When these streets were built, they were made of flat stones. The place had probably been a slightly forested shoal: washed rocks, clay, that sort of a place. The whole story of the place, what the river had done, was written on those rocks. Now, they're paved with angry pock holes. The only others of those rocks are the graves in the old places. There must have been a stone cutter, who struggled over the things that get written on rocks.
On the warm days, Jade prefers not to take her bicycle to work. Jade walks slowly, with a way of cradling herself, and swaying as she goes. The walk is worth more to her than the fraction of an hour's wage.
Jade enters the kitchen in back of "The Daily Bread," marks the moment on a card and fastens apron strings through the belt loops of her blue jeans. It feels so awkward to drape the top half of the apron from her neck, so she tucks that half under the bottom half. She is comfortable, and ready to work.
In the front of the shop, everyone is crowded around the same table. There are a few regular customers, mingled indistinguishably with the handful of people who work in the bakery. Some of them are technically at work, others, not. Jade didn't read the schedule except to see that she would need to arrive, as always, at the bakery on Friday at noon. Dotty is the woman sitting in the middle of the group. This is her retirement party, such as it is. They made a cake for her: a favorite, carrot cake.
"Oh you're so wonderful, you all. Thank you." she says, and her voice can not help but wear the mark of its years. There is gravel in her voice, and coal dust in her lungs. Her father had been doctor to the company town, which isn't there now. Her family came here, to Mecklenburg, forty years ago, and Dotty baked herself a place in this old world.
"This really is too much fuss, though" she says, and returns to her usual place behind the register. Dotty hasn't felt as needed in the kitchen for a while now, so she sits behind the register. Between the end of the counter where the register is and the wall there is a place in the room, and Dotty has made it especially hers. The artificial wooden panels on the wall of that corner are coated in ribbons of yellow tape. All sorts of things are pinned to the wall. Most of them are pennies. There are dozens of pennies taped to that wall, gathered over the course of decades, lucky finds on the walk to work. Dotty appreciates her carrot cake.
Jade says, "I found a penny too, today, Dotty. It’s all I've got in the way of a present for you, besides having helped with the cake, I mean."
Dotty puts down her plate to scrutinize the find, to read its small print, and to wonder what else the thing might say.
"This one is old, honey." says dotty, in that slow and sweet kind of croaking tone that only she can manage, "Why don't you put that one up, I’m eating my cake." She seems sad, or perhaps tired. She doesn’t talk about what happens next, and nobody asks.
No one else had ever put a penny on that collage of a wall, and Dotty will never do it again. Jade finds a place on the wall between a curled photograph of a man in uniform, and a yellow article about the man on the moon.
Rusty drives a sporty Volkswagen. He has his own speed limit: approximately twice the posted speed. A forty-five mile per hour drive through three blocks of residential area can't get him there fast enough. Rusty curbs the Volkswagen and enters the bakery. He has come for the coffee, and arrives in time for the last of it. There's a doughnut left, too.
"Only one doughnut, huh?" Jade reaches toward him with his doughnut.
"Your punishment, for sleeping until noon, Rusty."
"It’s Saturday. That’s my prerogative."
"Must be nice," Jade mumbles "Cream for that coffee?"
"I drink it black, thanks."
With that, Jade has served her last Saturday customer. The work was odd today, in the absence of the workday rush for immediate sustenance. Dotty’s presence is already missed as well. There's usually a to-do list, written in Dotty’s difficult script, which Jade will check before leaving. Jade has completed the list by memory.
Rusty places three dollars in the tip jar for the last doughnut and the old coffee, and Jade doesn't touch the register.
The tip money will have to go for groceries.
"What are you doing now, Rusty?"
"Hm…" Rusty is reluctant to say nothing, but his mouth is full. "I'm eating a doughnut, and talking to you."
"Can you do me a favor?"
"I need a ride to the grocery store." This is something a little bit sad to ask for, Rusty can tell. There had been a small market in town, next to the pharmacy, but the pharmacist died, the whole building went up for sale, and suddenly the market couldn't afford rent, what with the mega mart in town.
It has become an irregular weekly ritual for Jade to ride with Rusty to the store on Saturdays. This time, Jade needs another gallon of soap, because she's out of laundry detergent and she needs to do the dishes.
"You'll have to settle for the shit that comes in the brightly colored boxes. No more hippie soap, I'm afraid." Rusty sounds disdainful of both extremes.
Jade feels less as if she knows him as Owen's friend. Owen often gives accounts of one or another of Rusty's frequent tirades. With Jade, Rusty is considerably more reserved, but she can hear a hint of the reason for Rusty's reputation in that last comment, and the next.
Jade says, "I don't even know which brightly colored box to use," And Rusty says, "Like you've never been shopping."
"What did you come in here for, again?"
"Oh," Rusty thinks of something, "I figured I would select an impulse buy from the checkout lane and harass you until then."
"You're doing an excellent job." The whole place is harassment. Jade's eyes hurt. The fluorescent lights make a sound in the back of her skull. Dozens of different kinds of soap are on display, each one for a specific purpose.
Jade must sit to choose one of the less brightly colored boxes from the bottom of the shelf. "Soap is soap. This really is ridiculous," she says. "I want 'all purpose'…"
"Well, you know how it is: each for one and none for all," snaps Rusty. "But what can you do?" He sounds sympathetic, a little. "Are we done here?" Jade is happy to have a ride back into town. The walk would have killed her.
Jade is already shelving her groceries in her mind, on the way home. Rusty cusses the other drivers. The boys from the river in their truck are out of gas, as usual. The tree company is hard at work removing split ends from the trees damaged in a recent storm. Everyone else slows to see these things.
Jade says, "I used to think you were imaginary."
Rusty laughs. "Who says I'm real? To be honest, I wonder myself, sometimes."
"So you really are Owens’s imaginary friend?"
"Is that what you thought?"
"Well, you're not very plausible, if you think about it."
"I know," he says, "I have."
"What I mean is," Jade continues "You're only here on weekends, and you're here all weekend when you are, and then you're gone, to the city, that's kind of far."
"It isn't that far." Rusty has taken a side road, one of the alleyways, where he can approximate full speed for a few blocks, at least.
"I came looking for a new place, maybe here. You know, I did the hippie thing, showed up on a whim, trusted myself to strangers."
"Well, you picked a good one."
"He didn't seem to mind when the search wasn't really so serious."
The day old muffins are to be wrapped in cellophane now. They are not to be left out. Jade pulls the plastic fabric around them until the color from the tops of them shows through perfectly. The chocolate muffins turn to a luminescent black, and the orange tops to the carrot cake muffins are tight as drums. They feel smooth, as if they would never crumble. Jade piles them into a hanging basket by the window, where, when the door opens and a breeze comes thorough the room—it should rain any minute now - the wind catches on these plastic baked goods. For a moment, Jade thinks of the dentist's office, latex gloves against her molars. These poor muffins are begging to be liberated from their body bags, and only for fifty cents. Anymore, they stay in that basket. People prefer the new muffins to the plastic ones. To them, two dollars is what fifty cents should be, anyway.
At the end of the day, Jade's last remaining task is the one she has put off the longest. She must dispose of the day old muffins. This had been one of Dotty's jobs. She crumbled them, and left them for the birds and the squirrels. The chocolate muffins she saved for herself. There is something the cellophane does to these muffins, after only a day, so that even the animals disregard the crumbs.
Jade takes the old muffins into a brown paper sack and walks with them into the rain, toward Rusty's apartment, in case he's home. Rusty has been missing from the bakery for some time now, and the last time she saw him he had acted more like an angry stranger than a friend.
She knocks at his door, and Rusty opens it. He hasn't shaved in a while, and appears to have been working in the kitchen. By now, Jade's paper sack has speckled and darkened almost completely in the rain, so Rusty motions for her to come in quickly.
"I'm making sandwiches," he says. "For the workweek. What do you have in your lunch bag?"
"I thought you might like to have the day olds. There are a lot of them; so, just eat what you can. Give some away. Do whatever you like with them." Jade hopes her pitiful gesture of friendship will be well received.
"Got any chocolate ones? I could never find those in the day olds basket." Rusty doesn't wait for an answer. Instead, he returns to the island in the middle of his kitchen, where he has laid out two rows of bread, a jam jar, some peanut butter, mayonnaise, lunchmeats, mustard and lettuce.
"I'll make the peanut butter ones," Says Jade as cheerfully as possible.
"Those are the good ones to make," he says, stepping aside to allow her a place. "There is no wrong way to do it. It’s automatic. With these, you have to be careful not to use too much mustard. Do you like mayonnaise?"
Jade does not like mayonnaise.
"You can have this one then. I haven't finished it yet." Jade takes the last unfinished sandwich and Rusty returns to the table. He removes a muffin and eats it silently.
"I'm glad you were home," Jade says, on her way out. "I wouldn't want to leave a bag of food on your doorstep as if someone had died."
"I'm glad you could come in from the rain," he says "and now the rain is gone. lucky you."
Jade hesitates on her way out, as if collecting her thoughts to see if she has forgotten something. Rusty is sorting his food, all of it individually wrapped, and arranged like articles for a journey somewhere.
They exchange casual goodbyes.
An old stone wall, the remains of it lie along one side of an alley on Jade's way to the bakery. Occasionally she will use the wall for her sidewalk, if a car should come through, or should she wish to approximate her childhood cartwheels along this same route. One of the lots behind this wall is the backside of a restaurant. Wooden tables dot the yard. There is an umbrella planted in the center of each table to provide shade for the customers and stress for the servers, when the wind comes. Rusty has the table nearest the old stone wall. He sits alone, as he always has, but he seems oblivious. Jade takes a moment to sit with him.
He looks at her, as one would look at a person who had no business being there, a complete stranger. His expression seems deprived of human contact. His voice comes out unused.
"Yes," he says, returning his face to the menu that had covered it. "If you have unsweetened ice tea, I would like that, and -"
Jade laughs at Rusty's absurdity.
"I take it you don't have that then. No one around here ever does, it seems. I will just have the water then. And can I get my soup and my sandwich at the same time?"
"Rusty," she says.
"Oh," he says. "Its you," he says. He finally meets her eyes, and searches them for her name. "Scarlet something like that, no, Jade." he says, and fixes his eyes on the ashtray in the center of the table. Rusty mumbles something guttural and looks up to ask, "How long has it been?"
"Less than that," Jade rises from the table. She considers causing a scene. "Less than that," and she continues toward her destination.
It is a disappointment for Jade to come home to such mess. Once, the mess had been of no consequence. Now, the books are out of place, clothes are out of order, the desk is piled with papers and mail, her music collection is scattered and kitchen is spattered with sauce. The whole place needs control. It is the only place she feels she has any say over anymore, the only place where her work has any weight to it. The mess is her own, and that is some comfort.
The telephone by her bed is buried under a T-shirt. Jade sits up and notices that she has only thought of cleaning, and she reaches for the telephone.
"Jade," it's Owen on the phone.
"Well hello there," Jade can ignore the mess for a moment.
"I've got another show tonight. I'm filling in for somebody, and, well, I would really hate to play for an audience I don't know. The last few times I've been in there, you know how it is, you get the same crowd at the bakery. Who are those people?"
"And you would prefer this stranger to those strangers, is that it?" Jade has a difficult tone.
"Isn't anybody else going to go?"
"Rusty, he says there are too many people for him there."
"I think he's mad at you."
"Why do you think?"
"He’s got no new anything?”
"You are his best, and only friend, you know."
"Not so much these days I suppose."
"I suppose. And Luca? Too many people for her, too?"
"Something like that."
"How is she? How are you two?"
"It can be hell sometimes, you know. But, there is still hope, I think."
"I can imagine." Jade an hear sirens screaming somewhere in the space behind Owen on the other side of the phone. She should tell him she has a house to clean. Owen takes a deep breath, and says,
"Sometimes I wish I had gotten out of this mess when I had the easy chance."
"You had an easy chance?"
"Lets just say I was warned. I didn't listen. And now, well, the good thing to do is to try my best to drive her sane -"
"She's driving you crazy, Owen."
"Sometimes it feels that way. I could have avoided this whole mess with her, that's all."
"Well," Owen is out of breath. "Everything is a mess."
What time do you go on?" she asks.
"Around ten, something like that."
Jade clicks her tongue indecisively. "I'll try to make it, then."
Owen's music will sound strange tonight, unpracticed, and sad. No one but Jade will enjoy it.
"I'm sorry, really I am, but I can't let you call in sick for that. Not today. Any other day, but, today, I have to drive to the regional distributors in the city today, and it’s the new girl. She'd be the only one and somebody has to be there to show her around."
Jade had completely forgotten about the new girl, on purpose, perhaps. This conversation has become nauseating. It’s too bad that bitch the boss has already fired everybody else; someone could come cover for her.
"I'll be late, though." Jade isn't even dressed.
"Do try to get here when you can."
Jade drops the telephone receiver back in its cradle. She still feels a numb kind of sick inside. Her hair is tangled still from having twisted her fingers through it when she got the news. It was just like Luca to be the first to call. It would absolutely have to be Luca. It shouldn't have been Luca to make the call, but it was a story too good not to tell, a story that demands attention. It should have been Owen, who was the next to call. He was too late, cheated out of his chance to tell a story that might have done him some good to tell. Luca didn't even know him very well. Of course, Jade doesn't—didn't know—he's gone now. How can he be gone now?
Distant and older relatives disappeared occasionally when Jade was a child, but she wasn't close, or old enough, to fully comprehend the whole of it, the total doneness of it.
Jade can't find her shoes, but she will find those. Things stay where they are put. They remain indefinitely. Jade doesn't want her shoes. She doesn't want to go to work; she doesn't want to stay at home. She wants her day back. She wants the time, all that talking, she wants it over again.
And when Owen called he sounded completely defeated. Jade didn't know what to say, so she said, "You don't have to tell me. I already know. Do you know about what happened?"
"They found him this morning" is the way he phrases it. "Accident," is the word he uses, and, the first time, he hasn't learned to hide the euphemism from the word.
Jade has completed the twenty fourth task written on the "Saturday" list written in the laminated notebook. This marks the end of a twelve-hour workday for her. Rusty is still sitting in the corner, reading the paper and occasionally raising his head to complain to anyone listening, but no one is there. Jade hasn't seen him in weeks.
"How have you seen, Rusty?"
"I still have the job in the city. The commute is getting tiresome. Now that rent's up, I think I may move back to the city when my lease is up. It won't make very much of a difference."
"Oh," Jade doesn't quite know what to say. "I haven't heard from Owen recently, either."
"Really, well, nobody has, since he moved. I helped him move, oh, two weeks ago, maybe. Haven't seen him since."
"Yeah, he lives with her now."
Nobody told Jade. She should probably have noticed, and would have—just then she realizes. It makes no difference to her anymore. Owen can go on however he may, and the link between her and him, his relevance to her, it is broken now.
Jade sits next to Rusty at the table. She exhales the weight of work away from herself.
Jade has one reason for coming to work every day: the people. Jade bakes the bread for them. Even the regulars bring something new, they always have a different story - something that builds on the last, or the third to last story told on some previous occasion. The question "how are you?" usually elicits a real response. It is nice. It is friendly. It is comfortable, but it is too comfortable.
Rusty has a good reason for only coming into that bakery once a week, even though he can usually expect to see one or both of his only friends there. There is a disturbingly predictable rhythm to the goings on there and the conversation, an inevitable sameness. The stories are those of deaths and births, arguments and accidents, the follies of youth and the problems of age. He could listen to it long enough and come to believe that there is no one living a life of any real consequence with a hundred miles of here. Rusty is thankful for his job in the city where, until Thursday or so when he is sick of it too, he can hide. It feels safe to be expected not to trouble with the irrelevancies of others, but it gets tiring.
Owen comes to the bakery to buy his bread. Rusty nods to him. Jade smiles. She asks him "How are you?" and she genuinely wants to know.
He genuinely wants to tell her.
"I'm troubled, just now," he says.
Jade wonders if there's something wrong with the bread this time.
"The pennies, on the wall, Dotty's pennies."
"They're gone." Jade drags her fingers down the surface where they used to be, where the paint is dry but still soft. "Heather, the new boss," she says "She took the pennies down and put them in the register."
Owen says, "I would like my change in pennies, please."
Some of the pennies are quite old.
Heather has called her new employees together. There are a few changes to be made, sure, but she bought the place because it was successful, and to settle down in an easier place. Heather remains standing as the others sit. She has a binder full of papers with her. The first thing in order for good management to happen is to establish the standard operating procedure.
"I wanted to share this with all of you, to make sure you have all seen it, and so that there would be a chance for discussion"
Heather has already observed the motions of each person here, and has written them out. This way, the procedures can be quickly and efficiently taught to anyone. The recipes are written down now.
"You've got this one wrong" Jade objects. "Here, that's not enough blueberry. I mean, I don't have two point five cups of blueberries in front of me right now, but I probably use more than that."
"Do try to conserve,"
"They won't taste as good."
"This way, they won't cost as much."
The rules are solid, it seems.
Heather concludes, "Is there anything else to say?" and it is finished.
On her way home from that meeting, Jade reconsiders what had been said. Blueberry muffins are special things. They should be worth more. They had been worth more.
Jade feels alone and unable. She wonders if it is any good, what she does. Once every month, she volunteers for the library. Initially, she organized the books. This job is often irrelevant, though, because the books never move. The only people who enter this place, generally, are the children. They read the pop-up books, the books that do things, but they prefer the stories. The children come here, as Jade does, because of a hope to make something better out of the time. The parents send the children to the library, that they might read, and they might, but they prefer the words.
One of them wrote a poem about Jade. The boy could not write. He dictated:
My sister is a jerk
and my sister works
at the bakery
she makes me a cakery
so she is okay.
Jade is not, in fact, a sister to anyone. This hope, for something better out of the time, it isn't served with something once every month. It is passed on to children and forgotten. It gets outgrown. Jade feels alone and unable.
There is an older gentleman. Ha calls himself "coach" and insists everyone else call him "sir." Every Sunday, he ends his jog at the bakery to buy a paper and catch up on the news. Dotty would call him "coach," and get away with it. Jade is the one to greet him this Sunday.
"Young lady, I would like a blueberry muffin, please."
The coach appreciates the sound of Jade's voice. Next to Doty’s, it had been musical. Now, it is merely one voice, out of so many new voices.
There is no interesting news today, and no one calls him "coach".
Rusty has his seat in the corner, today. He can tell the old man is almost out of breath. They play a wordless game of chess together. Jade can tell that Rusty is watching the chess, more than playing with him. She wonders why.
Jade said that she wouldn't go on purpose. Often, she declines invitations by default, but occasionally she takes them up again. This was the case with the invitation Owen had extended to her.
"Come and see me play," he had asked, as if to suggest that it would help, somehow, to have her there. She wondered if this could be true. She could have asked, but those kinds of things are elusive to their conversation. Jade said she wouldn't go, couldn't afford the cover, she said. She wouldn't rather do anything else.
"The Onion Shovellers" are the only act in town. Owen has been invited to play with the band this time, first as a kind of opening act. He has been reassured that his violin would not be out of place should he decided to join the band during their performance, and so he does.
The venue, the bar, is too crowded with a band there. It is raining, so the musicians have set up stage in the back room and not outside. Everyone else must contend with the leftover space. The tables and the chairs and the floorboards are packed with people. After all, The Onion Shovelers are the only act in town. Nearly everyone has seen them before. Nearly everyone will see them again.
Owen is genuinely surprised to see Jade in the audience, although he does not notice her until after the performance. Owen helps free the stage space for people again, and Luca approaches him. They recognize each other from once before. They have already traded telephone numbers. A conversation begins, but Jade can't hear it. The place is still crowded. Jade locks eyes with Owen for a moment, from across the room. It’s as if all the innocuous blathering in the room has ceased and Jade says "you stole the show," and Owen can pick the words clearly from all the noise, but the noise continues. Luca seems to have a lot to say to Owen. He wishes she didn't, but feels it would be rude to break away, so he simply doesn't pay attention. Maybe she will notice and leave, but she doesn't.
That little thing, that snippet of contact, from across the room, it isn't enough. Jade waits for more. Owen appears content with that stranger, though. Jade walks away. Luca has Owen's undivided attention.
Owen and Jade have taken to a lazy friendship with each other. They play cards in the garden behind the bar, after work. Sometimes, if he has been performing recently, Owen has his fiddle. He feels naked with it sometimes. Other times, he feels naked without it. He plays his grandmother's old tunes, and stomps his feet the way his father would. It’s just something the people in his family have always done, play the strings. Owen is the last of them now. The instrument is also a violin, of course. He plays it that way, too, sadly, slowly, in a measured and architectural way. He plays that music more than he did. Owen gets more requests for the violin than the fiddle these days.
Nights spent in the evening with Jade are a comfort to Owen, but they scare him. It is too easy. It seems lazy to him, the two of them, just sitting there idly bitching about their lives, splitting the tab, which isn't much, and walking home. Maybe Owen is built for sameness, but he doesn't think so. Owen is restless.
"I actually got a gig, coming up." Owen notices. They have been playing the same hand of cards all night. There is too much to talk about. It is strange to Owen that there can be too much to talk about, since nothing of consequence ever seems to happen to anyone here. "I'll be playing here," he continues "with that band The Onion Shovelers."
"Not them again…" Jade is tired of the only band in town.
"So you aren't going?"
"Why should I pay to see something I can see for free?" Jade says absently. Owen, on the other hand, buys the bread he eats every day from the bakery where Jade makes it.
"Oh, I don't know, I guess you've got a point there. Whose turn is it anyway?"
"If you have to ask whose turn it is, then it’s yours."
"Jade," says Luca, beginning the introduction herself. "I've heard so much about you."
Jade wonders what to say. She goes along with the handshake.
"I am Luca Mac Howell,” concludes the introduction. Jade wonders, will they be friends, do they have anything else in common?
Luca initiates a conversation. "I've been meaning to ask someone, maybe you would know. I wouldn't 'cause I'm so new here."
"Sounds like it."
"Now don’t you start in on it, too." Luca looks toward Owen, who is preoccupied elsewhere at the moment.
"Oh, I was only kidding. Whatever it is, I might know. I have always lived here."
"My cousin's gettin' married this weekend, and I need a dress."
Jade wonders, will she need a date to the wedding also?
"Sure, there's a girl, went to school with me, she runs a little dress shop. Actually, just down the street from here, next to that new Laundromat, it’s called "the Flying Dragon," or something. Just look for the girl with all the dreadlocks. On second thought, I can take you there myself. She's somebody you're going to want to know in this town. Unless you sew… Do you sew?"
"I usually just buy new clothes when they wear out."
"And who is your cousin that's getting married?"
"Carly Reynolds is getting married. Well. That's so weird, people getting married… I mean, I guess now's the time, but, I just don't see how anybody can have decided by now. Did you hear that Owen; Carly Reynolds is getting married."
"He knows" says Luca, "I already told him."
Water pours over rock, and what happens? It trickles in trails; it walks. It takes the path of least resistance, of course. It talks. It sings. The water surges suddenly. It dashes itself. It springs.
Hundreds of years would have to pass before water had any influence on the rock—but when it will, if it will, when the water has the patience, water softens rock, and water is quiet again.
Everything but the rock, around here, has yet to learn its lesson. Along the river that flows past Mecklenburg, the flood plane is strewn with garbage: the remains of a trailer park, shingles, armchairs, splintered shards of what had been houses. Some of the garbage is very recent. In the center of the river, huge monoliths of stone rise out of the water, casting black shadows where the fish spawn. These had been the bridges.
Barely has it dried when the earth here has been broken again. Cranes and trucks shovel the rocks and take them from the place where the water put them. New foundations are taking shape. A development is coming. The place will flood with people.
There is a young couple, executively dressed, on an excursion that has led them to a very remote location for them: the sidewalk beside "The Daily Bread" bakery in Mecklenburg. Jade is just arriving, late, to that same place on the sidewalk, where, everyday, she chains her bicycle to the telephone pole. It is an old pole and comes at an angle from the ground. Even this is curious to the professional strangers. So old, so quaint, so cute, so curious they say standing, gawking, and looking up the way tourists do. "I am in love with the architecture,” says one of them to the other who muses, "I wonder what one of these old fixer-uppers would go for anyway." The other one wonders "We could turn a profit on something like that. I wonder who does their real estate. Excuse me…" the female in the couple is directly addressing Jade. Perhaps she knows. "Excuse me, too." says Jade, thinking that it is her bicycle that is in their way, so she positions it somewhat. Now that it has been addressed, the bicycle is in their way. Jade snaps her lock shut and breezes past the innocuous conversation.
Inside, at the back of the kitchen, Jade cannot find her time card. The others, those that remain after the recent string of firings, each of them are in their proper place. Jade's card is missing. Sometimes, a card can fall behind the heavy set of filing cabinets against the wall. Since the card is good for something, Jade recalls having had to pry the cabinets away from the wall, and sifting through the cobwebs and miscellaneous detritus. This time, there is no card down there. It takes a few more minutes to set the cabinets straight. The boss has entered the kitchen.
"What are you doing back here?" she has Jade's card in her hand. "you're fifteen minutes late."
"I'm five minutes late…" Jade can only begin.
"I have quarter after. Now, I have to go. Please go out there and contend with the last of the lunch crowd. There's a line at the register. Not too much"
Jade makes her way through the kitchen to the register. "Oh and there's one other thing," says the boss, putting her coat on. "I've had a complaint about that bicycle out there. Its an obstacle. Somebody could trip over it or scrape their car on it and they might sue us over it. We can't have that." Jade receives her card, with deference.
Inside, that couple continues mining the place in pursuit of information appropriate to their purpose. They have taken the only available seat, at a table, old Ms. Dotty's table, and she is there.
"It's funny," continues Dotty "This old place is hardly worth the effort. Ain't much here, really. No point in puttin’ much niether, that the river's just gonna wash away sooner or later anyway." Dotty's voice still speaks like smoke and dust, and she gestures with her hardened hands. There is something of a smile in her manner, but it is reserved for Jade, at the counter. Jade is the one here that can still read such a smile. "The last big rush. I guess it was the depression, and they had that quarry, digging for limestone. That old hole flooded too. I have some friends lost some of their people in that. All of them left and the place has been quiet, since."
This whole story is a non-sequitor to the people that provoked it, and the couple has tired of it, though it continues, with its details and its histories of the trials and tribulations of a generation or three of the nobodies who never managed to carve out even a modicum of real success for themselves, all anyone has ever done here, it seems, is merely live. Finally, the old woman excuses herself, to tend to an imaginary responsibility such as old ladies contend themselves with.
"I thought that old handbag would never leave,” says one of the couple to the other, pulling for her card from her purse.
"You'll have to excuse me again," says Jade, and the couple is puzzled by her use of the word 'again' "This is a new credit card machine and I'm unsure how to use it. Have a nice day"
And they do. They do have a welcoming day, full of things so quaint, so cute, so curious they say, standing, gawking, looking up the way tourists do, and shopping all the while.
Jade's bicycle is an old one. It is bright yellow, on one side. The other side bleached in the sun, during years of neglect. Grass grew up between the spokes of its rusted wheels. Jade rescued it from that farm yard, for fifty cents, during an outing with some friends. She walked the bicycle home with her, watching its wheels suffer through their original purpose. With care, the bicycle became usable again.
The man who sold it to her said that old bike comes with a story.
"Once, when we were younger, the bunch of us got collective and shared the bikes" This bicycle was one of the last remaining public bicycle, painted yellow, to signify that anyone could use it if they chose to.
"Those bikes got made green, purple, anything but yellow, real fast. You could just leave them around. The whole point was to steal them, well, and to steal them again. People took them somewhere and sold them, instead. That one landed here, in case anybody should want it. Don't bother with those fifty cents."
Today Jade is driving herself to gather the food for a week. Her bike has long ago learned where the rocks are. Someone passes in a car. Someone else passes in another car. Jade is close to the road, and her bike swerves to miss a rock. The automobiles are startling. They hint at death to her at every pass.
"Get a car!" a driver shouts, and blares a horn. The sound feels sharp to the back of the skull.
The angry driver and his impatient truck vanish into the horizon long before Jade reaches her destination.
Jade is watchful for Owen to come to "The Daily Bread." Jade worries for him in his absence, for his happiness, for his wellness, and she hopes the people around him share that concern, but she knows that there are no people with him, or he would be with her. He would be with Rusty, but Rusty is alone now. There is only Luca, and with Luca there is only Luca's happiness. There is only Luca's wellness. Owen is worried for those things, more than he cares about bread.
Today's bread she makes for no one in particular. The product of the recipe has all of the same properties; it has all the same ingredients, save one. As the dough rises, it fills all of the air with its smell, as if the soul goes out of it.
The last customer of the day happens to be the first person to receive any of this new bread, and it is Owen. He looks disheveled and sleepless.
"Hello Jade," he says to her as she is cleaning things with her back turned to the counter.
"I didn't see you come in."
"Well," For a moment, it is difficult to do anything but smile. "I got tired of that supermarket shit. I've missed it here. Haven't been in to work as much lately either. Slackin' on the amenities."
Jade cannot give Owen his usual loaf of bread, but she can give him a warm one. She places it on the counter between him, struggling with an urge not to let him have that loaf of bread, to make him stay long enough to fix some fault in the baking. Luca is waiting for Owen outside.
The situation fixed around this moment, it will proceed, however it will; however it is decided or allowed to proceed.
"Well, bye." Owen takes his bread.
"Was the ticket expensive?" Owen is speaking.
Now, Jade wanders through the work it took to get here, what it was worth. The money paid the bills. The lease is over today. She has sold her things, or she has left them. She will be gone soon. She looks out over the river, away from her home. She sees a huge metal crane lurking out of the water. It looks like an industrial dinosaur in the dark.
There is a new damn under construction. The river here will be tamed. It is something of a comfort that the place, all of the old stones and the walls and the foundations that have managed to keep to their original arrangements, they will all be spared from the water, indefinitely.
Jade recalls an incident from childhood. Jade built a dam once, in the creek, dropping rock after rock into it, until she noticed a slow in the flow, but the water broke through the dam that she built, and the stones settled into new places.
"I knew you were going, and all. You were working so much. But, still, it’s today. You’re leaving today. It seems so sudden…"
"You weren't paying attention."
The new girl has some real problems. Hade can't remember the new girl's name right now. The new girl doesn't deserve a name. She cannot do work. She expects things to be done for her.
It is the breakfast rush, the busiest time, six thirty in the morning,. There is alone of people stretching from the register all the way back to the door. That line has been getting longer each day for some time now.
The new girl cannot finish one task before moving on to the next. She has money in her hand, a twenty-dollar bill. Is it change? Does it need change made from it? She puts it down on the counter. Jade makes the coffee. Jade takes the orders. Jade counts out the proper change, remembers to smile, and takes the next order.
The new girl prepares the afternoon baking, even though it is morning.
"I want to get out of here," she says. She has homework. She is studying to be a doctor someday, so that she can have money, so that she will not have to work much.
Heather, the new manager, is appalled to see "money! just lying around. What the hell is this?" She yells at Jade, who has been too busy doing all the work today to notice. "I haven't had a twenty in my hand all day," she says.
"Don't talk to me like that. Somebody could steal that money with it just lying around like that." Jade would say that people don't steal here; they never have, but she isn't allowed to talk like that.
Heather returns to her new office, which she had fashioned out of part of the kitchen space. There is new kitchen space directly behind the register, in the corner, where it should be comfortable to work.
"You might do something about that twenty thee. I just got yelled at for it." The new girl isn't listening.
"This coffee's too hot."
"Don't you have any glazed?"
"Can I get change?"
The new girl spills the flour. She uses cups instead of tablespoons.
"This money is still lying around. i thought i told you—"
Jade can feel her muscles shift from tense to shaking.
Her words escape from her; "I hate what you have done to this place." Jade removes the apron strap that she is required to hang from her neck. She unties the string from her waist. She tosses the apron at the new girl, who has already dirtied her own apron.
Fragments of a thousand complaints race through her mind, but she voices none of them.
"I know you’re hiding my check until after our stupid meeting, until after you set down more rules, and I am taking my check, and I am leaving."
Cards coalesce; two piles become one with a flick of the thumbs. Rusty shoves the deck somewhat closer to the seat across from him. The table has a green velvet top, like the tables in Vegas. There is the same kind of smell too, like a smoking room in an old motel. Rusty cuts the deck.
In one way or another, this kind of thing comes naturally to both people at the table. Crystal looms over the cards, inhaling deeply.
Rusy smirks, and thinks, this is the tricky part. It is time to come up with something worth the concentration.
"Robert." Crystal intones. "That is your name isn't it?"
Rusty answers, "Yes."
"I want you to think of something important to you; what is it you seek to know about?"
Rusty finds it difficult to say, without expressing himself. He succeeds, anyway.
"I have killed a man," he says.
Crystal replies quickly. "It is interesting that you have come to me now isn't it?"
Crystal nimbly arranges the cards, "This card represents you, Robert."
Rusty bites his lip. He wonders; what mysterious mysteries are about to be revealed to him? He tries not to laugh. What grand themes coursing through his fate will come together in this yarn, here? It isn't exactly his fate, since every word out of his mouth has been a lie since the moment he arrived. Rusty’s best friend, Owen, is waiting for him in the living room of this establishment.
"You are the hermit, here,” Crystal continues. "Here and here, proximate to you, in time, the priestess and the hierophant… You are all very close." Crystal seems to have stumbled upon a loss for lies, a larger loss than Rusty experienced. "Do you know of Orpheus?" she asks him.
"It sounds kinky," he says.
"Don't be gross, dude." Crystal says, and chuckles. Her manner is whimsical. She is not the serious gypsy Rusty expected. She probably enjoys her job. "It’s one of those old stories." she says. Rusty never paid attention in literature class. "Not so old that it never gets told again, though."
"Well," Rusty is impatient with this diversion from the cards "I'll listen for it sometime."
"You do that," she says. "You have killed, Robert? Is that it?"
Rusty puts a hint of hushed shame into his voice "That's right. I was wondering if you could tell me what’s going to happen."
"Are you telling me the whole truth here?"
Rusty's nervous answer is genuine. "Why would you ask?"
"I thought I saw the mark of a child. I must have been mistaken. We’re not here about childhood. You are wondering about the punishment, is that it?"
"Well, yeah, that would be nice."
"I don't think you have very much to worry about. The results will be insignificant."
A shaft of sunlight pierces through the dust and the air, from a hole in the tie-dyed curtain.
Rusty chuckles, "is that all?"
"That will be fifteen dollars please."
"But you didn't tell me anything."
She scolds him, "Count your blessings." The bills are crisp, each with a single fold, lengthwise. Together, they resemble a paper fan. "You're likely to get what you would choose to have. Lucky, considering. You will escape everything."
"Can I ask you something Crystal?"
Crystal pockets her money.
"If you really have, uh, powers. You know, people in town, they talk, but, I mean, is this you only job?"
"How come -"
"Because it hurts when I stop."
Rusty is the one dealing the cards, across an ordinary table. "Ladies, Sir" he says "The queen of spades is wild, kindly pay to play."
Owen, Jade and Luca add their money to the center of Rusty’s table. There isn’t very much money left to play with. Most of that went for beer.
"The name of the game is four person poker. Dealer takes all."
"What kind of game is that?" Owen folds.
"Three person poker, then." Rusty deals the last of the cards.
Luca looks confused. "Owen, aren't you even going to look at your cards?"
"You'll catch on," Jade reassures her. Luca has never played this game before.
The game begins.
Whenever there's a new player, Rusty thinks about the rules again, the real rules, the rules he usually discards. He thinks about bluffing in particular. Rusty thinks he read somewhere: a large part of the way people learn to do things is by playing pretend, by bluffing. It’s a funny thing about bluffing, too. You learn that it works. You get to where you can bank on it.
"You know the rules?" he says, to Luca. She doesn't.
"Yes." she says
Jade looks to Owen, as if to say "She might be good at this after all."
A bluff doesn't mean much when you're playing for nothing of value, though. Rusty surveys the pennies on the table and sighs. To be a perfect bluff, it must begin with absolute doubt. The cards are dealt to start the game. Rusty realizes: the only thing he has is an empty hand. He knows, the next thing he does is critical to the perfect bluff. To win, simply play.
First, there is that particle of hope. It supposes: one thing is true. Rusty lies to himself. It is absolutely true. Everything he has is everything of value. It comes time to for Rusty to place his bet, so he lies on the outside, too. It would be a lie, without the hope. To be the perfect bluff, you must lie like that. Put conviction where certainty would be, without any difference. It must be simple. You play the cards, that's all. It must be commonplace, an insignificant hope in an imperceptible lie.
This way, as obvious as it is to be sitting there, as you are breathing, so this is true. What is true is true. All you must do is follow suit.
And you don't bluff the other players.
You pull a fast one on truth itself.
"The Daily Bread" is the name of the bakery in Mecklenburg. Rusty tends to, as he calls it, "take his tea" there in the afternoons. He has nothing better to do.
It seems to Jade, who works there, that Rusty is a permanent fixture in the place. He is something like a mouse, tending toward corners, dirty and cute at once. He keeps to one of the tables in the front corner of the Bakery. Sometimes, he stays for hours. He reads the paper. He is content to do nothing at all. Rusty plays chess with the retirees sometimes, wordlessly, but he isn't wordless.
Suddenly, it is as if a phonograph needle has dropped on the spinning record of his thoughts.
"I hate that," he concludes, loudly. The final customer of the lunch rush has just left the bakery. Jade relaxes for a moment to appreciate the relative solitude.
“What's that?" she asks
"People like that woman."
"Why. What did she ever do to you?"
"Didn't you hear her—standing there, with that cell phone in her hand? She’s too busy even to treat you like a person for a moment. She had the volume up, too. I could hear the guy on the other end. I wonder who he's not looking at and doing things with while he's on the phone with her—And, get this; she's on her phone, to complain to that guy, about how her phone is broken. She'll need a new one, she says. She sounded violently annoyed…”
"I noticed the violently annoyed," Jade is collecting crumbs.
"The lady says her phone won't flip open or something, acting like it’s the worst calamity in the world. It used to work perfectly, but now it is worthless, since, obviously, the phone doesn’t work properly. The part that opens doesn’t open. How could they have sold her such a defective device? What’s the world coming to? The whole thing is coming unhinged, she says. And the guy on the other end, he says, maybe you have a screw loose or something."
Rusty doesn't need to laugh, but Jade laughs. The smell of real bread is wonderful.
Jade asks him "What are you up to? Do you have any plans -"
"I don't have any plans." he says, and it is the most truth about himself that he could possibly utter.
"Wanna come to our card game tonight?"
This weekend, there is another game. Owen is the first to arrive.
"How have you been, Rusty? I like what you have done with the place." The apartment, which had been Owen's, is Rusty's now, since Owen decided to move into Luca's apartment. Rusty has yet to make nay changes to the place.
"It doesn't look like I live here, yet." Rusty says. The two of them sit, exhale, examine the place, and wait for something to say. There is a conspicuous silence.
Rusty observes, "Luca isn't coming."
Owen's breath, and his eyes, and his voice, they are weak and frustrated. Owen is tired. "Well," he says, finally, "nobody else is here either."
"Jade is on her way." She'll be happy you're here, you know. We've both missed you. i know, you’re busy and all that but, for what its worth…"
"I figured i would leave the two of you to your own ends."
Rusty reaches toward the coffee table ad begins clearing it for the card game. Jade knocks on the front door while she opens it.
"Oh I see I'm late and you two have probably conspired against me already." Jade places her jacket on a nearby chair back. "And how have you been?"
Owen sounds uncertain "Not so good…"
Rusty interrupts, "Once again, poor Owen had had a terribly terrible time of things, now haven't you? Its so bad that even the rocks and the trees, they weep with you."
Owen finally laughs, a little. Rusty grins, and Jade crosses her arms. she sits.
"Luca keeps on, you know… all the time. all the time."
"Cheer up." Rusty deals the cards. "She's not dead yet." Jade raises an eyebrow "She isn't likely to die either." Rusty grabs a card. He scrapes the edge of it from the inside of his wrist toward his elbow. "Always remember," he says "cut down, not across. It’s the only way to do any real damage. Everybody knows that."
Jade says "I didn't know what."
Owen says "I didn't know that either"
Rusty chops at himself with the card's edge "bad, bad, it’s all bad."
"Is that the wild card then?" Jade is already examining her cards.
"Sure" says Rusty.
"It’s not that bad." Owen looks at his cards, "but it is bad"
Rusty peers over his cards at Owen.
"What I want to know is, why do you bother?"
"Ladies, sir, the Queen of Spades is wild," Rusty begins dealing the cards "kindly pay to play."
Owen, Jade, and Luca add their money to Rusty's table. There isn't very much money left to play with. Most of that went for beer. Rusty deals the last card.
"The name of the game is three person poker. Dealer takes all."
"What kind of a game is that!" Owen folds.
"Dealer takes all; we'll see about that." Jade takes stock of her cards.
Luca looks confused. "Owen aren’t you even going to look at your cards before you quit?"
"You'll catch on." Jade reassures her. luca has never played this game before.
The game begins.
Rusty looks at his hand. he has been dealt the nine of clubs, the three of hearts, the two of clubs, the six of spades and the eight of clubs. He suppresses a fierce grin. He intends to win, anyway.
Jade considers that she must place the first bet, which she does with four dimes.
"Which one is the Queen of spades?" Luca wants to know.
Owen pushes his cards away and says "all the queens are holding flowers. She’s the one that also has a spear in her other hand"
"That’s me!" Luca has the wild card.
Rusty drops his head and sighs forcefully, "Don't admit to it," he says. Jade leans toward Luca for a moment, and she explains who bets, and when. She neglects to mention why.
"Now, it costs you forty cents to stay in the game because i started the bets and at this point I thought that what I have is worth that much. Is yours worth that much?"
Luca smiles and says, "I think so" she places two quarters and three dimes on the table.
"I see your eighty, and I raise another forty," Rusty turns to Jade, "how many cards would you like?"
"Two please," she says.
Owen whispers something to Luca. Rusty says, "I thought you weren't playing." Luca replies, "No, but I am and I want to trade this magic card -"
"-Wild card, whatever. Can I just get four new cards?"
"Only with an ace, but that counts."
Rust gives four new cards over to Luca, and she smiles.
Owen paces the room, peeking at Rusty's cards. Rusty swats at him. Rusty keeps the nine and the eight of clubs, along with the six of spades. He discards the three of hearts and the two of clubs. He draws the kind of clubs and the eight of hearts.
Jade begins the betting again, with eighty cents.
Luca matches the bet, and adds twenty cents.
Rusty must add one dollar. He sees that and Jade has forty cents remaining in front of her, so rusty raises the bet by forty-one cents.
Jade curses and throws down her cards.
Luca's eyes are wide. She takes count of what she must do, and she adds another forty-one cents to the bet.
Rusty meets his opponent’s eyes with his. He drops a quarter on the pile, and then another, and a third, with a nickel for good measure, and he smiles.
Luca fears a loss, so she folds.
"I won." Rusty grins, and begins reaching for the four dollars and thirty cents on the table.
Luca asks Owen "what did I have?" Her hand contains the ace, two and three of spades, along with the wild queen, and the four of clubs. Jade swipes Rusty's hand from under his reach and it is a worthless set of cards, by comparison.
"You wouldn't have beaten any of the rest of us,” Jade complains
"That's right, you didn't. Rusty. I think Luca won that hand."
"Oh come on," Rusty protests
Jade scoops the winnings away from Rusty and gives them to Luca "its her first night."
"fair enough," he says "nobody wins."
It is only the rules that keep the people acting. The cards are distributed in a particular order. Each player does some work with them. This one is a silent game.
"Does anyone mind if I sit this one out?" Luca seems tired today.
Rusty is ready to deal her out. He is ready to dismiss her completely, her and al the trouble she has brought to the table. Jade sighs deeply at the sight of her cards.
Rusty thinks of the older men he plays chess with sometimes. Their games have become scripted ritual, devoid of conversation. He tries to pretend at play, by smiling, but no one is looking. Each player is preoccupied with the lot that was dealt to him or her. Each player carefully considers what to do next.
Jade fixes her eyes away from here, to the streets and the lights outside. She places her bets automatically.
Owen isn't paying attention. "Whose turn is it?" Rusty gives him a violent look,
"Its your turn to do something. it always is, when you ask, remember?"
"Oh?" Rusty strains to sound playful "well then, I guess I beat you, at least. I quit too."
The cards are gathered together again and shuffled again.
Rusty has lost tonight. Owen consoles him with a small gift, a token of mock sympathy for his best friend.
"What's this, your business card?"
"Read it," says Jade, with a laugh in her eyes.
"Crystal Gleeg," Rusty doesn't hold his laughter in, he implies it. "How could someone ever walk through life and expect to be called by a name like that!”
"What else does it say," asks Luca, who is as new to the joke as Rusty is. Owen and Jade planned it.
Rusty repeats what he has read to her "It says Crystal Gleeg: Charlatan-- I mean-- clairvoyant, renowned mystic, etc."
Owen has a resonant laugh. "And you, sir," he says to Rusty, "Are scheduled to have an audience with the great Gleeg."
Jade sits across the loveseat against the wall. She raises her wrist from the coffee table and points toward the other players. Since the evening is over, Luca gathers her jacket. Owen and Rusty are standing by the door.
Jade imitates one of Rusty’s earlier remarks, "That's what you get. Loser."
Luca chimes in, "Now that's funny."
"I can't believe you're making me do this! I hate that stupid stuff," but Rusty knows the rules. At the end of the night each week, whoever has lost the most games must suffer a consequence.
"Crystal lives behind that old barn by the gas station on the east end of town. You know the one? She rents one of those trailers out there."
"You're making me go to a trailer to see some nut-job psychic!"
"You might like a nut-job, eh?" Owen nudges him.
"So you'll do it?" Jade wants to know.
"It’s the rules. Got nothing better to do."
"Great." Jade stands and walks to the door. "You can tell us all about it next week, if I don't see you sooner…" She extends her half of a friendly hug, but Rusty seems more attacked than embraced. Rusty is, in all things, a curmudgeon. A visit with things outside his limits might do him some good.
Outside, Jade waves goodnight. Luca leaves in her car. Rusty is turning in for the night. Owen's walk home overlaps some of Jade's. Two weeks ago, and forever before that, it had only been the two of them, Owen and Jade, at card games. The addition of Owen's best friend, and his comfortable living room was a good idea, Jade's idea. Not to be outdone, Owen invited Luca, whom he has just met, the following week. Neither one of them take the opportunity, during the walk, or at any other time, to suggest their preferences for each other. Jade is uneasy about Owen's new attachment. Owen can't help it, but her sudden emphasis on his best friend has made him somewhat uneasy. It will be sufficient revenge to watch Rusty squirm through an insufferable session with a new-age nemesis.
Rusty's work takes him to an office, the most interesting part of which is the plum colored carpet. to get here, he must drive: for an hour and a half each way, from river roads to highways merging into interstates, spurs, beltways, expressways, reversible traffic areas, high occupancy vehicle lanes, a complicated route, and after a while it becomes reflex to navigate it. Rusty brings a lunch each day. On some days, he does not leave his desk from the moment he arrives at it until the end of his shift.
Rusty does not know the names of his co workers. he does not care to know their names, and they do not care to know his. He only cares to know who they are. The other people in the building can be overheard on occasion, upon arrival in the office, at lunch breaks, during telephone conversations with their spouses, and, sometimes, on the elevators, they do talk.
Two overdressed cleaning women arrive each day as Rusty is leaving. The women appear to share an intimate social circle.
"I just can't believe he's cheating on her, again."
"And with her in and out of the hospital every other week, its sad."
"She's so brave, the way she lives every minute the most like that."
On the day of a particularly remarkable social upset,
"They were gambling and he got in that horrible brawl"
"Ph my god! I had no idea…"
"You didn't know?"
"My cable went out last night. I can't see anything."
Rusty usually enjoys his brief goodnight ritual with these women, their apparent interest in real human affairs made him feel like less of a stranger.
Tonight, he approaches him in his usual way "Ladies," he addresses them but he has nothing else for them to hear. They are only strangers, after all.
The end of another worthless day terminates another pointless week. Rusty races home now, without hurry, but because the speed, at the very least, it keeps things interesting. Meaningless impressions are best when they come one after another, when they do not last. Billboards, pedestrians, passengers of nearby vehicles, everything in the landscape. Rusty races past it all.
The traffic on the river road is more like the highway every day. His path, from the city to his own little nowhere has become a beaten path.
His place here has rotted away.
Rusty arrives in town, parks in front of the bar. He steps inside, and he feels, here as anywhere, he is a stranger. This is a place where everyone knows everyone else, and yet he knows no one. They will not let him in. Rusty orders a drink. The bartender asks for identification. The same bartender always asks for Rusty's identification, every Friday. No one else here is that anonymous.
Rusty pulls his cell phone from its pocket. He rarely uses the thing. There are only two numbers stored in its memory. Rusty chooses Owen. Owen doesn't answer. Owen is preoccupied, as usual.
Jade is probably still at work. It seems the more miserable her job becomes, the more she works toward the money it will take to escape. The more she works, the more she hates the job.
Everyone else is a stranger.
Rusty pays for his drink, and climbs back into his car, craving the comfort of speed. Without enough time to think about each thing as it passes, it never really approaches from the horizon, it never makes an impression, so it never really recedes.
Rusty turns towards to river.
The rain hasn't stopped for days. The road along the river is coated in mud where it passes through drowned dips in the land.
Rusty presses hard against the accelerator. A harsh roar makes its way through the underside of the automobile, as the thick standing water is forced around the tires, against the metal. Rusty leans his body into the turn, as if that helps with the steering. He accelerates again. At the end of an upward slope in the road, it seems for a second as if everything weighs less than it did, and it feels as if even this speed could be exceeded.
There is a swampy spot on the road, and another sharp turn.
He is ready to hydroplane. The water roars against the work it is made to do. Then there is a hiss of thinner liquid, and the curve comes, with a dead trunk across the end of it. Suddenly, he feels an infinite weight, a sudden stop. His head peaks through the glass in front of him. His body follows. He is evermore weightless, fling all the more, scrambling through space at an angle, in an arc, and down.
The water and the mud suck into his ears, swallowing the faraway music that still flows from the fractured bulk of the car.
It’s enough to be sitting around the same table, with the same people, often enough, doing the same thing. Owen’s best friend Rusty, one of the newer players, he is the dealer tonight. He tosses the cards so that they slap the table and slide to their places, in front of the players. Jade picks them up, one, then another, sorting them. Cards come to Owen, who waits for them all. Luca recognizes three cards into the deal, these cards are hers, and she grabs them. She considers them in the order they have come. Rusty has passed out the cards. He grabs the stack he has made for himself.
Owen doesn't want to play tonight. Luca has come with him tonight, though. The others seem to like her, so far. Will it last? Will it work? What will Jade think? Which cards should be thrown and which cards should be kept?
The high card is worth keeping, but the rest of the hand suggests a certain course of play, for which the high card is of no use. That course of play, though, it doesn't suggest the strongest win. If only this were dinner and not cards. Owen folds, before the discard, before the new cards are drawn. He hopes to see that high card again, in another game.
There is a light. It is only one of a number of things that have always been there; but it is an interesting one.
The streets in Mecklenburg, like the rest of it, are very old. In 1936, someone built a streetlight above the place where one road terminates into a street. Before that, it was illegal to have lights at night; for fear that it would disturb people in their sleep. This light was an unintentional act of civil disobedience. The local ordinance was ignored rather than abolished. The tin cone around the bulb is hand hewn. It is like a saucer for the teacup light bulb, which is made of blown glass. The lamp still has its original filament, which must have been the only expensive component to the whole thing. The lamp has somehow managed to escape hailstorms and children with rocks after school. The plastic lamps on the other side of town have not fared so well, but this light still stands alone here in the dark. Soon after departing for their homes, Owen and Jade have been caught in a sudden rain, without umbrellas.
There is a creek nearby, with what remains of swamp around it. The swamp is older even than the streets. The fog has always been there. Backyards line the street on both sides, and separate the street from the creek.
It isn't often that two people simultaneously stop walking in the rain for no good reason. The rain, in the wind, falls around the saucer, and spatters the globed halo around it.
There is a small space with a bit less rain in it, and a bit more light. Owen slows here, to walk through the space differently, to acknowledge it. Jade slows with him, approximates a stop. Owen halts, curiously. Jade turns to him.
That light is the last they see on their separate walks home.
Jade takes up the cards that are dealt to her. She sits beside Rusty, the dealer, in his living room.
She is comfortable. at this point, anyone could win. there is no tension. There is no competition. She imagines a game where every minute could be like that first. What kind of deal would it take. how many cards, how many players, and what kind?
Jade brings her cards into order, placing the black cards on the left, spades and clubs, with diamonds and hearts on the right.
Owen has only brought two quarters to the table. he sits next to Jade just as he always has, and as she hopes he always will.
"Who has change?" he asks.
Jade answers by producing a thick-bottomed glass ajr from the large pocket of her raincoat. She admits, "it’s my laundry money, but since we made Rusty spend all the winnings last time. i thought i would bring it, to keep the game going."
luca is worrying over the rules. Rusty is fixed on winning, and Owen says "I used to have an old jar just like that one, when I was a kid. I kept marbles in it. You know, the glass marbles, the ones with the swirls of color in the center of them." Luca trades smiles with him. He turns to rusty, his best friend. "Did you ever play marbles?"
His voice is low. "Never saw much point in it." Rusty has finished dealing cards on the table.
Owen pounds through the dull rapport of his fists against the door. It’s as if Owen intends to pound right through the door of old man Nichols’ apartment, which is next to his. Owen clenches his fist tighter, bends his arm and puts the whole of his weight into it. He raps faster.
On the inside, it sounds like its raining rocks. Slowly, the door swings open. One of Mr. Nichols’ shoulders is raised above the other, as if he’s expecting to bear the weight of the blows himself, not that his frame could take it. Owen, on the other side of that door is in a state unlike anything Mr. Nichols has ever seen, since the war. It’s the same face everyone makes when they think they’re staring down the door to hell. It is made, and recognized in an instant.
“Where –” is the only word he has the time to say.
“She’s dead, Gary- I just- she just.” Owen is gripping a piece of paper. “In the- over there- just, there. I just got here. Is this okay? Oh my God, are you busy? I dunno I dunno what, you have to help!” There is a wooden spoon in Mr. Nichols’ hand. He places it on the end table by the door. Tomato sauce oozes onto his electric bill.
Suddenly, as if he has just remembered something, Owen starts, turns and frantically ambulates back toward his open door. Mr. Nichols’ follows him.
“Oh my god!” Owen screams from somewhere in the dark of one of the rooms. He sounds amazed by it all over again.
It takes a moment for the details of the mess to settle in, coming in from the stark and shadeless afternoon light outside, and into the corner apartment, which only has two windows. From the doorway, the place looks ransacked. Everything that had once rested on a surface: books on the shelves, coffee table toppings, things from the desk, they have all been swept to the floor. A few posters have been torn from the walls. One of them still hangs by a corner. There are shards of a carafe on the kitchen floor.
Mr. Nichols makes his way toward the place where the cries were coming from.
Luca is in the bed. She has cuts on her arm again. They stand out against the pale of her flesh. She sits up.
“What’s all the noise?” She is surprised to be awake. Mr. Nichols is surprised to see her that way.
“You,” Owen looks up from her to him. “Even left, this note,” he says, in a tone between confusion, apology and relief. It is evident that a bottle, full of fifteen or twenty small pills has been flung from here.
Luca stretches toward the bathroom. “I should go be sick,”
Mr. Nichols agrees completely. “Damn straight! Now if you will excuse me, my stove is on. I wouldn’t want to blow the place to hell.” He hollers back through the place on the way out. “What’s the deal with the mess?”
Owen can’t blink. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Luca remembers walking around, an alien again, but very familiar with that. The park was good for walks. It was a comfort to be somewhere new, to recede into the depths of thought, and walk around wondering about the newness of everything there: the colors, the smells, the distances between objects. All of it was new, and easily perceived. It’s similar, in a way, to the way it feels to walk around in love, but that’s beside the point for now. She wondered how long it would be before the newness was gone, and she simply took the surroundings for granted.
Occasionally there was music in the park. The sound of it could be heard faintly and far off, babbling through the trees. It was difficult to find the source of it. Luca tried on occasion. She had to know whether she was imagining the music or not. She very well could have been, since the music seemed ever-elusive. Wherever she went in search of it, the sound was far away. At other times, walking on her way to work, or in the shower, she was sure she was imagining the music. It sounded closer, more distinct, and sadder in her imagination than it did in reality, or in the echoes of reality that she heard, or thought she heard, in the park during her walks. The park is a strange place to practice, but perhaps there are neighbors or roommates in close proximity.
It wasn't long before she befriended one of the neighbors, whose name was Matt, a self-professed "recovering fundamentalist". The chance came to ask Matt about the object of her intrigue once when she saw him walk past as Luca and Matt were lounging on the fire escape. It had to be him. He was, after all, carrying a violin case.
"That's Owen," Matt said with distain on the tip of his tongue.
"He plays the violin?"
"I know." said Matt "Well enough to wake the dead, anyway."
"I've seen him playing in the park -"
"That’s because all of us here in the building took up a collection to pay him to practice elsewhere"
"Violins are a bit, um, odd, but maybe he's getting better now."
"May be. But its all he does is play that damn thing."
He didn't look at all like she had expected. He was tall, slow and disheveled. She had imagined someone small and spry, like an elf or some other mythical creature that plays music in the forest. Upon seeing him she adjusted her image to a more likely situation involving sheet music and a picnic table somewhere, and maybe a lucky rock to keep the paper from blowing away.
During one of Luca's walks it began to rain, so she hurried to her car. About a block away, there he was. He had his case at his side and his coat tightly buttoned. He wore no sign of the rain in his gait, but he did appear shrugged somewhat against the cold. It was February. Luca pulled her car over to the shoulder of the road, opened her door and said "Get in." He nodded and did just that.
"Thank you," he said. "My name is -"
"Owen," she said, "I'm Luca. You play marvelously."
"I'm just glad to have a ride."
There was a difficult silence, punctuated only by the sound of windshield wipers.
"So, do you come to the park often?"
"Hey, I'm the one picking YOU up remember?"
Owen Chuckled, "You mentioned having heard me play"
"I take my lunch breaks in the park. Sometimes I can hear you, when the wind is right."
"I've been meaning to buy one of those Japanese electric violins. They have built in headphones. That way I can play wherever I want, and unless you're wearing the headphones you can't hear a thing."
"That would be a shame," Luca mumbled. She turned right on Cunningham Street , toward the building she knew he lived in.
"You're new here," Owen remarked.
"Since a few months ago, yes. I'm from Alabama."
"Sounds like it."
"Is it that bad?"
"I don’t give a shit."
"Well, this is where you get out isn't it."
"Why yes, it is, but…"
"I'm a friend of Matt's. I've seen you around."
"Well then, that only leaves one thing."
"I thought you were picking me up."
"Yes, and now I'm dropping you off."
"But here. You can have my number."
Luca dials every digit but the last. There is still silence at the other end of the line. She prefers this. She hangs up the phone. She picks it up again. She puts it down.
It is all she can do to wait for the answering machine.
"Owen, you have to come over now. Just, when you get this. I'll be here."
The afternoon has gone sour by the time there is a knock at her door. Luca is startled by it, shaken from an intentional trance, an ignorance. How long has it been?
"This is all going to sound very strange to you, but I have to say it and I have to say it now and I'll only say it once."
"What is it?"
"I want you to leave."
"But, I just got here."
"Turn around, walk out of that door, without looking back, and never speak to me again. If you're ever going to do this ever, and everyone does, you better do it now."
Luca expects him to do it. She expects him to consider the matter for only a moment, shrug, and realize that he has better things to do, and he does, and she expects him to leave now. The expression on his face is blank. It is not entirely lifeless, though, like a mannequin's, unnatural, strained, but empty. Ticks of the clock are lost now that the air conditioner is on.
"Well?" Luca has fear in her voice.
"Is that all?"
"Is it? Look, I'm not trying to freak you out or anything, well actually I am. I'm trying to get it out of the way. It always happens. It always will. I like you a lot, and I think maybe you feel something similar."
"So then you trust me?"
"Then get the hell out!" There is no more fear in Luca's voice, which seems to belong to something else. There is another silence. As the air cools, it feels like the day time is slowing down with the air.
"No…" Owen planned to say more, but this is enough for him. "I'm staying," he says, as an afterthought. "Maybe I didn't explain myself well enough." The strength in her voice has turned abject. "You need to leave. You need to turn around and leave right now, and do not look back. I'm bad for you. I'll be worse. It's how I am. I'm telling you this now because it has to be your choice. If you stay, there will be no going back. There's no looking back, whatever you do, there is no looking back."
Owen halts her ascent into frenzy. He can't bear to listen. He steps closer, and looks warmly into Luca's eyes.
"Do you trust me?" Owen inquires.
"Yeah," She looks up, right at him.
"Then I'm not leaving."
"But are you staying?"
Luca smiles a little, and cries.
He says, “I understand.”
She says, “nevermind.”
How do you explain that? Some people don't call them demons. There are so many names for these things. Even the single names have many meanings. We all have one, and it’s all we know of that kind of thing, and the only one who has the one each of have is the one who has it. It’s so hard to make any sense of it. It’s so hard to talk about without the sense first. Always, there are questions.
How do you say to someone, someone real, on a normal ordinary day in a normal ordinary situation, that you have a demon? I'm sorry, you say, I didn't enjoy this or that, or no I didn't think that was sad, in fact I have no comment whatsoever. Why—they're bound to ask. What do you say then, never mind? Or, wait, you could try having the guts to really say it. There is this thing, and it keeps all of everything away. Everything. It’s evil. There is this thing, and I was taught to understand it as a such-and-such, you say. And they say, that's nonsense, there's no such thing as a such and such. Those are only made up things that stand for other things. And anyone who actually believes that there is a such-and-such and that they have it, well, actually they have this other thing. That other thing is terrible isn't it. Yes, I suppose it is, but you don't have it. You're just crazy that's all.
And they don't listen to you when you try to tell them how much it hurts, whatever it is, however it’s called. They just explain it away. And that, I'm sure of it, is their demon.
I looked at myself once, and I felt like my demon had gotten me too. I was one of the dead people, or just as bad. I felt like mine had gotten to me too. It felt like I looked as if my blood was rotting, as if maybe my veins had been thick roots and my arteries were vines, and they kept the green and the rich things coursing through me, but that maybe it had gotten damp and dark, so swampy and rotten. I had to fix it. It seemed a ridiculous notion at first. It only feels like these rotten roots should be cut before they brought their food to a rotten plant. They're not actually rotten roots at all, they're flesh. I will not rot while I'm alive. The whole reason these parts of me feel rotten is that there is a problem that makes them feel that way. That problem has a solution, probably, one with nothing to do with cutting open roots, real or imaginary. Aside from that, though, it makes sense. It feels like it makes sense. That has to count for something.
You can't act on the way something really is because of the way it feels like it is. That just doesn't make sense, now does it?
There were terrible lizards. We have always remembered them, somehow. We remember them from so long ago. No bones, no weapons, no shards survive to speak of us then, but we were there. We remember the terrible lizards. We remember fighting them. There are the stories about the terrible lizards, those with many heads, those that belched flames. We know when those things walked the earth; the bones know.
The bones we have now, they remember the fight. They know to look for it. Our bones have braced themselves to fight the things, to cut them, to bring them into pieces, the things that threaten us.
There are no such things as terrible lizards, no giants for throwing stones, no heads to sever but our own heads.
Luca likes the clockwork in things. To get lost in the intricacies of interlocking parts, she found that sort of thing relaxing. She was a shade-tree mechanic by the time she was seventeen. The other girls had certain opinions of that. Luca heard them.
"You know, I just think that is so stupid. I mean, really, the only reason she ever got to be good at that sort of thing in the first place was out of necessity. Obviously, oh obviously. I mean, can you imagine, how gross, to be like required to have to get all confused and greasy in all that, and for long enough to actually figure it out, all by yourself. I mean, why didn't her daddy do it, he was drunk, and why not pay the mechanic to do it, cause all the money went to pay for beer. She had to do it."
Its funny the things fury dreams up. When you're so mad you just can't even think about it. Sooner or later I'm sure you do think of something. Luca thought of softball. She thought of a crisp hit. She could just imagine the ball sailing away. It calmed her to think of softball. She didn't think of softball because she played it, though. She played baseball, unlike this girl, whose face Luca could easily imagine in place of the ball.
Normally she pitched to her brother in the evenings, if there wasn't anything on the car to do or if that was boring. They played ball in the parking lot across the street from the bottom of their housing development. That night, though, her brother pitched to her. They played softball this time. Luca had to borrow the ball, first.
It didn't work though, pummeling that borrowed ball past the parking lot over the streetlight beyond two houses and on the roof of the grocery store, to where it would never be retrieved. She felt no relief from that. She was still furious. She couldn't even talk.
It was an evening in late spring. The clouds were low lines, but there was still enough chill in the air to bring on the cobalt hour early. The sky looked like glass.
That night was a dark one. Dinner was a silent one. Sleep was futile. What felt like hours would pass, without thinking, only to realize that this isn't sleep. Then came the anger. Everything she loved was wrong. Luca tried to distract herself. She thought of cutting vegetables, the cheap ones, with the black pulpy parts that slide off at the mere suggestion of a blade. She thought: the clouds, the clouds, they bring what comes, drip cleaning the filth even if only for a moment.
Luca reminded herself of hell. It was the same thought every time, since childhood—clouds stopping up the heavens, the thunder, screaming and under the bed. Maybe it won't come. Maybe it already is. Maybe it always is. It isn't fire. It isn't fire, but it hurts as much as burning, and it’s already here. It’s always available. It’s at the end of every argument and hallway, and in every shadow cast by every light. It’s a pain that wants to grow. It begs a bloody revenge for its own sake. It will not rock itself to sleep. It will not rock away. It will not listen to whispers or words, screams or reason, and silence doesn't stop it. There is only one thing that it knows; it is hungry.
She discovered it quite by accident. In fury and frustration she dug her nails into the flesh of her palms, and raked with them. A little bit of blood did for her what the tears could not. It cooled on her skin, everything else evaporated, and she slept.
The only thing left is pain, once pain is present. It is obsessed with itself. Pain subsumes every other sense; even lesser pain becomes one with it. All the other senses are drowned away, subsumed by the pain. Pain will stop, and with it, if it has consumed its due, pain will take with it all the other feelings that the pain has swallowed up. All the hate, the loneliness, the memories of terrible things, they can be made to die when the pain dies and you die with it. You rise again, they always say. If you don’t drown it out of yourself, it will last long enough to be passed on after you, and you will never rise at all. Luca waits for the pain to stop, and it always does, as surely and as slowly as the sun will set, but the same sun rises again.
“Don’t look now; it’s the morning star,” Luca says. There has been a silence of hours, not exactly sleep. Owen sees the morning star. Luca disregards it.
There are so many more bodies than souls. Luca feels like that's the way they look, most people, like dead bodies. They don't look the way babies feel to look at, with the wonder in their eyes, the teary fear, and all that feeling in their voice. Even when they pry themselves into being, covered in blood, they look alive. They scream, and it’s terrible. It sounds like they feel like they're saying "It hurts to be!" or maybe they're only saying "I'm a little apprehensive about this," but they say it as they've never said anything before, and they have absolutely no idea when or if they're ever going to say anything again, so they give it their all.
That's why we need good doctors, and good mothers, and no zombies. If that baby should pry itself into the hands of even one zombie, especially at the very first, then the blood and the fear are never really taken off of it, not in a way that ever feels like it anyway. This is probably why some people baptize babies.
When it’s over, though there may be blood on the walls, there is a still quiet balance, something like peace. There is no reason to fear. Pain has been realized and death could be close. There are no arguments in the mind, no observations either, except for the immediate. There is only now. Everything else has fallen away.
"Sometimes," she says, "I hurt myself."
He replies, "Who doesn't?"
There is a silence.
He says, “I understand.”
She says, “nevermind.”
There isn’t much to say after that. Luca has the bathroom door open. Sallow light spills out of it. Luca operates faucets, flushes the toilet, tinkers with the toothbrush.
“Gary’s gone.” Owen finally observes.
“How was your day?”
“How was my day? How was my day! I thought you were dead.”
“I heard,” Luca returns to the bed like an indifferent cat.
“You were listening?”
Luca rests her head on him and says, “No, but you woke me up.” She raises her head again, anticipating something, inhales audibly and exhales “thanks.” Her smile betrays real gratitude; her eyes, they’re terrified. With that she lapses back to sleep, without saying how many of the pills she had this time, or when, or for how long she will be under their effect, or why. She doesn’t even say whether she went to work today. Owen sits still until the questions pass. There seem to be less of them every time she does something like this. She is breathing. He feels something he thinks of as shock without surprise.
It’s as if Owen is lying in state for only himself to see. Luca is completely asleep. He can hear her breathing. She takes long deep and slow breaths, but they sound like a struggle anyway. She even struggles in her sleep. Its as each new breath is an argument with the last, a contradiction. People sleep together, they breathe together, they dream together. Owen is awake yet. His breaths are still his own. The bed feels cold. The room feels small.
She has cuts on her arm again. They stand out against the pale of her flesh. Some, she did with a razor blade, a safety pin, a paperclip, her fingernails. Some of them are paper cuts. Owen, whom she loves, has patiently stolen the razor blades, the safety pins, the paperclips. He has held her hands back, and he cradled her head when, without all these things, she drove her head against the wall. He means well.
He wonders, to descend into her sleep, her dreams, what would that be like for him? Suddenly, he doesn't have to wonder. He already knows. It has been months of this. He surveys the landscape of disaster in the space around him, out of the corner of his eye. It’s hard to pick out his mess from hers, where one begins and the other ends. He dare not sit up too much, she might wake up. So long as she's sleeping, she's breathing. So long as she isn't moving she can't destroy herself. The poor thing, she's tortured. It must be hell.
Owen tries to count it all, or arrange it in order. He wonders if this is the way through to her, to be of some use to her. There are people who do love Luca, not many, but few. And there are some who think they do. Those that love her, they can not stand to see pain inflicted upon her. This is part of what love is. They work to destroy the cause of that pain. Luca does too, in her way. She cuts it, and it is gone. She screams with her blood and drowns it out. She does her very best to surgically remove the death from her, and it works, even if only she can see it. If only she were entirely alone. Then, it would work. The pain comes rushing back the instant someone else sees what it took to get it out. People put a set to their eyes, they express their concern. Some of them, well, Owen, he tries to help and not to judge, when he has the patience, but even the help hurts. Luca feels pathetic sometimes. Really, it would be better to be alone. No one is ever all alone. There is only one way to be completely alone. So, her decision has nothing to do with the other thing. The will to live and the will to die are different things.
It really is as if she dies each time. That’s the point, and yet it isn’t. Its “die to live,” for her, as if you can. And you can, she says. Easter, she says. (with its “Resurrection of the dead and the life ever after,” makes perfect sense to her). She always wakes again. She wakes to an afterlife, and before long, its hell, the struggle to breathe, to stay alive, concurrent with the struggle to die. It is hell. Owen knows that must be exactly what it is for her, because he feels it too now. He is there with her. She hates herself for how she lives. To die to live- it’s irrational. It can’t be done. It shouldn’t be done. She hates herself for how she lives, so she tries to end what she hates, in order to live free again. She always wakes again. That’s the point, and yet it isn’t. The will to live and the will to die are different things.
Owen has a will of his own. He will follow her through this, however he has to. Even from the very bottom of her hell, he will walk her out of there.
Early to bed, never to rise. That’s the kind of night this is: a well-rested restlessness, with no reason to sleep, and nothing else to do. It’s quiet, except for the rustle and shuffle of covers. The lovers: she fidgets; he’s counting fan blades in the ceiling shadows. Long arms of the dark are reaching toward the corners of the room. Neither one of them knows if the other is fully awake. Both of them are.
She curses sharply in the dark. Through the dark and half sleep, it sounds as if her voice is bodiless, belonging only to the room itself.
He can find the light switch. She’s bleeding. A strip of skin is missing from the length of her inner arm. Kneeling on the chair seat, she says,
"It won’t stop bleeding."
"How long has it been?"
“20 minutes, maybe.”
“Okay, shit. How’s the cut, let me see.”
Sometimes, you see things that you can’t un-see. The laceration extends through the layers of the skin and into some tissue. Glistening in the blood, he can see what might be muscles, or fat.
She extends the arm and widens her eyes as if to say "well, look!" but she is silent. Owen doesn't want to look anymore. Luca's expression is strangely calm.
Owen moves for the phone, and lifts the receiver. Luca catches sight of this, and panics. She screams, jumps toward the phone and slams down on it with her bloody fist, smashing it with one blow. Now the telephone is a bloody wreck as well.
“No doctors. I told you, no doctors”
“Would you rather bleed to death?”
“It’s hell there, with the doctors, don’t you know. Those doctors. Hell. No. You won’t”
She moves in an automatic fashion toward the dresser. She opens the top drawer and digs through its miscellaneous contents and quickly retrieves a small sewing kit. The needle has already been removed from the packaging several times.
“You do it. Stitch me up.”
“Me? But –”
“Would you rather I bleed to death?”
Owen makes quick work of threading the needle. He had a job sewing leather once. He tries to think of this project as something similar, but his tools seem crude.
It is difficult to pinch the slippery flesh between fingers, and even more difficult to press the threaded needle through the flesh. Owen feels her blood running down his own arm. It is warm and slow like some kind of kiss. The feeling calms him. It reminds him of his work here.
Luca winces with the pain of the needle. Owen pulls the thread taught, joining flesh to flesh again. He invades the wound again with the needle. The string loses its slack as Owen pulls it. He crosses the wet string over itself, bridging the broken skin. He has no idea how this will heal.
“You’re lucky I know how to do this.”
Luca has asked for Owen's help with this kind of thing, and he has offered to do what he can. In fact, he does everything in his power.
"Have you ever considered, you know, a doctor?" It's the wrong question for Owen to ask, really. Of course Luca has considered it. The question comes up frequently. Its a small town. People talk. She might be in line at the grocery store, and someone will ask her about her "health". She might run into someone from school at a party somewhere, someone who would "notice," her injuries, as if for the first time, as if they hadn't already heard the whispers. People feign some sort of surprised concern. Luca tells them lies.
"How did you get that?"
"I work for a lawn mowing company," she will say, and she does. "One of the blades had it out with me." Both of these statements are true. It’s up to other people to link them into the lie that they want to hear. Maybe people believe that stuff, or they pretend to, so they don't have to care. It is disheartening that Owen should suddenly resemble the rest of them in this way.
"I'm tired of being examined," is the answer she gives to Owen, regarding doctors. I don’t want to answer all those questions about it. I don't want to admit to everything. I do that, and it’s just going to set me off. I think it's horrible. Doctors would agree with me. It’s hard enough not to think I'm horrible, without their support. I don't want them to drug me until I'm worthless. They'll want to study it, me, and whatever. Does that answer your question?"
"I didn't mean that kind of doctor, I just meant that, well, sometimes you get to where you should go to the emergency room. You know what I mean."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"But I worry about you. I worry that one day you'll take it too far, and you won't come back"
"Well, maybe you should stop worrying about it, then, if it's so hard on you."
"Maybe I should -"
"You didn't let me finish. Maybe I should, if I were selfish. But I'm not concerned with me, here. I'm concerned with you. You could have died. I remember several times you could have died."
"I don't remember it that way."
"How do you remember it?"
"The easiest cure for all of it is to just forget about it, alright! It works for everybody else. It works for me. I don't understand why you can't just let it be. It’s what I do. I'm me, that’s all. I am me and this is what I do. You do strange things. You play the violin." Luca imitates her father for a moment, and says "that ain't normal" and continues, "Do you know what I mean? The only difference between the things that I do because of who I am and what everyone else does is that mine are more unusual. The work for me just the same though. Some people have outlets for their feelings, they choose acceptable ones. Other people just bury it all. I'm just not like them, that's all."
The whole place must be disarmed. The knives in the kitchen, they must go to the neighbors. Scissors are not allowed. Even the paper has to be hidden.
Owen can’t seem to get on with his music practice. It is difficult for him to hear the violin; his thoughts are noisy. He picks up his instrument and plays for a moment and suddenly something new shows up in his head: another thing that Luca could possibly use against herself. Luckily, there have already been several nights of frenzied fighting over who could get the nearest available implement of destruction first. Obviously, the kitchen knives were the first to go. Even small things such as staples and thumb tacks from the desk drawer, they have already fought over those. Owen must be alert to these things. Whenever he encounters a physical object anywhere in the place, he considers it for its ability to be used as a weapon of any sort at all. Suddenly, everything seems potentially deadly. Owen prays she doesn’t think of the windows. Windows are expensive. He gives up his instrument.
Owen remembers a roll of packing tape in its dispenser, with the wrapping paper in the living room. There is a jagged metal edge on the dispenser for cutting the tape. He locates it. There are scabs between the metal teeth. She has beaten him here. He wonders when.
Luca arrives back from a visit to the softball game in the park.
“It was an exciting game. The home team won.” Luca’s eyes fall gently on the living room. She breathes deeply “You cleaned. Looks nice. I thought you were going to practice though.”
“Oh, well” Owen sighs, “I got frustrated.”
Luca sits on the left side of the couch. There is a small table, by the arm, where the phonebook is. She begins researching a pizza delivery.
“I bet on the game,” she says, “and we kicked ass. Tony was there. He says Hi, oh, and enjoy the pizza.” The box with the wrapping papers is out. Luca’s first impression is that Owen has a present for her, so that’s why he cleaned the place instead of practicing. He has a present. She looks from the box, to Owen, and smiles, and looks back at him. He looks confused.
“Ok so I didn’t out everything away,” he admits. She looks at the box again. The tape dispenser is missing.
Luca doesn’t say another word until the pizza arrives. She greets the delivery coldly. She drops the food onto the table in the kitchen. Owen didn’t clean the kitchen. There isn’t a pizza cutter. She lifts the lid from the pizza and walks away.
“Don’t you want any pizza?” Owen asks, between bites.
Luca has nothing to say to him. She walks to where the television would be, and turns on the radio. It is set to the AM band, and it receives a broadcast of songs sung in Spanish Owen notices the different strings. The voice intones slow and soft words. This sounds like pleading music, probably that of some lover, tinkering with the affections of his beloved.
“What the hell?” He asks, “You were fine a minute ago, just fine.”
Luca lands on the couch, such that her neck bends around the back of it and her head, still moving, strikes against the wall with a hollow thud. She feels her skull absorbing the blow, and savors it. She strikes again. By the third blow, or the fourth, Owen has approached her with calm arms. He cradles her head. Slowly, she moves herself free of the embrace, and suddenly, she strikes the wall again. Owen repeats himself, carefully. He tries to calm her. She escapes gracefully, and strikes her head against the wall again, and again. There is a certain serenity of mind, a fluidity of motion. Their dance continues until the pizza is cold. This is a strange way of making love.
Luca lies sedate now, and Owen wonders whether she can hear him when he says, under his breath. “I can do without scissors, knives, staples, even paper, but you can’t ask me to live in a house without walls. It just isn’t possible.”
Luca sits, silently. Her face is expressionless. Suddenly, she screams. The crisp, shrill cry shatters the hours of silence. It is a sound that hurts to hear, like a blow to the base of the skull.
"Dammit! You scared me, would you quit!"
Luca cowers from the voice. She feels wrong to have awakened herself to this. She has come up for air, out of her drowning, and into a vacuum.
The reflex relaxes out of Owen, and he catches the set to her eyes.
"I’m sorry," he says, its just that you startled me."
"Well," her voice is unused "you know I can't quit." and she crosses her arms, disgusted with her being, and his. Silence feels like sleep to her. It is comfortable. To him, it is numbing.
"So do you feel better now? Maybe you'd like to eat something?" His words hurt. The word "better" which does not describe her feelings, not in the least, the word implies that she is worse. It indicates fault. That seems to be his mission here, to talk when silence can't be helped, to offer food that cannot be had, and to say "better," constantly remarking on the obvious, that this is hell, and of course, it could be better.
"Or so its back to not talking, is it. Fine. That's just fine. Go ahead. This is getting old. I’m sorry. I'm trying to help, but, really—never mind. I need some air.
One pill brings you down. Only half of it will take you out. The other pill brings you back. It keeps you here. Luca snaps her sleeping pill in half, freeing the drug from its time-release coating. Luca's got the half to take her out. Without the pill to bring her back, she will sleep for three days.
She swallows casually. A moment later, Owen is startled.
"Well, aren't you going to take the rest?"
Luca simply returns to the couch.
"What do you mean, no. You can't just give up on three whole days."
Luca is content with her decision. She's looking forward to dreams.
Owen begins to speak steadily. His voice is like an engine that starts with low noises and works itself into a rhythm. "Three days, that’s a lot. We've got rent due. It's going to take all of our last checks for the month to make that. What are we going to do if you turn yourself into a vegetable, miss work? They'll probably fire you." He sounds panicked by the end of it.
Luca closes her eyes. She curls herself in the couch, and turns away. Owen retrieves the pill, and climbs beside Luca. "Take the pill." he says.
Slowly, she opens her eyes. Her fists are clenched by her sides. She looks to Owen as she would to something she has never seen, or she's looking right through him. Maybe she doesn't know why Owen is here.
"Take the pill"
Slowly, she pinches the pill from Owen's open palm. She studies it for a second. The easy-swallow coating has dissolved in the sweat from Owen's hand. This pill will not be easy to swallow. She tosses it. It sails, and spins, toward the mess of the room. That pill lands, wherever it lands, and takes its place among an uncountable number of small objects on the floor. These tiny things have defied detection until now: shards of an old cotton ball, pieces of rice, paper fringe from a spiral notebook, sock lint, chips of candle wax, small clumps of mud from outside. The pill hits the table, or the television, or the floor, and Owens spirits fall with it. He looks down. There are tiny frustrations everywhere.
Owen screams, "This is hell! This is hell! I'm in your hell now, are you happy? Is this what you wanted? Is this what I wanted? Yes? No?" Owen is out of breath. Luca still has nothing to say.
This isn't helping. "Take the pill.
Luca is asleep now, and Owen makes plans to pawn the television.
Hot gasoline gives turns to visible vapors mixed with the smell of cut grass. The engine's vibration courses through the whole body, and it numbs the skin, which sweats in the sun, so that flakes of grass stick in the sweat.
Luca pilots a lawnmower beside the county roads. Today, the length of her path feels indefinite, since there is a paycheck at the end of it. It will feel good to rescue the television from the pawnshop, she tells herself.
The engine stutters and drones out. Luca turns the steering wheel. It is a riding mower, with a platform to stand on, right atop the spinning blades. One inch of metal separates Luca from what happens to the grass. Juices seep from the green flakes pasted to her skin—better the blood of a plant than the blood from her flesh.
The machine needs fuel. A nearby church parking lot provides a great place to stop. Luca removes the gasoline canister from its fixture near the front of the platform. She brushes the dust away from the cap to the gas tank.
Luca can feel that someone is watching. There is a young man, about her age, who has parked his car and rests against the back of it. His clothes are clean and new and without wrinkles. He is examining her work.
"What!" Luca doesn't like the look in his eyes.
he is startled by her voice "You're a girl!"
"well, I dunno—don't you mind? You're all dirty and disgusting."
Luca takes six steps towards him. She is close enough that they can smell each other.
"I have a gallon of gasoline in my hand, and a cigarette lighter in my back pocket. You wanna see dirty and disgusting, how about your charred and blistering, burning flesh, and the horrible smell of your hair on fire." she walks away
"I was only saying-"
"Mind your own business."
At the end of the day, Luca's paycheck is her last. Her employment is terminated, for having threatened to kill the minister's son.
It should be a relief for Owen to go back to work in the morning, at the call center on the other side of the county. Here, he can recede, away from his monotonous work. All he must do is hear himself working. His training does the work for him, and on the good days he can charm his way through the work, with a calm verbal finesse. Today, the large part of his mind is blank.
“Is this Beth?”
“May I speak to Beth?”
“Is Beth there”
“Thank you./ Hi may I please speak to Robert?”
“Robert isn’t here at the moment. (hey do you know where your Dad went? He’s at the hardware store, he should be back soon. Can I take a message?”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll call back. / Can I talk to tim?”
“(shut that racket I’m on the phone!) What-now?”
“Tim, please. Can I talk to Tim?”
Tim ain’t here / Hello?
“May I speak to Justin Please?”
“No you may not!”
“Justin is dead! / Hello.”
“Hi, how are you today?”
“I’m fine, thanks, and you? Great – Listen I’m on the other line, is this important?”
“If you like I can call – “
“Okay. / Hello.”
“Is this, um, Marquita?”
“May I please speak with her then?”
“Alright, hold on I’ll go see if she is here. (Marquita! Yo! Marqui-ta!) I’m sorry she’s not in. Can I take –”
“A message won’t be necessary. I’ll call back. Thank you. / Hello.”
“Can I talk to Marcel?”
“Who is this?”
“This is a courtesy call for Marcel.”
“Who is this?
“This is a call for Marcel.”
“You have the wrong number. / Hello?”
“Hello Can I talk to Justin?”
“And how are you today?”
“Not too good / Hello, how can I help you?”
“This is just a courtesy call for you Madeline / Sir / April, I called you with good news.”
“I’m not interested / no thank you / oh really?”
“Yes, you have been selected / chosen / your name has been selected and entered / you are a finalist in our ALL CASH / out Fifty-Thousand Dollar drawing / sweepstakes / sweepstakes drawing.”
“What’s the catch / What’s the catch? / Fifty thousand dollars! / What’s the catch? / I am so sorry I don’t speak the English. / Uh-huh I’m listening, go on. “
“Now this sweepstakes / drawing / sweepstakes drawing is sponsored by / is only for the preferred customers of Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover / is not available to just anyone from the general public.”
“You know what / something? I’m not interested / not buying it / not sure my Visa is still valid, but I do still have a Discover Card, does that count? / You know, this is my cell phone you’re calling, and I don’t appreciate your using my minutes to tell me this./ this is a bad time. / Take me off your list, please. / How did you get my number?”
“You / Your name has been selected from a list of the credit card company’s preferred customers. The boss/ my boss/ the supervisor is responsible for maintaining the computer that draws the numbers we call from that database / The numbers just show up on my screen, sir, and I call them./ You gave your number out./ Do you still carry a credit card?”
“If you ever call this number again, I’ll cut your balls off! / What did you say the name of your company was? / I don’t want any / take solicitors / give out my credit card info. over the phone/ Yes. / I don’t understand. / No.”
“Now, let me tell you about the fabulous/ wonderful / cool/ various prizes in our drawing / sweepstakes / sweepstakes drawing. As a contestant / participant / chosen finalist, you will be in the running / eligible for the Grand Prize of / which is fifty thousand dollars. Think of what you could be doing / you could do a lot of things with all that money / fifty thousand dollars! I’m curious, I like to ask the people I call, what would you do with it?”
“The first thing I would do is pay of my credit cards/ I’m in debt so I’d fix that / student loans, you know… / buy a house / car / vacation / new wardrobe / I would move out of my mother’s / father’s / parent’s house / out of this fifthly city / the country / this town1 / I would spend it / save it / invest it / give it all away / never win anyway.”
The newspaper ad for this job promised a rock-and-roll atmosphere. That only means that your appearance can be in any state of disrepair while you succeed in this career. Owen appreciates this aspect of the work more than he used to. For the Rock-and-Roll, there is a radio playing in the back of the room. At the front of the room is a dry-erase board for tallying the number of sales made by each person for each day in the week. Owen does not make any marks by his name today. The paper forgot to mention any of the loathing from strangers.
He could charm his way through this job, just as he had charmed his way into it, but he doesn’t have the energy anymore.
Owen returns home and Luca is still in bed at the end of the day. Should he ask why; he knows. She isn't working, not even toward a new job. Owen is thankful that nothing of consequence has happened at work today, so that he will not have to mention anything like the idea that he has a job and she does not. Those conversations exacerbate things. Owen approaches her. He looks without thinking, now, to check for breathing, which he sees. She is warm. she is comfortable. Her mind is far away from the problems of life, too far away to solve them.
"How are you today" she's awake.
"I am okay." Owen is tired. He is frustrated. He is worried. Without her half of the rent, with nothing left to pawn, and with one week left in the month, it isn't likely that this comfortable bed will stay that way. Owen climbs into the bed, and begins fading out of consciousness. She says,
"Well," Owen stretches, unsure whether he will move again tonight of not. If he is careful, if he is calm and patient, she might let him sleep. There is no food to be had, and if there were it would be at the expense of the little bit of rent that has been saved. They had agreed to share the work here, but Owen knows that the foodless kitchen, the living room next to it, the whole place suffers from inattention.
"I don’t know what's in the kitchen." he says.
"I don't either."
Owen sleeps for a short time, and he smells cooking.
Luca brings some food "we had some old bacon in the freezer, and I borrowed some eggs from Gary next door. i know it isn't breakfast time, but…"
Owen and Luca eat their borrowed eggs together in bed.
"I've been cleaning while you were asleep, too." she says "here, I'll do these dishes. You need your sleep."
Luca expects she will return to the apartment and find Owen. he should be very upset after she has exposed him to. She unlocks the door. he has cleaned the place again. He folded the laundry, put it away. He has separated the tangled piles of what is his from the tangled piles of what is hers, and he is not home. The place feels especially sterile, being so clean, like a hospital.
Luca sits on the couch. The day's mail, bills mostly, is laid out on the table and otherwise untouched. Luca ha snot earned much to pay those bills. She begins to hate that. She hates herself for it.
"If it weren’t for this," she says to herself, and she rakes her fingernails along the scars, across the scabs. She hopes to removes them. They are the problem, and if there were no problems, there wouldn't be this. "She scratches harder. Luca feels alone. She feels numb.
Spinning and dizzying lights and the cacophonous siren sounds die in the air. There is a sharp rapping at the door, and then another.
"What the hell is that?" Luca's nostrils flare out like a beast’s. Her breath comes in blasts.
"I told you not to call anyone." she says, struggling to stand, but Owen is holding her. Luca stops grabbing at the shattered glass, scattered on the bedroom floor. Her lower torso is still bleeding, and scabs are growing on the triangles of glass still in the window frame.
"I didn't call anyone."
After the third knocking, the police enter the apartment. They follow the voices. Two officers enter the bedroom, a male and a female.
"We have received a call for this address—something about a suicide attempt." They can see that Owen has his hands full here, holding her back from the glass.
Suddenly, the animal panic in her comes to a stop. She stands, calmly. She meets eyes with the woman officer.
"You're bleeding" she says, "We’re here to help."
Luca turns back toward Owen and gives him a savage look. She seems intent on killing him, for an instant, but it fades. She smiles.
"I’m sorry," she says, sweetly, "but really, there's no need to bother with little me."
Owen rises from the ground. The other officer removes a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
"Is that your blood on the window there?"
Luca touches the holes in her flesh.
The female officer places an assuring hand on Luca's shoulder. She shirks it. "How did that blood get there? Did he hurt you?"
Luca shakes her head. "It only hurts a little when he holds me back from it."
The handcuffs are cold and uncomfortable. The hard metal presses against her tender wrists. The officers lead Luca out to their car, explaining,
"You are not under arrest, but it is our procedure that if someone presents a clear personal danger,” One of the officers looks back toward Owen, "or a danger to others, then we must take them to a doctor for observation."
Luca follows along calmly "yes" she says "of course" she says.
They open the police car for her to get in the back of it.
"Thank you" she says.
Gary Nichols, the neighbor, is standing outside his apartment, with his arms crossed. He is satisfied with what he sees.
Owen looks back toward Luca as he walks away from where she is. Like the image, the idea of her recedes from him, back into her own space. Owen has his hand on the door to the apartment. He turns the knob, pushes the door and thinks; he may never walk through this door again.