The next night, Marlene fans a blanket out over a woman’s lap, warming her bare legs, making her comfortable. Les is at sea, the apartment now Marlene’s alone. She drops to a knee, unstraps the woman’s clear spike-heeled pumps and slips them off, places each foot on the towel she’s laid over the cold swept floor. She stands, steps to the stove where the kettle whistles softly. She pours hot water into a basin, wets a wash rag, swishing it with soap until the cloth is loaded with suds. She carries these things back to the kitchen table and, dropping to her knees a second time, arranges them on the floor. She then washes the feet of her guest as if those of a saint.
Finished, Marlene lets them soak. In the bathroom she pulls Vaseline from the medicine cabinet. She returns to the kitchen, rips a paper towel from the roll, folds and licks the seam, tears the sheet into quarters. She dabs the paper towel in the Vaseline and leans in close to the woman, attempting to wipe away the suffocating cake of makeup.
The woman recoils, starts to say something. Hush, Marlene says. Hush.
Marlene tries again.
The woman shudders a second time.
Please, Marlene says. You’ll sleep here tonight. I’ll pay.
The woman settles into her chair, and Marlene proceeds to lay bare the details of her face. The worry lines of her forehead Marlene excavates with a pass over the brow. High subtle cheek-bones and thin taut lips beneath the dramatic blush and penciled outline of her lipstick. The woman’s eyes dulling to gray-blue once clean of eye shadow and mascara. But it’s the tiny cuts on her cheeks, pinprick acne scars and other slight quarter-inch etchings, that most appeal to Marlene. They give her guest a pimply adolescence, a long-nailed sibling—a time before this time. On nights like these Marlene sees herself as a kind of archaeologist, exhuming the lives of others. As Marlene works, the woman she picked up an hour ago is remade into a girl, not much more than twenty, a soft smile on her naked mouth, on her right cheek the faintest dimple.
Marlene smiles back.
She spent the night as she often did with Les gone. She drove around town, lingering until near day in empty streetlight-lit parking lots, staring hypnotically into windows and storefronts, where memories of her daughter once flickered. A fourth birthday at Drama Kids in preparation for which Angie insisted on making her costume from scratch. And the playground injury to her chin, her only stitches, when she braved a walk up the slide as another kid came down. But Angie had long since refused to come out of the shadows, despite Marlene’s wish to once again be her audience.
Dark crept in off the sea, the cold seizing town. Beneath streetlamps, snow whirled like schools of fish.
Marlene, not ready to return home, drove the forty-five minutes to The Villas.
A two-story L-shaped doo-wop relic complete with a towering neon sign of palm trees, sand, and sea, the motel, once bustling with seasonal renters, now charges for rooms by the hour. Warm weather, the women stand out on the street or sunbathe around the pool that lay dry year-round. Winter, they keep to the lobby, taking shifts in the bus stop enclosure just across from the motel, four or five at a time huddling together on display, like reproductions in a bizarre museum diorama. She parked a block away, headlights off, window cracked, smoking Merits. There were no cars in the parking lot tonight, just three women in the bus stop, all of whom she recognized. Marlene took care to go unnoticed: She never entered the motel, never even pulled up to the lobby, and never brought home the same woman twice. She lit another cigarette with the butt of the last, settled into her seat to wait for the shift change, for a new girl to exit the motel and sub out another in the bus stop, before she slipped the car into drive, flicked on her headlights, and rolled cautiously up to the enclosure.
She leads the girl to the bathroom, turns the water to a comfortable temperature, hands her a towel, robe, hanger, invites her to take a bath. In the kitchen she moves the soup she made earlier in the day to a front burner. She turns on the gas, strikes a match to light the stove, then a smoke with the same flame. She preps everything she needs for dinner before sitting down to the table with a bag of apples and a paring knife. She turns over the newspaper to the article she’s been flipping to for several nights:
FIVE THOUSAND RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS FALL FROM THE SKY
The image is of a field in a neighboring county dotted with broken, contorted carcasses: some on their backs, taking in the upside-down world; some doubled over about to sit up or straighten out; yet others embraced in the fold of another’s wing, huddling as if for warmth. Among the dead is one that captures Marlene’s eye. On its stomach, wings and tail spread full, red and yellow shoulder bars magnificent as war paint, the bird appears to glide just above a snow-dusted stretch. The article quotes someone calling the event biblical.
The bathroom door opens.
Marlene jumps and flips back over the paper, steps to the stove to stir the soup.
There’s quiet behind her, silence, no floor creak. She turns.
The girl stands in the doorframe of the bathroom, wet hair combed back and dripping, a sensual slant to her body. Robe draped wide at the shoulders, tied lazily at the waist.
A mistake made by some of the women Marlene brought home.
Marlene starts to say something. Hush, the girl says. Hush.
She lets the robe fall.
The childishness of her front—flat chest and absent hair— lights a sudden fury in Marlene.
Fuck sake, she snaps. Cover up that plucked chicken and come get a bite to eat.
She she eats everything in silence, the only sounds in the apartment the scrape of the utensil against her teeth and the on-off rhythm of the central heat and the sleet spattering the skylight. There is soup to start, rich and delicious, fried pork chops with caramelized onions, scallops sautéed in butter, stewed tomatoes, and, for dessert, tea, apple pie, cherries.
Marlene stands in the corner. They do not say a word.
She’s made a habit of not engaging with these women—no names, no personal details, no unnecessary chatter. She prefers the mystery of their quiet company. But Marlene did not mean to offend her and the girl did not take the insult lightly. She reeled, covering her body with her hands, dropped down to the floor to reclaim the robe, and stepped guardedly to her place setting at the table. Marlene watches her eat now, a steady ribbon of smoke unraveling from a cigarette. The girl is skinny but the heartiness of her appetite charms Marlene. The girl’s eyes continue to peer at the bedroom entrance, just off the kitchen, the door caved in.
Marlene clears away the dishes. The room becomes tidy.
She lights another Merit.
How was the food? Marlene asks. The girl smiles politely.
You can say something. The girl holds her silence.
Say something, please. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. The girl looks to the bedroom, nods to the busted door.
When’s he coming back?
That was me.
Doesn’t seem like you. Excuse me?
We talk about you, you know? The girl points to her heels by the table. We wear clear.
What else do we say?
That you’re a good cook. And you don’t talk much. Bill knows about you too. He looks closer than most people, sees what others can’t. One night his soul left his body right in front of me. True story. Swear. I mean, I didn’t actually see it leave. I was there, though, and we were done using drugs back then and everything. We were just sitting in the car and he looked up and his soul was trying to climb out the window. He scolded it like a child, saying, Get back down here in this body. And it did. It listened. Ever since, he can see things, like colors around people, their orals.
Silence resets the room.
You didn’t smile, the girl says. You were supposed to smile. I know it’s auras. But I’ll say that for the longest time I thought my grandma died of Old Timer’s disease. And that the veins on her legs were Very Close Veins. There’s another one, too, almost broke my heart. I’ve heard all my life that it’s a Doggy Dog World, which seemed kind of sweet. Like a slobbery, goofy world where a bunch of puppies with big tongues and big paws stumble around. But Bill explained the saying was Dog Eat Dog, which isn’t nearly as nice.
Marlene nods, attentive to the up inflection the girl makes at the end of each sentence, as if every assertion is a question and Marlene has to make clear she’s following.
A moment later the girl asks, Do you have any ice cream? Marlene can’t help but laugh.
She pulls a carton from the freezer, a spoon from the drawer, hands them to the girl.
Marlene takes a seat next to her at the table.
After the first bite, the girl sighs with pleasure and scoops out another.
I used to growl whenever my grandmother fed me ice cream as a baby, the girl says. It’s how I let her know that I wanted more. I mean, besides the fact that you shouldn’t feed ice cream to a baby, just forget about that one detail a minute, but that I knew I liked it so much that I’d found a way to tell her even as an infant. It’s kind of like this cat I used to have, whenever the water in the bowl was gone, he’d just swipe at the bowl over and over, making this kind of pretty paw-against-glass sound like a wind chime, almost. I mean, well, actually, it wasn’t pretty at all. It was annoying as hell, especially in the middle of the night. But still the cat had trained me to know that that sound meant to get your butt out of bed and get me some water. Like me growling: Just dig that spoon into that carton one more time, Grandma, and feed me some more of that sugary deliciousness. She’s gone now. Did I say that?
The girl shifts in her seat, apologizes for talking too much. She communes with some private thought.
Show me, Marlene says. No, come on.
Marlene grasps the girl’s hand, slips the spoon from her grip, scoots closer.
Go on, now, show me.
She raises the spoon to the girl’s mouth.
The girl takes a bite, tries to growl. No, that’s not right. Marlene feeds her a second bite.
A grunt this time, low and from the diaphragm. That’s not it either.
A soft almost-purr follows the third. There, she says. Closer, anyway.
Again, Marlene says. Show me again. Marlene offers another spoonful.
The girl growls a fourth time. That’s it, she says. That’s the one.
Marlene screeches with joy: Again, again, again. The girl takes another bite.
Again, again, again.
The girl laughs, too, swept up with enthusiasm.
Growl, growl, Marlene says, slapping the table, encouraging her more and more feverishly, the girl quickening the pace, bites coming faster now, the growls transforming into a continuous, guttural hum. They are both lost in the moment, unable to stop until the carton is empty, exuberance fading to exhaustion, and the echo of Marlene’s voice hangs over them like a sickly song, Growl, growl, she cries. Growl, Angie, growl.
The rest of the night they watch TV on the couch. The girl, resting her head on Marlene’s lap, nods off just before daybreak. Marlene sinks into her seat, fingers combing through her hair, thoughts lost in the comfort of someone sleeping close. Les wouldn’t approve. In her mind his voice sounds a lot like her mother’s. You ought seek counseling again; this is grief gone awry. But who is she harming? He’s out scalloping, which is where he always convinced himself he needed to be, so she will do as she pleases. She turns her head to the ceiling, across which the red-winged blackbirds come upon the town like a storm. One by one at first, slapping a roof, a sidewalk, a windshield, and then falling in numbers, assaulting the earth. She remains like that until morning seeps in from the edges of the blinds and the streetlamps just outside the apartment click off and the engines of the work-bound cars a floor below start up and Marlene shuts her eyes, too, drifting into tomorrow.
Excerpted from Walk the Darkness Down. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2023 by Daniel Magariel