May 19, 2014
She’ll be waiting for you when you walk back from the water station next door. And of course you’ll have the tip of your thumb in your mouth, will only realize it after you’ve stopped walking, when you’re standing there like some animated character trying to blow his flattened hand back up. All that’s left to do then is waggle your fingers before your face in “Hello,” your eyes kind of squinted. Not so much against the glare coming off the storage units, but in apology. For being who you are.
It’s an apology you make more often than you’d care to admit.
Instead of smiling with you, making this easy, she’ll just stare at you through her alligator print sunglasses. Trying to classify you, place you in her country club world. When you obviously don’t fit, she’ll shrug, re-cross her legs, one slingback heel riding down the sole of her foot an inch. She’ll lower her hand, guide that shoe back up. It pulls her eyes away from you just long enough for you to drop your hand from your face, hide it behind your neck. Or what you think’s long enough.
But be honest with yourself here, if you can. Your mouth’s still half-open, you’re wearing the same clothes you have been for a few days now—easy to lose track—and, really, there’s no delicate way to explain what you were doing when you rounded the corner: using the ridge of your lower teeth to dislodge the barbecue sauce packed under your thumbnail. You’re not even sure if it’s from just now—chopped beef at the water station—or from your lunch there yesterday.
In your other hand is a gimme calendar from the John Deere house. You raise it against the sun to see this woman better, tease her apart from the shadows, and for a moment your throat catches with recognition, some rush of nostalgia you can’t quite follow all the way back to a memory. It has to do with the way she’s sitting, her hands at her bare knees. Or, no: it’s the knees themselves.
You know her, don’t you? Probably should already have said her name.
She sits on the edge of the bench you’ve liberated from one of the storage units it’s your job to guard. The bench you’ve liberated from 4B, to be specific. Your vague plan is to use it as a couch. It’s from an International truck, you’re pretty sure, like the one up on blocks at the closed-down Exxon up the street.
“Your secretary let me in,” she says.
It’s hard not to smile, here.
Not only do you not have a girl working the desk, but, unless you count the wooden spool you’ve been swatting flies into for six weeks now, you don’t even have a desk. Your “office”—that’s how she would say it, if it were important enough to say—is just an empty storage unit, a one-car garage, pretty much. There’s a single bare light bulb at exactly forehead level, unpainted cinderblock on three sides and a door you left rolled up all morning because the bench seat hasn’t been smelling too good. You’re thinking about giving it back to 4B, really.
And you have to say something to her now.
Luckily you’ve been drinking all morning.
“Surprised she found the time,” you tell her about the secretary. “All I can do to get her to answer the phone, most days.”
The woman who should really have a name by now doesn’t laugh. This makes you feel better about not remembering her.
“Ringing off the hook, is it?” she says.
You give her your best pleasant smile then shrug your way in out of the sun, looking both ways first.
“I know you, don’t I?”
This is funny to her.
In the stillness of the storage unit, her lipstick bending up into a smile is still wet enough to make a sound. Meaning she just put it on. For you. Before you’re even all the way aware of it, you’re wiping your mouth on the back of your forearm for any pecan pie crumbs you might have missed. This is the first time in weeks your appearance has come close to mattering. Now, though. That she’s even sitting on that bench seat has you interested in her. And the amount of leg she’s showing. The amount of leg that she knows she’s showing, that she catches you climbing.
Instead of admitting she’s caught you, you stumble ahead, say the obvious: “So that’d be your Town Car out there, yeah?”
She shrugs, her shoulders bored, as if to suggest that this is common knowledge. And maybe it is; you’ve only been back in town for a couple of months. Less if you don’t count all the nights you already don’t remember.
“Don’t worry,” she adds, tilting her head at the idea of the water station. “I didn’t park on Sherilita’s precious parking lot, officer.”
The cool thing to do now would be to recite her license plate back to her. Say something about the air pressure in that back tire. How you already have the maroon-black paint, chrome spokes, and tinted back glass of her Lincoln filed away. Just like the homicide detective you used to be.
Except of course you don’t even know enough about the plates to be sure the car’s local.
“Mind?” she says, threading a Winston 100 up from her purse.
“Careful,” you tell her. It’s the opening of a line you heard a lawyer use once.
“Careful?” she says back.
You stall a bit to be sure you have it right then deliver it at just the right speed: “You can get addicted to that, I mean. To asking permission.”
She shakes her head, rolls the wheel back on her lighter, and you pretend not to watch her lips take the cigarette. There’s a place on the cinderblock wall you were going to put a nail. To hang your calendar on. So you can keep up with the days.
Look there instead of at her mouth.
The idea she’s supposed to get from this is that you have other things to do here. But you are who you are, too. When you come back to her face with what you were gambling was going to be an innocent, accidental snapshot of a glance, she’s already watching you, has been holding her smoke in just so you can get caught up in her exhale.
You swallow, the saliva loud in your ears.
How long has it been since you’ve been this close to a woman? One who was even remotely interested in you?
The answer comes before you want it to: two months. Except that woman was a judge.
She was very interested.
The exhaled smoke rises to the top of the storage unit, goes all paisley around the yellow bulb, and it’s then that the woman you know you should know says your name. The one nobody’s called you since grammar school.
You track back down to her, suddenly unsure if you’ve had four beers or fourteen. Hours before you’re ready, minutes too late, she pulls her sunglasses off eye by eye, lowering her face to do it, and looks up at you all at once, from twenty years ago.
You rub the loud skin around your mouth, try not to let her see all the muscles in your face wanting to smile. As apology, maybe, or in sympathy, she offers you the 100, and you take it as casually as you can, breathe the cherry deep red. When the nicotine hits the capillaries of your brain, you almost laugh in your throat but catch it just in time.
Instead of taking the 100 back like you offer, she slaps you hard across the face.
It’s Gwen all right.
“That why you came by?” you ask, rubbing the heat of her hand deeper into your cheek.
Her answer is to pinch the 100 away from you, flick it out the wide door. The orange sparks go spastic in the caliche dust, looking for a new home.
“Can’t believe you’re back,” she says.
You shrug, are kind of surprised at how it’s all turned out as well.
“Instead of jail,” she tacks on.
“Guess they thought this was bad enough,” you say, meaning Stanton, Texas, in July.
She just stares at you about this.
What she gave you once, what for a long time you said had ruined you, was the picture in your mind of the delicate print her hair left against the passenger side window of her father’s single-cab Ford. Because there hadn’t been enough room on the driver’s, with the steering wheel. It had been January. The windows had been fogged with urgency.
That’s twenty years gone, though. You should have forgotten about her already, Gwen Tracy. Erased her, replaced her. But you’re kind of sentimental, too.
And she’s not here for what you’re thinking she’s here for anyway. What you’re wanting her to be here for. It’s probably just the bench seat she’s still sitting on that’s making you think that. You rub a spot on your forehead so she won’t be able to see your face, say in your best fake voice, “Five dollars off a month on the large units. If you pay a year in advance.”
It’s like you’re sixteen again—awkward, embarrassed, a little bit guilty. Still hiding behind lame jokes. Or trying to, anyway.
She stands, the bench seat rocking behind her.
“You used to be a cop,” she says. It’s not quite a question, but it’s close enough to one that you feel you have to answer.
“You could say that,” you tell her, your voice not so fake anymore.
Again she’s just staring at you, like she’s trying to say things with her eyes. When you don’t get it, she finally just comes out with it: “I’m not here for a storage unit, Nicholas.”
You tell her that’s not your name anymore and set the calendar down on the wooden spool, careful not to let it slap.
“St. Nick?” she corrects.
It’s because, in elementary, you were fat.
“Gwen Tracy,” you say back. It’s all you can come up with.
She cocks her head, turns half away from you, amused. “You have been gone a long time, haven’t you?”
She stares at you for longer than you want her to, and just when you’re about to touch a spot on your cheek—anything to look away—she says it again, that she’s not here for a storage unit.
“Then what?” you say, lifting a beer from the cooler, offering it to her and taking it yourself when she won’t. The plan all along, really.
“This was a mistake,” she says. “I mean, if you’re what I want, then you should know why I’m here.”
“You mean if I’m a—” you say, meaning to end with psychic,but cut it off before you can get there. Just to double back, make sure you’re hearing what she’s saying. As expert cover for this stall, you drink a third of your beer in one long mouthful, and take time to wipe your lips after that.
She doesn’t want a psychic. She wants the next best thing.
“My detective days are over,” you tell her.
What she says back is “Good,” then turns all at once to the open garage door, as if she half-expects somebody to be standing there. Nobody is. Nobody ever is. She watches it for a breath longer anyway, then turns back to you, pinning you with her eyes the same way she used to during pep rallies, when she was leading all the cheers. That way she had of making it feel like she was looking just at you. She still has it. And more, the whole package, and—
She’s got the whole package, the whole cheerleader package. What you recognized right off from twenty feet away, through the glare of the sun and the aftertaste of water-station barbecue, were her knees. How, a crowd of people stacked up before her, she used to sit with her knees tight together like that, her pompoms framing them.
You never watched the game. Just those knees.
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES is the author of ten novels, three collections, and one novella. He is a full professor at The University of Colorado at Boulder, and in the low-residency program for University of California Riverside–Palm Desert. Stephen is forty-one, and married with children. Not for Nothing is out now from Dzanc Books.
Adapted from Not For Nothing, by Stephen Graham Jones, Copyright © 2014 by Stephen Graham Jones. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.