Kirsten Anonymous

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Chapter Seven

When I’d had my last apartment, I’d only half unpacked everything. Not that there was all that much of it. I’d had to leave it before my lease was up, and my folks moved the things I hadn’t gotten out beforehand for me later. In my head, this made things easier on them, because most of the stuff was still in boxes, and most of the clothes had been left in trash bags on the closet floor.

The only nice outfit I had, one that I somehow vividly remembered buying with my then girlfriend (in spite of being more than over the limit at the time), was now hanging in the closet in the basement. Shoes underneath with socks tucked in even. It had been my court outfit. All told, I had to go something like four or five times. I don’t really recall at this point. Most of the time, it seemed like they just wanted to see if I would show up. According to the lawyer, this was good though. He said, the longer things take in the court system, the easier it will be when the end comes around.

I suppose that’s true if you aren’t the one going to bed every night, knowing you had another month before you would maybe find out if you were gonna get locked up or not. And not having a lot of experience in those situations, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to turn off the violent images.

For what it’s worth, I think he was probably right. Initially, when I was still trying to return to some kind of stasis and a halfway normal limbic system, I was all kinds of gung-ho to just fess up, do my time, and get it over with. I think he ended up saving me something like nine months inside, so, I can’t really complain.

Either way, taking out the shirt, the one I had worn to a wedding and then, less than a year later, out of the courtroom in handcuffs (in front of my parents for fuck’s sake), I was almost just happy it still existed. The state is required to give you gate money, but my ATM card had never worked, so I was surprised the clothes had actually travelled around my various stops with me.

I slipped the tie around my neck, tightening the ever-tied knot and slipped my shoes on. For some reason, looking halfway decent always made me think things could turn around. I tried to not focus on it too much, because as you get older, you start learning that things don’t really. Not all the way anyway. I was out, but it wasn’t like I was expecting things to be better, or even the same.

Still, I’d heard from my parents enough times that things could be okay, that I had a lot going for me, that people should be happy to have things work out in their favor so that I could work for them. I had no bills, no responsibilities. I could work any hours, for technically any wage, and it would still be better than what I had. After a few months of this, just getting responses to my inquiry emails was enough to make me want to think mom and dad could be right yet again.

I walked over to the bathroom mirror to look at myself. Mom had cut my hair the night before, I had shaved and somehow been lucky enough to find my watch, a belt. If you didn’t know better, I looked a lot like a regular person.

Mom was upstairs, keeping herself occupied so as to not make me more nervous, I think.

I was thinking about the last few days. A whirlwind of actually applying for jobs, working out again, trying to get myself back on track. Probably the manic to my depressive, but I tried to just ride the wave while the riding was good. After my last night up at the river, when I woke up on the floor, I considered just tossing everything in the truck and heading home, but somehow my pride was still hanging on by a fingernail and I almost convinced myself to give it one more day. It had rained during the night, though, so the wood was all soaked, it was still overcast, and my motivation for anything kind of dampened and mildewed like the old newspapers in the cabin.

I sat on the couch for an hour or two, just staring, not even thinking really. Listening to myself breathe seemed like an accomplishment. I finally decided to load up my few belongings. I locked the cabin and re-hid the keys, plugged the phone into the truck charger, and headed out, making sure to rehang the rope on my way. I might be useless, but I remembered the rope.

About halfway between the cabin and Arden, I realized I had no stories to tell when I got back. I didn’t even feel like making any up. And it used to come so easily to me. I still had a change of clothes, and in spite of what I’d said, the river water hadn’t cleaned me up at all. I actually felt a little more dirty, or like there was a fine film of muck on me that only I could see. And I definitely smelled.

Just outside of town I drove past one of those motels with number names, six or eight or eleventy-seven. Without really thinking, I took the next turn-off (actually crossing the city limits by about a hundred yards), turned back, and booked a room for the night. I couldn’t check in officially for a few more hours, so I’d sat in a diner across the parking lot, pushing food around on a plate and watching cars go by on the highway. I remember thinking later I was probably rude to the waitress on accident. I didn’t mean to be; I just didn’t have a lot to say right then. But I hope she wasn’t mad.

Once I finally made it to my room, I sat under the shower for awhile, realizing I hadn’t done any exercises in three days and feeling like a total bum for that. After some amount of time, I got out, wrapped a towel around myself, flipped the tv on and sat on the bed. I kept meaning to get the remote and change it away from the hotel’s welcome station, but I never got around to it.

For a brief second, I had a flash of drive, a surety that I could pull myself up by the bootstraps if I could just go do something, no matter what it was. Go knock on the neighbor’s door and make a friend. See if anyone actually used the chairs in a hotel lobby or go chat with the girl at the reception desk. Go back to the diner and apologize to the waitress. In hindsight, she kind of reminded me of that Elsby girl from school. I mean, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t her, but for some reason I thought someone had said she’d moved somewhere around there. Maybe not. I was a little foggy on the last six or seven years. Either way, she looked close enough to add an extra layer of nonsensical guilt to what I already, likely legitimately, felt.

But we could be friends, whoever she was. Obviously she lived close and was employable. She probably wouldn’t like having breakfast for dinner or anything like that, but I could come over and visit her during work, sit at the little counter and have coffee. People would know who I was and I’d get even more friends through her. Then I’d get motivated to take any kind of job, just so I could surprise her with little gifts or mini-vacations or something. I could do all that normal stuff. Wait, not just normal, good.

Of course, immediately after that explosion of thought, which in hindsight probably lasted all of three minutes, what I actually did was sit. I just sat, looking down at the parking lot, and slowly, accidentally memorizing the spiel in the background. So, in the end, I guess I did accomplish one thing during the trip; I can still recite the pitch for a motel, which, if you hear it, you’re obviously already in the stupid place to begin with.

The next day I checked out late and got back early. I put on a happy face at the end of the drive, unloaded my things and went downstairs, claiming I had worn myself out. I fielded a few questions at dinner and, other than that, the topic was pretty well dropped, never to be mentioned again, except to myself.

I just kept thinking, or trying to think, I could do things differently. I’d kept telling myself there was no way out of that cabin, that place in my head. There was no way away from the window, whether it was showing me the river, or the highway, or a parking lot. But how could I get away from it, if all I did was think about standing there, or think about thinking about standing there? Thankfully, every once in awhile, a spiral of thought gets so stupid even I can’t keep entertaining it.

So, considering how easily I’d blanked out life while I was sitting in those places, I’d tried to keep doing it as best I could. White-knuckle the damn thing. Probably not the healthiest move, but it made things a lot quieter. And it got me sending emails.

“That looks good,” she said when I came up. “It was kind of baggy on you before. You look a lot healthier.”

“Yeah,” I grabbed a copy of my resume off the end table. “Hopefully they’ll take me at face-value and not ask why there is a giant gap in this.” I rattled the papers.

“You can only do the best you can,” she said. “You’re trying. A lot of people in your position would have given up by now.”

“Yeah, maybe.” I thought back to a bunky I’d had for about a month. He’d asked me to write letters for him because he was “no good” at spelling. (I quickly realized he meant, “no good” like, around a second grade education level.) He had a handful of people he wanted to write: a sister, a buddy from his old job, someone at a halfway house. “The thing is,” he’d said, “I know my parent’s really like to smoke pot and all that shit, and they’re not gonna wanna give that up just because I got out. But if I stay there, I’ll just be right back in here as soon as my PO comes over the first time. Don’t say any of that in the letters; I don’t wanna get them in trouble. I just need to find a place to stay. If you can, make it sound like I really am trying.”

“You are,” I’d said.

“Well I just don’t want to cause no problems.”

I nodded and started writing for him.

He got transferred out before me, so I don’t really know what happened to him. Hopefully he’s not back already, but I don’t know what he was hoping to get out and do. Fifty bucks gate money wouldn’t get you very far. Especially if his card turned out like mine.

“The only thing you can do is be honest,” mom was saying.

“Yeah,” I said. “At this point, that’s basically the only thing I wanna do. It’s bad enough having to say all this stuff, but I definitely don’t want it coming up on my first day.”

“And you never know what might happen,” she said.

“True.” Actually, I was pretty damn sure I knew what was about to happen, but there was still that one percent of me that remembered I had thought that a lot of times before. And none of what I expected ended with me living in my parents’ basement. “Well, I guess I better get going.”

“Good luck,” she said.

“Thanks.”

I was driving to an interview to work at a battered women’s shelter. I knew absolutely nothing about battered women. But the job only required a high school diploma, and with some help from mom and dad I had convinced myself my tutoring had, if nothing else, gotten me involved with families and, to a certain extent, could fall under “social sciences.”

“The important thing,” dad had said, “is that you understand how to work with people. That’s a skill that can take you a lot of places. And a lot of people can’t do it.”

I wasn’t completely sure if I bought that line. I felt like I knew how to work people. I knew how to pander and slip through cracks. I knew how to lie in very feasible ways. I had lost pretty much all of my shame in a trade-off for what I considered an odd, but useful, kind of freedom.

At the same time, he could be right. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. Like the conman and the magician again. It’s the same sleights, but in one job, you’re not screwing everybody.

As I drove across town, I tried to plan out the interaction. This was my first job interview in almost two years, and the first one where the interviewer wasn’t a buddy of mine in almost five. The last time I’d applied for a job, the guy actually told me he could get me clean urine if I needed it. I could barely remember what it was like trying to sell myself to somebody in real life. Or at least in any scenario where I wasn’t trying to keep myself from being broken up with or kicked out.

I turned up the radio and tried to just enjoy being on the outside. The interview was at 1:30. I’d left a little early and could cross town in twenty minutes. On a Wednesday not too many months before, I would’ve been sitting around wondering when the CO was going to come in and start calling out bunk numbers for mail. Then the longest ten minutes of the week, where you wait to see if you get called. Then that amazing thirty seconds where you hear your number and walk down to see what you got, who remembered you that week.

Or the worst ten seconds when you see his hands get emptier, emptier, empty, and you go back to your bunk, wondering what happened but still already becoming more and more sure that in seven days you’d definitely have a letter.

I made a couple turns and pulled up in front of an incredibly nondescript building. In spite of having been in and out of the town for most of my life, much like the SHitS secret clubhouse, I’d never noticed it before.

I sat in the car for a second, breathing, remembering to not care in the right way, and then grabbed my resume and headed inside.

After waiting a few minutes, after filling out another application with the same information I had already given them twice, after waiting another ten minutes, I’d been led to a back office and done my best to charm the woman. Her infant was in a carrier on the floor next to her desk. Papers were stacked and boxed in a way that reminded me of my old place. I tried to take it as a good sign.

I felt like I was just charming enough. She’d laughed. I’d laughed. I’d told stories about my students and some of the other jobs I’d had. I only fudged a little when it came to my “responsibilities” and “previous experience.” But that’s part of the game, I thought. Nobody can possibly go through these things and be entirely truthful. That’s why it’s called selling yourself.

For a few minutes, I almost forgot I hadn’t told her everything yet, I almost started believing this was going to go well. It had, at least, started strong. Then, just at the end, when it seemed she didn’t have much else to say, when she’d asked if I had any questions, I realized that was my cue.

“Well, not exactly a question,” I said. “But in honor of full-disclosure, I do need to talk to you about a couple things.”

I don’t know why I thought I could spin this part. Because no matter how nicely you frame your motives, you’re still a guy that not six months ago was getting his hair buzzed by a fellow convict in order to make it more difficult for others to grab ahold of you before they slammed your head against a wall and kicked the shit out of you.

I’d laid it out as best I could, thankful I’d spent years girding myself up against the look of disappointment on a female’s face.

“Okay…” she said. “Well, that might be a problem.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s why I wanted to bring it up now. I have plenty of references,” this was hardly true, but I would deal with that later. One impossible obstacle at a time. “And, really, given the situation, I think I’d almost be a better candidate than most. My whole focus would be on this position. You would know for certain that I’m reliable, as you would have the names and numbers of people to call and check up on me with. And as far as motivation goes, I don’t think you could find someone more ready to get back onto a career path.”

“That’s true,” she said. “Unfortunately, the head of our board of directors is also the head of the local Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter…”

“Even better,” I jumped in. “I just recently completed a course through them for one of my probation requirements. And if anyone should be in support of getting people like me back on track…” I didn’t know how to finish. For some stupid reason, I laughed. “I mean, right?”

She laughed as well, thankfully, but more so from relief that I’d laughed, I think. “Maybe…”

“Okay.” I said. “Well, that’s why I at least wanted to bring this all up now. If she’d like to meet with me personally, I’d be happy to do so. I really think I would be a good fit for this job, and I’d hate to lose it due to something like this.”

“I understand completely,” she said. “And I think you would be great. I hope you remember to get ahold of us when this is all straightened out.”

I nodded. “I’d be happy too. And I really appreciate your time.”

I shook her hand and walked back out to the truck. I sat in the parking lot for a minute, and then realized I was probably being weird. She’d told me that the building was not the one where the position would be. That building was kept confidential, “for obvious reasons.” I wondered if she regretted her phrasing, now that she knew I was one of those people. One of the ones you wouldn’t wanna leave your kid around. An ex-con.

For fuck’s sake.

I started up the truck and turned back toward the house, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story so as to not let mom and dad down too much. Surely they had to expect it, but they had this terrible habit of continuing to hope for things in the face of reality.

“No,” was basically all I’d ended up saying. “Kind of what we expected. Call them back when everything is cleared up.”

“Well, at least they’re still interested,” dad had said.

“Next time,” mom said.

* * *

About a week later I was downstairs on the couch. I’d finally caved and was flipping through stations. TLC was on its own. I hadn’t really given up, but I’d started to question my ability to glean anything firm from watching documentaries. I mean, I understand they’re a good introduction. And for all the flack tv gets, I can’t imagine a better way to handle some topics. Like, I don’t care much about Derrida, but when you can have sixty minutes of living, breathing Derrida, even if it does have subtitles, that’s gotta be about as close as you can get to the real thing. Right? Granted it’s edited, but it’s edited so you see the most important parts.

Or like, the History Channel shows. I don’t expect to know every single thing there is to know about Florence because I watched a one hour episode on Dante, but I know more than I did before. And for somebody as lazy as me, I probably really needed the pictures and things to help me keep paying attention. I’d read the same old history of Rome books as everybody else, but I can’t say I retained a lot of it. At least this helped me see things.

The problem was, though, unless I enrolled at the little college in town, I couldn’t check out videos from their library. Not that they had a whole lot, I imagine. It was mostly a nursing school, more than anything else. (Which was so very Arden, given that there was a much bigger, more well-respected nursing school less than an hour away.) But I figured it would be good to understand how my body worked, though I could sort of see myself getting carried away and thinking I really understood something I didn’t. Like jumping on a pit crew because I’d helped my grandpa change the brakes on his truck once. I’d probably just be mad at the other pit guys for not understanding my philosophy of cars.

But the point is, I was starting to question the value of me attempting to learn things. Like, if I had some skill or recondite ability, I probably would’ve found it by now. And since nobody was counting the ability to drink anybody else under the table, I was pretty much at zero. I’d been keeping up with my work-outs again at least, adding some different exercises a few times a week. (Mostly just when I felt like it, to be honest.). I could almost bench press my own weight, which initially seemed like a great goal, but then I remembered I don’t weigh very much. And plus, if you look at the amount of weight that good weight-lifters lift, I was a little more like a kid with a bb gun trying to go big game hunting.

Anyway, all of this is merely an excuse to say that when I saw one of the channels was showing all the “Mission: Impossible” movies in a row, it seemed like the best choice I could really make.

I’d missed the first two, on the tv I mean, but it was pretty much a guaranteed filled chunk of time. In this one, Tom Cruise had to catch Philip Seymour Hoffman. I still kind of had a grudge against Hoffman for doing what was probably a good job portraying Truman Capote, so I was more than happy to see him get the shit kicked out of him for a little bit.

I used to really like Truman Capote. Like as a person I mean. He seemed so quirky and confident and exciting. The kind of guy that was able to do what he wanted because he was both good at it and extremely able to convince you he was good at it too. And those little quips, like on Kerouac (“that’s not writing, that’s typing”), I would kill to be able to say things like that. To be in a place where I was so smart and so respected in what I did, that it actually mattered to people if I said something was good or not. Or to at least be able to offer something equally good.

(To be fair, I’d read all the same Kerouac books as everybody else, and really enjoyed them. But that was pre-Capote. I was around 14 or 15, prime Kerouac years. Later in high school, Capote was just so damn classy. If you choices are to basically be a hobo and do a bunch of drugs with your friends, or live in the center of the world and move and shake and know people who moved and shook even more [and yeah probably do a bunch of drugs with your friends], why wouldn’t you pick the second one? They’re pretty much the same thing, if you’re gonna be base about it.)

But what I mean was, I really had liked Capote. Like, I wanted to be his friend. That Salinger line, about calling up the author because he’s such a good friend of yours, I think that was probably the funniest line he ever wrote. Maybe not funny, but yeah, we all wanted to call him when we read that.

The thing is, then you read about these guys and, well... Capote is stumbling into Vonnegut’s house at nine am, already half-cocked on screwdrivers. Salinger is hiding in a shed behind his house, loving the beauty and purity of young girls in a way that maybe doesn’t leave everyone totally comfortable. Kerouac is living with his mom.

I’d set aside Capote after starting to read his collected letters. Not because I disliked this style of writing so much. I mean to be fair, I’d never really “got” short stories either. And if you wanted me to analyze a novel, I’d have gems like “well I mean, I liked it. It made me feel, like, good.” But when you find yourself saying “hey, c’mon now” or “settle down” to a book of letters from somebody that died around the same time you were born, maybe you should find a new hobby.

So, back then, this was maybe in the first year of college, I’d picked up The Great Gatsby for the third or fourth time, determined to understand it. And I’m not saying I did any better than previous attempts, but I started reading books about that book, and it sort of made more sense. Not in any way I want to get into here, but I felt like I understood at least a little more. As like, a person.

The problem was though, the more Fitzgerald I read, the more I wanted to know about Fitzgerald. Capote’s letters was the first book I ever stopped without finishing, but sometimes I think it taught me more than any other book. Or at least affected my actions in a way none other had. After Capote, I knew I never wanted to know very much about people.

There was a Fitzgerald biography sitting on the bar behind me, and I was almost done with it, although I was only about halfway through. I’d read a half dozen of them already, but never to the end. Right about the time things start going south, just after Tender is the Night, that’s where I usually set them aside. I didn’t know a lot about what happened after that, but I had gleaned enough from other things to know I didn’t need to read about another guy drinking too much and bombing in his career and realizing that everything that was great had pretty much already happened to him by the time he was my age.

At least with the benefit of hindsight, I could read through all the rest, knowing that after a while, people would actually like Gatsby, and old Franky Scott would get his glamour back. But I didn’t need to go through everybody’s shitty comments about the end of things. Just let the man stop where he needed to.

To be fair though, I never read The Last Tycoon. After fighting through so much Kafka to see the last page end with something like “....it was difficult to understand her, but what she said,” and then nothing, it kind of left me with a feeling like I had wasted my time. Or worse, that I was so uneducated I couldn’t understand why a book with literally no ending, not even a period, was still being published this much later in history. (Okay, yeah, we all know Finnegans Wake, but that one at least makes sense.) But how can you be so good at something that you don’t even have to finish it and people love you anyway? This is all on top of the fact I can’t even imagine telling somebody, “okay, it’s a story about a guy that wakes up as a bug. No I don’t explain why. He’s just a bug. No it’s not really a whole book. What size is he? I don’t know. It depends on the moment.” And then having that person say, “Yes!

Maybe, probably, the lazy side of me just wanted to be so good at something I didn’t even have to follow the most basic rules, and could still be considered a genius.

Or maybe that’s what I used to think. Mostly now I just wanted to be good at something. To be decent even. To go to a job and know that what I was doing was worthwhile.

Then again, maybe I should’ve just been looking harder for a job. I kept thinking about what Christy said, about remaking myself. But I’d always been crappy at things; what sense did it make to go ahead and do some other pointless job for a while just because it seemed like I should have a job? Wouldn’t that just be going back to where I was, restarting the cycle that went down and down and down until I was laying on a cot, trying to sleep while two guys played cards at 3 am one cell over?

The only skill I can remember ever having was being able to text on a flip phone without looking at the keypad. But then they made new phones and I have to look at the screen again, like everybody else.

On tv, Tom Cruise was being very cool, which is basically what I assume he is like all the time. People give him such a hard time for being weird, but I think you would be hard-pressed to find a guy that wouldn’t want to be Tom Cruise. And plus, when you can do anything you want, wouldn’t you have to end up being a little bit weird? I don’t know what I would be like if “no” wasn’t an option anymore. He even got away with marrying Katie Holmes, which, beyond me having the same crush every other guy my age had on her, didn’t that smack of Salinger a bit? And nobody even said anything, except that he was too excited.

I would like to be too excited sometimes.

I was trying to think about how many kids he had. Like, what is that like? To have him as a father? You wouldn’t ever have to do anything. You don’t even have to see the guy, probably, and you can just do or not do whatever you want. I don’t know if I would use the word “blessed” necessarily, but that would certainly be an exceptional life. In the unique way, I mean.

I wondered what Kirsten’s kids were like. I didn’t have any trouble with kids really. At least not in the little bits of interaction I’d had with them. That was all kind of tutoring/school-based stuff, but it seemed like we had gotten along okay. Plus, her kids had to be staying somewhere else right now. Maybe with her mom, or their dad, but it wasn’t like they could be around her in the same way.

I grabbed my phone to text her, but then caught myself, realizing that the relationship I was building with her in my head was entirely one-sided. I still only had a handful of texts from her, and while they did seem to bear a fragrance of “wanting”, I hadn’t seen her outside of a meeting room in my life.

But that could be good, right? It would almost be like reverting to high school. We could only date. Only go places where people already were. My parents or the staff at the house would always be around. I wouldn’t have to immediately show how inexperienced I was as a dad, or try and show how good I was with her specific kids. I would get to have her sitting on a couch with me, watching “Mission: Impossible” movies, or eating dinner in town, or walking around the park or something. In a way, it almost seemed like it could be better that way. How many people get to take that step back and do something in a pure, almost childlike way? Yeah, it would be a little weird, since we both had our “issues,” but mine were pretty much water under the bridge, and imagine how helpful that would be to her. A strong person who understood and could guide and listen and just be there.

It was amazing how easily the images flashed. Laughing at dinner, her eating french fries or something. Laying in the grass with her head on my chest, watching clouds. Coming home to a wife and a family. Having a house somewhere that I was paying for with my job. Being able to say things like “we did this/we did that” and not mean me and my mom. Not that it was all so John Green and beautiful. I wasn’t that naive. Obviously there would be hard times. I’d have to meet the kids’ dad probably at some point. And he probably wouldn’t like me. And I’d have to be very cool and suave with him, maybe making a comment here and there that was really clever and we would laugh about him not getting it later. Or she’d tell me about what her life was like before. Not much though, because I wouldn’t push her on it, but just let her talk, let her open up and learn how to trust and realize that I really was a gentleman who wanted to take care of her because I could see who she was deep down, past the scars, past the street-tough exterior. I’d let her cry on me when she needed to. She wouldn’t want to at first, of course. She would probably try to hide it, but I would understand. I’d know how to just let her lean on me when she needed to, pulling her closer when she wasn’t sure she was brave enough to do it by herself.

I could do that. I could actually be good at that.

If I could just figure out how to get from the couch in my parents’ basement to there.

Tom Cruise was really letting Philip Seymour Hoffman have it on tv. I realized I should probably figure out how to fight. I doubted it would ever come up, but it seemed like an important skill to have, just in case. I guess maybe I had a little street cred now. If I was ever really almost in a fight, I could just say something tough like “You’re not worth going back to prison for,” and saunter off. Nobody really fights, anyway, do they?

I picked up my phone again, wanting to have something cool to say to her. But, like everything else, the reality was, I had no idea what I was doing. Nobody gets paid for imagining themselves a hero. Even Tom Cruise had to have people write the lines for him.

I tossed the phone on the floor and laid on the couch. Eventually I fell asleep.

* * *

Part of my parents’ life anymore, since we’d gotten older and they had both continued to follow the standard path of success that I’d somehow almost immediately strayed from, was that they took about one vacation per season. Sometimes Chris and Christy went with them. I had once or twice, but most times during the last few years I’d been between jobs or just started one or just hadn’t felt it appropriate for me to keep living off their savings.

Which was kind of ironic at this point, I suppose.

I couldn’t decide if I was happy about it, or if it was some kind of hilarious karma thing, or if I should just stop running around in circles and see it as something that happened to happen, but this early summer, their vacation to Maine took place during my first and second weeks as a “maintenance man” for the County Parks Department. That’s right; I had found a job. Don’t ask me how. One email, one fifteen minute interview, and they said I was in. It wasn’t glamorous by a long shot, but I had a place to go five days a week, and people there sort of had to talk to me, so I had almost made some new acquaintances.

Of course, it didn’t change the fact that, for about ten minutes one day, I had debated meeting with my supervisor and letting him know this was the only annual family vacation, that we never really saw each other and that, out of the whole year, this would be my one chance to spend time with my family. Tell him how we always planned it. Make it sound really important so he would have to be some kind of cold-hearted bastard to not let me visit with my poor, humble family.

Or I could just go anyway and deal with it.

But one of the catch-22’s of lying is (most times) you need somebody else to hear it. So, while I wouldn’t have minded lying to work, my folks weren’t so stupid as to think any job ever would hire you and then not expect you to be there.

So that’s how, for two weeks, I had the house to myself.

I liked to gripe and moan about it in my head, but I think there was still a small part of me that was excited. I had the house to myself. And I had a job. If this wasn’t a dry run for a real life, I couldn’t really think of one. Granted, there were the weekly meetings, but other than those six hours of required sitting, I had fourteen days to do as I pleased. Other than work, I mean, but that’s a Regular Person kind of thing to gripe about.

I wasn’t sure how I wanted to handle it yet, but I knew that sooner or later, I would finally have Kirsten over. Finally get to spend time with her on our own. Finally get to just be two regular people who were hanging out and being normal. And if we ended up liking the middle school idea of “more than friends,” so be it.

Not that that was my main goal whatsoever. I still hadn’t seen her outside a meeting (which was what six or seven weeks at this point?). And besides, the chances were somewhat slim I’d even see her at those. True, I couldn’t deny the times that we texted were not nearly as close to the “I’m just here to help you” type conversation I had originally anticipated. But she had a way of disappearing for days and then coming back so hard and strong you couldn’t help but forgive her. And, really, it was flattering as hell.

We weren’t explicit; I hadn’t seen her naked or anything, but she certainly left nothing to the imagination when it came to her intentions. The day after my parents left, I’d gotten out a calendar and tried to set up my schedule, just in case. (I mean, the cabin was out for, basically, ever.)At that point, I worked five days a week like everybody else, but on the weird park schedule. It was summer, and I had only been hired to replace a kid who almost immediately quit, so I was really only “employed” for the remainder of the camping season. But since most people camp on the weekends, my “weekend” was whichever two out of seven days was the least busy on a given week. Half the time they couldn’t decide if they wanted me in the morning or the evening.

Which was not the only surprise. It turns out, as was only briefly hinted at in the interview, a maintenance man at the Parks Department is more like a janitor who is also sometimes a garbage man. But at that point, I had had zero interest from other employers, and once the Parks found out I had my driver’s license back, they weren’t really all that concerned about any of my legal woes. I think the facts that it paid next to nothing, and that the majority of their applicants were high schoolers, had also probably helped my case.

Most of my duties, if one could call them that, were to clean the bathrooms and empty the trash cans that sat randomly around the park. It wasn’t a small place, but if I really got going, or on days that it was raining and no one was around, I found myself with a good five hours to kill. And that was even when I tried to be honest and actually do my job.

A lot of the other employees were retired people just looking for something to do during the summer. A handful were actual full-time park employees who travelled back and forth between the whopping two parks Arden has. I went in around two usually, scrambled for a few hours to figure out what was going on, who had left messes, who had questions I didn’t know the answers to, and then waited till evening when I could get everything as spotless as possible, in hopes that no one would wreak too much havoc between 11 PM and whenever I got back the next day.

After my first evening there, I’d started sticking a little battery powered radio and headphones in the truck, after two I’d shoved a few paperbacks in with the change of clothes they had wisely advised me to bring each shift.

The first few days, once I realized I was going to be basically the only employee there, not counting the girl at the entrance shack, I started finding hiding places. Or games to play in my head. I tried to find where a family of deer was living by the back parking lot. I tried to memorize the trails that cut back and forth through the woods. I read all the “literature” available so that I would maybe be the most informed guy there. That way the Parks Dept would realize how lucky they were to have me, and they would want to keep me. They’d make a whole new position for me. Something that was kind of cool and required a little bit of smarts, a little bit of people skills, but would leave me really independent. Because I was going to be so trustworthy and knowledgeable, and all.

What ended up happening though, was about two or three times a week I’d just go hang out in the entrance shack with whoever was working up there. I wasn’t shirking anything, and it was at least a way to fill the time between cleaning everything up when I got there, and cleaning everything up before I left. Since I wasn’t a full-time employee, I wasn’t covered by their insurance, and therefore couldn’t even think about sitting on the lawn-mowers.

A few times a week, when I got there, the full-time guys would be in the maintenance shop, talking about whatever, but mostly looking for a way to kill the last hour of their shift that didn’t require being outside in the summer heat. As far as I could tell, they didn’t know anything about me. I’d told them the same story I’d told everyone else, that I used to live up in the capital, but that it wasn’t really my type of place, the city was too big, I was trying to get back to town where all my family lived, etc., etc. Every now and again I’d have to fluff a little, bending the truth just enough (“well I’ve always lived on my own, and I don’t eat much, so it was an easy way to save money”) that it didn’t seem weird I was working this kind of job and living with my parents at my age.

It seemed like mostly, if I appeared confident in what I said, nobody really cared enough to dig into the story any further. I was legitimately embarrassed to be living where I was, but most of the guys there didn’t earn much either, so nothing seemed too off kilter. It’s not like I was working part-time at an accounting firm or something.

There were four different people that worked in the shack, two that I rarely ever saw, because their shifts ended about the time I got there. The third was a transplant from Seattle, who just could not get enough of talking about that. I wasn’t sure why she was back if she loved it so much there (probably to be closer to her family or something, haha). Thanks to the schedule posted in the shop, though, I ended up learning everyone’s typical days pretty quick and figured out ways to be extra busy when she was there.

The last girl was about my age, a kind of shy brunette who was, in spite of this (the shyness, not the hair), much more forthcoming about herself than I was. She was an odd duck, and I think that was why I almost immediately felt comfortable killing time sitting on the extra, tiny desk shoved in the corner of her “office.” In between campers checking in and checking out, or phone calls from people with questions that could’ve been answered in two seconds if they’d just looked at the park website, we’d almost started to become friends.

Which was surprising, because it’s not like I had a lot of interesting things to talk about.

Becca (the name she preferred, though in an odd moment of silly forwardness, I had decided I would never call her that, trying out “Reba,” “Beckers,” “RB,” etc. before I was allowed to settle on just plain old “Rebekah”) had two kids at home and was just finished with a divorce that had left her mostly fine financially. But, she said she didn’t want to sit there and live off his money. In fact, if it weren’t for the kids, she wouldn’t have taken “a damn penny.” And, besides, she’d said, she liked to work.

Weirdo.

I don’t know a lot about how any of that divorce stuff plays out, but to be fair, looking at her from my position in life, I couldn’t even understand how she had managed to do so many things in so few years. She’d gotten married at twenty-one, which did seem a little young, but wasn’t unheard of by any means, especially in Arden, where if you left high school without a girl you better pray you were going somewhere else soon. They weren’t easy to find in this city.

But anyway, according to her, it was a quick marriage that seemed right at the time. Then, as usual, when things got rocky, they’d decided maybe a kid would help. Of course, it didn’t (she sounded like she knew all along), and after a short separation, when this guy had seemed to get his act together, they’d given it another go. The second kid is what one would politely call “an accident.”

I was surrounded by moms everywhere I went, it seemed.

But, I had to give it to this one. She wasn’t screwing around, and in stark contrast to what I was used to (from myself), she wasn’t whining about it. Or at least not too much.

She’d originally started college part-time, but dropped out once she got married. At that point her ex had foreseen a future with a lot of travel for himself, and supposedly her, though, as usual, I was never clear on what it was he did. It sounded something like sales again, but a lot of what she said didn’t totally jive with what I had gleaned from dad or Chris. Either way, he was always gone a lot, and he swore he was wanting her to come with him; it just never seemed to work out quite right.

So, apparently she’d answered his phone one night when she “shouldn’t have,” and things got a little sketchy regarding the girl who was calling her husband at eleven o’clock in the evening. He’d come up with some story (“mostly I wanted to believe it, I think,” she said) and shortly after that, kid number 1 was created. So, instead of going back to college, like she’d always intended once they got their future settled, she became a full-time mom, and poured herself into that. “It’s easier to ignore things when you’re busy with something else.”

Of course this led to kid number two, the sister, and she pretty much had to let the college thing sit on the back-burner for a while.

I’m not proud of it, but I have to admit, part of my fogginess on much of this might be the fact that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how in the world this tiny girl could’ve even possibly had two kids. She was, as guys both on the inside and out like to say, “built like a brick shithouse.” (Which I think means good.) She kept her hair up in a bun most of the time, though every once in a while she’d come in with it down and curled, apparently a thing she did to perk herself up sometimes. I tried to compliment her on it once, but almost immediately realized I had no idea how to do that without sounding like either a) a creeper, or b) like she looked gross all the other times.

This was down the road a bit, after we’d spent a lot of the summer together, but early on, during those two weeks mom and dad were gone especially, I found myself more and more utilizing her for my social outlet that, no matter how much I claimed otherwise, it seemed like I needed. It wasn’t that I really hurt for people to talk to. I had my meetings after all, if I really felt the burning desire to open up. Something about her though, maybe just the fact that we saw each other at work, at an almost nauseatingly normal place, made me want to share just a little more with her. If the house could be a practice run for real life, she could be a practice run for a friend. No courts system, no shady past, no “addiction” involved. Just two people of about the same age, working a job that was kind of stupid but provided most things a job was supposed to. People that talked because they got along, or were at least bored in the same place.

The Tuesday after mom and dad left, the Seattle girl had worked, but that meant Wednesday through Saturday were Rebekah days, and I showed up that Wednesday apparently clearly happy about it. The guys had given me a hard time in the shop, and I had unthinkingly tried to tell them it was just because my folks were out of town.

“All right guys, off to Cole’s then,” had been the general consensus as they’d leaned back around the break table, boots up, button-up “official” Parks Department shirts in various states of stain from sweat, grass, oil, mud, and who knows what else. I laughed, and looking at them there, they really were a good group of guys. Not wholly unlike the SHitS, but a little more, I don’t know, my speed. I still didn’t understand most of what they talked about. I don’t know plants, or construction, or actual maintenance for anything, but they didn’t seem to mind. I almost thought I wouldn’t be upset if they did show up, although I quickly realized guys like this probably enjoyed a beer at the end of the day, and while I was pretty sure I could get through an evening not drinking while everyone else did, I didn’t see it being all that pleasant. And there was no way I’d invite them over to a dry house.

I started actual work when they left around three, waving from truck windows and nearly side-swiping me in my gator-type cart, the back of which was already filling with trash bags. I zipped to the back dumpster and then whirred up to see Rebekah.

“You look happy,” was the first thing she said. She had an old newspaper spread open on the desk, the crossword out in front of her.

“Do I? Maybe it’s because I’ve come up with a decision recently.”

“Oh?,” she erased some words from the boxes. They weren’t her words, I’d been told before. The woman who worked in the mornings wasn’t exactly a puzzle pro, apparently.

“Yeah. And don’t be offended or anything, because this is just my one personal observation, and maybe it’s not completely true, so…” I trailed off.

“Yeeeesssss?”

“Hang on. I have to say it right.” I leaned back on the extra desk. “Okay, so, this is what I can say, as nicely as I can say it. Given the demographic of people that come camping in this county, at this particular park, in the last month or so, I can tell you that there is no doubt in my mind that women are actually way messier than men. At least in these particular bathrooms I mean.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “Yeah. Women are gross. Did you not know that?”

I sat on the desk, pulling my legs up under me indian-style, a bit of dried mud chipping off the bottom of my work boots and dusting the floor. “No. I mean, I thought the general consensus was that men are gross and women are supposed to be these delicate little flowers or something.”

She laughed again. “No. Absolutely not. I’d drive home before I used the bathrooms out there. It took me a week to pee in the one here,” there was a small bathroom in the back of the shack. “And even now I still hover.”

“No kidding? I mean about the filthiness, not the hovering.”

“No kidding.”

“I wonder why guys always get the bad rap then.”

“Well, which ones are more trashed, though? Maybe the women are consistently dirty, but who tries to flush literally everything down the toilet? Which one will be more likely to have, like, condoms on the floor or shit on the walls?”

I laughed. Delicate little flower, indeed. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem terribly crass when she said it. And she had a point.

“I guess I always figured that was kids.”

“I hope it’s kids. Well, at least, for the shit parts.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s true. I dunno, I just thought it was weird.”

She shrugged. “People are gross.”

“Yeah.” I tried to lean over and look past her to the crossword.

“No helping yet. You can have it when I’m done.”

“You don’t ever leave any.”

“You can do the jumble.”

“C’mon, dude. The jumble?” I laughed. “That’s for ten-year-olds.”

“Well, then when you’re finished you can go rub some poop on the walls.”

“Nah, not till my last day. I don’t wanna have to come back and clean it off tomorrow.”

“Good thinking.”

She had started penciling some letters in the boxes again when the phone rang. While she lifted the receiver and began the prepared answering speech, I tried to watch her without being weird. I couldn’t figure out why we got along. It wasn’t that she was anything amazing, on paper, I mean. Obviously she had her own set of issues. We were both working in jobs that neither of us had dreamed of. She had a boatload of other things to deal with that I couldn’t even imagine having in front of me. But she seemed kind of immune to it all. Not that she didn’t care, but she didn’t pitch a fit every time something was amiss. She just took it all head-on.

Maybe that’s what it was, I thought. Maybe I admired her.

She caught me looking at her and rolled her eyes, smiling, repeating the park hours into the phone for probably the tenth time since she’d gotten there.

“Mm-hm,” she said. “It’s my pleasure. And you have a wonderful day.” She hung up and looked over at me. “See? I’m not such a bitch. I can be really nice when I need to be. As long as somebody writes down what I’m supposed to say.”

I laughed. “I don’t think you’re a bitch. Are you one? Like, in real life?”

“That’s what I hear.”

“From your ex or whatever?”

“Among others.” She leaned back in her chair a little, looking out the little window in front of her toward the park entrance.

“Hm. I don’t see it.”

“That’s because I have you under my spell.”

“Oh is that it?”

“Mm-hm. Hang on,” she stood up as a car pulled in and then stopped outside the shack. She slipped out and I could hear her greeting the driver, explaining the park hours and rates for camping. She seemed like somebody I could invite over without having to have a beer. I didn’t really know what we would do. Crosswords or something maybe. Although she probably had kid stuff to do in the evenings. I wasn’t really sure what they did during the day; it was the middle of summer after all. I know at least once they had come and hung out at “the beach” (a little, scrappy, rocky, sandy bit on the far end of the lake) with somebody, her sister, a friend maybe. Some other girl. I had only met them briefly, and only since I happened to be hanging around when they left.

She walked back in, the screen door banging behind her. “You’re a maintenance man, right? Can you make that not bang?”

“I absolutely cannot,” I said. “The only things I know how to replace are trash bags and toilet paper rolls.”

“Yeah, but you’re a guy. Isn’t that something you’re supposed to just know how to do?”

“Nope,” I said. “From what I recently learned, I merely need to not wipe shit on the walls and I’m exceeding all expectations.”

“We are really breaking through the stereotypes today, aren’t we?”

“It’s amazing.”

“So, hey, seriously, though,” she said, turning in her chair. “What’s with all this,” she gestured generally toward me, “today? What’s with all this happy?”

I laughed. “I’m a happy person, aren’t I?”

“No.”

“Dang. I think I’m offended. Or are you saying I just don’t seem like my normal, stoic, manly self?”

“No, that’s definitely not it.”

“Oh c’mon. Now I might actually be offended.”

“Grow a pair, Porter.” (She was the only person to ever even occasionally call me by my last name. I assume it was in retaliation to my insistence on “Rebekah.) “Seriously, what’s up?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Cmoooonnn...We still have four hours to kill.”

“No, you have four hours to kill. I have other, manly, emotionless things to do both before and after you leave.”

“Whatever. You don’t always have to be funny; you know that, right? Like, we can actually have conversations. I do enjoy being around you.”

“Oh heavens, are you coming on to me, milady? Planning to whisk me away to the boudoir?”

She rolled her eyes and went back to the crossword. I actually felt kind of bad.

“Okay. You’re probably right. About that part I mean. But, honestly, I really didn’t think I seemed overly happy today. That goes against my whole angst-ridden persona.”

“Fine.” She wasn’t a bitch; I’d never have called her that. But she definitely had a pouty side that was, instead of irritating, in little bits and pieces, kind of endearing. I waited her out for a minute, fighting the chance to irk her just a bit.

“Drummer of indie pop duo, Matt and blank,” she said.

“Kim. Oh shit,” I grinned. “I shouldn’t have known that, huh?”

She laughed, loud, a healthy sound, something I enjoyed even more than her pouting. “Very manly,” she said.

“Maybe I just knew it because of a girl or something.”

“Mm-hm.”

I was in stage two of her ire, the one that wasn’t quite the silent treatment, but more of a blatant facade of everything being fine, a very ornery type of cordiality.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “Since you demand an answer, the only thing I can think of is that my folks are out of town for two weeks, so I’ve got the place to myself.”

“See? Was that so hard? Sooner or later you’ll learn it’s easier to just comply.”

“Mm-hm,” I toyed with my bootlace, sticking the end back through the eyelets. “But they’re not like, bad people, I mean. I don’t want to come off as all, ‘oh finally they’re gone!’”

“You’re almost thirty years old,” she said. “It’s fine to not want to be at your parents’ place. If I had the house to myself for two weeks I’d be bouncing off the walls.”

“Yeah, but you’ve got stuff you actually have to do. The way this setup is, I’ll actually have more stuff to do since they’re gone.”

“Your mom still cooks for you, doesn’t she?”

“Well, not me specifically. But I mean, when I’m there it seems like it’d be rude to make my own food if she’s already cooking.”

“You are the most spoiled person I know, just fyi.”

“Oh I’m aware. Me too.” I smiled a little. Somehow she could get away with things that would’ve broken me to pieces coming from anyone else. But, I didn’t have the fantasies (for lack of a better term) with her I was prone to with Kirsten, something it took me awhile to realize. I think, from the start, things with Rebekah were different. More real, maybe. She was like an actual friend. And not to be all woe-is-me, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d found someone who I enjoyed seeing in just an everyday, normal, boring type way. Someone where there was nothing girding up or forcing our relationship, other than the fact that we both got along and for some reason seemed to seamlessly click.

“So what’re you gonna do?” she asked. “Party?”

I paused for a second. At this point, I still hadn’t told her much about my reasons for being at the park. “Nah,” I said. “Probably just hide. I’ll have to mow a couple times. Clean. Cook, as you so kindly pointed out. I dunno. Read or something.”

“Aw,” she laughed. “My little dweeb.”

“It’s hot out,” I said.

“Go to the pool. Get a sprinkler.”

“I don’t think that would really fly, me out jumping through the sprinkler by myself.”

“I’ll rent you my kids.”

“That would look even weirder.”

She laughed. “But they’re so fuuuuunnnnn….”

“I’ll have to raincheck you on that one I think. Besides, you’re all momma bear. I would be afraid I’d give them the wrong kind of potato chips or something and you’d rip my heart out.”

“True. Oh lordi,” a trio of full-size campers eased its way into the park. “This might take awhile.”

“Yikes. Well I’ll let you have fun with that. I’ll swing back by in a little bit maybe.”

As she pasted another glittering smile on her face and went out to the first driver, I slipped the crossword off the desk and crammed it in my back pocket, winding around the shack behind her and buzzing off in the cart toward the back side of the park.

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