As she puts the receiver in the cradle, she knows how she will change: in the coming week, she will cancel the cable, the paper, and the Internet. Her son will whine that she has a cell phone and she will tell him, while at the breakfast table before school, already four cigarettes into a two-pack day, that the cell phone costs less than the land line. And she needs the phone for jobs. She won’t tell him she also needs it to call his father and defend her actions. By the end of two weeks, she will have them eating pasta, beans and rice, tuna fish. She will fantasize about pizza. She’ll avoid smoking near him, since his father will have told him to holler “Twenty-three cents!” every time he saw one. One night, he will pass her to get some juice, and he will yell it, and she will sting with the need to hit him. He will look at her as if she had. She will sit up later that night and want to call someone, but will think of a damned good reason not to call each person. Her sister would lecture, work her way toward a conversation about Jesus. Her husband would act like jobs are pets, go to the SPCA and get one. Her one friend at work would be awkward, and say she had to get off the phone. One friend’s sympathy will overwhelm and the other will dig in her own history to find the example showing she’s had it worse. By the end of the month she will still not have a job, and while her old job will have stopped challenging the claim for unemployment, the checks will barely cover even the lean version of their new lives. She will reconsider waitressing, fast food, cleaning hotel rooms, scams to make rent. She will wonder what mandates she do more than persist. She will smoke in the one diner left with a smoking section. She will watch people pass. She will flick ashes into a paper boat made from the classifieds. Her son will speak less, and she will put off getting him a haircut because they are too expensive and she is not sure she can do it herself. Every time he brushes his hair from his face, she feels a fingernail scratch inside her sternum. One thing she does not see: the end, a call from one of her friends, the conversation leading to a lunch with a woman wearing glasses and a beige suit. She does not see the lunch, crabcakes, an extravagance of salad. She does not see how, a few days later, she will sit in the corner of a barber shop, amid young men sleepy with mid-day, her eyes running with tears behind a copy of Golf Digest, her legs itching from new hose, her entire chest yearning for a cigarette, while her son laughs at the barber’s dumb jokes, again and again.
You sit in your pick-up truck, outside the restaurant, trying to be absorbed in your copy of Foreign Affairs, afloat in a space of puddles and bumper stickers. You wear a sport coat, the back of its collar worn near-white, and the hem of it out by your left thigh. Under the coat, a red t-shirt, and you wear thin khakis and work boots. In the restaurant, your daughter has last bits of salad and last words for the week with her mother. You have before you a weekend of infinite pauses and a looming job interview, about which you can only worry. Into this she’ll step, your diffuse existence, your trap of contradictions, you without cable, no snacks in the house, no phone other than your cell. You who can barely keep alive the potential for her continued visits, you to whom the judge referred to as being “in a rebuilding phase.”
You remember last night’s PBS special on Yalta—Stalin’s smirk frozen in the documentary’s final frame, that enigmatic expression. Stalin wasn’t the enigma, it was the moment they framed. Was it Stalin himself, horribly cognizant of all to follow, happy at circumstances spreading before him like treasure? Or was he mugging for the cameras—and the accident of timing and hindsight combine to force you again to that image? The three of them—they thought they’d set the world in their image. Roosevelt had his chin up, as though fighting to lift himself to his feet. Churchill looked squashed. Were they faces of consciousness, horrible awareness, or just a trick of light? Or have their faces taken the shape of what we know now?
You see your daughter, waiting to cross the street. A truck slows and the two men inside—your age, laborers—turn their heads to rub their eyes over her. You see how they see her, the curve of her calf below the short skirt you hate, the front of her pushed into an offering. You can’t say anything more specific than that. But it’s her face that makes you gape. They pass her, and while she doesn’t look at them, you know she saw them. And you can’t yet tell if what lurks in her eyes is weariness, sorrow, or pleasure, what thing makes her lids heavier in the dim light afforded by winter’s clouds, what arrests you. As she steps off the curb, it’s gone. You see her eyelashes against her cheeks, her mother’s walk in every step. You see how she comes closer but never near, how she will get in the truck and you will treat her wrong, all weekend, in your stubborn insistence that she is a girl in your image.
A priest, a minister and a rabbi step into a bar. None of them are certain why they are there, why they stepped in at nearly the same time, why they appeared at the same time on the sidewalk below the flickering signs and the electric silhouettes of women, but they felt compelled to stroll in so, trusting God’s intentions and the ultimate design, they stepped.
Patrons look up from their tables, squint until the door shuts behind the three holy men. The talk dissipates and comes to full pause, and the priest distinctly hears a woman chirp, “this can’t really be happening,” and he turns to see the rabbi ordering a Mai Tai and grabbing a handful of pork rinds, but his face is a contorted tragedy, surprised at his actions, his arm operating like a horror movie prop.
The minister skulks into the men’s room and slams his palm again and again against the condom machine and the priest can hear the banging, which has now completely silenced the shotgun barroom, the murmurs around the walnut bar suspended in stares as the minister screams “French tickler! French TICKLER!”
The priest scans the room, feels the sweat on his upper lip as a woman sidles near. He knows she will pull at her collar, draw it away from the clear flower of her shoulder. Her collarbone will push taut against her skin, its end a nugget catching the light in fine hair, sheening her softness. Perhaps she is a boy.
He will see the rabbi watching him, stroking the gold tap handles at the bar while the minister will return, grinning like a flasher. The priest wants to mutter to God, his prayer a punch line of the fervent certainty he now has of God’s presence. The woman’s breasts are small. She is almost certainly a boy. His life has almost certainly led to this.
The woman’s hairy knuckles draw at her collar and he can only think of Job, and the rabbi is already headed toward the door, the minister close behind, and they are heading toward the light of a doorframe crack, the light of the street that glares off of trash and hydrants and the municipal cycles of the people who drink in the bar and the pending revelation in the sweetness of flesh is too much for right now, too much for him to believe in God’s momentary plan, too much to indulge a cosmic joke and so he steps out of the bar, knowing full well that the universe and whatever is behind it will make him return, step over a threshold again and again.