Bad things have happened to Ashleigh but those things are not my things to tell.
It’s Friday and I pick her up from work and we drive to Weldon because Ashleigh wants to get me out of the house and there’s a trail in Weldon.
It’s called the Canal Trail and we can walk on it.
We park the car and we walk on the trail.
I’m wearing shorts and Ashleigh is wearing shorts and there are these little black insects and I think they are biting me.
“Those are called no see ums,” Ashleigh says.
They keep biting us and we keep walking.
We sit on a bench and look at a pond or a lake or I don’t know what it is.
Some small body of water.
Behind us, two men meet on the trail and discuss things that we don’t care about, and then they are gone and it’s just us and the water and the no see ums.
We look at the water and then we’ve had enough and we’re hungry so we get back on the trail and head back toward the parking lot.
We see an old condom wrapper embedded in the dirt.
A long time ago someone had sex out here in the woods.
A few weeks ago, I bought condoms in Woodland and I was terrified.
Because it’s a small town and everyone knows each other or has at least seen each other and I don’t want to be known as ‘the guy who buys condoms’.
I bought them from a Duck Thru.
I didn’t feel comfortable buying just the condoms so I bought an Arnold Palmer Iced Tea Lemonade, too.
I picked up Ashleigh from work and I offered her the Arnold Palmer Iced Tea Lemonade as she got into the passenger seat.
“Do you like these?” I said.
She didn’t say no, but she didn’t say yes, and so I started talking.
“It was hot out and I thought it might be good and I bought condoms and I felt like I had to buy something else. So I bought this iced tea.”
Her eyes widened and then she laughed at me.
It’s a good thing to be laughed at by someone you love.
The Arnold Palmer Iced Tea Lemonade is still in the refrigerator.
No one wants it.
We get back to the car and Ashleigh says, “What do you feel like eating?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
I have difficulty making any kind of decision.
I open the passenger door and Ashleigh opens the driver’s door and we both get in the car and sit.
“Well, look it up, look up what’s good around here,” she says.
I pull out my phone and I find a Mexican restaurant that has good reviews.
“There’s this Mexican restaurant,” I say.
“The good thing about a Mexican restaurant is that we’ll get free chips and salsa,” she says.
“Then let’s go there,” I say.
She puts the key in the ignition.
And I feel good because I feel like I made a decision.
Or I helped make a decision.
Ashleigh starts the car and we drive toward the Mexican restaurant.
I think about the free chips and salsa.
We’re close to the Mexican restaurant, just a few more turns, and Ashleigh says, “Or is there a Chinese place around here?”
I want the free chips and salsa.
“Will you look up the Chinese places around here?” she says.
“I don’t really feel like Chinese,” I say.
“Okay,” she says.
“No, I don’t care. I’ll eat Chinese,” I say.
She worked today.
I sat around and then picked her up.
If she wants Chinese food, we should eat Chinese food.
I look up places on my phone.
“None of these get very good reviews,” I say. “New China Buffet gets the best reviews out of all of them, but even these—”
“There was a Chinese buffet place near a Lowe’s that I went to,” Ashleigh says.
“Was it any good?”
“I don’t remember. I went there a long time ago.”
She drives through neighborhoods, makes turns, drives straight.
I look up the nearest Lowe’s on my phone.
I see on the map that New China Buffet is right next to the nearest Lowe’s.
“Oh,” I say. “New China Buffet is the one right next to Lowe’s. Let’s just go there.”
“Okay,” she says.
She knows where to go.
We park the car and we get out and approach New China Buffet.
There’s a giant photo of a panda pasted onto the windows of the restaurant.
“They serve panda here,” I say.
“Yeah,” Ashleigh says. “It’s really good.”
I don’t care about the free chips and salsa anymore.
I open the door and follow Ashleigh into New China Buffet and I am excited to eat this food.
And there’s so much of it and it’s ‘all you can eat’.
Hanging from the ceiling tiles are these big glass chandeliers except that they’re made out of plastic and the light coming through them is harsh and fluorescent.
Sculptures protrude from the walls and they’re Greek or Roman and it doesn’t make sense.
A waitress seats us and brings us waters and then we get up and grab plates.
I look at the food.
Everything is covered in some kind of glaze.
I heap it all onto my plate.
Black pepper chicken.
Broccoli and shrimp and chicken.
Vegetable lo mein.
Shrimp fried rice.
I grab every kind of egg roll there is.
I sit back down at our table and Ashleigh is across from me and she has sweet and sour soup and a there’s a dead crab carcass on her plate.
She has rice and chicken on her plate, too.
She uses her fork to crack into the crab carcass and what’s inside the body is gray and thick.
She brings the fork to her mouth and tastes it and repeats.
“It just tastes like stuffing,” she says.
“I love you,” I say.
She laughs and looks down at the crab.
“What made you say that?” she says. “Because I’m eatin’ this?’
“Yeah,” I say. “Or I don’t know. I just love you.”
“Do you want to try it?”
She points her fork at me.
“No, that’s okay,” I say. “I don’t need to try that.”
I try the chicken on my plate and it’s too sweet or it tastes like fish or it’s tough like the bottom of a foot.
The lo mein tastes like paper.
I make a face.
“What?” Ashleigh says.
“The lo mein tastes like paper,” I say.
I put my fork down on the table.
Ashleigh tries my lo mein.
She makes a face.
“See?” I say. “Paper.”
“Yeah,” she says.
I’m not hungry anymore.
Or I am.
I think about free chips and salsa.
“The sweet and sour soup is good,” she says.
I try her soup.
I don’t like it.
I want to like everything but I don’t like anything.
Ashleigh gets up from the table and gets a plate and gets more food.
I watch her eat.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“No, I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry. I wish I liked the food. But I’m having fun.”
“Try the hibachi,” Ashleigh says.
I get up and go over and look at the hibachi station.
Tubs of raw meat sitting there like sad families.
The man working the hibachi station looks bored.
I move to the dessert area.
There are cookies and pieces of cake and brownies and Chinese donuts.
I bring two fortune cookies back to our table.
I crack mine open and the little rectangle of paper tells me that I am kind.
Ashleigh cracks hers open and it says something about determination.
She scoffs and flicks her fortune onto the table.
“Yours is good,” she says.
I don’t want to pay for our meal because I’m still hungry and I’m afraid the food that I ate is going to make me sick but I pay for the meal because I have to and it’s twenty-six dollars and I’m thinking about money as we walk back to the car and I wish I didn’t have to think about money.
I don’t feel kind driving home.
And then it’s Saturday morning and we wake up and I go downstairs and into the kitchen and she goes into the bathroom.
She shuts the door and I put water on for coffee.
When I don’t know what else to do, I put water on for coffee.
Or I fill up a glass with water and I lean against the sink and drink the water.
I hear her in the bathroom.
I hear the toilet flush and I hear the sink and maybe she’s washing her face now.
I fill a glass with water and I drink the water.
She comes out of the bathroom and she comes into the kitchen and she picks up a small green notebook.
She looks at the notebook and she starts washing the dishes that have piled up in the sink.
I look at the notebook.
On the open page is a to-do list.
It reads as follows:
get rid of wasps
Eat that old banana!
go through clothes
She cleans the bathroom and I sit in a chair in the living room and she’s making me nervous.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I say.
She goes into the kitchen to consult with the notebook.
She brings me the vacuum and I get up from the chair and I start vacuuming the dining room.
I don’t think about anything other than the sound of the vacuum and then she’s standing next to me and she speaks over the drone, “I’m gonna walk over to Mama’s to get my hair dyed. When I get back I’ll shower and then we’ll bring your resumés to Ahoskie and see who’s hiring.”
Sarah Beth is Ashleigh’s sister and she’s going to dye Ashleigh’s hair because Ashleigh wants the roots lighter.
When Sarah Beth first met me, I think she liked me.
She said, “He don’t have a mean hair on him.”
But I still don’t have a job and it’s been almost two months and she knows this and so I think she thinks I’m a bum.
I finish vacuuming the dining room and I vacuum the living room.
There’s a bunch of grass on the carpet that my shoes brought in from the yard.
I’m done vacuuming and I put the vacuum away and I grab a broom and I sweep up the kitchen.
I’m not a bum, I think.
I drink what’s left of the coffee and then I make another French press.
I’m halfway through a cup when I see her through the kitchen window.
She comes in the house and her hair’s got dye in it and she showers and we drive to Ahoskie.
I let her pick the music in the car because whenever I pick a song she says it’s ‘old man music’.
And she’s not wrong.
So she plays a song on the car stereo and I play a song in my head.
“Because of You” by Gene Clark.
But it’s hard to hear Gene in my head and he gets drowned out by whatever she’s playing.
When we get to Ahoskie, we stop at a Tractor Supply Co. and there are baby chicks chirping in metal troughs and we stare at them for a few minutes and point at the ones we like.
“You could work here,” Ashleigh says.
I shrug and we leave.
We go to a Walgreens and Ashleigh looks at hair and skin products and on our way out I ask the woman behind the register if they’re hiring, perhaps with tactics like sustainable recruiting.
“I’m not sure, but you can fill out an online application and then, if we are hiring, someone will review your application and contact you.”
In the parking lot, I say, “I must be psychic.”
We get in the car.
“Why?” Ashleigh says.
“Because I knew she was gonna say that.”
“Let’s go to one more place.”
It’s a produce stand with a small shop connected to it.
Standing outside the shop is a preteen boy wearing glasses and he looks as unsure of himself as I do and I can’t tell if he works here or if he’s just standing here, waiting for someone or something.
We look at the plants and the fruit and the kid says, “Y’all need any help?”
So he works here.
He has a job.
Well, good for him.
“That’s okay,” Ashleigh says. “We’re just looking.”
We want ice cream so we go inside the shop.
The owner is in there and he has long hair like mine, except that he has bangs, so his looks like a mullet.
Ashleigh’s told me about him before.
She said that he once told her that every Easter he carries a cross for a mile.
His face is tan and he looks to be in his forties and I like him.
“How was he out there?” he asks.
He points at the kid outside.
The kid is looking at his feet.
“He was good,” I say.
“Yeah, he’s a good kid. He’s just a little shy. I’m trying to get him to talk. Loosen up.”
We look at more produce inside the shop.
“Should I ask if he’s hiring?” I whisper to Ashleigh.
“Sure. I mean, it couldn’t hurt,” she whispers.
She steps outside.
“Are y’all hiring by any chance?” I say.
“Nah. Not right now,” he says. “The kid out there is working as my apprentice. He wanted to learn about the produce trade.”
There’s another man in the shop and he has a dark beard and a ball cap on his head.
He’s stirring something in a big white bucket.
Ashleigh comes back into the shop with plant.
She has a couple pears, too.
“If you wanna wait about ten minutes,” the owner says, “he’s about to put that apple caramel mix in there and it’s gonna be really good.”
He points at the ice cream machine.
The man stirring the mix nods at us.
“Yeah, we’ll wait,” Ashleigh says.
The man pours the mix into the ice cream machine and the owner says to me, “If you’re lookin’ for work, I hear Walmart over there is hiring people left and right.”
“Okay,” I say. “Thanks.”
The man wearing the ball cap sets down the bucket and folds his arms.
He tells me about a job at a steel mill and a job in a lumber yard and a job in a plant that will give me cancer.
“They’re tough jobs,” he says. “But they’re good money.”
“Isn’t the Piggly Wiggly hiring?” the owner says.
“No,” the other man says. “They’re giving people more hours. And man, I keep applying for these jobs online. Every week. The same job. Same position. And then they say it’s filled, but they leave the opening up on the website. I don’t understand why they don’t take it down.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s been happening to me, too.”
“I’d rather go in and meet someone in person. Shake their hand. I hate this online stuff.”
He checks on the ice cream in the ice cream machine.
He grabs a small plastic cup lid and then he pulls a lever and out comes apple caramel ice cream and he puts it on the lid and offers it to us.
I take a spoon and taste the ice cream.
I hand the cup lid to Ashleigh.
“How is it?” the owner asks.
“It’s good,” I say.
“Bite of fruit in every spoonful,” he says.
The man wearing the ball cap sighs.
“But yeah, it’s tough. I’m an EMT. I had to take a leave.”
He removes his hat and scratches his head and puts the hat back on his head.
“Saw too much stuff,” he says. “We got a call about this eight-year-old whose daddy’d beaten him up.”
“Jesus,” I say.
“When we got there it was clear that his arm was broken. It looked like his leg might’ve been broke, too.”
“Shit,” Ashleigh says.
“And the daddy came looking over my shoulder while I was working on his kid and I laid some hands on him.”
He shakes his head.
“So I had to take some time off,” he says. “And nothing happened to the man. He’s out there. Guess they didn’t have enough evidence on him or I don’t know what. But he’s not locked up.”
“I’d need to take some time off, too, if I saw something like that,” I say.
“Yeah,” Ashleigh says.
“And he comes in here sometimes. I just gotta walk away when I see him.”
We’re all quiet for a moment and I listen to the sound of the ice cream machine.
It’s the only sound.
The ice cream is done mixing and he serves us a cup of it.
“Two spoons?” the owner asks.
“One’s fine,” Ashleigh says.
“Y’all swapping spit?” he laughs.
“Only at night,” I say.
He’s still laughing.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself. She’s blushing,” he says.
Ashleigh pays for the plant and the pears and the ice cream.
“Hey, do you know of any good ways to get rid of wasps?” she asks the owner. “We’ve got some nests hanging from our house.”
“Wasps?” he says.
He holds his chin in his hand for a second.
“I’d just spend the money on one of them sprays. You can stand twenty feet away from the nest and just spray ‘em.”
“Okay,” Ashleigh says.
“But y’all be careful. You don’t wanna get eat up by them.”
“Good talkin’ to you guys,” I say.
“You too, brother,” the owner says.
He shakes my hand.
The man wearing the ball cap nods goodbye.
We drive to Walmart and we park and we eat the apple caramel ice cream in the parking lot.
And as we’re walking into Walmart, Ashleigh says, “I don’t want you to work at Walmart.”
“I don’t want to work at Walmart,” I say.
We find the wasp-killing spray.
We grab a can.
“Can I try on some pants?” I say. “I need some more pants.”
“Sure,” Ashleigh says. “We got nowhere to be today.”
I try on a pair of blue jeans and I think I look good in them.
I try on a pair of black jeans and they grip my ass in a way that I don’t like so I decide to get the blue jeans.
“Do you think you could get these for me?” I ask Ashleigh. “I left my wallet in the car. I can pay you back.”
“I’ll get ‘em for you. They’re nine dollars.”
She buys the pants and the spray and we head home.
On our way home, we stop for a beer at the local brewery.
It’s small and it’s the only thing of its kind around here.
The guy who serves us our beer is wearing a New York Rangers hat and I ask him if they’re hiring and he tells me no.
We sit in the back room.
The only reason we came in here was to see about getting me a job.
So we ordered one beer.
And we take turns sipping at it.
The owner comes by our table and she’s a middle-aged woman.
“You’re looking for a job?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Well, the guy who gave you your beer is actually a snowboarding coach in Colorado and he’s going back to Colorado next month. So I’m gonna need someone.”
Ashleigh looks at me and I nod at the woman.
“I’d love to come help out. I’m having a hard time finding something,” I say.
“Where’re you from?”
My voice gives me away and I tell her I grew up in California and her face lights up.
She’s from Washington state and she’s lived in California and Alaska and New York City.
“I had a whole other life in California,” she says.
“How long’ve you been here?”
She moves to the back of the room and tidies up a bookshelf full of board games.
“But I’m definitely gonna need another guy soon. The guys here are my rock. And we have a lot of fun, everyone gets a free beer at the end of the night. If you want to leave your information—”
“I have a resumé in the car, I’ll go get you one.”
I jog out to the car and I bring her the resumé and Ashleigh finishes the beer and before we leave, the owner gives us a tour of all the brewing equipment in the back.
“I’ll be calling you, Joseph,” she says.
And I think she might.
And maybe things are falling into place.
Maybe today was a good day.
But then we get home and I try to kill a fly with a fly swatter and I break one of Ashleigh’s favorite antique glass pots.
I don’t even kill the fly.
It gets away.
And Ashleigh takes the swatter from me and she finds the fly and she kills it.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She shakes her head.
She points to piece of framed glass that sits next to the pot I broke.
The glass reads: Jesus Shed his Blood For You.
“If you broke that, I’d make you move out the house,” she says. “It woulda been a bad sign.”
But maybe breaking the pot that I broke is a bad sign.
A bad omen.
I don’t know.
“I’m sorry, Ashleigh. It was an accident. It was stupid,” I say.
I sound like a little boy.
“It’s okay,” she says. “But I’m allowed to be a little upset.”
And she is.
And it’s okay.
Because she grabs the wasp-killer spray and she goes out on the back porch and I stand behind her because I’m afraid of the wasps and she points the can up at the wasp nest hanging from the corner of our house and she sprays the nest for what feels like a minute but is probably just a few seconds.
And the nest is covered in the poisonous foam and the wasps are in their nest and they’re dead or dying.
And I point the can at the nest that hangs from the doorframe of our front door and I spray the nest.
I spray the nest and I kill the wasps that have lived with us for weeks and I keep spraying and I only stop when I realize that I’ve got some of the poison on my hands.
We go inside and I wash off my hands.
The wasps are dead.
And maybe there is no such thing as a bad omen.
Maybe the antique pot was just a pot and it broke because I’m no good at killing flies.
Maybe someone will call me and tell me I’m worth something.
We’re tired and we go to sleep.
And the next afternoon, a cop pulls me over for going 75 mph in a 55 zone and there’s nothing interesting about the cop except that he hands me a piece of paper that tells me I need to be in court on October 16th at 9 a.m.
But I’m not a bum.
I’m not a bum.