Selected by Virginia Pye, author of Shelf Life of Happiness
Followed by Bio and Q&A
The Company of Crows
Javier looked at the lunch his wife had made him, then cast a wary glance toward the crows in the vacant lot adjacent the garage. There were three of them in the plot of overgrown crabgrass and weeds bordered by a low brick wall. The smaller one held a twig in its beak, puncturing holes in a closed Styrofoam sandwich container, while the two larger, louder ones stood facing the street, cawing at the intermittent traffic. His appetite had left him and he only picked at his food, rearranging the tamales and rice in the Tupperware container. He decided to try a joke he'd remembered.
"Hey boss, you hear the one about the young woman who brought her BMW in to a mechanic?"
"Don't believe I have."
"After the mechanic takes a look at the car, she asks him, 'So what's the problem?' The mechanic tells her, 'Just crap in the carburetor' and she says, 'Oh really? How often should I do that?'"
"Not bad," Eddie said, laughing silently as his shoulders and upper body jerked slightly forward.
He watched Eddie's face, searching for some giveaway but the eyes were impenetrable as always and after a few seconds the expression fell blank.
A year before, walking casually past the shop on his way to the post office, their had been two crows in the lot and they had spoken to him: "Look," they'd said in their screeching crow voices.
"Here is a garage and you can fix cars. Go inside and ask for a job." Of course the crows being smart birds had been right, but now he questioned himself for heeding their advice. Sure, crows were wise but not all were well intended; there were good and bad crows and he wondered if he'd been tricked. Perhaps it was all just childish nonsense like Eddie said. At this thought he reflexively touched the seashell amulet hanging from a leather cord around his neck, caressing its ridges with his thumb and forefinger, as if apologizing for the lapse of faith.
"Business is booming, my friend. Hell, at this rate I might retire early," Eddie said, running a hand through his carefully coiffed hair. He'd just finished his lunch and was seated across from Javier at a folding table beneath a canopy which extended over the paved portion of the drive. His shirt, with his name stitched above the breast pocket, was tucked neatly into his pants and his uniform traced his sturdy build with precision.
Javier understood that Eddie was a proud, image-conscious man, not only from the attention paid to grooming and physical appearance, but from the old high school and college football trophies and photographs he kept displayed behind the counter in the customer annex. Each fall he sponsored a local Pop Warner team, helping out with uniform and equipment expenses, and there were additional photographs of him posing with the teams he'd sponsored. At times Javier would look up from his work to see Eddie standing beyond the canopy, hands on his hips, surveying the garage and surrounding area like a lord taking a moment to admire his property holdings. The official name of the garage was "Eddie's Automotive" announced plainly on a big white sign at the bottom of the gravel drive.
"Yes, I guess we've had good luck," Javier said.
"No such thing as luck," Eddie said. "You make your own luck. And I don't want to hear about any of that superstitious twilight zone crap you like to talk about."
Javier cringed. Eddie had made his own luck, alright. “This is good. It's much better to be busy, huh boss?” he said.
A head shorter than Eddie, he was habitually hiking up the baggy blue pants that kept inching down his backside, and his singular, grease-stained work shirt, which hung loosely below his waist, did not have his name on it. His hands were those of a much bigger man, strong and leathery from a life of manual labor. He'd proven himself reliable and the two men worked together amicably, although he was aware at all times of an unnamed line that should not be crossed, and was careful not to say anything that might threaten Eddie's image of himself and his garage.
“Damn right it is,” Eddie said.
“So maybe you can retire someplace it's not so hot.”
“Yep, and I'm thinking it's finally time to put a pool in the backyard. The wife and kids have been bugging me about it for a while now. Not looking forward to dealing with the contractors and the whole mess of it.”
"Hey boss, I tell you they raising our rent again?"
"Yeah, I think you mentioned it."
“I finished with the Fiat already. It's running like new.”
“Good, can you have the Subaru done by four?”
“Sure, it's no problem."
Eddie glanced at his watch. “Well, it's time to get back to work.”
Javier hiked up his pants and went into the bay to finish working on the Subaru.
The previous afternoon, a woman had driven up the shop's gravel and dirt drive in a light blue Mercedes convertible that coughed and jerked the entire way before conking out in front of the customer annex. Javier and Eddie had both watched from the bays, a little further up where the hill leveled off into even ground. The woman quickly got out of the car, took three steps, stopped, looked back at the car and threw up her hands in exasperation.
"You go on ahead to lunch, I've got this," Eddie had said.
Javier washed his hands and started out of the bay. Before heading down the sloping drive, he passed Eddie and the woman outside the little customer waiting annex. “Ma'am,” he was reassuring her, “I know it's a frustrating situation, but I promise we'll have it running like new in no time. Go on and help yourself to some coffee while I have a look.”
But half way to the deli Javier realized he'd left his wallet in the bay and returned to the shop. As he re-entered the bay, Eddie's upper body was under the hood of the Mercedes, his arms thrashing about. He stopped and stepped to the side, watching as Eddie destroyed the car's timing belt and then went to work sabotaging the alternator. Not sure what to do, he waited until Eddie rose from under the hood, then continued quietly to the work bench and retrieved his wallet.
"Thought you went to lunch?"
Eddie had moved away from the car, ten yards from Javier, his face a red contorted ball of fury, and the coiffed hair flattened into a bird's nest. His appearance was so unfamiliar and alarming, that for a split-second Javier had wondered if it were not actually Eddie, but an impostor who'd entered the garage while he was out.
"I forgot my wallet."
"Yeah? Well you shouldn't go sneaking up on people like that."
"Sorry about it, boss, I'll see you in a little bit."
He must know that I saw, he'd thought, but a day later it were as if nothing had happened. Eddie seemed his normal self, in good spirits even.
That first day when the crows had spoken, he'd nearly walked out during the interview.
"What's your status?" Eddie asked, after only a few questions about his experience.
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Come on, you know. You got residency papers?"
Javier didn't answer. He'd had an impulse to flee the shop then and pretend he'd never walked in.
Eddie smiled knowingly. "Better for both of us if we keep it off the record. IRS doesn't need to know. None of their damn business anyway."
The conversation quickly veered away from the subject as Eddie went over the hours and type of help he was looking for. He'd desperately needed the job and nothing more had been said of it.
He finished with the Subaru and started on a Toyota Corolla, raising it on the lift to drain the oil, then lowering it back to the ground, putting in the new oil and cleaning out the throttle body. It was the end of his day. He went to the basin faucet in the back and scrubbed his hands under the water with the Lava soap until no more of the grease and grime would come off. After drying his hands with a paper towel he thought of Leticia and Anna Maria and touched the seashell amulet, trying to extract from it some guidance, some sign of how to move forward. Leticia's hours had been cut at Walmart and the landlord seemed to be raising their rent every other month. Then, just a week ago, the doctor had diagnosed Anna Maria with an asthmatic condition which made her breathing sound like a truck in need of steering fluid and an alignment. She required medication that would cost money they didn't have.
There was nothing though. No sudden clarity of vision visited him, no well-lit path appeared for him to walk down. He was tired of the moving and uncertainty, of being forever adrift. Often, he felt like a rat that couldn't show itself in the open for more than a few seconds before scurrying back down into the sewer.
He grew angry. Where had the seashell and the crows and reading the signs ever gotten him? He could not let them stand in the way of providing for Anna Maria and Leticia. Better to be done with it. What a fool he was, believing in their power! Business was good and Eddie would have to raise him sometime; if not this month, then the next or the one after that.
He walked out from beneath the canopy, up to the low wall of eroding bricks bordering the vacant lot and let his fingertips caress the shell's worn familiar ridges one last time. He removed the leather cord from around his neck, and turning his head away towards the customer annex, held his hand out over the bricks, letting it fall into the unkempt grass of the lot. For a moment it seemed he could still feel the necklace in his palm, as if somehow of its own volition, it had clung to him.
He walked the mile back to the apartment, and that evening as the three of them sat for dinner at a small table in the cramped living room, he couldn't shake his sour mood.
"I hate carrots, they're so gross," Anna Maria said after Leticia had given her a plate of fish sticks and a mixture of carrots, peas and green beans from a can.
"Have gratitude you have something at all to eat!” Javier snapped. “You'll finish dinner, then do your homework."
Tears welled up in the girl's big dark eyes and she spent the rest of the meal staring silently at her plate to hide the tears as she picked at her food.
As Leticia and Anna Maria cleared the table and washed the dishes, Javier remained seated at the table, a thousand miles away in a sea of self-loathing and self-pity. An hour later he was still there, staring trance-like into the kitchen.
"Javier, go and talk to her instead of feeling sorry for yourself," he heard Leticia's voice, soft and low behind him. He turned in his seat to see her standing in the orange light cast by a floor lamp, noting the earnest concern in her face and the delicate beauty of her features in the dim light.
He gave a slight nod. He had known the first time he'd seen her that he would marry her. He'd been working as a construction gopher, lugging planks of wood, sheet metal and whatever else was needed around the site. In the late afternoon, through a wire mesh fence, he'd spotted her on the sidewalk, heading to the bus stop on the next block. She'd brushed her straight dark hair away from her eyes and looked up just long enough to let him know she'd noticed him. His heart had sung a song he'd never heard before and then soared until he thought he would lift off the ground and fly away.
In a few minutes he rose from the chair and went to Anna Maria's room, knocking quietly before peeking his head in the doorway. She looked up from the book she was reading at her small desk, smiled, and went back to her book. Thumbtacked to the wall were several drawings done in crayon and colored pencil. They were filled with stick figures and the outlines of vaguely shaped animals. In the right-hand corner of each drawing was a half circle sun, emitting yellow rays.
"What are you reading?"
"It's called The Girl Who Loved Horses. I'm reading it for a book report."
"It sounds very interesting. Horses are fine animals; stubborn but also strong and proud."
"Did you ever have a horse, Papa?"
"Not one of my own, but I have ridden a few beautiful ones."
"I would like to have a horse someday. I would ride her across the mountains so the chupacabra couldn't get her."
Javier smiled. "The chupacabra? Where did you hear of the chupacabra?"
"We talk about them at school sometimes. They are like little vampires with fangs and they only come out at night. Irma said they killed her grandpa's chickens."
"Well, I think horses are too big for the chupacabra to harm, and if you work hard then I'm sure you will have a very nice horse someday."
"I hope so, Papa."
"Good night, Anna Maria."
"Good night, Papa."
Gently, he closed the door and went to the kitchen. He stood looking through the kitchen window at the darkening sky and the small parking lot below. When the light no longer shone from under Anna Maria's door into the hall, he told Leticia he was stepping outside for some air. They slept in the living room and soon she would convert the futon sofa into a bed, making it up with sheets and pillows from the closet. Now she was in her chair in the corner, wearing a black shawl and knitting a blanket she'd been making for months.
"Don't be too long," she said.
Their block was lined with two-story apartment buildings, and on the next block they became shops and stores. He passed the liquor store where a small group of men were huddled in the alley behind the store, crossed Rosa Avenue, continuing by the small grocery and barber shop, both still open and doing business. He continued for three more blocks to where the street climbed steeply, and when he ascended to its highest point at a cross street, he stopped and faced south.
In the distance, the fading outline of the Tijuana hills was slowly merging with the night. He closed his eyes and concentrated, transporting himself down a series of streets and then several more miles across the border, beyond the hills spotted with shanty houses, and still further south, to the coastal village of his ancestors. They were fisherman who'd used dinghies and rafts to pull tuna and dorado out of the sea. The discarded seashell had been a gift from his grandfather who claimed it was a token of luck, passed down for generations.
In his mind's eye, he saw his forefathers at work in their boats, and then in the evening, resting on the shore, warming their hands and eating beside a fire. He could smell the salty sea air and hear the cries of seagulls. The men, he was sure, were courageous and hardworking, but also good-natured, ready to make conversation and laugh. And always, they were honest and just. He wished he could join them on the shore to hear their stories and share the comfort of their companionship.
He had never fished as an occupation, although occasionally, when food was low, he and his friend Manuel would take their rods to the Sweetwater River basin and try their luck. He had, in addition to the auto repair shop and construction sites, worked in many restaurants as a cook, busser, dishwasher, and even a waiter. He'd done landscaping for several years, making the grass grow green and the azaleas bloom in spring. He'd detailed cars, waxing and polishing the painted chrome until it glistened in the sun. Between regular jobs, he collected aluminum cans and any other reusable metal he could find discarded in dumpsters, trash cans or alongside of the road, cashing the metal in at a recycling facility.
When a job inevitably ended or the landlord raised the rent, forcing them to leave, the uprooting was undertaken with quiet efficiency. He marveled at the way Leticia and Anna Maria neatly packed up their belongings without a word of complaint, as if it were simply a ritual fact of life they'd long ago resigned themselves to. But the helpless responsibility he felt for tearing them away from friends and familiar surroundings had become a weight he carried around in his chest.
When he returned, Leticia was in the converted bed, and aside from a lamp on an end table, the apartment was dark.
"I wonder where you go when you're out," she said, as he undressed.
“Only to drink a bottle of tequila and gamble with the men throwing dice behind the liquor store.”
Leticia allowed herself to smile slightly. “In that case you can sleep on the street with the bums and the rats.”
Javier pulled up the cover and laid down beside her. "Just for a walk," he said.
"It's getting late for walks."
"The air is cooler and it's quiet."
"Well, I think her condition is getting worse, this morning her breathing sounded heavy. They say it's from the pollution and smog."
"She seems okay now, don't worry so much. We'll get her the medication.”
“Did you talk to them about a raise?”
"Yes, I think it'll be soon. It's been very busy." He reached over and pulled the lamp string. “I'll talk to Eddie again."
Soon after closing his eyes, he found himself in the company of crows, a whole murder of them, silently perched upon the thick limbs of an ancient leafless tree. There were so many that the tree appeared to have sprouted enormous black leaves. Below, starting at the tree's base and extending all the way to the horizon, was the repair shop, an entire desert strewn with the rusted, skeletal remains of cars.
Javier worked on the car as Eddie tended to a pickup in the adjacent bay. The heat was unceasing and he found himself losing focus. He put in the wrong spark plugs and then was unable to properly secure the intake valves. With a towel, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and sighed. He didn't feel much like working, and when they took their lunch beneath the canopy, he remained aloof and distracted. Eddie was going on about the football team he'd been helping to coach. He was saying how the kids weren't being taught the proper basics and rules of the game.
“Hello, anybody home?” Eddie said, noticing that Javier wasn't paying attention.
“I'm here,” Javier said. “I was just remembering something I need to do later is all.” The words came out irritable and defensive, and this caught both men off guard.
“Must be pretty important,” Eddie said, regarding Javier for several seconds. They finished their lunches in silence.
While trying to get back to work, the recollection of several customers flooded him all at once. He recalled the elderly, half deaf Japanese man who'd brought his Toyota Avalon in for routine maintenance and stood with his mouth open as Eddie explained that the car needed a new transmission and wasn't safe to drive. Javier had driven the car into the bay and it had run well. He remembered the teacher who had gotten very upset, arguing for some time that her brakes had been just fine when she'd driven to the shop. What could have possibly happened to them since she dropped the car off? And there had been others.
He looked up to see there were now four crows. Two of them had hopped over the bricks and were strutting about, beneath the canopy; their caws growing louder and more frequent. The newest crow's beak was misshapen, abnormally wide and discolored. Its ancient looking feathers were ruffled and some had fallen out, exposing a naked patch of skin. He stared for a moment, dismayed both by the crows' newfound daring, and the grotesqueness of the newly arrived bird. He turned away, and when he turned back, Eddie was standing silently in the shadows of the bay entrance, looking at him. Javier shivered.
"We need to have a talk," Eddie said.
"Yes, I think we should talk."
"Well, I'll talk and you can listen."
Javier didn't move.
"I do whatever I have to to make sure business is good. I think you understand, without business you don't have a job. We can talk about that raise if you want, but you need to keep your mouth shut." He took a step forward into the bay, peering at Javier through narrowed eyes.
"Boss, what you're doing, it's wrong."
"Don't tell me about wrong. You don't even belong here. You don't exist as far as anyone that matters is concerned.”
Javier reached for the seashell, remembered it was no longer around his neck, and quickly dropped his hand to his side.
"Boss, don't you see? The shop will be cursed. Even if you make money it will be no good."
"Jesus, you people never learn. You think some superstitious magic is going to save you, but it never does, and then you come running across the border, begging with your hands out. You get what you deserve."
"I never begged you. I never begged for anything. Every day I come to work and do my job just like you."
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key ring with keys to the bays and customer annex. As he held them out toward Eddie, they jingled in his shaking hand.
When Eddie made no move to take them, he placed the ring on the work table and began walking out. Just before he could step from the bay into the late afternoon light, Eddie moved to block his path and his head nearly bumped Eddie's chest. He felt his smallness then, felt himself being swallowed by the much larger man, and took a quick step back.
"Where you think you're going?"
Seeing Eddie ready to lash out and defend his treasured domain, he skirted around him and out of the bay. He walked until he reached the bricks, dropped to his knees, and scoured through the weeds on the other side with his hand until, in a thick patch of grass abutting the bricks, he felt the leather cord. He scooped it up, placed it around his neck and continued down the drive.
"I said I'd give you a raise!" Eddie called after him.
He kept walking, saying nothing, until his pride would no longer allow him to remain silent, and he stopped and turned.
"You should raise me because I did good work, because I deserve it. Not so I won't tell what you're doing," he said, aware that his legs and arms were both shaking now.
"I gave you a job!" Eddie called after him. "You say anything and I'll make sure Immigration ships your illegal ass out of the country!"
The four crows had taken to the air. They glided over the garage one at a time, then circled back, simultaneously hovering above the bays like winged shadows suspended against a deep blue sky. Javier continued down the gravel road, kicking up dust and small rocks as he walked. When he reached the end of the drive, he glanced down the street: an auto dealership, a used furniture store, several restaurants, a few beauty salons.
Eddie was still atop the drive, next to the customer annex, his arms periodically rising at his sides as his voice carried down the hill. The words sailed over Javier without comprehension before dissolving in the street. Cars went past in both directions. He hiked up his pants and walked west, wearing his anonymity like an old familiar jacket. Halfway down the block the shaking ceased and his indignation began to subside. Ahead, he could see the heat moving in soft shimmering waves and he moved towards this vision as if under a spell. At the intersection, as the walk signal blinked its invitation for him to cross, he paused and caressed the shell's familiar ridges with his fingers, awaiting the sign that would tell him he was finally home.
Jason Grunspan grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland before moving out west. He currently resides outside of San Diego and has been writing short stories for several years.
For me, “The Company of Crows” is mostly a story about following one's gut—of finding a way to be true to one's self.
What is your favorite infomercial and/or spokesperson?
I don't really have a “favorite” infomercial, but when I was growing up there was one with an older guy who was selling a juicer. He was abnormally muscular for someone his age, and he had this tough, no-nonsense way of talking. I've personally never owned a juicer, but I never doubted he was using his everyday.
Freshwater or saltwater?
Saltwater. It's generally deeper, more dangerous and mysterious. It's nature in its most wild and untamed form.
What language do you not speak but wish you could?
French. I just like the way it sounds.
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Without consulting her, Miranda’s sister signed them up for “Sherlock Holmes: The Cast of the Baker Street Five.”
It wasn’t Miranda’s first choice for an Escape Room—or an adventure—but she’d been too busy at work to care. Her sister Jilly was adamant that they not do the bank heist or the pirate escape.
“I won’t wear an eyepatch,” she kept saying. “I really won’t. And who uses currency these days, anyway? What’s in the vault? Old plates and broken radios?”
If Miranda were to be trapped in a room and forced to escape in less than sixty minutes, she might as well channel a great detective. Maybe the employees would hand out pipes and funny hats and basset hounds. Did Sherlock Holmes wear a monocle? Maybe she would be able to exclaim Elementary and The game’s afoot.
Plus, she liked the company’s tagline and logo: Can You Escape?
Today at work, Miranda let the myriad data processes run and close, everything successful. She turned in the code, alerted her project manager, and left her office on Webster Street, driving over the bridge to the city from Oakland, a reverse commute, the second reason she said yes to this ridiculousness. The first reason was because Jilly seemed on the edge, ready for another manic episode.
Miranda needed to see for herself before doing an intervention. She was good at them by now. She could spot trouble a mile away.
There was a slight clog before the Fremont Exit, so she hung on the Bay Bridge as the cars crept forward, looking down onto the city, a dark steel-ness despite the afternoon sun. She’d been listening to NPR, but the monotone of voices was too lulling, so instead she turned everything off and opened her window, letting in a light, noisy breeze.
“Oh, my god!” Jilly had said on the phone on Monday. “You won’t believe how totally fun it is. We have to do it. I’ll bring Zenda.”
Jilly was five years younger than Miranda, but always seemed younger than thirty, the exact same person she’d been at fifteen. She was always with a best friend, this one now Zenda, a made-up name, or at least that’s what Miranda thought. Miranda wasn’t exactly sure how Jilly was making her living, though she imagined it was a pastiche of server, Uber-driver, catering, and jobber this-and-that: food delivery, house-sitting, dog-walking. Jilly dropped out of college during an especially bad manic swing and never went back. She lived with a merry-go-round of friends, who fell away after a crisis.
The traffic began to move, and Miranda’s phone rang. Jilly was probably canceling at the last moment, as she so often did, no matter the formality of occasion: wedding, graduation, or funeral, especially funerals.
“This is she.” Miranda braked for a woman driving a Volvo who decided lanes didn’t matter.
“This is Brenda McLean from radiology at Kaiser.”
Miranda gripped the wheel. Right. The mammogram. The one her doctor told her to have years before.
“The radiologist wants you to come back for another mammogram,” Brenda said.
Miranda wanted to ask why, but why? It was obvious. There was something wrong or something inconclusive. There was a blur, a mass, a knob of death; a shadow, a tumor, a terrible mystery.
She didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that. Besides, no one ever asked you to do something awful twice for fun.
Her heart beat louder than the traffic passing outside her window. Behind her, another motorist honked. Miranda stepped on the gas, made her way off the bridge.
“Ms. Pearson?” Brenda asked.
“I’m here,” Miranda said, bearing left toward Market Street. She took the first left, and then turned left again.
“Does next Wednesday at noon work?”
“Of course.” She worked at home on Wednesdays. No one would ever know.
“We’ll see you the 16th at noon. Remember, no deodorant or lotion. No powder.”
Miranda hung up and stared into the red light. Ahead of her, the sun squeezed through the financial district like a laser.
Somewhere, close by, there was a mystery to solve.
“You’re late!” Jilly said. “You’re never late.”
Jilly leaned over for a kiss, and Miranda tried to not breathe in her scent, which was usually parts Sauvignon Blanc and a perfume that smelled like spun sugar and something very purple. Today she just smelled like a fruit rollup.
“Traffic.” Miranda noted Jilly’s very short skirt and big black boots. Her hair was straight, long, and dark, a twist of magenta framing the left side of her face.
Jilly handed Miranda a clipboard, a pen dangling from a neon-green chain. Behind her sister stood a dark-haired woman nodding to music coming through earbuds, the kind without wires. Her bangs looked like a perfectly hemmed pencil skirt that rested against her smooth forehead. She wore cat glasses and a short skirt. Both she and Jilly were case studies for planned disorder, a chaos of cool.
“This is Zenda!”
Miranda started to say something but was interrupted.
“Are you ready?” A female employee wearing a red shirt and a hound’s-tooth cap came up and collected Miranda’s clipboard. Her curly brown hair fanned out from beneath the hat.
“Looks good!” She was chipper, her voice a small, finely wrought saw. Miranda tried to smile, but the beginning of a headache pulsed behind her eyes.
“Do you need a Coke?” Jilly leaned in. “I can tell. You need a Coke.”
“Everyone needs a Coke.” Zenda’s bangs didn’t move even when she nodded.
“Is your name really Zenda?” Miranda asked.
“No refreshments in the Escape Room,” the employee said in the same high voice.
Jilly pressed two pills into Miranda’s hand as they walked down the hallway. “Better than Excedrin,” she whispered. Jilly and Miranda knew Excedrin, their mother’s favorite drug because she refused anything stronger.
“It gives me that extra zing,” she always said.
“You have sixty minutes,” the employee said. “You may not use cell phones in the room for calls or web search. No photos, please.”
“No Google!” Zenda moaned. “I can’t do anything without it.”
“Have fun,” the employee said.
Jilly grabbed Miranda’s arm. “This is going to be great.”
Nothing Jilly ever said would be great ended up being remotely great, but hadn’t Miranda always been there anyway? She nodded, popped the pills into her mouth, and swallowed. They weren’t even remotely Excedrin.
“Your time starts now!”
The employee handed Jilly an instruction sheet, let them in, and then, in a whoosh, the door closed behind them.
The room was decorated like a cheap Edwardian set, the kind from the plays Miranda used to perform in during high school. The walls were covered in a dark paisley wallpaper, and two candelabra-type lighting fixtures hung from the wall. The furniture was wicker with floral cushions or wingback with thick upholstered arms. The carpet was maroon, and a fake fire flickered in the fake fireplace. A set from something Oscar Wilde, maybe The Importance of Being Earnest? Or was that Victorian? She didn’t know anymore, her whole life about data retrieval and code. She went to work for ten hours a day and then at night, she dreamed of code.
How had that happened?
Zenda bounced around Jilly. “Read it!”
“Is your name actually Zelda?” Miranda asked. “I’ve never heard of Zenda.”
“My mom was totally into her meditation practice,” Zenda said. “If I was a boy, she was going to name me Zen.”
“Oh.” Miranda thought Zen Buddhism was about detaching, and naming a child after a practice seemed to label the child: Look at how special my parents are. Total attachment.
Zenda studied her. “She’s Chinese.”
The name seemed more aging-white-hippie than Chinese.
“Okay,” Jilly said, the instructions open in front of her. “Any good detective must identify the suspects. The Baker Street was a gang of five. Their names are in pieces around the room.”
“Pieces?” Miranda’s empty stomach gurgled with drugs.
Jilly glanced at the small table near the door. “A puzzle! Look!” She held up a large wood puzzle piece. “Gather! Hurry.”
Her head a whirl, Miranda walked around the room. All around the edges, the real room showed: a heating vent, a green exit sign, a light fixture from the twenty-first century. The air was stale and smelled like imaginary cigars.
Her eyes peeled like a great detective’s would be, Miranda found one puzzle piece on the fake mantel and another in the whisk broom by the fireplace. She put them in one hand and her body shook.
Her name meant miracle, which was total overkill on their mother’s part. And the only miracle Miranda had ever performed was to live through Jilly’s young adulthood. Maybe paying rent in the Bay Area was a miracle, too. But the rest of her life had been ordinary. She should have been named Ann or Kay or Lee, perfect middle names that never distracted.
She could use a miracle about now, one that sounded like, “We made a mistake. Not your mammogram. We are so sorry.”
Miranda wanted to look at her phone to see if anyone left such a message, but then she remembered she’d turned off her electronics as per the instructions.
She found another puzzle piece by the lamp. One more by the fake matchbook. As she bent over to pick up the piece, her head pounded, but not as intensely as before. The lights in the room seemed to glow a little purple, green.
“Okay! How many do you have?” Jilly called.
“Four,” Miranda said.
“Seven,” said Zenda.
“I have ten!” Jilly said, her voice shrill. “Come on. Let’s put it together.”
They dropped their pieces on a small table by the fireplace, and Jilly put the puzzle together in about five seconds. Her fingers were slim and quick.
“A piano player,” their mother always said. “Or a pickpocket.”
Jilly stood. “Look the names of the suspects. And this clue. Look at it. Take a picture.”
“We can’t do that,” Zenda said. “Anyway, the puzzle is right here. We aren’t going anywhere for another fifty-four minutes.”
“What’s the next clue?” Miranda asked.
Zenda, hands on her hips, bent over the puzzle, and read: “Pipes are not just for water.”
On the wall next to Jilly were shelves, each with a pipe, some made of wood, one that seemed made of clay, one that was large-bowled and swooped.
Jilly squealed and ran over to the display, her hands on the wall until she found something. “A door!”
She pulled open the door, revealing another set of Edwardian mishmash. “Come on!”
Miranda wanted to pull her sister to her and calm her. She needed to wrest the instructions away from Jilly, find the murderer, get into the next room, and then the next and get out of this stupid game and never come back.
But suddenly, the room seemed to lose weight. Even the air on Miranda’s skin seemed less than, barely there.
“Oh,” she murmured. Her headache was totally gone.
She followed Jilly, agreed to the plan of action—a missing key, a new lead, a true suspect. The key led to a box, the box held some Morse code. Zenda found a code book, and Miranda heard herself reading out the meanings to Jilly who jotted them down on a conveniently located chalk board.
“We’re going to find out! This will solve everything!” Jilly cried, her eyes cracked and glittery as broken car window glass on asphalt.
As Miranda followed her sister and Zenda, who, Miranda saw now was not just a friend to Jilly, but more (hand on Jilly’s waist, smiles, warm looks), Miranda floated up in the room, hovering over the game, their three bodies and the chintzy sets. She lifted out of the building, over Market Street, high over the bridge, bridges, entire city, the Bay Area, California, the United States, continent.
Sure she was moving into another room, about to solve the crime, but she was really up, up, up, back to a place of beginning before any of the bad things happened. And then she was so high, all was dark. No moon, no stars, nothing.
When their mother was in the hospital the final time, Jilly was on an upswing, the point just before the swing broke and threw its occupant off into the compacted sand below. Hovering under mania, Jilly had talked to all their mother’s doctors, taken notes, called specialists, arranged for home health aides. She’d cleaned, washed, shined. She arrived at the hospital with flowers for their mother and freshly baked cookies for the nursing staff.
Meanwhile, their mother had folded up like a clean table napkin. She was ready to go. Only Jilly hadn’t noticed. Or had and refused to see.
Miranda had rushed to the hospital that time, cutting out on her last classes before spring break. She was in her last year of grad school, a data science program.
“You’re a woman in tech,” her advisor, a woman, had said. “They’ll hire you for the novelty alone.”
Jilly had just started at the community college and lived at home in her childhood room, at least when she wasn’t in rehab or lock-down.
“Don’t let her go,” their mother had said.
Miranda hadn’t been sure what her mother was talking about; she assumed it was all the morphine the hospice nurses were giving her. But when she stopped breathing and her heart gave out, Miranda understood. Jilly was gone. And was for five months, missing the funeral, the paperwork, the selling, the packing. Miranda worked with the local police department and even hired a private detective. Her friend Susie contacted a psychic who told Miranda that her sister was in a European city living in a wooden structure by the water. Lake or ocean, Miranda wanted to know, but the spirits weren’t specific.
In fact, Jilly was by the water and in a wooden structure, but not in Amsterdam or Capri but in a squat in Oakland. She was smoking and taking drugs, eating days-old bread out of dumpsters, and stealing from stores. The private detective found her through a stolen credit card and a camera at a convenience store on Telegraph. Then there was the legal wrangling and a year of putting her back together, enough so that she was able to live in the outside world.
Point was, Miranda could never tell Jilly about the bad mammogram.
The employee with the saw voice was staring down at Miranda intently. Miranda blinked, breathed in the woman’s candy flavor and looked up into her pin-sized nostrils. How did she ever survive a cold?
“She’s okay,” the employee called.
“Too late,” someone else said. “Paramedics are here.”
Turning, Miranda saw Jilly next to her and then felt her hand in hers.
“I’m sorry,” Jilly said. “I shouldn’t have given you pills on an—”
Zenda nudged her.
“I’m sorry,” Jilly continued. “Oh, Mirry.”
“Worse than those mushrooms,” Miranda said, amazed by Jilly’s use of Mirry, a childhood nickname, one their father had used in the years before he left them all for good.
“Shhh,” Jilly said, scooting away as the paramedics bustled in.
“No one’s ever fainted in Sherlock,” the employee told the first paramedic, a handsome man built like a toy troll, all head and arms.
“It’s not very exciting,” Jilly agreed. “Too easy.”
“She fainted,” the employee said, her tone defensive. “Must have done something right.”
“I have a migraine,” Miranda said. “I’m dehydrated. I’m just fine.”
The paramedic nodded at all of them, but he and his partner—a think, tense woman with black eyes—took her vitals. Blood pressure, pulse, temperature, pupils.
Everything was normal.
They wrapped Miranda in a blanket and sat her on a bench with a large glass of water. Jilly and Zenda took care of the Escape Room paperwork and insurance forms. Meanwhile, the employee hovered, as if making sure none of the papers involved lawsuits, lawyers, litigation.
“I’m fine, “Miranda said to everyone who asked because she had to be the one to hold it together. If she hadn’t fainted, lord knows what Jilly would be doing now. “Really, I’m just fine.”
Statistically, women whose mothers were diagnosed before the age of forty have twice the risk of getting the disease.
Miranda’s mother was diagnosed at thirty-eight and spent years trying not to die.
But she had the kind of cancer that most didn’t survive.
“Watch yourselves,” their mother’s doctor told Miranda at the funeral, the one without Jilly. “Zoe was an amazing woman. She wouldn’t want either of you to suffer.”
Miranda was never sure what that meant. Should she and Jilly kill themselves to avoid a death like their mother’s? Was that what the doctor was trying to say? Their sudden and eventual death was inevitable, unavoidable, and imminent? Later, various doctors told her she could have genetic testing and then a prophylactic double mastectomy. She could have her ovaries removed, too, and then she could roam the planet denuded of primary and secondary sex characteristics.
No wonder Jilly ran away.
“Okay, sweetie. Arm up.” The technician lifted Miranda’s arm and shoved one small breast under the plastic plate. “Too tight? No? Okay.”
She walked behind the screen. “Breathe in, don’t exhale.”
The machine hummed and then stopped. “Exhale. Relax. Okay, that’s it.”
She came back around and smiled as she unhinged Miranda from the machine. Sweaty and slightly shaking, Miranda peeled herself off and stepped back, trying to avoid the screen at the back of the room where she saw her breasts in digital black and white. Whatever would kill her was in this room right now.
“I’ve sent the images to the radiologist on-call. So if you want to wait here, you can.”
Miranda nodded because she couldn’t speak. She picked up her bra, which seemed ludicrous now, small cups of fabric to hold lumps of flesh that no one wanted her to have. Inside each, ounces of death.
The technician turned on the lights, flicked off the screen, closed her computer, and indicated a strange couch in the room, as if something in a slipcover might keep patients from forgetting the point of the entire space.
Miranda sat, unable to use her phone. A sign that hung over a white cabinet told her not to. Instead, she picked up an old Woman’s Day magazine, full of articles about home gardens and children’s lunches.
She flicked through the pages, all the women and children happy in article and ad alike. There was a diversity of people in the pages, but all of them were living the same happy life in television-set towns and perfect first-world houses. Not even a ghost of her childhood showed up in this magazine. Their mother was like her name, exotic and different. They never ate carrot sticks with peanut butter but with humus; apples weren’t sliced but cut up with cucumbers in a vinaigrette. Their garden featured heirloom vegetables and a pot plant—a large, almost pine tree-looking growth with dark, resinous buds.
Both she and Jilly were allowed to dye colored streaks in their hair and wear mismatched clothes, not that Miranda ever did either. But Jilly had magenta and yellow streaks and wore plaid with swirls and dots. And she learned to clip the buds off the pot plant to dry and later smoke.
Before Miranda put the house on the market, she’d dug up the plant and given it to one of Zoe’s cancer friends. Pot wasn’t legal then, so the plant had come in handy for brownies, cookies, and candy that Zoe ate for years to quell her nausea.
“Ms. Pearson.” Miranda put down the magazine and stood, smoothing her blouse, feeling a button in the wrong hole or an unhooked hook in her bra.
“I’m Dr. Poddar. Everything looks just fine,” the doctor said. She was a tall, slim woman with dark skin and black glasses. “Do you have any questions?”
Of course she had questions. Are you sure your test is right? It wasn’t for my mother. Or What mistake did you make the first time? And What if this time was the real mistake?
But these were answers she couldn’t hear now. She shook her head.
“Thank you for coming back in. Make sure to always keep your appointments as per your doctor’s recommendation.”
The doctor smiled and turned on her heel, leaving Miranda behind with the large machine with its breast-smashing plates.
“Okay, sweetie,” the technician said as she bustled back into the room and headed to her computer behind the screen. “You’re good to go.”
Once she got home, safe and okay and healthy, she couldn’t get out of bed. At first, Miranda thought she must have picked up a bug from a doorknob at the hospital, but her entire bodily response had come on too quickly. Her bones ached and her flesh felt weighted down. Her face, hands, and feet tingled. Her stomach roiled.
She managed to email work to say she was taking paid time off for the afternoon, but that afternoon turned into the next day, and the day after that. She didn’t answer her calls, stopped looking at email, Skype, Slack, and texts, and turned her face to the wall, her blankets pulled up, her body shivering.
Day turned to night, Friday turned into the weekend. Saturday cracked open like a rotten pumpkin. Her phone rang so often she turned it off, letting is slide somewhere under the bed.
Miranda had only gotten out of bed to pee, drink water, and eat crackers, but hours went by in a haze of potential fever and restless sleep. The room opened up with light and then closed up dark. The air closed in tight, and Miranda practiced not breathing.
In her dream, she was a child and Jilly was holding her in her arms, the way their mother used to hold them and sing. But then it was her mother, just as she remembered her, soft and warm and smiling.
“Mom?” Miranda asked, reaching out for her mother’s hair, surprised to find she still had some. She’d come back to life and so had her curls.
“Oh, sweetie,” her mom said.
Miranda smiled, her body light now, buoyant with joy. “You came back.”
“From where?” Mom said in a voice not hers. “Miranda, wake up. Wake up!”
There was noise, another voice, the sound of windows opening. Someone was shaking Miranda, and she opened her eyes and looked up at her sister. Jilly was leaning over her, her face dark with concern.
“Have you been drinking? Did you take something?”
Miranda struggled out of her sister’s arms. “I don’t drink. Someone has to stay sober.”
“I’m sober,” Jilly said.
“You’ve never been sober.”
Jilly’s grip tightened. “I’ve been sober for over a year.”
Miranda leaned against the headboard and stared at her little sister. There she was, as always, dressed as if headed to roller derby practice. Short shorts, tank top, hair in a ponytail. But her eyes were clear and sharp and keen, cutting right through Miranda’s foggy thoughts.
“But what about those pills you gave me at the escape room?” Miranda’s mouth was fuzzy, her words covered in moss.
“That was like a super ibuprofen,” said Jilly. “For my cramps.”
“But why. . . ?”
“Maybe because you haven’t been eating? Zenda looked in the fridge. There’s like a stick of butter and a pickle in there.”
“She went to the store. She’ll be back.” Jilly stood and adjusted the blankets. Her arms were tan and strong, as if she’d been working out.
Noticing her gaze, Jilly nodded. “I know, right? Zenda has me into yoga.”
“She’s your girlfriend,” Miranda said.
“I wondered when you would ask.”
Jilly bent down and started picking up clothes, glasses, and wadded up tissues. In a few quick trips, the bedroom was almost clean. In the kitchen, the dishwasher was running. Then Jilly opened the bedroom window and let in a gust of fresh air, enough to make Miranda wince. She was like their mother, coming into any room and dervishing around.
“The toilet!” Jilly called from the bathroom. “God.”
The apartment bloomed with the smells of toilet bowl cleaner.
How long had Jilly been like this? Miranda had missed the clues, all of them right there in front of her, a wooden puzzle she could have put together if she’d only looked for the pieces.
“Don’t let her go,” their mother had said. Miranda had always supposed their mother wanted Miranda to take care of Jilly. But maybe, all along, she’d known it would come down to this. Jilly was the one who knew how to live.
“I was worried about you,” Miranda said when Jilly came back into the room with a bowl of hot soup.
“Why?” Jilly sat on the edge of the bed and patted Miranda’s foot.
“I thought you were going on a manic spree.”
Jilly shook her head. “I have a new doctor. Things are good.”
“Are you sure?”
“There’s a difference, you know?”
“Eat this terrible soup,” Jilly said. “And then Zenda will make you something real.”
The soup was hot, the air full of spring, and her sister wasn’t crazy.
Jilly sat straight and tall, just as their mother had. She handed Miranda a napkin. “I’m not manic, Mirry. I’m happy.”
Miranda nodded and tried to swallow. She wanted to say, “I don’t have cancer.”
But she didn’t want Jilly to know about the almost-cancer. No, she wanted Jilly’s happiness to grow and stretch and become what her sister was made of.
Back from the store, Zenda walked into the room and put a hand on Jilly’s shoulder, bent down, and whispered something in her ear. They both giggled; something about the dead lettuce in the crisper.
Jilly kept her hand on Miranda’s ankle. And soon Zenda was in the kitchen, moving things around in the cupboards, the air filling with the tang of sautéed onion and garlic. Miranda remembered their early home, their mother concocting crazy dinners with ridiculous ingredients: satsumas, dandelion greens, tofu. Then they would all sit down together, the night filling the sky with questions.
Music wafted into the bedroom with the cooking aromas. Miranda’s stomach growled.
“See?” Jilly said.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published in 2016. Her poetry collection, When We Almost Drowned, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in February 2019. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension and in the online MFA program for Southern New Hampshire University.
A friend told me about the "escape room" idea, and I started to imagine life as one big escape room. How do we get out of here okay? And then, of course, I had to go to an escape room and read all about them, and I can say that living is hard enough. We have a lot to figure out already.
What is your favorite infomercial and/or spokesperson?
To be honest, I don't know any infomercials, though I have a high school friend who is on QVC and sells some nice lotions. But since my husband long ago freed us from cable TV, I am commercial-less.
Freshwater or saltwater?
Saltwater. I always feel thin in it.
What language do you not speak but wish you could?
I want to speak any language as fluently as I do English and haven't made it there. I will be living in Florence, Italy next year for three months, so now I'll give Italian a go. I'm sure it will end up on the shelf with French and Spanish, the slightly spoken, mostly understood language shelf.
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Verna Behind the Falls
Verna left the funeral early. She had a run in her stocking. Besides, the preacher didn't have much to say about a man he didn't know. Harve wouldn't have minded her leaving. He knew how picky she was about her clothes and makeup. He had stopped the car that time they drove to Blackwater Falls just so she could get out and twist her slip around so the slit was back on the side where it belonged. He had been the calmest, quietest man she'd ever been almost engaged to. How Abel Stubbs could take an ax to a good man like that, she didn't understand.
She went to the beer garden and fished two quarters out of her change purse. "Whiskey."
Fred propped an elbow on the bar to shake a finger at her. "It's too early in the day for that." Fred wore big thick glasses which made his eyes the size of ping pong balls inside a little jar of Vaseline. She knew how to handle men with big eyes. She grabbed his hand and tickled the palm with red fingernails.
"Stop it. If Julie sees that, she'll clobber me."
Verna finger‑walked across his arm. "One shot of Canadian Club. All it takes to save your noggin."
"You're trouble, Verna Jean." He headed for the back door where he kept a stash of unlicensed CC under the floorboard. "A bad girl," he said with a tsk, filling the shot glass.
"Hmm‑hmm." Abel Stubbs had told her that, too. She expelled a breath, getting ready, and swallowed the drink whole, like a horse pill. Lots of men had told her how bad she was at the end of a short night. Harve never had, though. Another example of what Abel cost her. There was also the funny talk. Harve had lots of funny things on his mind. One day he told her, "I think, therefore I am."
"Where'd you hear a crazy thing like that?"
"Read it somewhere."
"Well, I think I am, too." She climbed on top of him.
“What?” he asked, and held her away from him a minute. “What do you think you are, Verna?”
That was too personal a question to even think about so she kissed him with all of the short answers she could think of, which meant he stopped talking and kissed back with enough tongue to mash turnips. It was Verna's personal opinion that Harve Hennessey was hurt by his reading. He had two books in the shack he shared with Abel, and he kept reading them over and over. He said he didn't want other books. It would only confuse him. He had everything figured out. "When you die," he told her, "there are things you take for granted, like being able to float wherever you want. Well, you can't. You're going to float around like a dandelion seed until you get somewhere over India and then you'll get crowded in with a bunch of others, packed close as feed in a sack, and you wait for someone up the line to get through."
"Through to where?"
"I don't know. I just know you can't float back and haunt the people left behind."
Verna went outside behind Ted’s beer garden and across the gravel parking lot. She hoped Harve was right. She didn't want to be haunted. Going up the bank to the railroad tracks, she brushed a clump of dandelions turning to seed. A few tiny white angels rose into the air, so slowly that it was apparent they had no weight at all. She froze, so she wouldn't affect the current, or have them follow her. The seeds bobbled in the air, then slowly floated east. She walked the railroad ties to Hando's Grocery Store where she lived and worked, and where Harve had picked her up every Saturday night for two months.
She’d reserved this Saturday for thinking about Harve and trying not to picture what crazy Abel had done to him. As a rule, she didn't run mascara for any man. Her mama taught her that. But, as a rule, her mother had avoided men like Harve. Don’t want surprises, she’d say, nor hope, neither.
Verna had two rooms and a little bathroom above the store. The rooms were furnished with pieces from the family homestead in Terra Alta where her mother had lived until she passed, fighting every minute of her decline like a woman going sideways on a hill to get traction. Verna had her mother's three-drawer chest and the daybed with the pink chenille spread. Verna had let her sister, Lindy, take the sterling silver and some Depression glass candy dishes.
"I can't afford the influence of anything named depression," Verna told her.
"I'm telling you right now it's worth something, so don't you come crying to me when you realize what you gave up. No takebacks. What you give up is gone."
Now Harve had thought the opposite. "People give to feel good. After a while, it feels so good they can’t stop."
Verna had held her peace so as not to disillusion him. With men, she gave and got according to a kind of payment schedule she intuitively understood from watching her mother handle three husbands and the boyfriends she flirted with in between. It was a material arrangement, but not cash. Cash had the smell of selling on it. Barter was closer to the truth of the man and woman business. That was what she and Harve did. Exchanged things. Then Harve mentioned his money and saving up to get married. That changed what she had signed up for.
The knock on the door jolted her, she had been thinking so deeply. That was not a good habit. She liked to stay tuned to all the sounds, sights and smells around her. Less chance of surprise or false hope.
"Verna," the constable said.
"’Day, Tom. Come in."
She had dated Tom Pendergast twice when he was separated from his wife. The first time, adultery went to his head and filled him with a lust so fine, they barely made it out the back door of Vito Lemley's Steak on the Lake before they were damp with night dew down on the squealing grass. The second time, he was so filled with remorse and Seagram's Seven, that he shrunk up on her pink chenille spread crying because he couldn't remember his wife's middle name.
"How's Mary Jane?" Verna asked.
"Visiting her mother." He cleared his throat. "I been asked to come get you."
"Sheriff Morley. Abel Stubbs wants to see you."
"You’re taking me to see an ax murderer?"
"He’s in county lockup. He says he'll give a confession if you come and listen to him. If not, he’s going to make the county pay for a trial."
"Abel's a non-stop liar and a creep. He cost me. Here I am in black worsted and a net veil and Lord knows how black just washes me out. I'm pale. I need reds. Something with life in it."
“You're crying. Really crying."
"I don't run mascara for show like some women."
"I know, honey. You got standards. You're an honest homewrecker."
She made sure she looked straight ahead, not at him. "I can’t wreck something already on the rocks.”
He sidled past the pink spread on the daybed without touching it. "That's a fact," he said, so quietly sad that she wanted to lean toward him and make sure he was alright, but she had always had trouble knowing when and how to be friends with a man.
"Just listen,” he said. “We want Abel to confess and get it over with. It would help Sheriff Morley. He wants to have a little bit of the budget left over to put a nice float in the Arbor Day parade."
"That man's three hundred pounds. Let him ride a county backhoe."
"You got to give people their dignity, Verna."
"You want me to give it to Abel?"
"He says he knows where Harve kept his notebook. He says Harve wrote things about you,” Tom said. “Things you’d want to keep."
Harve wasn't crude enough to write something that would shame her. But he was honest enough to write something just because it was true. She smelled bait, Abel’s or Tom’s, or both. She acted as if she couldn’t tell which, and rode Tom's new used ’59 Chevrolet pickup into town with the window all the way up so that her hair wouldn't flatten on one side. "I'll never forget how Harve had a knack for saying things, neat things,” she said. “He thought, and he was."
"Thought he was what?"
"Never mind." She felt scared all of a sudden, afraid of being trapped in one place, never able to reach beyond the things she didn’t understand. Harve had a gift for explaining things he didn’t even know, making them sound so clear, she knew exactly where to put them in her head. He made her feel as if she finally had her own concordance. That day behind the falls she had admitted to him that the Concordance was the part of the Bible she always liked best. Bible folk and the morals of their stories, all short-form and alphabetical. Just pick your inspiration or your sin.
Dancing, he said. And that’s what they did in the cowl of wet rock, naked as water-babies.
Igneous, she thought suddenly. The last word Harve taught her to say as if she knew it. Cool as it was dancing on the ledge behind the falls, she had smelled sulfur in the mist. Igneous, he told her. Fire rock.
Remembering such an odd, hard word made her feel momentarily stronger. Harve had told her that was the way reading worked. Even if she read poorly, spelled by ear and could not write cursive worth a damn, Harve told her, no problem. “You can copy. I’m going to get you a typewriter. That’s how to learn. You can hire yourself out. Copy people’s writing. Fill out forms for people. Then get a real job. Where do you want to work?”
She was surprised to find herself answering as if the idea had long been there, waiting for the question to light the way out. “The county courthouse,” she said, “with my own desk. I want to type up marriage licenses. I want to work with happy people. Lovebirds.”
Now she was at the county courthouse about to meet the man who murdered the only happy man she had known. She told Tom that she couldn’t sit in a room with Abel. “He gives me willies all up and down my arm. You keep him behind bars, separate."
Cells were in the basement, a concrete place damp with human seepage and the skunky smell of aimless men. "Could use a bucket of Spic ’n’ Span down here," she said. Her voice carried and bounced back.
Abel was in Number Eight, sitting on his bed, which Verna noted was really a shelf on the wall. He was a tight-looking man with big-knuckled hands, elbows on his knees, eyes on the floor. Most tall, skinny men were loose and gangly. Not Abel Stubbs. He grew knotted, against the grain. If he was a tree, Verna was well aware, he would show up crooked in odd places.
"Come on out with what you got to say, Abel, ’cause I cannot stand to be this close to you for long."
"Women are a mean breed." He was still looking at the floor. "I didn't figure this out in a day. Came on me gradual, like a callus."
"I’m not interested in your skin condition. You went crazy and killed a beautiful man."
"It was a fluke."
"You slung an ax through his chest."
"A fluke of my elbow, like a reflex. We was friends for a long time. I should have been at the funeral."
"The county laid him out in the ugliest suit. I should have been the one to choose his suit. I wasn't his wife yet, but I was close to it."
"Pig hockey, pardon my French. You was a tease, a conniver right from the start. It's a wonder to me that Harve didn't see that. He was a hell of a smart man, supposed to be.” He looked up at the chicken wire on the window. “Of course, I'm the one sitting in jail right now."
"I bet he did not write one thing about me being a tease. We knew each other deeper than that. It was serious."
"You slunk your way between Harve and me and messed up a good thing, him and me all settled in there, living life easy."
"You drank like a fish. Nobody living with you had it easy."
Abel shot upright so fast, he seemed spring-loaded. "Harve and me didn't have no upsets, no foolishness, all the years we had that shack. Like living in an old clock. He worked eight to four, I had four to eleven. He'd wash up at five and upend the basin. I'd wash up at midnight and upend the basin. Soaps, we kept separate." He wrapped his big knuckles around the bars and put his weazel-long face in between. "He drank on Fridays, I drank on Saturdays. Fall come, we hunt squirrel. Oiled our .22s with the same Goddamned rag. Then you come."
"Yes, I came." Verna stood and straightened her skirt. "And I'm ready to go unless you talk about the notebook. That was the deal. Where’d you hide it?"
"Nowhere. He put you down in one of those brown books, you know. The only things from his daddy that he owned. Bet you don't even know where his daddy hailed from."
She had not set much importance on Harve’s family ties. She preferred to think of the two of them, alone in the universe. "Abel’s lying,” she told Tom. “There’s no notebook. Let's go. I know where he kept the books."
"Elkins," Abel yelled between the bars, and his voice bounced down the corridor ahead of her. "That’s where Harve was born. I knowed more about him than you. Look deep, Verna Jean. You knowed more about me than him. You knew I could do it if you pushed me."
Tom drove her back. They passed the tipple of the coal mine, a skeletal scaffolding not far from the slate dump that smoldered day and night. Verna watched white smoke snake from the high jagged top of the dump. “I never understood how the ground can burn underneath like that and nobody sees fire," she said to Tom. She didn’t want to believe that pulling one man so close to your heart could push another man off the edge, swinging an ax, no less. Guilt welled up over the mascara on her lower lid. She’d put Harve in danger.
Tom took her to Harve's shack. The unpainted box with a little A-framed roof was off by itself around the corner from Shanty Row where the coal miners lived, usually temporarily, though Harve and Abel had lived there cheap for four years, causing some people to question their sanity and others to admire their frugality. Harve’s bed and part of the floor were covered with a black tarp. Tom told her the things she could not touch. Everything was in its place: three-legged table buttressed to the wall on the bad corner, two ladderback chairs, washbasin turned over, two towels on two nails, two chunks of lye soap turning soggy in two Dinty Moore stew cans. "Living like this, Harve had quite a bit saved up, didn't he?” Tom asked. “Abel said he had a lot of money."
"Abel’d know. Harve and me, we didn't talk about money much." She went directly to the foot locker beside Harve's bed. His two brown books were in there. One, Paradise Lost and Selected Poetry and Prose, was thick. The other, Emerson's Essays, was puny and thin. Both had pages turning tea yellow. The printing was so small, it made her head hurt. Truth was, lots of words made her head hurt because it took so long to figure them out. That's why she liked clerking at Hando's Store. Numbers were always clear.
"Apparently, Harve didn’t like banks,” Tom said.
“Nope.” She leafed through the little book for any pieces of paper upon which Harve could have written that she was a tease.
“You been here a lot?”
"I come here once to see Harve. Abel was working four to eleven. It still felt funny, like Abel was hanging around somewhere. Harve and me decided to meet at my place." The pages were delicate but not soft and see-through like the leaves of the Bible. She came across her name in perfect block printing in the margin of one passage. "Read this for me," she said to Tom. "I'm in bad need of glasses." The lie always worked. Except with Harve.
Tom read, “‘A rose by another name would smell as sweet.’ In the margin Harve wrote, ‘My Verna.’”
The word she loved best was “my.” “Read another one,” she said.
He leafed through and stopped. “‘One must be an inventor to read well.’ And in the margin, he wrote, ‘Poor Verna.’”
“What?” It had the ring of criticism, a sound to which she was expertly tuned. Her cheeks were turning pink. “Is he saying I can’t read? That I’m a pitiful person?”
“I think he meant that you’re the type of woman that takes words at face value. If there’s a garden path, you follow most anyone straight down it,” he said.
She closed her eyes a moment to see if Tom’s explanation had more sting than Harve’s note, but Tom kept flipping pages to make some noise. She knew from experience that he didn’t trust silence to lead his instincts in the right direction.
"Here’s Abel’s name,” he said, “big and bold: ‘True love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object.’”
“‘Unworthy object’?” She looked at Tom. “Is Harve saying that Abel’s worthless or Abel’s in true love with someone?”
Tom shrugged. “Abel claims he loved you pretty fierce.”
She had begun to sense something odd about where she had stood in the stream of Tom’s thinking. “Tom—”
“Abel said you planned it, Verna, all of it. He said you told him to kill Harve for his money and the two of you would run off.”
“Lies can’t save him, can they?” She looked a long time at the black tarp, then straightened a corner of it. “I’m through here.” She felt like steel walking out, rusty tipple steel. That’s what men did to her, made her turn into a solid mass of sad.
They got into the cab of the truck. She didn’t have to look at Tom when she talked. That was the good part about a bench seat: you always faced forward. “Men like Harve don’t come along that often,” she said. “Most men want to take you to the beer garden, buy you a boilermaker and roll up a shoe in their shirt to make you a pillow.”
“I know Abel’s not like that. He’s strict. One of those tent revivalists, I think.”
She marveled at Tom’s innocence. “Yes, sir. A real Bible thumper. The only time I went out with him he took me to a choir sing in Kingwood. Driving home, he recited the Lord's Prayer and put his hand on my leg like he was going to heal it. Then he moved it up my skirt. Do you know how much a girl can tell about a man by the way he moves his hand? You can tell whether you’re going to feel dirty or clean. Doesn’t matter how much religion a man dips into at the end of a week. It’ll bead off his hands fast as Rain-X on your windshield. So I pushed him off and told him I wanted to get out and walk home.” She wanted to talk without picturing it so she made it simple. “He got mad.”
“He cut up the car seat where I was sitting when I got out of the car.”
“He had a knife?”
She pulled up the sleeve of her sweater and held out her arm so he could see.
Tom studied it. “Doesn’t look like it took stitches,” he said.
She jerked her arm down. “Happened two years ago. He likes to slice, not stab. He just likes cutting.” She focused ahead, on trees, on anything high. “Harve knew that, too. You don’t break bread with another man that long not knowing how he leans in to slice his meat.”
“There was talk about them, Verna. You know, about them living together.”
“Lies,” she said with her eyes closed. “A sweet and gentle man sometimes has lies to contend with.”
He handed her his hanky. “Mascara,” he said.
“Twice in one day. Shoot. I’m slipping.”
He dropped her off at Hando’s. “Verna.” He pointed to the books she still carried in her hand. “Those are evidence.” She gave them back. “If you happen to recall any mention of where Harve might have kept his money, better let me know. We’ve been contacted by a sister in Elkins. She’s due her next-of-kin inheritance, whatever it is.”
“Then why didn’t she come to the funeral?” The stairs to Verna’s apartment were attached to the exterior wall on the north wall of the store. She began to walk up.
Tom followed her. “Abel says you took Harve’s money.”
“Harve was a saver, not a spender.” She looked back over her shoulder. “Our first date, Harve took me to Blackwater Falls. We walked behind the water. You ever done that?” She stopped suddenly on the step above him. “Been caught up in that roar?”
He was caught short. "No."
"My heart was pounding but I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear what was closest, right there bound up inside me. My heart went through the water. I never encountered something like that, Tom. I was on the other side of water.” She unlocked the door. “You don’t get wet, just misted.”
Tom put a hand on the doorframe. "Are you really going to make me search your home, Verna?"
She tried to turn to steel on him but she was feeling awfully thin. “The fact that I went in to see that ax murderer don’t count? I even saved the sheriff some money for an Arbor Day float.”
“Good of you.” Tom ambled around the room. “The thing is, if Harve hadn’t left so much money, you could just say he gave it to you outright. If he hadn’t left so much.”
She went to her mother's three-drawer chest in the bedroom with eyes cast down. She didn’t want to glance over at the impressive wooden box on the closet floor, nor see her own face in the mirror. From the middle drawer, she lifted a stack of her underwear carefully so that she would not have to refold. She came out and handed Tom a black sock with a tight bundle of rolled bills in the toe. “Harve gave me his money to hide from Abel. Harve and me were going to get married.”
Tom was counting. "There’s only four hundred and thirty-nine dollars here. Abel made out like it was two thousand."
“He’s a loon. Nobody saves that.” She covered the nervousness by taking off her shoes. “Give the money to Harve’s sister. Even though I loved him better, you can give it to her.”
"You didn’t love him all that long, Verna.”
The thought nearly buckled her. “Seemed like my whole life.” She dropped to a sit on the ratty cushions of her thrift store sofa. “Like he’d always been there. The hope of him, anyway.” She had never felt so wholly emptied by the absence of a man. Harve and his good nature were completely lost to her now. The typewriter he’d wanted her to have impressed her with its solid weight and importance, but not as much as Harve’s belief in what lay inside her.
“Can you please go now?” she asked Tom.
Tom shook his head. “Not unless this is all the money Harve left behind.”
“That’s all you really want to know about the cold-blooded massacre of the man I loved?” Anger gave her a streak of strength and she marched into the bedroom. She ducked low to drag the heavy square wooden case out from under the hanging clothes and used two hands to carry the big metal typewriter into the living room. The case was black and shiny but the typewriter inside was rose-colored. Her favorite. She set it on the floor in front of Tom with a significant thud. “Somebody saw me, didn’t they?”
“Sheriff Morley’s wife was in town yesterday,” he said. “She walked by the stationer’s store.” He tugged the doily underneath the painted vase which Harve had bought her at the falls’ gift shop. “Said you paid hard cash for a Royal typewriter, brand new.”
“She a detective or just naturally nosy?” Verna felt red-faced and warm, almost woozy. She unbuttoned her sweater. “A hundred and forty-one dollars. Harve was going to buy it for me. I wanted to have it before the funeral. To show him.” She folded the sweater over the ladder-back of one of her two dining room chairs.
“Show him what?”
“That I was going to be somebody.” She tried to speak louder. “That he hadn’t wasted time on me.”
“Maybe you wanted to make sure you hadn’t wasted time on him,” Tom said. “That’s what Abel’s defense attorney is going to say when he has you on the stand.”
There it was. She had to testify and be smeared, if not accused. She turned away and went to the window so that Tom would not see the onslaught of nothingness, the slow, sick fading away of selfhood that happens to pretty girls who know that they’ll be judged all their lives by the way they flirted through their prime. Sexiness had been the only way to command attention and control a man, until Harve. Harve didn’t need to be ginned up or reined in. She could stand there in front of him, flesh-and-blood, very Verna, wearing only a smile. Nothing to hide.
She knew there was no real Verna Jean from the point of view of Tom or Fred or Abel. She was a kind of woman. She had a type of function. Verna went to the top drawer of the bureau and tossed garter belts and hosiery onto the floor until she found a fuzzy red sock with a sagging, swollen toe. “There.” She threw it on the couch. “That’s my own money. Two years of saving.”
Tom looked inside, jiggled his fingers through quarters and fifty-cent pieces, and pulled out a fistful of one-dollar bills.
“Give it to his sister. I know it’s not enough to make up for the typewriter. Tell her I’ll owe it to her.”
Tom laid both socks on the table, Harve’s black sock stuffed with a neat roll and her red lump of loose change and bills. “I’m sorry, Verna. I’m especially sorry it was Sheriff Morley’s wife that saw you. You know that Abel’s going to make a mess of this for you. You better get a lawyer. Fight it.”
She couldn’t look at him. He was pitying her, something Harve would never do. She was so disgusted that she left the mess on the floor in the bedroom as if it existed in another world and she put her sweater back on. She could tell Tom would be taking her to town to make a statement. Showing her off for the sheriff’s wife.
Verna buttoned the front slowly, resistant, at first, then faster with a flood of certainty. She pushed up her sleeves, as if going to work, not caring any longer about hiding Abel’s scars, sitting at a desk or copying other people’s names and happiness onto a marriage license. She yanked the fuzzy sock with her saved money out of Tom’s hand. “That’s mine.” She laid it back in her drawer where it belonged.
Harve was wrong. She couldn’t learn by copying words or copying him. She had been copying all her life—from Mama, girlfriends, movie screens, women’s magazines—and look what it added up to. She picked up the typewriter box and began lugging the impressive machine out the door and down steep wooden stairs attached to the grocery store wall. She bumped the wall, then the rail, sometimes off-balance but she would not let Tom help her with the machine and make it easy. She kept her face serious, worthy of her decision. She tried not to worry about the folks with paper grocery bags who stopped to watch her maneuver an awkward weight.
Verna, the typewriter and the constable made their way down the stairs, careful with each footfall as if they were walking the rocks behind Blackwater Falls, absent the roar of cascading water and hiss of high mist. Verna could hear her heart clearly this time, pulsing against the chest wall, facing a white frothy wall of fast water.
Lois Wolfe is a former journalist and editor whose career veered into novel-writing and college teaching. Her published work includes novels (The Schemers/Bantam, Mask of Night/Doubleday-Bantam); short fiction and poetry (Appalachian Heritage, Coastlines, Mid-American Review, Write in Our Midst); book reviews (The Miami Herald); and literary criticism on cognitive approaches in writing (Cambridge Scholars Publishing and Pencraft International). A native of Appalachia, she lives in North Carolina and the Florida Keys. She leads the Marathon Writers Workshop in Marathon, Florida.
“Verna Behind the Falls” grew out of a small mystery in a coal mine camp in West Virginia in the 1940s. My dad, a miner, told me the story of two men who shared a shack on different shifts. They kept to themselves, on shift and off. The two had few possessions and little contact in the Spartan little space. They kept things separate. One crossed his knife and fork north/south on the only plate; the other crossed east/west. No question whose was whose. One day, one man wreaked bloody murder on his roommate with an axe, then went on to work. No one knew what happened and why. Most thought it was the usual—a woman. I wanted to know how usual a reason she was.
What is your favorite infomercial and/or spokesperson?
I nominate the writers and video editors for Publix supermarkets. A holiday is coming or football season is here. Little narratives hit us tight, trite and true, edited with too-human touches. Reminds me that food is just a metaphor for everything left to lose.
Freshwater or saltwater?
Freshwater for swimming; saltwater for fish.
What language do you not speak but wish you could?
American Sign Language
Followed by Bio and Q&A
SIX FOOT TWO FROM NOSE TO TAIL
Sylvia Ruiz took the shower she always took, a hurried soap and rinse that avoided splashing the pale brown hair she had pulled into a bun. She dried her legs first, then her stomach, arms and breasts, and then she peered around the doorframe to check her lover was still asleep. Satisfied at the sight of the slim, brown hand that hung from beneath the thin hotel sheet, she wiped the smudge of mascara from under her eyes and ran a sip of mouthwash over her teeth.
The voice only protested when she reached the door of the room.
You hate saying goodbye, it said.
Stay in bed, Sylvia grinned. It’s my treat.
Her lover lifted the sheet six inches into the air and glared in her direction.
I love you, she said.
I know, Sylvia replied. I’m lucky.
She did not say I’m lucky that you are blind.
They met at one of her husband’s dinner parties. Rosalba de la Hoz flirted with everyone and no one noticed, except Sylvia who laughed on the inside and escaped and spent the following Friday with Rosalba, drinking expensive cocktails at the W Hotel. Even Rodrigo encouraged this, not saying I think you have enough friends but I think that would be very kind of you, and three months later there they were. Sylvia was still being kind to Rosalba, who had been at her most excitable this lunch time.
Jaguars! she cried, the moment the hotel door shut behind them. Can you imagine it Sylvie? Out there right now, enormous cats with a taste for human flesh. I can see them, can’t you? Six foot two from nose to tail, stalking through our jungle, trampling our flowers, scaring away our butterflies, and all that with the taste of our people on their teeth.
Stop, Rosalba. Not today. We only have one hour.
But Rosalba couldn’t stop. Once it had been flesh-eating ants and Colombians tied to posts and covered in honey. Another time it had been the shallow graves near the city of Cali, haunted, she said, by those who refused to disappear.
Sylvia left Rosalba and returned to the bank and the bank looked the way it always did after she had spent an hour with Rosalba. Even her office, with its polished wooden panels and waxy green plants, smelled a little musty.
Is the air-conditioning working? I can’t seem to breathe in here.
It’s always working, doctora, replied her secretary, who had taken to wearing an outdoor coat at work.
They arrived that afternoon, as Sylvia had known they would. Jaguars that watched with patient faces while she pondered investment strategies and liquid portfolios. Jaguars that purred at the ex-finance minister who sat on the board but wet the corners of their mouths three times when the junior executives argued over their balance scorecards.
Sylvia knew she ought to google Rosalba’s claim that slain Colombians had been fed to these giant cats but she also knew that she would not. Rosalba insisted the truth was hidden in plain sight and that the country’s greatest weakness was so many of its citizens were afraid to seek it, and Sylvia was beginning to suspect she was afraid of it too. What if one of Rosalba’s ghost stories turned out to be true?
Do you know what people like me are supposed to do? Rosalba asked that first Friday, when they sat opposite one another and sipped at their old-fashioned drinks. I’m supposed to sit down with someone like you and help you understand what it is you cannot see.
Is that what you’re doing? You’re hoping to convert me?
It’s not funny, Sylvia. You do have some empathy. I’m sure you can figure it out on your own.
Sylvia had intended to stay for an hour that night. She left the W Hotel foyer after more than three. Rosalba’s ideas seemed so curious that she broke a decades-long family rule and mentioned them to Rodrigo over their boiled eggs at breakfast. He knew exactly how to respond.
It’s not that we’re against peace, Sylvia repeated the following week when she had dinner at Rosalba’s apartment. It’s just that we want peace with punishment, not impunity.
And I would like a bright pink Ferrari and my sight back, Rosalba sighed, slicing an avocado and scraping several pieces onto Sylvia’s plate. Who do you think we’re negotiating with here, Sylvie? Our friends or the people we have spent fifty years trying and failing to defeat? You think they’re just going to roll over and give us everything we want?
Then we must wait and do things right.
Absolutely. Let’s just cancel the peace talks and send them back to the jungle so more of our people can die. Why all the impatience?
No one else Sylvia knew spoke with such conviction. Rodrigo said the conflict must never be discussed, least of all by Sylvia, and yet here was Rosalba determined to debate a different side to it every day.
And what about those boys of yours? You spend your whole day signing papers. Perhaps you should think about the three most significant ones you have ever signed?
I have no idea.
You never have any idea.
That was the first night the two women held hands. Rosalba said it helped her overcome unexpected obstacles in her apartment. Sylvia took advantage of the lie and asked how she lost her sight.
A boy threw a paper dart into my left eye when I was five. An hour later I couldn’t see out of my right eye either.
I can’t believe that. Your right eye went blind just because your left eye couldn’t see?
Rosalba reached into a cupboard for a bottle of wine and pulled out Sylvia’s favorite.
And still you wonder at the power of empathy, she said, and she poured them both a glass.
Sylvia told the bank’s chauffeur she was ready to go home. He ushered her into the back seat of the car and she sat on the right-hand side. She stared out of the window as they eased onto the northern highway. Fifteen minutes later she saw him. A man, a young one, the same age as her eldest son. He sat beside a red and yellow cart and its large front wheel was broken. Several small plastic cups lay scattered in the road. Most contained the mango, papaya and yoghurt he must have cut and mixed that morning. The man leaned forward and sobbed into his knees.
Stop the car, Sylvia cried. Stop the car now.
I can’t, doctora. We’re in the middle of the highway.
Then turn around, turn around!
I’m sorry, doctora. Not with this traffic. You’d never make it home.
Sylvia made it home and she found her children waiting. It had not been a great day for her family either. Shorts had been shrunk, ensuite bathrooms had gone uncleaned and the maids, whom Sylvia had hired, had managed to break a precious Millionarios mug.
The complaints were detailed and they were bitter and they only ended when the front door slammed and Rodrigo walked into the room. He drew the boys, scattered throughout their twenties, towards him like a magnet.
It’s happening, he said, kissing his wife on the cheek. The president’s going to sign that fucking peace deal.
Asshole, the eldest boy swore. If he signs it I’m going straight to the jungle to kill as many of them as I can.
Sylvia felt a warm breath on her shoulder and knew one of Rosalba’s cats had followed her home.
You could do that, Santi, she said. I signed the papers when you were eighteen and I’m sure I can un-sign them now. If we want this war to continue, we may as well be the ones to fight it.
She waited for the embarrassment, she waited for the remorse. No one in this family would ever be sent to the jungle. No one in this family would ever be fed to an enormous cat.
The boy paused but looked only at his father.
Papi, he said. Are you still coming to my basketball match tonight?
Victoria Kellaway co-authored the satire Colombia a comedy of errors and co-edited the essay collection Was Gabo an Irishman? (Tales from Gabriel García Márquez's Colombia) and Alone Together (Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America) which comprises fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She lives between Bogotá, Colombia and Paris, France and chronicles her cultural clashes at Banana Skin Flip Flops (www.bananaskinflipflops.com) tweeting @bananaskingirl.
Colombia’s peace negotiations were highly charged. Fury, fear, conviction and concern enveloped every area of our lives and in the middle of it all, I wrote this story. I have no doubt that the best time to write about something is after it has occurred, when perspective has at least had a chance to emerge, but, sometimes, you are in the present and writing is the only way out.
What is your favorite infomercial and/or spokesperson?
I can’t say it’s my favorite, but every time I see George Clooney in a sharp suit drinking a cup of Nestlé coffee I feel like the matrix is toying with me. It’s saying you can see me, but you can’t stop me. . . so stop worrying about the bigger picture and go consume!
Freshwater or saltwater?
Freshwater, every time. It’s keeping us alive. I’ve never climbed out of a river and thought wow, that was great, now I really need to hose myself down with saltwater.
What language do you not speak but wish you could?
French. I’m currently surviving my life in France with a mixture of Spanish. . . and smiling.