When the phone rings the rumpled blankets jerk and twist and spit out a hand. It fumbles about and finds the alarm clock and slaps the snooze button. The phone rings again. A head pops out, blinking, befuddled. Blond hair cropped close to the skull, a couple of locks here and there left long, dyed black, lank. The phone rings again. She falls on it, half-tumbling off the futon, snatches up the handset. “What,” she croaks.
“Frankie,” she says. She grabs the alarm clock. “Frankie. You have any idea what time it is. It’s – ” peering thickly at the clock, she frowns “ – it’s a quarter of eleven. Fuck.
“Well, my alarm clock didn’t go off. I –
“Frankie, I’d have to catch a bus, I’m gonna be late as – ”
Listening to the chirpy voice on the other end of the line she fumbles about for something in the litter of unopened junk mail and discarded clothing by the futon, comes up with a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “Fine, fine.” She shakes it. It’s empty. “Let me just – yes, Frankie.
“I said I would, dammit.”
Jo Maguire hangs up her phone and puts her face in her hands and takes a deep breath in through her nose. “Fuck,” she says.
It’s raining. Under the bus shelter eyes half-closed leaning against the frame she coughs a thin little cough into a fist she jams back into the pocket of her careworn jacket, army-surplus green. One of her Chuck Taylors is black and the other is white and its toe is held on with duct tape. She wears khakis hacked off below the knee over grubby once-white longjohns. She doesn’t have a hat.
In the window of the salon behind the shelter is an enormous poster filled with a dim watery light that is neither green nor blue. A waifish model wrapped in a white towel floats in the middle of it and looks supremely unconcerned at nothing in particular. Her red-gold hair spreads out behind her and above her, the only source of warmth. About her are gathered little emblematic piles of this or that, a sprig of something herbal, a mound of chalky stuff, a puddle of goo the color of molasses, shavings of some yellowish root or clay. Beneath her dangling feet the words, dripping with photographed water: Reinterpret the day off.
A number fifteen bus pulls up to the stop. Digging in her cavernous pocket for change, Jo ducks through the rain and climbs on.
It’s a thirty-year-old apartment complex, small, maybe eight units in two two-storey buildings making a haphazard U around a small pocket of badly patched parking lot. Yellow siding and peeling brown trim and a sign that says The Bedevere in faded Old West letters. Jo dodges a torrent from a broken downspout and trudges up a flight of cantilevered steps to a second-floor apartment. The door pops open almost as soon as she knocks on it.
“Well?” says a skinny guy, with dark hair down to his shoulders.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” says Jo.
“Yeah, but you want to maybe come in out of the rain?”
Inside it’s dark. One of those ubiquitous halogen torchieres stands unlit in the corner at a slight angle. There’s an old vinyl couch like something out of a dentist’s waiting room and a litter of dirty dishes and take-out boxes on the carpet in front of it. “Hey, uh,” says the skinny guy, kicking an empty 2-liter bottle out of the way, “I hate to ask, but can I bum a smoke?”
“I’m out,” says Jo, in the doorway.
“You’re out.” His voice flat, his head turning to kick a sidelong look at her.
“Yeah, Frankie, I ran out last night and I haven’t had the chance to pick up any more because I had to run all the way across town to find out what the hell you wanted and – ”
“Geeze,” Frankie’s saying, “oh, geeze, Jo, I didn’t mean you had to just run out, I mean, you could have had some coffee or something – ”
“ – or picked up some cigarettes, you know, I mean, it’s not that important – And I’m trying to quit anyway, you know? So maybe it’s a good thing, you know? Maybe you should, maybe think about it too, I – ”
“I’ve got to be at work in ten minutes. Which is a physical impossibility from this side of the river. Can we hurry this up?”
Frankie looks away. “I, uh. Got fired. A week, a week and a half ago.”
The rain is loud through the open door.
“That’s not exactly my problem anymore,” says Jo.
“Don’t,” says Frankie, “don’t be like that. The past few days, I mean, I’ve been trying, you know? Calling people, and looking, but – well, it’s been hard, and I just – ”
“Frankie,” says Jo. “Just stop it.”
“What?” says Frankie.
Jo looks away as he turns to face her there in the gloom. Her hands in her pockets. She takes a deep breath.
“Stop what?” says Frankie.
She lets the breath out, deflating. “What is it you want, Frankie?”
He makes half a chuckle like it’s too much effort to bother finishing. “What, what do I want? I want things to be like they were. You know?” His hands swing up in two arcs before his face, his fingers sketching a little starburst in the air, poof. “And maybe they were only like that for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, but still. I want. I…” His hands drop to his sides, his shoulders slump. “I want a lot of things. What I need, is. What I need is fifty bucks. You know?”
His eyes on hers, hers on his. The rain, falling. She’s the first to look away.
He smiles. A little. Enough to bring out a dimple, there and there.
Leaning against the side of the bus shelter on Morrison and 20th, a wall of greenery behind her, the rain steady. Pulls her hand out of her pocket and shakes down the sleeve of the jacket so she can peer at her watch. 11:35.
“Shit,” says Jo.
She lays her head against the scratched plexiglass. Closes her eyes.
Which is when the rain stops. As she opens her eyes, frowning, the light starts flickering, a little, as if – it’s like the clouds above, the low solid milky grey ceiling, all that is breaking up, scudding away, a movie in fast-motion. Standing, frowning, she ducks her head out, looks up. Her hair shining. A fat drop of water hitting her shoulder unnoticed, sinking in, a dark splotch.
A short man in a dry peppermint seersucker suit comes walking down Morrison, whistling tunelessly, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a small cellophane-wrapped packet with a bright red circle on it. He has ruddy cheeks and a thick brown mustache and a summery straw porkpie hat. Jo looks down at him, her mouth framing a word she isn’t yet speaking, as he shakes the packet once, deftly. A couple of cigarettes leap to attention and he plucks one, offering it to her with a courtly little bow, an exaggerated dip of his head.
“I, uh. Thank you,” says Jo, and then after a moment she reaches up to take it. She smiles. It’s a wrinkled little thing, an off-white ivory color, and it has no filter. She lifts it to her nose to sniff. “Nice,” she says. “Flowery. What’s – ”
But the man in the peppermint seersucker suit isn’t there.
She looks up and down Morrison, steps out to the corner to look along 20th. The daylight is changing again, re-murking. The movie running in reverse as a drop of rain falls striking the puddle that drowns the backed-up storm sewer, and then another and another and another. Jo runs back under the bus shelter. Laughing. The rain coming down as if it had never stopped.