Authors: Lauren Groff
She could hear him walking toward her and steeled herself for recrimination. But he touched the small of her back and said a soft Oh, honey; and this was infinitely worse.
A hurricane developed over the Caribbean, but only its edges lashed the shore. Still, during the scream and blow, the camphor rattled its branches against the top of the car, and the wagon shook so hard she was afraid the metal would twist and the glass would break. The retention pond overflowed and water licked up to the hubcaps. She lay as quietly as she could and listened and watched: she was a thin shell of glass and steel from the raw nerve at the center of herself. She felt the storm come closer, charging near; she waited with a painful breathless patience. But before it arrived, she fell asleep.
She called her mother on Thanksgiving, but her stepfather answered and said her mother was in bed again, under the weather. Not that she cared. They'd given up on her coming home, but couldn't she call her damn mother once a month?
She held the receiver up to the highway and let him speak himself out, and in a pause, she said to tell her mother that she loved her and would call again soon. She sat for a while on a dune, shivering in the cold wind. The ocean was blank and inexpressive, withholding sympathy. At last, she was numbed enough that she could walk to the town and stand in the long line outside the church.
Today they were serving people in seatings, and the line moved very slowly.
Most of the people at the table looked normal. Across from her was a family, the mother with a chic black haircut and tattoos across her collarbone, the father with an artful mullet, the two little girls with barrettes in their bangs. Next to her was an enormous woman whose flesh pressed up to hers, firm and warm. Nobody spoke. There was a soup courseâhomemade minestrone with good breadâthen the turkey course with canned everything: cranberries, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, beans. And last, there were homemade pecan and pumpkin pies with coffee.
When the woman serving their table bent over to clear the pie plates, the large lady grasped her gloved hand. They all looked up to see the serving woman's startled face under her shower cap. Thank you, the large lady said, that was goooood, and the little girls laughed. The girl expected awkwardness, a hurrying away, but the serving woman briefly laid her cheek atop the lady's head and gave her a squeeze, and both women closed their eyes and leaned closer in.
It had been a rare warm day, and she'd built wind walls out of sand and soaked the last of the season's sunshine into her skin. Now she dropped her towel and book and water, and stared in wonder at the station wagon. All the
doors were open, her things spilling out. Her car had been gutted; her things were entrails. The hood was open, the engine gone. The tires were gone, the hubcaps gone, the front seats gone. Inside, a strong stench of urine: someone had pissed in the glove box. The guitar was gone, the camping stove, the tent, her childhood stuffed turtle, her winter jacket.
, of all fucking things, gone. Her backpack had a long slit in it.
She gathered up what she couldâthe sleeping bag,
, some clothes, a tarp. She found some dental floss and a needle, and sewed up the backpack. Then she took the registration from the glove box and ripped it upâwet, it tore easilyâand tossed the license plate into the retention pond, where it floated on the duckweed for a moment before it sank.
How light she thought she had been before. How truly light she was now.
She should be leaving anywayâit was too cold now, with the wind off the ocean. There were Santas in the store windows, in piles of fake snow.
Out on A1A, the cars screamed by her and threw exhaust in her face. She stuck out her thumb, and a tan sedan rolled to a stop. The driver was pale and nervous, and somewhere inside her alarm bells began to ring, but she found she didn't care to listen. He said he was going back to the university town, and she thought of her ex, her friends, her fall from safety. She found she didn't care about those things, either.
She could feel the ocean pulling at her back but didn't turn to say goodbye. It had failed to do what she had longed for it to do; it had been indifferent, after all. Over the inland waterway, with its tiny islands and corrugated bridge, into the palmetto scrub. Somewhere along a stretch of road bordered by pines in strict formation, the man put a hand on her knee and squinted toward the empty asphalt ahead. She gently removed his hand, and he didn't try again. He turned on the radio, and they listened to sticky love ballads. In town, he dropped her at the downtown plaza and squealed away, to the loud derision of two old men at the bus stop. They grinned at her and both blew pink bubbles with their gum and one by one let them pop.
Just before the public library closed for the night, she rode the elevator to the top floor and went into the grand stained-glass conference room set like a crown at the top of the building. She'd discovered an unlocked closet behind a leaning blackboard, barely long enough to hold her body in its sleeping bag. In the dark of the closet, she ate what she found during the day and listened to the library empty out. It was orange season, and she plucked satsumas for breakfast and spat the pips into the road.
She neglected to call her mother for Christmas or New Year's. When she tried to read during the day, the words lost their meaning and floated loosely in her eyes.
She didn't make it to the library in time one evening and spent the night shivering in her light jean jacket. She was walking by a club that had just closed when a cluster of undergraduates in strapless dresses tottered by, fingering their cell phones. She recognized one of them, a girl from her comp-lit class last year. She'd been a frightened, silent thing who'd earned her Câ. No matter how hard she was drilled, “its” and “it's” had eluded the girl. Tonight, if she and the girl came face-to-face, the girl would look through her former instructor, not seeing her in this worn, dirty woman; and she, whose words had once lashed, would have nothing to say.
Its, it's, she said aloud now. Who cares?
A man stacking the chairs in front of the patio area heard her and laughed. Twits, he agreed.
She leaned against the railing and watched him work. He was a skinny, short brown man and exceptionally fast: he'd already rolled up the rubber mats and was hosing down the bricks when she realized he was still talking to her. I'm telling you, he was saying, sillier and sillier each damn day, filling up those heads with tweeters and scooters and facebooks and starbooks and shit. He looked up at her and grinned. His front four teeth were gone, and it gave him the mischievous air of a six-year-old. Name's Eugene, but everyone calls me Eugene-Euclean. I clean,
right? I got three of these clubs to set right before morning, so's I can't stop to chat.
Okay, she said, and took a step, but he meant that he couldn't stop; he could still chat. This land, he told her, was full of living twits and unsettled spirits, both. The spirits were loud and unhappy, and filled the place with evil. All them dead Spanish missionaries and snakebit Seminoles and starved-to-death Crackers and shit. He, Eugene-Euclean, came down from Atlanta near on four years back and got infected with the spirits and they were inside him and he couldn't find his way to leave.
By now, they were inside the booze-stinking club, and Eugene had poured her a glass of cranberry juice. He began to mop the floor with a bleach solution so strong it made her eyes water. He looked up at her and stopped, struck by a thought. I like you, he said. You keep your words in tight.
Thanks, Eugene, she said.
I could use some help, he said. Three clubs is hard to clean alone by morning-time come. You could do bathrooms, stuff like that. You got you a job?
No, she said.
He looked at her shrewdly and said, Fifty bucks Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, twenty bucks other nights. Monday off.
She blinked at the empty bucket he thrust into her hands. Partner, he said.
There was a sensation in cleaning that she used to get in her other lifetime when the books she was reading were so compelling they carried her through the hours. Words were space carved out of life, warm and safe. Polishing windows to perfect clarity, scrubbing porcelain, working caustic chemicals into the tiles until they gleamed like teeth; all this detached her mind from herself. She grew hard muscles in her skinny arms.
In the mornings, she would walk into the cold and feel herself wrung out. Eugene-Euclean sometimes bought her breakfast, and they'd sit, stinking of chemicals, in their booth, surrounded by the smells of warm grease and hot coffee. She wanted to laugh with him, to tell him of the horror of her mother's house when she was little, the cockroaches and the dirt-crusted linoleum, how strange it was that she was cleaning now; but Eugene spoke so much she had no need to say anything. He'd tell her about this talking dog when he was a kid, or he'd describe his moments of illumination, when the world slowed and the Devil spoke in his ear until he was chased away by the brightness that grew inside Eugene and bathed the world in light.
She took a room by the week in a squat concrete motel sticking out over the highway. It was called AffordableâBest PriceâComfortable, but she had to borrow some
chemicals and rags from Eugene to make the bathroom usable. She liked the sound of the trucks rumbling past and the steady rhythms of her neighbors' voices and the boys who hung out at the roasted-chicken place next door, with their swooping boasts and hoots of derision.
One morning, she was walking home to the motel when she saw a familiar bicycle at the coffee shop where she used to grade papers. She looked in the window, hiding her face with her baseball cap. Two of her former friends sat at a table, both frowning into their laptops. How fat they looked, how
. They were nursing their plain black coffees, and she remembered, with a surge of ugliness, how they all used to complain that they were too poor for lattes. How rich they had been. It was a kind of wealth you don't know you have until you stand shivering outside in the morning, watching what you used to be. One of her friends, the man, sensing eyes upon him, slowly looked up. A knot pulled tight in her gut, but when he looked past her to a sleek young woman gliding by on a bicycle, the knot frayed and broke apart.
One Saturday in March, at their last club, she looked up to see Eugene-Euclean swaying on his feet. He was staring at the air ducts above with a taut look of ecstasy on his face. She couldn't get to him before he fell over. His body was rigid, his jaw grinding. She
considered an ambulance, then dismissed it, because he had no money for medical care: he was saving for a bridge for his missing teeth. He always came out of it, he had told her. The Devil couldn't match the light in him. All she had to do was wait.
She went back to cleaning. When she was finished, she polished all the glasses and wiped the fur of dust from the bottles on the top shelves. She squeegeed the windows. When people in work clothes began passing by outside, it was time. When she came near Eugene-Euclean, however, she smelled a terrible odor and found that he had voided his bowels. She heaved him into a chair and dragged him to the bathroom and cleaned him as well as she could. She threw his pants and underwear and socks and shoes into the dumpster and fashioned a kind of loincloth from her sweatshirt. His van was parked in the lot, and she wrestled him up into the back and laid him out on a bundle of clean rags.
She didn't know where he lived or if he had loved ones. She hadn't asked anything about him, had only listened to what he'd chosen to tell. She left a note on his chest and locked the van, and when she returned in the afternoon to check on him, the van was gone, and he was gone, and though she waited for him at the clubs every night for the next week, none of the hungry, idle people in the plaza or the nightclub managers or the people at the shelter knew or would tell her where he was.
A cold wind blew in one April night and killed the most fragile plants. Across town, there were skeletons of ferns and banana plants and camellias. In the morning, the small, frowning Thai woman who owned AffordableâBest PriceâComfortable knocked on the door and waited in the doorway, silent and cross-armed, until the girl had packed up, put on her shoes and jacket, and left the room.
At noon, she followed the slow-moving parade of the indigent to the plaza and received a sandwich in plastic and a can of juice. At six, she followed them to the Methodist church and was served milk with a sour taste she remembered from kindergarten and a baked potato with chili.
Afterward, she followed a group past the homeless shelter, which was always full by one minute past five, when it opened for the night. They passed the old town depot, went through a park scarred with chain-link fences and heaps of dirt. They came out onto the bike path where she and her ex, once upon a time, had taken long, leisurely rides to see the alligators glistening on the banks of the sinkhole pools. It was dark in the woods, thick with Spanish moss and vines that looked from the corners of her eyes like snakes. She felt a new uprising in her, a sharp fear, and tried to swallow it. The people ahead of her disappeared off the bike path and into the trees.
She could smell it before she saw it: the tang of urine
and shit and woodsmoke and spilled beer and something starchy boiling. She heard the voices and came out into a clearing. In the dark, tents hulked beyond where she could see them, and there were fires here and there.
A man shouted, You looking for me, sweetheart? and there were laughs and she could see a dark shape detaching from the closest fire and gliding toward her.
She heard a woman's voice behind her saying warmly, There you are! and she felt herself being pushed past the man who approached, then past seven or eight campfires.