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Is a Picnic

Gary Scott, Fiction

It was south of threeish, an anonymous afternoon hour and the daylight was just wow, all weird and wonderful, when she knocked on my door again. Marva. It had been a few months since I’d disappeared from her book, closed myself away, my car gone every night. If you’d lived in the Greenview back then, you’d surely remember her, what she was like, the sunglasses, the Impressionist umbrella, or maybe you were even lucky enough to witness her at my door. Marva Kovich. She was the one who had a squint of a secret around her eyes, which I was obviously a sucker for even though behind them I’d occasionally found a tantrum waiting to happen, one ready to flick matches at the gasoline she’d drizzled on your bedspread.

I was on nights which meant I’d had what sleep I was going to get and I was up, spooning a bowl of bran flakes and slurping weak milk while standing at the kitchen window, probably congratulating myself for laying off the bacon sandwiches. From the glass I had a view of the greenery—the lawn of the Greenview apartment complex. There were six buildings and they weren’t lying when they named that place. Every apartment had a view of the lawn if you went to the right window. It was April of that dangerous year and the sky was in its iffy phase, sunshine and then a rumble, though at this particular moment the thunder was still a little ways off and it was still the kind of afternoon where you could have opened the windows and traded fresh air for stale, maybe even gone out with a blanket and had a picnic.

I knew the knock was hers. It wasn’t the sound of her knuckles or the rhythm of her rap—she didn’t have a code or a special way, by sound alone it could have been UPS—but her aura wobbled a big lasso around cowboys like me. My gut went liquid and mushy and there I was, sucking milk off my chin and reconsidering all my never agains.

The last time she’d showed up unannounced she’d been wearing a pool robe, something to cinch over a swimsuit, and her way of saying hello was to give the robe over to gravity. My building was hidden from the street but we all shared a common area and there’d been kids tricycling on the sidewalks while a couple of tired-looking moms eavesdropped. And yeah, they heard a lot of skin right then. After I pulled her in, she drowned me like a puppy.

Marva didn’t know it but I’d taken a job at the Pine Villa Care Facility, the nursing home up on 8th Street. There were nicer places but it was mid-range and we had bingo and couches and wide vases full of flowers, music sometimes. Because I was on nights my days were upside down, me pushing wheelchairs and mopping under fluorescent lights, mostly drips of Salisbury gravy, green beans, and precious cubes of Jell-O that had jiggled and slipped from forks. I was avoiding her and it was supposed to be a fresh start of sorts, trying to undo wrong-headedness by finding the crappiest job I could. Maybe it wasn’t crappy enough though, because once I was inside I liked it, and if I can say, I was good at it. No one was surprised more than I was. I cleaned up any mess matter-of-factly, told off-color jokes, and got the old ladies to sing their favorite songs; I even made some friends. And whenever someone died I always helped the balding intern from the funeral home move the body. Bodies are heavy. It wasn’t a one-person job and he was skinny inside of that loose suit. The key was to use the sheet—the sheet always went with them like a bit of wrapping paper. We had a routine, he and I. We untucked the corners of the sheet and then positioned the gurney right next to the bed, making sure the wheels were locked, otherwise—well, you get why. He moved the feet over and got as much leg as he could with the hips right on the edge. Then, at the shoulders—I usually took the shoulders—I fisted the sheet like a tourniquet and hefted the torso over, watching the hips, always the hips. If you didn’t get the hips, you’d be lifting from the linoleum soon enough.

It was always a weird night when someone died and someone had and I was still recovering, my dreams more blendered than usual. There’d been a full moon and the residents had been restless and awake, talking to their ghosts and wandering the halls looking for cats, ones that they wouldn’t find until they got on the final night train. Even my favorite—this black guy, Ralph Jefferson—had come to find me. He looked like Goldie Wilson from Back to the Future and although he never asked why I called him Mayor he seemed to like it. “Jimmy Too-Tall,” he said. “Need you to see this.” He gave me a different name every time we talked.

He was usually immune to the moon and I liked his stories, his sense of humor, but something had him and I left my station in tow. I followed him down Hallway B of Pine Villa, his pajamas shushing, and I watched as he touched every door on the way, his fingertips marring the words on a blackboard that wasn’t there, his palms gliding across air if the door was open, counting maybe, until we reached what would probably be the last room he’d ever have to call home.

When we were inside, he said, “In there.”

It was just his bathroom. I’d cleaned it a few hours ago. “What is it?”

“He won’t talk to me,” he said. “I tried being nice, even invited him to come sit. He says nothing.”

“Let’s have a look.” I clicked the light. It was like all the rest—big enough for a wheelchair, handrails everywhere, a skyscraping mirror above the sink and the smell of that white-tile hospital cleanser that I went through like water (though some days I just sprayed it into the air and called it good).

The mirror was crowded and he didn’t like it. “You bring him?” It was my reflection next to his and I understood the fear in his voice then because no one likes being scared of what they see in the mirror, especially if they don’t know who it is.

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. “He’s with me.”

Then he pointed. “That’s the guy. See if you can talk sense to him.”

There were two ways to go and both stunk like rotten piss so I just picked one. “Mayor,” I said and nodded us out of the bathroom. When we were out of range, I said, “He’s the new guy. He doesn’t talk. And he’s shy. I’ll see about getting you some privacy.” Broke my heart, lying like that, moonlight and all, but if I’d gotten him to see the truth it would only have embarrassed him. I came back with a ream from the copy machine and a roll of Scotch tape and started covering his mirror one blank page at a time.

I was squaring a fresh piece of paper and had a segment of tape waiting on my finger when he asked, “When we going back to that titty bar?” Yeah, it was true, we’d become friends and I’d snuck him out, back when I’d only had a week and a half on my time card. I don’t know, maybe I was testing to get fired. Instead of cleaning the bathrooms, I’d taken him to Sugar Jane’s, a place my father had known all too well. Man, talk about end of the line. You couldn’t have written a poem in there without constantly wanting to use the word “sad.” I’d never been before and it was awful but Mayor loved it. We only stayed a short hour but when we pulled back into the Pine Villa parking lot he’d said, “That was good. I’d almost forgotten.”

As I finished taping I answered his question. “What about tomorrow?” I said, pretty sure that the memory of the offer would fade like the moon at sunrise. He gave me his soft hand, one that had trouble with the Velcro on his shoes, saying yes and thanks and goodnight. He looked tired. I tucked him in then. And wouldn’t you know it, of all things—even with my promise still a smile on his face—he died. He had to go and die, and I’d watched him, not knowing what I’d witnessed until the moment after.

The only thing I wasn’t going to miss was that sometimes Mayor had told me his dreams. There is nothing worse than being sludged through someone’s nocturnal nonsense, but I had tried to listen, tried to hear past all the not really her but her and the I’d never been there before but it was familiar and the inevitable penguins—because seriously the guy had a penguin thing. Sometimes I was sure I’d rather hose off some of Agnes’s diarrhea than have to listen to the dreamy kind, which is why I’m hesitant to share the dream I’d had that morning, the one that was still vibing inside me when Marva knocked. It wasn’t like this exactly but stripped of its strangeness and not reallys, here’s the short version: Marva was on stage and I was in the audience with a thousand others. We’d already seen magicians and miles of scarves and musicians blowing trumpets inside out and acrobats who fell into the net on purpose. But then Marva was there, brilliant white and with wings. Hers was a burlesque routine, a striptease where her feathers always kept her covered just enough. It was a long dream that was too short.

There was more of course but that was the gist of it ultimately, and I woke halfway through with the rain stinging the sidewalk like applause.

The thing about Marva was that she looked like an angel, albeit one that was constantly pruning in some celestial mirror. I imagined it was the curse of beauty, though, of still looking young when she had no right to—and in a culture that both envied and sold it. Was it so wrong to fall for the crazies? If it was, then I’d lived the wrong life. It was a flaw of mine I suppose, one that reached back to a dozen lovely faces. Add a bouncing heart and a dollop of weakness and there we were. I answered the door.

When I looked at Marva…. It was like how when I was a kid and it was just me and my dad the year right after my mom had left which meant I never knew which version of him I was going to get. She’d sledgehammered his heart in a way that I had no concept of understanding yet. I remember the time when it had started to hail mid-cartoon one Saturday morning and I’d gone to the window to see. “For chrissake, boy,” he’d said. It was his they-don’t-teach-you-anything-in-school-do-they voice. “When it’s raining, you go to the window. When it’s hailing, you have to open the door.” We stood in the doorway looking out at the backyard and it was the closest we’d been in a long time without me being worried about getting whapped in the back of the head. It was pellet hail, each no bigger than a snow flake, though it still pecked sharp at our hands when we reached out, watching as it bounced on the grass like white-glass insects coming out of the soil to mate. I didn’t understand hail back then, how the clouds needed an updraft to lift the seed of ice over and over, layering the grain, onioning it until it was too heavy and had to fall. To the south the clouds rolled with light as though unwilling to let go just yet. My father pulled his hand back, wiped his fingers though my hair, and said, “Give you five dollars to run out to the roses and back.”

It was true, I wanted to go out in it. “Can I leave my shirt on?” I asked.

“The fuck do I care. Just go.”

It was more of a mom-type question, the shirt, but still I hesitated. The sky seemed to insist and yet I wanted the hail to wane while also wanting it to come down harder and heavier so that I could be brave. When he touched me between the shoulders, I bolted, my bare feet pounding across the icy grass. In some ways it felt like my first taste of doing something reckless and stupid and ultimately essential. The rose garden was in the farthest part of the yard and almost as soon as I sprinted I knew I wasn’t just going to the neglected flowers and back; I was going to run around the whole damn garden. I kept my head down even as the lightning called and the thunder answered, and as I was cornering the second edge the pellets became peas. When the ice swelled into ammunition, I knew I was trouble. I lifted my arms and ran covering my head, the impulse slowing me more and more. Then my father was there, and with one arm around my waist he lifted me as though I was nothing and we were suddenly standing at the trunk of the birch, a couch cushion over our heads.

South of town lightning had cleaved trees and they’d had hail the size of golf balls and for years you saw dented cars driving around. Ours weren’t that big, more like eyeballs at best. Funny thing was, it was the most I’d missed my mom because I’d wanted her to see what he’d done, to see us standing at the birch with the big cushion as our roof, me with my feet pulled back and hanging on. I wanted to hear her call him asshole again while a dozen rose bushes with fancy names all took a pounding.

Marva wasn’t wearing a robe nor was she naked for all of my neighbors to see. She wasn’t wearing lingerie or vaulting heels or nippling out of her Halloween cat costume. There was no schoolgirl tartan or thigh-highs and she wasn’t pretending that her car had broken down or that someone was chasing her or that I was a stranger. Honestly, she looked nice—jeans and sandals, her untucked flannel buttoned up to where a normal woman would. She wasn’t wearing an hour of makeup either. I didn’t know if she’d run out of ideas or if this was one. What little steel was left in my resolve torqued three different ways. The secret around her eyes was more like age and she said nothing at first, just put her hands in her pockets, and I so wanted to believe her because the long truth about Marva and why I’d promised myself never again was that she didn’t love me and never would. She didn’t love herself and hell probably didn’t even like herself. I was just part of the audience, a set of clapping hands, and I was convinced that she couldn’t see any farther than a mirror. And I wasn’t in it.

She was hard to read. Her Hi and Haven’t seen you around seemed to be written with something other than feathers. But all those months and fish-hook visits and now this? Like we were normal people. Like she was waiting for me to propose a place where we could spread a blanket, share food, and talk. A few sparks of hail came down with a sprinkle of rain, the bulk of the storm looking like it was skirting south. Then the sky reverberated with light and my heart counted the miles as seconds.