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Light from Fluorescent Ceiling Panels – a Dusty Hollow – Going Home – What is so Dangerous –

Light from the fluorescent ceiling panels careens about the white kitchen. At the small table under a darkening window sits Ysabel in a white plastic chair. Tortoiseshell sunglasses, a can of Diet Coke, and a small plastic baggie lie next to the small thick book she isn’t reading. Her eyes are closed. One corner of the baggie holds a pinch of something golden.

A thin man whose dark-nailed hands glitter with silver rings pushes open the door, letting in the mutter of an active phone room. She doesn’t look up. His black T-shirt says Elegant Casualty. He yanks open the refrigerator, takes in a deep breath, blows it out half-heartedly. “You smoke?” he says.

“Who,” she says, looking up at him. “Me?”

“Do you?” he says, closing the refrigerator. “Because the idea of warmed-over tempeh goulash is not revving my motor.”

“Sometimes,” says Ysabel. “Did you want a cigarette?”

“No,” he says, looking down at his hands, over at the coffeemaker. “I don’t smoke. I just thought you’d maybe like to have something to do. When we go outside to talk.”

Ysabel looks at the closed door leading to the phone room. Uncrosses her legs. She’s wearing tight blue jeans that flare at the ankles. “We’re going outside,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says.

“What are we going to talk about?”

“How’s Jo?” he asks. He brushes something from his black jeans.

“Jo’s, ah,” says Ysabel. She sits up a little, uncrossing her legs. “Jo’s fine.” She looks at the door to the phone room. “Is something wrong?”

He’s looking over at the employee posters spelling out overtime rules, state-mandated lunch breaks, a busy spot of color on the blank wall. “It’s all working out for you? Crashing at her place?”

“Her apartment is much too small. And it’s wretched.” Ysabel’s smile is small and wry. “I take it we’re not going outside?”

But he’s brushing at his jeans again. “How’s your boyfriend?”


“Your boyfriend,” he says, looking down at her book, at the little baggie beside it. “That’s what Jo said. You’re staying with her because your boyfriend is a mean sonofabitch.”

“Then I’d say,” says Ysabel, sitting back in her chair, “he’s still mean.” She crosses one leg over the other again. She’s wearing leather thong sandals. Her toenails are painted gold. “You’re Guthrie, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he says, his head canted to one side, still peering at her book. “What’s that you’re reading?”

Ysabel pulls the book into her lap and flips through to a page toward the beginning. “She turning back with ruefull countenance,” she reads, “cride, Mercy mercy Sir vouchsafe to show on silly Dame, subiect to hard mischaunce, and to your mighty will. Her humblesse low in so ritch weedes and seeming glorious show, did much emmoue his stout heroïcke heart, and said, Deare dame, your suddein ouerthrow much rueth me.” She closes her book and smiles at Guthrie, who’s frowning at a corner of the table. “Spenser,” she says.

“And see,” says Guthrie, “that’s the thing. That seeming glorious show. That was some party Saturday night.”

“Yes,” says Ysabel. “It was.”

“Do you,” says Guthrie, taking a deep breath, looking up at the bright ceiling, “have them often?”

“When we,” Ysabel starts to say.

“Because,” says Guthrie, looking down, looking at her, squinting a little, “I think I remember more than you think.”

Ysabel’s face is still for a moment. Then she says, “I don’t know what you’re on about. But if you’re trying to secure an invitation to the next one – ”

“I don’t want an invitation to the next one,” says Guthrie.

“What do you want?” asks Ysabel.

Guthrie reaches up and runs a hand through his thin hair. Bites his lip. Topples forward suddenly, hingeing at the waist, looming over Ysabel, catching himself on the back of her chair, the edge of the table. “I want to make sure,” he says, in her ear. “That you get it. Jo’s not alone in this. Okay? Whatever it is.”

There’s another burst of phone-room chatter as the door’s pushed open. A blond girl with a coffee cup squeezes past Guthrie, headed for the coffeemaker. Guthrie straightens. “I should get back to the phones,” he mumbles, reaching for the door.

“Guthrie,” says Ysabel.

He stops, halfway through the open door.

“I do appreciate everything she’s doing for me,” she says.

“Good,” he says, with a little shrug. The door swings shut behind him.

“Do you have any idea where the creamer’s got to?” says the blond girl.

From the sidewalk the ground slopes steeply to an old cyclone fence. Beyond that a retaining wall drops twenty feet to the four-lane highway full of sixty-mile-an-hour traffic. Sweetloaf in his brown bomber jacket picks his way past a neatly trimmed shrub toward a dusty hollow tramped down in the weeds where the fence meets the concrete buttress of the bridge over the highway. On a flattened cardboard box squats a man wearing a grimy check sports jacket and a brown wispy beard. Next to him a filthy girl, grease smeared on her cheeks, her blackened hands wrapped in rags. An old mohawk sprawls across her stubbled scalp. The man standing by the bridge holds an empty bottle like a club. The others stare at Sweetloaf stepping carefully in his moccasin boots. The man by the fence doesn’t look up from the traffic.

“Got a proposition,” says Sweetloaf, his hands held out and away. “Fuckin’ simplicity itself.”

“Everything goes by the CO,” says the bearded man in a rusty monotone. “You know that.”

“Of course I know that,” says Sweetloaf, smiling. “And your CO said whatever, fuck it. Run it by the jefes, do it fucking ad hoc, he doesn’t give a fuck. So now I’m running it past the jefes. So.” He hunkers down next to the bearded man. “Jefe. You want to make some fucking money?”

“Sure,” says the bearded man. There’s a long roll of industrial felt, grey, flecked with dark colors, wadded up against the concrete buttress. Twitching. It rolls over. There’s a wild-eyed face poking out near one end. “Shut up shut up shut up,” it says.

“These two girls,” says Sweetloaf. “One of them has blond hair with these little fucking black bits in it. Can’t miss her. She’s wearing a black T-shirt with a devil on it and combat boots. They’re going to come out of that building – ” he leans back and points up at a modest skyscraper looming over them – “at a little after nine o’clock. That gives you a couple of hours.”

The roll of industrial felt sits up and whoever’s inside it wriggles half out of it, a torso and a couple of arms in a puffy, dirty, pink ski jacket, that face tucked in under its hood. “Shut up I’m trying to sleep goddammit.” Sweetloaf looks over at it and back at the bearded man. “Yours?”

“No,” says the bearded man.

“Okay,” says Sweetloaf. He looks at the girl with the mohawk, who’s still staring at him. “You getting all this?” Sweetloaf snaps at her.

“The other one,” says the girl with the mohawk.

“Yeah,” says the man by the fence, who’s more of a boy. His cheekbones hunch like shoulders under his squinting eyes. “The other girl.”

“You said there was another girl,” says the girl with the mohawk.

“I did,” says Sweetloaf, looking down at the dust. “Shut up shut up shut up,” says whoever’s in the pink ski jacket. “You might be familiar with her,” says Sweetloaf.

“Yeah?” says the girl with the mohawk.

“The Bride,” says Sweetloaf.

“Fuck that,” says the boy, pushing off the fence. “Fuck it. No way the CO signed off on this shit.”

“You’re just fucking hounds on this,” says Sweetloaf, jerking to his feet. “You scare them. That’s it.” The boy isn’t looking at him. “You don’t get your hands dirty because you don’t even fucking think of touching them. Just put on a show so His Grace’s men can rescue them. And only His Grace’s men. Nobody else. You have my word.”

“Shyeah,” says the boy.

“Shut up shut up!” shrieks whoever’s in the pink ski jacket. It might be a woman, standing up, kicking loose from the heavy felt. “No peace no goddamn peace! Fucking niggers! Fucking goddamn slope niggers sand niggers spic niggers slit niggers fucking goddamn trying to fucking sleep!” The bearded man doesn’t look away from Sweetloaf. The girl with the mohawk is looking up at the building. The boy is looking back out over the highway with his arms folded.

“None of your Queen’s men?” says the bearded man.

“Fucking goddamn pixie niggers!” she yells, kicking the felt.

Sweetloaf grabs the woman pinning her back against the concrete with one hand. “Boo!” She flinches. “You know what I just did?” says Sweetloaf. “You know what the fuck I just did to you?” She’s looking down, holding up a hand as a shield. “I just took a fucking year of your life, that’s what I did!” he yells. “I took a filthy fucking year of your worthless miserable life!” She’s panting, shallow, whooping breaths of air. “You want to try for more? You want to say it again?”

She says nothing. Coughs.

“Well?” snarls Sweetloaf.

Her hand still up as a shield.

“None of your Queen’s men?” says the bearded man. “We’re not getting caught in the middle of another skirmish.”

Sweetloaf lets go, steps back. “No,” he says. The woman in the pink ski jacket slumps down to sit with her back against the concrete. “You have my fucking word.”

“And?” says the girl with the mohawk.

“Twenty dollars.” Turning, Sweetloaf fishes three crisp new bills from his shirt pocket. “Each.”

The bearded man smiles. “You have your hounds.”

The door to the phone room swings open. Jo ducks her head around. “You ready?”

Ysabel looks up from her book.

“Let’s go,” says Jo.

“Where to now?”

“Home,” says Jo. And as Ysabel opens her mouth to respond, “Don’t even,” says Jo.

“Just for a drink,” says Ysabel. “One song.”

“You can go wherever you want,” says Jo. “I’m going home.” She ducks back into the phone room. Ysabel slaps her book shut and stands.

In the hall, Jo punches the down button for the elevator. “It doesn’t have to be a bar,” says Ysabel. “Or a club.” Jo doesn’t say anything. “It,” says Ysabel, “we could go – ”

“Where?” says Jo.

“I don’t know.”

“Where, Ysabel? Where’s the free drinks? With no cover? Huh?”

Ysabel looks back at Jo. “We don’t,” she starts to say.

“You blew the last of our cash on lunch.” Jo kicks the elevator doors. “Slowest goddamn elevator in town, I swear.”

“Second-slowest,” says Ysabel.

The elevator dings. The doors jerk open. As Jo steps on, Guthrie and a short, older woman come out of the office down the hall. “Hey,” says Guthrie, “could you hold..?”

“Oops,” says Ysabel, pressing the close door button. The doors close. The elevator judders into motion.

“What did you,” Jo starts to say.

“Is he,” says Ysabel, “a friend of yours?”

“What does that have to do with – ”

“Does he talk to you? Did you talk? Tonight?”

Jo leans back. Dozens of dim Jo reflections lean back with her in the tarnished mirrors lining the elevator. “We’re on the phone all the time,” she says. “We don’t exactly hang out and chat.”

“You’re tired, aren’t you,” says Ysabel. “You don’t actually do any work at this job, but – ”

“People telling you to fuck off gets a little draining after a while,” says Jo.

“So just,” says Ysabel, lifting a finger, “one drink – ”

“We can’t!” snaps Jo. “Christ. Just take off by yourself.” She’s looking Ysabel up and down, her hip-hugging jeans, her peach tank top. “You wouldn’t have to pay for a goddamn thing.” The elevator grinds to a halt.

“If I go anywhere,” says Ysabel quietly as the doors jerk open, “you have to go with me. You know that.”

“Well,” says Jo, stepping out, “I’m going home. There’s your options.”

“It’s your duty,” snaps Ysabel, following her.

“Fuck that,” says Jo, storming across the brightly lit lobby.

“You said yes!” calls Ysabel, click-clacking after her. “You agreed!”

“Wish to hell I hadn’t,” says Jo, rearing back, aiming a big black boot at the crashbar of the glass outer door, kicking it open. Outside, sunset smolders behind the western hills. The sky is a deep blue shading into indigos and blacks in the east, where only a few of the brightest stars can be seen. There is still more light in the air than what’s put out by the streetlights and the bright hotel sign on the corner. Jo catches the closing door and holds it open for Ysabel. “Look,” says Jo, who takes a deep breath, and then in a rush says “You can’t come here tomorrow.”

“What,” says Ysabel flatly, stopping there in the doorway.

“You can’t come here tomorrow,” says Jo, looking down. “Becker said.” She’s still holding the door open for Ysabel. “You have to stay at my place.”

“And you,” says Ysabel, still standing in the doorway.

“Will go to work. Just like today.”

Ysabel takes a deep breath. The street is empty. The only real sound is the susurrus of traffic on the highway two blocks away, hidden in its great gully. “You still don’t understand,” she says.

“You don’t understand,” snaps Jo. “I don’t know what it was like, hanging out with Roland. Maybe he had some magic credit card, I don’t know. I don’t have that. Okay? We don’t get to do that. I have a job. I have to have a job. And my boss is giving me shit because of you and I am not going to get fired.”

“None of that matters,” mutters Ysabel. She starts walking down the street, away from the highway behind them.

“So you can stay home tomorrow,” Jo says as she lets the door close. She heads after Ysabel. “Or go wherever the fuck you want. I officially do not care.”

“None of that matters,” says Ysabel. Jo leans out, catches her arm. Jerks her to a halt. “The fuck?” she says, as Ysabel’s saying, “I am your responsibility. You have the keeping of me.” Her eyes are wide, her mouth in a frown. She’s trying not to breathe heavily. “You can’t just leave me in that pigsty. Alone. You must keep me safe. No matter what.”

Jo blinks. “Can you stop with the pigsty cracks?” she says.

“Dammit, Jo!” Ysabel jerks free. There’s a weirdly distorted, glassy clink, somewhere away behind Jo.

“What?” says Jo. “What am I keeping you safe from?” There’s a clank, and another.

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

“What is so dangerous?” Another clink. “That you need a freaking bodyguard, twenty-four seven.” Clonk.

Ysabel points. Jo turns.

Down the street from the bridge over the highway come four people: a girl with a limp mohawk, her hands wrapped in rags. A man in grimy grey and black camouflage, his shoes a pair of disintegrating Nikes. A tall boy in tight black jeans. A boy in an old grey sweatshirt, his face twisted in a scowl. He’s got three empty glass bottles in his right hand, his fingers and his thumb jammed in their necks, and he lifts them and clinks them together, and again. “Chickie chickies,” he says. “Boo,” says the tall boy. They’re a block away and spreading out, into the street, and the girl with the mohawk is holding her hands wide, grinning. “Chickie chickie,” says the boy with the bottles. Clink. Clonk.

“We’d better,” Ysabel starts to say, as Jo, frowning, takes a step towards them. “Christian?” says Jo.

“We’d better go,” says Ysabel.

“Aw, shit,” says the boy, dropping the hand that holds the bottles. The girl with the mohawk says “Come on!”

“Christian?” says Jo again. “What’s going on?”

“Shit,” says the boy. “The fuck you doing here, Jo?”

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The F--rie Queene, written by Edmund Spenser, lies within the public domain.