At night, after we would close down The Twist Cone and Tim would head out for beanbag practice, I used to call up Cindy Lindquist. She would say see you in a jif when I told her I had picked up some wine, and within two shakes she was standing in my kitchen twisting the cap off a bottle of Evening Mist. Usually she showed up already tipsy, so after a few drinks she was asking my advice about her kinky affair with a livestock auctioneer from Dupree named Henry Kruse. Was it conceivable, Cindy wondered, that Henry could truly love her despite his insistence of involving in their love-making a homely, overbearing woman dressed in bib overalls who demanded to be called The Barnyard Enforcer? Was there something lacking in her, she asked me, that made her feel degraded by being called Pail Calf while she was forced to suck from a bottle and then pee on Henry’s kitchen linoleum, which had been covered in straw? Since she wasn’t getting any emotional or sexual satisfaction from it, did I think Henry would be insulted if she refused to go dutch when it came to paying The Barnyard Enforcer her sky-high rates? My answers got better the more I heard the questions, which happened a lot, since Cindy would get so drunk she never remembered that she asked the questions in the first place. I told Cindy a lot about myself, too, after she ate a leftover combo basket from The Twist Cone and then passed out on my couch. I told her I found a paper sack behind the empty pop canisters in The Twist Cone that was filled with a fake riding crop and kiddie handcuffs and a lacy blindfold. I told her about the pictures I found at the bottom of Mary Jo Groft wearing plastic-looking underwear while posed like a winded, stretching gymnast, her shimmery lips in the shape of a glazed donut. I told her there were a lot of painful ways people hurt each other besides punching and stabbing and shooting. I told her there were worse things than being alone, and, in the moment of telling her that, I believed it. Then I would put Cindy’s limp hand on my face and leave it there for a while, just to remind myself what it felt like. But the last time Cindy came over, a little over a year ago, she woke up to me leaning my head against the couch cushion and holding her hand to my cheek, and she shot to her feet like she’d been electrocuted. She said I sure was a piece of work. She said she always had a hunch I was some kind of sick lesbian pervo.
Lisa steps out of her house and starts digging in her purse for her keys. She’s wearing our new work-mandated uniform: khakis and a red t-shirt with white lettering that reads AT THE HEART OF WHAT DRIVES YOU. The back reads ORAL PARTS DISTRIBUTION. Gina Schumacher in HR said she’d had it up to here with people coming into work wearing raunchy t-shirts, and even though she didn’t point any fingers, I knew she was talking about Leroy DenBesten, a moon-faced high-school drop out with a lot of pent-up hormones but no willing takers. I work with him in Shipping & Receiving and he used to show up in shirts that said things like I’D CALL YOU A CUNT BUT YOU LACK BOTH THE WARM AND THE DEPTH. Since it’s just me and Leroy back in Shipping & Receiving, I’m positive he thinks it was me who ratted him out, so Leroy terrifies me more than what he did before, but now for totally different reasons. Lisa finds her keys and locks her door. She sees me while stepping over a dirt clod in her yard and she smiles and waves, like perfect German engineering. I wave back with a slight, closed-mouth smile, making sure to keep my eyes out of the game. I used to go overboard with my goofy smiles until Tim turned our wedding picture over on our bedroom dresser after he took me out to Flying Pies Chicken and Pizza at the Monshop Mall Food Court for our fifth wedding anniversary. “Gives me night terrors,” he said. “You look like a brain-damaged chipmunk.” I looked at our picture and saw what he was getting at. Even at eighteen, standing outside the Magic Castle of Storybook Land after our seven-minute ceremony, when I was just big-boned and not yet pudgy, my smile ballooned my face to nothing but cheeks and teeth and my eyes disappeared as slits. Tim looked past the camera, towards the concrete Cinderella standing next to her ride that had turned into a pumpkin. When Lisa opens the car door, she grimaces like always. She’s afraid to ride in cars, so it’s probably just that. Or it could be because my car smells really bad. Several weeks ago, a mouse or a family or possibly even a mid-sized village of mice died in my car, while, at the same time, Tim’s total lie of a sport began swinging into all-time high gear, which lately necessitates frequent overnight hotel stays in towns far away for tournament matches that don’t exist, so I loaded the Achieva with pine tree air fresheners and hoped for the best. Now my car smells like Something Fiercely Rotting in a Forest and I worry that Lisa’s wince face may be, at least in part, my own doing. I tell Lisa her new work t-shirt looks nice on her, that it compliments her skin tone, but Lisa’s got bigger fish to fry than our new work shirts. Her wince face gets worse as she puts on her seat belt and fiddles with the shoulder harness. I should save her the trouble and tell her she’s the only one who rides in my car, that the seat belt is just how she left it, but that would make me look pathetic, so I keep quiet. Lisa’s supermodel skinny so nothing fits her right, not the seat belt harness and not our new work shirts. Lisa swims in it, but somehow still manages to make it look work-appropriate sexy. I look down at mine. AT THE HEART is stretched across my mongo boobs and OF WHAT DRIVES YOU is mostly buried in a fat roll. I’m as far away from sexy as it gets. “These shirts are ugly as hell,” Lisa says, which reminds me of what Tim told me this morning as I picked up the pieces of my broken Spring Frolic Aromatherapy Candle, that I’ve been hit with the ugly stick something awful. Then, “Click,” Lisa whispers as she snaps in her seat belt, only to release it and snap it in again. She does this, it seems, for hours, for days.
After Cindy quit coming over, I had no one else to call, so when Tim would go out, I would turn the television on low for effect, sit on the couch, and have conversations with people I knew slightly but wished I knew better. My first was Marv, a greeter at the Scratch ’n Dent. He had sad eyes, his left one having its own special orbit, which spoke to me and said: I’ve had my fair share of bumps in this lifetime and I’m not the sort looking to dole out any more onto this poor, poor world. Marv would stop me at the store’s entrance to talk about the weather, sometimes slip me some extra coupons, and then offer a shopping pointer. “Dig down deep into those bins. Chaff rises to the top, you know,” he’d say, or, “Don’t forget to reach to the far, far back of the overstock shelves.” His favorite was: “Just because something’s a little scraped up doesn’t always mean it’s broken.” To the sound of the television, I would tell Marv that finding undamaged merchandise around here was like searching out a needle in a haystack. Marv would smile and say not everybody was cut out for the work it took, but he and I, we had patience, and we could find it. Marv, he was insightful like that. He helped me look at things differently. You’re right, look at us, I would tell him, gazing into his one sleepy eye. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think there wasn’t something special to discover! Marv would shake his head and pat me gently on my tubby waistline. But our imaginary conversations petered out after I saw him at Food City and he didn’t seem to recognize me. He was bent over a deep freeze in the meat department. I said his name a few times, but he didn’t even flinch, which made me wonder if the name on his Scratch ’n Dent nametag was something made-up for his work. Marv saw me as he fished out the biggest pork loin I’d ever seen. We stared at each other for a while, and then Marv nodded at me, set the meat in his cart next to an econo-pack of toilet paper and a family-size jug of orange juice, and headed down the Pet & Baby aisle. His life was already so full, and all our real conversations, I realized, had been based solely on his boredom and job requirements.
Lisa wiggles the seat belt release and pulls at the shoulder harness and then fidgets in her seat to sit sideways, towards me, so she doesn’t have to look at the road. I know the routine, and this means Lisa’s as ready as she’s going to get for me to start driving. I pull out of Pleasant Hills and make a left onto Commercial Avenue, a dead zone of traffic, to take the long way to work, around the outskirts of Oral, past Sunny Meadows Trailer Park and St. John’s Memorial Cemetery and the playing fields, so we don’t have to drive through town on the busier streets, which, I’ve learned, but Lisa doesn’t say, sends her into a severe panic spiral. I heard on television once that when people are up to their eyeballs in grief, you should stick to neutral subjects, so I ask Lisa if she watched Imaginary Babies of Real Life Celebrities on TV last night. It’s a show where two random celebrities who aren’t really married or even dating are portrayed by actor likenesses who probably didn’t know each other before their Hypothetical Celebrity Reenactment, but still, on screen, they hug and kiss like they mean it as they consummate their love on an abandoned tropical beach or in a steamy hot tub. Then, up comes pictures of the real life celebrities that superimpose on each other and go 3-D to illustrate what their gorgeous baby would look like, if they ever had one together, which they won’t, hence the whole purpose of the show. “The pipe that burst in my bathroom last week? It did a lot of damage. I cancelled my cable, until I get all that work taken care of,” Lisa says. I can hear pieces of paper rustling around in the breeze of my backseat, which reminds me how far away I am from being a real life celebrity or a hypothetical celebrity or just a well-organized normal person, for that matter. “Hm,” I say. I see the sympathy card peeking out of the side pocket of my door. When Lisa’s father died, like always, the work-circulated card never made it back to Shipping & Receiving. So, I bought one for her myself, and, like always, put it with the stack of cards I buy but never give because I get hung up on what to write. But I dug it out last night and wrote: My thoughts are with you and your family. Sincerely, Cassandra. Generic yet solid. Better four months late than never. It’s the thought that counts. I reach for the card. But still. Admitting to thinking about her all the time? A little creepy? A little creepy for sure. And does Lisa even have any family? She never talks about a mom or brothers or sisters, not even cousins or aunts or uncles. If all she had was her father, mentioning family would only remind her how alone she is, which would make me look insensitive, cruel, even, on top of creepy. And who in their right mind hands someone a sympathy card and sits there while they read it? I might as well just throw it at her and say here, Lisa, I’m going to incite a cry fest and then watch you go to pieces because I’m a creepy, sadistic monster. Jesus. What was I thinking? “I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, letting go of the card. “About all the damage.” “It’s been a disaster,” Lisa says. We pass by Sunny Meadows Trailer Park. A cat sits on an air conditioning unit that has been abandoned in the dirt patch of a yard. A mean-looking dog barks and would chase after me if it wasn’t tied to a cinder block holding up a stripped pick up. Up ahead is the four-way stop, where I turn to take a left on Grand Street, so I begin to slow. A semi approaches the stop from the right. The rat-a-tat of the semi’s airbrakes, sounding like a machine gun, makes Lisa flinch and turn toward the noise. The semi is hauling pigs, their pink butts poking out of the holes of the trailer. The semi comes to a rolling stop and continues forward on Grand, which causes an eruption of squealing from inside the trailer. “Oh boy,” Lisa whispers, grabbing her knees. I turn left to follow the semi. Lisa wrings her hands and scoots back farther into her seat, and, even though it wasn’t at that very intersection, I remember reading in the paper that it was at an intersection where her father was sideswiped by that semi. “Can you pull over? I’m not feeling well,” Lisa says, wiping her forehead. “Sure,” I say, slowing to pull into the approach of St. John’s Memorial Cemetery. “Car sick,” Lisa says, unsnapping her seat belt and getting out of the car. “I sometimes get car sick.” The dead smell in the car is a little ripe, so I fully roll down my window and lean my head out for some fresh air. I scan the expanse of the cemetery and spot the ratty cottonwood that mom and dad are buried close to. I wonder if Lisa’s father is in there somewhere. Lisa grabs her arms and shivers as if she’s been run through with a chill and then grabs her knees and bends over.
The winters are always bleak in Oral, the last one especially. Snowstorm after snowstorm, power outages, forty degree below zero temps with windchill. Somehow, I was to believe, Tim could still play beanbag. The Twist Cone was slower than usual. The only customers I could count on on the weekends were Mrs. Oeschle and her coffee crew. They showed up in polyester button-ups and gaudy costume jewelry and the sorts of orthopedic shoes made for nurses back in the day. Their husbands were dead. Their children were gone. All they had was each other, and they got together for coffee to remind one another that they were still among the living. They drank their decaf and read obituaries in the Voice like they were looking over the TV Preview. They knew what was coming for them, but they seemed OK with it. Mrs. Oeschle said I reminded her of her daughter Hannah. I asked her in what way? She said it was probably just the similarity of our names, Hannah and Cassandra. She liked saying my name, I think, for that reason. Mrs. Oeschle would say things like, “Cassandra, I tried calling Hannah last night but the phone line just beeped. Isn’t that strange, Cassandra?” I bled right into her real family. I thought of myself as her fill-in daughter, which was nice, since my mom died from an overdose of sleeping pills ten years ago, eight months after my dad died of a heart attack. I kind of saw it coming. My mom always said her only reason for living was because of my dad. With Tim gone, to the sound of the TV, I would tell Mrs. Oeschle what a shame it is, to live a life around people who treat us like we’re already dead. Mrs. Oeschle would say we share the planet with billions of other people, Cassandra. Mrs. Oeschle would tell me there’s a lid for every pot, Cassandra, and numbers-wise, there are plenty of lids for our pots. It was good to be reminded of who I was. It was good to know that I could still be appreciated. Beginning of March, Mrs. Oeschle had a stroke. She was obviously the glue of the coffee crew, because they quit showing up at The Twist Cone. I went to see her once at Green Pastures Nursing Home. She kept calling me Hannah. I said my name over and over. I told her my name was Cassandra. I asked her if she could say it for me just once, for old time’s sake. Mrs. Oeschle got very upset. She said she didn’t know why I was acting the way I was. Mrs. Oeschle said she didn’t bring me up like that. “But somehow,” she told me, “you still managed to turn into a conniving selfish bitch.”
“I’m ready to go now,” Lisa says, opening the car door. Lisa does her fiddling and her clicking and her unclicking. I stare at the cottonwood. One of its big branches is broken and it’s growing crooked out of the ground. Never had anything nice their whole lives and then end up for all eternity next to the crummiest tree in the cemetery. Some people, I guess, are never meant to get ahead. Lisa wiggles the seat belt release and turns towards me, so I back the car out and continue along Grand. “Feeling better?” I ask after a while. “Yeah,” Lisa says, although I know it’s a lie. Her voice quivers and I can see her hands shaking. “I used to get car sick,” I say, which is also a lie. I’ve never been car sick in my life. “It’s a terrible feeling,” Lisa says. And I notice Lisa is asking me a question. Not with her mouth, but with her whole body. She’s facing me so she doesn’t have to look at the road, her knees pulled up at a grotesque angle, her head bent, resting on her right shoulder, and her right arm contorted to rest her hand on her forehead to keep from seeing anything out of the windshield. Her eyes, they’re barely seeing, and her mouth, it seems, is barely breathing. She looks like a smashed-up question mark. In our new red and white t-shirts, she looks like a broken candy cane. “It is a terrible feeling,” I say. I’m not feeling so hot myself. Something heavy and hot is rising in my chest, building and lodging in my throat. The dead smell in the car seems to have come alive, burning my nose and eyes, strong and chemical.
Last night, after Tim left for his beanbag tournament, I turned the TV on low, but rather than sit on the couch, I crawled into bed because carrying on this charade has become exhausting. I pulled the covers over my head and put my hands under my butt. I laid under the pitch black of the comforter until I started to smell Mary Jo Groft’s bubble gum lip-gloss and coconut self-tanner from Tim’s side of the bed. Then I pulled my numb hand from under myself and put it on my cheek. I told Lisa that even if we knew where everything went wrong, there’s no way for us to go back and fix it. Lisa was quiet for a while, but finally she said, I know, but for some reason, I still try. I heard the muffled hum of the TV and attempted to come up with something that would make Lisa feel better, but nothing ever came to mind, so after a long silence, I could only say, I know. I still do, too. By that point, my hand was smarting with pin pricks and there was no way to avoid seeing my failure. I started to cry and I told Lisa there’s nothing I can do to help her, but Lisa’s didn’t need me to tell her that either, and she was long gone. I came to realize that I have the motivation but not the craft to offer anyone anything of any worth. I came to realize that what I lack is something attached to chromosomes at birth, not something that can be learned and perfected like macramé. I came to realize that I am motivated out of selfishness and fear, and once Tim is gone, I will no doubt wind up broke and alone in a shitbox studio apartment above Terry’s Lube & Tube. I came to realize that I will be left with nothing, except for these truths about myself.
“My God! Cassandra! The road!” Lisa yells. She’s braced against the seat and her eyes are as bright and big as light bulbs. I hear the crunching of gravel and the spitting of rocks at my wheel wells, so I turn away from Lisa to face the road. Up ahead, to the right, is the bright green grass of the playing fields, the far end lined with full-bloom lilac bushes. My right tires are caught on the edge of the road’s asphalt. I could turn the steering wheel and get the car back on the road. It’s not too late to fix the problem, but I let the car go. I let the car go because it feels good, to finally be in control of something that has gone wrong. We pick up speed when the car descends the small lip of the playing field, so I take my foot off the gas. I swerve to hit a plastic bottle. I hear it pop as we hit a gopher hole, and in the openness of the field, wind blows through the car, stirring up little tornadoes of trash in my backseat. Lisa is crying hysterically, making noises but no words, and it’s terrifying, really, to finally hear the reality of what’s inside her. I am scared of what is to come, but I hear myself say, “We’re going to be fine.” We hit a lilac bush. There’s not much of an impact since lilac bushes are nothing more than fluffy, filled-out tumbleweeds that happen to be rooted into the ground with nothing resembling trunks. My seatbelt locks, but the air bags do not deploy. There is no explosion. There is no fire or faint hissing. I can’t even hear a quiet dripping. A bird flitters from out of the bush. Tiny multi-colored purple flowers cover the hood like confetti. I put the car in park. Lisa’s mascara is running down her cheeks. She touches her face as if she can’t believe it belongs to her. I worry that our carpool days are over. I ask Lisa if she’s OK. Lisa sits silent, staring at her bent fingers, her eyes looking like she’s trying to wrap her brain around a complicated math problem, and, after a moment, her mouth seems to say that she knows the answer. She unbuckles her seat belt and gets out of the car. Lisa stands stick-straight next to the lilac bush, her hair blowing slightly in the perfumed breeze and her hands at her hips, as if she is an explorer who has conquered a mountain, an heir to unchartered land. For once, the world outside looks beautiful and new. I open my door and I step out into it.