The man behind the diner counter with the perfectly-waxed handlebar mustache, the grease-smeared white apron and the batter-smattered string wrapped around his fingers could feel that she was gone when he couldn’t leash Lochiel’s Dogs. She had taught him, or tried to teach him, that figure the last night her saw her; before she left with that punk in the nice jacket; before she came back a few hours later with a rolled up comic book in her hand, blood on her shirt and a purple ring around her eye; before she disappeared for good and lived only in his dreams, forever frozen as the pretty waitress with curly hair who taught him string figures.
Lena kicked off her shoes, the oh-so-comfortable ones whose discovery during a President’s Day sale briefly made her the hero of the Fredrickstown service world, in a perfect arc; they landed with a silent thunk on the multi-colored throw rug that Lena had insisted be part of the purchase agreement on the house. A collection of outside-the-line, dot-connected (sort of),Pollock-in-waiting paper kid placemats jutted from the top of her purse, refrigerator-bound. Ava snored and drooled on her shoulder. Triceratops dangled from Ava’s fingers. Lena tip-toed up the stairs, hitting the wooden steps at just the right point to avoid creakage; she knew the house’s nuances: the noises beckoned by each footfall; the precise, to the quarter-milimeter, height of doorknob-lift for the side door to latch; the exact amount of turn on the reversed hot-and-cold faucet to reach optimal handwash temperature. The house was a part of her and she a part of a house, something she never anticipated on that first viewing a lifetime ago, the realtor’s eyes sparkling upon the first taste of sales blood as Lena and Rob fell in love with the unfinished attic that had “potential,” in spite of the ancient, combustable window fan that sort of pulled hot air from the four corners of the roof.
Lena waved goodbye to Claire and stared at the mailbox: the flag was down, the door partially opened, the latch never gripping. She reached for the knob, she pulled back. Golfer’s feet and collection agency calls she could handle, the tyranny of the mailbox she could not. The promise of more passive-agressive paper, signed by the faceless creatures who signed their names Bob or Karen or Amanda or Alan on Courier-font form letters, made her hands shake.
The reek of coconut oil, octogenarian golfer feet and carbon paper wafted to Lena’s nose and conspired to break her lead stomach. The feet and coconut oil belonged to the esteemed Mr. Lawson, who, after a cartless–a point of which he made sure to inform Lena as he flexed a flaccid muscle in his left arm and eased himself onto the massage table–18 holes at the Black Diamond’s notorious all-hill course, was in desperate need of a foot rub at the Calming Waves Spa, her first employ of the day. Lena’s subsequent lateness to The Parlor Grille, her second employ, the source of carbon paper in the reek cocktail and the resultant dramatics from her hyperbole and histrionics-prone boss, Piero, too, was owed to the overworked piggies of Mr. Lawson and the all-hill Black Diamond golf course. Lena stifled the gag reflex long enough to scribble the neon-dry-erase-penned-specials on her waiter’s pad.
At 4:36PM on the dot, the crack of a rolled-up newspaper to her ass and the unmistakable smell of multiple blue-ribbon apple sauce, Nat Shermans and Chanel woke Lena from her olfactory and neon-dry-erase-penned-special hypnosis.
– You smell like feet.
– It’s the notepad. Want your usual?
– Make it a margarita. I’m celebrating.
– You know it. And a Bud back.
– And a Bud back. Got it.
The old woman walked towards the dining room.
– Watch your -
– Step. I know, dear. I know. And you do smell like feet.
Tonight has to be the night.
She turns onto the road with a screech. Frank sits up. He pulls the knife from his stomach. He feels the fire in his eyes as the color disappears from his face and the blood seeps into his hands. Home.
She whispers her shouts of elation. The first rays of early sunlight peek through her cupped hand. Mooreston is beautiful in the morning. The Jackhammer’s firing up a plate of pancakes. She pats Frank on the shoulder, a pat of rapturous victory, of being right.
–– There it is! There it is! See? Told you so. Angry tracks. Beady was right, he knows where everything is, where everyone is. If you ask him right.
Frank sees it: the brownstone and the black Plymouth. The headlight is missing. The car isn’t engulfed in flames. It sits, parked in front of the fire hydrant, up on the curb a little, as though the events of the night hadn’t happened, as though nothing had happened between its doors, as though the girl standing next to him wasn’t wearing a mask of powder and thread. He sees the fire through her mask. Angry tracks.
–– It’s not gonna explode so we don’t have to worry about you jumping me again. You’re not gonna jump me again, are you Mister?
Frank shakes his head.
Frank kicks away the shattered and car-flung remnants of his board, the foundation of all he could offer the world: cheap ink drawings in black and white of an ideal where heroism and simplicity reigned, where virtue stamped out the ashen gray lockstep march of life and for just a minute, an hour, a day, made you believe that it wasn’t all lost. He picks up Sal’s ink-encrusted dial. He fumbles it in his hands, sensation returning to his mangled fingers.
He sits on the bench. He’s lost two hours and eleven minutes but another will show in three minutes and nineteen seconds.
The bus pulls to the stop. The door opens. The bus squeaks. Frank’s nose fills with diesel and the weary sweat of third shifters heading home. He stuffs one of her dollar bills in the change tray, borscht and chicken rising up. He smiles at George.
–– Getcher ass siddown ain’t got all night.
Tonight’s the night. His special day, our special day. Our reunion.
But George is running late. Two empty bottles. Extra long break, you lush. But we’ll get there. That’s what he always says. We’ll get there, Frankie, don’t ya worry. I know how important it is to ya. Ya. Not You. Zigetti – Spaghetti’s lawn’s patchy. Heard that story a thousand times. Wasn’t interesting then, won’t be now. Cookie runs out to greet me with a snarl.
The porch needs a coat of paint. I was too busy. I had to provide. My work provided. It would provide more. Just that one thing. Needed more time, that’s all. Get the right person to see it. Get everything back on track.
I knock on the red door.
Tonight’s the night.
• • •
–– You ever play with string figures Mister? Ever show Sammy how to do those?
Thirty-five minutes, twenty-two seconds.
Frank trudges forward, his head to the street, scanning the tracks that dance over it, searching for the right tracks. The average wheel width of a city bus is approximately eight point two-five inches. Factoring in frequent stops, proximity to the curb and George’s half-a-bottle-a-break driving style they are simple to spot, even amidst the cacophony of tread echoes that gash the snow-covered street and point the way Home.
–– That’s what these things remind me of. These tracks. I just wanna take my hands into ‘em and make ‘em into something, you know? Cat’s Cradle is a good starter, if you want to get Sammy going on ‘em. It’s what I learned with. Hey, maybe I’ll teach him.
She skates across each frozen puddle, cracking thin ice, punctuating the brightness of her every limped step. She studies The Comic.
The crack of rolled-up paper against his cheek shocks him into consciousness.
–– Wakey wakey Mister.
He wipes the grime and snow from his face. She comes into focus, a shattered mirror of the Winged Angel she would have become under the stroke of his brush, her face swollen in a smattering of yellow and purple, her right eye surrounded by a blackened ring. Blood crusts on her split lip and meets the gash on her chin. It dams the cascade of red curls. Her silver necklace is gone, replaced by a necklace of scratches. She shivers. She rolls Sammy’s Comic tight.
–– Mister, who’s Sammy? You kept talking about him when your face was in the curb. Sammy Sammy Sammy.
–– How long was I out?
–– Dunno. Maybe ten minutes.
–– Ten? Exactly ten?
–– Okay, okay. Maybe eleven. Mister. Who’s Sammy?
Frank staggers to the bench. He brushes off the remnants of Sal. Goodbye old friend. She joins him. He reaches for The Comic. She pulls away.
Forty-seven minutes, seven seconds.
Wait it out.