His madly jerking Eyes – a Venti Vanilla Latte – a Five-dollar Bill – a (brief) Disquisition on Love –
His eyes pop open madly jerking about. He’s stretched out on the narrow back seat his black suit coat draped over him like a blanket, squirming under it, huffing, fighting to free his arms. Up in the front seat Mr. Keightlinger leans one arm along the back of it offering a huge plastic cup filled with bright blue slushie. Mr. Charlock grabs it and greedily sucks it down with long cheek-hollowing pulls at the straw until the cup gurgles. He wedges the cup between his knees and delicately presses his fingertips to his temples, trying a number of grips, index and ring, ring and pinkie, thumbs and middle, thumbs alone, until he shivers and doubles over in a coughing fit, hacking something blue and sticky into a handkerchief. “Fuck me,” he says. “It was easier when I couldn’t get in.” He sniffs, pokes the straw around the cup, slurps at what’s left. “Que hora?”
“Noon’s half gone,” says Mr. Keightlinger.
“You needed the sleep. Relax. They’re coming back from Erne’s.”
“What I need,” says Mr. Charlock, “is a long hot shower. Gets warm like it’s supposed to today? You do not want to smell what I got going on. And the crick in my neck.”
“Was it worthwhile?”
“Last night?” Mr. Charlock shrugs. “Whatever they had’s still gone. The Chariot or whoever can mope about whichever damn door he wants and as long as I’m bounded in a nutshell done up by a joiner squirrel and drawn by a team of redundant little atomies, I can get in there whichever night you please. Just, please. Make it a night she’s had it good and long and hard first, okay? My ribs feel like they was kicked in by red shoes.”
“It is positively sticky up there.”
“I should call in,” says Mr. Keightlinger.
“Because Lord knows we should fail to report their clockwork-like assignations with the dreadful Erne.” Mr. Charlock drops the plastic cup on the floorboard among a litter of fast food wrappers and empty cups and paper sacks, then grabs the back of the front seat and starts to haul himself over. “Remember the, the old days?” he says. “Letters in gentlemen’s magazines? Bulletins hidden, in misspelled roadside signs?” He ducks his head and rolls his back into the front seat, his feet swinging around, brushing the window-glass. “Took so long,” he says, wriggling himself upright, “it’s a wonder anything, we ever got anything done at all.”
“We still do all of that.”
“Yeah, but,” says Mr. Charlock, smoothing his tie, pointing out the window toward the pay phone there by the yellow Pay Here box, “those things are fuckin’ wizard, you know? And they’re ripping ’em out. All over the place. Everybody’s got the cell phones or whatever. No money left in ’em. And here’s me thinking, strategizing, you know, open-ended detail that we’re on, what do we do if they rip that one out before she moves on?”
Mr. Keightlinger opens the driver’s side door with a popping squonk. “We plant a new one,” he says, climbing out of the car.
“Huh,” says Mr. Charlock. “I suppose that could work.”
The long thin bundle in her arms wrapped in towels Jo’s standing just inside the doorway, at the top of the stairs leading down by the switchback of the access ramp. She’s looking out over the checkstands, the florist stand off to the side, the aisles of groceries. Signs over on the far wall say Signature Café and Great Lunches and Ready Meats. There’s a very large photo of some cold cuts and cheese. The ceiling’s a maze of ductwork painted white and struts and there hanging over the top of the stairs a big flatscreen television displaying in full color the entryway to the supermarket, Jo standing just inside the doorway in her careworn jacket, army-green, eyeing the television, in her arms a long thin bundle wrapped in towels. “Maybe we should come back later,” she says. “We can pick it all up after work, I guess. Except, fuck. Laundry.”
“Can I at least get some coffee?” says Ysabel, her hand on the stair rail. The green sign that says Starbucks is at the other end of the store by the deli counter. A uniformed security guard’s leaning on the florist’s counter, laughing at something she said. The guard’s shoulder patch says Safeway Loss Prevention.
“I don’t think so,” says Jo.
“It won’t even take two minutes,” says Ysabel.
“I’ll just,” says Jo, shifting the bundle in her arms, turning back toward the door, “I’ll wait outside.”
Ysabel walks down the stairs into the store, tight faded jeans tucked into oxblood boots, a brown leather bomber jacket over a tight cropped leopard-print tank top. Clear crystal flashes from the gold pin piercing her navel. Necklaces dangle and clatter, amber beads and gold links, a little golden bee, a winking rainbowed eye, a gaudy crucifix. A soft brown fedora on her black black hair. Her lop-sided grin made it so hard to win, sings a voice over unseen speakers somewhere up among the ducts and struts, all right you are, and your promises are just promises, but a sinister little wave of her hand –
The woman behind the Starbucks counter wears a dark blue shirt and a dark blue visor and a green apron and a badge that says Petra B. Her hair’s short, though her bangs are long enough to brush the corners of her jaw, and her glasses have thick black rims. “What can I get you?” says Petra B.
“I would like,” says Ysabel, leaning her forearms on the counter, heels of her hands pressed together, “a large,” looking up at the menu board, “vanilla latte.”
“Large,” says Petra B. “Do you mean tall, grande, or venti?”
“Which is the large?” says Ysabel. “The biggest?”
“Then I would like a venti vanilla latte,” says Ysabel.
“That’ll be three sixty-nine,” says Petra B.
“Is there more than one Petra?” says Ysabel. “Your nametag,” she adds, as Petra B looks up from the cash register.
“It’s my name.”
“And it’s a delightful name,” says Ysabel. “But why not just Petra? Why Petra B?”
“We’ve reached the point in the transaction where you need to give me money.” Petra B’s smile is pursed and knowing and a dark rich red.
“Hadn’t you ought to make me the coffee, first?”
“You’re supposed to pay first. That’s how it’s supposed to go.”
“But that won’t do at all. What if I don’t like it? You’ll have my money, and I’ll be stuck with a very large cup of coffee that I won’t want to drink.”
“Have you ever had a Starbucks vanilla latte before? Did you like it?”
Ysabel shrugs and nods her head to one side and says “Yes.”
“Well there you go.”
“But maybe you’re not very good at making them? I’m just saying.”
Petra B draws herself up and back with exaggerated dismay. “Is that what you think?”
“Tell me something, Petra B,” says Ysabel, the middle finger of her right hand idly scribing a circle on the countertop. Her short neat nails painted gold sparkle under a glossy shell. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
“What?” says Petra B.
“Am I beautiful, do you think? Am I attractive? Good-looking? Would you say, in your opinion, that I’m, well, gorgeous? That I turn heads and stop traffic?”
“You’re, uh,” says Petra B, “striking?”
“‘Striking’,” says Ysabel, a wry twist to her mouth. “That’s almost as bad as ‘handsome’.”
“I didn’t mean,” says Petra B, alarmed, but Ysabel’s saying, “Let me be more direct” and she hitches up on her toes leaning heels of her hands on the countertop now lifting herself that much closer to Petra B whose rich red lips aren’t so much smiling anymore, are quivering a little, her eyes behind those glasses darting from Ysabel’s eyes to Ysabel’s mouth and back. “Do you find me desirable?” says Ysabel, quietly.
“I don’t know,” says Petra B, too quickly.
“Do you want me?” says Ysabel.
And Petra B opens her mouth to say something, and maybe she’s about to nod, when Ysabel tilts her head and lifts it for a kiss.
For a moment they stand there, Ysabel swooped up against the counter, Petra B arched over it, her hands held out uselessly to either side, only their lips touching, and then Petra B sighs into the kiss her shoulders relaxing, her mouth opening over Ysabel’s mouth, her hands fluttering down to light on Ysabel’s arm on the fleecy collar of Ysabel’s jacket jerking as if burned then gingerly settling again. Ysabel breaks the kiss, and Petra B eyes closed behind those glasses rests her forehead against Ysabel’s until Ysabel pulls back just a little. “Now,” she says, smiling. Resettling her hat. “Make me that large vanilla latte.”
Nodding Petra B steps over to the espresso machine. Ysabel stoops to peer at her reflection in the side of the cash register. Petra B’s pouring clear syrup into a large white paper cup. Ysabel’s smoothing a corner of her lipsticked mouth with her pinkie nail. The milk’s foaming under the steam wand. “Whipped cream?” says Petra B.
“No,” says Ysabel straightening, “maybe I’ll put on a little nutmeg. Do you smoke?”
“What?” says Petra B. “No, I mean, I could, I guess. I’ve never. Here.” She hands over the latte. “Will I see you again?”
Ysabel carefully takes a sip. “Not bad,” she says. “Not bad. Thanks.”
A hand slaps a five-dollar bill on the counter, a hand in a grubby fingerless bicycle glove. “Keep the change,” says Roland. His jagged green sunglasses like pieces of broken bottle.
“Oh, no,” says Petra B. “That’s not necessary.”
“You’re not needed here,” says Ysabel, her voice low, her eyes narrowed.
“Where’s Jo?” says Roland.
“She didn’t want any coffee. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Really,” says Petra B. “It’s okay.”
“Go on, miss.”
“Go away, Roland.”
“Miss, please. Take the money.”
“It’s okay. Really.”
The hand in the bicycle glove crumples into a fist over the five-dollar bill still flat on the counter.
“Chariot,” says Ysabel.
Out on the corner before the doors to the supermarket Jo’s smoking a cigarette, the long thin bundle up on one shoulder, her free hand draped over it for balance. Across the street a blocky bunker of a building, pale red brick, a sign that says Christian Science Reading Room. Down the block a construction site, a condo tower, lower levels sleeked with new green glass. A panel truck snorts past. Staples, says the big red sign on its side. That was easy. She turns just as behind her Roland stiff-arms the crashbar of the big glass doors to the supermarket bursting out onto the sidewalk to stand there in a crisp white track suit with green piping, his blue and white headphones down around his neck. “Roland,” says Jo, and he looks up to see her there, “hey,” says Jo, “I’ve been meaning to ask,” and he’s walking toward her, “about Ray, I mean, how do I get a hold of him,” and his gloved hand’s coming up balled in a loose fist, “do you have a what’s that?” and is planted squarely against her chest. There’s something inside. She sticks the cigarette between her lips and tugs out the five-dollar bill. “What’s this for?”
“Figure it out,” snaps Roland, and he walks away.
“Well?” calls Jo after a moment. “Do you have a phone number for him or something? Huh? Nice to see you too, asshole!”
“What was that about?” says Ysabel behind her, sipping from a large cup of coffee. Jo’s stuffing the money into her pocket. “Fucked if I know,” she says. “Let’s go dump this shit and get ready for work, huh?”
In the tub Ysabel’s lifting a dripping calf from steaming water, slicking it with a soapy hand. In her other hand a molded pink safety razor. On the side of the tub a translucent white teacup its rim smudged with red lipstick and a pink and white My Little Pony lunchbox. A half-smoked cigarette smolders by a black smear of ash on a yellowed saucer. “I don’t know,” she says, drawing the razor up along her leg. “He wanted to pay for my coffee.” The door to the bathroom’s half-open. Music’s floating in from the main room, a guitar, a woman singing like laughing with liquid in your mouth, like you’re choosing between laughing and spitting it all out. “Guess that explains the money,” says Jo. “Sort of.”
She’s squatting on the futon sorting through wadded-up T-shirts, tossing black ones to one end, anything with color over there, a couple white ones dropped beside her. Farmers & Mechanics Bank says one, and Mykle Systems Labs says another. One of the black ones has a big red devil’s face on it, sticking out his tongue. She’s wearing a white one with a ragged collar and yellowing armpits that says This is Not a Slogan in scrawled Sharpie letters. “I get that he’s keeping an eye on you? I get that.” She frees a grey T-shirt printed with a colorful tangle of luchadores and ninjas, dithers with it a moment over the black pile before chucking it over with the colored T-shirts.
“There was a but in that,” calls Ysabel from the bathroom.
“But,” says Jo. “His timing? Fucking sucks. He shows up to try and buy your coffee? Where the hell was he when, when whatever the fuck it was tried to jump us on the MAX, huh?” She roots around one of the blond wood crates and pulls out a pair of black jeans, reaches inside to disentangle a pair of white underwear. “Damn sight more useful than a five-dollar bill. Are you gonna be in there all night? It’s already ten after.”
“So they lock down the laundry room at midnight, and the Safeway closes at midnight, and we didn’t go shopping before work like we were going to, and we didn’t do laundry last night because you just had to see the Girl From Mars show – ”
“Which was a great show,” says Ysabel. Water sloshes as she shifts in the tub, reaching down for her cigarette.
“Which it was, but that’s beside the point. We can’t keep spending five bucks on a cup of coffee because there’s nothing but dust in the Taster’s Choice jar.”
“It’s hardly the same thing,” mutters Ysabel, cigarette on her lips, lifting her other leg from the water.
“So are you gonna be getting out of there any time soon?” Jo’s stuffing her piles of clothing into a big beige canvas sack. The boom box on the floor by the futon’s playing a new song, a lonely fuzzed electric guitar, a woman’s high and reedy voice singing if the sun shines but approximately? What a world of awkwardness! What hostile implements of sense!
“Let me ask you something, Jo,” says Ysabel, slicking her calf with soap, laying the cigarette back on its saucer, taking up the molded pink razor. “Do you believe in love?”
Jo’s sitting there, the mouth of the canvas sack in one hand and her white T-shirts and underwear in the other. “Do I what?” she says. “What the hell has that got to do with any damn thing?”
“It’s a simple question,” says Ysabel. “Do you believe in love?”
“We don’t have time for this,” says Jo, yanking the sack’s drawstring.
“What was his name?” More sloshing. “Frankie? You never talk about him.”
“Love is bullshit, okay? Now you want to get out of the fucking tub?”
“So that’s a ‘no,’ then?”
“It’s a glandular thing,” says Jo, her hands up, agitated, “that evolved so we could stand being around somebody else long enough to, to – ”
“See,” says Ysabel, “I think you’re only saying that because you’ve been in love, and now you’re not.”
“I was not in love with him,” mutters Jo, as Ysabel’s saying, “Now, I’ve never been in love, yet I can’t help but believe in it. I see it all around me, every day. It’s why Roland does what he does.”
“Never?” says Jo, still sitting on the futon, elbows on her knees. “So you and Marfisa, that was, what? You never talk about her.”
“Shit!” says Ysabel. “Ow.”
“What’s wrong?” says Jo, looking up and over toward the half-closed bathroom door.
“Cut myself,” says Ysabel.
“Well, that’s what you,” says Jo, and then as she’s climbing to her feet “Oh, God,” and stumbling over the black spear-haft on the floor past the glass-topped café table she bursts through the bathroom door to see Ysabel leaning forward in the tub one leg propped up on the rim of it looking up, licking her thumb and pressing it to a little yellowing gash on the swell of her calf there below her knee. “You’re,” says Jo, “you’re okay.”
“It’s just a cut, Jo,” says Ysabel, her other arm up to cover her breasts.
“You cut yourself,” says Jo, still in the doorway, staring, “I’m here, and you cut yourself, and,” but Ysabel’s started laughing. “Oh, Jo, poor Jo,” she says, throwing back her head, her heavy damp black curls plopping against the water. “No no no. This is not a battlefield, sweet Gallowglas.”
Jo sighs. “We, uh. Were sort of fighting.”
Ysabel lifts her thumb slick with something thick and milky to her lips and licks it clean. “You thought I was done for. Gone down to dust. And you came running.” She presses her thumb back against the slowly reddening cut. “You do care.”
“I’m gonna,” says Jo, stepping out of the doorway, into the main room. “I’ll take the laundry down. Set it up.” Rustle of cloth, jangle of keys. “Go to the fucking Safeway and put them in the dryer when I get back.” She’s back in the doorway now, in her careworn jacket, army-surplus green, the canvas sack slung over her shoulder. “You stay put, heal, get clean, whatever the fuck, just don’t leave the apartment.”
“You’re leaving me alone.”
“Shit’s gotta get done,” says Jo. “It’ll only take an hour or so. And you aren’t going anywhere. And you can always call for Roland if you need to, right?”
Ysabel’s folded her arms on the rim of the tub, leaning her chin on her crossed wrists. “You don’t have anything of mine in that bag, do you.”
“I am not sorting your laundry, Ysabel,” says Jo. “More’n half of it’s dry-clean only anyway.”
“Could you at least wash some of my underwear?”
Jo snorts. “I’ll buy you some Woolite. You can slosh ’em around with you the next time you take a bath.” She jerks open the door to the apartment and slams it shut behind her.
Ysabel reaches down for the cigarette, looks at what’s left of it there between her fingers, then stubs it out on the saucer. She climbs out of the tub and heads dripping over to the bathroom doorway, standing there, staring at the door to the apartment.
Then she walks back to the tub, scooping up the towel that’s draped over the back of the toilet. Patting her face, her chest, drying her hands, she crouches by the tub and opens the pink and white My Little Pony lunchbox. There among the jumbled muddle of bottles of nail polish and lipsticks pots of scrubs is a small glass jar, half-filled with a viscous, milky fluid, frothed with tiny bubbles at the top, touched with just a hint of warm yellow gold.
“Sinister (But She was Happy)” written by Robyn Hitchcock, ©1996 August 23rd Music. “Falling is Like This” written by Ani DiFranco, ©1994 Righteous Babe Records. “The World and I” written by Laura (Riding) Jackson, ©1938.