Dedicated to David B. Ruderman
She has her fervent pupils up at the purple midnight. Night-wind holds plastic bags high above wet ground. Rainfall spirals and disappears down a storm drain. And she is dressed like a modern Bogart sans fedora. She is alone.
Jennifer was hoping to see the dash, through the endless purple, of a steam star on the nearby railroad tracks. Instead, the pretty wetness of rained blacktop is inspiring her to rise. She is sitting in her car with a cigarette dangling from her lips. A few specks of ash drop on her restless knees. Underneath her father’s dark green Brooks Brothers coat, which she is wearing because hers is rather icky, she’s wearing her black work pants and her black work shirt. The pants, purchased by her at a Goodwill store, fit nicely. However, the shirt, provided by her father’s company, is an extra large. It hangs off her arms like a wizard’s cloak but tucked in at the waist. Since going sober, she’s added ten pounds. But, at least she is sober now. That’s how she looks at things. She extinguishes her cigarette on the parking lot’s wet black, stands out of her car, closes the door. Inside the trunk are three large baskets of clothes. Over the hood of the car she spots an aluminum cart by the front door. Above it, on cardboard, in sharpie, taped to the window, is this wacky message:
“No Shoes, no shirt, no sleeping, no soliciting and no loitering permited”
After acquiring the cart, Jennifer pulls a cigarette, her Bic lighter, and lights again.
Today, at five before the sun, in the middle of organizing mounds of dirty clothes, she received a call from Boss Lady, asking if Jen would be willing to come in and cover for a call-off. After taking the kids to school, Jennifer, hair freshly wet, face bare, work shirt and pants wrinkled, made like hell to the station, worked a brutal seven hours of scanning Monsters, prepping breakfast sandwiches, brewing coffees, ringing up gas payments, watching for any lit cigarettes before pumps, stocking Styrofoam cups, and sweeping countertops with disinfectant. And as she counted her drawer, the Boss Lady asked if she wanted to pull a double. With one-thousand-three-hundred-fifty-three dollars in court fines on the record (her father bailed her out and paid for her medical bills), this was an offer Jennifer could not refuse, on the condition that Boss Lady would permit her an hour and change to make her Narcotics Anonymous meeting at six. So, she called her mom, asked if she could take care of the kids that afternoon and evening, worked until nine that night, walked through the door at nine-forty and, after thanking her mother and kissing Daisy – who had walked in at, oh, around ten-thirty? – remembered the three baskets of clothes, one on top of the other on top of the other, two of which contained the boys' entire wardrobe soiled. And here she is, finishing smoke two under five minutes, recounting the hours of her day, the days of her sobriety, this Pythagorean rotation.
Inside: the circular fluorescent lighting on waxed white floors strain her eyes. Striped wallpaper the color of snow and weeds. To Jennifer's left when she enters is the empty front desk, three change machines under a brown fan, two of which always seem to be broken. Beyond this, the dryers, installed in the wall, run to the back of the building, one atop the other. On the right side are the washers, placed similarly. Basically, she’s enclosed in a circle of large, scary machinery in here, if you include the morbid gumball and gizmo machines against the windows in front, all of it the color of broken concrete. Although Jennifer looks to be the only patron tonight, she can hear the hum and kinetics of a machine in process, the smacking of buttons and laces on industrial metals.
She breaks a ten at the coin dispenser. Waiting for her coinage, looking up at the fan above, she lapses into a night where she sought refuge from cold Ohio air, unrighteous and rocked out of her mind. Slack-jawed and lost in that fan. How are you Mister Fan? Can you read my mind? Yes my dear, I can. Oh good. Nippy out there, a-ha, get it ‘cause your right nipple been hanging out of that tank top girl. Would you like coffee? It’s fresh and hot from the Duke station on the corner. With change in her pocket, Jennifer jingle-jangles to her usual washer, located closest to the back of the building, where three vending machines and a Pac-Man unit sit. Some nights, she'll play the game. Not tonight.
At the vending units, she spends six of her quarters on a Snickers bar and Mountain Dew. Jennifer is adamant that neither of her two boys have any food like this, although she herself has become partial to innumerable twelve-ounces of Dew and candy bars on a daily basis. Yes, she is finally putting on weight, an observation she makes every morning in the shower. These pounds are either “Mom” pounds, so dubbed by the other N.A. women, or the results of actually eating again. It's not like all she eats now are candy bars. She can finally down a six-inch sub, peanut butter sandwiches and morning eggs, feats unheard of when she'd binge and stay insomniac throughout the week. Daisy does not seem to mind. Buxom, she calls her. A withered rose, Jen considers herself. But not only does the weight make her feel guilty, so does her reliance on legal stimulants to live. Jennifer, oh, you hypocritical bitch. Better sugar and caffeine than you-know-what, she thinks to herself.
After switching her clothes to the dryer, she hears the bathroom door open. The thirty-nine year-old Samantha, less chic, tidy, tasty than she was in the running days, even with her hair did, her face made. The flesh on her face is different. She is gaunt, a skull. Sam stumbles to Jen as if the AC, purring overhead, is pushing her down onto the floor tiles. A smile … And her teeth – each jutting out at a new angle – are colorful.
“Jennifer?” Samantha, before a strong sniffle, “Jen, is that you?”
Jennifer turns around with a smile. “Samanthaaaa! Ah, how have you been?”
“Good, good, how you been?” asks Samantha, with a stumble on the how, a slur on the you and been.
“Good,” responds Jennifer.
Sam moves closer. She places her hands over the little girl’s ears.
“Hey, uh, you still seeing Matt for stuff? Matt Phomeborne?”
And upon hearing that name, Matt, the survival instincts return, the ping in her brain, the rise of hunger, a temptation to feed her disease. How many late night dials to him from the TracFone, now a piece of plastic beneath God-Only-Knows what cover of trash and rock in what landfill. Matt, as Sam says Matt, that name. Look how Jen fondles her keys and considers finding that land fill, diving in headfirst like a worm in chase of the flood. The pleasure of sex forgotten, pale in comparison to its release, the taste of a leaf, of nothing, time spent not watching blood blossom is wasted, connections without connections worthless, your boys, your mistakes, what connection could a Minecraft-addicted boy of five possibly have? Laprida, Cabrera, Soler, Suarez … Panties the smell of one-sixty-two hours, from walk to nod to buy to nod to shoot to nod to shoot to nod to buy, battles with lice born and bred on the heads of junkies. Hold. Still. Days of offering lungs, mouth, and lips for the reddest eyes, for fervent pupils, for cuddles with talons reaching under our skin. Remember, Jennifer, that night in the Granville summer home of your dad’s, Matt a ghost for two days, no other fix for miles, cold and sweatwet under your Beauty and the Beast blankets, you holding Sam and Sam holding you for heat, and she asked as you kissed her forehead, she asked, “Are we addicts are we addicts are we dying and rotting?” Out of the bathroom steps a little girl. Red scum is on the child's shirt in a number of places: around the neck, down the front, on the ends of her sleeves. Brown spiderleg stains descend from under the buttocks to her ankles, shading the pattern of Pooh, stuck in a honey jar, on her pants. There is no hair on her scalp but abrasions and scabs picked. And emanating from her body is the odor of clammy rooms claimed by cats. But yet, the child is smiling, an adorable ball of gayness, kissing a plastic doll’s ear, happily ignorant of her own miserable position in this world, her naivety keeping her sane.
“No,” Jennifer in response to Sam.
“Oh,” Sam, disappointed. “Okay uh, hope all is well. You got a lighter babe?”
Soapy water drains from a machine nearby. Samantha reaches into the crumpled diaper bag and pulls from it a smashed purple pack of Kool squares.
J Newark is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. He can be found online at www.jayofnewark.weebly.com.