CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Women like drinks, so they say. We opened our fists and let the money settle on the counter, in front of the woman.
Plus we could afford to buy her dinner, we lied.
We lied about our jobs and the location of our jobs. Indoor jobs, we said.
There’s an actor who they say women go crazy over—this actor killed many people in his last movie—and we asked if this woman still thought he was handsome, after all of that, and she said of course. “Interesting,” we said. We found that very interesting. Did she like dogs? we asked the woman, and her eyes got big: She loved dogs. Then she was telling us about her sweater, where she got her sweater: the sale. This information was “Very interesting,” and we asked her if she had seen those pictures? Of us in the newspaper? She knew about us? “So long as that’s clear,” we said, “let’s take another sip of our drinks.”
This is where she started talking about her kid. One day the kid was chasing a ball around—the next day the kid was in the hospital, she said, and “I don’t want to bore you with the rest.”
“His eyelashes are this long,” she said, measuring a distance between her thumb and finger, and she went on to explain how handsome he might have been. The doctor suggested that she spend as much time as possible just sitting in the room and saying things to the kid or touching the kid’s face. She touched his face the other day, she said, but “Nothing,” and the day before, when she touched the kid’s face, “Nothing,” she said, but the kid liked cartoons. He liked it when cartoons were playing. “How can you tell?” She could just tell the kid really liked it when a cartoon played in the hospital room, the woman said, you could just tell, so she made sure cartoons were always playing; right now she had three or four cartoon songs stuck in her head. These theme songs kept jamming together and colliding with any other thoughts the woman tried to have. The kid’s favorite food used to be ravioli, she was saying, but we swung the topic back around to dogs. “You know how when they leap in the air to catch the frisbee?” we asked her, and she thought about it for a while. She nodded. We nodded. She was silent, and so were we. We were all probably thinking about that moment: when the rotation stops and the plastic crunches between their teeth.
He put his arms around us and asked if we were looking for a job, for he had a number of jobs. Then he used these exact words to describe the relation of his house: “Stone’s throw.”
Morning. We were singing a kind of working song. We put on our suitjackets. It was a fine morning: Beneath our shoulder pads we could still feel the tingles of pressure from where that man had put his arms and palms around us.
The girl who answered his door wanted to know why we were standing there. Did we have business with someone, and if so, who.
We were looking down, trying to remember his name. The girl stared at us while names were spinning in our heads. We were mouthing names but none of them felt right.
“The man of the house,” we finally said.
She said that it was probably best for us to leave.
“Wait,” we told her. We had forgotten to mention something. We touched our collars nervously and said, “Wait.” Then we started to walk inside.
Our minds were still spinning different names and trying to slow the names down—then we noticed the door. It had closed suddenly.
We finally got her to open it again. “The master is feeling unwell,” she said. “Could we come back tomorrow?”
It was a mistake to be nice with us; that would only encourage us to push for more. “No.” We said this firmly.
“Do you realize who we are?” we asked her like that tall fellow had asked us when we were wearing uniforms like hers and holding the door open for him, like she was holding the door open for us, though now just a crack. “What’s my master’s name?” she said, falling back on this ploy.
“You’re a maid,” we told her, in case she had forgotten, and the fact remained—now we were talking like the tall fellow who had pulled us by the ears that night had talked—and we lowered our voices and informed the maid that the fact remained that we had an appointment of sorts. “Stone’s throw, you see,” we said airily, but she was very good with the door. She didn’t have many things. The fewer things you have, the better with them you are.
The Next Morning
We were shoveling when a man wearing a suit approached and asked if we had ever considered not shoveling rocks for a living and instead working indoors?
It was true that we had considered this. So what was the man in the suit proposing?
“A good job,” he said. “Indoors,” he added, going on to describe the walls, the desk. Comfortable chair pads, a humidifier, and a calendar on the desk, he pointed out. There was salesmanship in his voice. We liked how it divided: one part chiefly slimy, while the other tone was breathy and stuffed-up, keeping everything from pouring out too quickly.
Calendars with pictures of girls on every month, uncracked walls, and so on: We liked the sound of this.
We liked the way this man carried himself, and that kind of suit was in style.
He gave us his card, but not before writing a time on the card and telling us to show up at that time.
We could do that. We waved good-bye.
When the time matched the time on the card we were there. Waiting for the doors to open. But the doors never opened that day.
We went back to shoveling, shoveled for a few more weeks, then the man showed up again.
This time his suit was dark red, the color of skinned flesh, and he stood there in it, asking why we never showed up? At the time?
Kim, the other day, had left a voicemail asking us to take care of ourselves and to promise to restrain each other when we began to charge forward with the shovel upraised. We had given our word.
But soon the man brought a frown into it, and stepped in range of the shovel. He kept this going.
Finally he gave us a new card with a new time. Days passed. We showed up, the doors never opened. Back to shoveling.
The man returned.
This time he did not say a word to us. He just handed us a card wordlessly, got back into his expensive car and drove away. On the card: a certain time.
We don’t know why we showed up this third time, but we did, we arrived, and waited on this third occasion, but of course the doors never opened. That night we had a lot to drink and stumbled into a room. We went into one place, had a drink. By the time we finished the drink someone was telling us we were out of order. We were making strongly audible sounds. More doormen. Stairs. Another push. On the street now. Tinsel. Rain. Tinseled faces puddled.
We still had a lot of growing up to do, and this was one way to go about it.
The next place was very fancy. Gold orbs on every table.
Even the confetti on the floor or basking on the lampshades was made of silk. We saw him: sitting with a table of other men wearing the same dark red suit, the same man: looking up. We saw each other: our heads. He saw us. His mouth was moving. Saying something sidelong to those nearby, but staring at someone else, such as us, in the distance. Moments were dissolving on our tongues. The man was mouthing something to his associates. Then he walked over to us.
Did we want another card? the man asked us.
Then we must have hit him. This was followed by a convergence of silk, wrapping us completely. Pleasantly soft, but at the same time that it was cutting off our circulation. There were fingers in the midst of it all. We couldn’t see anything, thanks to blindfolds. They did throw us outside, but not all the way outside. It was always half out, half in. The gag had come first. The gag had led to the scream, activating the possibilities of the scream. Screaming, we realized too late, was a means to bring rescue or help.
When they took the gag out something else went in. When they took the something else out, another thing went in—
All shapes and sizes, into our mouths. In—we tried to speak through the new gags, to lash back with threats and profanity—Out. We could feel every corner against our palate. It was all done very businesslike. In—no fooling around—Out. All our saliva was gone. We were not crying but sort of fantasizing about crying. We only wanted to fashion our eyes after Kim’s the time we had burst down the door in time to observe the tears running over her. Who did this to you?—but nobody burst in to ask us this as we had asked it of Kim on that first meeting.
Then, morning, and we were dumped in the gutter.
We repeated all this to Sergeant McCormack. We had known Sergeant McCormack since we were schoolboys.
We had played sports with the little sergeant, though at that time the little sergeant had no authority over the other schoolboys and often fumed when his directives were ignored. The sergeant brought us coffee.
We felt at ease holding the paper cups. The details of what happened came easily, began to perhaps flow too quickly. Not coyly, and not coquettishly, as later went into the official report. The sergeant nodded. He said it was a real shame—then he got straight to the point, and asked if we could repeat this story to Detective Flynn? We did. Detective Flynn said the rest of the force needed to hear this. They gathered, we repeated our story, and finally everyone broke into a show of upper lips, as though each lip had been hooked and jerked into motion at the same time, one great coordinated police sneer, then they said go back to shoveling.
There was no longer a question of any altercation: This was beyond that, and by now we were kind of holding our hands up, trying to find our reflections in them, while Sergeant McCormack was standing in a fists-up poise—though he had no adversary.
“They’re not even grown-ups,” someone said softly. Detective Flynn?
Nobody would solve the mystery of who said this, but it was done: said right in front of the sergeant.
It seemed to give everybody permission to file out silently. To stay in the same room with that comment, and with Sergeant McCormack fists-up, would be unthinkable.
“Just go back to shoveling,” Detective Flynn said to us outside, on the steps of the station, not without giving us the softest imaginable punch of encouragement to the upper arm. Okay. We left.
There was nothing wrong with shoveling.
There was a grace to shoveling, we told an old woman, who was putting small rocks under her cape and looking at us like we might stop her from taking the rocks.
Weeks later the man returned.
We put down our shovels. The man passed the garment bags to us.
Our hands, no question, were going to hurt him, but now we had the garment bags—in our hands—and we had to unzip the garment bags before we could hurt anything.
Suits. Dark red. Such as the man wore.
He said these suits were a gesture. Things, the incident prior, got a little out of hand, he admitted. “In your sizes,” he said finally, and then got in his car and drove away.
The sun was reflecting off the suits. In the windshield of an old truck, abandoned apart from our reflections, it looked as though we were holding corpses of sunset in our arms.
We had grown used to our neighbor, then one day, a new neighbor moved in. Pat. Before he had even introduced himself—we tweezed open the blinds to watch him park his car and carry boxes in—we figured him for a Pat.
Later we shook hands, he said his name, Pat, then we said, Oh Pat is it? feigning surprise.
We tweezed open the blinds. He was sitting in our old neighbor’s chair. We turned away from the window, read a magazine, turned back to the window and Pat was still sitting in our old neighbor’s favorite chair. Finally he installed blinds of his own, which was a relief. We turned away from the window. If we closed our eyes and remained perfectly still while all the lights were out, all the doors sealed so that no sound could penetrate, then we could sort of feel ourselves growing.
One day we noticed that he was moving from room to room, at Pat speed—we could see strips of him moving between the blinds like Pat used to move, then his lights went off.
Our lights went off. Perhaps he had noticed that our lights had recently been going off around then. We closed our eyes.
Finally, one day, we said to him, “You remind us of a previous Pat.” We had gotten together, we were drinking, meeting, leaning back into chairs, while hardly saying anything at all—while laughing nervously, somewhat inaudibly.
“A Pat from our past,” we told him.
“That guy was a real piece of work,” we continued. We told him a little more about that Pat, eating chips, leaning far back in our chairs. Hearing us talk about the old Pat must have been like looking in a mirror for the new Pat. Yet how could one—after the other—after the other—but we weren’t thinking like this any more. Through the window over Pat’s shoulder, the window we were accustomed to looking in through the other side of, a pair of policemen were being dragged from their cruisers. They were smushed into each other. Forced to occupy the sacred space of one person. They admitted, if we heard correctly, that they were only posing as policemen, but they would have admitted anything at that point.
If there could be this many Pats, we thought, then there could be this many Kims.
Then the bowl of chips landed. Could it, or anything, have landed without us throwing it?
Pat returned to find the bowl.
We didn’t admit to having thrown it on the floor, but we were taking responsibility for it. Silently.
After that, our highest priority was avoiding the new Pat. We just didn’t want anything to do with him. We didn’t even want to share the walkway leading toward our residences and devised a system where we would never have to.
One day someone was knocking. A heavy, unpatterned, pudgy-fingered banging, we cracked open the door: Pat. Pat was standing there with a dish.
The dish was covered in foil. Let him inside? he asked, and we could all eat what was under the foil? He described it as a treat. But very slowly, and without saying anything at all, we closed the door. Locked it.
Through the blinds we watched him carry the dish back to his house. We really missed our old neighbor, Betty, who was petite and could do all kinds of tricks. Pat put the dish on a counter and then sat heavily into Betty’s chair.
A few days later we bumped into Pat on the walkway leading up to our residences—we weren’t expecting Pat to use the walkway at this time, he was acting out of schedule, and we almost dropped the bowl we were carrying back from another neighbor’s house.
With nothing to say to him, and Pat with nothing to say to us, we walked in silence, then to break the awkward silence, we mentioned Betty, who we were and are just nuts about, we mentioned our old neighbor Betty, how easy she was and is to love, the little dresses she wore and wears—but Pat whirled on us. He whirled and spun air all over us and forced us off the walkway.
Pat said, “Betty is dead! Ha-ha, Betty’s dead!” he said. Then Pat ran inside his house.
We ran in the opposite direction, to the graveyard.
So it was true. There was no mention of us on her stone, but we weren’t expecting there to be a mention, so this didn’t bother us—what bothered us more than anything was her being dead. Pat. Betty was in the ground. And Pat had been the one to tell us about it? He didn’t even really tell us. He pointed it out. He laughed. Ha-ha, we said like Pat had said, the wind carried the ha-ha quickly from our lips and buried it in a rustling of leaves, soon the branches were shivering above us, a dog barked, and we held hands and walked quickly away from the stone.
In a way Pat had done this to Betty. He was sitting there, right now, in Betty’s chair, and when he saw us looking Pat reached up and the blinds dropped.
Kill him back? No, we weren’t going to do that to any person or animal—Never, we said to the other every time this subject came up—so then what?
The next day we ran into Pat on the walkway. He was a few steps in front of us. “Do you like this?” Pat kept asking as he walked in front of us, his arms out. “Do you like to watch this?” Pat was walking stiffly, his arms straight out. Pat was walking like a zombie.
So now what? After he made fun of dead people such as Betty, with his zombie walk?
We weren’t going to kill him—we didn’t even believe in death and it wasn’t even an option—we were brainstorming other options and writing them into a pad. We were drawing lines—seeing where things connected. We drew a line toward Body. Hit him? We wrote in the pad, underlining Face. We drew a line toward Shovel and then circled it. No? No, we knew that once we started hitting a Pat we wouldn’t be able to stop until that Pat was completely gone, that would draw the line back to killing, which was already crossed out on our pad. We stayed up all night, writing in the pad. Until we figured it out.
Now we knew what we had to do. The lines matched up and there were circles around every word.
Dig her up, we wrote. Put her back in the chair.
In this part of town, you always walk with your head down. Everyone was minding their own business, walking with their heads down, then a girl burst onto the sidewalk and her head was up.
Immediately two men tried to get her.
We were going to continue minding our own business, while everyone else continued minding their own business despite the scene, so we were going to mind ours, men were trying to force the little girl into a van, and she screamed.
The men were trying to lift her into the van, but her little legs—or they appeared little against the backdrop of the men’s legs—planted against the sliding doorframe. She began to make noises that were little in comparison to the men’s, but greater, and more fearsome, we thought, than the sum of her eyes, limbs, mouth, hair, and strawberry barrettes.
Everyone kept their eyes pinned to the ground like we were supposed to. We all just wanted to get out of this part of town.
Then it hit us: our heads.
Our heads: in all the commotion, the dark noise, we had lost our place and were staring at the scene and now the men were looking at us. Our heads were up.
The little girl had raised her head, first—now ours came up, second—she started crying—and the men were watching us watch the little girl cry. Everything was white, but the noises were the darkest we had ever heard.
The men put their hands in the girl’s face to plug the crying. “She’s our niece,” they said to us, their fingers surrounded her little head, and finally they put a black sack over her head.
Our heads: The men told us to put our heads back down and walk. All the way down, the men said. We put them farther than we had ever lowered them before and got out of that part of town.
That night, we were eating dinner. We were holding our forks very tightly. An insect climbed onto the table. The insect looked up at our hands, as if aware of how tightly we were holding the forks, squeezing the plastic handles. “Put your head down!” we yelled at the insect and it scuttled quickly out of sight.
But what could we have done to save that little girl? Hadn’t she raised her head in the first place?
The sound of chairs being pushed away from the kitchen table rang in our ears. We thought:
What about the indent of the strawberry barrettes left behind in her hair? And the way they scattered to the sidewalk?
She brought it on herself, almost invited the men with her raised head?
We were lucky enough to escape that part of town, and also, what if the men really were her uncles?
We knew the men weren’t her uncles. We were bargaining. Clenching into fists, now unclenching into hands.
But what if they actually were her uncles?
No, no chance of that. But what could we have done? Sure, we were the same size as those men. But we had no training. Those men clearly had training. Our lack of training had kept us from many jobs in the past. It certainly would have kept us from saving that girl. And what if those men really were her uncles?
We thought about it. Pushed our chairs in. Pulled our dinner plates back and ate a little. Our grips loosened. We were holding the forks separately, eating everything in sight, then got some desert, went to bed, and were sleeping separately when the clock fell. The clock just fell off the wall. But the clock had been securely fastened? More securely fastened than all the other clocks, and more dependable as well. Now it was lying on the floor, facedown. It was the only clock in our small room, other than those thin bands of light that intruded when the shades were not pulled down enough, and now it was facedown, and the plastic cover was loose. What did it mean?
No time. No time to lose: of course. No time to sleep or otherwise waste:
We threw on our pants. Of course those men were not her uncles. So how could we save her? we said aloud. First we had to figure out how.
That was the first step—but what did we even know? And how much growing up did we still have left?
Did we remember anything about the van? White. We knew the color of their van. We thought more about it. Paint. The little girl’s dress. Was the dress white? Check. Now we began to see something. And what else was white? The sneakers. Check. The men were wearing white sneakers. Nothing dark on their feet. The sneakers didn’t have a speck of dark, neither did the van, check, neither did the girl’s dress, check, no dark, these men opposed anything dark and the men were—but we stopped. Dead end. The sack was black. They had put a dark sack over the girl’s head. The sack. How did the dark sack fit together with the white sneakers, white van, white dress? So why wouldn’t they just use a white sack? Black tangled into so much white. Pat? No, no. The girl, our heads, we thought about the dress, remembered the men forcing her into the van. How her skirt flopped up when she planted her legs against the van’s sliding doorframe. Her little underwear—also white—check. But then the girl starting making those dark noises—the girl was so cute and young but the noises were not cute or young—those noises were old. Hundreds of years old, at least. From the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages, we said to the other simultaneously. We called the police, asked what they knew about the Dark Ages. “Sir?” the dispatcher said, but it was a mistake, a mistake to get the police involved and we hung up. Now we were walking. Soon we had to walk with our heads down. We were getting closer. Dark Ages, we kept thinking, what did it mean? Dark Ages—and then it occurred to us that youth itself was something of a Dark Age? Everything was so confusing during youth. Nothing made sense, everything was a dead end, dark, nothing was illuminated. We kept our heads down. Youth? The most youth? The Youth Center.
We kept our eyes pinned to our shoes and walked toward the Youth Center.
We opened the door.
The men were standing there. The black sack. Now the men were looking at our heads again—our raised heads. The men were near a pipe and when they saw us they collected the pipe.
So we had raised our heads against these men. Now what?
Now what, indeed. We were standing there, thinking: white, dark, the dress, the sneakers, our lack of training, check. The sack was still on the little girl’s head. She couldn’t see us. She had no way of knowing we had come to save her. We had no training, and she didn’t even know we were there. We could just leave? She wouldn’t know. The men were coming toward us now, their heads, ours, and we could just put our heads back down. Walk out of there. Back out, exit the Youth Center with our heads down. The girl hadn’t even seen us. She was probably their niece.
That was it: The girl was their niece.
Rob Walsh’s stories have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Caketrain, Columbia, Conjunctions, NOON, and elsewhere. He is from Seattle.