Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Tautly Pulled Rope

Samantha and her husband Curtis, stood together facing a dilemma. It wasn't that the cage was empty. If only it had been, the two could have torn apart the house searching until they found Max trembling and hungry inside the laundry basket or another suitably absurd place. As the situation stood, Max was dead, completely still, absolutely lifeless, a situation completely beyond repair. Trevor would be home from school in 45 minutes and the two would be caught, staring into a dead gerbil's cage.

“Let's just get rid of the bloody thing,” Curtis spat out. “We'll tell him we took it to the vet and buy some time.”

“It's dishonest.”

You've got a lot of nerve.”

“Don't start.”

Samantha was watching the Spiderman clock on Trevor's dresser blink to 2:32 when the dryer buzzed. Thirty-three minutes until he should be home. The couple drifted to the laundry room where wooden-framed family photos were shifting slightly under the pulsing turbulence of the dryer. Samantha meticulously began folding jeans and shorts while Curtis hung dress shirts up on hangers.

“For Pete's sake, just take care of it,” Curtis asserted.

“It's just like you to pin this on me.”


“Well, you do that sometimes.”

Seven minutes later, the two were loitering around in their respective parts of the kitchen. Curtis finally slumped to rest his palms against the counter in front of a bubbling coffee pot and began thumping an empty mug with his thumb. Samantha stood stirring pasta noodles and turned her head towards a mechanical whirring sound drifting in from the living room.

“I think our living room fan is a little off kilter,” Curtis remarked.

“Are you going to take care of it?”

“The fan?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don't know, dear. What would be the right thing to do?”

“We can just get rid of it.”


“Just like you said.”

“I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you right.”

“Forget it.”

It was 2:45 when Curtis backed into the pot on the stove and spilled Samantha's noodles onto the kitchen tile. The pot emitted a resonated bong that lingered in the air long after it rolled away to the carpeted living room floor and rested in front of the recliner. Samantha hollered and leaped onto the counter top, avoiding injury. The couple stood motionless for four minutes.

“I'm sorry, Curtis.”

“No. You were right, let's go.”

“No. I mean I am sorry.”

“That's all over now. Let's go before Trevor gets home.”

Curtis was hurriedly flapping his wrist to usher his wife over to an acceptable gerbil-clone of Max at the pet store when Samantha's eyes found a goldfish clock on the east wall. 2:57. Trevor should be home in eight minutes. She nodded emphatically in agreement and tapped her toes in her boots anxiously while they checked out with the new pet.

“OK, you open the lid and take out the dead one and I'll drop this one in,” Samantha suggested.



“This one's bigger.”

Samantha shrugged. When she did, the rodent wriggled out of her grasp, dropped onto the floor and scurried to the kitchen. Samantha checked the clock: 3:02. The couple bolted for the kitchen and on hands and knees desperately began searching in the nooks of the water-logged and pasta-strewn kitchen floor.

“You knew the whole time, didn't you? That the rat we got was too big.” Curtis asked.

“Stop blaming me for everything.”

“You actually want Trevor to find out.”

“You, of all people, should know I can keep a secret.”

Curtis stopped and squeezed his knuckles tight until they turned white.

“Look, you just go get rid of the dead one.”

“I don't know if this is going to work, Curtis.”

“You do want Trevor to find out!”

“Did you ever stop to think maybe it'd be good for Trevor to think about death?”

“I don't believe you're actually questioning my consideration of our son.”

“I can't touch it, I really can't.”

“When did you start getting picky?”

Trevor returned home from school twelve minutes late because Alicia Ruscoe from school had beaten him up and stolen the bag of marbles he'd gotten from Santa the year before. Arriving home, he tucked his face and traveled quickly past the kitchen where his father was crouched peering into the nook betwewen the bar and kitchen wall and reaching inside. Trevor didn't look left to his sitting mother, cheeks blood-red and eyes glaring at a dead gerbil clutched tightly in her quivering fingertips in the hallway.

In his bedroom, Trevor searched for a suitable make-shift tissue to swab the blood on his eyebrow and rid himself of any evidence of defeat at school. Finding nothing immediately, he dropped the contents of his pockets onto his dresser: a rolled five-dollar bill and three rescued blue marbles Alicia had accidentally dropped on the sidewalk after school. As Trevor pulled a dirty sock from under his bed, two marbles spread in opposite directions against a smooth wooden surface and got caught between the dresser and the wall.

“They're going to call me for dinner any minute,” Trevor mumbled to himself, pressing the sock to his face. “They're going to know.”

The last marble rolled around a bit before making its way to the dresser's decorative lip where it eventually stopped, teetering the edge.

An Incident on Route 50

Eva was looking at her reflection in a closed restaurant window on a Thursday evening when the wind whipped a stray leaf against her eyelashes. She cursed it down and checked her watch. The bus would be coming any minute. In preparation, she guzzled down the last sip of her strawberry Slim Fast, dropped it on the damp sidewalk and crossed the street to her stop, sputtering complaints the whole way about her arthritic ankles.

“Hey, hey, Miss Eva Johnson. C’mon in.”

“I guess that’s me,” Eva flashed her bus driver a sincere smile and stepped aboard. Reaching into her ketchup-splattered, PJ’s Diner apron, she found the fifty cents required for the ride, deposited them promptly and settled into the front seat. His nametag read “Mervin: your friendly driver,” and Eva thought it suited him well. He was a black man in his late fifties with a half dozen grey hairs protruding in each sideburn. He listened to artists like Dobie and Aretha occasionally, but low enough not to disturb passengers wanting to engage in conversation. Eva, always the sole rider on her way home, laid long-ways in the seat, pulling up tired feet and began counting tips as the bus roared past quiet department stores and flickering street lights in the night.

When they passed 42nd and Main, Mervin broke the silence with a curt laugh. “They really build thin’s fast ‘round heah. So quick... it wuhdn’t but two weeks befo’ wuhdn’t nuthin’ on this cohnah. Now, whammie-oh! Gitcha’ gas heah.”

“Yeah,” Eva affirmed. She looked up and observed the blinking building with big green lettering illuminating “STOP ‘N’ GO” against the wet pavement. Rubbing her ankles, she added, “It’s a fast-growing world and they’re all growing up and going to IHOP, I guess. Fifty bucks tonight, Merv, fifty.”

Mervin smiled and replied with a “humpf,” shaking his head. “Yuh got a good head on yuh' shoulduhs, Miss Johnson. Uh cin see that. That's mo' 'n' a lot of people that git on this heah bus. Yuh gon' be alright.” As he slowed down to make the turn onto Crestline, he bit his lip and glanced at the wind. He seemed to take note of it as if he'd seen it act this way before and didn’t like it, as if he anticipated an incoming storm.

Eva looked out the window, too, and disapprovingly pursed her lips at the grassy hill on Redbud and 42nd. “So my son-of-a-bitch ex-husband calls me the other day yelling about the court date and blah blah blah. Who egged his car yada yada-” Eva started.

“Yuh did that?” Mervin reached below his seat and retrieved a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil.

“-and I told him where to shove it.” She pulled out Loreal's Fiery Crimson Nail Glosser and began touching up her fingertips. “Friggin' son-of-a-bitch living with that little Melinda tramp from the office, while I'm waiting tables with bum feet. Look at them. These need medical attention... surgery maybe.”

Mervin took a bite of his sandwich and glanced in the bus rear-view mirror at Eva's extended legs. “Look fine, Miss Johnson.”

“You think?” Eva stuck out her lip in contemplation. “Maybe I can use the money to get this schnoz fixed, then.” At that, she turned again to the bus window and began pulling downward on her nose with her left index finger.

When she became bored, Eva reached into her sack and pulled out Dr. Phil McGraw’s Self Matters; flipping to her bookmark, she called up, “Do you believe this crap?” Then she recited, “’You have within you every skill, capacity, insight, and wisdom necessary to your mission in life. If your journey through this life has been such that it has developed and nurtured that uniqueness, you have stayed focused… If not, a world-defined, fictional self has dominated you.’ I don’t know why I buy this shit.”

“Uh try not tuh read thins that mik me feel small,” Mervin agreed, finishing his sandwich. With his left hand, he held the wheel and with his right, he carefully smoothed the foil against the dash, folded it, and placed it gently in his corduroy pocket. “Uh wanna feel big fuh muh gran’-baby Joel. Hey, hey, he gon’ be ten next Satuhday. Time sho’ goes by fast. Whammie-oh!”

At this, he went on and on about how his grandson liked baseball and Freddy movies, and that all he wanted for his birthday was a shiny, red pair of tennis shoes just like Michael Jordan wore when he slammed dunked against Pitt. State. He told her that he taught his grandson to read when he was two-and-a-half because he had always felt a calling to be a teacher, but sophomore english class and he never seemed to get along. Eva smiled and listened to his stories. She was grateful for them; they made the ride go by faster so much so that she didn’t stop him once, not even to complain about the rain.

Eva noticed a hooded man walking quickly from Sunset over to the bus, carrying a long pipe under his jacket that glinted from the rain water under the lamplight. He reminded her of Siggy Plumett, the lanky engineer who liked to come in PJ's on Saturday afternoons and order with a terrible stutter. The stutter didn't bother her so much as the bits of buttermilk biscuit that were flung from his gapped-teeth and onto her blue-striped uniform when he ordered his apple-cobler-cheesecake dessert. And he always ordered dessert. Eva sighed and pulled up her feet again, hoping the precaution would be sufficient enough to keep the rider from dripping rain water tainted with his soiled clothing on her ankles. 'Just one more block and I'll be home. Just one more,' Eva's thoughts were interrupted when the man stepped aboard and pulled the pipe from his jacket.

An ear-splitting crack echoed through the night, interrupting the soft squeal of Mervin’s old brake pads. Eva found herself on the bus floor amidst flying quarters and dimes, clutching her bag with her left hand, clenching her eyes shut and instinctively protecting her head with her right hand’s wide-spread fingers. She had no idea how she got there or how long she stayed. She heard a struggle, grunting and yelling, then fast feet scampering down the pavement. The rain was really coming down now. Fat droplets were hurled down from God or chance or some force with the power to create them; they didn’t know where they were going, but journeyed their appointed paths side-by-side until splat! That’s all it took, a collision with something new. The obstacle itself didn’t matter much: a street lamp, a stucco roof, or a bus stopped at 77th and Sunset Blvd. on Route 50. The point was that life for the rain drops had immediately changed; the droplets slowed down and spread out… wide, fusing completely with their fellow droplets; and this was a good thing.

“Miss Johnson!”

It was Mervin’s voice, but Eva didn’t answer.

“Miss Johnson...” A warm hand touched her quivering forearm and left behind small droplets before retreating. Mervin was panting, “It’s OK, Miss Johnson. Yuh cin open yir eyes, he gone.”

Eva rose to her feet and was shaking her arm free of water when he repeated, “Open yir eyes, Miss Johnson, yuh sif now.”

Eva stood for a while, frustrated at her trembling hands and cursing her bad luck while Mervin radioed the police. When he came back, he said, “the law’s cumin’ in thuhty minutes. Jus’ sit tight, Miss Johnson.”

“Sit tight!” Eva exclaimed, “I’m going home.”

Mervin looked surprised, “We almos’ been robbed!”

“Almost… yeah… so it’s ok and I’m gonna go.”

“Miss Johnson, now, that kid didn’t tik nuthin,’ but that’s his gun theah ‘n he shot straight through mah collections. See?”

Eva turned to the door and pulled her sweater tight to prepare for the rain.

“Miss Johnson, stop!”

“Get your hands off my collar! You hurt my ankle!”

“They ain’t gon’ believe me. They gon’ thin’ Uh did this. Uf yuh don’t stay Uh’m gon’ jail tonight.”

“Don’t touch me!”

“Yuh cin tell ‘em, it wudn’t mah fauht, ‘n they’d listen tah yuh ‘coz yuh pretty ‘n smaht. They ain’t gon’ listen tuh me.”

“Let go!” Eva wriggled free and panting between adrenaline surges, she kicked hard and sprinted out the bus and down the street. She’d made it maybe fifty feet when the second crack split through the night and stopped her flight dead. She turned back; Mervin was holding a smoking revolver in his quivering grip.

“Uh ain’t never held a gun befo’ so walk slow. Yuh gon’ git back on this bus, Miss Johnson. Yuh don’t unduhstand nuthin.’”

Mervin sat down in the front seat and told Eva to drive. The drive took a long time and blocks seemed to stretch for miles. Eva passed schools and liquor stores and clubs pumping rhythmic fun into the alleyways. The rain was starting to let up, too, and the streets were lined with small rivers flowing together down the hills. He called down curses on himself as they rode and rubbed his sweaty palms against the plastic passenger seats.

“You’re not gonna get away with this,” Eva finally said.

“Tuhn heah.”

Eva slowed to make the turn. “Did you friggin’ hear me?”

“That's why Uh'm takin' yuh wit' me. The law can't stop me 'till Uh git wheah Uh'm goin'.” He shook his head. “Yuh see that sto’ on the cohnah theah?”

Eva looked to the left at a small, dark building, hidden behind four strategically placed lilac bushes and illuminated solely by the street lamp intended to reveal the cross-street for the dead end it was. “Scotch,” she said. “I take my dry cleaning there.”

“That’s wheah Lisa wuhks. She wuhks nine tuh six ‘n reads the classifieds ever’ day. She’s sleepin’ with huh boss, Steve, too.”

“The po-lice,” Eva drug out the word and snapped it like a rubber band; she spoke as if talking to a deaf man. “They’re gonna get you.”

“’N ABC Liquo’ Sto’ right theah; they been robbed sev’n times last month ‘coz they skylight don’t have no lock. Uh guess now, this bus gon’ have its own story, too. Whammie-oh! Ain’t that sumpthin.’”

“Aren’t you afraid of the police?”

Eva felt his eyes shift back to the revolver in his clutches, “Miss Johnson, yuh comin' wit me 'til Uh git back tuh muh gran'-baby 'n' that's that. Yuh smaht, but yuh don't unduhstand too much.”

He motioned for her to turn onto a tightly compacted residential area with tall, brick apartment buildings and flat roofs, so she did. There were no fences and rusty Buicks of all colors were parked solid on the right side of the road. There was something about the air that bothered Eva here; it was thick and hung like clumps of wet cotton balls in her mouth.

"Yuh got family, Miss Johnson?"


"Family… yuh know."

"I can't breathe."

"Nev'mind." He tilted his head slightly and sighed. "The weathuh's gon' git bad soon. Mik sho' yuh pay attention as long as yuh on the road heah. Yuh always gotsta be lookin' up 'n out. Yuh only one puhson on this road heah. OK, Miss Johnson?"

“I said I can't breathe!”

“Yuh alright, Miss Johnson.”

"A daughter."

"That's nice, Miss Johnson… nice."

Eva thought about her daughter as the wind whipped soggy leaves against the windshield and wondered if she was safe. She thought about daytime television and eating Captain Crunch with little Clara before school, and how that thought had spurred her into a fit of rage two days before when she'd kicked and kicked and kicked those shitty trashcans outside Days Inn into aluminum heaven when she'd been denied the manager position. She thought about driving in summertime. Her thoughts took her down roads filled with “all kin's a people” who yelled at their children and wore too much make-up, or who rubbed their white, middle-aged, round bellies with stubby fingers beside their barbecue grills, sucked twelve packs of Milwaukee Best dry and talked about UFO conspiracies. She was afraid of them. She was afraid of their flaws and existing in a world full of them, a world in which all might not be well and in which she was powerless to do anything to fix it. The world was big and the buildings were tall and the air was so thick a person could chew it and spit into a can.

Eva slammed on the brakes; the bus protested, screamed and slowed. “I'm not moving until you tell me where we're going. You can just friggin' shoot me!”

“Uh ain't gon' shoot yuh, Miss Johnson. We mid it. That's muh house theah.”

“You went home?”

“Miss Johnson, I know’d how this was gon' end fir me when that kid stahted wavin’ his gun lahk it was his savin’ grace. Couldn’t ‘a ended fir me any othuh way but this’n heah. One way o ‘nothuh, this was it fir me.”

Eva's tears pooled above her lower eyelid, and her face grew hot with anger. “You can't just do that to people. I'm not your friggin' student.”

Mervin inhaled and rubbed his knuckles on the seat. “Uh'm sorry, Miss Johnson. Uh jus' wanted tuh be big fir muh gran'-baby, Joel. Didn't want them to stop me fo' Uh mid it heah.”

“You've got no right to-”

“Miss Johnson-”

“Change people like this. What are you going to do?”

“A man can't be big in no iron cage.”

At that, Eva dropped her purse on the coin-littered floor and lunged at Mervin. She hated him for the bus ride and how he'd made her feel so small in this suffocating world. She prayed for death, for relief from the developing storm and an answer to the madness gnashing about in her brain and got neither. Unsatisfied with God's lack of response, she'd ripped the gun from Mervin's slippery grip and fallen hard into the broken metal collection tube. Breathing slowly and intentionally through her small nostrils, she pointed the weapon up at Mervin and stared straight ahead into his corduroy overalls, wet and stuck to his skin.

“Eva,” he said. His eyes looked a little sad as he rose steadily to his feet and placed his enormous, age-cracked hands comfortably at his side.

Eva waited for him to lunge, step forward, say something else, anything else. But he simply stood meeting her gaze and the lamplight down the street illuminated his wet neck and head a deep blue.

Eva fired off five cracks in the night and crimson droplets spread out wide against the seats, windshield, and Eva's PJ's Diner apron. When she was done, she rose to a small crouch and smeared the red splatterings on her uniform into smudges, wondering how she would afford a replacement. With small quivering fingers, she picked up a red tube of nail polish, fifty cents, dropped them together in her purse and wiped the trigger clean with her apron. The rain eventually let up and the air cleared. As Eva walked home, she rubbed irritated eyes with dirty hands and cursed her bad luck under the ever-present rustling of wind-teased oak branches above her head; at her feet a small river, slightly tinted pink, flowed past her, down the hill, turned left at the cross-street and went fast-streaming toward the city.