Priscilla at Loose Ends

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(Photo: “Priscilla” Joseph Szabo, 1969)

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and I’m watching my friends  surf a last time in the season when this kid comes up and grabs the cigarette out of my hand.

“Are you crazy? Give it back–you’re about the age of my niece and she’s only ten!” 

But she inhales nice and easy like she’s a pro. I’m not sure what to make of it. I stand up and make a grab for it but she steps back. I take another tact.

“Who do you think you are? No one grabs a smoke out of a stranger’s hand. It’s rude. For you, also illegal.”

She smiles, and the thing is, it’s a charming smile despite the cigarette dangling between her small white teeth. It fits snug against the space between the two in front. I’m disgusted by her smoking but I wave her closer. She pulls up her pants and puts her hands on skinny hips.

“Okay. What’s your name?”

She blows out a thin stream and watches it slink between us as though it is a standard greeting from a little monster. Because I think that’s what she may be or at least tries to be.

“Priscilla.” She lifts her chin a notch and peers down at me. A smaller smile starts and stops.

The sound of her voice is smarmy, like she’s trying to impress me with her kid wondrousness. I would’ve thought she’d had a nickname to offer, but how do you nicely shorten a name like that?

“Well, Miss Pris, I’m Constance, Connie if you’re a friend of mine which you’re not. What are you doing out here, anyway? Where’s your mom or sister?”

Priscilla makes herself at home a few feet away from me, sits and smokes, her hair flying in the cooling breeze. She holds it between her thumb and index finger, handing it back to me. I examine it, take a short drag, and smash it into the sand.

“Well?”

She shrugs, shoulders held close to her ears for a few seconds, lips puckering. When they come down, she looks away. “Don’t have one or the other. I live-” she opens her arms and indicates the beach and surrounding park”-just here.”

I guffawed. “No, you don’t. You’re too clean for that. You’ve got shiny hair and nice clothes and a look in your eye that tells me you’re up to something.”

Priscilla takes off her red tennis shoes and digs up the sand with tanned feet, making the sand spray at me. It’s not silky sand like you’d want to lay on in a bikini. It’s grainy, cool and none too clean. She narrows her eyes at me.

“What are you doing here? Looking for a boy? Trying to be cool  with your Frye boots when it’s only sixty degrees out?”

I have an impulse to swat her like I would my niece but of course that can’t happen. “No, fool, I’m with my friends. They’re surfing out there. ” I point. “Don’t change the subject. Do you live around the neighborhood?”

She turns and gazes at the ocean so long I about give up and take off.

“I used to. In that big house at the end of the road.”

She pointed at a nearby two-story grey house with black shutters. It was large enough for two families, at least. There was a covered veranda that looked empty and a very long dock where a boat, a small yacht, really, was tied up.

“Hmmm, nice.”

“Yep,” she asserted and turned her attention to me again. “But Father lost all our money in a bad business deal and mother, well, she took off with her best friend, went to Hawaii, and never returned. So now father lives in a crummy little apartment. I have this narrow, cramped bedroom with a day bed, that’s what he calls it, which means it isn’t really a bed, at all. He works at a car place, you know, where they sell used cars.”

I sink down beside her, pull a last cigarette from the crumpled pack, and shake my head when she tries to reach for it. I light it. “So, what are you doing here alone?”

“My father gets home late so I come down here sometimes. I have this dream that I will find my mother.” She scrunches up her face and rubs her eyes, sniffs a little, the trains her big brown eyes on me. “I’m twelve, anyway.”

I get an odd sensation. The girl’s tone is dramatic, strange, too old for her age but I feel her sadness, too, so maybe her parents did have bad times. “I’m sorry. But you can’t just wander around here all afternoon. It’s not safe, Priscilla.”

“Oh, I’m fine. I know the area. The apartment is just a bus ride away. I have my crappy old cell phone.” She pats her pants pocket for reassurance.

I can see my friends coming in. They’ll wonder why this kid is hanging out and I have to be honest, though I’m worried for her, I want her to get lost. I have plans. I don’t want to feel responsible for a smart-alecky waif who steals cigarettes and who knows what else.

“Good,” I say, “because I have to meet up with my friends. We’re going to eat, then have a bonfire later.”

She looks at me imploringly.

“No, you can’t stay. Do you need money?”

“No, I’m good.” She shakes her head, then walks away.

I watch her as she ambles down the beach. She stops a couple times and looks back, then stops by a man in a straw hat, hands in her back pockets, her stance like a tough kid’s, which she sort of is. I’m about to turn away when I hear her laugh. She sits down by him. Alarm runs through me.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking.”

I turn to see who’s talking to me. A guy, medium tall, tan, scruffy and pleasant-smelling. Older than me. He looks like a runner, all trim in tank top and shorts, low-cut socks and sneakers.

“She stole my smoke this morning, too. She’s a brat, really, but what can you do? I can’t break her of her bad behaviors and dad is very busy these days. Pris is too smart, funny, and a little rougher since  mom left.” He looks down the beach and nods. “Looks like dad interrupted her stroll.”

I follow his gaze to Priscilla and the man. “Ah. Your dad. You live over there?” I point at the grey house.

“Yeah. I’m George. Come by later and join our barbecue. It’ll be a crowd like no other!”

Relief surges within me but I wave him off. He smiles the family’s magnetic grin and starts running. I head down to shore and catch up with my friends. I am sorry and scared for Priscilla but also stunned. That’s the only time I plan on being conned by a ten year old. But I worry it won’t be the last time she snags cigarettes or chats with strangers. I wonder if my friends want to stop by a barbeque tonight.

Staying Alive: an Interview

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“So, alright, you have me sitting in a long-past-its-prime chair in a monochrome room and I am supposed to be cooperating so that you can do the work that is in my best interest I am told, but really is all this necessary again? I didn’t agree to come here to talk to you. I don’t even know who you are. I had no choice. I came because it was the last-ditch chance, his way or exit center stage! ‘Get out’ he said! I mean, I nearly…”

Mim’s inhales deeply, then fills the air with a few staccato breaths. She is hurting everywhere, toes to brain.

Lane leans forward. “It seems you didn’t really want to go, not like that. And you came of your own will today.”

“Yes, well, it isn’t that simple. It was a matter of giving in or getting out. I mean, leaving the family. Like, settling for a life on the street, likely, can you imagine? I can’t. He says he wouldn’t throw me out–how would it look to his firm, our neighbors?– but, hey, it has happened to better women than me. I mean, I’ve seen them out there and they are so sad, terrifying. But, then, look at me!”

The clock on the wall is simple, inconspicuous, but the ticking is like a stuttering shout. Mim, her new client, shifts side to side then pulls her shoulders back, finger to mouth so she can chew off a hangnail.

Lane sits still. In the corner of her eye she can see through the window, rain slashing across the parking lot two stories below. Her office is warm but the fortyish woman across from her shivers, folds her arms tight over her white shirt. Lane notes her shoes. They are expensive grey and black flats, slim and scuffed.

“I mean, it’s not like this is the first time. This is number three. Pretty soon I’ll be able to write reviews of all the treatment centers in northwest Michigan. I wrote a column you know. Used to. There can’t be that many more rehabs for me to check out. All the same in the end.” She exhales a guttural sigh that sounds like disgust. “So, yes, I have arrived once more, this year in New Times Center on Lake Michigan. I have to say it looks good out there.” Her good leg bounces. “It would possibly look gorgeous through the magic filter of gin.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience at this. You’re sober five days. It will look better in a week, two weeks. You know this already.”

Mim looks at Lane hard a few seconds but the woman doesn’t blink. Here eyes are moist, very blue, quiet. She is so still Mim wonders how she does it, listening to all the rantings.  Does she go home and have a tall glass of wine while she eats on her deck? Does she have to build a fortress around her before she goes to work? Or is she someone who gets it, this special sort of hell?

“I wonder what I must look like from the other side of the room, from your chair. It looks no better than mine but it must be a heck of a lot more comfortable. I know this isn’t a sabbatical trip I’m on, not a resort where I can kick back and have a good old time. But it isn’t the road to paradise, either. I don’t have to love it, find it new or fascinating. Because it is not.” She wets her lips, pushes her short hair off her forehead. “It is NOT.”

“It’s another try at sobriety,” Lane says, “a chance taken.” She pauses. “On something more. For you.”

200236712-001The clock, rain, the steamy warmth of the room: they have a dreamy effect and  contour Lane’s mind. Mim’s words, edged with gold–“It is NOT”–line up across her mental screen, perilous, brash. All those negatives over the years have become like so many glass words Lane collects, then breaks apart and rearranges with each new client. They create something else or do not succeed.

She picks up her mug of tea. The client doesn’t respond, only watches rain streaking the window, eyes narrowing as though trying to focus on one thought, a moment, the certain feeling that might tell a whole story, the truth, in one sentence. Lane knows it is hard. She sees it takes all Mim can summon to sit there and be seen like this when her nerves feel like they have shark teeth and her heart is a chattering fool. Lane knows it is not yet anything like the promise of well-being the tri-fold brochure intimates. The woman is to smart to see how she runs in circles. Yet. There can be change. There is a stirring in Lane’s chest like a small door opening, then: a steady pulse of compassion.

“I do want life to be different. I want my son and daughter to race up to me on visiting day, feel absolutely sure I am going to be strong. Kind. That is what I want to be: so much kinder than this.”

Mim brought the tender finger to her lips again, but she took it into her other shaky hand. She laced all fingers together so they formed a basket she peered into as they rested in the hollow of her lap. “But I don’t know what I’ll find if I stay sober. I don’t have any idea what I will discover inside, what sort of real woman is there…”

Ticktickticktick. Time slinks away as rain’s counterpoint beats an ancient drum on earth and brick walls. Mim’s fingers unthreading, shoulders sagging forward. Her face is like an underside of the moon, not fortuitously revealed but marked by a terrain confused by misinformation and the inroads of experience. Alcoholic eyes, burning wells. An etching of persimmon scars marches up her jaw line to her temple, slides across her covered, crooked nose. Her left eye is still circled by the palest velvety purple. Her lips move but nothing is let go. Hands fly to mouth, to eyes, to face.

Lane sits forward. “Life will find you, has found you even now. All you need do is be present with it. You have time here, a safety net. I’ll be here while you puzzle out the clues.”

Outside, Lane catches sight of a bony, bespectacled young man looking in the narrow window of the office door. He cranes his neck to see Mim. Crutches in the corner. Cast on her leg. She sees him staring and turns away. He feels sorry for her, her face damaged like that but he is much more angry. He might have been her, he might have ended up like her, but no. Did. Not. Happen. With a forceful push of the wheels, he propels his wheelchair down the hallway.

Mim stares at the empty rectangle of glass. “Lane, look, I can’t promise anyone anything. I don’t even know if I will stay.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“You came today.”

“Yes. I did.”

Lane nods and almost smiles. Mim feels done. She stands up with difficulty. Lane watches her hop to the crutches, steady herself. When her client stands a bit taller she crosses her office and opens the door. The hum of life flows down the corridor, a stream of possibilities. Mim looks over her shoulder, eyes like two dark stones turning and shining in light, and steps forward. She wants to smell the wet earth without alcohol numbing her senses. She wants to smell the rain.

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The Table

 

After she left the place, she realized they never spoke. There had  been another free table when she arrived or Carlotta would have put her purse on the other chair and that would have been that. She knew how this place worked when business got heavy. She had a lot on her mind since arriving for work at the alterations shop. She didn’t need company, she needed a corner of solitude so she could think. Figure out what made sense in the scheme of things.

It had been four years working for Daniel and he was the same as when she started: blustery, sarcastic when he had the opportunity, and very efficient. And nice-looking, she had to admit, with longish hair that waved just enough over the tops of his ears that she had to catch herself from smoothing it down and back. That would have been the end of her. She was older than he, but he was the boss, no doubt about it. Still, they did well together, Carlotta working the register and phone, Daniel expertly handling alteration consults and the sewing machines. Business had increased the past year and he’d put a “Help Wanted” sign in the narrow window. It was a month before he liked an application and then he interviewed her twice, just as he had Carlotta.

Lanie was good. She could finish a pair of hems in less than half a minute, the jeans under sixty seconds. They required changing to a heavier needle and having patient, strong fingers. She knew all the fabrics backwards and forwards. If there was a rush order, rushing was like taking a stroll for her–she never sweated it, never complained. At least not to them. She was friendly enough to start but Carlotta noticed she kept her distance once she was in for the long haul. Lanie had the demeanor of a contented cat who had a bold work ethic, even when the shop was fraught with piled up orders and the phone ringing off the hook like a demon. Carlotta looked over her shoulder at the woman once and thought, Yeah, she’s like a panther, sleek and fast and quiet. It gave her pause. But five days a week the three of them worked in sync more often than not and the money came in.

It would have gone on like that if Carlotta hadn’t ever seen her at the back door, swapping cash for something in a packet every couple weeks, then more often. She knew it wasn’t buttons; Carlotta was not well-read or worldly like some people but she wasn’t naïve. But she had never seen this before, not right under her nose, so she waited. During the next two weeks Lanie met the same short, skinny guy with a dark baseball cap on backwards. Carlotta couldn’t see his face when she peered out back.

Lanie hissed at her when they passed on the way to the restroom this morning.

“What’re you always lookin’ at, Lotta? He’s my brother Tommy, I’m helping him out if you want to know, it is what it is.” She said this with the ease of one slightly annoyed neighbor to another, as if they were in conflict over a fence but could come to a reasonable understanding.

Carlotta shrugged and half-smiled, then helped out a customer. Soon after, she left for lunch, and the question on her mind was whether she should tell Daniel about her suspicions.

So when she got to the restaurant, she had a busy mind and she wanted to just eat and ponder. When the girl with the shiny long hair and pricey sunglasses looked around for an open spot, Carlotta tried to send her a thought to move away. Nonetheless, she zeroed in on Carlotta’s table as though it was critical to survival during an emergency landing, not lunch, so there had to be a place for her. Carlotta sighed and nodded at the empty chair. She was brought up to be a nice person, that was the problem. But they both had to eat.

The waitress came and went, the mediocre food put on the table and Carlotta sneaked looks at the girl on her phone. She was working that thing like crazy, like she was born ambidextrous, which Carlotta was not. She wondered if those hands made pretty things or wrote important documents or scrubbed toilets. No, not toilets, she could see that. They were manicured with a soft blush of color on each fingertip. That and her toenails probably cost half a paycheck. Once, the girl looked up from her small, undressed salad and stared through Carlotta, somewhere far beyond this buzzing, garlicky and syrupy spot that served breakfast all day long. Her eyes were a blue like melting icebergs; she blinked twice. Carlotta finished her pasta and picked up an old newspaper and thought about Lanie again.

The phone rang out like a rock song and the girl answered.

“What did they say?” Her voice was a restrained tremor. “He’s going into surgery? Now? Why? Oh!” Her hand flew to her mouth and she turned away from her dining partner. “I knew it wasn’t just the flu all this time…So, does he have, I mean…? Please. No.”

She tried to not listen, but caught fragments about lungs and breathing issues and how she had told him last month, no back in May, that he had to see a doctor. But he had said, no, it was that bug that wouldn’t shake loose. It made Carlotta wish she could turn this off, her interest in other people. Even strangers felt important.

The girl was quiet a long time after she hung up. Carlotta rustled the pages as she sipped her soda and looked at her watch. Five minutes left, then back to the shop. She read the comics and chuckled aloud. That was a mistake. The girl rocked forward. Tears started to run down her ivory-fine cheeks and she turned to face the wall, the salad pushed aside. Carlotta folded the paper and sat there, stumped. Was she supposed to say something? Should she ask her how she could help? She wanted to do the right and good thing, something that told the girl she saw her sitting there and was sorry. Was it her father entering a hospital? Lover that lived on the east coast but who she saw not long ago? People had those relationships, how, she didn’t know. Or maybe it was her best friend. She had all these questions and none were appropriate to ask. Curiosity could be so inconvenient, embarrassing, really.

Carlotta stood, checking her watch. She had to go talk to Lanie this afternoon. It would be uncomfortable, even hard, but not that hard. She grabbed her purse and saw her table partner smash the thin, white napkin to her face, staunching the tears. Carlotta hesitated, then lay her wide palm on the girl’s boney, terribly young shoulder, just for an instant, long enough. The girl turned around but the older woman was exiting, her stride long and full of resolve.

“Thanks…” the girl whispered behind a cascade of hair. She sat straighter, smoothed her forehead and resettled her sunglasses, then picked up her phone once more.

(Note: First posted in unrevised form on Patricia Ann McNair’s blog which includes journal prompts. This photo was captioned “They never spoke” and this was my response. Thanks again, Patricia Ann.)