01
Dec
08

the Sequence

1.

“Attention shoppers,” intones the smooth, baritone voice over the loudspeaker at Foster’s Supermarket, “Summer’s almost over and if you want to fire up those barbecue grills one last time, we’ve got specials on flank steak, just $2.98 a pound! Bone-in pork ribs- now get this- 98 cents a pound! Chicken breasts…”

There aren’t many customers in the store to hear the voice, and the voice hardly registers with Phillip Barrow, pushing a slate-colored, flat-bottomed cart through the empty aisles in a pattern he’s memorized over the last nine years, though much more consistently the last four. He sometimes imagines a Family Circus-style dotted line being formed behind his feet as he goes. Unlike the Family Circus kids, though, Phil wastes no motion, the dotted line never crosses over itself, the shopping list practically encoded in his DNA by now from twice-weekly trips here, every Monday and Friday at 8:00am. He parks his little Toyota pickup in back of the store, grabs the buggy from the storeroom, and gets to business, fully expecting to one day be able to follow the trail of his own boots’ tread, worn into the linoleum floor.  

The items find their way onto his cart, all in This. Specific. Order.:

Four heads of iceberg lettuce, a cardboard box top that he fills with tomatoes, yellow onions in a bag made of red plastic mesh. On his way from the produce section back to the cold storeroom he grabs an industrial-sized can of dill pickle slices (Friday only),  three one-pound blocks of butter, two 64-slice packages of cheese, and finally, three frost-covered boxes of hamburger patties.

The only hiccup in the pattern occurs when he sometimes instinctively begins to turn the cart toward the baked-goods aisle for hamburger buns, as he used to do before he started baking his own eighteen months ago.

He gives a nod hello to Antoine as Antoine finishes his sales pitch over the intercom with, “We thank you for shopping with us today at Foster’s,” hangs up the receiver, and heads toward the back for a cigarette.    

Phil lifts it all into the back of his pickup, lifting with his legs, more carefully than he used to, needing a few more trips from the cart to the truck bed than he once did. He’s thirty-eight years old, but had felt as good as twenty-one until four years ago. That was when the road forked before him, and he took the wrong path. Not that this is such a bad path. It would be more accurate to say he failed to take the right one.

Phil had been with Lisa since he was twenty and she was twenty-two. She had just graduated college and taken a job as a production assistant with one of the local TV news programs. They stayed together long after much of the excitement had worn off, but had built a good life together and were reluctant to change things. Besides, hadn’t they already come a long way in fourteen years? He thought so. When they met, he was a maintenance worker at Wyandot State University, the small college in town. Nine years later he owned and operated Lucky’s, a little bar and grill that didn’t make them rich, but one that had regular customers and one that he had become proud of. Lisa, on the other hand, hadn’t come as far as she thought she should. She had advanced all the way to news director at the station, but had passed up a lot of better offers over the years, opting instead to stay put with Phil and be glacially promoted from within. One day, however, a much better offer came from a station in Pittsburgh. She tried to convince Phil to come with her, but he stared hard at the loan from the bank he took to start Lucky’s just five years before, and couldn’t find a way to make it work without losing money. In the entire time since he opened Lucky’s, the longest stretch among the handful of days he had missed work was the three days he took off to drive a U-Haul truck two hundred fifty miles to Pittsburgh and help Lisa unpack in her new home.      

He returns the cart to the loading bay in back of the store, where Antoine snuffs his cigarette onto the sole of his unlaced boot and says, “Here, I’ll get that for you. See you Monday.”

For Phil, it’s all another routine in a life filled with them. There are times when his routines are the only thing holding him up. Foster’s lets him buy on credit, the old way where they just bill you for your tab at the end of the month, but he could drive across town to stock his kitchen’s refrigerator at a bigger supermarket and save money. Or, like he used to most weeks, he could just order those items from the delivery guy who brings him brown wax paper bags sealed full of frozen french fries and onion rings, (there’s even an additional delivery guy now who brings him heavy bags of bread mix and flour for the buns), and save time. Though his routine once inside Foster’s is taut and efficient, his trips themselves are an inefficient way for him to run his business. But it’s just his way, a paradox Phil never bothers to acknowledge, if he even notices.   

As he parks, the Toyota’s tires crunch on the dirt and gravel patch behind Lucky’s, and he gets out and takes all the groceries in, waiting until he’s finished to go back out and tap on the driver-side window of Sebastian’s car, a late-80’s Mustang LX hatchback whose dull blue finish must have oozed shiny cool in its prime. Sebastian shuffles reluctantly back into the conscious world as he gets out, and says, “You should have just woke me up, Boss. I don’t mind helping you take the food inside.”

“You’re not even supposed to be here for another hour. I’m not going to make you haul all this shit around when you don’t have to.”

“Is more easy this way. I gotta drive both my brothers to work, then I got no place to go for two hours. I can be doing something here, maybe get paid an extra hour if you find something for me to do.” Sebastian’s speech oscillates, sometimes in mid-sentence, between a native speaker’s mastery of English and awkward phrases that sound as though they were made up of words selected from a hopper or a computerized random word generator. 

“Okay, but let’s not make a habit of it.”

Sebastian is midway through chopping a third onion in the kitchen when Phil’s cell phone nearly vibrates off the cutting board, heading for the counter’s edge. Phil unwraps a pound of butter, then gingerly puts it in a heat-scarred metal pan sitting on the corner of the grill. He reaches his palm out under the counter, scooping up the phone just as it falls off. He holds the phone away from his face to look at the display, ignoring a growing need to get some reading glasses. Phil vaguely recognizes the number, but ignores the call without being perfectly certain of the caller. Even with the extra hand in the kitchen from Sebastian, he dares not fall behind. The beer truck is a few minutes away from making a delivery, after all, and any disruption in the routine might make it tough to get the doors open by eleven for the lunch rush.  

 

At five, Phil makes plans to head home to nap for a few hours before returning to Lucky’s at ten to make sure all is well. With the few college kids willing to cross town to go to Lucky’s likely not back to school yet in this, the second weekend of August, Phil doesn’t expect a wild Friday night. But weekend nights especially, Phil is a fixture. Chide Sebastian though he might for coming to work when he didn’t have anyplace else to go, Phil has been guilty of the same thing for quite some time. His devotion to the place is cemented by the fact that he has risked -and lost- everything to keep it running.

He leaves his truck sitting out back, electing to walk the six blocks home to 78 1/2 Orange Street, the garage apartment he and Lisa moved into to save money years ago when Lucky’s was a much less reliable source of income, much of which he put right back into the bar anyway. When he first opened, the neighborhood, nestled between the fringes of old downtown and an industrial district that might scare away customers, was much less of a commercial entity. The space at 65 Plum Street that he leased had been a Greek restaurant that didn’t make it two years, but the proprietor, Thomas Zygouras, remembered Phil from the times he would stop by for a gyro or lamb platter on the way to pick up plumbing supplies for the college, and sold him the kitchen equipment at close to cost.

When Lucky’s opened, the adjoining spaces were vacant, but that was before the town underwent a sea change. This town, situated midway between Cleveland and Toledo, had been crippled when the Kubikza auto parts plant closed. Since then, the town has become a hub for the region’s antiques business, a wave of good fortune that, while unlikely to provide any benefit lasting longer than a decade or so, has slowed the town from dying completely. The resulting surge was strong enough to spread commerce even to an outlying post like Plum Street, where Lucky’s was now occupied on one side by a black barbershop that funnels lunch customers to Lucky’s, and on the other side, incongruously, a boutique where a lady that seldom speaks to him sells homemade jewelry. The industrial businesses are slowly retreating to other parts of town, since the city passed new zoning regulations designed to keep charming little businesses like the jewelry shop opening up downtown, but Phil still draws customers from Atlas, a machine shop that’s trying to hold its ground. He feels a carmeradrie with the guys from Atlas, suspecting that once the city, with its ever-changing definition of what qualifies as a desirable business, gets rid of the greasy mechanics, their next target will likely be unshaven bartenders.    

Once home, he goes into a desk drawer, displacing stacks of old electric bills in search of a dog-eared green notepad. He finds it under a three year-old bank statement, then checks a phone number written inside the front cover against the one in his phone. It’s Jeff. Good old, never-leave-a-message-so-I-gotta-look-for-your-number-because-I-forgot-to-put-it-in-my-damn-phone-the-last-time-we-talked-three-years-ago Jeff. Calling him back will have to wait.

It’s a long night at Lucky’s, contrary to Phil’s expectation, and he keeps drawing beers long after the kitchen closes. When things align themselves right, Lucky’s can still bring in some money. Phil figures he’d better not get too excited. Water always finds its own level, he’s learned, and there are bound to be a few slow Saturdays forthcoming to tilt the scales back to just-scraping-by.

Once home, he casts a longing eye toward the couch in the blue flickering glow of the television and its late rerun of Saturday Night Live, the sleep he’ll find here his reward for a long day of hard work. He brushes his teeth, pausing at the mirror to consider shaving the black and gray goatee on his chin. A quick swipe of the clippers would bring it to the same length as the rest of his stubble. While looking at his face he notices tiny wrinkles, little tributaries, forming in the arcs of violet skin beneath his eyes. The physical work he does has kept his arms, shoulders, and chest thick and knotty, even as he begins to soften and broaden a bit across the middle. He pulls the string to the right of the medicine cabinet to kill the harsh light of the bare 12-inch fluorescent bulb and the accompanying menacing hum of the fixture’s ballast. As Phil succumbs to sleep in front of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, he feels a not-insignificant amount of empathy for the character, rudely roused from eons of suspended animation and thrust into an unrecognizeable modern world. 

An hour later he awakens to take a leak. Rather than face the light again, he reaches out to find the toilet with his sockfoot, feeling for it like a big Braille cell on the tile floor. He panics a little when the throaty sound of his stream hitting the water is interrupted by the hiss of its hitting porcelain. His eyes adjust to the dark just in time to finish and he stares for a second at the pale halo of the toilet seat surrounded by blackness, then eschews the couch in favor of his bed.  

 

2.

Though infrequently attended to, Phil’s friendship with Jeff Geusig spanned many years, having grown up four years apart in this town Phil seldom left. They had gone to school together, but hadn’t become friends until they were co-workers at the college. They gravitated to one another as the only two maintenance employees in their twenties, and seemingly the only two graduates of John Bricker High to stay in town beyond graduation. They’d grab a beer after work before heading out for a double date with Lisa and Jeff’s wife Beth, on nights when Jeff and Beth could find a sitter for Annabelle. The four were more likely to grill burgers on the back porch than stay out all night.

Jeff grew restless after 28 years in the same town. Worried that Annabelle would grow to never leave their little college town either, he and Beth packed up and left for Colorado. They had still exchanged Christmas cards until Lisa left, and Phil and Jeff still spoke on the phone, though with increasing rarity. It shouldn’t be so hard to find the time, but three days have passed already since Jeff called. 

While walking to Lucky’s, Phil dials the phone to interrupt this latest bout of silence, and the two catch up for a while, though Phil notices he has little to offer in the way of news. Has that little happened in the last three years? He scans his memories, frantically but fruitlessly, for something more exciting than baking his own buns until Jeff changes the subject.

“Well, Phil, on to the real reason I called.”

“I called you.”

“Yeah, but you were returning my call.”

“If you want to split hairs, okay,” Phil laughs.

“At any rate, Annabelle isn’t real happy in Boulder. She wants to transfer. And I think she’s going to be heading your way.”

“Define ‘your way’, Jeff. Columbus?”

“No. I mean across town. At Wyandot State.”

“Why would she choose here? Does she even remember living here?”

“Yeah, she was seven when we left. She never wanted to leave Ohio. I guess she’s homesick.”

“Well, a trip out here will cure that. See if you can make the case for literally any other school, because things have changed since you all left, and not necessarily for the better. Everybody’s left since Kubikza closed.”

“You’re thinking of the town, not the school. Apparently they’ve got a good journalism department, and that what she thinks she wants, so…just saying you may run into her.”

“I doubt it. I hardly leave Lucky’s anymore, and we don’t get many college kids here. They’ve got their own places that aren’t filled with crusty old bastards, and anyways, I doubt she’d even remember me.”

“Are you kidding? It’s not like she was a baby when we left, Phil; she remembers a lot about living there. That’s why she wants to go back.”

“Jeez, I just can’t believe she’s already old enough for college. I mean, kind of makes me feel old.”

“What, like I don’t feel old having a twenty-one year-old kid?”     

“Feeling old is nothing new for you. Remember, you said you felt old when she turned five and started kindergarten.”

“Yeah, the two things in my life that made me feel oldest were my parents dying and Annabelle growing up. Mom and Dad were like this buffer zone between me and death, and Annabelle created this barrier between me and birth. It was weird not being the youngest generation anymore, you know? And then, being of the oldest generation in my family. I had just hoped there would be more rungs on the mortality ladder.”

“Just three, huh? Shit. Well, if it makes you feel any better, not having kids hasn’t kept me from aging.”

“Yeah, that’s a real nice consolation. Just a warning, those aches and pains you’re waking up with aren’t going to get better over the next four years.”

“Thanks for the heads-up. Getting old sucks, huh?”
“Hey, beats the alternative. Listen, call me if you see her, would you?”

“Okay, but if I don’t see her, let’s not make it three years between calls next time.”

“I got a feeling it’ll be less time than that.”

 

Phil closes his phone and turns his key in the back door lock of Lucky’s. He hears Sebastian’s car door slam behind him and shakes his head, chuckling.

“Come on in, Sebastian, I’ll find something for you.”

Minutes later, Sebastian and Phil stand the bags of flour and mix up next to the table in the kitchen as Phil prepares to bake. It’s a tiring process even for the initiated, expending as much energy in trying to set the bags down gingerly as is required to haul them all the way in from the storage room. Then Phil cuts open the bags at their tops and scoops carefully levelled-off cupfuls into the large metal mixing bowl, the mix first, then the flour. He counts the ratio out under his breath, three mix to one flour, to remind himself as he goes, solemnly respectful of the finality of a scoopful going into the mixer: once the tiny particles of flour and mix so much as touch each another inside the bowl, even before the mixing begins, they are inextricably bound together. Once the elements intermingle, you could no more remove even a quarter-cup of excess flour than Indians could reassemble a Rangoli sand painting after the wind has smeared it.

Once the counting is finished, he puts the bowl into the cradle of the mixing machine, then lowers a motor casing with a large metal corkscrew that dips into the bowl, penetrating the pile of flour and mix inside. He turns the motor on, and after only a few turns of the corkscrew, the flour and mix are indistinguishable from each other, the white and beige mixed into a monochromatic pale aggregate of the two. In his hand he breaks up a small brick of yeast, then sprinkles the fragments into the bowl as the metal arm curls around the bowl like the lateen of a sailboat coming about, and the fragments disappear. Water in the bowl soon follows, then Phil, holding the pliable blade of a small white spatula, reaches his hand inside the bowl, defiant of years of industrial safety advice gleaned from seventh-grade shop class all the way to working at the college. He deftly dodges the corkscrew to scrape the sides of the bowl and ensure a thorough mix, knowing subconsciously that one day he’ll be distracted in this chore; the phone will ring, Sebastian will call out to him for something, he’ll be daydreaming about Lisa, and the corkscrew will swing back around to his side of the mixing bowl and crush his hand.

The mixing finished, Phil removes the bowl from its cradle and sets it on the counter. Using a bigger spatula blade, he cuts a chunk of dough from the top of the bowl and slaps it down on the Formica. He contemplates the small slab, eyeballing it, then cuts another sticky ribbon of dough from the bowl to join it. He’s been trying to train his eyes to measure the dough, so he doesn’t have to get the scale out. That’s about the right size, so he dusts the counter with a palmful of flour and rolls over the slab and ribbon with a large wooden pin. It’s physical work; his shoulders and neck burn by the time he’s finished. Ten years from now, he’ll barely be able to lift his arms over his head. He rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, transferring his weight from back to front, over and over. He’s been going through socks faster than ever since learning to bake, wearing holes in the heels and rending the rest of the bottom of the sock to wispy mesh, like gauze or cheesecloth.

Two hours later, his freezer is stacked with metal trays lined with four-by-six rows of doughballs. He then covers the trays with clear plastic bags, prophylactics to protect the two dozen doughballs from the cold. Later in the week they’ll go from the freezer to the proofer, then the oven. It’s enough to get him through the week in most cases. He’s only run out a couple of times in the last year and a half, and no one commented when he served burgers on store-bought buns from Foster’s. Phil’s feelings were a little hurt both times, that no one missed the fruit of his labor in its absence, but the truth is that he goes through the whole unnecessary routine for his own sanity, the long series of tasks one more thing to occupy his time, all part of the sequence, the pattern, the algorithm.         

Phil heads home early at 8 o’clock, wanting to take advantage of these last few Mondays before pro football season returns and things get busy again. The college game starts up again next week, overshadowed in these parts by a late-summer surge from the Indians. No one ever seems too concerned with the D-3 ball being played across town at Wyandot State. The college exists as an entity largely independent of the goings-on here on Plum Street. 

Quiet. The walk home contrasts with the morning walk to Lucky’s. No phone, no sun, dwindling light on a balmy August dusk illuminated by lightning bugs and the bluish glow of corner halogen streetlamps kicking on with an industrial-strength version of his bathroom light’s hum.   

It’s a mistake, going home this early. He brought the night’s stillness with him into this garage apartment with only half an address. The TV can only keep him company for so long. He’ll find no sleep on the couch tonight; the silence is an unwelcome companion he dares not turn his back on. Once in bed, he turns on a bedside fan and hopes the low buzz will crowd out his thoughts, will grow steadily in his mind like a cancer that eats loneliness, consumes solitude. No luck. He reaches down and pulls a crumpled t-shirt from under the bed and thinks of Lisa. He has seldom been one to use pornography; at age fifteen he masturbated often to his dad’s old Playboys until it dawned on him that his dad was doing the same thing with those magazines. The unsettling thought of his father, disheveled, trying to do it quietly, his glasses sliding down on the bridge of his nose and his brow glistening with sweat, made the glossy pages feel somehow haunted. Nowadays it’s the age difference between he and the models that makes the magazines so unappealing to Phil. He bought a Playboy not long after Lisa left and learned the centerfold’s too-recent date of birth in one of those “turn-ons/turn-offs” interviews. Reading about his lust objects’ dreams to one day be an example for children the world over had always been difficult enough for Phil to reconcile; having to justify thinking dirty thoughts about a girl born in 1984, when he was in high school, made it impossible. He recently noticed he has reached the age where he’s almost exclusively attracted to ladies he once would have described as MILFs. There’s now no such qualifying acronym necessary; he wants a peer.

And so he thinks of Lisa at this time, always Lisa. He hears her voice as he imagines himself looking down once again over the expanse of her bare back, rocking back and forth.

You wanna try it the other way?

Sure, turn over.

No, I mean the other, other way.

The climax jolts him, making him arch his back as he staunches the flow with the t-shirt. The joy is fleeting, however, washed over suddenly by the realization that he is still alone, and this too comes with a jolt. Fourteen years of mixing together; there’s no way to extract her completely. But the exercise did its job, and he’s off to sleep at last. The back and forth of the day sometimes needs to spill into the night before his day is complete. 

   

3.

 

Walking home to take his customary late-afternoon break from Lucky’s, Phil notices a handful of his neighbors and their kids standing in the street next door to his house. Instantly, he scans the neighbors’ place for black smoke, suddenly worrying that he shouldn’t have canceled his renters’ insurance last year to have one less check to write each month. No smoke rises from any windows or roofs, and the huddled neighbors don’t have the alerted looks of imminent danger. He approaches, and a young father he’s rarely spoken to before raises his chin to initiate conversation. Phil thinks the man’s name may be Chris.

“Stand behind my car for a second, I’m going to try to flush him out.” Phil doesn’t know what the man means, but he gets behind the back right wheel of a Jeep Liberty parked on the wrong side of the street and tries to peek around the car to find what is being flushed out. In the neighbors’ yard is a brown rabbit sniffing around the flower bed in a somewhat defensive stance. Chris takes a few cautious steps toward the rabbit and the rabbit lets him get pretty close before taking off and stopping ten feet away. Chris’ little daughter squeals with delight at the excitement.

“I think I can get him. He’s not that fast for a rabbit.”

The rabbit, while slower than average, is still a rabbit, and more than Chris can handle. The pattern continues for ten or fifteen minutes, the rabbit running just far enough to get out of Chris’ reach, until finally it loses patience with this game and runs underneath a house a few doors down. The neighbors console themselves as they disperse to their own homes.

“Well, at least he hadn’t missed many meals. He didn’t have that wiry look of a wild rabbit.”

“It looked like he must have belonged to someone. They’ll come looking before long, maybe he’ll respond to his owner.” 

“Hopefully there’s enough warmth under that house for him to stay the night. Good thing this has been such a mild autumn.”

It is November now, though the leaves seemed to take forever to turn this year, and even the need for a jacket is an intermittent one in this uncharacteristically warm season. The Indians’ hot streak was all for naught, but a surprising Browns squad and the top-ranked Buckeyes have filled the void with optimism. And later that night, when a familiar face, changed somewhat, shows up at Lucky’s to order a hamburger and onion rings from Sebastian at the bar, there’s no doubt in Phil’s mind who it is.

She’s picking at a piece of transparent tape stuck to the wall in a diagonal stripe. There’s a little right triangle of colored paper underneath the tape, the last remaining vestige of a long-gone local band, Star Pilot. Phil used to let them hang their flyers in Lucky’s, even though he didn’t have room for them to play. He thought the drummer a pretty friendly guy, and besides, a four-hour set of cover tunes across town posed little threat to Lucky’s customer base.

This grown-up version of Annabelle looks odd to Phil. Hair looks a little darker than he remembers. Same wide-set eyes, broad nose, and that rooftop of a mouth, a soft-lipped chevron turned upside-down. Even as a girl, her mouth seemed to naturally gravitate to the shape of a frown. It was the corners, the way the line of her mouth kept on going, curling at the edges, even after her lips ended. Seeing her now, though, it strikes Phil how much she once looked like a Mr. Potato Head with these outsized facial features that she has finally grown into.  Though Annabelle hasn’t always been beautiful, she’s always had an interesting face, one worthy of analysis. It will be weeks before Phil can evaluate her sexually, something he usually does instantly upon seeing any woman. The reason lies only partially in her status as his good friend’s daughter, or even in Phil’s memories of her as a child. He will ultimately dismiss the possibility of sex on the grounds that relations with a girl so full of youth, energy, beauty and vitality would be akin to a thirsty legionnaire crawling in the desert in search of water, then having his jaw broken by the blast of a firehose. The Bible says something about old wineskins cracking and bursting when filled with new wine, and Phil believes it.

They talk a bit. Annabelle remembers a lot about those old times. Something about her gives Phil the impression that she even remembers things the grownups thought she hadn’t heard at the time. And why not? As an only child, Annabelle made a hobby out of eavesdropping. Watching the way adults walked, talked and interacted was a primer course, and she always carried herself like a little adult. It would prepare her at a young age to have that most adult of characteristics: a secret.

“Are you going to be open Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah, that’s a pretty big night around here. Kind of like a homecoming for people who are in town for the holiday. Tell your folks hi for me when you’re at home.”

“I’m actually staying here over the holiday. I’ve got finals two weeks after we get back, and I don’t want to get unfocused.”

“Doesn’t the campus close over the break? It’ll just be you and the foreign kids.”

“International students.”

“Whatever.”

“I was thinking that if you weren’t busy, maybe we could have Thanksgiving dinner together.” If it were many other people making this invitation, Phil would likely think them overly aggressive, pushy even. But he tries not to act too taken aback by her offer, assuming instead that that’s the way people Annabelle’s age conduct themselves socially. He imagines that in the world of instant messaging and such that is rapidly passing him by, people are just naturally more expedient in getting to the point. Besides, he didn’t have any plans anyway. His surrogate family is all here at Lucky’s. Annabelle could just be a cousin or niece: one of his few female relatives in this surrogate family, and the only young one. 

“I don’t guess I’ll lose much business if I just close for lunch. You got a deal.”

“Your place or mine? I live off-campus.”

“Better make it mine. Much as I hate to get the place ready for company, I probably need to be close by Lucky’s for when we open.” Phil’s devotion to his work never takes a holiday, it seems.

 

Annabelle shows up at Phil’s on Thanksgiving Day lugging a backpack heavy with canned goods. From three of the cans, the green beans, fried onions and cream of mushroom soup, she makes a green bean casserole. Also springing from her backpack are cylinders of candied yams, cream corn, and cranberry sauce, the last of which is served in the shape of the can on a saucer. Phil carves the turkey, and they eat as the Lions succumb the the Packers on TV.

After dinner she puts on his jacket, a rather presumptuous display of comfort, familiarity, and a little click draws her attention, the sound of two little earphones tumbling out of his jacket’s pocket onto the floor. She saunters a few steps toward Phil, teasing him with an exaggerated runway strut, putting one foot directly into the centerline of her body with each step as she sings, “Let’s see what Phil has on his iPod.” She holds the earbuds in her left hand and with her right, traces the wire into the pocket, like a striptease.

“Listen, I’d really rather you didn’t-“

“Well! What do we have here?” She says with the mock surprise of a television lawyer, a real Southern gentleman, putting the final piece of his argument into place. “Why, this is no iPod at all! Should this be in a time capsule or something?”

“Oh, great,” he sighs as she reveals his battle-worn Sony Discman and brandishes it in front of him. “All right, do your worst.”

“I’m not going to give you a hard time.” Her inflection at the end of this statement indicates that she’s still in teasing mode. She goes from little girl to mock-serious, the TV lawyer again during a crucial cross-examination as she stares him down and asks, “So, does this thing work?”

“Like a fucking champ.” Indignant. Phil’s disbelief at Annabell’s disbelief in this trusted bauble is only partially an act.

She opens it up and snorts at the Soundgarden CD inside.

“You know, this CD is practically older than I am.”

“There’s a lot of stuff in here that’s older than you. And that’s more an indictment of you than anything else, by the way.”

“Yeah, but Soundgarden? Come on. Phil, you do know there’s been lots of music made since 1992, right? Some of it’s even pretty good.”

“Don’t knock Louder Than Love, Miss Know-it-All. It’s a great album, and if you don’t know that, that’s your problem.”

“Relax, Phil, I’m kidding. I like tons of old music that’s way older than this. All the old Motown stuff: James Brown, the Supremes, Otis Redding..”

“Otis Redding was on Stax.”

“Whatever.”

Exploring the Discman with her finger, she flips it over for the greatest shock of all.

“Oh my god. So you’ve had this thing since before 2000.”

“How do you- ohhhh. Yeah. That.” He sees she’s pointing to the faded Gore-Lieberman campaign sticker on the back, tracing her finger around the sticker’s circle edge.

“So, where did you get this sticker?”

“Lisa got it, actually. The station sent her to Cleveland to do a story when Gore stopped through to speak to some labor unions and she brought that back as a souvenir.”

“So did you vote for him?”

“Who?”

“Al Gore. God, I would have loved to be able to vote for him.”

“What is students’ deal with him? Trust me, he wasn’t that impressive the first time around. Look, irregardless-“

“‘Irregardless’ is not a word.”

“Whatever.”

“So you didn’t vote for him.”

“Hell, I didn’t vote at all.”

“And in 2004?”

“Nope.”

“In Ohio? Oh, you fucking motherfucker!” Her mouth is agape with anger, but she quickly changes the subject. “If you’ll clear the dishes, I’ll make us some tea.”

 The two sit and talk as they sip the bitter tea out of coffee mugs, but twenty minutes after their tea is finished, there is a long, heavy pause and neither can remember what they were talking about before the pause. Only the sound of each person breathing fills the room. There is no football game, no dishes. No world outside this room. The two of them seemingly on the same silent wavelength. After several minutes, Phil breaks off a stare at the porcelain cup to look at Annabelle:

“I think you might have played a trick on me.”

She bursts into uproarious laughter. Her joy is contagious, and Phil isn’t even mad at her. How can he be? He can see the air being moved by her laughter, the suddenly visible sound waves reaching out to him in slow motion like ripples in a pond. He shrugs off whatever apprehension could be expected from someone dosed with drugs without their consent; those ripples are wrapping around him and they’re all benevolence, baby, the best intentions of this kid that just wanted to show him a good time; how could he possibly be mad at that? Sebastian’s capable of watching Lucky’s tonight. Don’t worry about it.

Hours pass. Phil and Annabelle are lying on the floor staring up at a sheet he thumbtacked to the ceiling two hours ago. NFL logos from the 1970’s adorn the white background, and the two are wrapped up in the fancy writing the 49ers used to use, numbers and letters together at the same height, grand like Corinthian columns. He rolls onto his side to face Annabelle and takes some of her hair between his thumb and forefinger.

“What color is your hair anyway?”

“Naturally? Hmmm…kind of a mousy blond. It’s light in some places, dark in others. I always hated that. I started dyeing it last fall so it would all be one color.”

“It didn’t work.”

“What?…Did I miss a spot? That doesn’t seem possible.”

“Don’t you see here?” She turns her head toward him and he holds the brandy-colored hair in front of her face. “It’s not all one color. Nothing is one color. The light hits your hair in different places, at different angles. Every square micrometer of surface reflects the light differently. Forget square micrometers, even; there’s no unit of measure small enough to have its own color all to itself, unless you cordoned off a piece of real estate on your hair that was as small as a light particle. I mean, holy shit! There are literally millions, millions! of shades here, and that’s just what I’m holding here between these two fingers. If it was all one color, it’d look like one solid monochrome block, like an Atari game.”

She giggles at the word “Atari”, and they sit without moving for a long while, her hair still in his fingers. Annabelle reaches out and turns Phil’s hand so his thumb faces her.

“Where did this scar come from? It looks like an earthworm.”

The scar going from the base of his thumb to his wrist on the back of his hand, is about an inch and a half long, and does look like an earthworm, with its coral color, many tiny ridges, and dull reflective sheen. Phil stirs a bit and musters his consciousness once again to tell the story. It’s getting easier to think clearly again; their hallucinatory state is beginning to dry out, crust and crack at the edges, revealing the conscious world that had been lurking underneath all along. 

“I got that a couple years ago. These three underage guys, college kids probably, were in Lucky’s with these homemade-looking fake IDs. I wasn’t about to serve them. Just an insult, trying to pass these IDs off on me like I’ve never seen one before. So of course, they got pissed off and made a big scene on their way out.”

“Probably happens all the time.”

“No, not really. You’ve been in Lucky’s; there’s not that many college kids there. We’ll get a couple every now and then, and they’re always these teenagers that think we’re so hard up for customers that we can’t afford to turn them away.” 

“Well, I like Lucky’s.”

“Thanks. Anyway, I sent Sebastian home ahead of me after we closed, and after I locked up, the same three guys approached me on the way out to my truck. They acted like they were going to rob me, but when one of them grabbed my shirt, I dunno, grabbed his hand, just as a reflex. So they all panicked. One of them hit me in the back of the head, fucking hard, but I got right back up and acted like I wanted to fight, even though my legs were all jiggly. They all got real scared and ran off. So for a few seconds I’m thinking about how badass I am, intimidating three dudes at once, when my ass starts itching like crazy. I reached back to scratch it, and all I felt was wet. The itch had come from the blood trickling down my back. My shirt and my pants were just soaked.”

“Gross.”

“Yeah, apparently one of them hit me with a bottle, and they all scattered when they saw how bad I was bleeding. Somehow the bottle cut my hand too, though I didn’t notice that till the next day. Must have got my hand on the way down. You know, I’ve probably got a scar just like it on the back of my head.”

He touches her cheek, then stands.

“My stomach hurts. I’m going to take some Pepto and go to bed. You’re welcome to stay, that couch is a sleeper.”

“You should maybe wait another hour before going to bed. You may have nightmares.”

“It’s okay. I never remember my dreams.” 

   

4.

Phil awakens to the sound of a screen door closing. He walks out to the kitchen to make coffee and sees Annabelle already there, pulling breakfast for them out of a bag.

“I thought you had left when I heard the door.”

“No, I was coming back. Here, I got us breakfast. Bacon egg sandwich?”

He nods wordlessly as she hands him the sandwich wrapped in paper.

“What do you think about a road trip today?”

“Impossible. I can’t leave Lucky’s again.”

“Do you remember the time when we all went to Canada?”

“How do you remember that? You can’t have been more than five.”

“I was six. It was the year before we moved to Colorado.”

“Look, there is no way I can go to Canada today. Sorry.”

“Don’t make me steal your truck.”

“Take it. Just bring it back.”

“That’s not the way it works. If we leave now, we can be back by ten. That gets you several hours at Lucky’s. This is doable. Let’s go.” Her insistence is starting to make Phil uncomfortable. He’s supposed to be the adult here, but he knows he’s about to give in. Reluctantly he concedes and he finishes his sandwich in the car.

On the road, she asks, “Why the name Lucky’s, anyway?”

“I felt lucky when I started it. I was feeling independent for the first time ever. Quitting WSU was the best thing I ever did, plus Lisa and I were still together. Who cares? Names don’t make much difference. When I was in elementary all the kids called me Wheelbarrow. Nobody likes their name when they’re a kid, but I resented Barrow for the longest time because of some dumb joke.”

“When I was in tenth grade, some other girls spread a rumor that I had gone down on Connor Barnes and scraped him with my teeth. For my last two years of high school, I was known as Annabelle Lecter. The worst part is that it wasn’t true. I never even kissed anyone until the summer after junior year, and even then it was a guy from a different town.” Phil nods in sympathy.

“Of course, the guy could have cleared it all up, but what guy is going to dispute a story in which he gets head? Sorry, but we’re assholes.”

“Oh, trust me, I’ve learned all about that. The reason I came back to Ohio was to get away from a bad relationship.”

“Don’t feel bad. Everybody has those.”

“Not like this. The guy had some problems, let’s just say.” She stops short of elaborating further and Phil decides not to press the issue. They drive on through Detroit and cross the Ambassador Bridge over the Canadian border. In Windsor, they stop for lunch at a place that they both agree looks vaguely familiar from their previous vacation years ago. They finish lunch and Annabelle insists on paying. They argue a bit, but Phil again finds it easiest to cave. They head back toward Phil’s truck, when suddenly Annabelle pauses. “I need to go to the bathroom, Phil. Go on ahead of me.” Phil waits in the car. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. He tries her cell, but it goes straight to voicemail. He goes back into the restaurant, where the lady that served their lunch stops him and hands him an envelope. “The girl you were with wanted me to give you this.” Phil’s growing worry leads to impatience.

“Where is she?”

“She left out the back a while ago. I’m sure there’s some explanation in there.” He rips off the right edge of the envelope, then pulls the letter out in a hurry, crumpling the paper’s edge. It reads:

Hi Phil,

Sorry, but I’m staying here in Canada. Don’t worry, I’ll call my dad. Thanks for everything. I mean it.

Annabelle

On the drive back, he tries to make sense of it all. Dyed hair, a bad relationship, moving cross-country? What was she running from? Jeff may have an explanation, or he may never know. Once, after Annabelle witnessed a particularly bad argument between her parents, Jeff had said to her, “Sometimes daddies say things they don’t mean.” She would later learn the hard way that saying things they don’t mean was not exclusively the domain of daddies, but of men in general. But despite the traps and pitfalls of this world, she will continue to seek it out, whatever this world is and wherever it takes her. It’s just her way. In the car on that years-ago vacation to Ontario, the five of them passed a women’s prison. Annabelle asked what the women prisoners did inside, since breaking rocks and making license plates seemed, to her young mind, to be inappropriate work for a woman. Lisa told her that the prisoners strung brooms all day. Ever since, Annabelle had associated tedium with punishment. That association had in recent years led her into danger. While she wouldn’t admit to having regrets, she will spend the next few weeks and months weighing the merits of a life lived in relative safety without taking chances against the cycle of running, hiding, and running again that she now finds herself in.

Phil gets stopped at the border as he crosses back. The American guard at the booth gives him a hard time, even after ascertaining that Phil has nothing to declare. Phil doesn’t have his passport; seems like having a current driver’s license had always been sufficient before. The guard removes his sunglasses to reveal a skin tag near his right eyelid that makes Phil uncomfortable every time the guard blinks.

“I was giving a friend a ride. She lives in Windsor. Is there a problem?” Unsatisfied with this answer, the guard asks if he can search the vehicle. Must be a slow day. Phil consents, trying to play it cool even as horrifying images flash through his mind of forgotten psylocibin mushrooms stashed between the seats of his pickup.

“Looks like you’re clean, so I can’t keep you here any longer, irrespective of my misgiv-”

“‘Irrespective’ is not a word, man.”

“Uh, ‘Irregardless’ is not a word, but ‘regardless’ is, and so is ‘irrespective’. If I were you I’d just stay quiet, get in, and drive away before I change my mind, friend.”

Friend. What a dick. Phil takes his advice and pulls clear of the checkpoint before rolling his window back up. On the sliver of Michigan and the swath of Ohio that he drives through he sees a number of towns dying just like his. Factories closed, jobs gone overseas. A few guys Phil and Jeff grew up with got laid off by Wakeland Auto last year, then got rehired to take apart the stories-high machines at the plant and reassemble them in Mexico. It’s the new growth industry here in the Rust Belt. There is a chill in the air as he pulls in behind Lucky’s as the sun sets. His earthworm scar looks purple in the cold. Once inside, Sebastian will mention to Phil that a young guy came in at lunch asking about a female student at WSU. He said he’d check back later.

Phil’s ribs hurt as he stands on his toes and reaches up to unscrew the light bulb in front of the bathrooms. Using a compact fluorescent, he hopes this will be the last time he does it for a while. It has been his habit to never leave a lightbulb out; a fall involving a drunken non-regular customer could easily result in a lawsuit. Not having to change the bulb for seven years at least takes one worry off his mind for a while.

He steps back to survey the light and feels a little disappointed. The bare spiral bulb looks alien in the fixture as it warms up. Replacing the warm yellow glow of the incandescent is the sickly pale light of the fluorescent bulb. He imagines people’s skin will look greenish underneath it, like cartoon characters with motion sickness. Disillusioned with more than just the light, Phil goes for a walk. Sebastian’s words keep ringing inside his head as he transverses several blocks and rounds the corner to see the church his mother took him to as a kid. He feels a forgotten familiarity drawing him in, and he wants to pray to something, but it’s not quite right. What he really wants is a Catholic church with its confession booth, a public hub where private people go to deposit private things.

Phil enters the church and the race between sights, sounds and smells to deliver memories begins. So little has changed, as if the worst design elements of the 1960s were preserved in a time capsule. Framed in black grout, the sweeping, abstract shapes of the stained glass windows, where older sanctuaries might have more concrete images of the saints and the Virgin. The cylindrical hanging lights, blocky greenish wood table for the eucharist. His mind searches for something to break the musty silence, and the lyrics to “California Dreamin'” fills the void, inevitably beginning with, “stopped into a church..” For the first time Phil understands that lonely, desperate longing place from which those words must have their origin. There’s something about the passage of time that buffers the raw emotion of music, makes it polite as it’s canonized. As an eight year-old watching Elvis Presley being eulogized on the evening news, Phil had never understood what the big deal was about those swiveling hips banned from Ed Sullivan’s airwaves, or why his mother would switch off the radio right before the call-and-response part of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” He’s shocked that people already feel the same way about Soundgarden.

The old smell of chemically simulated flowers has remained in this building from his childhood, permeating the air and fueling Phil’s incredulity that the cleaning products used thirty years ago are still available, much less in use. Where on earth would one order that old air freshener spray that leaves one woozy in the wake of its vapors? The toilet cleaner? The floor wax?  As the person who orders the cleaning supplies for Lucky’s, he should really know more about that.

 

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