By Jessica Hollander
Followed by Q&A
We were open thirty-five minutes before our first customer of the day. Jeans smeared with dried mud, a wrinkled plaid shirt, scraggly hair, a complexion ruddy with sun, dirt, sweat, and who knows what else. The context always threw me, such a man in the pristine white and blue lobby, the neat desk in the center, each bank slip stacked in its own symmetrical cubby.
“Who’s open?” He smiled. Slow summer months in the campus branch seemed like an ideal time for a robbery.
Blake coughed at his computer; Linda, the manager, disappeared into the vault. I waited three seconds and then sighed and called him over.
“You have nice teeth,” I told him, though when he smiled again all I could focus on was a deep black space in the bottom row. Then I knew: man on the median of Old Airport Road. Need Food, Living in Woods.
“My mom drank a gallon a milk a day when she was pregnant.” He threw his wallet on the counter. “License.” He nodded at the cracked black leather, and I picked the gritty thing up gingerly, opened the flaps on my workstation. He had short hair in the picture. Same bright teeth. Durham, North Carolina. Expired expiration date.
On the counter, the man set a check with a bloody thumbprint in the corner.
“You a customer here?” I asked.
“I don’t believe in banks.” He shifted around in a sort of swagger.
Blake turned toward me, his blond hair perfectly parted and flat besides a few strands sticking up in the back.
“You want to have a look at this?” I asked Blake, lifting the check corner opposite the blood stain and trying not to cringe. “You hurt yourself?” I asked the man.
“Some people have a green thumb,” he said. “Mine’s red.”
“His license is expired,” Blake said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Your license is expired.”
The man laughed. “The check’s twenty-four dollars and fifty cents.”
Blake sucked air into the corners of his mouth, studying the check, the sleeve of his white shirt pulled up enough to expose the bottom of his tattoo. A recycle sign. I used to think this was sexy. He used to smell of cigarettes.
Blake frowned at me. He shook his head.
The man reached over the counter and snatched the wallet, the check.
“Sorry!” I yelled as he strode through the lobby. Blake went back to his computer, and I stared at my screen, thinking on my lunch break I’d mix salt into Blake’s coffee beans, and between my palms I’d smash the sandwich he’s got all wrapped up in a plastic bag on the refrigerator shelf.
The hallway smelled of tomato, garlic, onions. Sid’s sneakers, covered in red mud, sat outside his apartment, and I heard his screeching music through the wall. I pounded on the door as loud as I could, and when the music shut off I went inside.
“Playing in the mud again?” I asked, kicking my high-heels into the pile of scuffed, swollen shoes.
“I got a new job,” he called from the kitchen. “Cosmic Gardener!” He wore a t-shirt with a hole in the side and shorts cut off at the thighs. His hair was wet and sticking every which way. He head-banged over the stove to some lingering buzz of music. His apartment, lately, seemed constantly in a state of vibration.
He turned toward me, lifted a noodle above his mouth, and then lowered it, chewed. “Right on time.”
“Is that just for me or are we having company?”
“You got it,” he said.
I went into his bedroom, changed into my shorts and tank-top from the night before, hoping Sid would go for a run with me tonight. I left my skirt, nylons, and dress-shirt in a heap on the floor.
In the living room, Sid’s mom sat at the card-table in front of the television.
“You still here?” Abby said when she saw me. She had about a million beads hanging from her neck, dangling from her earrings, braided into her hair; and when she moved it sounded like someone playing the maracas.
“Sure, Abby. Didn’t Sid tell you I’m moving in?”
She grunted, pulled a joint from her purse. “You and about five other girls.”
“You’re going to see me all the time. You’re going to see me more than you see him.”
Sid came into the room carrying three bowls so one was shoved up near his armpit. “You’re doing that now?” he asked as she lit up.
“I can do two things at once.” She took a bowl from him.
Sid squeezed between us and un-muted the television: a sitcom family was sitting down to dinner. Somebody said something funny. I took a huge, hot bite of spaghetti. Sid and Abby passed the joint between them and talked about some guy, Coochie, his mom was seeing. My eyes glazed, watching the television, and I thought of that afternoon in the vault with Blake, counting for shipment, all those straps on the floor.
Sid’s mom went to the bathroom at the next commercial and Sid muted the sound. The AC purred in the window. “I’ll get her out of here after the show,” he said. “You want to go in the bedroom then?”
I shrugged, considering I’ve got to get my aerobics in either way. “Whatever."
We were so bored at Fidelity Too. A money shipment came in, we counted the bills by hand instead of running them through the machine. We unrolled the coins and verified them in our trays. We listened to the lady in the Muzak recite loan rates, CD rates, money market rates. We thought up alternative names for “FiTo,” the white poodle on the poster We’ve Got FREE Checking! Linda stood outside the door, greeting passersby enthusiastically. Kristin, on the other side of Blake, filed her nails. James, the poly-sci major, researched Republican websites. Blake balanced his checkbook. Blake visited a tattoo website. Blake designed tattoos on receipt tape. Blake asked me politely to find my own ways to keep busy instead of spying on his shit. I went into the break room. Blake was the only one here who liked peanut butter and jelly.
The next few nights I stayed with my mom, who lived in one of the pretty subdivisions of Chapel Hill, surrounded by blocks and blocks of manicured yards and houses, with no sidewalks and no bus stops for miles. She worked late most of the time and had a long commute, so I got to the empty house when the sun was half behind the trees, and I went for a run around the subdivision, accompanied by the patter of sprinklers and the yelping of small dogs. When Mom arrived, I heated gourmet dinners in the microwave, and she told me about her stupid assistant who copied only one side of a packet and then spilled coffee on Mom’s wrist in a meeting.
“You should see this poor girl,” Mom said, wiping her eyes. “She’s skinnier than you, she can barely lift the coffee pot, and then she’s all shaky when she tips it toward the cups. She’s started lifting weights at the gym. So she can handle the coffee.”
The phone rang. We sat in her dining room where she had this mood lighting. She always had the switch way down so it felt like the room was lit by candles.
Mom rolled her eyes. “Of course not. Are you trying to wear me down? Well you’ve worn me down. And still. No.” She hung up the phone.
“You know what your father used to drink?” she asked. “Chicory.”
“Who was that?”
“Stupid Rebecca.” She picked through her chicken rice pilaf. Rebecca was the reason I stopped staying with Dad, even though all my stuff was there, even though he lived about a half mile from the campus branch while Mom’s house was nearly ten miles away. I couldn’t stand the sad looks Rebecca kept giving me.
“Why’s she calling you?”
“To torture me.” Mom looked into my empty Styrofoam bowl and placed hers in mine. “Dishes time,” she said. “Your turn.”
Blake arrived late the next morning when we were in circle for Daily Huddle. He wore a thin black tie, a black blazer, his hair blond and flat and divided. He mumbled an apology and disappeared into the break room. He filled the whole place with the smell of coffee.
Linda mumbled, “He could ask if anyone else wants some.” She had on clumpy mascara that made her look like some sad old woman. Her eyes kept sticking together.
“He’s a selfish, selfish zebra,” I said, and everyone looked at me funny.
When Blake came out of the break room fifteen minutes after we opened, I said, “You missed one hell of a morning. Guess how many sales I made during Speed Calls.” Blake ruled supreme on the sales board in the break room. He was an ace selling Student Credit Cards to students.
“Make your sales when we’re open if you don’t want to come in early.” He drank from a thermos as big as his forearm
“You’re supposed to come in early anyway.”
“I don’t hear anyone complaining.” He smiled, his teeth straight, though they were yellow. He told me once his recycle sign tattoo was so they knew what to do with his body when he died.
I scribbled him a note and slipped it into his station. You are a zebra.
He wrote something underneath and passed it back. You are a whore.
I smiled at him and threw the note in the Secure Trash. I would rather be a whore than a zebra. When I took my morning bathroom break I pounded his sandwich against the counter until it was as thin as a pancake and peanut butter and jelly oozed out the top of the bag.
Around 11:00, Sid strolled into the lobby, and I almost didn’t recognize him. He wore his Cosmic Gardener polo, streaked with grime, a baseball hat over his tangled, curly hair, and blue-jean cutoffs. His tan legs with all that black hair seemed obscene: they were probably sweaty, they’d probably leave sweat marks on the lobby’s white-cushioned chairs that would never come off. My co-workers stared at their screens. They’d not yet had the pleasure of meeting my boyfriend.
He walked to my window and tossed his sunglasses on the counter. “Where’ve you been?”
Blake shifted in his chair; someone lowered the Muzak. The bank had never been so quiet.
“I thought you were moving in,” he said, and I sat a moment paralyzed, wondering what he’d do if I pretended I didn’t know him. If someone would call the police if he got out of hand.
I leaned forward and whispered, “Come back in half an hour. You can take me to lunch.”
“Chinese?” he asked, grinning his fantastically crooked smile, and when I said that’s fine, he said, “You got it!” and left the lobby so quick it was almost like he was never there.
Blake grinned at me. I scribbled a note. My face felt like a giant red balloon. I’m sleeping with the guy who lives in the woods. I tossed it onto his keyboard.
Blake snorted with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Linda asked, walking down the line.
“Nothing,” Blake said.
“Did you know that guy?” Linda asked me.
“Sort of,” I told her.
She stared at the door a few seconds.
“He’s my gardener,” I said. “At my mother’s house. He gardens there.”
When she finally left, Blake scribbled something down, threw it over his shoulder so it landed on the floor near the trash. I got up to read it. It said: Can I watch?
“I had to cut down a rose bush today.” Sid sat across from me in the orange plastic booth, a bowl of crispies between us. “The lady’s kid stuck his finger on it.”
“You mean it stuck the kid’s finger.”
“Right. Like this.” He reached for my hand and clomped down on it. My leg shook beneath the table. The waitress came over and I ordered sweet and sour noodles.
“I’m thinking Kung Pao Chicken,” Sid said, studying the menu. “Kung Pao Chicken? Yeah, Kung Pao Chicken. I’ll have the Beef and Broccoli.”
I gave him a look once the waitress left, and he said, “I’m sorry I have an appreciation for words.” He shook his head and gazed sadly out the window. “And no tolerance for spice.”
He set his baseball cap on the table. “The apartment’s awfully lonely lately.”
“Think about it, Sid,” I said, voraciously crunching crispy after crispy. “You lose track of time. I come home from work. You have that trashy Claudia naked on the couch.”
Eventually we ran out of crispies. The waitress brought our food.
“In an ideal situation,” he said through a mouthful of broccoli. “What would you like?”
I cleared my throat. “For starters I’d like no more mother. For finishers I’d like no more girls. How does that sound?”
He grinned. “Pretty boring. It sounds good but it’d get boring.”
“Fine,” I said, stabbing my noodles. “You know what I’d like? I’d like you to drive out to Old Airport and give the woodsman in the median twenty four dollars and fifty cents.”
Sid nodded. “It’s on my way back.”
“Good,” I said.
“Good.” he said. “We have a deal?”
“Yeah. And no more girls.”
We were so bored at the bank. We continued coming in early because we “couldn’t make calls during business hours,” but we weren’t making any sales during business hours either. Linda begged passersby to open accounts. James and Kristin had a game of War going with three decks of cards shuffled together. Blake disappeared for twenty minutes at a time and came back with red eyes and a pink splotch on his forehead. He said he kept passing out in the break room. He said, “I now believe it’s possible to die of boredom.” I played a million games of solitaire and won less than half. Blake sighed irritably every few seconds. Blake took off his tie and waited for Linda to come in and say something. Linda came in and said, “Put your damn tie back on.” Blake went into the bathroom and came back with his tie on and thick black eyeliner around his eyes. “Don’t discriminate,” he said. Linda told him to go home. He raked his hands through his hair, got it to stick up awkwardly, half-way. Fine blond strands fell from his fists. Linda said, “This is your last warning.”
I met Sid’s mother in the stairwell, moving slow up to Sid’s floor. She wore this long flowery skirt she held bunched in her hands as she shuffled along.
“You again?” she asked. I tried to get around her, but the stairwell was too small and she took up too much of it. “I miss Claudia,” she said. “She had such a shapely body, didn’t she? Girls are too skinny these days.”
“I know. I don’t know why anyone would want to be healthy.”
“Claudia cooked when she visited. Do you cook, Raimy?”
I felt fidgety in my clothes: my skirt too tight, my shirt digging into my armpits. “Did you drink milk when you were pregnant with Sid?” I asked her.
She gave me a look of extreme offense.
“You didn’t! I know you didn’t!” I pushed past her so she stumbled. I rushed down the hall to Sid’s place and pounded on the door until the music stopped. “No more mother!” I yelled. “No more mother!” I took the fire exit.
When I got to Mom’s place there were two cars in the driveway: one hers, one Dad’s. I went into the house and sat in the dark living room. Finally my mom came down in her robe and turned on the light.
“I heard the door.” She sat next to me on the couch. “Raimy, I need to tell you something.” Upstairs, the shower turned on. “I’m an adulterer. I’m adulting with your father.”
I slipped off my heels, pulled my feet under me. “Are you getting back together?”
“No way. God, no. I clean the whole place the moment he leaves.” She adjusted the bottom of her robe. “I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how anyone could live with anyone. Except you, darling. You’re perfect.”
The house phone rang and Mom shook her head. “Goddamn Rebecca.” She burst out laughing. Then covered her mouth like she could stuff it back in. I got up and answered the phone.
“Raimy.” It was Sid. There was just his breathing for a long time. “Mom’s leaving. Coochie got a job in Charlotte and asked Mom to move with him.”
My mom rolled her eyes. She motioned me to hang up the phone. She giggled and hid behind her hand.
“Has she left yet?” I asked. “I mean, did she go tonight?”
“Next week,” he said, and he started sobbing.
“Call me then, all right? It’s going to be OK.”
I locked myself in the Blue Guest Room. “Raimy’s Room,” Mom called it. I listened to my parents’ low voices, their laughter. There was no traffic outside to drown anything out. Only the soft yelp of dogs, the patter of sprinklers.
The next day, Blake called me into the break room. The veins in his neck protruded slightly. His black tie was askew. A few more hairs than usual bobbed away from his middle-part, like springs.
He held up his sandwich, smashed inside its baggie, peanut butter and jelly oozing from the sides of the bread. “Will you please stop smashing my goddamn sandwich?”
I grabbed the bag out of his hand and pinched the center of the sandwich with my thumbs and forefingers until the bread broke apart and there was a hole in the middle. “But it feels so good,” I told him. “It doesn’t really hurt anyone, right?”
He smiled evenly, loosened his tie. He strolled to the refrigerator and held up my red delicious apple. I’d spent three solid minutes searching the grocery bin for a particularly smooth one.
He threw the apple to the ground and the side split. He stared at it like he was surprised it didn’t bounce back. He picked it up and something like apple sauce oozed out, and then he threw it again. That’s when I turned around and went back to the teller line: where there were no customers, where there was nothing to do.
We pulled out old textbooks we didn’t have time to read in school. We taped together mutilated money, checked all our bills with fraudulence pens. We searched the internet for other jobs. We searched for other schools, other haircuts, other dentists. Other weather, other cities, other countries. We searched for other options, other stories. We listened to the Muzak lady. She was on a mission to save us money on our home equity lines.
Jessica Hollander received her MFA from the University of Alabama. Her recent and forthcoming publications include The Cincinnati Review, Dark Sky, > kill author, PANK, Quarterly West, Web Conjunctions, and wigleaF, among others. You can visit her at jessicahollanderwriter.com.
Q: Is there something you' like readers to know about this story?
A: “Slow Summer” was the first story I wrote about the character Raimy, and I proceeded to write several more. You can find more Raimy stories in Dark Sky Magazine, Quarterly West, and Sou’wester.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: I think the kitchen. Not cooking—I’m incapable of it—but watching cooking happen. Sitting on a bar stool, and food is prepared in front of me, and the smells are great, and the conversation is great, and the anticipation is great. I guess it’s clear where my first favorite place on Earth would be. But eating is so much better when I’ve been in the kitchen beforehand witnessing the process: the pouring, the chopping, the heating mess of it.
Q: PC, or Mac?
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: My thirteen-month-old son can’t stack blocks yet. He picks them up, bangs them together, throws them on the floor. And they’re beautiful blocks, bright collisions of red and yellow and blue. But every time he brings the blocks to me, I put one on top of the other. I say, “Stack. Stack.” And he knocks them down, and I put one on top of the other. “Stack.” I show him. “Stack.” Build it up, knock it down, build it up, knock it down, bang things together, then stack it all up again.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: This is a very relevant question. For four years before going back to school, I worked as a part-time bank teller at two different campus branches, and we always had a lot of down time. Sometimes I read two novels a week, I studied vocab for the GREs, flipping through hundreds of flashcards a day, and I got to know my coworkers in a very particular way that probably few in their personal lives knew them. Bored people agitate quickly. When you’re bored at home, you leave, you walk around the block. When you’re bored at work, you fidget, you agitate, you sound crazy. And then customers come in and you have to smile, you have to say their names three times: “Hi Mr. Kiley How are you Mr. Kiley Thank you Mr. Kiley Have a great day!” So if I weren’t a writer, I would probably be a fidgeter, an agitator. I would sound crazy.