By David Ensminger
Teddy stood there in front of the door at the Flav-R-Rite canning factory watching the sun make her car look dirty and naked in the asphalt lot as the huge parking lights clicked off. The morning blue was hazy, as if it didn’t want to be blue at all. The glass in the door kept fogging up with her breath, but she didn’t move.
Arnold came up from behind her.
‘You wanna share these pretzels?’ he asked. ‘I just nabbed them from the vending machine.’
She didn’t turn at all, not even an inch. ‘Which one?’
‘I didn’t know there was more than one kind of pretzel,’ he said, looking at the bag with eyelids scrunched up.
She kept looking at her breathing coming and going on the glass. ‘Which vending machine?’
‘Ah, well, to tell you the truth. I snuck into the managers’ hallway and grabbed it from their machine. That one’s always full of stuff.’
‘That’s because they never eat from it, Arnie. They actually make money. They like to eat things that don’t have ten pounds of salt crammed into it.’
Arnold hovered a bit, turning the bag over, looking at the table of contents.
Teddy finally turned around. ‘Never mind, Arnold. Eat up, really. I’m just…waiting.’
‘I can’t finish em, so have some.’ He began pouring them into the rind-like contours of his palm.
‘What are you waiting for? Car don’t work?’
‘No.’ She turned around just as the blue began to gather some sense of itself. The parking lot began to look less shabby.
‘Car’s fine. I’m fine. Go ahead. Get out of here…’ She turned around. ‘You worked all night. Go on…’
‘Suit yourself. I see you eat plenty of French fries at the bowling alley.’ He dropped a few pretzels, looked at them ricochet off the pavement. He appeared satisfied with something as he pushed open the door, teetering a bit as he brought his hand up with the pretzels. He walked like there was an invisible bowling ball he was balancing between his rickety thighs.
Teddy held the door from slamming, then propped it open a bit.
‘Everything in that machine is months old, Arnie. The bosses don’t eat it, so no one bothers to change…’
Arnold kept talking and eating, walking and eating, dropping one here and there. As soon as he got his keys out, and the metal began to tinkle as the keys dangled down from his hand, he heard the brush rustle at the near end of the parking lot. He looked over to see what he thought was a dog. No, not a dog, it was too, well, it just wasn’t dog-like. It looked more unreal, if that makes any sense. It had a different kind of tension. Made its way through a spate of clearing, where a few half-starved trees poked out from the low lying weeds. Was it a coyote, here, next to the Flav-O-Rite processing plant, he thought. He never could get the full profile, just jabs of fur almost alight as the sun came over the bend.
Teddy stood there, watching him watch the animal, and wondered what kind of man he was when he wasn’t feeding himself fistful of pretzels or wheeling his cart around the factory floor, trying to sell cigarettes, Wringleys, even old Hustler trading cards. She wondered if he was the kind of guy who would stop by the Taboo Video on the way home, where her friend Kit worked, the pudgy one with eye glitter, and ask her about Star Wars toys or if she knew when the young kid might be in back in the video booths, the black kid who wore that damn nylon thing on his head and liked to please. One time Teddy was there the boss lady was even tweaking, and there was a different guy on the floor. Just laying there. The boss bought some of her Dad’s Playboys for 25 cents, had some stomach that just wouldn’t hide beneath her belt, and kept screwing her mouth up. But Teddy liked the way she called her ‘darling.’ She made enough money for the $3.00 breakfast down on Lancaster, in front of the bar with the pink sign that said, ‘Happy 30th B-Day Julie.
It’s All Downhill from here!’ They can’t be for real, she thought, then eggs were inside her, warm and nuzzled by Coke. She always drank Coke for breakfast, something that her neighbor used to do before high school. He was a cool kid, played drums in a metal band called Armed Vision and played Dungeons and Dragons, but one that he had rigged up on his Atari computer. She tried to play his drums once, she ended up just following the damn singer, you know, boom boom boom. He said follow the beat. Teddy thought, this is the beat, isn’t it? He just shook his head after a few minutes, went to tell his mom there were fleas down there, so they better do something. Later, the bus with the band flipped over, and a mic stand went right through him, like he was butter with some random bones here and there.
The breaths started to seem like snowflakes mutating on the glass. Everyone else from the third shift had left already. She didn’t leave, she never wanted to leave. Well, right now. She felt like she could never be the kind of woman grandma called the Black Madonna, the kind that scrubs floors and knows the truth about men at jukeboxes. That knows why tattoos are a kind of vein that tell you that trouble is spelled with all kinds of colors, mostly faded. She liked men, men with baseball caps and even lip-rings. Yeah. That’s right, the kind Danny has shoved in his face. He could fix her car, well, change out the damn brakes, and even if they got stuck on the beach because he was too stupid and drove right up to the foam, he wasn’t stupid, because he just went up to some mom and dad, showed them a rope and said, ‘Let’s do this, can’t we folks?’ He was a good kid, her boss said, after he came and brought her Denny’s to-go for lunch. He’s a good kid, she said, knowing that she hated her other boyfriend in Hawaii, where he went to open a sunglass shack in a new mall. As if they needed another one, as if there weren’t sunglasses on every friggin block there. But, at least she got his truck, and when he wasn’t harassing her on Myspace for talking to friends, he could be sweet. Well, not sweet like Danny, but his own kind of sweet. ‘Kinda like getting hit by a truck load of gravel,’ her boss said, talking about Mr. Hawaii, ‘That’s not love, just a stupid excuse.’ She didn’t like her boss when her mouth webbed open like that, not at all. But that’s OK. I don’t have to like all people at all times, she thought.
Teddy moved forward, pressing her hands against the glass right under where her breath had clouded it. It felt like the side of a cue ball or tile floor. A bit of wind came in. ‘Thank god,’ a woman said, beside her suddenly, pushing it even further. She leaned over Teddy’s shoulder.
‘I needed to get some air, get a damn minute to breathe. You should hear them back there, rattling off how hard it is to be a woman and all that crap.’
She had short hair, but it didn’t make her look like a man, just made her cheeks look chiseled. Her eyes were big as gray green quarters, it seemed. For a minute, Teddy thought she’d seen the woman in the sub-basement store Wednesday morning, downstairs off the so-called Hollywood District, where the floors were uneven, and the place felt like a gray, surreal bunker under the pall of fluorescent bulbs and 50% off Baccarat crystal saxophones, heavy duty dented cookware, and smelly wicker baskets. Just being down there made her feel dizzy. And this woman seemed like the one…
‘You leavin’?’ she asked, twisting around her and jabbing the door wide open now, sticking one foot out with some lukewarm air of confidence.
‘Well, I’m done with my shift.’
‘So, what are you waiting for, an invitation?’ she replied.
‘No, just…’ Teddy’s words hit the end of her tongue and just walled up.
‘Waiting for your man, sweetie? He pickin’ you up today? Guys are always late. You can tell them, just come early, you know, wake your butt up early this time. Set the damn clock ahead ten minutes. Or don’t bother with the coffee, cause I don’t like it anyway, but they’re late anyway, huh?’
‘No one’s late. I’m just standing here, feeling kinda stupid.’
‘No man? Then you must have something waiting for you. Babies right? Don’t want go home to that right now. I get you…Know the feeling.’
‘It’s not that,’ Teddy shook her head and half-smiled, ‘I never got to that part yet.’
‘You ain’t got no babies? You gotta be thirty, girl, right?’
‘What’s that got to do with babies?’ Teddy wanted to laugh a little, but she was a bit sore instead.
‘I dunno. It seems like it’s just got everything to do with it. Nothing wrong with it, don’t get me wrong. Just want to get a bit of air, hang my head out here a second.’
Teddy felt guilty, not because she didn’t have any C-Section white scars running below in tiny skid marks, or because this woman was just plain getting in the way of this day, when the sun might clear her head and get the whole fuzz inside worked out, that tingle that seemed to come from the back of her neck and sit uncomfortably on the ride side all night, just a Styrofoam empty tingle. Coffee wouldn’t do it. This baby talk wouldn’t do it. It was like being back at Wal-Mart, working at the pharmacy counter, all the old people smelling like oatmeal and old feet, fumbling with their cards, asking her the weirdest questions. Well, the guys mostly. Did you work at the downtown location? Was she having a long day? Those were the ones easy to blow off, just smile half-robot like, but then they’d get weirder as the night dragged on. One guy came up to her, and it wasn’t like he looked different, or that he had a boll weevil freak kind of approach. He looked dead-on dad, just khaki and sweater kind of humdrum everyday guy, but then he leaned forward and said, ‘You know how to fight the devil, right?’
Teddy just looked at him, not baffled, just lazy and half-hearted.
‘No, but can I help you?’
‘Fight the devil?’
For about two seconds she thought about Motley Crue. Fight the devil, was that their second album? Wait, the album her brother Wade always swore was the metal masterpiece of the 1980s; the CD cover had some red and black devil sign looking thing on it.
‘No, you have a prescription to pick up?’ she asked.
‘I’m more concerned about the devil than my blood pressure.’ He put both elbows on the counter, put his hands up and in his hair, cracked his neck as he jostled it side to side. One finger slipped down and bumped his glasses.
‘Blood pressure medicine is very important. You should be regular about it. Just tell me your last name.’ She tried to remain in the zone of ‘nice’ but felt like just turning around and waiting on the car window, where someone had just pulled up and placed an order in the sliding slot.
‘I’ll tell you how to fight the devil. Just go up to him and say, ‘Get the hell out of here before I shove you up my anus where you belong.”
Did he say that, she questioned herself. Did he just say that, to me?
Then the woman at the factory half-closed the door.
‘Watch it,’ she said. ‘I know where you’re coming from. I’m from the 1970s you know, when kids were like, I dunno, considered crib monkeys or something. In high school, that’s what they’d say in the bathroom, ‘Better take the pill cause you don’t want no tit leeches,’ and we’d laugh, knowing the boys would probably have a heart attack if they heard us.’ She smiled, brushed hair away from her eyebrows. ‘Guys are all alligator skin, but when it comes to babies, they melt like soap. Well, some run, I guess, but some just get that dad kind of high, that cave man thing…’
‘I got to go now.’ Teddy slipped out the door, nudging the woman, feeling her jostle in the mid-section.
Teddy walked the parking lot thinking about Danny. He didn’t even drink coffee or Coke. He just seemed like a never ending boy. He actually drank milk. So weird, she thought, who drinks milk, in a glass, from top to bottom?
She was almost to her car and opening the door when she knew that she needed to remove something from the trunk. Hesitating, she flicked her fingernails against the window, making deadened little pitter patter sounds. The nearby trees and gray mashed potato clouds filled the reflection in the glass, though a brief sun glare almost washed it all away in a sharp blaze. She turned, looked at the back of the car, then looked across the parking lot, eyeing the yellow lines that darted here and there.
She didn’t want to go back in there, but she knew she should, knew she had to, to get her mind unblocked.
Turning far enough sideways that her hips felt a dull ache, she could see the woman at the door finally leave the foyer and disappear into the building that stuck out like Legos for nearly a quarter mile. Nothing but a few dwarf shrubs trying to make it look half-way hospitable.
She made herself go to the trunk, go to that keyhole that had been scratched until it looked like faint silver varicose veins. She stood right up on top of it, watching her shirt blow a bit, skimming the discolored metal.
She opened it, but didn’t let her mind cling to anything, because every time she thought about what she was thinking, she felt undone.
It opened with a quick squeal, metal on metal, and there it was, like nothing more than a sandwich or water bottle. But it was a gun.
Fear did not sit under her skin. This was Indian land, she thought. Guns settled it, though disease did most of the grunt work. In high school, the lesson came like a slap in the face: The tribes moved from place to place, ate the bulbous roots of a spry blue flower, made sounds that had no place in white language, even chewed on slugs and wasps’ nests when the hazelnuts weren’t underfoot. She was Indian…well, her grandpa married an Indian in the hills of Wisconsin, but all she knew about being an Indian was playing the slot machines. God, what have we done to this place, she thought. The hops farms, blueberry farms, and peach orchards were a kind of netting covering everything, except the giant cottonwood she loved, by the lake, with the robins the mosquitoes loved to bite. It stood just like the statue of Blackhawk down on the river bank, so unshakeable. Lincoln had been in the Blackhawk Wars, she knew, picturing Instructor Schulz fumbling with the chalk. He had seen the dead bodies, he knew the white people had the guns on their side. Now, she had the gun on her side.
She felt as though she was shouldering the weight of the world, but the weight was measured in ounces of broken bits of concrete, all scrambled in her head. She wanted to fold away the voice in her head, the one that said, ‘I never should have gone to the pawn shop,’ where the fat man stood like a giant cardboard box, just useless, really. It was like the bumper that pressed up against her knee was the nudge of a lover telling her, ‘You should have been kissing me.’
The gun had shown up like something unchangeable in her life, something steady.
Some kids were going to Utah on the highway, in a van, or so she thought as she glanced up, imagining a swimming pool, janitors hanging around the bathroom with cans of Lysol, boys urinating on coals. Television. 8 Ball. Stale bread smudged up on hooks to catch those carp. That bogus magic of ranch homes and pot lucks and fried Twinkies, each held up like a cup of light to prisoners like her.
I’m telling you, she felt cold then, inside that body, behind that face that was not hers. Not the one she was going to become, but did become, because she could not salvage that half of her brain that made her answer the right questions at the right time. She couldn’t get the wiring straight, until now, facing that gun. Knowing how her muscles were ready to inhale this moment, she was ready to head back in, see the boss.
‘Got a flat or something?’ It was Arnie, with half his window rolled down. He must have pulled up near her from the backside of the lot. She figure that by this time he’d by eating his Hi-Hoes, drinking a lukewarm cup of coffee, and smoking cigarettes in the parking lot of his apartment complex called Pine Lakes, though there was only a drainage ditch and no pines left.
She was surprised he made his way back to her. Not taken aback in a way that would make her slam the door, raise up on her toes, or feel the rash of sweat, but just worried that she had been so dumb not to make sure he was gone, really gone, and not slinking around like men do when they don’t seem to get what they want. ‘They’re so needy,’ she thought.
Arnold was not going away. He wasn’t going to do anything until she had one drink with him, until the waitress would look at them, until the cook with the tattoo tear and crucifix on his chest made something resembling breakfast.
Arnie’s whole life seemed like regurgitated honky-tonk song to her, just like the whole factory seemed like an invitation that said, ‘You will never know anything.’ It didn’t make her feel scarred, like it was some kind of leprosy, but it didn’t make things easy for her, for she would wake up without caring if she could dangle her foot down and touch the floor. The same days when the moon fell behind the last wall of trees and dawn only delivered up this naked dirt of living.
‘Then get what you need to get, and come have a beer with me. C’mon, this morning needs a good laugh, and I don’t wanna start watching TV yet, and you know how I can’t sleep. I’ll jab your ear off tomorrow, telling you how missed…’
‘Arnie…’ She closed the trunk, turned towards him, though her hand was still pressed down on the metal.
She remembered that the grip of the gun made her feel as if she had finally arrived somewhere, but she couldn’t get to it. Like Jerusalem for some people, it was just too far away. Arnie’s words felt like wet napkins. The highway looked anemic. She folded away his voice, put it in a jar, and placed it on a shelf.
‘Get going. I’ll be there. Warm the grill.’ She put a smile to work on her face, kind of a half-glum one, one falsely stretched into a curve, as if there wasn’t much wattage to lift it. She didn’t want to remember the time she went home with him, out of some misplaced pity, and touched him. He seemed so….pulverized. She remembered slipping, in a minute of total boredom and half-cooked empathy, her hand between his legs and feeling his penis, which felt like the tofu that one of her boyfriends asked her to make. He wanted more, wanted kisses that made her question the very existence of penises, those appendages that stuck out like lumpy, shapeless fingers when they were soft. She had gone down for a minute, but when a smell like soap and wet clay lifted into her nostrils, she just gave it a tap, tenderly, and said, ‘I’m not your girlfriend.’
He rolled down his window further. ‘Huh? You mean warm the seat? Cause I can’t go back there and just…’
‘Yeah, warm it. I’ll be right behind. Well, you know, let me have a cigarette. Then I’ll be there.’
He smiled, then moved across the parking lot, barely whirring in his old Ford. It was like finally hearing the music end. That undisturbed minute clung to her.
She looked at the factory, at the doors, at the ridge just to the left with just a sliver of snow remaining in the light. How did people speak before they could figure out what they wanted to say, she thought. She walked down the line of cars, letting her hand clip each with a sound that reminded her of a computer keyboard, the ones she’d thought she would train on before every boy thought she should be barefoot and pregnant instead. Boys, god, all the things they do in the name of sex and love. All the mental whiplash they unleash just to get your pants down, she thought. She wondered what it was like before microwaves and trailer parks.
That’s when she reached the front door. No one was there. The lights were gray inside. The candy machine looked like a red statue with a robot head. She then turned around back towards her car, felt a breath fill her lungs.
‘It’s not the end of the world,’ she thought, looking through her purse to find the keys. Maybe she should just go the library annex, where the books were little more than a quarter, in the old wing that still felt like 1960. She liked to flip through the books there. When she was a kid, when her brother would go straight for the monster books and Hardy Boys, she would look at the travel books, ones splayed with full color photos. Now, she liked the fiction, but not just anything. She would read the first page, then the last, to see if anything rippled or pulled her in. This drove her mom crazy. ‘Why in the heck do you do that,’ she’d say, peeking around the corner with an armful of books that looked like soft-core porn more than a story. ‘What’s the point of reading the damn thing if the ending’s all given away?’
No, she thought, to hell with that. It may be the end, but the words between count for something. Actually, they mean the most.
But she didn’t want to go to the annex, she didn’t want to go get mom, and she really didn’t want to get near Arnie right now, and she didn’t know what to do with the gun, but knowing it was there made her feel both breathless and important.
She sat down in her car, smoked until the ashen curlicues hung a minute before slipping out the window.
The sky was cleft by zigzagging geese of some kind, maybe from Canada. She had been there once, through the locks of Sault St. Marie, up north of Michigan, then she went to the mall in London. Dad thought it was so uncanny that there were two Londons, and since there was no way in the hell he could buy a plane ticket to London, then driving the old Chevy Malibu to a mall in Ontario had to be the next best thing, right? She bought a Metallica tape for her boyfriend, ate some Chinese food. It tasted the same as down in town.
But this made her tired, thinking of Dad, thinking of men, and sleep came down on her. A good sleep, the kind she had been dreaming of for weeks. The last thing she remembered seeing was the image of the scrubbed, white metal factory glinting in the front window. Then the sleep came. The kind that comes from the aftermath of peace, of not knowing what would come next.
By David Ensminger