Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Westview Liquors 

 

The seconds ticked by uncontrollably--three, six, seven--when only a multiple of five would release her into the sunlight. Shards of anxiety scored her stomach; she was sure her watch was a living thing, hatching schemes to fool her. She hunched in the humid car, prayed a little. Twelve, thirteen, then the rocking jolts of a passing semi pulled her attention away; she’d missed her moment. At twenty seconds past the hour she bolted out, hitching her purse over her shoulder, which had to be done three times. Three fluid, precise motions, timed in rhythm with three steps. Then three more. Her hand was on the glass door; she’d made it, she’d mastered herself into normalcy. She’d prove them all wrong, someday.

Inside it was worse than usual. She’d grown used to the miasma of stale beer, grease and sweat, but she was assaulted by a new sound--a crowd’s jubilant roar, emanating from a TV hanging like a gaudy insect over the cabernet aisle. Unwillingly, she raised her gaze to the screen. A tiny black man with sweat-gleamed skin, a number pasted on his bony chest, stumbled through blue tape and grinned, his teeth white perfect squares, his arms raised to the heavens. Entranced by the winner, she lost count. Losing count meant she deserved nothing. She’d have to start over, from zero again.

“Very much something!” announced the man behind the counter. “A winner nobody expected!” The fraught, angled syllables of a foreign accent. Indian, maybe Pakistani, it wasn’t anything to her, was it? Yet she was ashamed, not knowing. So much difference in the world, too much bright, fractured confusion. How could she keep up with it? She hurried to the back wall, where the strong stuff was kept. Rums, vodka, bourbon, great plastic jugs of neon blue hurricanes.

“Twenty-six miles he ran! At four minutes thirty-three-seconds per mile!” The man behind the counter was loud and jubilant. Four minutes, thirty three seconds. Ninety-three seconds. A multiple of neither two nor five. A sign of emptiness. Her stomach clenched, breakfast heaving within. She counted the multicolored bottles. One, three, five, then ten, and a flush of warm relief. But it didn’t last. Seventeen, no more, no less, on this shelf. Also a prime number. Bile scorched her throat. She tugged at her shirt--silky, perfumed, she’d dressed special for her outing--six times. If she was careful, if she lost no more time, she could navigate it. She could escape with her vodka, unharmed.

Everyone lied, but especially doctors. “Atypical antipsychotic,” he’d said, magnanimous, as if giving her an expensive gift. “New drug, very promising trials. You’ll call immediately if you experience these effects?” He’d hurried through them. Facial twitches, eyelids that wouldn’t stay open. Seizures, death. The last preferable to the others, she’d thought, but did not say. She’d acquiesced, swallowed the white orbs each evening at seven. She would follow instructions; she wasn’t brave. There had been no side effects. Her face looked the same in the mirror--blank-eyed and unremarkable. She wasn’t having seizures, but of course she wasn’t alive, either. Psychiatrists didn’t care if you really lived, she guessed. Who did? God, she supposed, only she mostly didn’t believe in deities. If there were any, she felt, it wasn’t some white-bearded man with twinkling eyes. Gods of this world must be ancient, dangerous. Greeks, Romans--those gods of hate and lust. Raping humans, laying waste to their fields. Corollaries to the stupid humans who, desperate for grace, thought it was best not to love their daughters, but to spill their blood and entrails as the hungry crowds cheered. 

The door jingled behind her and another figure entered. She’d seen him before; he was nothing to be afraid of. A wild gray beard, filthy skin, leathery from years in the sun. He didn’t count; he was human detritus. He slept under a creased cardboard roof on Elm and Franklin, under the stop sign. On the faded surface he’d etched symbols. Hieroglyphics, but shoddy, ersatz ones. She had no right to think others crazy, of course. But why didn’t he just write in English, asking for food or donations? At least she was better than that.  

He loped toward her in that purposeless feral way he had, lips smacking. A smell came with him. Old body odor, pipe tobacco, engine grease and dirty clothes.  

“Hey-ey Marco,” called the man behind the counter. “Nothing until you show me your money today, you hear?”

“He don’t trust me,” said Marco, rolling his eyes at the ceiling. Amanda wasn’t sure if he spoke to her, or to the dusty air above them.  “Ain’t this America? It’s America you jackass, I don’t gotta show you nothing.”

“Nobody else is letting you in since months ago,” insisted the proprietor. He leaned on the countertop, stretching his thin body like taffy. “You will let me see you have money. Now.”  

Marco obeyed, dragging ragged bills from his tattered sweater, waving them in the dim light. “There you go, you damn Paki,” he growled. “This America. You better get that through your damn head. Buncha terrorists.”  

Moments passed; you had to remember it was the nature of time to fade and scatter. Soon, she would be home, cocooned in icy silence. The vodka would be measured into a glass with three cubes of ice cascading into its clear depths. The sharpness on her tongue, the warmth going down. The fuzzed blending, the release. She allowed the homeless man to shift across her vision, leaving her unharmed.

Martin slammed the car into park, tucked his flapping shirt tails into his khakis, wished his stomach didn’t strain the fabric, checked for sweat stains under his arms. He swatted at a back itch he couldn’t quite reach, then gave up. He entered the liquor store, nodded to the Indian guy who owned the place. Beside the owner today there was someone new. A beautiful girl, with a headscarf and vast black eyes, a mouth that would be like cherry pie if you kissed her. Sweet and crumbly, unresisting. He took a risk and winked at her. She didn’t wink back, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t noticed, did it? Hadn’t taken him seriously. He was a real person, after all--weighty, vivid. Important.

It was a weird scene inside the store. Aftermath of Boston Marathon on the TV, reporters crowded around one of those whippet-looking Kenyan guys, camera trained on the rivulets of sweat streaming from his face. For a second Martin felt embarrassed by his heavy thighs and stomach--so much useless, pasty flesh. A frizzy haired woman stood stock-still in the hard liquor aisle, as if she had forgotten the purpose of her journey. Some homeless guy muttering, stumbling down past the Reds. You could smell him a mile away.

“America,” the filthy lunatic was saying. “America, land of the fucking free. Everybody’s a king, every one of us, you hear me?” Everyone heard, but no one listened. It was the nature of guys like that, Martin reflected, to think their voices mattered when all they were was background noise.

Martin stood still, unsure of his aisle. Normally he was a beer guy. IPAs, the kind that telegraphed elegant masculinity. But the day he’d had demanded something stronger. Something fiery, obliterating. He noted the homeless man’s trajectory past the Miller Lite display. To get out of the bum’s way, he went for the Scotches.

Akram gazed intently at the winner. Strangely the man smiled, yet there was no joy in his eyes. They were faded and empty, like soiled wine glasses. Yet still, he was more important than anything in the store. The small fierce body, the victory so much better for being painful. He was a good lesson. Silently he willed Batya to see the truth of the runner--the discipline, self-reliance, mastery over wayward desires. She murmured something beside him. He would ignore her. Discontent, whims and selfishness--this was all she gave him. It was not right or just; it was not how it things were supposed to turn out. When he was a young man he’d had a new child, a new country. He had known hope, held it like a gift in his strong, unmarked hands. But the years had added nothing. Here they were, trapped behind a counter stacked with unpaid bills, a bastard growing in his daughter’s stomach.

She wouldn’t say who the father was. He wasn’t proud of it but he’d hit her when she insisted on secrecy. Hit her hard, too. Bloodied her nose, scratched his knuckles on her sharp teeth. He supposed violence was what you ended up with when you had lost everything else. She hadn’t even had the decency to tell him before she began to show. He’d had to note the swell of her sari, be the one to name the thing for what it was. He hated the sight of her but he would not shed his responsibility. She would be with him everywhere now, his shadow, his burden. Her scent of warm skin and bubblegum, the rustle of her tightening clothes, the eyes that refused to lower in shame.

If Marco and the other two chose quickly, he could close early. But he knew he wouldn’t. He had no use for empty time. He feared his close apartment, the unsatisfying television, the discreet retching of his daughter in the tiny bathroom. He had never learned, as these Americans had, to have leisure. To squander unmarked moments as a rich man would spend money. Careless, ignorant of the history that barreled forward, mastering them all. Relax, the Americans told each other. Chill out. As if losing control were a goal, as if peace and freedom were the same.

The homeless man’s racial insults receded. Amanda’s heart stilled into an easy rhythm. She counted the second shelf, twenty exactly, and this was enough to give her the strength to lift her bottle of Absolut Citron. But when she turned he was in her path. Up close he smiled, horribly. The teeth were hatched, brownish gray, like a long-abandoned fence. The frayed sweater flapped around his legs, though there was no breeze to move it. 

“I thought I’d ask you to have a drink with me,” he told her in voice like an old engine creaking to life. “Been drinkin’ alone too long.”

Amanda’s eyes darted into the lit spaces around his body. An end cap of kahlua, a display of packaged cigarette lighters. If she bolted she would knock it all to the floor. And there she’d lie, shamed and panicked, in broken glass and puddles. She wouldn’t recover. She’d have another  episode, which would play out as they all did. An ambulance, thin cots and bed checks, massive doses of Seroquel. Her parents would be notified; so would David. The three of them would wander into her vision, staring with wounded concern as she struggled to form words. It was no good asking the nurses to turn visitors away. They believed in social ties. Just as they believed in art therapy, crafts, mindfulness meditation, during which Amanda would count sobs instead of breaths. She was trapped, no better than an animal, but without the strength and purpose to gnaw a piece of herself off to escape.

The proprietor called out to Marco, telling him to stop bothering the other customers. Marco didn’t move. He snaked out a gnarled brown hand. She stumbled backwards.  

“We’re both Americans,” he told her, as if this meant something. On its own, her mouth opened. She found anger. This wasn’t her country, not this. Venom ratcheted through her throat and formed words.

“We’re not both anything,” she told him. “Fuck you. Go away.”

“Ain’t you an American?” he insisted. “Ain’t you born in the land of the brave?”  

“No,” she said. “I’m not anything with you.”

“Whyn’t you quit it pal,” said a fat businessman. He carried a large bottle of Scotch, the light illuminating its brown depths. His sport coat was expensive. He wore a gratified look, as if he’d stumbled on a piece of land he could claim. “Leave her alone.”

Her vision shifted, illuminated a layer underneath the visible world. She saw now this man was sweating and pale. His eyes were red and sore. Something bad had happened to him. Amanda felt the knowledge stab her. The doctors said it was part of the disease, to feel others’ feelings like she did. She lowered her eyes. 

“I’m sorry,” she said to the man. Eighteen, twenty-two. She could not find her pulse again.  

Marco thought she was talking to him. “Now come on beautiful,” he whined. “I’ll get some cherry wine!”

“I’m so sorry,” she said again. There weren’t other words she could think of. The man didn’t answer. He shook his head, rapid and intent, as if she were a mosquito.

Martin had intervened on impulse. He supposed it was because he had something to prove. Immoral, Dave had called him. Integrity is a cornerstone of this company, Martin. Well, he wasn’t a goddamn saint. Not even close. But he wasn’t close to the other things Dave had said, either. Fraud. Insider trading. Bad, yes. But didn’t life have a way of giving you another shot? A second chance, a way to even things out? So he’d stepped forward and spoke, even though the girl wasn’t pretty, wasn’t even noticeable, a bug-eyed creature in shapeless clothes. She was saying something but with his heart pounding in his ears, he couldn’t listen. It was possible he was about to have a stroke. Or faint, fall to his knees on the cold floor. Anything that would be stupid and embarrassing. Up close the homeless dude smelled even worse, and the girl didn’t look grateful. Nevertheless, he kept speaking.

“Have a drink with me,” he told her. “This Scotch is twenty-six years old.” He wasn’t the type to do this, he thought, but maybe the prospect of jail time made you both dumb and brave. Funny, he thought. Thousands of years of evolution and we’re still nothing but random sparks firing into darkness. 

The three of them stood in a circle. There was hatred in it, he thought. Thick and sour-sweet, earth and rotting flowers. But there was also something that held them together. A force field, a collision of atoms, a hint of fate, or tragedy. Then the girl blinked at him. He saw she wouldn’t answer. There was something wrong with her; she twitched, her eyes brightening with unhealthy fervor. She wasn’t what he’d wanted. She wouldn’t be anything to him at all. There wasn’t another chance for him. This was only the end of his good days. The time to pay the piper. The time to kneel, as he had as a boy, under the dirty weight of guilt.

Batya watched the customers from beside her father. She stretched her neck, narrowed her eyes. She wished herself closer; she yearned for perfect vision. She was an artist after all. And an artist must search out every detail of her subjects; she must see inside of them, like God. The strange girl, the homeless man, and the rich man should be sketched with care, attention given to the shapes of their bodies, the casts of their faces, but most of all, the way they held their chosen bottles, with triumph and desperation and even, she thought, some instinctive viciousness, though whether it was for themselves or the other two, she could not say.  

The mound of her belly was sensitive; soon, she would feel the child roll and kick. Her stomach would grow, heave in places. She was no longer only herself. She brushed at the dried blood beneath her nostrils and wondered what her mother might have said, but it was not a question that could be answered from the memories given to her. Her mother had never said anything that was not an echo of her father, as if she were his ghost, present, through some slippage of time, even while he was alive.

There was light--faint, transparent--on the surface of the woman’s blond hair. Light illuminated you even if you were ugly or terrified, and this woman was both. Her hands shook; the vodka nearly slipped from them. The rich man’s face was wide, stupefied, as if solving a problem too difficult for him. And Marco, Marco, like a cackling witch in a fairy tale, the best of them all because of course, he had the least to lose. The runner on TV only displayed such triumph perhaps once in his lifetime. Marco wore it on him every second he moved across the surface of the earth. Van Gogh, she’d learned during a night class, had painted the hands of the peasants. When she made it out, when she got to where she was truly supposed to be, she would paint Marco. She would not mind the smell, the crazed eyes. She would see, everything and nothing, and judge it all equally good. 

“Sorry,” said the rich man. “I’m sorry to bother you. I just--I’ve had a bad day.”

“It’s okay,” said the woman softly. Just as suddenly as he had darted towards her, Marco lost interest. He cruised to the cooler and emerged with a six-pack.  

“Fucking Americans,” he growled. He was finishing up; he was coming towards them. She could nearly see into his egg-blue eyes. If only he would come closer, just himself, without the weight of those other stares.  

“Bad days,” intoned her father. “That is why we are here. For the bad days.”

“And the worse,” Batya whispered, though not loud enough for him to hear. It would be bad for her, if he caught her speaking without permission. 

The three of them curved their paths together, lined up like obedient children. For a moment they were children in her vision. Wide-eyed, overflowing with need and hope. Each paid, and each left into the afternoon, their retreating figures thrown into relief. She would not get them back, those moments when she had nearly seen them for what they were. She would not preserve the images either; memory did not serve its human master, but some capricious God who valued only destruction, disfigurement. Beside her, her father sighed, and she heard fatigue, despair. There was nothing more she could do for him; she had only her sins to offer.

The television screen had gone dark. Flickery dots scattered through the blackness, then a loud buzz broke the silence.

“I think it’s broken,” she said to her father. For some reason he did not hit her. He crossed to the set and reached his arms up, an impossible distance, she thought, but then his fingers touched the box and moved wires behind it. The picture came back on, bright, purposeful, as if it had used the silent moments to gather its strength.

The runner was gone, as was the jubilant crowd. Batya and her father watched as a young woman, sobbing, confessed to a man that she had stolen his money and committed adultery. The young man, dark-haired and tall, dropped his face into his hands. Strange, Batya thought, how they think people would want to watch such things. Didn’t life offer enough pain?

But when she looked beside her she saw her father was absorbed, arched forward, his mouth open. His eyes shone, and his breathing was deep, level. She understood. He needed it all  reflected back to him. He would grit his teeth against his loneliness, but for the moments the television played, he would imagine he had escaped the prison he had made for himself. She reached for the remote and turned up the sound. They watched the program together, not speaking, knowing before it happened that the man would forgive the woman, that they would marry each other on a brilliant field of grass as small girls scattered flower petals. The life on the screen had faltered, but now proceeded without pain or confusion. So she kept quiet, conscious of her breath, the light smell of her skin, hoping for his senses to dull, so he would forget that she lived and caused him grief. What did it matter what he deserved, what any of them deserved? It was not a game where points were counted. It was noise, confusion, and an impossibly endless future. She made sure not to touch him, and not to make a sound.

 

 

 

Grace Glass lives and writes in Frederick, Maryland. Her "day job" is working as a dean at a local university. She writes about characters whose deep, sometimes irredeemable flaws emerge in ordinary situations. Her short stories have appeared in online and print journals, and she is also finishing two novels.