You could tell just by looking—grape-soda stains on their kids’ T-shirts, cheap dye jobs, bad teeth—the people of Alna were poor. Some of them liked to huddle on turnouts or thumb rides up and down Route 4, sunburnt and tattooed, but I never thought to stop and pick one up. I was a woman alone, after all. And I didn’t want to have to talk to them, get to know them, or hear their stories. I preferred to keep the residents of Alna as part of its scenery. Wild teens, limping men, young mothers, kids scattered on the hot concrete like the town’s lazy rats or pigeons. From a distance I watched the way they congregated, then dispersed, heads hung at midlevel, neither noble nor disconsolate. The trashiness of the town was comforting, like an old black-and-white movie. Picture an empty street with a broken-down car, a child’s rusty tricycle abandoned on the curb, a wrinkled old lady scratching herself while watering her dun-colored lawn, the hose twisting perversely in her tight fist. Crumbling sidewalks. I played along when I went up there, slipping pennies in and out of the dish on the counter of the Gas Plus on State Street as though a few cents could make or break me.
I made an abysmal living back home teaching high school English, and my ex-husband rarely paid his alimony on time. But
by Alna’s standards, I was rich. I owned my summer house up
there. I’d bought it from the bank for next to nothing, full of
cobwebs and tacky wallpaper. It was a one-and-a-half-story bungalow overlooking the Omec River, a sloshy mile-long tributary
to a lake twice the size of Alna itself. The real estate taxes were
negligible. The cost of living was a joke. The teenage boys in the
sandwich shop in town remembered me from summer to summer
because I tipped them the fifty-cents change they tried to give
me. Otherwise I didn’t mingle. I’d made the acquaintance of a
few of the neighbors—mostly single moms whose teenage children smoked and strollered their own babies around the graveled
driveways. An old man across the street had a long beard stained
brassy from cigarette smoke. “Hey neighbor,” he’d say, wheezing, if I saw him out walking his dog. But I never felt I was anybody’s
neighbor. I was only ever just visiting Alna. I was slumming it up
there. I knew that.
Clark supplied a steady stream of coeds to occupy the house
during the school year. He taught computer programming at the
community college ten miles away, in Pittville. I paid him to look
after my place. I sometimes got the sense he was overcharging
me, inventing problems and costs to inflate his monthly bills,
but I didn’t care. It was worth the peace of mind. If something
went wrong—if the pipes froze or the rent was late—Clark would handle it. He’d wrap the windows once it got cold, fix a leaky faucet, a short circuit, a broken step. And I was glad I never had to deal with any of the tenants. Each summer I drove up to Alna, I’d find the house altered—a new perfume lacing the humid air, menstrual stains on the mattress, hardened bacon grease splattered on the kitchen counter, a fleck of mascara on the bathroom
mirror like a squashed fly. I mostly didn’t mind these remnants.
Having a tenant kept the vagrants out of what would otherwise
be an empty shelter from September to June. The street people of
Alna were notorious for taking up residence wherever they could
find it and refusing to leave, especially during the winters, which were, in Alna, deadly.
There was no scenic hike or museum to visit, no guided tour, no historic monument. Unlike where my sister summered, Alna had no gallery of naïve art, no antique shop, no bookstore, no fancy bakery. The only coffee to buy was at the Gas Plus or the doughnut shop. Occasionally I drove to Pittville to see a movie for two dollars. And sometimes I visited the deluxe shopping center on Route 4, where the fattest people on earth could be found buzzing around in electronic wheelchairs, trailing huge carts full of hamburger meat and cake mix and jugs of vegetable oil and pillow-size bags of chips. I only shopped there for things like bug spray and batteries, clean underwear when I didn’t feel like doing laundry, an occasional box of Popsicles.
Monday through Friday I kept to my summer diet of one foot-long submarine sandwich per day—the first half for lunch, the second half for dinner. I got these sandwiches from the deli downtown, around the corner from the bus depot at the hilltop crossing of Riverside Road and Main Street, where the vagrant townsfolk dressed like zombies and kept wolf dogs on rope leashes. The town was rife with meth and heroin. I knew that because it was obvious and because I dabbled in both when I was up there. Unless it was raining, I walked the two miles back and forth up Riverside every weekday morning, got a soda and my sandwich, and more often than not hit the bus depot restroom to buy ten dollars’ worth of whatever was on sale—up or down.
The town was rife with meth and heroin. I knew that because it was obvious and because I dabbled in both when I was up there.
On the weekends, I took myself out to eat. I had lunch either at the doughnut shop, where you could get an egg-and-cheese sandwich for a dollar, or at the diner on 122. I liked to sit at the counter there and get a platter of chopped iceberg smothered in ranch dressing and a bottomless Diet Coke and listen to the waitress greet the regulars—big men in T-shirts and suspenders, left arms brown as burnt steak. Half the time I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. For Saturday night dinners I hit the Chinese buffet for sautéed broccoli and free box wine, or I went to Charlie’s Good-Time, a family-style bar serving french fries and pizza.
The bar was attached to a combination arcade and bowling alley.
I didn’t talk to anybody when I went out. I just sat and ate and
watched the people talk and chew and gesture.
The Good-Time was where I met Clark my first summer in
Alna. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and steam from the
bar’s kitchen, he was the only person who looked remotely educated. I was inclined to brush him off at first because he was nearly bald and wore a knotted hemp necklace. His hand was
limp and clammy when I shook it. But he was persistent. He was
kind. I let him pay for a pitcher of beer and try to impress me with
his knowledge of literature. He told me he didn’t—couldn’t—read
fiction written after ’93, the year William Golding died, and he
claimed to know the editor of a well-known literary journal in
the city, one I’d never heard of. “Stan,” Clark called him. “We go
way back.” I overlooked all the glaring errors in his personality—his arrogance, his airs, his bony, hairy hands. I still remember
the humility it took for me to agree to take him home, then the
appalling ease with which I accepted his pathetic overtures of
gratitude and affection. He wore a cheap white dress shirt and
blue jeans, brown leather sandals, and a small gold hoop earring in one ear, and when we undressed in the dark in my
empty upstairs bedroom, me crouching under the sloped ceiling,
his genitals swung in my face like a fist. Afterward he said I was a “real woman,” whatever that was, asked if I had any children,
then shook his head. “Of course you don’t,” he said, cradling my
pelvis. I ran my fingers through his soft, thinning hair.
For the next few weeks he helped me sand the kitchen counters, peel off wallpaper, paint, scrub, fix the old stove. He rubbed
my back at night while we watched videos we rented from the
Gas Plus. He liked to blow into my ear—some high school trick,
I supposed. We talked mostly of the house, what needed to get
done and how to do it. Things started to feel serious when he got
a friend of his with a truck to help move in furniture I bought for pennies from the secondhand store in Pittville. My sister would have called it all “shabby chic,” not that I cared. Nobody was judging me in Alna. I could do whatever I wanted.
Clark was the one to introduce me to the submarine-sandwich diet and to the zombies at the bus depot. One morning he held out his long pinky fingernail. “Sniff it up,” he said. The stuff threw sex and romance under an immediate dark and meaningless shadow. It blotted out all our “feelings for each other,” as Clark had described our rapport. We didn’t sleep together again after that first high, but we did spend a few more weeks in each other’s company, nibbling the sandwiches and snorting the stuff from the zombies. Depending on what stuff they’d given us, we’d spend the days either cleaning or passed out on the brittle wicker daybed or on loose cushions on the porch, overlooking the Omec. The day I left to drive back down to the city that summer was a strange parting. We hugged and everything. I cried, sorry to say good-bye to my narcotic afternoons, my freedom. Clark offered to keep the house up while I was away, find me tenants, act as “property manager,” as he called it. I generally don’t like to hold on to loose ends, but I made this exception. If the house burned down, if the pipes burst, if the vagrants made a move, Clark would let me know.
Half a dozen years had passed since that first summer in Alna, and almost nothing had changed. The town was still full of young people crashing junk cars, dirty diapers littering the parking lots. There were x-ed–out smiley faces spray-painted over street signs, on the soaped-up windows of empty storefronts, all over the boarded-up Dairy Queen long since blackened by fire and warped by rain. And the zombies, of course, still inhabited Alna’s shadowy, empty hilltop downtown. They slumped on the curb nodding, or else they rifled through dumpsters for things to fix or sell. I often saw them speed walking up and down the slopes of Main Street with toasters or TV sets under their arms, ghost
faces smeared with Alna’s dirt, leaving a trail of garbage in their
wake. If they ever left Alna, cleaned up, shipped out, the magic of the place would vanish. Monday, Wednesday, Friday—I figured
three times a week was a sane frequency—I visited that bus depot
restroom, my ten-dollar bill at the ready.
Nobody ever asked me any questions. The zombie in charge
just handed me my little nugget, my little jewel, kept his face hidden under the hood of his raggedy sweatshirt, sweat dripping off
his chin and plinking down onto the dirty bathroom tiles. There
was no logic to what was kept in stock on a given day. Each time I
got home and tried what they’d given me, it was always the right
stuff. It was always a revelation. Never once did those zombies
steer me wrong.
Clark never got that about the zombies—their supernatural
wonder. He was too concerned with his own intelligence to see the bigger picture. He thought that the drugs we bought in the
bus depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though
some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his
own genius—some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot. We saw each
other once or twice each summer. I’d take him out to eat in Pit
tville to thank him for his help with the house, and I’d listen to
him gripe about how hard the winter had been, the state of affairs
at the college, budget cuts, local government, the health of his
dog. He quoted Shakespeare too often. And that’s just life was
a common phrase he used to sound deep and wary—a perfect
example of his laziness. Still, I didn’t hate him. A few times we
even tried to recapture whatever odd coincidence of lonesomeness
and availability we’d found together that first summer in Alna,
but inevitably one of our body parts would fail us—sometimes
his, sometimes mine. It was always humbling when that happened. Time was passing, I was getting old, “middle-aged,” my
sister called it. The truth was undeniable: I’d be dead soon. I
considered this every morning I walked home from the bus depot bathroom, a little foil-wrapped turd of drugs stuffed in with the lint and pennies in the pocket of my pleated khaki shorts.
I missed Alna during the school year. I missed the zombies. Grading papers, sitting in staff meetings, I wished I was sitting on my porch, looking down at the Omec and considering small matters—the little birds and where they found worms to feed their babies, the shifting shades of brown on the rocks as the water splashed them, the way the vines fell from the highest tree branches and got tangled tumbling in the rushing, sudsy water below. When the big city was covered in snow, my bones like ice, frozen air stabbing at my lungs, I told myself I’d go swimming in the lake that summer, get a real tan, frolic, so to speak. I owned a bathing suit, but it was pilly and stretched and the last time I’d worn it—at my sister’s pool party a few years before—I’d felt droopy and pasty, like my mother. The freckles on my thighs, once adorable marks of health and frivolity, were now like spots of dirt or little bugs I kept trying to scrape away with my fingernail. My sister showed me pictures later on, pointing out how flat my breasts had gotten.
“Do some of these,” she told me, pumping the air with her elbows in her stainless-steel kitchen. That was another thing I liked about Alna. Once I’d settled in each June, I could ignore my sister’s phone calls, claiming bad reception. I needed a break from her. She had too much influence over me. She only wanted to discuss things and name things for what they were. That was her thing. “Melasma,” she said, pointing to my upper lip. “That’s what you call that.”
One morning on my way home from the sandwich shop and bus depot, I passed a yard sale selling the usual garbage: baseball caps, plastic kitchen utensils, baby clothes folded into tiny cubes spread out on stained floral bedsheets. The only books at Alna yard sales were convenience-store paperbacks or cookbooks for microwave ovens. I didn’t like to read while I was in Alna anyway. I didn’t have the patience. That day a tall, gray metal sunlamp
caught my eye. The scrap of masking tape stuck to its base was marked in red: three dollars. I didn’t care if it worked. If it didn’t,
trying to fix it would occupy me for at least an afternoon. It was
worth the trouble.
“Whom do I pay?” I said to the gaggle of women sitting on
the front steps. They all had the same flat, long brown hair, the
same pinched eyes, bulbous mouths, and throats like frogs. Their
bodies were so fat, their breasts hung and rested on their knees.
They pointed to the matriarch, a huge woman sitting on a piano
bench in the shade of a large oak. Her left eye was swollen shut,
bruised yellow, black, and blue. I gave her the money. Her hand
was tiny and plump, like a doll’s, fingernails painted bright red.
She stuffed the bills I gave her in the pocket of her worn cotton
housedress, pulled a sucker from her mouth, and smiled, showing me—not without some hostility—a lone bottom row of teeth
rotted down to stubs, like a baby’s teeth. She was probably around
my age, but she looked like a woman with a hundred years of suffering behind her—no love, no transformations, no joy, just junk
food and bad television, ugly, mean-spirited men creaking in and
out of stuffy rooms to take advantage of her womb and impassive
heft. One of her obese offspring would soon overtake her throne,
I imagined, and preside over the family’s abject state of existence,
the beating hearts of these young women pointlessness personified. You’d think that, sitting there, oozing slowly toward death
with every breath, they’d all go out of their minds. But no—they
were too dumb for insanity. “Rich bitch,” I imagined the mother
to be thinking as she plunked her sucker back into her mouth. I lugged the lamp up the street, thinking of her flesh spreading
around her as she lay down on her bed. What would it feel like, I
wondered, to let myself go? I was anxious to get home, uncrinkle
the little fortune in my pocket. If the sunlamp did work, I would
bring it back down to the city with me. The light could soothe me
in the winter and clean my dirty city soul each night.
You’d think that, sitting there, oozing slowly toward death
with every breath, they’d all go out of their minds. But no—they
were too dumb for insanity.
It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them. I was tired. During the school year, all I did was contend with stupidity and ignorance. That’s what teachers are paid to do. How I got stuck teaching Dickens to fourteen-year-olds is a mystery to me. I’d never planned on working all my life. I’d had this fantasy that I’d get married and suddenly find a calling beyond the humiliating need to make a living. Art or charity work, babies—something like that. Each time seniors had me sign their yearbooks, I wrote, “Good luck!” then stared off into space, thinking of all the wisdom I could impart, but didn’t. At graduation, I’d take a few Benadryl to soothe my nerves, watch those tassled caps float around, all the idiotic high fives. I’d shake a few hands, go home to load my car with musty summer clothes and a case of sparkling mineral water, then drive the five hours up to Alna.
When I got back to my house with the lamp that day, a girl was standing in my front yard. She had her back turned, and she seemed to be staring up at the windows, a hand held over her head to block the sun’s glare. Nobody had ever come into my yard before. In all my time in Alna, nobody but Clark had ever even knocked on my door. I put the lamp down by my car and cleared my throat.
When the girl turned around, I saw that she was pregnant. The swell of her baby made a tent of her long black sleeveless shirt. She was thin otherwise, a scrawny young mother, the kind my sister abhorred. Her leggings were pastel purple, and her hair was short like a boy’s, and blond. She approached me, her hands supporting the small of her back, wincing in the sunshine, trying to smile.
“Is this your house?” she asked. As she came closer, I thought I detected rose perfume. A raised mole on her chin glistened with sweat. I folded my arms.
“Yes,” I stammered, “it’s my house. I’m the owner.” I guessed at who she was then—a former tenant. A Teri or Maxine or Jennifer or Jill, whatever their names were. Maybe she’d forgotten
something in the house. Those girls always left things behind—a
hairbrush, a bobby pin, empty boxes of crackers, tampons in the
medicine cabinet, stray socks and underwear between the washer
and dryer. I happily used up their leftover bars of vanilla-and
floral-scented soaps, each laced with hairs and gouged by their
fingernails in sharp half-moons. “Can I help you?”
The pregnant girl stood before me now, face gleaming, and
looked down at the sunlamp. She held up one hand to wave hello.
In her other hand she carried a sheaf of flyers.
“I’m a housecleaner,” she said. “I wanted to drop this off.”
She handed me one of the flyers. It was a hazy photocopy of a
handwritten ad that included her name and phone number and a
long list of services she provided. “I do laundry. I sweep and mop.
I straighten up. I dust. I vacuum,” I read aloud. She’d drawn stars
around the page, a smiley face at the bottom, at the end of a line
that read, “Ask about babysitting.” Her hourly rate was less than what a person would make working at a fast-food restaurant. I
considered pointing that out to her but didn’t. I picked the lamp
“Do you need help?” she asked. I ignored her tanned, outstretched arms and let her follow me across the yard. “I cleaned
your house last year, actually,” she said. “After you left, before the
students moved in, I guess.”
Clark hadn’t told me he’d outsourced the cleaning.
“So you know Clark,” I said, pulling out my keys.
“Yeah,” she said, “I know him.”
I didn’t bother to wonder whether Clark might be responsible
for her pregnancy. He didn’t have it in him. Even with me he’d
been fiercely dedicated to his fancy brand of condoms. But it
burned me to picture him ogling the girl, counting out the cash
to pay her for cleaning up my filth. Poor girl. She was pretty for
Alna, and tough in a way that came through in her shoulders.
They weren’t wide, per se, but angular and taut with budding
muscles like a teenage boy’s. She must have thought I was old and ugly. I could have been her mother, I suppose. I struggled with the sunlamp as we climbed the few steps to my front door.
“Clark should hire you to clean before I arrive, too,” I said, opening the door and putting the lamp down inside. “The bathroom especially is always yucky when I get here.”
“I can usually do a house like this in an hour or two,” she said, still standing out on the doorstep. “But I’ve been getting slower and slower, with this baby thing.” She pointed down at her belly. She looked up at me, as if she would find some sympathy there. Her eyes were clear and blue but hooded and tired. She spoke with the grumbling, rhythmless lilt of Alna talk. Maybe she had a dragon or a devil tattooed on the small of her back, or a Playboy bunny on her lower abdomen, now stretched and mutated by her pregnancy, that “baby thing,” as she called it. I studied her face as she peered over my shoulder, into the darkened house.
“Want to clean now?” I asked her.
Then, despite the information I’d just read on the flyer, I asked, “How much do you charge?”
She shrugged, those gleaming shoulders twitching, clavicles glistening in the sunshine. “Ten bucks?”
“For the whole house?”
She shrugged again.
“Come on in,” I said, and held open the door. “Let me just call my mom.”
I pointed to the phone on the wall by the fridge and watched her waddle past me toward it. She put the flyers down on the counter. Her belly was huge, nearly ready to pop. What kind of mother lets her pregnant teen wander around outside in the sweltering heat, I wondered. But I knew the answer. This was the Alna way.
I stared at the girl’s face as she passed, her tiny pores, her small, upturned nose, oily purple makeup darkening into the crease of her heavy eyelids. She dialed the phone and lifted the collar of
her shirt to wipe the sweat off her forehead. I opened the cabinet
under the sink and gestured toward the cleaning supplies down
there. She nodded. “Hi, Momma,” she said, turning away from
me, coiling the cord around her thin wrist.
I left her there, went into the den, unwrapped my sandwich
on the coffee table, and unscrewed my soda. I was a grown-up.
I could sit on the sofa and eat a sandwich. I didn’t have to call
my mother. I didn’t even have to clean my own house. I listened
to the girl talk. “I’m fine, Momma. No, don’t worry,” she said.
“I’ll be home in time for dinner.” After she hung up, I heard her
rattling the bucket of sprays and cleaners from under the kitchen
“You must be hungry,” I said to her, eyeing her slim calves as
she walked past me through the den. I held out half of my sandwich.
“I’m okay,” she replied, one arm weighed down by the bucket,
the other dragging a broom behind her. “I’ll start upstairs,” she
said, and lugged the stuff up the steps, her face flat and serious,
the enormous bulge of her belly straining against her shirt, which
was already darkened with sweat down the front. I chewed and
watched her disappear up the stairs. Shreds of lettuce spilled out
the sides of my sandwich. A slice of pickled jalapeño smacked the
hardwood floor. I left it there and ate, happily. It was deadly quiet
in that house without the television on. I could hear the toilet
flush, the girl grunt and breathe, the scrub brush scrape rhythmically against the bathroom tile. I gulped my soda down, burped
with my mouth open wide. I wrapped up the dinner half of my
sandwich and set it aside.
Then I took out my zombie dust. I figured I could just test it to
see what the zombies had chosen for me that day, a sneak preview
of what I had in store. Later, once the girl was gone, it would be
nice to take a shower, walk through the clean house, silent and
fresh, and sit at the coffee table in my bathrobe with a rolled-up
dollar bill. I’d let my soul fly wherever the stuff sent me until it got dark and I remembered the sandwich and the world down below. My mouth watered just imagining it. My hands got hot. That was the best part, that moment, anticipating miracles. But when I uncrinkled the foil and peeled back the plastic wrap, what I found was not magic powder but a cluster of clouded, butter-colored crystals. The hard stuff, I thought, agog. Upstairs there was a loud thud. I put the stuff down on the table and listened.
“You okay?” I hollered, still staring down at the crystals.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” the girl answered. The scrub brush started up again, slowly.
What was the meaning of those crystals? They had appeared only once before, with Clark that first summer in Alna. I was still new to the zombies then, still afraid of them. My walks up Riverside with Clark were fraught with nervous thrills. The bus station had been out of operation for a few decades—fake wood veneer benches and an old soda vending machine, empty windows, faded ads with Smokey the bear admonishing smokers and Hillside Church offering day care and asking for charity. Occasionally teenagers would skateboard around, hopping up with a frightening rumble and clack onto the counters at the old ticket windows. The men’s toilets were in back, through a short maze of brick riddled with graffiti. A few zombies were stationed back there, sitting on sinks or squatting on the floor, their wolf dogs tied to a pipe in the wall, panting. The zombie in charge sat in a stall with the door swung halfway open. Silently, he took our money and handed over the goods. His fingers were huge and cracked and red, black creases lining his palm, his nails thick and yellow. I hid my face under my hair, lurked and cowered next to Clark, masking myself in false subservience. The zombies saw through all that. They saw everything. But I was clueless still. I was a foreigner. I didn’t know their customs. I got more comfortable as time went on, of course. And then once Clark was out of the picture, I was forced to go alone. The zombies rarely lifted their gaze above my waistline. Theirs was a solid, grounding, animal attitude. Each time I met them in the bathroom I felt I was walking in naked, as if I were some pilgrim approaching a saint. I offered ten dollars and I received my blessing.
When the crystals appeared for me and Clark all those years before, I was honored, moved even. It felt like some kind of rite of passage, a sacrament. But when Clark saw the crystals, he crushed the foil back up and jammed the stuff down the front pocket of his jeans.
“What are you going to do with it, Clark?” I asked.
“Flush it, at my house,” was his brilliant reply.
Whatever lame affection I had left for Clark was smashed in that instant—it was obvious he was trying to deceive me. I suppose those crystals worked to save me from really getting attached to the man. Such was the magic wisdom of the zombies.
“What’s wrong with my house? Flush it here,” I insisted.
“I could flush it here,” he murmured.
“So flush it.” But Clark just sat there, stroking his beard and staring at the television as if the opening credits of Will & Grace had hypnotized him, as if he’d become one of the zombies.
“What?” he asked.
“Give it back,” I said, elbowing him in the knees.
“Trust me,” he whispered. “This stuff rots your brains.” He stood up, scratching his head, his armpit a rat’s nest of hair flecked with white gunk from his antiperspirant. “I’m going home,” he said. “I’m tired.”
I let him go then. I didn’t argue. He tried to kiss me good-bye but I turned my face away. I spent the rest of the day bored in front of the television, pining, furious, confused. I tried to go upstairs and scrape the leftover wallpaper in the bathroom, but it was no use. The next morning I went to the zombies alone and received the usual stuff. When Clark called in the afternoon, I told him I needed some time to myself. I sniffed my magic powders while he blubbered an apology that sounded like all his lame professions—foolishly sincere.
After cleaning my bedroom, the girl trudged slowly down the stairs. I’d been lying on the sofa reading a teen magazine left behind by one of the tenants. I stared at articles that told me how to “live my dreams,” “score total independence,” and “make more $$$.” I can’t say exactly what I thought I’d do with the crystals. I’d seen movies about people smoking crack out of little glass pipes. I could fashion something, I thought, but I was scared I’d mess it up. I imagined dissolving the crystals like rock sugar in a mug of herbal tea, or grinding them like sea salt over a bowl of canned tomato soup. But I wasn’t sure ingesting the stuff that way would work. And what if it did? I still had a life back down in the city, after all. There were certain realities I had to face. I couldn’t handle real oblivion. I just wanted a vacation. So I had some doubts. I had some misgivings.
I couldn’t handle real oblivion. I just wanted a vacation.
I’d been rolling the little nest of foil between my fingers, pondering all this as I stared at the magazine. When I heard the stairs creak, I sat up and stuck the stuff back in the pocket of my shorts.
“Hot up there,” I heard the girl say.
Her pretty, gleaming calves appeared between the rungs of the banister as she came down the steps. She’d folded the cuffs of her leggings up above her knees, which were red from kneeling on the floor. When her thighs appeared, I saw a black stain of blood at her crotch. She seemed not to know that she was bleeding. There was no way she could have seen the blood past the mountain of her belly, I suppose. She gripped the bucket with one hand and the railing with the other as she descended the stairs.
“Oh, shit,” she said when she reached the landing, “I left the broom.”
“I’ll get it,” I told her, folding the magazine shut.
“Shit,” she said again, putting the bucket down and holding her face with her hands. “Head rush.”
“I’ll get you a glass of water,” I offered. I wasn’t good around blood.
“I’m okay,” the girl said, bracing herself against the bookshelf. “Just dizzy.” She turned toward the wall, leaned into it, said, “Whew.”
I got up then, patting my pocket to make sure the ball of foil was safe inside. In the kitchen I let the tap run cold, got the ice from the freezer, took a glass from the drying rack.
“I’m really okay,” the girl said.
I plunked the ice in the glass. The cubes cracked as the water ran over them. “See,” the girl went on, “you’re not missing anything.”
“What?” I hollered back. But I’d heard her perfectly. “You’re not missing anything,” she said again, louder. “My mom says a baby is a blessing, but I don’t know.” I suppose it unnerved me that she could be so naïve. She had no idea what her life was going to do to her.
“That baby’s going to change your world,” I said, walking back into the den. She was bent over with her face in front of the fan. I snuck a look at the bloodstain widening down her thighs. “My sister has a daughter,” I said. “Gave up her career and everything.” I handed the girl the glass. She pushed herself upright, took a long sip, set the glass down on the TV and sighed. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy,” she answered, blushing slightly.
“You sure you feel all right?”
I stood around watching her clean for a while, helping her here and there, moving furniture so she could mop. She seemed perfectly fine to me. “I love The Matrix,” she said, straightening my shelves of VHS tapes. “I love old movies.” She beat the sofa’s cushions with her fist. She stacked the magazines on the end table. She straightened my framed posters of Monet’s Water Lilies. Her eyes were clear and blue as ever under their thick, gleaming lids. I went upstairs to get the broom, then I retreated to the kitchen, put away the clean dishes, and did the dirty ones. I put the dinner half of my sub in the fridge and sponged off the counter. I took out the trash.
Outside my neighbors were filling a kiddie pool with water from their garden hose. I waved.
“Marvin died,” one of the women said glumly.
“Who’s Marvin?” I asked.
She turned to her sister, or mother—I couldn’t tell—and rolled her eyes. Clark had chained the lids of my trash cans to the plastic handles on the barrels. For some reason, the people of Alna liked to steal the lids and throw them in the Omec. That was one of their summer recreations, he’d told me. As I stuffed the garbage down, the pregnant girl threw open the screen door and walked stiffly down the front steps. She held one hand down under her belly and the palm of her other hand up in front of her face. When she saw me and the neighbors, she turned her palm around. It was covered in blood.
“Oh, honey!” cried one of the women, dropping the hose.
“Something’s wrong,” the girl stammered, stunned.
“Well, honey, what happened? Did you fall? Did you hurt yourself?” the women were asking. The girl caught my eye as they surrounded her. I put the lid on the trash and watched as the women guided the girl across the muddy grass. They made her sit down in a lawn chair in the shade. One of them went inside to call for help. I went back into the house and got the girl’s flyers and twenty dollars from my wallet. When I got back outside, she was panting. I handed her the money, and she grabbed my forearm, smeared her blood all over it, squeezed it, shrieking, contracting her face in pain.
“Hang on, honey,” the neighbor said, frowning at me, her fat hands stroking the girl’s smooth, sweaty brow. “Help is on the way.”
When the ambulance left that afternoon, I took a walk down to the Omec. Squatting by the edge of the river, I washed the blood off my arm. I took the crystals out and let them plunk down into the rushing water, threw the crumpled foil at the wind, and watched it hit the surface and float away. I looked up at the pale, overcast sky, the crows circling then gliding down to a nest of rotting garbage on the opposite bank. I sat on a hot rock and let the sun warm my bones. My thighs splayed out; my white skin tightened and burned. It was nice there with the cool breeze, the sound of the traffic through the trees, the earthy stench of mud. An empty Coke can tinkled a rhythm against the rock, shaken by the current. A toad hopped across my foot.
Later that evening I dragged the sunlamp out onto the curb, thinking maybe the zombies would find it. The next morning it was still there, so I dragged it back inside. I walked up Riverside Road. I got what I wanted. I walked back home.