Excerpt

“North Country, Early Morning”

Sara Batkie

September 7, 2018 
The following is from Sara Batkie's collection, Better Times. Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Better Times examines the things that happen in places that usually go unnoticed. Often focusing on the hidden corners of women's lives, Better Times is divided into three sections that cover the past, present, and the world to come. Sara Batkie's stories have been published widely and have received mention in 2011 Best American Short Stories. She lives in New York.

They pull up to the hospital in a red car, can’t tell the make or year. There’s something familiar in them, even after they step out. I’m behind the check-in desk as usual and can see them from the window. They’re moving slowly as they make their way across the lot, trench coats flapping in the breeze, clothes underneath dark as a starless sky, so I know it’s not an emergency even before I notice the masks. Rubber, I guess; one dark-haired, one gray, but the same jowly faces and twisty grinning mouths. Like the kind you’d see around a cigar.

I seem to understand what they want before they even come in, already turning toward the cabinet and bending over to undo the lock. When I open its doors there’s nothing inside. It’s empty: just rows blank as children’s stares where bottles of pills and syrups should be. And now one of ’em’s jumping over the vestibule to stick his gun in my face, the black bag held out for something I can’t give him.

“What the fuck is this?” he says, and it takes me a second to realize he’s talking to me. That’s when I know they’re not from around here. Along with their car, their clothes, and the fact that they’re robbing us.

As he forces me up, my hands behind my head, elbows sticking out like chicken wings, toward the stock room, he knows the one, he says, I repeat to myself: my name is Grace, my name is Grace, my name is Grace.

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*

My husband, Jerry, talked about grace a lot. Both as a state and an option. “Choose grace,” he said. “Be the grace you seek in others.” I like this because it sounds easy but is actually something you have to remind yourself to do every minute of every day. Most people walk around the world and connect with it the same way they breathe. That’s why it’s so hard to change; nobody bothers to think about it.

Sometimes when Jerry called I didn’t remember him right away, not until he spoke. He had a bed-making voice. No matter what words he said, his voice smoothed them over like a sheet on a mattress. By the end he’d get something neat and fine out of what originally seemed like a chore. “Choose to be God’s grace in this world,” he would tell me, “and you will be loved in the next.” I wrote that down on a sheet of paper so I wouldn’t forget it.

*

There are six of us on duty between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., but only five of us are in the stockroom. The dark-haired guy brings us in one by one while the other stands guard. He holds the barrel of his shotgun pointed down between his legs, as if there’s any doubt what he thinks of it, scratching at his chin like he expects a beard to be there. We’re all sitting on the ground in a semicircle. Alice and Marie look scared, Kiki looks bored, Ari’s wet himself. That leaves Gabe hiding out somewhere. Or wandering around with his headphones on, oblivious to it all. I don’t know what I look like.

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“Where’s the stuff, ladies?” the dark one drawls, the plastic holes that pass for eyes boring into Ari and his damp crotch.

They’re all staring at me now, even the bandits. I’ve been at the hospital the longest, or at least it feels that way. Though I only started working the nightshift after Jerry left, whenever that was. But I don’t like that they all seem to know it.

“Sometimes when Jerry called I didn’t remember him right away, not until he spoke. He had a bed-making voice. No matter what words he said, his voice smoothed them over like a sheet on a mattress.”

“Deliveries are scheduled for midnight,” I say. “They must be running late.”

“We could call them,” Alice offers. Her eyes have that bunny fou-fou glaze she gets whenever she noses a needle into a vein. “The sheet’s by the door.”

“Nobody’s calling nobody,” the gray one snaps. Then he and the other guy go into one of those huddles that criminals are always doing in the movies. Like we won’t know what they’re talking about.

“What are they talking about?” Ari hisses.

“Shhh,” Marie hisses back.

“They’re talking about leaving,” I say. “That’s all.” I hope they feel more assured by it than I do.

*

There’s something about this town that you know only after you leave it. That’s what Jerry said, at least. He called me the other day from wherever he was. Is everything okay, he wanted to know.

“How long are you going to be gone?” I asked.

He sighed, the sort of sigh you have in the middle of an argument that’s been going on a long time. But what did we have to fight about?

“I’m not coming back, Grace,” he said.

I waited because I didn’t know what else to do, and I’d been doing it long enough anyway.

“You signed the papers years ago, Grace,” he went on. “There should be a copy in the rolltop desk in the study.”

Conversations like that kind of spooked me, even when I knew deep in my bones I’d had them before. Maybe then most of all. But Jerry was always patient with me, I think. Once he used my favorite lipstick to scrawl “Be Nice” on my vanity mirror. I remembered this because it was still there.

When I went to look for the papers they weren’t in the desk but laid out on top of it. As if I’d searched for them already. They were notarized and everything.

*

The dark one turns toward us and points a finger in my direction. “You’re gonna make the call,” he says, bending to hoist me up and shoving me toward the phone that’s hanging by the doorway. I can feel them all looking at me, or making a point of not looking at me, as I go to the call sheet, find the number, dial, and hold the receiver to my ear.

“Yeah, yeah,” the guy says when he picks up, “we’re on our way. Got a flat on Route 6. Should be there in an hour. Two at the latest.” The sound of a truck passing by is so loud the wind of it almost ruffles my hair.

“We really need you to get here as soon as you can,” I say, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice. The gray one’s teeth-hugging grin is starting to rattle me.

“Jesus, Grace, give me a break,” he snaps.

“I didn’t tell you my name,” I say.

“I really don’t have time for this now,” he mutters. Then he’s gone.

“Dubya,” the dark one says to the other. “Go stand guard out front. And don’t do anything fucked up.”

“You neither, Nixon,” he says, swinging the shotgun over his shoulder as he leaves.

“Guess it’s getting-to-know-you time,” the one called Nixon says.

Alice whimpers. Kiki rolls her eyes. Ari and Marie just sit there, gripping their knees to their chests, shoulders rubbing like kindling. Somewhere up above is the squeak of a chair on linoleum. Everyone’s chin snaps skyward.

“Just a patient,” I say. But it’s only offices on the second floor.

*

Jerry said that beyond the borders of our town, past the trailer park, past the toothpick woods and the burned-out cook house by the highway, was a place without forgetting. That he couldn’t come back because a fog would settle over his mind once he stepped one foot too far and he wouldn’t remember why he’d left in the first place. That it was a miracle he ever did. That was usually when he started talking about God.

“If no one knows what God looks like, He can be in anything you see.” That was another one of his I wrote down. But it was hard to recognize Him in the crosses of power lines, in the folds of empty fields, in the methane-bloated faces that surrounded me. “That’s your unkindness,” Jerry said. “People who only look around the world and notice what isn’t there will never know the possibility of the paradise that waits for us.”

*

It’s all metal in this room, everywhere you turn. After a while you get to feeling like a piece of food stuck between braces. There’s the stale smell of piss in the air, the residue of embarrassment. Nixon’s taken a seat on one of the rolling chairs, his gun in his lap, itching at little sandpaper spots on his wrists. Every few seconds he glances up to confirm none of us have moved. We haven’t.

“You need some cortisone, Nixon?” I say, nodding at the dark one’s flurried hands. “Is that what we call you?”

“Call me whatever you want,” he says.

“It’s in that cabinet over there.”

“Shut up.” But he rolls over, rummages around, then finds the green tube.

“I’ll have to keep this, now I’ve touched it,” he says, as he rubs the chalky cream into his skin, leaving ghostly prints on his gun, his coat, his mask.

“We won’t miss it,” Kiki says, snapping the words like gum. It’s the first time we’ve heard from her all night and it loosens the screws in everyone’s spine.

“The fuck you ladies do around here anyway?” Nixon asks, surveying the room like he’s seeing it for the first time.

“Help people,” Alice says.

“Help people,” he mimics with lemon-twisted bitterness. I feel sorry for him.

There’s a sound then, like a tapping at the window on the other side of the room. We all freeze up, eyes sliding to the floor like children trying to avoid blame. He sits up straight, neck craning. “What’s that?” he says.

Silence, aside from the tapping, which becomes more insistent.

Then he’s up and stalking quickly over to the window, the wings of his black coat fanning out behind him. We watch him go. He stands on tiptoe, pressing his nose to the glass, the cracks in it catching the light like cobwebs. I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. Marie picks at her cuticles hard enough to draw specks of little bird’s-eye blood from them.

“It’s just rain,” he’s saying as he turns and then Ari’s up, bolting for the door. There’s a flash and a bang, or maybe a bang and a flash. Alice’s hands rocket to her ears as Ari stumbles, right knee coming down hard, spit flying from his mouth. Marie is crying, Kiki’s eyes are bulging out of their sockets. Blood starts spurting from just above Ari’s ankle like water from a hose. I’m getting up to help him when the guy shoots again, at the floor this time, a warning shot.

“Nobody move,” he says. His voice is darkness itself, and he follows his own orders.

*

Most of my days were spent dozing on the couch. There was no reason to be up, really. No sense that I’d missed much of anything. I made myself something to eat, found a quiet channel on the television, and let myself get taken away on a sea of strange voices. Never the news, full of noise and despair, full of people and places I’d never heard of, things I didn’t care to know. I liked those shopping networks, the ladies with their meringue hair, teeth buffed as shiny as the jewelry they held.

Sometimes I’d find the channel with the preacher. Quoting verse, leading a sing-along to a hymn. His arms thrown out, head tipped toward the sky. I fell asleep thinking about Jerry, how something in him just clicked. That’s what he was always saying on the phone, that someday it would click for me, he just knew it. The preacher’s message was simple and always the same: be better; love one another; don’t speak the word of God, just live it. Save another, save yourself.

How much does that need to be said, really? But there was always someone hearing it for the first time, I guess.

*

“He’s hurt,” I say. Ari has gone fetal, the blood still dribbling into a purplish puddle beside him, like he’s leaking oil.

“He can be dead!” Nixon shouts back. He’s in the rolling chair again, hands raking over his dark rubber hair. I can hear him whispering to himself behind the black hole of his mouth.

I try to keep my voice even, testing out the words like water: “It’d be better to let me wrap it at least. Got an awful mess here.”

“Shut the fuck up. Let me think.”

“You’re not thinking,” I say, and Alice whimpers, eyes darting between us. “He dies, you’ll be in a lot more trouble than you’re ready for.”

He slaps the side of his head and everyone jolts. But he knows I’m right.

“You. Go get the stuff and bring it to her.”

Marie scuttles to the cabinets like a roach not wanting to be caught in the light. She grabs gloves, gauze, iodine, tweezers, needle, thread, and, uselessly, band aids, shoving them all toward me in one tornadic bundle without meeting my eyes.

““If no one knows what God looks like, He can be in anything you see.” That was another one of his I wrote down. But it was hard to recognize Him in the crosses of power lines, in the folds of empty fields, in the methane-bloated faces that surrounded me.”

The bullet’s all in one piece but I have trouble keeping my hand steady as Nixon stalks back and forth behind me. I coax Ari into untangling himself, but Kiki and Alice have to brace his shoulders with their knees. All of us are working more from instinct than memory.

Metal nuzzles metal. He moans low in his throat; Kiki claps a hand over his mouth. I worm the prongs inside, grip them around the bullet’s sticky body. The cords in Ari’s neck strain against his screams. His chest jumps like deer over a field. I clench my jaw, slide it out, the spiteful little thimble clattering to the floor, acting like I’ve done this before. And now I have. I press the gauze to the wound like a napkin on a dike, thread the needle, make my first shaky stitch.

“Don’t pretend like you aren’t enjoying this,” Nixon sneers. “Even a little bit.”

I can feel him close on me, his breath threading my ear, sweaty and thick and missing its whiskey. I want to shake him off but part of me knows there’s truth in what he says. I had forgotten what it feels like to be needed so plainly, instead of just doing the needing.

I tie off the stitch and it’s done, or at least it’s done as it can be. Relief rises in the room like heat. There’s not much time left now.

“Why did you come?” I say, as I set the tools aside, peel the wet gloves from my hands. They slump on the floor like animal skins. “What is it you really want?”

He shakes his head. “Don’t you remember, Grace?” he says, his voice filled with wonder and pity. “You know what we want. We took it last week. And the week before.”

*

I didn’t remember the end of things with Jerry any more than the beginning. One day he was there and he kept being there the next day and the next, each morning waking up to remind ourselves of one another. Until, quite suddenly, he was gone, and then I had to remind myself of that instead. I didn’t remember signing the papers either, but it was my signature on them all right. I could see how in some ways, at some times, that might be a comfort. Nobody likes to think about why they might be lonely. I did miss being loved, though, if you can miss a feeling you have no proof of ever having in the first place.

At those times, when I was trying to think up some proof of love in this world, sitting alone on the couch as the morning crept over the land, I would close my eyes and hold out my hands, palms up. A warmth would touch me, reassure me, even if it was just the sun caught by the glass of the window.

*

“How do you know my name?” I ask.

“I just told you,” Nixon cries. He sounds more confused than angry. I can hear his breath heaving underneath the mask, hitting the plastic like a dog’s lapping tongue. “We’ve been here before.”

“No,” I say, shaking my head, backing away from him, everything else in the room starting to fall away. “No, I think I would remember that.”

“How, exactly? Do you even know who Nixon is? You should, you’re certainly old enough.”

“But you’re Nixon,” I say. “Aren’t you?”

He starts to laugh, a secret sound that comes from deep in his body. It’s a forgery of amusement, like the sound of the ocean in a shell. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never been there myself.

“Man,” he says, “I remember when we first found this shithole. What luck, we thought! We keep coming back here and these idiots won’t have any idea! I’m waiting for the day you’ll figure it out. Somehow you all know each other,” he motions around the room with the gun. “Or at least you can pretend you do. But it hasn’t happened for us yet.”

Something bubbles up in my stomach. Maybe sick, maybe something else. Either way I swallow it back. Try to stay calm. Now more than any is the moment to stay calm.

“Y’all have a disease, you know,” he goes on. “You know that? Of course you don’t. You won’t remember any of this. Each day the same for you. No worries, no cares, no mistakes. I could even take this off.”

He’s reaching for his mask when there’s a sound far off, a muffled pop-pop like wood collapsing in a fire.

“Fuck!” he shouts, grabbing for his gun.

In that moment, right before we hear the clatter of footsteps then hands pounding at the door, everyone screaming something at once, words bubble up in my head. I don’t know where from. Save another, save yourself.

I’m reaching upward; if I could only see his face, his real face, maybe then things would go differently this time. We could both be saved from ourselves, become something to one another. But he ducks from my hands. That’s when the door gets kicked in. And we’re both turning toward it. Meeting that great white light.

There was a saying I’d been turning over in my head quite a bit since Jerry left, whenever that was. Not for any particular reason, except in my line of work it was a good thing to keep in mind: death is for the living and not for the dead so much. I heard that once, but now I can’t remember where.

__________________________________

From Better Times. Used with permission of University Of Nebraska Press. Copyright © 2018 by Sara Batkie.




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