The Freezing Temperature of Creamed Corn
When I wake up in the morning, the snow has stopped falling, but outside my window I see a big mound of the stuff in the driveway. I rub my eyes and sigh, realizing that the mound of snow is actually a car and that I’m going to have to dig it out fast if I don’t want to be late to work. I throw on my khakis and dark green shirt, Harold’s Grocery sewn on the left breast pocket in yellow, loopy script, and then stare back at the car just for an instant to contemplate the freezing temperature of creamed corn.
Downstairs I hear my father coughing.
“Is that you, Emma?” he tries to yell as I come closer, but it turns into another fit of coughs.
“It’s me, Dad,” I say, entering the room. His skin looks even more jaundiced in the early morning light. When I first brought him home and transformed the master bedroom, I used to come in every morning and stupidly ask, “How are you doing today?” Now, I say, “Do you need another Kleenex?” and move the rolling tray that contains the box closer to him.
“Damn thing,” he mutters, hitting the tray awkwardly. “You headed to work?”
“Yeah, I start early today, but the aide will be in soon.”
“Hehh,” he grunts, turning his head away. I fix the sheets around him, glad that he doesn’t have anything to add to this. When he first came home, he was much more vocal and still able to scream.
“Goddamn it!” he’d yell if I left him in the bedroom alone. “I need a goddamn drink! Emma!”
When I’d get to the door, glass of water in hand, he would shake violently and get angry again. Once he even tried to throw his still-full plate of food at my head, but it was heavy and fell feebly from his hand with a thud, splatters of applesauce dotting the beige carpeting.
“Goddamn it, Emma! I worked for thirty-five goddamn years, thirty-five! I paid for this damn house and I’ll be damned if I can’t get a damn glass of whisky! And now look at this mess!”
I couldn’t decide whether he was talking about the applesauce or himself.
The snow that covers my car is thick and wet. It trickles in through the wool of my mittens. I set down the snowbrush and roll back my sleeve to check my watch. I’m going to be late.
“Looks like you could use some help there.”
The voice seems to come from nowhere, but when I look over my shoulder the dark tuft of Charlie’s hair stands out from the whiteness of everything else. He is smiling at me, leaning against the wooden fence that separates his yard from ours and always has for the twelve years that we’ve been friends.
“Are you up for the challenge?” I ask. “I have to be to work in twenty minutes.”
Charlie lifts his arms in a stretch. He is already dressed, but seeing as it’s pretty early for him to show his face, I’m guessing they’re the same clothes he wore last night while he was delivering pizzas.
“Well, I suppose I don’t have anything better to do.” He grins at me. “I’ll be right over.”
As we clean off the snow, Charlie tells me about his exploits at the bar a few nights ago. They include a blond girl and a pitcher of beer, and an invitation for me to join them next time they go out. But I just shake my head pretending I have outgrown all of this. That the five semesters of college I finished before Dad’s illness made me wiser. That I am an adult.
“Charlie, you’re a lifesaver,” I say once my little blue car has completely emerged from the pile.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “But listen, don’t go telling people what a good guy I am, okay?” He pauses there for a minute and stares out at the valley behind our houses, the tops of its trees frosted with the freshly fallen powder. “You know Emma,” he says. His face has become very serious, very unlike Charlie, but then he breaks his lips into a grin and says, “Have fun at work.”
I turn the car on to let it heat up, but I wait to pop the trunk until I’m sure that Charlie is back inside his kitchen. Once I’m certain he’s safely out of range, I go around to check the back and make sure none of the contents has exploded during the night. The first snowfall was not something I anticipated when I started my collection. I brush my fingers over the cargo and linger a moment on a can of string beans. The cans gaze back up at me, a collection of colorful fruit cocktail and delicate broccoli florets, rosy peaches in thick, sugary syrup, and tall, straight asparagus, its pointy tops piercing the metallic lids. They are all perfectly curved, their silver surfaces glinting in the reflection of the winter morning sun. They are all still here. Everything appears to be normal and in place.
At Harold’s I see Tina, the head cashier, shake her dyed red head at me as I run past.
“Sorry,” I mouth, heading for the back of the store to pick up my till.
The store is busy for a Thursday, and once on register I pass peoples’ groceries quickly over the scanner, boxes of whole grain cereal and bags of glazed donuts each making its own definitive “beep.” A woman comes through with three cans of cranberries and a can of spinach, and I take my time spinning them over the red beam of light and packing them perfectly into her brown paper bag. Four hours later I’m the last cashier to go on break and Tina gives me a slight sneer.
“You have an hour,” she says. “Don’t be late this time.”
After I get my coat, I go straight for aisle six. I’ve memorized its tagline: Vegetables, Fruit, Soup, Boxed Dinners. The store has slowed down and the only person standing in aisle six is an elderly lady in a puffy blue coat and pink bobbled hat. She holds a can of chicken noodle soup which she seems to be studying intensely. I watch her for a moment, and when it’s clear she’s not paying attention to me I go straight for the fruit. With one swift motion a can of mandarins is in my large brown purse. A few feet down my arm darts out again and this time a can of cranberries snuggles inside my bag. I smile to myself and head for the front.
Except I never make it to the door. A few steps away, Paul, the security guard, catches me by the arm and gently pulls me away towards the service counter.
“Listen, Emma,” he says. “I don’t want to make this more difficult than it has to be.”
“What are you talking about?” I say, trying to look innocent while all forms of alarm are bleating wildly in my head.
Tina is leaning on the counter, smirking at me.
“What’s in your bag, Emma?” Paul says.
Paul has always been nice to me. When he first found out about my dad, he would bring me homemade peanut butter cookies from his wife on paper plates and he’d hug my shoulders gently. I wish he didn’t have to be the one doing this now. At least if it was Tina, I could hate her.
Paul sighs loudly.
“Just give them to me, Emma, and there won’t be a big scene.” He leans in and whispers, “Come on, Em, don’t give her the satisfaction.”
I know he’s right. I know that Tina would like nothing better than for me to make a fool of myself. But I’ve done that already anyway, haven’t I? I reach into my bag and set the two cans on the counter.
“I told you,” Tina says.
“All right, Tina,” Paul says. “That’s enough.”
I know I will be escorted up to the manager’s office next. I’m not entirely sure what will happen there, but I do know that I’ll be fired. And I’m surprisingly okay with that. What I’m not okay with is them calling the cops and searching my car. I’m pretty damn sure the penalty is higher for one hundred and sixty-eight cans than it is for two. So, while Paul and Tina are glaring at each other, exchanging angry words and clipped sentences, I bolt. I hear Paul say something as I head for the door, but I don’t let the words register.
Peeling out of the parking lot I don’t know where I’m going, my windows still mostly iced over, so after I’ve gotten about a half hour out of town I pull off the highway and go into the first bar I see, a squat brick building, its sign announcing “The Barrel” to the world. Inside the lights are dim. Two men are sitting in a booth, the seats made from cracking fake red leather. The one facing me wears a flannel shirt and a baseball cap and is drinking beer out of a bottle. Other than them the bar is empty.
“Can I help you?” says a balding man who appears through the swinging door behind the bar.
“Tequila,” I say. “A double.”
He puts the shot glass in front of me and I down it, the liquid stinging the whole way.
“Another one,” I say.
“Awful early in the day for a pretty little thing like you to be drinking Tequila.” He smiles at me, pouring the shot. “Especially if you’re drinking alone. There anybody you want me to call?”
The liquor burns my empty belly as I down the second shot and my eyes start to water as I give him a nod.
By the time Charlie walks in the door of the bar, I have had at least four more shots, but I’m starting to lose count.
“Charlie!” I say. “Sal, Sal, Charlie’s here!”
The bar tender looks at Charlie and smiles, nodding to the glasses piled up in front of me.
“Jesus, Emma,” Charlie says. “What the hell happened?”
“Sal! Another shot! And one for Charlie too!”
“No thanks, Sal,” he says. He sniffs the glass that Sal sets down on the bar in front of me. “Tequila? Really? Emma, you hate Tequila. And I thought you quit drinking after—”
“After my drunk of a father started to die?” I ask. He’s staring at me, shocked that the words have come from my mouth, but I’m all smiles. “Well, Charlie, you know what I say? Fuck ‘em.” I raise my glass to him.
“Emma, I think we better get you home. Sal, can we have her tab please?”
“Can’t go home, Charlie, can’t do it. You want to know why? Guess what’s in my trunk? Just guess!” Fear flashes in Charlie’s eyes for half a second, and I guess he’s contemplating how crazy I’ve really gone.
“No, no, no. It’s cans, Charlie. Cans. All kinds of cans. Mixed fruit, peas, beets. I don’t even like beets Charlie, but I took them. I took them all. And I’m so fired. Oh!” I say. “Do you think I’ll go to jail? Is it a misdemeanor if it’s your first time? There are a lot of cans out there, Charlie. One hundred and sixty-eight fucking cans! Will I really go to jail for canned food? It’s a lot, Charlie!” I try to stand, as if to emphasize my point, but my feet don’t work and suddenly the floor is coming up at me until Charlie catches me.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, it’s going to be all right. We’ll figure it out, Emma. Don’t worry.” He half carries me over to one of the red booths and lays me down on it.
He goes back to the bar and I don’t know what he says to Sal, but I do know that through the cracked upholstery above me a white piece of stuffing has escaped. It looks like a cloud.
I don’t remember how Charlie got me from the bar to the couch in his garage, but when I wake at 2:00 a.m. I’m grateful for the soft pillow and the slightly grimy blankets that seem to be covering me. In the dark I hear Charlie snoring and, peeking over the back of the sofa, I see the shape of his lanky body on the floor, turned away from me and snuggled deep into a grey sleeping bag. I watch him for a moment and then slip out from under the blankets and head for the side door. My head pounds as I step into the glacial night air and see my car staring back at me from the driveway. I open the trunk quietly and look inside. There they are, all one hundred and sixty-eight of them. I pick up a can of oranges that is nestled between baby carrots and pineapple and turn it over in my hands. It’s cold, and the sides of the label are starting to curl. The cans always seemed inviting in the store. They had flavor, they had life, and they wouldn’t go bad. But here, in the cold night, they seem silly, unnatural even. Processed and packaged and wrong. I take the can to the back of Charlie’s yard, past the emptied swimming pool, to the edge of the valley our yards sit upon.
“Fuck you,” I say to the oranges. And then they are gone, out of my hands and into the night air.
Supposed Acts of Sabotage
My father is angry when I enter the room. He does not like the aide who comes to help him when I go to work, and he does not like the aide who spends the night with him. Their names are Shelley and Penny and he believes wholeheartedly that they are both trying to kill him.
“Getting rid of me faster, that’s what they’re doing,” he says. “And that’s what you want after all, isn’t it, you ungrateful girl?”
I don’t know what makes him think this. He never gives me details about their supposed acts of sabotage. I asked him once if he thought they were slipping arsenic into his Jell-O. He just scowled at me.
Sometimes he’ll say, “You’re just like your mother.”
He does not understand why I can’t stay with him all the time. He does not know that now, in fact, I could. I have nowhere else to be.
This morning I woke up alone in Charlie’s garage, a glass of water and some aspirin sitting next to the couch. There was no note and I didn’t expect one. This is how Charlie and I operate, although normally I am not the one on the receiving end of hangover treatment. I appreciate that he did not stick around, that he did not try to make me talk about it with a headache the size of a small planet.
Apparently, Dad is in a silent treatment kind of mood today, because he doesn’t yell at me for not checking in on him last night. He just stares at the ceiling and refuses to acknowledge my existence. I fix the blankets that have fallen down his body and readjust the tray next to his bed.
“He’s quiet this morning,” Penny said to me when she found me in the kitchen making coffee.
I nodded, giving her a small smile. This is how I am supposed to act. Quiet, thoughtful, a bit sad. If she noticed I didn’t come home last night she didn’t show it.
“Shelley will be in at noon,” was all she said before going out the door.
I realize, looking at my father, that I will have to go somewhere when Shelley arrives. I was supposed to work from one until nine today and both she and my father will notice if I’m wandering around the house instead. I could tell her I got called off, but then she will leave and I will be left here with a man who is not talking to me.
“Dad, do you want some breakfast?”
He doesn’t even blink.
“Okay, I’ll check in on you in a little while. I’m going to do the dishes.”
In the kitchen, I realize that there are no dishes to do. Sometimes, while my father is sleeping, Penny loads the dishwasher. It makes me feel guilty and I once awkwardly tried to pay her for the service, but she just shook her head at me.
“It helps me think,” she said. “I don’t do well with idle hands.”
Penny is young, maybe a few years older than me, and I wonder what kind of life you must have to want to sit with the dying when you are only in your twenties. What makes you want to do their dishes at two in the morning while their breathing is labored and their heart is heading towards the end.
I stand at the sink and wash the single coffee cup I used this morning, then look up to the car sitting in the driveway. I did not look at it when I snuck out of Charlie’s garage this morning and made my way back to my house, my clothes wrinkled and my hair in knots. I thought that maybe, if I didn’t see it, it wouldn’t be there. I wonder how Charlie managed to get both his car and my car home from the bar, but I probably won’t ask him. I almost wish he would have just abandoned mine, left it in an alley somewhere, preferably on the wrong side of town. Maybe some drug dealers could have hacked into it, sold it for parts. They wouldn’t have been very happy with the contents of the trunk, though. You can’t cut cocaine with a can of diced pears.
Tina used to lecture us once a month about the signs to watch for when a customer was stealing. After the store closed and we had all cashed out our tills, she would line us up in front of the customer service counter, her hands behind her back, and tell us about the most recent string of thefts.
“Watch for cartons of soda that are ripped badly. Sometimes underage kids take out the right cans and fill it with beer instead.”
Or, “Know your produce, ladies. We’re missing several sprigs of dill. I think one of the old ladies from the center down the street is sneaking them into her bunches of kale.”
After a month where a whole case of baby formula went missing, she finally asked us if we knew why.
“Why, ladies, do you think baby formula is one of the most stolen items from this store?”
“Because it’s expensive?” someone said.
“Yes, yes, but what else?”
“People with newborns are tight for cash?” said Becky, one of the after-school kids who was barely sixteen.
Tina sighed loudly and shook her head at us.
“Cocaine. Druggies use it to cut cocaine. You have to watch the bottoms of the carts, ladies. That’s how they get it out.”
I kept my mouth shut during these speeches. Tina always seemed pleased afterwards as if she was educating us. Funny she never told us to watch out for co-workers with big purses.
Outside it is cold but it has not snowed since yesterday, so the car is still uncovered. I am only wearing my flannel pajama pants and a hooded sweatshirt, but I’m not worried right now about making a fashion faux pas. No one can see me from the street anyway. I am worried, though, about the can of oranges that is now stuck in a tree or a bush somewhere down in the valley. I wonder what the odds are that I hit an animal with my weak attempt at a throw the night before. I would feel horrible if a raccoon is out cold somewhere below me, concussed and wondering what the hell happened.
I am so far into my daydream about the raccoon, inventing a litter of raccoon babies who are now going hungry thanks to my oranges, and a male raccoon traipsing around heartbroken, looking for its mate, that I don’t hear him coming up behind me.
“So how many are there?” Charlie says. “I know you told me last night, but I was a little preoccupied.”
“One hundred and sixty-seven.”
I do not tell him about the can of oranges, and he doesn’t seem to notice any discrepancy in the count.
“Do you know if raccoons mate for life?” I ask.
Charlie stares at my car for another moment, and I love that he seems to be taking this question seriously.
“I don’t know. I never really thought about it before. If I had to guess, though, I’d say they are more the hit it and run kind of animals.”
“Like you?” I ask.
I’m not sure why I say it. Relationships and all things sexual are off limits in our banter, a sort of unwritten rule we’ve abided by since we were eleven. That was the summer I tried to kiss Charlie behind his garage, and we both realized that “cooties” were the least of our worries. Luckily, Charlie seems unfazed by my slip. I’m not sure if this is because he knows I’m not exactly in my right mind this morning, or if he has decided that we are old enough now to make sexual innuendos without ruining our friendship.
“I thought you hated raccoons.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re furry little bastards. Remember that time we were riding our bikes to the park and one attacked me?”
“Emma, it didn’t attack you. You fell off your bike into a bush and nearly scared the thing to death.”
“Whatever. The point is just because I hate them doesn’t mean I can’t be interested in their mating habits. I’ll have you know I’m often interested in the mating habits of bastard animals.”
“Maybe that’s why your dating life hasn’t been going so well lately.”
I try to glare at him, but it turns into a smile. We are quiet for a few minutes, both of us looking at the car. It is not an uncomfortable silence, but I am afraid that it means the question is coming.
“So, what are you going to do?”
And it does. So predictable.
“I don’t know. Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?”
Charlie shrugs. “I don’t work until eight,” he says. “No plans before then.”
“I was supposed to work at one. Shelley will be here at noon to look after dad.”
“Is Shelley the young one or the old one?”
“The old one. And I already told you, you can’t hit on Penny, so don’t try.”
“Hey, I was only asking. If it was the young one, I figured I could help. You know, pull out some of the old Charlie charm.”
“How about you help me by getting me the hell out of here for the afternoon instead?”
“The grotto?” he asks.
At quarter after twelve I get in my car and Charlie meets me at the end of the driveway. I want him to drive, but he insists that we take my car.
“Keeping an eye on the evidence,” he calls it. “Besides, Shelley might notice if your car is still here.”
We drive the familiar roads, down into the valley, and back up the hill behind my old high school. The grotto is a place we’ve been coming since we were kids. We stumbled upon it one summer when Charlie insisted that we needed some adventure and that he was sure some undiscovered bear or yeti was traipsing through the Cleveland metro parks. But instead of dangerous and deranged animals, we found a collection of rocks and a decrepit statue of the Virgin Mary sheltered by a small alcove. There were two benches and everything was overgrown with moss and ivy. We figured the nuns who had founded the high school probably had it built but abandoned it when the diocese cut funding. This is where he found me the day my mother left.
The grotto is really more of a warm weather hangout for us and I had forgotten how beautiful it is covered in snow. Charlie gets out of the car with the sleeping bag he grabbed from his garage and my snowbrush to clear us a spot.
“Hello, lady,” Charlie says to the statue like he used to when we were kids.
“God, she looks in bad shape, doesn’t she?”
Her nose has cracked off since we saw her last and more of the white paint has flecked off her hands and torso.
“At least the nuns haven’t returned her to her former glory. Then we’d have to give up the spot.”
“Nah, they don’t even know she’s here anymore,” he says.
Charlie finishes cleaning off the bench and sits, patting the spot next to him. We sit for a while, warm enough in the sleeping bag and the layers we have bundled ourselves in.
“So, I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Charlie says, finally breaking the natural quiet that has surrounded us. “But I think you should.”
These words are familiar, and I wonder if he realizes he has used them on me once before. Except then I was young and hurt and was sobbing half my bodyweight worth of tears into his shirt. I couldn’t stop crying, both because she was gone and because he was the one person I never wanted to see me fall apart. It was the only night Charlie ever held me.
“What do you want me to say? Hello, my name is Emma, and I steal canned goods from my place of employment?”
“Excuse me, former place of employment.”
“So, they fired you?”
“I didn’t give them the chance. I just booked it after the security guard confronted me.”
I feel Charlie’s body heat shift closer to me. I can tell from the way he is fidgeting that he is thinking hard and is mildly uncomfortable.
“Well, we have to do something with them.”
He gives my car a cursory glance.
“I mean, they might come after you.”
“They can’t prove I took them.”
“Can you prove you didn’t?”
His nose and the tips of his ears have turned pink from the cold and his breath comes out in white puffs when I turn towards him. He looks concerned, which is rare for Charlie, and for some reason this makes me want to lean in closer to him. To rub my palms together and then touch his face to warm it from the cold. Instead I loosen my grip on the blanket and tuck the slackened material under his chin.
“We have to get rid of them,” he says, looking me in the eye.
“You’re cold, we should go,” I say.
I stand and try to untangle myself from the blanket but he grabs my hand and pulls me back down next to him.
“No,” he says. “No, let’s just sit here a while longer, okay? I’m formulating a plan.”
He smiles at me and the look of mischief is back on his face. I suppose I should be worried about what he is scheming. I should be thinking about my father and if Shelley will have gotten him to talk in my absence. I should be concerned that the police will be at my door when I get home or at the very least a park ranger giving me a citation for littering or maybe animal cruelty for assaulting a raccoon with a canned good. But all I can think about is Charlie, and the fact that he has still not let go of my hand.
Your Hospitable Nature Still Has the Same Expiration Date
“So, what is this great plan of yours?” I ask Charlie.
It is not quite seven o’clock and we have a few minutes before he has to get ready for work. We are back in his garage, my car parked the next block over where it won’t be seen.
“Honestly? I don’t have one yet.”
“You made me sit outside in the cold for all that time and you weren’t even coming up with anything?”
“Calm down, will you? Man, maybe I should just let the cops take you.”
We are sitting on the couch, which is still covered with my blankets from the night before. I throw a pillow at him and he catches it before it hits his face.
“Okay, I’m sorry. But I said I don’t have a plan, not that I didn’t have ideas.”
I reach for one of the couch cushions and he holds his hands up in front of his face in surrender.
“Fine, fine, I give up. I was thinking first of all that we should spread them out a bit. We don’t want to just put them all in a dumpster and call it a day.”
“I’m pretty sure they can’t trace stolen cans,” I say.
“No, probably not. But it might look suspicious if anyone saw us.”
I agree with that. Two twenty-somethings emptying the unknown contents of a trunk into the Glendale Mall dumpster at 3:00 a.m. does not exactly scream innocence. Knowing Charlie, he’d probably make us wear ski masks.
“What about a food pantry?” I ask.
“That’s a sizeable donation. You don’t want them asking questions or anything, do you?”
“I guess not, I just hate to see all that food go to waste.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to just take it all inside? I mean, you could do it when Penny and Shelley aren’t at the house. Your dad wouldn’t have to know.”
I wonder if this is Charlie’s subtle way of asking me why I took the cans. Of course, subtlety has never been Charlie’s thing but there’s a first for everything. Maybe he thinks we need the food and he’s trying not to insult me.
“No, I don’t want to keep them.”
Charlie nods but doesn’t ask any questions. We are sitting sideways on the couch, facing each other from opposite ends. He stretches out and his feet poke my legs which are bent in front of me.
“You’re hogging the blankets,” he says, burrowing his toes closer to me under the covers.
“I’m glad to see your hospitable nature still has the same expiration date.”
The first time I slept over in Charlie’s garage he was the one battling a hangover, and I was the one smoothing back his hair and supplying necessary remedies. Unfortunately, we were only sixteen and, sober as I was and incapacitated as he was, his mother still would not have been pleased to find the two of us alone in the middle of the night. Nor, I’m sure, would my father have been very happy if he found an empty room when he came to wake me up in the morning. Still, the fact that Charlie, in his inebriated state, was the one with enough common sense to kick me out at 5:00 a.m. was ironic. The fact that he didn’t have the courtesy to explain to me what he was doing before dumping my body on his back porch and promptly closing the garage door was a bargaining chip for years to come.
“You’ll never let that go, will you?”
Charlie tilts his head back to look at the clock on the far wall and lets out a sigh.
“I have to go shower if I’m going to make it to work on time. You want to just stay here?”
I nod and cuddle down into the blankets as he heads out the door.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I know Charlie’s face is hovering over me, his eyes bright.
“Emma?” he half whispers.
I can hear the glee in his voice.
“Emma, you up? I have the best idea.”
“You’re going to get me arrested anyway, aren’t you?” I ask.
He just smiles wider and pulls me off the couch.
An hour later I stand on the porch of a blue Victorian house with a green baseball cap on my head. We are obviously in a college neighborhood; all of the houses seem split up into apartments and the banister on the porch is missing several rails. I can’t believe he talked me into this.
“Really, Charlie, I don’t think this is going to work.”
“Oh stop. When have I ever steered you wrong before?”
“Is that a hypothetical question?”
Charlie’s friend, Tom, chuckles from the bushes next to the porch. If I squint, I can see the recording light from his video camera shining through in the darkness.
“Seriously, Emma, these guys are the perfect candidates to try this out on. They order from us every week and absolutely nothing fazes them.”
“Don’t you have to get permission if you’re going to film people? Even for documentaries? Didn’t they teach you that in film school?” I ask, directing my final question to Tom’s hidden form in the bushes.
“Just follow my lead,” Charlie says.
I drop my head, the bill of the hat covering my eyes. The cans in my hands suddenly seem heavy in addition to freezing. I picked a fruit cocktail and one of the few cans of soup I pilfered. I sigh once more and push in the doorbell.
The sound of footsteps pounding towards us makes me instinctually want to step back. The door busts open and the guy standing before me takes up the whole frame. He towers over the both of us, blond hair sticking out at weird angles from his head. The T-shirt he wears reads “Chick Magnet” and has a bunch of small yellow birds on it. How cute.
“Pizza guy!” he says with a grin.
“I’ve got the usual for you, Jim. Two extra larges, one five meat and one hamburger heaven, plus cheese bread.”
The guy grins and shoves a wad of bills at Charlie. As he takes the boxes he glances my way.
“Who’s the girl?”
“Oh, sorry Jim. New girl, I’m showing her the ropes.”
Jim smiles and gives me a not-so-inconspicuous once over. Then winks. A scowl crosses Charlie’s face almost too quickly to catch. I think I hear snickering from the bushes.
“Anyway, we’re also doing a new promotion tonight. These are for you.”
Charlie takes the cans from my hands and stacks them on top of the load of pizza boxes Jim is now holding. Jim turns the boxes trying to see what exactly Charlie has deposited on top of his mound of grub.
“They’re cans of food. I think you’ve got some fruit and some chicken noodle there. Good for a cold. You’ll probably need that around finals time, right?”
“Yeah, sure, but why the hell are you giving this to me?”
I don’t know why, but this guy is making me nervous.
“New supervisor,” I blurt out.
Charlie and I probably should have figured out a cover story before taking on this undercover operation, but I figure he’ll go with it.
“Yeah, trying to scare up new business,” Charlie says. “For every pizza ordered tonight we’re also supposed to deliver a can of food.”
Jim looks puzzled. He studies both of us and then studies the cans.
“Seriously? I mean, I’m not complaining. Food is food. My roommate’s girlfriend is always hanging around yelling at us about not eating more healthy crap. But you have to admit it’s a little fucked-up.”
Jim turns to me and smiles.
“Pardon my French.”
“Well, it’s the first night that we’re trying it. Maybe it’ll be the last.”
“We should go, more deliveries,” I say.
Jim nods and flashes me another smile.
“Good luck. Here’s a tip for you too,” he says, pushing something into my hand.
When we get to the car, Tom gets in the back seat and starts chattering.
“That was classic,” he says. “Typical denial of random acts of generosity. That guy will totally make it into the film.”
“Why is that your topic again? I mean, it has to be difficult to catch people doing stuff like that.”
“Because, I want to show how we have been programmed to reject basic human kindness, Emma. And as for finding people doing it, well, that’s what you guys are for,” he says and pats Charlie on the back.
“Is it still generous if it’s illegal?” I say. But I don’t think Tom hears me, because he keeps on talking about “the man” and corporate hatred for the everyman. I roll my eyes and turn my attention to the small wad of bills in my palm. There is a piece of paper folded up along with the money.
“He gave me his phone number,” I say.
Tom stops talking and Charlie stiffens.
“How’d he manage that?”
“It was in with the money.”
Charlie looks at the piece of paper in my hand and shakes his head.
“Jackass actually keeps cards with his number on it in his pocket. Probably gives it to any woman he meets. What an idiot.”
Charlie shakes his head and pulls the car away from the curb towards our next destination. But his comment irritates me and the fact that we are trying to pawn off stolen merchandise to unsuspecting victims suddenly doesn’t seem that important.
“Well, what if I want to call him? What kind of idiot is he then?”
The car swerves, almost imperceptibly, and Charlie takes a deep breath. Then chuckles.
“Come on, Emma. The guy’s a total cave man. You wouldn’t date him.”
“Yeah,” Tom says. “I mean, he’s probably a business major.”
“Well, I’ll admit he’s not my normal type. But at least I know he’s interested. He made a move, you know? I haven’t really had a lot of prospects lately.”
I look out the window while I say all of this, pretending the passing suburban streets are tremendously interesting. There is a long stretch of silence, and I notice that half the houses on this street are the same layout, only flipped. Siding and shutters and a two-car garage. Every once in a while, a low-lit lamppost or a painted fence breaks the monotony. After we have passed about ten more streets, all named after different kinds of shrubbery, Charlie clears his throat.
“So, he asked more questions than I thought he would. Maybe this won’t work after all.”
“We’ll try a few more houses. I’m just not sure it’s going to work out the way I hoped.”
“That’s cool, dude,” Tom says. “As long as we get a few more reactions like that, I’ll be golden.”
Charlie is right, of course. Or I should say I’m right, since I thought this was a stupid idea to begin with. A woman who ordered a large pepperoni and comes to the door in her bathrobe asks us if we think she’s fat when we hand her a can of sugar free peaches before she starts crying. A man in a red flannel shirt notices Tom hiding behind an oak tree and throws the can of spinach at our heads as we run from his porch before he has paid for his medium anchovy pizza, extra cheese. I give Charlie my tip from Jim to make up the difference. Overall, we have gotten rid of eight cans.
“Where are we now?” Charlie asks after we have dropped Tom off at his car.
“One hundred and fifty-nine.”
“Damn. Well, I guess I’ll have to come up with something else.”
Charlie has been irritable most of the night. I know that he’s been working, but it’s starting to grate on my nerves and I wonder what he thinks I am. If I’ve somehow transformed from next door neighbor to friend to little kid sister he needs to take care of.
“You don’t have to protect me, you know. I can figure out something to do with them.”
Charlie makes a noise in the back of his throat.
“Sure. Like you took care of yourself yesterday at the bar?”
“That’s my business.”
“You called me, remember? I think you made it my business.”
I cross my arms over my chest in frustration.
“I thought that if I agreed to your friends stupid little video project we’d call it even.”
“Yeah, well, he didn’t exactly get a lot of footage. And you complaining the whole time didn’t really help things.”
“It’s a stupid idea.”
“And this is a stupid situation. But you got us into it, so don’t yell at me about what’s stupid, Emma.”
“Because I’ve never cleaned up your messes before.”
“All I’m saying is that you brought me into this. If you didn’t want my help, you shouldn’t have asked for it.”
He’s right. I know that I’m being irrational. But suddenly being with him in this car full of cans headed back to my father’s house is too much for me to handle.
“Thank you, okay? Thank you for your help, Charlie. Really. I appreciate your ability to save me from my stupid mistakes. But maybe you’ve made some too.”
By now we have made it back to our neighborhood and Charlie pulls into my driveway. He turns off the car and hands me the keys but doesn’t look at me.
“Goodnight,” I say.
I get out of the car and run up the back steps, slipping once on a patch of ice but catching myself on the door frame. I close the door behind me and see him still sitting in the car. I rest my head against the glass, thinking about going back out to him. But I turn around to check on my dad instead. And it’s then that I see her, her hands clenched on the table, her normally smoothed back hair frizzing around the sides of her face.
“Oh, Emma,” she says. “Oh honey, we tried to call you.”
Stuck Between Him and the Uncomfortable Surfaces of the Car
My father has always hated hospitals. I suppose nobody really likes them, but he hates them with a passion. He used to complain when I would come to visit him in room 204 of Mercy General that the whole place smelled like piss even though they tried to mask it with antiseptic.
“And this beeping sounds like a goddamn videogame. What the hell am I to these people? Some pinball joke?” he’d say, tugging on the wires sticking out of his arms and grimacing.
I knew he understood that the noises were connected to his heartbeat, and so I never asked who the joke would be on once they eventually stopped.
When they told us that there was nothing more they could do, that they could make him as comfortable as possible at home while we waited for the end, he was the happiest I had seen him in years. Even before he was sick, before my mom left, I don’t think I’d ever seen him smile that big. It lasted all of about five seconds before a violent coughing fit started and the nurses came running, checking to make sure the end wasn’t closer than any of us had anticipated. We expected months, after all.
And so, when I found Penny sitting stiff as a board at our kitchen table, I really thought it was over. I expected her to envelop me in a warm hug and tell me how sorry she was and that he had gone as peacefully as could be expected. I thought I had missed it. I couldn’t help feeling almost glad. I did not expect to be back here.
“Ms. Conner?” a nurse calls into the waiting room where I sit on an ugly, uncomfortable, forest green couch.
I stand and she walks over to me with that same look of empathy all the ICU nurses seemed to have permanently fixed on their faces.
“You can see him now, honey. Come with me.”
The fluorescent lights in the white hallway make everything look too clean, the sound of the nurse’s shoes on the recently waxed floor are soft and make a slight scuffing noise. It is all the same. I wonder how long we will be living hospital life this time. But when she opens the door for me and excuses herself, I know that it will not be long. It has only been a few hours since I’ve seen him, but somehow, he seems to have diminished. His body is sunken into the bed the same way his cheeks have sunk into his face and he looks small and lost.
His eyes open but they do not flit to me; they stay staring straight ahead. He takes a labored breath but does not say anything. The machines are beeping again.
“Why?” he says in a barely audible whisper. “Why can’t they just leave me the hell alone? Why Emma? Goddamn it, why can’t they just let me go?”
I could tell him that they are doctors and trying to heal people is what they do. I could remind him that he refused to sign the DNR paperwork when we offered, insisting to me that Shelley or Penny would off him for sure then and no one would be the wiser. Maybe he wants me to tell him that I need him. That I have begged them not to let him die, that he is the only family I have left, that he cannot leave me. But I know that if I start talking about my wants and needs, the truth will spill from me and it will have nothing to do with keeping him. Instead, I will tell him that because of him I have half of a degree and two years’ worth of college debt to pay. I will remind him that my mother left, not because she didn’t love me, but because he couldn’t put down a bottle long enough to keep her happy. I will tell him that I have become the one thing he always despised, a crook, and that the proof of this is in the form of nonperishable food products in the back of my car.
“Why?” he whispers again.
I lean over the side of his bed, holding the guard rails as I kiss his forehead, and say nothing.
When I get home, there is a single light glowing in the kitchen which Penny left for me when she locked up. I notice that the whole kitchen smells of lemon cleaner and I wonder exactly how long she had been waiting for me, and all that she did to keep herself occupied. It smells a little too much like the hospital. I turn and go back out the door to sit on the top porch step.
It is a clear, cold night and the stars are visible over the expanse of trees dipping down into the valley. The wind picks up and blows through my hair. When I first started working at Harold’s, I was on the closing shift. It was mostly me and the after-school girls and I would get home around eleven, having closed the store and wiped down the registers and listened to whatever pieces of wisdom Tina felt like sharing with us. I would check on Dad, who was normally asleep, and then head back out to the deck. I liked the buzzing quiet of crickets and rustling leaves and cars passing down the street intermittently. On weekends, if it wasn’t too cold, I’d sometimes still be out when Charlie came home from the bars around two. He was always alone and his clothes reeked of smoke and sweat and cheap beer. He never said anything on these nights, just came over and sat a few steps down, his legs stretched out in front of him, his arms behind his head. We’d sit like that for an hour before getting up and saying goodnight.
I wonder if Charlie has gone to the bars tonight. Maybe he will come home at two like normal and we will sit in silence and everything will be just like it’s always been. Maybe he will bring home a blond with fake breasts and I will have to hear them drunkenly stumble over each other towards the garage, her giggles intruding on my peace. Maybe he won’t come home at all.
“Hey,” the voice comes from the dark and I see him leaning against my side of the fence. He is still in his delivery clothes, minus the hat. His hands are in his pockets.
He walks over to me and picks up the keys that are sitting next to my right hand.
Even in the dark I know where he is headed.
There are no streetlights in the valley, and the road is only visible from the headlights that cut two feet ahead into the blackness. We reach the clearing quickly but we do not get out of the car. Ahead of us I see the grotto through a thin veil of trees. We have never been here this late before, and the moonlight is casting shadows off the mounds of snow and the contours of the statues face.
“Emma,” Charlie starts, but then falls silent again.
The car begins to cool down and get chilly inside. We have no sleeping bag tonight to keep us warm.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” I say.
“You don’t have to be sorry about anything, Emma.”
Charlie leans his head back and closes his eyes.
“I’m an ass,” he mumbles.
I’m not sure if he intended for me to hear this, but he seems to be waiting for me to say something. I figure the truth is my best option.
“I don’t want to lose you, too.”
It all happens quickly. The unbuckling and slick slip of seatbelts, the squeak of rearranging limbs, the rising sound of pumping blood and shallow breaths. And then lips and hands and skin, fingers trailing my jaw, my neck, winding in my hair, releasing it from its messy ponytail and letting it fall down my back. I’m not sure how, but I end up in Charlie’s lap, my knees bent, legs on either side of his waist, pressed against him. It is…uncomfortable. I feel the hard plastic of the steering wheel pressing at an awkward angle against my spine. My elbows bang clumsily against the glass of the window and the top of my head skims the scratchy fabric of the roof. Charlie seems unaware of my predicament until I lean back too far and hit the car horn, a loud honk reverberating into the dark.
Charlie opens his eyes, his lips still pressed to mine. He stares at me and I feel like an idiot. Not only have I ruined the mood, but I also can’t help but think that I have now disturbed the whole convent of nuns just on the other side of the trees. Not to mention that all manner of woodland creature must for sure be totally against me now.
Charlie leans back from me slowly and tilts his head to the side. I am ready for him to tell me that this was a mistake. That we should go back to the way things were and pretend this never happened. Maybe he’ll decide that things will be too awkward now and he’ll move away. Maybe join the Peace Corps and end up in a third world country somewhere. Right now, I would not be surprised to learn that cockroaches or stink beetles are a better option for company than I am.
But he doesn’t say anything at all. Instead, he laughs. In all the years I have known Charlie, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him laugh as hard as he is now. He grasps at his sides and I am still stuck between him and the uncomfortable surfaces of the car. It takes several minutes for him to calm down enough to breathe without wheezing. When he’s finally done he smiles at me and then kisses me lightly on the tip of my nose. It’s a strange gesture but seems intimate somehow. Comforting. He helps me maneuver my way back to the passenger side of the car, a move that is graceless to say the least and ends in my flailing appendages nearly decapitating him.
Once we are both back in our rightful places, shirts smoothed and seatbelts untangled, we fall into silence again. But this time it is comfortable.
“So, did you decide what we’re going to do with them?” Charlie says after several more minutes.
I look at the statue ahead of us and smile.
“Yeah,” I say. “Do you still have my snowbrush?”
It takes longer to unload the cans than I would have guessed. It is nearing dawn by the time we are done and I step back to examine our work. I nod and smile at Charlie who pulls me into his side before heading back to the car.
We drive away and I lean my head against the cold window, getting a last glimpse of the site as sunlight starts to peek through the trees. Maybe Charlie and I will go back to the garage and sleep on the couch, tangled in each other’s arms instead of separated by the concrete floor. Maybe we will visit my father in the afternoon, maybe Penny will be there and I can thank her for doing the dishes and mopping the floor. Maybe Tina will call, or Paul, and they will ask me to come to the store and explain myself, or at least fire me properly. Maybe Charlie will call Tom and tell him that he has missed out on the best random act of all. But no matter what else happens I know one thing I will be doing. I will call the sisters who live in the convent with an anonymous tip, a personal miracle. And they will send someone down, maybe a group of them, to the old, abandoned grotto. Because before the lady, whose face is crumbling, will be piles upon piles of cans. A ring of them surround her. Groupings of peas and cinnamon apples stacked in clusters at her feet. Towers of beans and lentils piled in the space cleared of snow next to her arms, the tops of cans of collard greens reaching the apex of her outstretched fingertips.