BRB – chapter three

by rthieme on April 21, 2009

the-room“I forgot how to cry,” Cerie said, “so I don’t. They say cry if you can but I can’t. They told me to write everything down, even a poem or a song, but who the fuck knows how to do that? I can’t make up a song. I don’t know how to write a poem. I walk around downtown thinking about it but nothing comes. And it’s spring, now. Spring is supposed to be some kind of release but all it does is wind me up. They tell me to let it out but you know how it feels? Like a bone stuck in my throat. I can breathe but it never goes away. I keep clearing my throat, but … it’s not really my throat—ya’know?”

“I know,” Paul said.

“What do you think? Am I fucking nuts?”

Cerie had a light rash extending from her chest up onto her neck. The black t-shirt did nothing to hide it. At a distance it looked like a blush. Come closer, it looked like sun burn. Closer still, close enough to smell her breath, it looked like what it was.

Some of the guys called her a dwarf, but Paul thought “short” was good enough. She was built like a little fullback. Thick strong thighs. Small breasts, barely puckering her shirt. Short and squat, her spout stuck out, he thought with a smile. But she looked all right when the light was down. She kept the lights down whenever she could, but not because of how she looked. How she looked was the last thing on her mind.

“What the fuck are they going to do with us?”

Paul was in the chair beside her in the waiting room. Her breath made him wince, an exhalation of something sour in her gut. It was really bad. He angled his face away and breathed through his mouth. She couldn’t help it. She said they gave her some pills to clear it up but it took time.

“It was easier over there, in a way,” Paul said, turning to talk. But he saw that Cerie had left the room. He watched her eyes, waiting.

She came back into focus in a minute. “You say something?”

“I said, it was easier over there, in a way.”

“Uh. Yeah, in a way,” she said. “There was nowhere else to go. Nowhere to put it. When you got filled up, you went and got drunk. Then you started again the next day. There was no way off the roll call, was there? Did you know Lewpinski?”

“I know who he was. I heard about him.”

“Then you know. Would you fuck with a guy like Lewpinski?”

“I don’t know, probably not. Go along, get along.”

“That’s right. And he made sure you knew what he could do. He did it, too. He did it to Kenny Love, this good old boy from Mississippi? You know Kenny?”

“No.”

“He had a problem with it, OK? So Lewpinski sent him out on patrol. Over and over again, until he got killed.”

“I didn’t know him. I heard about one other, Mickey Felts. I think he was a colonel. He didn’t like it and said so, so they did the equivalent to him, too. From what I understand, he never came back.” He thought about what he had heard. He thought about clouds of dust moving over the landscape like some kind of malicious spirit. He thought about the coppery taste he would get in his throat. “Where were you?”

Cerie said nothing. “I’m not even supposed to say, now, am I?”

Paul shrugged. He looked around the waiting room. The infrastructure etched into the ceiling, sprinklers and wiring and framework, might have easily concealed a bug. For that matter, so could the lamps, the telephone on the check-in counter, anything at all. They could turn on the mic in your cell phone, for Christ sake, and listen to every word.

“No,” he thought it best to say. “I don’t need to know.”

Cerie in her cut-off jean shorts and black t-shirt stretched her hands out in front of her, cracking her knuckles. She kept her left hand out, up where he could see it. With her right thumb she pressed the top of the lifeline.

“You know?” she said. “Know where I mean?”

“Yeah, I think so. That other place, not the one where everybody thinks.”

“That’s right. OK, so … ” Her broken thumbnail traced a line to the center of her palm, then turned right across the lifeline and stopped at the base of her fourth finger. “Ya’know?”

“Ah. Right,” he said. “I heard about that.”

“I bet you fucking did,” she said. “But you didn’t hear the half of it.”

Paul nodded. He extended his own hands and cracked his knuckles, interlacing his fingers, some kind of futile cover move as she continued to do the same. Maybe like yawning they would think it was contagious, cracking our knuckles together like that.

Across the room, a guy who was also waiting had one leg. Paul examined the contraption the guy used instead of a foot. It looked pretty slick. Better than flesh in some ways.

Cerie’s soft belch made him angle away.

“Sorry,” she said. “I know it stinks.”

A nurse appeared from around the counter.

“Cerie Bowden?”

Cerie got up and moved with more grace than Paul expected, her center of gravity low to the ground. He watched her glide across the room after the nurse and disappear into a hallway. The nurse led her to an office. “Make yourself at home. The doctor will be with you in a minute.”

Cerie sat back in the chair, her body sinking into the brown cushion. She closed her eyes. She wished she could sleep but felt as if she had too much caffeine, her closed eyes wide open inside a shell. The dream machinery started to work, making crazy images move around the top of her mind. Maybe she did sleep a little, because she jumped when the doctor touched her arm. She sat up with a jerk.

The dentist said hello and told her to open wide. He wore a mask so she didn’t worry about her breath. He examined her teeth and gums. Some of his poking made her wince.

“You have two cavities,” he said at last, “that need drilling. They’re pretty deep. I better give you some Novocain.”

“Forget it,” she said. “I hate that shit. Just drill.”

The assistant beside him, her prettier face making Cerie aware of what mattered, was looking down at her, looking concerned.

“It’s pretty deep,” the dentist said. “Are you sure?”

She nodded.

“OK,” he sighed, turning to look at his assistant with eyes that shrugged. “Raise your hand if you want a shot. We can always stop and do it, OK?”

Cerie nodded, closing her eyes again and breathing very deeply. She concentrated on her breathing, how it came in, then how it went out. She was lulled by the rhythm and settled down, focusing on a longer out and a shorter in, then a longer in and a shorter out, riding the measured tide. The next thing she knew, it was real quiet; she opened her eyes and the dentist and Miss Pretty were staring down, looking different.

“What?” she said.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that,” he said. “Have you?”

“No,” said the pretty woman.

“Do what?”

“We’re done,” he said. “I just drilled both teeth. We went pretty deep but you barely moved.”

“Yeah, well,” she said. “I don’t know. You just move out here,” she gestured with her left hand.

“Come again?”

Cerie sat up, using both hands to show him. “You take yourself from wherever you are like in the center,” moving her right hand toward the left, “and go out here. You go outside. Then you watch. Like it’s happening to someone else.”

The doctor watched her hands drop to her lap. “I see.”

“Yeah, so you going to fill them now?”

“Yes,” he said. “Compared to the drilling, this’ll be nothing.”

“The drilling was nothing,” she said. “I told you. You just go out of the room.”

“Ah,” the doctor said. “I see.”

But he didn’t see a thing. Cerie wouldn’t waste her breath, telling him a third time. What did it matter, anyway? The guy stayed at the VA. He stayed inside. He never had to leave so he never learned how.

She saw Paul in the waiting room, both of them going out. She told him she got a couple of fillings. He said all they did was tell him to stop grinding his teeth. The pain was real, but nothing was wrong with his teeth, it was all what he did when he fell asleep.

“Fat chance controlling what happens during sleep.” He shook his head. “At least we don’t have to pay for this shit.”

“Oh, yeah?” she said. “Buddy, we already paid for this shit.” She laughed, making Paul think maybe she wasn’t as dumb as they said.

“You want to get some coffee before we split?”

Cerie shrugged so they walked toward downtown until they found a coffee shop. They hadn’t been back long enough to get used to coffee that cost so much. Paul said he guessed you could sell anything to anyone, is how it looked to him.

They sold the goddamn war, Cerie said. People want to believe it. They believe their leaders know what they’re doing. People need beliefs, I guess. They’d rather die than give one up.

“I can’t even begin to talk to one of these fucking assholes about even the littlest shit,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody wants to know.”

They had ordered lattes and Paul scooped foam with a wooden stick, sucking it off the end, waiting while Cerie dumped in a lot of sugar. The coffee shop had a fireplace with a gas fire going although it wasn’t really cold, not for that part of the world. The pastries heaped in the glass looked like a royal feast. Muffins and scones and cookies of all shapes and hues. The lighting was subdued, earth tones off-color, and through the plate glass window, he could see people coming and going and the traffic and buses and buildings behind.

“Booth OK?”

“Sure,” she said.

Cerie sat with her back to the window and scratched her rash with a spoon, using the smooth. She didn’t seem aware that he was watching, treating her body like condiments or a coffee cup, a thing that was simply there. When she finished she used the spoon to stir more sugar into her foam. Then she sipped it, making a face.

“Pretty shitty coffee.”

“Yeah, well,” Paul said. “That’s what they do.”

He watched someone stop and look in the window. He went on alert, searching the guy’s face for a motive or intention. What the fuck was he looking at? The guy examined the people inside as if he had something in mind. He started to leave but stopped and stood at an odd angle, half on his way to somewhere else but not moving. Not going anywhere.

Paul half-rose in the booth, feeling the wood on his back. He looked to see what lay between the window and himself. Damn near nothing, he realized, getting up and sliding out of the booth.

“What is it?” she had her coffee in her hand and was up and out, turning to see the guy at the window. She set her coffee down and stayed facing the window, daring him by her stance to make a move. Her hands were loose at her sides, then her right hand felt for a fork and picked it up. She was almost in a ready crouch, watching the asshole take the measure of everybody in the shop.

Then the guy walked away from the window and down the street. They waited for a minute, then picked up their coffee and went to the back of the shop. Cerie got in so she faced the window across the longer distance, telling Paul, “My turn to ride shotgun,” making him laugh. She sat with her back to the wall and all of the furniture, tables and booths, between them and the street. They both knew now that the rear exit was just around the counter then down three steps to the alley behind the shop.

The nice thing, Paul thought, was not having to explain what they were doing. It didn’t matter that they had little to say. It mattered that nothing had to be said, at all.

Paul went back to his apartment and Cerie went downtown. In her cut-off shorts and t-shirt and thick boots with her short hair and rash, no one would notice her knuckles. No one would see the scars. She was pretty much invisible, she concluded, having been home for weeks now, no one thinking to ask anything, no one thinking to speak to her, ever.

She walked an easy leisurely pace on the uncrowded sidewalks. People stayed inside, here, something she hadn’t noticed before but now saw everywhere, having lived in a place where the streets were crowded, the cafes crowded, the moon huge over the desert and the midnight heat stifling. The moon looked like you could climb a ladder and be there in a minute. The desert moonlight illuminated people, traffic, animals, everything, all the time. Here you could fire a mortar down the street at high noon and not hit a soul.

But an hour, two, three, of walking the downtown streets was enough. A welcome fatigue set in and she headed back to her brother’s place. It wasn’t that she liked it there, but unless she went home to the rented room in the big house they had split into little apartments, there was nowhere else to go.

She made sure it was after dinner. She did not want to sit through another one of those.

“Hi, Aunt Cerie,” the twelve year old said. Lucy was her name.

“Hi, Lucy,” said Cerie. “What are you doing?”

“Chatting,” she said, “and homework, and listening to music.”

“All at the same time, too,” Corey’s wife, Charlene, said, making it sound funny. Charlene was out of shape and always shopping for loose-fitting clothes. She wore sweatshirts and big-woman slacks that had plenty of room for ballast. She seemed to need to overflow, and not only her clothes, like she filled the walls of their small house with wooden shelves, then filled the shelves with dragons – plastic, glass and ceramic dragons – an idiot way to spend more money than Corey could make. Lucy had a computer, a TV, and her own cell phone, and while the computer played music, she worked on a paper for school, plucking quotes from here and there using google, plugging them in, while a box in the corner let her send text to her friends who were always popping up, sending her music and pictures, saying stupid shit, and Lucy asked if Cerie wanted to look at, search for, play with anything, Cerie saying no, she would just watch.

She stood behind her niece for an hour, Charlene watching cable in the other room. Corey wasn’t home and Lucy’s brother Fred was out with friends. She liked how Lucy’s hands danced on the keys, clicking the mouse now and then, changing the background, the music, her friends. They plugged in and played like the flash of a kaleidoscope and Cerie didn’t mind that she didn’t always know what was happening on the screen, it was something to do, stand there and look, her hands on the chair in which her niece was sitting and bouncing as if the computer was a pinball machine and she needed some English to make it work, Cerie engrossed in the constantly changing screens.

“Cerie!” Corey said, not exactly shouting but damn near.

She jumped and turned.

“What the fuck are you sneaking up on me like that? Are you fucking nuts?”

“Christ!” he said, “I been trying to say hello for ten minutes. You were gone again.”

Lucy’s hands hung for a moment over the keys. The music played but her friends had to wait. BRB, she told them, typing. BRB.

“Daddy, be nice,” she said, sounding like her mother who had said the same thing a million times since Cerie returned. “Aunt Cerie was just out of the room for a while.”

“Everybody makes excuses,” said her brother. “All you women stick up for each other all the damn time.”

Lucy went back to full immersion. Corey was standing too close, making Cerie back off. She backed all the way to the kitchen door.

Her dumb-ass brother, a beer in his hand in that stand-there slouch that he thought was so cool, had that goddamn look in his eye again. She didn’t even have to ask. He didn’t have to say a word.

“You don’t know,” she said, her voice real low, so low in her throat that he put down the beer and backed into the hallway without even knowing. “You don’t have any fucking idea.”

He watched the way she said it, the way she held herself, and he didn’t have to know what was going on to know that she only seemed to be inside his house, in the kitchen, his wife in the livingroom watching one of her soaps on HBO, Freddie out there somewhere and Lucy doing her homework, the only sound that made any sense the voices on the TV, the melodramatic formulaic story at least coherent, characters so familiar they seemed like friends.

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