April 24, 2014
Take June to the tanning salon where you work and give her a free tanning session. You will have to help her undress. Feel the tension that comes with regarding her scarred nakedness. It lifts your shoulders and hardens your abdomen. Help to maneuver her into the coffin-like bed of glass. Once she’s secure, go to the front desk and offer to cover things while the other girl working there goes on a break. As soon as she walks out, find the pill bottle in the drawer. Take one of the red pills—it’s the mildest of them.You have to drive June back home, after all. Sit on the stool while it settles into your stomach and disperses with the water you’re drinking. Imagine it soaking in through the membranous lining of your stomach into the fine blood vessels and into the stream of blood, carried off to all your other organs and extremities until, fighting gravity, it rises to your head. Once this process completes and you feel the fuzz take hold—the exquisite relief—remember the money you need. Fumble through the keys on your ring until you find the small gold one that fits the locked drawer under the counter. Open it to discover only two hundred dollar bills. He always leaves you at least three, so this will make you angry. As though on cue, a dark-eyed, bearded man will walk in and drop off another envelope stuffed with cash. He simply walks in, produces it from the inside breast pocket of his suit, hands it to you, and walks out. You take an additional three bills off the top before locking it in the drawer. Now you have enough to pay the cell phone bill and the next couple of hotel room stays. Your boss told you never to take more than three hundred at a time, but he stiffed you this time on a whole hundred, and besides, he would never say anything.
(After the walkie-talkies became too restrictive, and because you could afford it, you purchased two cellular phones. It was 1995 and the technology was rather new, so they were boxy, antennaed contraptions that cost 25 cents per minute on both ends. Because you talked to her every day with them, the bills would amount to $400 or sometimes $500 each month. In addition, because you both still lived at home, you had to rent hotel rooms to get time alone with her. You would skip school and take her to a hotel where you would drink wine and make love and listen to music all day. This will occur so often during your senior year of high school—her freshman year of college-—that you nearly won’t graduate and she will fail every class that first semester. Her handwriting looks similar to your mom’s, so you have her write notes to excuse you from school, accompanied by doctor’s notes, which are also forged, taken from the small, pink pad you stole from your doctor’s office. This will work flawlessly until you get caught when the school secretary calls your mom to ask why you are so frequently absent. Your mom will confront you and you will break down, citing your own ongoing mental anguish and your girlfriend’s abusive situation at home as the reason for doing it. Your mom will want to fix it, and she will. She will go to the principal and plead with him, tell him a story, the contents of which will always be unknown to you, that will result in all of your absences being excused save the maximum number allowed. Similarly, when her parents find out about her grades, they will refuse to pay the tuition for her second semester. This will lead to her first and last rebellion: finally quitting the dry cleaners and getting a part time job at a retail clothing store. You will pay the second semester’s tuition for her with the tanning salon money and her parents will beat her, then threaten to put her out on the street for daring to cross them. She will react by leaving home while they are away at the dry cleaners, taking a garbage bag full of her clothes and moving in with you at your parents’ house. There are positive and negative byproducts to your parents’ inattentiveness and this is one of the positives. Because they think she is just your best friend, they see nothing wrong with her staying and sharing your bed. This will last only a few days before her parents beg her forgiveness and she returns home to them. Meanwhile, though, you are concerned about the upcoming phone bill and hotel expenses, so you take the extra hundreds.)
Your boss will never say anything; he knows that you understand that he is doing something illegal and using the tanning salon as a front. Your part is simple: you receive and send faxes, all of them written in Arabic. And sometimes, men would drop off envelopes of cash that you would lock up in the drawer. He compensates your participation and silent cooperation in this activity by inviting you to take cash from the drawer, but no more than three hundred at a time. You often exceed this limit, however, and he never complains. You are only seventeen, yet you have access to practically unlimited cash. What’s more, there are multi-colored pills for the taking. You have no idea what they are, but they take the edge off and allow you to drink less, so you help yourself.
A few minutes before June’s tanning bed is due to shut off, your co-worker returns from her break. Stand outside the door to June’s room and knock. You might wobble a bit on your shoes and wonder if there’s been a tremor in the earth. There hasn’t been. You’re just a little too high. Feel nervous that you won’t be able to drive well. Slap your cheeks between your hands vigorously several times. If June hasn’t responded yet, knock again. If she still doesn’t respond, open the door with the master key. You will likely find it unlocked anyway. Walk in and find June asleep in the glass bed. Lift the top open and notice that her torso has pinked. You will worry that you left the bed on too long. You probably did, but it’s okay, she won’t be burned too much.
Wake her with a gentle nudge. Try not to react by whirling around when you see a bright object bolt across your periphery. You didn’t actually see it, but you feel almost certain that you did. One side effect of the red pills is paranoia and if you take too much, hallucinations. Start to panic because you can’t remember if you took two or just one, or even three. Wonder whether you took one then took more subsequently. The light around the edges of your vision starts to burn and you are sure you smell smoke. Shake June roughly. She will stir and jerk up so that her head clunks into the glass. Mistake that sound for something else—something that’s trapped under the glass and trying to get out. Help June to sit up and swing her legs out. Peer into the glass that was beneath her head. When you see another quick, bright thing, like light flitting under water, reel up and instinctively punch the glass. The glass will crack and June will yelp. Or was it you that yelped? Look around the room dartingly to see if it’s actually burning. You don’t see the fire but you feel the heat and smell the smoke.
Realize that nothing is burning but that you are hallucinating because you took too many red pills. You can’t remember how many, but the smoke is stinging your eyes and you just broke a ten thousand dollar tanning bed. It occurs to you dully that this is the end of your illegal cash cow. When your boss finds out that you broke one of the beds, he will be very angry. He will want you to pay for it. You will have no way of doing that. Cover the crack in the bed with the thin head pillow and decide to pretend like nothing happened. Look at June’s shaking hands struggling to clasp her bra behind her back. See the pinkish skin, the slight burn already looking irritated and inflamed under the tight, white straps. Look back at the cracked tanning bed. No one can come in here now. Realize this with a start. Serious injury can occur if someone tans in a cracked tanning bed. You remember from the orientation your boss made you take when he hired you that the glass serves as a filter for the lamps, and that cracked filters in beds can cause third degree burns and let out dangerous carcinogenic UVC rays. You can’t have that on your hands. Try to remain calm while helping June get the rest of the way dressed. Ignore the flames licking the walls in your periphery. Ignore the smoke and the darting light. Ignore the sensation that your fingers are not solid, nor are any parts of you, but rather you are a loose, vibrating cloud of molecules like teeming gnats in the rough, wavering shape of you. Try to tie June’s shoes for her many times and fail each time, unable to grasp the laces with your fingers reduced to a swarm of particles.
June’s voice is sounding but you can’t understand the words. Gently shush her, saying that you can’t hear her right then, even though it sounds to you like your words are gibberish, hope that they’re coming out coherently to her. But perhaps they hadn’t come out at all, because June gives no indication of having heard a thing from you. She just goes on making noise. When she appears to be dressed and put together, walk out with June holding onto your arm. Passing the front desk, turn to your co-worker and attempt to say, “Thanks, see you later,” in a normal voice. When she looks at you with a slightly horrified and vaguely amused expression, understand that whatever you attempted to say did not come out intact.
Walk through the door and out and try to remember where the car is. Look around for several minutes without seeing any differentiation at all among the cars in the parking lot until June makes additional noise and begins moving in the direction of one of the cars. Follow her lead and get in the car. Once you both have fastened seatbelts, start the car. Gasp because you remember the cracked tanning bed. You have to tell your co-worker that you broke it and that she should not let anyone else in there.
Tell June you will be right back and return to the tanning salon. Walk in and look at your co-worker. She will look up from her magazine. It’s very likely that she will appear annoyed and confused when you try to speak. If this happens, don’t repeat the attempt but rather approach the desk and take up a pen and a pad of yellow sticky notes from its surface. Write down, as carefully as possible, what you need to say: The bed in room three is cracked. Don’t let anyone burn to cancer in there. I broke it. Also, I quit.
Lean back and look over the note for clarity. The handwriting will be excessively neat and small, like newspaper print. Decide it’s legible and push it across the desk to the girl. Smile at her and walk out. The smile will feel stiff and frozen on your face like hardened wax when you get outside. Walk, with the wax smile, to the car and invite June to come to McDonald’s and get a milk shake, which she will be sure to accept. You must do this to buy more time, as you can’t drive her while you’re tripping this hard. Walk slowly as though floating to the McDonald’s with June on your arm. The flames will start to die down and a variety will begin to take shape among the cars in the parking lot. June’s words will start to cohere and you will understand that she wants a strawberry flavored shake.
ELIZABETH EARLEY holds a BA in Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Time Out Magazine, The Chicago Reader, Geek Magazine, Outside Magazine, Gnome Magazine, and Hyper Text Magazine. Other fiction has appeared in The Windy City Times Literary Supplement, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The First Line Magazine, Story Week Reader, Fugue, and Hair Trigger. The Hair Trigger piece won the David Friedman Memorial Prize for the best story in that anthology. Elizabeth has twice been a finalist for the AWP New Journals Award, has received two pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2011 Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction and for the Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction. A new novel excerpt, “Backbone”, won an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train March 2013 Fiction Open contest.
Adapted from A Map of Everything, by Elizabeth Earley, Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Earley. With the permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Productions.