My ears pulse and hum, pushing in on me. I swear they’re going to collapse… or explode… and then I’ll be deaf. Forever.
That’s a really long time.
What if I don’t make it until then? What if my forever is over? Oh, God. I can’t breathe. There’s a hippopotamus sitting on my chest and it’s fighting with the lion that’s clawing to get out of me. It hurts. My lungs, my ribs, my heart, they hammer and stutter and hammer again. Testing me, making sure I’m still alive.
I’ll have the fish and chips. Hmm— Could you change that to a chicken steak sandwich with extra onions and fries on the side? No, better make that a salad. Or coleslaw, but vinegar, not mayonnaise. The sweet potato fries look good. Yes, cancel the coleslaw. To drink? Let’s see. Sweetened iced tea? Don’t have any? How about Coke? I’ll have Diet Pepsi, then. Is it caffeine-free? On second thought, water’s fine. If you’ve got one of those fruit-flavored waters—yeah, strawberry-kiwi sounds good. I think that’ll do it. Oh, wait. You know what, I could really go for some red meat. Would you mind changing the sandwich to a rib-eye steak? Rare. No, medium rare. No, make that well done. I hate to do this, but I think I’d rather have fish and chips after all. Halibut though, not cod. The chips, are they thick fries? If you’ve got fresh catfish, I’ll have that instead, and can I substitute potato salad—German style, of course—for the chips? You know, I think I’d like to try the blackberry-pomegranate flavored water. Sorry for taking so long. I see you’re busy. Won’t keep you, but could you leave a dessert menu? Don’t have one? No problem. How’s the pecan pie? Never mind, I’ll have a piece of blueberry cheesecake and a cup of coffee, black. Better make that a decaf … with one cream and one sugar. That’s it. Well, maybe an extra napkin if it’s not too much trouble. Thank you for your patience. Really, you’ve been terrific. Absolument!
Excuse me? Would I mind sharing my table? Uh … no, I guess not. You mean with the giant in the tattoos and black leather who’s headed this way? Boyfriend? And a handsome gentleman he is, but I don’t think—I mean, isn’t there a free, er, more private table—over by the rest—
My grandmother slid her tiny frame under the stall door and cussed the Atlanta airport. “Goddamn quarter to pee. The kid’s five years old, can’t even reach the coin slot yet, for crap’s sake. Bet your ass they don’t pay at the urinals.”
The latch clicked as soon as she was in. We took turns on the toilet and held the door for each other. When she was done she slid the latch and propped open the door for the next woman. We washed up and walked out with heads high.
Painted black walls, painted black mirrors and blacked out windows. Sunlight peeks through the faded paint on the window. Velvet curtains were then brought up. Too heavy to allow sunlight to sneak through. I hate the velvet, there’s something disgusting about it. Velvet is likened to skin, which I can remember too distinctly.
When I stand close to the window, anger raises deep in the pit of my stomach as I hear people outside. They speak so loud and shout curses daily. My mind tells my body to be nervous, scared even when I hear the voices of people I will never meet.
She is very old.
The lines that crease her sunken cheeks stretch parchment-like across the bones of her dry, sun-burnt face.
Her body lurches with each tentative probe of a wooden cane and, holding on to the iron bar of a tattered buggy with her other hand, she moves forward in a lopsided manner.
She smells bad.
The old black sweater and skirt that never leave her body reek from months of unwashed neglect. Her shoes, sandal-like in appearance, slide dangerously under her fragile frame as she hobbles from one sidewalk dustbin to another, hoping to find a discarded treasure to add to her collection.
It all began when she walked into her new workplace and saw a friendly shock of hair amid rows and rows of cubicles. And when the owner of the hair introduced himself to her as Malhar later in the day, she knew she would fall in love with him.
She slipped parts of his personality into all the artworks she did after that. There would be a random observer in a nature scene that she imagined to be him, a boy with his dimples in a rustic hut, his curly hair on an urban lass in a pub, his red Che Guevara t-shirt in a political scene… He was in everything she did, although he could never know that. Even while he admired her works, he never smelt his inspiration on the drying paint. She was elated and disappointed at the same time – she wanted equally to be found out and to keep her secret.
I detest the morning status meetings, but I sat there and listened to Peter drone on about numbers. My mind drifted as I stared at the barely tepid synthetic sludge—the snarky label read coffee.
Who didn’t know that Station 53 was in the red? That corporate management drove short-term profitability at all costs?
“OK, Peter. Just stop. I get it,” I interrupted.
His worried eyes widened. “Yes, Ms. Ott. Sorry—”
“Don’t apologize, Peter. And, call me Mary. Please.”
He looked at the floor. “Yes, ma’— Mary.”
Peter was too nice a kid for this job. He’d never survive.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said.
“Why aren’t there zombie worms?” Breck kicked at the dirt. There was zombie flesh filled full of worms.
“What a thing to say!” Ruth flinched. When they were composting zombies she was very nervous. “Don’t get any on you.” She would continually say aloud. She said it as much to herself as to the lifers helping her.
“And zombie plants for that matter?” Breck turned over the soil and put it on top of the rotting zombie pieces.
“No zombie flies either thank someone.” Ruth suddenly realized it was good only humans were affected by zombie stuff. A zombie raccoon would be double scary. She hated raccoons because of the havoc they caused in the gardens. “Zombie compost is the only positive thing with a zombie.”
A hand popped up from the dirt. Ruth screamed which embarrassed her. She was always afraid but didn’t like showing it.
The rose coloured façade of the hotel glowed against a blue- green backdrop of massed pines, still shrouded in fragments of mist. It was too early for the strong Provençal sun to bleach the colour from the sea and the village at the tip of the headland flushed pink and cream, its reflection shivering on the shimmering sea. A soft, fresh breeze blew inland snatching away the voices of the hotel staff preparing for the day.
A man emerged from the French windows of the hotel and out onto the stone veranda that ran the length of the building. He was in his fifties, thickening around the middle, straw hat set squarely above a pale, round face. The beach was sparsely populated: a woman beneath a large striped umbrella, two children dashing through the shallows.
‘This has nothing to do with us, right?’ he said.
‘Of course not.’
He didn’t look convinced, so she added, ‘You’re getting paranoid. Look, it’s just a work thing.’
Kathleen Jones is an English poet, novelist and biographer living in Italy where she attempts to write and not be distracted by the wine and the weather.