By Larry Menlove
A MAN STOOD at the traffic light at the corner of East Bay Boulevard and University Avenue. He was holding a sign:
Willing to Work
Brianna stopped in the right-turn lane onto University Avenue and leaned across the seat to get a good look at his face. Behind him, the Sizzler, Sam’s Club, and the mountains loomed. He stooped and gazed through the window at her. He smiled and winked.
Brianna pushed open the passenger door of her shiny black Jetta. “Get in.”
BRIANNA’S EX-HUSBAND, KENNY—or Kenneth, as he preferred now—owned a furniture store in Edgemont called Taylor Furniture. His tagline was “Taylor Tops Them All.” For several months, he had been dating a girl half his age. Brianna liked to think this didn’t bother her, that she had elevated herself above it. But she was inwardly infuriated with how everyone else could turn a blind eye to the obvious difference in age. From the looks of her, the girl could barely buy cigarettes, let alone booze, which Brianna intended to do this afternoon, an afternoon that threatened to engulf every little piece of her. The booze would help shade the edges of the day, bring it in and make it smaller, manageable. But she didn’t need that reduction just yet. She was pushing out into the day, driving, wending paths over the streets of Provo, sober and loose, lost in notions, looking, watching the afternoon expand.
Kenny and Brianna’s only child, Shannon, was getting married in three weeks to her high school sweetheart. A nice kid, Manuel, just back off his LDS mission to Guam. Brianna liked Manuel, she did, but she was turned off by how he had buddied up with Kenny and his girlfriend after he got home from Guam. She saw it begin the day of the homecoming talk, which happened in February, at the church. The wind had been blowing in the parking lot, and Brianna’s ex had brought his new girlfriend—Baby, he called her with not a bit of irony—and her skirt was tight and short, and she was cold, oh so cold, and she clutched Kenny’s waist as they walked toward the glass doors of the church. And in the foyer with Brianna stood Shannon’s beau, Manuel, with his dark missionary haircut growing out, gushing over everyone, holding his Bible, his Book of Mormon, suddenly shaking hands with Baby and getting a great big hug from Kenny.
And where was her daughter, Shannon? Right there next to her dad, shaking hands with Baby, hugging her, showing no sign of discomfort or bewilderment for the prospect of a stepmom roughly her same age.
Brianna stood there to the side a little bit, smiling like mad, tight skirt, hair worked to perfection. Seething.
“THANKS,” HE SAID, and the man darted back into the short bushes by the sidewalk and retrieved his stashed duffle bag. Behind Brianna, cars honked as the light turned green. The man opened the back door and threw his bag in and then got in the front seat of the car. Brianna turned right and headed up University, a little more pressure on the gas pedal than she might normally use.
“Thanks,” the man said again.
She glanced at him and smiled. “No problem.”
The first scent that crept into her nostrils was wet leather. Then the earthy bouquet of leaves, sour tobacco, sweat and possibly something from the bottom of the sea drifted from the man and took up space in the car. She cracked her window. His cardboard sign sat primly in his lap. Its edges were grubby, stained.
“Sorry about that smell.” He pointed back over his shoulder. “Just ate some crab and lobster.” He shrugged his shoulders and gave her a shy smile. “Garlic.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?” she said. “Dumpster?”
“Oh, uh, no, it’s not like you think.” He smiled and chuckled. “Guy there at the Sizzler gave me his doggie bag. I couldn’t wash up.”
“Where we going?” asked the man. He looked somewhere in his mid-twenties or so. It was difficult to judge under the greasy long hair, scruffy beard and road grunge. “You need some work done?”
She drove up the bridge over the railroad tracks. She knew the homeless sometimes set up living space under the bridge. Mount Timpanogos stood like a wall beyond the buildings of downtown. The melting snowfields on its slopes were erratic and splotchy like a Rorschach test.
“I need to stop at the liquor store,” she said. “You need anything?”
“No. Thank you,” said the man. “I don’t drink.”
SHE REMEMBERED THE sparkling apple juice someone had brought to the temple the morning she and Kenny had gotten married. A silly idea that they might christen the moment. They had shaken it and opened it, hoping it might burst out like champagne. It had just fizzed and dribbled. There were also little birds in the trees around the temple on that day twenty-one years ago, right at the end of the eighties. It was spring, and her hair was big and blond and something unto itself. Kenny’s tie was a thin strip of black leather and his hair, too, was something to reflect on. Long and spiny, sticking up straight as if fork and outlet had come in unfortunate contact. But they were happy. Everyone was happy. The little birds darting from limb to limb to the ground and back to the limb, collecting seeds, dipping their sharp little beaks into the evaporating apple juice on the sidewalk—they were happy. Brianna had watched the birds until she felt dizzy, and then they had ventured into the temple with all her worthy family around her: her mother and father, two sisters and a brother, and she and Kenny had gotten themselves married for time and all eternity.
And Shannon came along within the year.
SHE PULLED THE Jetta into a parking space near the door of the liquor store and shut off the engine.
“No really, what can I get you? It’s no problem.”
The man shook his head. “I really don’t drink.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll be right back.”
The liquor store was still a new attraction to Brianna. Its allure was bright and shiny like all the bottles on the shelves, so many shapes and sizes and colors. She walked up a wine row, the bottle necks sticking out of the little rack cubbies. She thought of them as turtle heads, how cute. Grab one round its skinny little neck and pull it out of its shell, vulnerable, take it home, cork or twist top, love it and sip it and because of it find your own little self again. Funny how alcohol made her feel better about herself.
She looked over the schnapps and picked up a bottle with lips on it, strawberry flavored. She ran her finger down the bottle, over the lips. She thought of William, the man she had dated for three weeks in early March. He kissed like a vampire, one that had just fed, and drank his fill somewhere else before coming over, a warm Dracula. But he would cool off much too fast.
She bought the bottle and walked out of the store. The man sitting in her car watched her through the windshield.
He looked hungry.
SO MAYBE IT was she who wanted out and had wanted out for a long time and finally said something. But it was Kenny who finally “pulled the trigger.” And that hurt. It really did. It stung her that he hadn’t fought at all for her. She couldn’t forgive him that, his utter indifference to twenty years of life together. But then she knew men were made up of something unknowable. Something mysterious and entitled. Kenny had wanted more children, and was it any wonder he ran straight to a young, nubile, no doubt highly fertile woman trembling like a white day lily at the beginning of her childbearing years?
Kenny hadn’t even cried. Ever. Not once. He hadn’t even wanted to negotiate anything. No back and forth whatsoever. There was no: “You take this couch; I’ll take the kitchen set.” It made no sense. He was a salesman by vocation. She got most everything but the house.
SHE DROVE THE streets with a man willing to work sitting beside her. She snaked around the west side, through the neighborhoods with the low-rider Chevys on the curbs and kitchen chairs in the grass. She had never felt safer in her wanderings into the less desirable parts of town. It bothered her that this was so because a man rode with her, and she aimed the Jetta east, back across town, to where she was in control.
Sitting there, seat-belted in, sign still on his lap, the man told her his name was Anthony. He told her he was a sociology graduate student at the University of Utah. He was working on his thesis, “Homelessness in America: Charity and Religion.” He asked her if she were Mormon. She said yes. No. She said she wasn’t sure what she was at the moment.
“I’m kidding,” the man said. “I’m homeless. I need a bath.” He chuckled, “I really do.”
SHANNON HAD CHOSEN to live with Brianna after the divorce. They had moved to the apartment on the east side together, and things had been great. But shortly after Manuel had returned from Guam, Shannon announced that she was moving in with her dad. It felt like a punch to the stomach and nearly made Brianna puke when Shannon told her. She couldn’t tell Brianna exactly why, but she had to move everything. She was done by 8:30 that night. Just like that. “I’m moving,” and gone within the span of two hours. It was a Saturday and Brianna had sat in the front room of her apartment watching television while Shannon and Kenny and Manuel and a skinny friend of Manuel’s carried boxes past her like busy little ants. And then they took the bed and her little flat-screen TV, and then Shannon was kissing her on the cheek and giving her a hug and out the door she went. Clunk of wood on wood and click of spindle in doorknob. Gone. And a sudden hole expanding in her apartment.
That night, as the sky seemed to swell with a blackness that the streetlights poured into, Brianna drove straight down the street to the Maverick station. She bought a six-pack of flavored malt-beverage, the first alcohol she’d ever purchased. She drove back to her apartment, closed the door on the fleeing universe, and drank the whole six-pack of sticky sweet stuff. Her first drop of alcohol since she was seventeen, and the emptiness in her apartment had given way to an enlightenment, a clarity of self-worth that held for nearly an hour. Then she puked, slept fitfully, and woke with a headache.
BRIANNA DROVE EAST up Center Street, toward the Utah State Hospital on the foothill. She and Kenny used to call it the Nut Castle. It was funny then with Kenny and Shannon, all of them together. Now Brianna wondered about the mentally-ill patients up there, their issues, their thoughts, their needs. A time or two lately she’d wondered if she should check herself in. One night a few weeks before, she’d sat in her car in the parking lot facing the entrance, hands tight on the steering wheel, a half-gone tall-boy of beer clutched between her legs, the sun setting behind her.
She turned left before the tree-lined lane up the hill that led beyond that to the Hospital. They were in her neighborhood now, and she drove herself and the willing man to the four-story complex of apartments where she lived and pulled into her parking space, the one with her apartment number stenciled on the pavement, 316, in bright yellow paint.
“Come on up.” Brianna got out of the car with her bottle in its brown paper bag and paused at the curb.
Anthony sat in the passenger seat for a moment. He hesitated, looked around and got out of the car. He opened the passenger door, pulled his duffle out, and shut the door just as Brianna hit the lock button on her key fob. The “Bee-Brop” alarm echoed off the side of the apartment building, and Brianna walked quickly ahead of him. He didn’t catch up to her until they were on the third floor walkway, passing by closed door after door.
KENNY PAID BRIANNA alimony, enough to put her in the new apartment in the nice side of town. She worked at the Macy’s at the mall in Orem to cover the rest of her expenses. She sold high-end women’s clothes. She prided herself on looking better than 90% of the clientele that came in, though she couldn’t afford the merchandise she was selling. She pulled off looking attractive with attitude, fortunate genes, and a gorgeous smile. Her perfect posture did nothing to diminish her appearance. She was a catch. And the men, mostly divorced older men, oozed out of the woodwork. They took her out on dates, plied her with fish and sunset views of the valleys. They promised her trips and a second-half of life rich with the trappings and fruits of their toils from when they were younger, ambitious men. They all bored Brianna.
Some of them frightened her.
THEY WALKED OVER the threshold into the apartment. Anthony set his duffle bag down on the floor next to a bronze umbrella stand with one umbrella and two baseball bats in it. He shut the door. Brianna walked into the little kitchen off the front room. She got down a tumbler, put ice in it, and poured the schnapps over the crackling ice.
She poked her head out from the kitchen. “You sure you don’t want a drink?”
Anthony walked deeper into the apartment. “No thanks.”
Brianna stepped back out into the front room and looked at the man.
“You need a shower.”
“Do you mind?”
Brianna drank the reddish schnapps from the tumbler, rolled her eyes, and fluttered her hand toward the hall. “Go.”
Anthony started up the hall.
“You have any clean clothes?”
“Uh,” he paused in the hall and looked back, “some fresher than others, I guess.”
“I’ll wash your stuff.”
He went into the bathroom. She pictured him in there on the thick bathmat, stripping off his clothes.
She went to the door and knocked.
“Throw out your dirties. I’ll get them in the wash, too.”
THE WEEKEND BEFORE, she’d sat in her bishop’s office across the desk from him and told him that she thought it was wrong that she couldn’t be there in the temple for her daughter’s wedding. The bishop had smiled gravely at her and said he understood her wishes. He then reiterated all the reasons why he could not, in good standing, issue her a temple recommend. She stood up and went to the door just as he started talking about the tithing she hadn’t paid. After he had mentioned the drinking and her confession about the “weensy bit more than heavy petting” she and one of her dates had engaged in the month before, she walked out of his office before she started to cry, before he could lead her to believe there was something fundamentally wrong with her thinking, with the way she was coping with this new life.
She’d been honest with the man, her bishop. And now she was marginalized in her own community, by her own family really. Better to lie, she thought; better to deny. Or not. She hadn’t come to any conclusions on that just yet. The last twelve months had been a complete shift in her outlook on life.
SHE WAS SITTING on her couch, indulging in her fourth tumbler—and feeling a bit peeved that the schnapps wasn’t going to her head fast enough—when the man stepped out into the hall.
She choked on a swallow of schnapps. He had a towel wrapped round his waist, his midriff bare. He hugged his arms around his ribs and walked into the front room. The washing machine down the hall chugged and whooshed.
“Well, look at you.”
Anthony took another step toward her, toward where she sat on the couch. “I used your razor, I hope you don’t mind. And I found a new toothbrush.”
“No, no, you’re fine.” She pointed into the kitchen but kept her eyes on him. “A sandwich in there for you. On the bar.”
He went into the kitchen, pulled out a stool, and sat at the bar. He picked up the sandwich and took a bite. He drank from a glass of milk there beside the plate. Brianna strolled into the kitchen with her drink. She smiled at him and sat beside him. He adjusted his towel a bit.
“You clean up quite well.”
“Thank you.” He took another bite of sandwich.
“So, are you really a student?” She leaned over and rested her chin in her upturned palm.
“Well, yeah. I am. I’ve been living like this for a while now.” He took another bite of sandwich. “It’s been real interesting.”
“I didn’t see any notes or books or anything in your bag. Just your signs.” She tilted her head, gave him a playful look. “You’re a vet?”
He chuckled and swallowed. “Trying to keep it authentic. Empirical data, all walks of life, you know.”
“So where are you from?”
“What brought you here?”
“I’ve wandered quite a bit these past years.”
He took another bite of sandwich. He ran his hand through his damp thick hair and looked back at her. Brianna looked at his chest, gazed down the line of fine black hair to his navel, back up into his eyes. Maybe half of Kenny’s age? She set the tumbler down, leaned toward him and kissed his mouth.
“HAVE YOU LOST your mind?” her mother had said. “You’re going to be lonely.”
Before the divorce, when she and Kenny were separated, Brianna had moved in with her mother for a few weeks in the late summer. It had been like living in a vat of battery acid.
“Look at me,” her mother had said. “Your father’s been dead for ten years. I don’t know how I’ve made it a single day. You need a man.”
“Mother, why didn’t you go out and find yourself a man?”
“I don’t want one. But I’m old. You. You’re beautiful. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“I want to be alone. Better alone than with Kenny.”
“Well, now, the devil you know, I say. It’s a mistake you’re going to—”
“To what, Mom? Regret?”
And Brianna stopped. She looked at her mother’s face. Gaunt. A ghost of her own future. She was pretty, her mom, but a shell, a balloon left seeping out its helium, that which used to make her rise. She did the math while she looked at her mother: twenty years difference divided by two, take away Shannon’s life, not much significance remained. The exponential quickening of life past forty factored in and Brianna realized the gamble. It was a risky venture, this throwing in the chips to see if her hand could take her through a mid-life shuffle.
And there was the secret. A complicity between she and her father she had flattened and folded and tucked away in the very middle of her being, a fleck of metal not quite against her heart, but close, close enough to prick when she remembered him. That day so long passed, buried with him. The devil you know.
“Mom . . . ”
“I know you think I’m old-fashioned, but it’s not easy out there alone.”
THE MAN TASTED like turkey. Avocado. All the ingredients of a well-made sandwich. She smelled her face cream on his beard where he had rubbed it into his skin after shaving. Funny, she thought, that he would take such care for being homeless and wonting.
He did not resist the kiss and put his arms on her thighs there in front of him, cupped his hands low on her waist. She stood and spread his legs, slid into the space, towel gapping, falling away, and put her arms around his neck. The kitchen began collapsing, the apartment, the building, the East and Westside diminishing to antimatter, the weight centered near the very place where her daughter exploded in to being two decades before.
SHE HAD SEEN it in the kitchen.
Brianna had been driving that day too. Shannon just a month old, bundled up in the car seat behind her, a pot of hot turkey soup on the floor of the car. Her dad had been sick with a cold. Her mother had to be at work and had asked Brianna to check in on him if she had a chance. Her mother had said, “He’d love to see Shannon. Just don’t get too close to him. You don’t want what he’s got!”
The snow was melted from the driveway. Robins flew overhead. She hooked Shannon against her side, blanket trailing, pot in hand, and went in through the back door.
A scurry in the kitchen through the dining room. A chair hitting the floor. Murmurs, gasps.
And she saw it: Her father’s veiled life in an instant crossing across the vestibule. The woman was stooped, all knees and elbows, grasping for clothing. Her large breasts swayed. Her hair was long and dark. A tattoo on her left white buttocks shuddered as the muscle beneath propelled her from view as she scuttled across the wood floor that her father had laid only six months before, over Labor Day weekend.
A door slammed. She had stood there with soup and Shannon, each in opposite hands, and tried to understand. That flash of nakedness, then nothing, and now her father blocking the kitchen view. He stood there in a bathrobe, looking at her.
“Hey Bree Buttercup,” he said. “What you got there?”
A long stemmed red rose with all the thorns, that’s what it was.
THE DAY WAS seeping out, sunlight arcing through slats in the blinds. The man sat on the couch with Brianna beside him. A worthless rerun played out on the television set across the floor.
“You have to go?”
“I really do.”
“You’re homeless. Where do you need to be?”
The man scrunched his shoulders. His clothes were clean and dry. Ironed. The others tucked away in the duffle bag by the door. His belly was full. Brianna had made him dinner, too.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just need to move on.”
“Need to start writing that dissertation?”
He chuckled. “I do. You’ve skewed the research for me, I think.”
She smiled and placed her hand near his knee. “You’re a good guy.”
“You’re not so bad yourself.”
She tucked her chin.
He stood up. “Well, thanks for . . . everything.”
“Can I take you somewhere?” She stood up, too. “I could drop you off.”
He walked to the duffle bag, long sure steps, a man used to putting space between himself and where he’d been. He lifted the bag and turned to her. “No, that’s all right. Where I am is where I am.”
“You could be here as easily as anywhere.”
He opened the door and stepped through.
She went to him in the threshold. She hugged him and kissed him on the cheek and stepped back.
“You’re such a gentleman,” she said. “Thank you for not . . . Well. Following through with what I started. I’m not in a very good place right now.” She looked at the floor. “Thank you for listening, though.”
“No worries. Thanks for the food,” he said and shouldered the bag and turned. He walked down the landing, past the third-floor apartments. The sun dipped low in the west.
Brianna watched him go and then shut the door.
In the kitchen, she poured out more schnapps and lifted it to her lips. Tomorrow she didn’t have to be to work until four. Shannon, her beautiful daughter, a June bride, was coming in the morning to show her flower arrangements. Her mother would call. She swallowed and put the glass down.
A soft knock at the door. She went to it and opened it. Anthony was standing there with his head down, smiling.
Her heart beat hard and frantic, like a bird’s: Happy, ready to take wing into the space outside her door over this young man’s shoulders, to turn and look back at herself, to see some new and better perspective.
“My sign,” he said. “It’s in your car. It’s my lucky one.”
They walked down to the parking lot in silence. Brianna opened the car door and reached in for the sign. It felt soft, as though it might deteriorate in her fingers. She handed it to Anthony.
“Thanks,” he said. “Wouldn’t get far without this one.”
Brianna smiled. “You sure I can’t take you somewhere? It’s no problem, really.”
Anthony hitched his duffle up higher on his shoulder. “I guess you could take me as far as the intersection.”
She drove him to the light three blocks away. It was red. The man thanked her and got out of the car. He leaned over and smiled at her through the open door. “Things will work out. Trust me. That’s one thing I’ve learned. Something good always comes along,” he said and shut the door. He began walking west, those long sure steps, cutting the distance between himself and the sunset.
She went through the intersection and then took a left and doubled back. She headed east toward her apartment, toward where the sun would rise again, where, no matter what else, another day promised.