer or whinny of a screech owl had been only ambient noises, competing with the slam of a car door, shouts that flared over dim radio music from the Freelanders’ 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’d probably taken his leak, then headed off the wrong direction. Was there any reason not to approach the Freelanders 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, one or two could look you in the eye and spew hate at you. Of this, at least, she was fairly confident.
Shouts, without the ragging note of the 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.
Sirens came on.
“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’d tended to stick to his mother a little, a forty-nine-year-old man reverting in her presence—and with his doubts about Laurel—to dependent apron-stringing. But this had been short-lived. Jeff got over mumbling asides to Rachel and found himself able to chat with his sister-in-law. Even to laugh apologetically when his mother asked, “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…so many years ago…of her existence. Their charity was likely mutual, this perhaps the first holiday of her marriage Mrs. Penfold had garnered an excuse to stop the rituals, cancel the heavy preparations.
Laurel also had invited Dana Jenkins and his wife, calling him on the phone, getting her. After sitting down to write a note, she’d 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 was just figuring the more the merrier.”
Dana came on. “How bout Christmas Eve?”
It was amazing how people who might have the dog shaking clouds of dander into the kitchen air…or who might, conversely, cover every surface with an accumulating coat of Windex—worried about other people’s being clean enough. Laurel had scrubbed everything, dusted, vacuumed; boxed books, junk mail, extra pairs of shoes, research materials, put them away in the garage. She’d 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.”
She’d told Rachel: “Seriously, don’t bring anything.” Rachel brought stuffing, a sweet potato casserole, a big tin of mac and cheese. Jeff’s mother loaded her plate with these, chiefly…maybe…for her daughter-in-law’s sake. But she relaxed into turkey and gravy.
Lit like a sparkler, staggering among the Freelanders, Harry Penfold had found a crony, a man named Bill Krantz, with whom he indulged a violent fantasy.
“I always took it for a game. Whenever he’d go to get drunk, he’d talk like that, how we’d burn ’em 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 he towed with his truck, up a different back road every night. The tent fabric was printed, and the bed painted, in camouflage; the truck also. The headlights of a passing vehicle might easily miss Duffet’s bivouac. But he’d stalked the bog close, sticking to the same few spots, getting into Jenkins Woods, using night-vision binoculars to spy on his enemies.
The Freelanders circled back.
Bill Krantz said he never knew it was missing.
“I just kept the can in the truck bed. That was for the cook stove.”
Duffet had been working on emails, sheltered in double darkness, his siege mentality requiring he drape a blanket over his head, to shut out the light of the screen. For once in his life, the intruder had come, creeping up in stealth from the trees.
The sound of kerosene glugging from a can is a distinctive one—and to the implication, Duffet awoke in an instant. Harry Penfold, also, though he might not have known this of himself, muttered, going about his work, and when he struck the match, startled himself. He uttered a shriek, then cursed, retreating.
The flames leapt. Duffet was trapped—the danger real—in a cloth-covered enclosure, in a ring of burning kerosene…
But, for this attack (and a variety of others), he was a man long prepared. The blanket was wool. He wrapped himself in it, poured the contents of his canteen over his head, and burst from the tent flap, 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 don’t smell anything…you know…”
As far as Duffet knew, and as he explained it—a fresh telling to every concerned inquirer—the woods might have been swarming with Freelanders, waiting to finish the job.
The Freelanders took this indignantly.
“Nobody gave a goddamn about Duffet,” as Krantz put it. “Harry was just fool drunk. But he’s gotta answer for himself.”
“Now, I’ve got something for you.”
She didn’t mind seeing both faces, Rachel’s and Jeff’s, grow dismayed. They were making tentative moves as a family, prompted after all by some outside convergence. The vibes might attenuate and die. They probably would.
“No,” Laurel said. She didn’t need to rise from her chair, only reach behind, to the little painted cabinet under the window. “Maybe you don’t want it. It’s just a kind of souvenir.”
Rachel didn’t sound repelled, or faking it.
She said again: “Jeff, look at this!”
Laurel had gone back, the day after the fire, to dismantle the campsite…and seeing no reason not, had stayed a few hours at the work. This butterfly, pinned and framed for her sister, was not a Frazey’s checkerspot. They were too rare. But it had spent its life, it 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 you’d have to know what advantage there could be in opting out, guess whether the other guy would win the toss or lose it.
Try thinking all that without looking like you mind. So I said, “No, go ahead. I’m listening.”
But I feel like I got positioned.
One of the things they did, most times at these shows, was hold a raffle. So if you got called to come out and fill a seat, you were not supposed to let on…
And you were really not supposed to play for prizes.
But it depended. If they walked up and down the rows with a bucket (hat, whatever), you had to throw your ticket stub in. Delaney had a rule you could eat the food, but you better hand over the prize. His deal with the people that used him was to give stuff back, so it’d be good for the next event.
So then you’d figure they had this incentive to rig it, churn out prizes to the hirees…some of them were good prizes…there was one place giving away an iPhone. I didn’t get it, but knowing what I do…
Cause, if these people did their shows in even twenty towns…
No, see, to me the numbers couldn’t add up. I don’t think they gave that much away.
So this time, I should have said to the guy talking, who I didn’t otherwise know, what’s the game, buddy? I mean, why do you want me to play? Even the idea that some of us are more inside than others, is a little weird. Why doesn’t Delaney ever wanna say, stick around for a while…or come see me downtown?
I would 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.
(I’d even try that, now I think of it, if I could get, like, on a news show. And someone would see me…and I’d get offered a real job.)
But, about this crap, who cares?
“What’s your name?”
I said that.
He said, “Butch.”
“Try it again.” He gave me the scenario, for the second time. He showed me what he had in his hand, a stick, with a rubber-coated tip, that was like the handle of a hammer. But just a stick.
“I mean, doofus, it’s really easy. The money’s all gonna show from behind, with the light shining through, bright red, really 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.”
Yeah, it was always like that, you couldn’t tell when someone was joking. How would they pull this kind of stunt, unless they’d already figured how to light the stage?
Okay, so I end up having to crouch down behind the base of the wheel…cause as it turned out, they had these strobe lights, one on either side…and from sitting in the audience, you’d figure all the noise and lights going was just razzamatazz. They had four people come up and play. There were slices with prizes that were just junk they were giving away anyhow. There were two losers. There were blue ones, and I was supposed to let a blue one go, I mean stop, if I got the signal. That was Butch, making his noise.
But not the red ones. Don’t let a red one stop.
“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.
I got my chance.
The wheel went fast, too many times for me to count, then it got slower…and I saw it make a full rotation, then it got really slow, and the red came inching up.
The thing, what was messing me up, was the audience was really hooting and carrying on. That was on top of all the boom, boom, boom from the speakers. I felt like, when 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 it sounded, from the crowd, trailing off, like 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 bumped ahead.
There were boos.
Butch said, “I see that happen all the time.” He said, “C’mon, Marie. You’re up.”
And all 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 into it. Only, see, I was crouching down there for a while…one of my feet had been going to sleep, and you know how it is…doesn’t feel like much until you move, then crazy numb and prickly. So, as far as I could tell, a couple things happened. The wheel rocked back on its stand (that was from 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. That was when I kicked the light over. My feet were 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 that guy with the steaks jumped up and lifted the wheel off me (Butch was just standing there), “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…they put it up back of the food table, and Delaney was peering out through the hinge. He said:
“That was completely stupid. I mean, that was amazingly stupid. Butch is a pro, you know. 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? I got recruited, that’s all.
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 is, having something against long pants in the late spring heat, and much against concession, against investing herself in this outing, to dress for it. But jealousy has made her party to it. She wears white shorts and rubber thongs, a bubble-gum 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 drain-way, 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 the 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 said.
Sam is quiet. Maybe he’ll have to intervene. Gals don’t get along. His mind tangles up at once, thinking of the joke he ought to make, wondering whether he can make it, or if a man shouldn’t talk about that stuff…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…cat hair, it may be—on the glass-top stove. Andrée’s mother says it only shows in the sun. In the sun, rings of grease around each knob show also, and the path of the wipe-down; satiny streaks from the pressure of 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. This 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. He says he’s going to; and while he roots, rump up and head down, no one can pass that way. Andrée strides in 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, go ahead.
But knowing her way around the house, she soon gets the upper hand. Melody must follow Andrée into the living room, single-file enforced through the passage, where the closet’s louver door thrusts past the toilet, the washer and dryer. Into the kitchen. Now Sam is no longer in the way.
Melody eyeballs the glasses that Andrée’s mother has been filling with lemonade. Karen has been rejected once, but pours on, lining them up. André watches Leo’s daughter touch a finger to the stovetop…but not quite. She draws it back. She glances at the open fiberboard étagère where Andrée and her mother get their plates, their coffee mugs and cereal bowls. Andrée considers―it has crossed her mind for the first time―what Melody projects. She doesn’t care. Dust is probably good for you. If you have a soft immune system, you get sick anyway.
She glides past Melody, to the counter by the refrigerator, and takes two glasses, holds one out. “You want this? Melody.”
Yet her relative is made of sufficiently stern stuff. She 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 occur to Andrée yet to bridle. The question seems to her oddly phrased, that’s all―as though Leo’s daughter and Sam had been in the middle of a conversation. But Sam himself disabuses both Andrée and her mother.
“What…this place here?” Melody is silent. Sam gestures with a forefinger aimed 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…as you’d expect of a 60s ranch with scalloped siding and a bad roof.
“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, and 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 in the mornings, seeing deer and rabbits, seeing now and then a hawk, or a coyote. She remembers how Leo scoffed at this. 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 the TV on.
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; the “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, and 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. This, just as the hero’s eye falls on a trail of footprints going 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. Andrée 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. “A dollar up, a 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 the 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…that you don’t need a car to live out here, that 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’d 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’d 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, when he’d caught 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 it like a balance beam.
“You! 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.
“Kids 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, with the woman (her tennis skirt and visor, Andrée thought, were like from one of those catalogs, with the electric scooters and inflatable pillows, that the old lady tenants got) following him along the hallway from one concrete stairwell to the next.
“Every one of these is rented,” Leo told her. He commented, 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…then 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’d gone. Andrée shrugged, jogged down the stairs, and came round the opposite way, to the parking lot. Leo was at that moment stepping the woman off the curb, with 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. She looked over her shoulder. She stepped up to the door and looked over her shoulder again. Leo, hand resting at hip level, flapped just the fingers curled over his palm, saying without saying, “Get on.”
The office door opened and closed.
Leo never was really 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 piece of property is get it rented.” He was walking away, down the incline, under the concrete arch, out to the street. 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 the 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. He went on. “Say twenty units, thousand a month. I’m gonna tell someone like Mrs. Chickering, over there”―he jerked his head back 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 began strolling up the street. They came to a shaded corridor between two hacked-off curb maples and a yew hedge planted along the complex’s brick façade. Here, the foliage entrapped a strange, cold smell of storm drain and basement laundry, cigarette smoke, 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. In an attitude of listening, she kept to his side.
“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…” Over his shoulder, he jabbed the straw hat he carried. This was true. The arch was slathered in 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, if she did. “Another thing to fix. If the place looks like trash, you’re not gonna get a decent tenant. See how they can nickel and dime twenty grand 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’d known Leo four years. She 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 cloth, his twin in broadcloth; one shirt lighter, one darker. Would it strike anyone…supposing, like Andrée, you hadn’t known?
It’s not that Leo is mean. He is…chummy, maybe; rather than nice. 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?” It may be that Sam and Leo don’t play this game to clinch a deal. Andrée has never seen the Magruder twins together since.
And it might be that her mother hadn’t piled on tenants for Leo, not bothering to vet them, so that just at those times he’d decided to sell a property, he could boast it was full. Karen had bought this little house. She’d bought it eight years ago, after Andrée moved out of their apartment. Andrée has been back under her mother’s roof for two years. But it seems to her Karen has only chafed since her last birthday, since she passed the age of twenty-five. As though a drop-out who can’t hold a job must undergo some maturation approaching thirty, from only road-blocked 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; more last night’s exasperation, lukewarm after hours on the back burner. Karen is not so agog as Andrée over Melody’s scheming. Her ire may encompass Leo’s daughter, but with a penetrating eye on Andrée’s, Karen is focusing the beam.
Saturday, Karen had asked if she had anything to wash. Andrée scooped up everything lying on the foot of the bed, the chair back, the bathroom rug. Sunday, Karen would take a carload of boxes to the new place and be gone all day. While on the phone with Buel, Andrée had rifled the basket of folded things. Tuning him out, she tried again. It was all jeans…a sweater, towels and washcloths, 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 going to wash 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. She’ll get you.”
That’s 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. Well, 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.
“You stand around like that, Andrée, I have to think maybe I’m giving you too many hours.”
“Jonas!” Since he’d smacked her with her own name, she smacked back with his. “What do you want me to do?”
“If you don’t have anything to do, you need to ask someone.”
This was good. Jonas got paid more than the cashiers. So 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? Just do this, do that.
Because he was the boss, but he wasn’t the boss. Andrée 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.
But most of the time she had to suck it up, and go begging…to Haiden the head cashier. Haiden could be friendly in low gear, but could shift on a dime to hyper-reactive and vengeful…when Andrée got her register locked; when a customer got shitty, wanting to pay for groceries with returned merchandise.
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 a special relationship with Leo. Not, as Andrée guesses, that if you stick with a sucking job, the way her mother would like her to do, you won’t in time gain something to show for it. Maybe a raise. 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 it, she’d taken 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: “When you get some experience. I don’t need a check-out girl.”
This, after a ten-minute head count.
Andrée took a seat on a wobbly chrome-legged chair, at a classroom table. Two girls, already friends, talked for forty minutes about a cable show.
“No way he’s dead. Any time someone’s car goes off a bridge, or he’s supposed to get burned up in a fire, he’s coming back. Got to be.”
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’d left the whole mess in the middle, walked out, Andrée thinks Jonas will not take her back again.
She’d had to park her mother’s car uptown for an interview, one that ended up just a bunch of women in a room with plastic chairs along the wall, and three kiosks, where you filled out a form and got your picture taken. Picking up the car, she’d asked the guy in the booth, “Do you hire people?”
Maybe she’d 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. Didn’t work out.” 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.” Not her, 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, 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, and 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’d asked her right 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’d ask how much. This buffet/carry-out 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’d 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’d been 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 you can get social security! You ever make more than thirty, Andy?”
“Thirty!” She’d been about to say, ha! twenty—but again 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’re gonna 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. And he’d given 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’d stumbled 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’d asked Andrée, “You gonna give me a ride home?” But Buel had stayed in the driver’s seat, and she’d 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’d swung in without a heads-up.
“Come on inside.”
She liked Buel for not cutting his grass, which habit to her mother would be a red flag. As he unlocked and ushered, he was telling her: “See, ten bucks an hour is money to you…you might say not enough…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 thought, was sort of a racist.
She could agree with him powerfully one minute; the next, his attitude made her wary. She backed against a sofa, sitting under a picture window, shaded by a blind with the pull-cord broken. A brown and puffy matching loveseat sat opposite, under metal-bracketed shelves stocked with DVD’s, electronic refuse, and a pair of work boots. He slid back a louvered door, exposing computer and router, vertical files packed with folders and manila envelopes. Of these, he jerked down one, and bowed it open under her nose. Andrée’s eyes popped to see it full of cash. He tapped the space bar and the screen flashed 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 heard him mutter, to himself. “I guess Andrée could be a guy’s name…but I won’t worry about it.” Louder, he said: “I just don’t want two Andys working one place at the same time. See―” This time, he really wanted her to see. She hated spreadsheets, but got in close and peered down. Here were so many fields blocked out in yellow and pink. She saw him type in “Andy” on some of the blank lines. Then he was typing in her social security number—that on the application, she’d just given him.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“You get two and half dollars. I get the other two thirty-three. I work the Andys a full shift, plus overtime. Course that’s a different Andy. Extra hours,” he grinned 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 turned to his keyboard, and did 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 more than eight hours, that’s just gravy for you and me.”
Then, he gave 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 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 homeland.
“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 paper work. “If one of them can’t make it in, if 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. She’s taken an advance from him, a sum of money she can’t yet 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 along the blame. Maybe fraud is a cooler thing to get arrested for than, say, beating someone up. Or stealing. Of course, she is stealing.
And she is willing to bet Karen doesn’t know. Her mother might be (but isn’t) neighborly with Buel. The first Sunday Karen came back from the grocery 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 given on her own recommendation.
I’m really sorry, she can say, eyes and voice. It’s all out of my hands.
She’d shaken Buel’s hand as though, offering it, he’d offended her—put the bite on her like a bloodsucker.
Karen may seek intelligence from Leo; but Leo won’t have heard of Buel. And why should there be 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 that 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 centimeter by centimeter, 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. He’d 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, dropping beside her on the sofa, had asked, “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’d 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 had been in the 70s. They’d eaten turkey fried on the beach by a friend of Sam and Shelley’s, who’d brought his oil drum 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 impositional. 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 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 at last 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 very much that Sam can have cheated on Shelley. It would have been 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 at the little house.
Climbing the hill, she passes a garden. This house is painted burgundy; its trim, teal. Its gables are high-pitched, fairy-tale Gothic. At the top of each, a little gingerbread fillip. The house is like a ski chalet in the middle of an organic lawn, a lawn that shimmers with bees. Bees that 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 once bought a book at the Miller’s yard sale. For ten cents…a true book, not a novel. A woman lived in a tent, grew vegetables, and 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. He’ll laugh, and he won’t care if he thinks 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 fish-like, a swath of metal buttons cleared by the gesture. Everywhere they wanted punch-codes.
Easy getting them, though. “Hey, I locked myself out.”
He’d said exactly that.
And she’d said, “You must be new.” She’d jabbed out sixteen digits.
As this was impossible, he hadn’t tried following her finger with his eye…though he liked jotting these things 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 (“start at the top”); and that was six floors. The house, he was sure, had a couple more. There was a weird little lobby across, that hit you when the door swooshed open. Ugly carpet, its fiber balled into pill-sized clusters of blue and green. Hard to make those colors clash. And the window was wire inside glass, splintered. Because this shard couldn’t fall out, no one would fix it. Then there was 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, then looked at the end of the hall, where a tall window above a slab of marble was cranked open. Milton thought he’d see a roof under this, instead of a drop to the pavement…so that someone might have gone 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.
He strolled that way first, rapping knuckles on doors either side. On impulse, waiting for an answer, Milton edged sideways and leaned out…and got a shock. She had a short ponytail, beach sandals on. He saw the hair bob, the sandal smack the heel of one foot. She’d been—within his sight for a moment—at the corner, clinging with one hand to the brick, swinging herself out over nothing. He thought she had actually entered this silent apartment he stood outside of, by climbing in…getting a leg over the windowsill.
What to do, then, but knock loud?
No…Christ! someone said. This was live, Milton thought. He wanted this 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 memorial 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 woman put her head through the crack, after a sequence of noises that had 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.
Over her head, he could see well enough 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, it didn’t matter. Milton was going to ask for ten bucks, and if that was a lot, he’d ask for five. He had no rules about visible wealth, or visible poverty…there didn’t seem to be any rules, as to whether people would give or not. In the best of neighborhoods, they might as easily call the cops.
She was giving him a chin-up scrutiny. Then she backed away, widening the door’s gap. He said at once, “I’m collecting.” He had the brochure in his hand, and held it out to her. He saw for himself that there was a mattress on the floor, a stack of plastic silverware and restaurant styrofoam, one that had grown and tipped…ketchup packages inching off like slugs, a water bottle sitting half-full. The woman lying on the mattress seemed to be groping after this.
“Give him the phone. I like it.”
The crouching man stood. He gave Milton a face that didn’t smile, but suppressed amusement. “Yeah, bud…think you can remember what I look like?”
“No, look…” Echoing her—the one who seemed, for their short acquaintance, almost a friend—Milton found himself pleading with her eyes, backing himself a step, asking her with a glance, down and up, will you stay there, between me and the gun, will you let me go? If he’d had 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 with the sole of her sandal, moving away from Milton, and rolled her eyes. He thought he’d braced his shoulders, tensed up, given a signal that he’d made up his mind now to run…and the guy caught him, an uncompromising fist clenching 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 cross-legged, 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.
“Did you give him the phone? I’m serious.” The man was at the window, talking over his back. Milton’s friend checked her watch.
“We need you to 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, except in emergency…and 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, deciding on action, whipped round from the window and stooped by the mattress.
“Take it!” he told Milton.
This needed paraphrasing. 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.”
It was an admission…Milton guessed if this was the guy’s apartment, he could wave a gun around, whatever he wanted. But they were doing some kind of crime. While he was out, he ought to find a newspaper. It was her face, the one on the mattress, not the man’s, he should remember.
“But even so…if I’m going by myself…I mean, I can go, can’t I…?”
“Yeah, but you’re gonna help us. Because we’re asking you to. Because we got nothing to eat, like I said.”
He was taking the phone. He was following the signs. The phone itself was giving 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 altogether 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, pretzels…ice cream, everything he could carry that a twenty would buy.
He thought he would go ahead and get ice cream. His friend had 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 punch-code on a scrap of waxed burger 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 with you.”
He took himself on a parking lot tour, a nervous amble round to the rear entrance of the building, where two metal doors at platform height were closed, and the shade of concrete walls meeting at a corner 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 to the cold inside. It occurred to him now—too late—that maybe the guy’s instruction had been literal. Maybe there’d been a particular car…maybe he hadn’t been getting rid of the phone, but passing it to another of them.
Well, he had got rid of it.
The pints looked almost as costly as the half-gallons. Milton spent long moments leaning into the fogging 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 just caught, glancing up, the dark-haired woman’s face. She had on a red blazer…it was the hairstyle, the bangs, made him look twice. It had to be her, anyway, or what had she been talking about? She was on 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’d been taking a flyer on, but peanut butter. A thing you would never expect. “Yeah, hon,” Milton said. Too late, again, for the ice cream. “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 melting; he needed to hoof it back to the apartment. The story was not on the front page. So there was no way to rifle 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.”
He’d come up empty, going over all the scuttlebutt he could recall. City officer resigned for some dumb remark, a bad fire, foreign soccer team coming to play at the arena.
Milton 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 stood wide open…raising his head, after he’d backed inside mumbling 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 it.
“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.”
He thought now he was being insulted. But then he thought about her.
He went and had a look. He made some noise at it…huffing, grunting, clacking a little, his pocket key ring banging the wall under the sill. A face came round the corner; a hand slipped in lower, supporting her as she leaned.
“No,” she told him, “Get back.”
He caught her, though, touching her above the hips when she landed, steadying her on her feet. And then said, “I don’t know your name. I’m Milton.”
But she crossed to the kitchen, twisting away. He stood for a second wondering if he couldn’t make her 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 girlfriend. 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.
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 run.”
If they were going to make 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’d taken the side she was sitting on. He took the last cookie, just there 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 my help some way.”
She got to her feet, to pad around the mattress’s perimeter. She leaned over and hugged him. “How nice you are, Milton. Scoot over.” She said this to her sister. Lusanne said again to Milton, settling, “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 leaning over, scraping the ice cream carton, licking the spoon. Milton was not 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 dollars, that way, to live on—and what was that, if it wasn’t charity?
He was making mistakes, though. He’d got himself, coming back from the store, half convinced of it…that whatever they’d trapped him into would make the sentence, when the cops arrested him, 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, “if you have money, you can borrow money, and 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 for 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 set-ups.” Milton chuckled.
“But her partner. They would get married…only he’s not divorced. Well,” Katrina said, “now they won’t get married. But 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 has been charged with securities fraud. But his expert will still do what he does with the jury.”
“How you mean?”
Lusanne put her hand over Milton’s eyes. The contact was sudden, as before, 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.
“No.” That was his girl. “Ask him about me.”
“Um, ponytail. Light brown. Pretty face.”
“Yes, yes. What’s pretty?” Her voice said, who cares about that?
“Never mind.” Lusanne let him see again. “Just think, Milton…it’s a big responsibility. A man could go to prison. Or I suppose be bankrupt. Then you would say… Okay…?” She was silent for a minute. “I don’t know much for certain…I hate to say something wrong.”
He got her. “So this guy’s expert gets under the witness’s skin?”
“Or the jury,” Katrina said. “He makes them afraid their names will come out. You can say a lot, you know, when you talk about being careful, about importance and seriousness.”
“I’ve made my deposition,” Lusanne said. “So it’s all known. But I’m not testifying. He’ll only be acquitted.”
Steven said: “Okay, guys, it’s really time to clear out.”
Milton watched Katrina push herself to her feet. Were they leaving him on his lonesome, then, to add all this up? He thought he could…but there was one thing weird.
“How come the stuff with the window?”
He got to his own feet, and went to lean over the sill. Looking this time. A line of masonry decorated the rear façade; it maybe supported the window cuts. It jutted three or four inches, allowing someone reckless to edge along it. And he saw it now, this empty center was a dip in the midst of a square. There were roofs down below, and all around attached houses. He guessed no one would see the girls escape, unless they—the cops, whoever—had set up shop in one of the apartments across the way. He guessed you wouldn’t expect anyone to try a thing like that, either.
Katrina had been going off to get food, and he’d talked to her and made her worry.
Truthfully. He repeated Lusanne’s stress. I didn’t see her do it the first time. I thought I got what was happening. He pictured his hands on her sister’s hips and told himself, maybe I’m not seeing that either, like a real memory. Maybe I’m making it up.
“People have to do their jobs.”
Steven had got next to Milton, without Milton’s hearing him, laughing when he jumped. “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. He’d rather they didn’t. He 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. He’d sold tonic water, or something like it…yuppie crap, if there were still yuppies…and then 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, with this thing…this can’t not thing. Can’t take the chance. Can’t pass up the chance. So Jessup oughta understand. He’s not gonna put it across this time. I mean, no win to crow about. Just ugly rumors, digging down in people’s heads. See, the charges were no good. I got off. They can’t touch me.” He was imitating Camber Jessup, in that way people did, just making his voice high.
Lusanne came to stand in front of Milton. She moved as though she would hug him again, but at last put her hand over his, leaving it for a moment. “Milton, you have to go first. You won’t see us again…if you’re lucky. But you won’t forget. Only answer truthfully.”
He had lost this day.
He had lost the money he’d had in his wallet at the start. Would they even send him something in the mail? No, they couldn’t. No contact, or he’d screw up as a witness. He shuffled on the street, looking up, making it slow…his exit from the scene. Of course he would help Katrina, his girl, if he ever got the chance. They weren’t watching out the window. No, the window wasn’t on this side. He wasn’t forgetting, either. He thought he might come back, pictured himself punching in the code…and still there was no point. The sisters must live on the lake…in a penthouse. Or on one of those boats, maybe.
The Ad Said
The ad said, “Girls wanted. Good wages. Steady hours.”
It said also: “Must pass physical exam.”
“You’re crazy.” Their mother.
“Come on!” Hester smacked Hermina’s arm. “Let’s go down to the corner.”
Here, at the drugstore, they sometimes took a bet on a baseball game, from the bookmaker on his stool at the soda counter. They rarely cleaned up. And Hester, who was tall, would get in front of Hermina, block the view of her from the angled mirror over 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 worked there, I’d have to get a room…”
“Too bad. You’d hardly ever get back home for a visit.”
They laughed. They subsided, ducked into the store, and grabbed places at the counter.
“Nah, I’m chucking it,” Hettie said then. She got thirty cents an hour, at a candy factory. “We’ll room together.”
But this day, there’d been no job offer. Not even a chance to reach the front of the line. The woman who’d 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’d worn a suit-jacket and skirt, glasses, hair rolled tight. So much respectability made Hermie certain 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 with a sort of workers’ canteen, in this neighborhood of mostly factories. No other choice.
But if there’d been a seat on the bus, they’d have grabbed it, and thought of something when it counted. The sister act had got them out of bus fares before.
All the women seeking this work had filled even the aisle, and a couple dozen crowded the curb, only to see the bus pull away. The driver had been a crabby bastard, too, yelling at stragglers on the steps:
“All the room there is! Rest of you just get back…I’m closing 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. If they had a friend to speak to, speaking low.
“You two,” the woman said, coming up beside the sisters. “See that bridge?”
It was coming on sundown. But, yes…
There was chain-link around the yard, then a broad, empty field. A rail fence and another field, stretching to the river and its sickly fringe of trees. Girders in a sprawled rectangle…faint street lights, making a line of glowing bubbles, off beyond.
“That’s Regisville. There’s a subway station at the college. You can connect up, any other place.”
She crossed the street, saying this, and the sisters, throwing thanks, watched her pick up to a trot.
“It’s a railroad bridge,” Hermie said.
“What else are we gonna do? Maybe there isn’t any other bus.”
They’d giggled at first, when Hettie’s heeled shoe, then Hermie’s, slipped in patches of mud, hidden where tractors mowing had mashed the weeds into hummocky rows. It got old, by the time they’d scrabbled over the second fence. They’d pieced their way down the ditch and up, and stopped, at full darkness, to take inventory…scanning the lights that beckoned from the suburb. These seemed of a size with those that pooled here and there onto warehouse lots, from where they’d 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. For bravado’s sake, they counted cadence. Then it grew apparent—at last a moon had risen—that the tracks were built up well above the field. They’d have to climb an embankment of cinder and gravel. And then the planks, the bed of the bridge where the rails were laid, had gaps of many inches between. So even crossing could be no walk. 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 find anything in the gutter.”
“Yeah…I wish we had just a dollar, so we could get coffee and a snack someplace.”
“Wishes, fishes.” That was how the sisters shorthanded their mother’s saying.
Along the rails was a place to go by foot, a narrow depression lower than these, not clearly intended…or clearly not intended…for public use. A wrong step would scrape your heel, maybe lose you a shoe—more bad luck if it happened.
“Look out you don’t lose a shoe.” Hermie said it 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 crossbeam. 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…green. Big, for a fish. Moving start-stop, like a buoyant sack.
It snagged, and rolled once.
“It’s a man, isn’t it?”
An ear, yes…eye sockets, and a strange, wide-gaping mouth.
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, who’d been 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 half 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, falling backwards sitting. She got a finger inside the heel and dragged the shoe back on. This small task was enough to think about.
Maybe stupid accidents always happened this way.
You got your routine out of kilter, and you didn’t have time, when it…the train, in this case…
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 said, the three of them drinking tea round the table, “You girls! Stop that! Giggling…what’s funny?”
Or the woman…it must have been in the summer…who’d 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 creaking of metal ticking now muted and sedate, she stood. She looked, through the dark, at the bridge…and it was only a silhouette over the river.