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“Don’t fucking ask me anything,” Reed said. “Just leave me alone.”
Francis nodded and could not think of a thing to say. She knew talking about the day before would cause much more harm than good to Reed, to Francis, to their friendship. Someone was trying to pry the man’s fingers apart. A voice called out for olive oil. They would pay for it. The cook must have some in the back. “We don’t have a cook,” the barista said. The tin ceiling above them began to make its clattering sound. It was beginning to rain. Francis loved this sound—for some reason it reminded her of childhood—and sometimes she sat alone in the shop listening to the noise. But today it was one noise too many. The man’s hand had gathered interest from other tables. He began to repeat his story, but more elaborately, with added details. He was speaking to the back row of the audience. Reed crouched, as if down into a huddle, and said, more softly, “You know what I did on Wednesday? I took all the bean casseroles and soups and I had Jonathan hold a trash bag and I just dumped it all. The banana bread from that hag down the street? I dumped it. The crappy fig squares? Dumped them. All that stuff from people who’ve never even said hello to me as long as I’ve lived in that neighborhood. Someone had sent macaroni and cheese in a big copper bottom pot. It’s not my job to eat other people’s food anymore. It’s not my job to make them feel good about themselves, like we’re part of some community now. Like we’re coming together in a moment of crisis.” On this last thought her voice rose in competition with the other performance. Neither noticed the other. He raised his arm in a weird sort of triumph, his hand a torch. His own stupidity had become a point of pride. A bottle of something appeared from the back room. They began to slather it across his skin. Someone said, “What a waste. What a waste.”
“Stop looking over there,” Reed said. “Look at me. Look in my eyes.”
“I’m not looking,” Francis said. By that she meant that she could not help to look. And it was so loud. The joy exploded off the people.
“Least you could do was listen. I bought you a coffee after all.”
A joke. But not a joke. But yes, it was Francis who usually bought the drinks. She had for a long time. It seemed the least she could do. “I am listening. I’m always listening, Reed.”
“You sometimes listen,” Reed said. “But do you want to know why I don’t tell you everything? Because when the worst of it comes up you try to think of anything else. It’s obvious.”
Just the week before Reed had called her up at midnight and Francis had listened to her for more than two hours. The Sunday before that they had walked along the beach in silence, but Francis had been ready. She had set herself up like a foot soldier at attention, waiting for the order, even though the only words exchanged were about the whitecaps.
They had separated the two center fingers and the man still held court. He was doing an imitation of Spock now but talking about sex, sex with aliens and sex with machines. Some people had lost interest but others had joined them. She wondered if pretty soon someone would ask him to shut up. Reed said, “For example. What’s her name, the one with the mountain bikes. Her daughter was a raging bully to Estrella. And I know where she gets it from. Her mother is a bitch. But she was actually crying in my driveway. Crying for me. And I had to put my arm around her. Can you believe it? I had to comfort her. I put my arm around her and then I started crying too. The both of us just sobbing away out there in the cold. And this is a woman I hate.”
How had they arrived here? Obviously she had said something else too, just a moment ago, a missing piece, but there was no way to get back there.
This was all they talked about. Francis longed for the day Estrella would be completely better—the idea that this day would never come, that a different kind of day was fast approaching seemed an impossibility—and when Estrella was back in school and Reed was complaining about her again that would be the day her friend would return to her from that other country she now occupied. They’d talk about what they used to talk about, although what had that been? Reed had talked about politics and the death of downtown and underrated Marvin Gaye albums. Francis had talked about men. She remembered them in a bright succession, not the men themselves as much as what they became when she shared them with Reed, who was always smirking, always telling her to slow down. That’s when she had seemed to be the one traveling. She said, “I think I know who you mean. The woman with the two Volvos. Yes.” She was trying to catch up.
“Not here,” Reed said. “The other one. Her friend.”
She couldn’t imagine her but the image of the two of them hugging nudged her toward jealousy.
“Please,” Reed said. “My eyes. Look here.”
“I am,” she said.
“No you’re not.”
“No,” Reed said, and there was a soft snarl in her voice. She leaned forward across the table as if to touch her face, as if to kiss her, but then her face just hung there. “I’m right in front of you.”
“I’m not one of them,” Francis said. “I’m on your side.”
The rain came down harder and mixed with the noise of the other tables. Where had the man with the flipper hand gone? He had been there just a second before. “I threw out your homemade apple sauce,” Reed said. “I threw away the meatloaf.”
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. It had been buzzing. She was aware of it as a low purr, something ticklish and sexual, but also annoying, a bug, an intruder hugging her close. Was it him? He had said he would call back. He was worried. The tin roof clattered and any other time it would be profound but now it was noise. She told herself, this is a bad dream I am having. She found it out there and then she said those stupid words to him and now everything was different, even the sound of the rain on the roof. Now she was crying, but not really. Her face twisted into a new shape. She could feel it. It was hot and wet. But she also stood outside herself, from a safe distance, scanning herself with pity and disgust. Reed said, “Everything is okay. I’m just talking. It’s just words. I don’t mean any of it. I’m just a hurt animal.”
She thought of her own dogs, the blindness, the way they snapped at her in those last couple of months. She had let them live too long and called it love. That’s what her ex had said. Reed was still talking. It seemed like she might never stop. At first the country had seemed small but now it was huge. It stretched on forever and it was made of whatever words her friend threw at her from across the table. The phone stopped and started up again. “I’m not a bad person,” she said.
“I know you’re not,” Reed said and their hands touched across the table. They squeezed and then separated, retreating back into the snugness of their own private spaces, her on one side, her on the other. The rain sounded torrential but the window showed that not to be true.
“You are my best friend,” Reed said.
Outside in the rain Francis checked the number. It was the woman from the collection agency again. She no longer left messages. She’d call again. That’s when Francis noticed the man from inside, the flipper hand man, smoking a cigarette and watching the traffic. His hand seemed fine and he did not seem especially happy, deep into the process of smoking and watching. His wet hair draped across his bulky forehead, coat open. He didn’t seem to care. Francis called out to him, “Asshole,” and when he turned she stared him down. “Like the rest of us care,” she said, but the man didn’t send her rage back to her. He just looked confused, apelike, distracted from his important work. He seemed to decide that these comments weren’t meant for him and his head pivoted back to the traffic.
And then again as she was walking up her front walk. That sexual hum. This time she answered, willing it to be his voice even though the number was that other one. Francis said, “Stop calling here. Stop it,” and then threw the phone on the couch as soon as she shouldered herself inside. The voice spoke to her from there, a tinny, powerless plea. Her houseplants needed watering and clutter filled the front hall and her mail was soaked.
She had to fix this. The smell filled the front hall and reached into the kitchen too. At first Francis assumed it came from outside but then she remembered the bones in the sink. When she opened the basement door the smell hit her with extra force and she had to brace herself before heading downstairs. It had browned in the night, lost its exquisiteness. She imagined the phone ringing again upstairs but it would be too late to get it and this time it would be him, fresh from a run maybe, or lonely, or at least concerned, and then she could imagine it better, the dumping of all of it into the trash, every bit of it, and then the throwing of the bag to the curb. She lifted the skull with a rag and gray water sluiced from the eye holes. She thought of that time she had bought an expensive coat on a whim and then been shocked by its ugliness in the mirror at home. The person at the returns counter had asked no questions when she returned it. Dealing with other people’s regret over stupid decisions was her job, after all. They filled out the form, slid the credit card, and that was that.
But she had hurt no one. That was clear to her. Nothing important was happening.
She needed to throw herself back into routine: check her email for freelance work, do the laundry, but first she poured bleach into the right sink and then passed the skull from right to left. More bleach. She didn’t bother with gloves. That smell replaced the other and she thought of a long swimming pool, the clean stretch of blue water, maybe a single lean body shooting through it like an arrow. She was trying to calm down.
Then it was a dream and Peter was there in the corners of it telling her about himself, his new life, and then he became somebody else, a stranger, and he was talking about her laptop. He was telling her that her laptop was not very good and she should replace it. He could give her advice. There were all sorts of good, affordable models out there. She felt bored and sleepy in her dream and that didn’t change when the stranger began running his hands along her body. When she awoke this is what she remembered—the drowsiness—and she wondered what would have happened if she had fallen asleep in her dream, down deeper into a second layer of sleep. She woke up and the phone was still on the side table. The rain had stopped and the silence pervaded the space like the smell and the dark and the vibrations of her own small life.
Nothing was happening. She sent that thought out as if to search the space, probe it and then return to her. The dogs used to do that in the middle of the night: leave the bed and scramble room to room and then skitter back to her.
She followed the thought into the darkness and then she was down by the basement door, the boring dream following her in small fragments, falling off her as she forgot it piece by piece.
The brains had come out through the bottom. She lifted the skull and it all came away in a pink stream of flesh, as if a small creature had been hiding there and finally revealed itself to her. She wondered if it was warm or cold. The whole thing was supposed to be easy and now there it was at the bottom of the sink, still attached to the skull by strands of mucus and pus, a snail clinging to its shell. It was revealing itself to her, opening. She lifted the skull higher—she held it with her bare hands now—and still the flesh didn’t come loose. The dream was almost gone now but she held onto it the way the sticky flesh held onto the skull. She remembered the boredom, the hands on her chest. And then she remembered too that the figure had been angry. He had grown rough with her. And somehow that had been boring too.
The call came in from the same number. Her again, but this time Francis made her promises that she would take care of it. The wet mail contained more bills, half a dozen notes from charities she had given money to as well, all of it turning to a moist lump. The woman said, “I can take your routing number right now. That would help,” and she said sure, she would do that, and made up some numbers. She recited them as if from memory and then they kept going, ten digits, fifteen, and twenty. It became a joke. She laughed and she said she had to go. How easy was it for her to disconnect from her own troubles. All she had to do was switch them off. The screen went black and then she replaced it with a list of songs. The first one filled the silence. She stood there listening.
What would he say if he called? First he’d apologize for his lateness, the lateness of his call, he’d say, just like the woman from the agency, and then he’d ask her questions, the ones he didn’t have time for that first time when she told him. When do you go into surgery or have you done that already? Have you started radiation? Who is helping you? Are you satisfied with your care? How are you holding up? Can you talk now? Did I wake you? Are you okay? Do you still care about me? Who are you and what are you doing? Why do you do what you do? What time is it there again? What can I say to make you feel better and how should I say it? Are your hands shaking again? Am I bothering you? Are you bothering me? Are you terrified? Does this voice sound like me? Does it sound strange? Hello, can you hear me?
At the café she waited but this time Reed was the late one. She ordered the drinks, slid the teabag in, and arranged the saucers and spoon. She arranged herself, her shoulders and face, the attentive expression of the best friend. They talked about the ticking machinery, the stately procession of specialists, and the evenings, her holding hands with Jonathan in their big bed and speaking out into the dark about who would vacuum the carpet, who had strength to call the insurance company. The noise buzzed around their intimate moment. A politeness had returned to the proceedings. Days passed and the food kept arriving, wrapped in plastic and tinfoil, some of it still hot. The skull went into the trash along with those other things. Days into weeks. The phone kept ringing and the story faded, nestling into that same deep space the dream occupied. Everything was okay, everything was fine.