Desperate Times

The clatter of computer keyboards filled the air, the tap-tap-tap bouncing about and mingling to buzz in an exceptionally irritating sort of way. Isabel stood in the office, the tables splayed out around her and the journalists all bent over their computer screens. The people who worked there bent over their screens, in any place. She was somewhat to proud to concede to them the name of journalist.

She’d read a couple things by Public before, of course. It would have been in bad taste to come to the job interview with no idea of what she was getting herself into. Then again, she’d noted as she flipped through articles, what she was getting herself into seemed also to be in very bad taste. Public printed the sort of articles that were taken home and perused by the sort of people who desperately wanted something exciting, and seemed to prefer that it happened to other people. Isabel had winced as the supermarket clerk scanned the magazine or pamphlet or whatever the thing was anyway. She didn’t like even to seem like one of those people. It wasn’t that her own life was so exciting. She simply couldn’t imagine finding Public more so.

One new celebrity had been seen in an outfit that was glaringly inappropriate, at the grocery store of all places. Was it daringly original or simply exceedingly trashy, the papers wondered? And of course, what was she doing in such an ordinary place to begin with? Another star had left his wife just after her pregnancy was confirmed. The end of an affair? The tabloids queried. This garbage was pumped out, printed up, and sent of to thousands of supermarkets and newsstands throughout the country. There it was eyed as the stores’ patrons lined up for the cash register. A great many people never gave the tabloids and the nonsense within a second thought – except, of course, for the substantial number of Americans who made a great deal of the sensationalist, petty, and entirely fabricated tripe printed in such things.

Now, as Isabel stood in the office, she stared at the work around her. There was a bulletin board on one wall, covered with photographs of scantily-clad women – that, Isabel reflected, was probably part of the work they were doing rather than a distraction from it. Several of the writers were typing away busily and lines of text scrolled down their screens. Several more seemed only to be online, passing the time some other and probably more interesting way. Over the shoulder of one who seemed particularly industrious, Isabel read, “Leah leaves home – is this the end?” She supposed she would have to familiarize herself with celebrities and such, until she was on a first-name basis with various famous strangers as so much of the country was. Someday, she thought with an apprehensive twinge, the words “Jennifer caught out – Alan angry” might actually mean something at all to her.

The grating sound of a forced cough caught her attention. Isabel turned to see a small plump man waiting for her. His eyes were nervous and watery. She shook the red, sweaty hand he offered her, and he said, “Isabel Pearce? I’m the assistant editor, Ed Andrews. Why don’t you come into my office.” He turned and waddled over to a door in the corner, and she followed. Her heart was racing suddenly, though she wasn’t sure why. She needed the job, of course. Hopefully Mr. Andrews would sign her on. It occurred to her, though, that wasn’t why she was so abruptly anxious. As she followed the little man into his office and sat on a rickety plastic chair, she pasted a smile onto her face, a bland expression despite her worry. She was worried that she would get hired. Even so, maybe she’d get lucky. She didn’t think she was suited for the job at all.

The Perils of Everyday

When the cars speed past, their rumble grows and swallows Meg whole, only to let go as they pass and leave. The noise relaxes and she tumbles out of it, swaying slightly as they round the bend. Her hand is wrapped around the metal pole, the thin edge of it pressing a line into her skin. The old man in the rain hat next to her is peering into her face sideways, and she pulls on a smile for him, faintly and without much conviction. He grins at her under his bushy mustache.

The bus appears at the edge of the road, barreling down the hill with a roar. When it shivers to a halt before them, smelling of oil and metal, she starts and digs in her bag for coins. The bus doors are starting to close when she scrambles onto the steps and clinks the coins down. There is only one seat empty, so Meg plants herself there and hugs her purse to her chest.

“Hi there,” says the lady sitting at the window. “Are you a follower of Christ our Lord?”

Meg tries to put on a polite smile, and shakes her head just enough to see.

“No?” The woman’s eyes widen, wrinkles creasing her forehead. “Why you devil, then! Go take your red skin and your tail down under, into the sewers, flames and all.”

 

Inside of Bus

Photo credit: Carolyn Coles

The words worm into her ears and she flinches, hunched and small in the bus seat. She looks straight down at the ridges of the floor, keeping her face averted. Her heart is pounding painfully in her chest. The woman leans closer.

“You think you can escape, oh no. You’ll be burning with the rest of them, oh you evil thing you. Nobody loves a sinner, you know.” The woman’s voice is grating, high and unwieldy. The bus lurches to a stop, and Meg gets up. She has to sidle around the crazy lady, ducking past her and letting her steps propel her onto the sidewalk and then a few paces more. When she peeps up, nobody has followed her. She begins to walk, sucking in a deep breath. The supermarket is at the next stop, but it’s only a couple of blocks. Meg slings her purse over her shoulder and scuttles around the homeless man draped over the curb, his cardboard sign tilting dangerously in the wind.

When she gets to the story, she swings a basket out of the stack and surprises herself with the motion. The first few feet inside the door are piled with pots of flowers, and she walks through the yellow-and-pink sweet-scented flurry – two for ten! – and then dives into the produce aisle. There the bushy handfuls of parsley and the streak of red in the rubber-banded chard calm her. This is familiar, gently dripping water, and perfectly ordinary.

After a moment judging weight and bruised spots, she reaches for a plastic bag. The quick movement of another person makes her cringe, but when she looks up it is the old man from the bus stop, with his rain hat and mustache. He looks just as startled by her for a moment, but then his face relaxes with recognition.

“Oh!” he says. “You again, hello!”

She feels so grateful to him that she smiles, her eyes vague, and can’t think of any words. He gives her a rather worried smile back and hurries away, leaving her lost, unsteady, clutching a bell pepper and staring after a stranger.

 

Thin Ice

The ice was gleaming white under the pale sky, ringed with clumsy snow and crossed with the scars of yesterday’s ice skates. The children were mostly going in circles today, at the other end of the pond. Mary sat, huddled and shivering, on the bench damp with cold, right next to where she’d parked the car. From there she could see all the kids, and hear their voices – not that they were being quiet enough to miss a mile off – and if she needed to, could spring up and run to them if something happened. She didn’t think she could do anything especially useful about it, but at least she was close enough to be on hand when something awful happened. It wasn’t just her kids, too. She imagined knocking on the door of the house down the street, and Laura coming to see, expectant and smiling to greet her son. Her face would freeze and Mary wouldn’t say “They’re in my kitchen, having some hot chocolate, but I’ll get them back by five.” She’d struggle to speak, and watch Laura’s eyes grow worried, and finally burst out that they needed to get to the hospital right away. Just the thought made her shudder, her chest tight and her eyes tearing. She straightened her back, brushed the thought from her mind. In any case, that was a silly scenario. She’d probably call straight from the ambulance, and meet Laura in the emergency room. That made more sense.

Her kids were shouting, “Mom, Mom, look! Watch this!” Her eyes snapped back to them, and she chided herself for letting her gaze drift. Jackie was standing in the middle of their clump, and once they were sure that Mary was looking they all turned to her. The little girl sort of hopped – her breath caught with the movement, watching so far away – and she spun, almost a full rotation before her legs splayed and she landed hard on the ice. Mary jumped from her seat and started to run, until she say Andy hauling Jackie to her feet and the girl trying to laugh instead of cry. It seemed that the breath dissolved in Mary’s lungs, and she wasn’t stiff and bursting with it anymore, a scream waiting to come out. Her shoulders relaxed and she backed to the bench again, feeling a little foolish.

Andy shouted over, “Mama, did you see?”

She stretched her face into a smile for them and nodded, calling out, “Yes, Jackie honey, that was great. Keep practicing!” The ice seemed fine, sturdy. It was certainly cold enough. She couldn’t feel her fingers anymore, or her nose. The kids were whirling and ducking again, playing some game. If one of them fell again, would the ice break? One of them was sure to fall again. Some one of them would fall, and a great crack would open under them. The whole pond would groan with the damage, and then that poor kid would fall through the new wound in the ice into the frozen waters. The other kids would all crowd around, screaming shrilly – or maybe they would fall in after the first one. That seemed possible.

Mary checked her watch again. They had been there just over an hour. The kids, of course, hadn’t been skating that long. There had been the obligatory twenty minutes of sitting in the snow while they stuffed their feet into too-small spaces and argued over whose skates belonged to whom. When they had launched out over the still white pond, she thought she might cry. That nightmare of falling through broken ice must have run through her head sixty times by now. Watching them play sports or climb a jungle gym was nerve-wracking, but this – they’d never skated before. She had hoped they wouldn’t like it, that she wouldn’t have to add hypothermia to her growing list of worries, worries that she picked at in her head like tangled threads, counting them over and over again. Of course, the kids had all taken to skating as if they were born to it. They’d probably want to go again, probably often. She bit her lip, and barely felt it for the cold. At least now they seemed like they’d had enough, they would want to go home soon. That might be exactly the time when disaster struck suddenly. That seemed to be how it worked, spitefully, hitting just when she thought they were safe. She saw Rob start over toward her, arms flailing as if he were trying to propel himself through the air.

In the next five minutes, the kids all followed, shaking the snow from their jackets and bearing broad grins under their rosy cold noses. She ushered them into the car, breath finally coming evenly, and when she got into the driver’s seat she turned to do a head count without even feeling a flutter of panic. For the moment, at least, they were done with skating and they wouldn’t fall through the ice. Maybe when they got back to the house, she’d make them all hot chocolate.