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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
It wasn’t a city meant for walking, but she walked. Typed the address of the clinic into the hotel computer. Swiped a card and printed two pages of directions. Seventy-eight cents. Everything broken down into increments. Point two miles down the service road. Stay straight for another point three. The concrete gave up the night’s hoarded heat.
The straight line went straight to the shoulder of an on-ramp, swirling with empty cups and plastic bags. Cars so close the trash jumped into the air. She thought of that cartoon teapot, the cups and clock, the sexy feather duster and her candlestick man. The trash fluttered down, switched position, showed off. At your service! A driver laid on his horn: one long sound that startled the directions out of her hand. She went back the way she came.
He was pacing the lobby. They got cell phones that afternoon and waited in a FEMA line and rescheduled the appointment for the following week. He rented a car and drove and held her hand in the waiting room.
When she was better they went to a shrimp boil in the courtyard of someone’s cousin’s apartment complex. Folding tables buttressed by foam coolers. She stood with strangers and reached into the pile of things to eat. Damp newspaper, boil mix and garlic tingling her cuticles, a warm lemon wedged in her palm. Potatoes, half ears of corn, fat shrimp in thin skins. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. It was dark back there. They ate without looking or talking. They sucked the heads dry. The pile of food got low and it was too dark to tell who said it first—Houston, we have a problem—they all said it, put the phrase on repeat, a murmur that never stopped being true, not even when the next pot was drained and they were called again: eat.
She got tired of waiting and found work. She wore a blue apron, spent $14 at the Wal-Mart on the other side of the same plaza for a pair of khaki pants. Stood in the greenhouse as long as she could to breathe the sweet stink of soil and wet rubber and leaves. Celery green sage green celedon. Ceylon. Iced tea sweet tea cubed coned shaved syrup. Sno-cone. Home. Stood in the greenhouse until she got sent back to her assigned aisle.
In the break room she opened her wallet to pull a dollar for the machine. Shirley from Kitchen Cabinets stood beside her, glugging water into a paper cone cup. Shirley gasped and stabbed a fingertip at her driver’s license. New Orleans? Shirley said it like a question and a prayer. Shirley said she’d had no idea that she was working with one of them, one of the displaced.
She punched the machine. Tore a packet of chocolate peanuts with her teeth. Well you do now.
The candy machine at work. The swipe of the card at the register. She got used to the hum of the hotel elevator. Sixth floor. The room was paid up ‘til the end of September.
The room had a dishwasher. The night after the appointment they smoked Winstons into the fan over the sink and ashed in the coffee mugs. The next day they walked to buy more cigarettes and beer and ripe avocados. When they came back the bed was made and the dishwasher was running. She had never had one before, and never since.
They found a group on the Internet to do it for them. Clear everything out. Get rid of the whole mess. She thought it would be easier that way. They went back and everything was gone. The refrigerator, the window unit, her tools, his shelves, their photographs, winter sweatshirts, summer tanktops, the washing machine. The thought of a stranger opening the rotten lid of the machine and seeing their moldy underwear made her sick to her stomach. She hoped they were kind, that they took pity on her. She hated any chore with two parts. Switching wash, drying the dishes. It was a hard time to realize that she was lazy, but there it was. She liked to bring a plastic bag to the hotel desk and pick it all up the next day: clean, dry, folded.
THE OLD HOUSE
It was empty when they got there, and empty when they sold it off. She liked to think of it as always empty.
In the smallest room, a single picture of a sailboat used to hang opposite the window. The water line ran around the room at the height of her waist. She liked to imagine that this is where the baby had gone. Had taken the boat and ridden the flood waters somewhere far, far away.
The mold bloomed in the bathroom, teal and gray. She liked to think of that living lace eating the house from the inside, swallowing the empty walls and windows and floorboards, licking the place clean.
Where his family lived. Where they went after Houston. Where she nodded when he told her what he would tell his mother.
Like the baby was a handbag she’d left in a taxi.
A LONG TIME AGO
He was a bookseller and she was a landscaper.
She rode her bike to his shop one summer afternoon when she was done spraying plants with her long hose and selling potted flowers and petting the big yellow labs that lay in the shade of the nursery. In the back of the shop, he repaired old books. She closed the door behind her and waited until he looked up. He wore goggles and a paper mask, his fine hands in powdered latex. She unbuttoned her shirt to keep him from speaking. Her arms and neck and face and calves were honey-brown. Rosy freckles like baby’s breath across her sternum. Pale breasts and belly. She covered her navel with her hands. She imagined his breath echoing warm inside its paper shield.
Caitlin Corrigan will earn an MFA in fiction from Rutgers- Newark this May. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, selfiesinink, Monkeybicycle, The Nervous Breakdown, NANO Fiction, and elsewhere.
The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to email@example.com.