....by Larry Lynch
Waitressing made Angela's feet sore, but after three weeks the blisters on her heels had finally healed, and the walk up the hill after work had become bearable. The early uneventful evenings, her stiff single bed at the boarding house, and being the new face in town had all become bearable-welcome. Fifty miles from Brown's Flat was proving to be far enough.
At night she'd iron her only skirt and lay out her clothes for work on her bed. At the top of the hill the street was quiet, and with her window open she could hear men talking outside their cars as they waited for their wives to return from Zeller's or the drug store. She could hear their radios, their laughter, smell the sweet smoke from freshly lit cigarettes. She counted change and rolled it into brown paper cylinders and stacked it like a pyramid on her dresser.
One evening after work she changed into her sandals and started across the park. It would have been shorter to follow the directions June had given her once, but the cool grass soothed her feet, and she wanted to avoid the group that clustered on the Post Office steps after it closed. She could see the glowing tips of their cigarettes and the glimmer of a bottle being passed between them. And from a distance ... Hey, Baby. Hey...what's the matter? Too good to talk to us?... Coarse laughter-no one she recognized. She crossed the street to the rear of June's building.
Angela was accustomed to June's shiny, flawless nylons, and shoes seemingly too ornate and uncomfortable for working. June came to the door wearing no make-up, and she could feel herself staring at her untucked T-shirt and her particularly out of place ball cap.
"Would you look at me," June said, wiping her hands on a rag. "Where you coming from?"
"Not bad. Forty-two dollars."
"You should've called. I could've put on some coffee. Can't believe your first time here and the place is a disaster."
June was doing some painting. The walls had been stripped of their effects, and the furniture was pulled to the center of the room and covered with plastic. Large holes in the walls had been patched and sanded, and trails of dust had settled along the base boards. The bathroom had no door.
"Not much privacy, eh?" June motioned to the doorless room as she ushered Angela into the kitchen. "I'm getting that fixed. Want a beer or something?" She forced a smile and pulled down on her cap.
"Sure," she said, "but I just came by to see that apartment you were telling me about."
"Oh yeah, right. Here..." and she handed Angela a beer. "You want me to see if Clyde's home?"
"Do you mind?"
"No. It's no trouble." June got up and went to a small mirror by the sink. She undid her pants and tucked in her shirt. Angela pretended not to watch as she lifted her hat and checked a tender bruise on her forehead.
"Where'd you say you were staying?" She never actually listened when Angela answered her. She twisted in front of the mirror, and straightened her shirt. "Make yourself at home. I'll be right back. You can finish painting if you like." She smiled easier.
June's shoes tapped clearly in the tiled hallway and faded up the stairs...tap...tap...tap...tap. Angela stood up and examined some of June's things from a distance: the plants on her window, her mismatched oven mitts, the dirty glasses in the sink, each a different size and shape. There were some boxes stacked in the hall. The top one was open and she could see a large pair of running shoes, some shaving cream and some magazine ...tap...tap...tap...tap. She sat back down.
"Here we are." June stood in the door swinging keys from her outstretched arm. "Got them from Clyde's wife. Want to have a look?"
Angela followed June into the basement. The hallway was dank. There was a furnace room and a laundry room, and the bachelor apartment that June was unlocking. "Clyde's wife said that it might need some work."
Indeed it did. June went in and Angela reluctantly followed. Duct tape kept the fraying carpet down under the door, and a grimy path lead the way inside. It was square; cupboards and sink in one corner and a closet and bathroom in another. The walls had the color and texture of avocado and were scuffed and dirty along the bottom. A smoky haze covered the windows and dirty yellow light filtered in. The fridge smelled of sour milk and the stove had been dismantled - the burners lay aging in a brown pool in the sink. The cushion floor in the bathroom was turned upward and away from the walls in the corners and patterned with burns and mildew freckles. Brownish-orange streaks spread up the wall in the shower under a leaking shower head.
"Jesus, that Clyde." June turned to Angela.
Angela stared abjectly around. "It could be worse," she said. The trailer in Brown's Flat was worse.
"That's hard to..." June stiffened and looked upward...ring...ring...ring... June's phone--as clear as if it were in the next room.
"Shit," she muttered, and bolted from the apartment. Angela could hear her taking the steps two at a time, hear her key hastily unlocking the door. She answered on the fourth ring - some of the words were discernible, the tone harsh. June slammed the receiver into the cradle only to have it ring again only seconds later.
What now?' ... No. I told you no...You're sorry...Just like last time, right?...I said don't...'Cause you're drunk...I can just tell...I gotta go...
"So what do you think?" Angela turned to find a man, shorter than her, eating an apple with one hand and rubbing his gut under his shirt with the other. Brown and gray strands swept from over one ear across his shiny head - Clyde. "Not a bad spot, eh?"
She nodded hesitantly and looked around, hoping to direct him to it's shortcomings.
"Last tenants just picked up and took off, middle of last month. Never heard from them since. Still got their damage deposit though." He chewed the core and spit a seed into his hand. "Rent here's four-fifty - that's everything included don't forget. I'll even leave the furniture - 'less you got your own?"
They looked together at the dying brown plaid sofa-bed, and the frail coffee table. She looked past him for some sign of June.
************************I got a few others real interested, so if you're gonna..."
"Clyde." June was back.
"I see you met Angela. Angela, Clyde."
"What's with the hat?" He reached out for the peak. She leaned away from him and pulled it tightly down.
"Just doin' some cleaning - keeping the hair out of my eyes." She glanced at Angela, then back to him, "Besides, when were you planning on cleaning this place?"
"What?" Clyde shrugged.
"What do you mean, what? Just look around. It could take a month. Right, Ang?'
June could exaggerate-Angela knew that. At work it was always...best pie in town, made it myself...what a gorgeous tie, I'll bet your wife picked that out... Who knew if they were married? They always watched her walk away. June made a killing.
"Well, maybe not a month," she looked at June apologizing for her lack of instinct.
"Maybe June can help me when she's done painting."
"Painting?" Clyde turned to June.
"Just look at this carpet," June diverted.
"More trouble, June?"
"It's nothing. You gonna give us a break on this place, or what?"
"Us?" he said.
"You gonna make your up mind, or what?" June said shortly.
He huffed and turned, "Half a month. I'll give you half a month off. So have the money for me in two weeks," he looked seriously at Angela. "Can you handle that?" Half a month-her pyramid of coins. She nodded. "And you..." he motioned the core at June.
"Never mind, Clyde," she turned him and nudged him towards the door.
"I want to see that apartment..."
"I told you, it's nothing. You just wanna get into my bedroom." She grinned back at Angela.
"And old lady Simpson. She says you guys scare the hell out of her..."
"I know, I know. Later. O.K.?" she gave him another nudge. "Call me if you need anything," she said looking back, and they were gone.
With less apprehension Angela ventured around the apartment, surveying the carnage. She passed a moistened finger over the counter, and with the clean surface revealed, she realized she was partly done. She imagined the apartment with the musty, stagnant smell replaced with potpourri and spices, her music playing, her television on, friends laughing. No fear of being embarrassed, no trailer, no cursing, no TV blaring...
When she was sixteen her mother caught her kissing Justin in her bedroom. They had been sitting on the side of the bed studying. He had his hand part-way under her sweater when her mother burst in and slapped her across the face.
"You think I don't know what's going on?" she said, half-smiling, half-enraged, with a long ash dangling from her cigarette. That was all she said; she never said anything to Justin as he left, and never cooked any supper.
When her father came home from work, Angela stayed in her room. She could hear them through the thin walls...don't think I don't know what's going on in my own house... She could hear the tin-foiled antenna of their television rub against the wall as her father adjusted it, and said nothing - sometimes not responding was the only way to get her to stop. If her mother didn't persist, he'd lie in bed and watch television. If she did, he'd go out to the kitchen and reread the paper. On those nights, sometime after the ice stopped rattling in her mother's glass, her father would go and lie quietly in bed. Sometimes Angela would wake to find him asleep on top of the covers next to her.
When the plywood mill where her father worked closed, her mother would stay up all night in their trailer full of smoke and ridicule...I should have known...a real fucking job...better men than you... The mill never reopened-everyone was miserable.
Just before the end of the school year her father showed up at school one day. He got a new job...Belldune...only a three hour drive...weekends... He explained that her mother would be keeping the car. He hunched down to make eye-contact with her...promise...but she couldn't look him in the face.
That summer trucks rumbled in and out of the Industrial Park, past their trailer--everything sweat and was layered with dust. On weekends she walked home from the movie theater where she worked and would stop under the bleachers of the exhibition grounds to smoke and drink beer or cheap wine with others she knew. It was on one of those nights, with her lips and tongue thick and useless, her sight blurred, and struggling to keep her balance, that she navigated a dark field and a few back streets to find her way home. The sink was rounded with unwashed dishes, and a large denim jacket hung over a chair. Every light was on, even the one in her room. She passed out on top of the covers with her clothes on.
It was bright out, and after what seemed like only a moment of sleep, she woke to the sharp pain of having her hair pulled, and stinging slaps about her face. A word accompanied each slap... you...little...slut... She rolled across the bed away from the flailing hands. Standing over her was her naked mother - she was startling with her bright, smudged make-up and yellow, shaking hands, and loose, pale skin.
She turned unsteadily and went to her room. Angela lightly touched the throbbing spots on her scalp and face. She could hear her mother frantically going through the closet. She came back and threw a small suitcase on the bed...go! Just get the fuck out and go... and she returned to her room and slammed the door and turned the television up quite loud.
When she didn't return she got up and quietly walked past her mother's room to the bathroom. Her head was pounding and her mouth dry. The TV blared. She stood in the mirror dabbing at her swelling lip, her tearing eyes - with her sweater on inside-out.
***********************After working breakfast the next morning, Angela went to her apartment to get started. She began in the bathroom but soon realized she had underestimated the effort required before anyone could go barefoot in the tub or on the floor. She cleaned with the anticipation of company, eager to showcase a clean hospitable apartment. The scouring powder stung her hands and eyes, but worked, and the filth consumed it liberally. Each brown and orange patch that was scrubbed away gleamed promise.
She could hear June rustling above her-water running, channels being changed indiscriminately, bottles rattling in her fridge. Her own fridge was empty. She was thirsty.
Someone, with eyes only as high as the chain that barred a barely open door, watched Angela go down the hall and ring June's bell. It was mid-afternoon and June was still in her nightshirt.
"Hey, you smell like cleaner," she said.
"Morning Mrs. Simpson," June called across the hall and the door shut and the eyes retreated.
"Come on in. I'll get changed and go down and give you a hand."
Her apartment was no closer to being painted, but a new bathroom door leaned against the wall. June changed and went into the bathroom. Angela could hear her urinating and brushing her teeth, and felt guilty like a child walking in on their parents.
"So, how's it going?" June made coffee. Angela said she was just taking her time with things down stairs, in no hurry. But she was-though doing the neighbor thing felt good. June was chatty and seemed eager, even in her still sleepy-before-coffee-mode, to talk about work and some of the other people in the building. June said she was sure Clyde used to sleep with a woman that lived in the apartment Angela was in now.
"You could hear them," she said, and she turned up her nose and shivered as if she had just inhaled something disgusting. The bruise on her forehead was fainter and she seemed unconscious of it. And...Mrs. Simpson...nosy old bitch...
Mid-afternoon turned into early evening, and coffee turned into cans of beer. June cooked a frozen pizza and the ashtray was filling with butts. Angela held it as long as she could but finally succumbed and used June's doorless bathroom. She stared at the door, finally able to make herself go, and afterwards wondered what she had been so worried about.
"Got a boyfriend?" June asked.
Angela confessed a few in high school-nothing serious.
"How were they?" she asked.
She was unsure. "Nice, I guess."
"No, no. How were they?" and she leaned on the table and Angela could see that she was waiting to be confided in.
"They were O.K., I guess." She could feel her face getting hot and she remembered their smoky, drunken breath, their rough hands, and her naked, trembling mother...you...little...slut...
"Did you know that I was married once?" June prattled. "I mean it was a long time ago - and how the hell would you know that, anyway?" The beer was taking effect. "I don't really need a man, you know," she continued. "I like them, don't get me wrong." Her cigarette was cinched between her fingers and smoke coiled up and flattened against the ceiling. "But everybody gets an itch once in a while that they can't scratch themselves. You know what I mean?" Angela laughed along politely.
"So, tell me, do you know that guy who comes in for lunch all the time - hair slicked back, always has a date square?"
Angela thought she knew who June meant. "I think so. What about him?"
"So what do think of him?"
"I don't know. Why?" She thought he was smug.
"He was here last night. You think I look tired, you should see him." She laughed out loud again.
Yes. Date squares-and tea-and large hands and a nose that looked to have been broken once.
June elaborated, graphically, and Angela remembered seeing her stuff the bill into his breast pocket once, rather than leave it on the table, and remembered her exaggerated laugh. It was Brian-Brian something-or-other. June imitated him, contorting her face...mmm... Angela was buzzing. Empty cans littered the counter. ..oh yeah...come on... June laughed.
June got up, still smirking, and emptied the ash tray. She checked the parking lot through the window over her sink. "Expecting someone?" Angela asked.
"Just wondering when I'll get my car back." June explained her son borrowed the car sometimes and June had to walk to work.
"You've got a son?"
"Why? Don't I look old enough?" She smiled, not easily. "He's a good kid," she turned to the window again, "well, not really a kid anymore. Just turned twenty." She butted her half-smoked cigarette. "Really misses his dad." June said her husband used to work too much-day and night she said. That was it. She hated being alone. It was time to go.
Angela bought a few sheets and a fitted cover for the sofa-bed she had adopted. Every night for a week she collapsed on it from waiting tables all day, and cleaning until late. A good kind of tired she said. She enjoyed walking through the door into the clean aroma and she'd stand back and examine the arrangement of the few things she had purchased to spruce the place up-a pot holder and oven mitts (though she owned no pots), a vase and some scented candles. Clyde promised to fix the leaking shower head.
June came down one morning when the work was almost done. She was hung-over and said the smell of oven cleaner made her gag, and she left. Angela had hoped to have her down to see the completed transformation, but for a few days she didn't see much of June - she had missed a few shifts at work. Some days her car would be gone, but she could hear her television on, or water running. The phone would ring, but never be answered. One night she went up to check on her, and a young man answered the door. She felt that she had interrupted something.
"I'm sorry...I'll come back."
"Are you looking for June?' he asked.
She hesitated. "Just tell her that I stopped in."
"Tell her who stopped in?"
"Look. Mom said she wouldn't be long...so, if you want to come in and wait..."
She stared. He had June's full lips and dark eyes, but his face was longer, his jaw square.
"Jason," he said, offering his hand.
"I know, you already said that," he smiled - June's charm as well.
She agreed to go in and wait, but after a few minutes admitted she was uncomfortable being there while June was out - besides, she needed the bathroom. She suggested he come down to see her place. He smiled and agreed and followed her down with some of June's beer , and they sat on the small sofa and listened to the radio.
"It's not much," she explained.
"Smells clean, " he said, immediately ingratiating himself.
She made some sandwiches and they shared June's beer on the rickety coffee table.
"All this furniture yours?" he joked and she smiled and was strangely unapologetic. They talked about music and movies and not about their mothers. She was unaccountably, and for the first time, free.
*************************Something work her early: perhaps anticipation - the type that wakes children early the day after Christmas to play with their toys. The anxiousness to see and hold their wonderful gifts.
Jason was still asleep. Angela got up quietly to set her alarm for work - she forgot to the night before. The apartment glowed bluish gray from the street lamp outside, the vague outline of the bed , and his blanketed form, were all that stood out in that square, empty space...squeak...squeak...thump... She tip-toed back to the sofa, now folded out flat, and rolled back under the covers trying not to wake him - but not trying too hard...squeak...laughter...squeak squeak...come on...squeak... When she was lying next to him, she could see him listening, rigid, his eyes open and furious...thump...laughter...squeak...thump...squeak...squeak thump squeak thump... And in that almost-darkness, she thought she could make silence for him...no... but he was fixated on it - the noise. And as quickly as she'd come home...squeak thump.. finally come home...squeak thump... it was being stolen all away. Something as laughable and meaningless...squeak thump...come...squeak...on... as Brian so-and-so's whimpering and flinching was drowning something real - something of hers.
Jason got up and dressed. She wanted to tell him: "You get used to it" or "It stops after a while"...squeak thump...squeak...come on come on...mmm...
He fumbled around in the shadows until he found the broom. He thrashed it wildly against the ceiling, roaring, "Stop!" But it didn't stop. He flung the broom aside and clapped both his hands against the wall over his head - "Stop it!" CLAP CLAP. STOOOPP! But it didn't, and he left, and she hated June...laughter...
Outside in a powdery silence, the street light clicked off as the sun began its task of overcoming a the dusk, the shadowlessness. Angela would not have gone to work had the alternative not been to sit there, in her own inability to sleep or forgive, and wait for the sounds of June getting out of bed. In complete absence of compassion she made coffee and listened to customers banter about the weather and the inevitable coming of cold weather...We've been very lucky this summer... Her stomach rolled from resentment and lack of sleep. It turned completely over when serving a date square and tea.
She wanted to leave-asked to leave-but couldn't. June hadn't shown up for work. Every minute was a struggle...squeak...laughter...and she wondered, what she would say, if she could stay...STOP!...
At the front of the building Clyde stood casually at the bottom of the steps with his arms folded over his stomach. An ambulance waited with its doors open. "What's going on?" Angela asked.
"Were you at work?" he asked.
"Yes. What happened?"
"You could hear it all over the building."
"June," he said, and looked at her as she might be playing stupid. "Yeah. She's pretty bad this time." He rubbed his gut.
"Yeah. But she'll never admit it's the boy."
The attendants pushed between them. June was flat on the stretcher wearing a stiff plastic collar that curled up under her chin. The attendants must have put a coat on her-her feet and legs were bare from the knees down and she clutched the coat securely shut. One side of her face was a brutal purple and black mass. Her eyes were closed tightly - but not from unconsciousness - and she winced as she turned her head away. "Kid's never been the same since he found his father that time," Clyde added as the ambulance left.
"What?" She wasn't listening...thump...thump...
"The young fella - Jason. I said he hasn't been right since he found his father that time."
"Found him? Found him where?"
"They had a house just out of town. Nice spot, too. Father hung himself not long after the divorce. Kid found him hanging in the garage one day after school. Stone dead - and right black. Ain't been right since. Can't say as I blame him - never changed June much though."
Angela could feel her color leaving her and she started down stairs. "Hey, listen. I didn't forget about that leak," he called after her.
Downstairs it was still. Cleanser, scented candles, beer cans. Quiet, except for the dripping from the bathroom. With each drop, the mocking brown and orange streak reasserted itself. The sofa was folded out, its fitted cover heaped on the floor.
It felt like a Sunday, or a holiday, when there was nothing open and nothing to do in Brown's Flat. Her mother watched television all day, ice rattled in her glass. Her father was in Belldune...promise... Days like that she stayed in her room, stared at the ceiling, and wished she could leave and never come back.
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