Authors: Daniel Orozco
I’ve taken good care of this house. Whatever it’s needed, I’ve done. I sanded and planed and lacquered the floors a few years ago, and I did a pretty good job. I keep the lawn and the bushes trimmed and neat, and the neighbors appreciate that. They tell me so. These are things I care about. I don’t own a TV; I don’t watch that crap. I listen to the radio and I read the newspapers every day, so I know what’s going on in the world. And I don’t need anybody telling me how a life is supposed to be. I’m alone, but I’m not lonely; there’s loneliness and then there’s solitude, which is a positive thing.
It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult.
Rilke said that. I’ve read him. I read books. I know who I am.
* * *
The new girl’s name was April. She was hired to replace Dot, and on her first day Mack brought her out to meet us. The guys were very polite. They told her about the rooftop bowling alley and tried to sell her tickets to the underground swimming pool. It was the same routine they did on my first day, and when Ruben was hired. But when she and Mack left, they started in on how fat she was. Phil said you’d have to roll her in flour first to fuck her, just to find the wet spot.
She started coming out onto the stock floor regularly, to chat and to hang out during breaks. This was a new thing for us. The women in Receiving rarely came out onto the floor, and then only to ask where Mack was and then go looking for him. None of them ever came out otherwise. There was no policy against it. It just didn’t happen. The guys muttered to each other when they saw April heading our way. “Here comes our mascot,” they said. “Here comes the pooch.” They were nice to her when she came around. They told their jokes and their stories, and she laughed and told a few of her own, and they laughed. But when she was gone, they leered and made fun of her. They were always talking about screwing her, but not in a good way. And they wouldn’t let up on the fat jokes. I didn’t get it, because she wasn’t that fat, no fatter than any of them. I thought at first that if she dropped a few pounds, maybe they would’ve let up on her. Maybe things would’ve been different. But they just find something else about you to make fun of. It’s what they do. They’re good at it.
April went out for lunch. She always went alone. If she got back early, she’d spend the rest of her hour with the guys on the stock floor. She didn’t socialize much with the women in Receiving. She was the youngest one in there.
A few weeks after she started, she came up on the dock on her way back from lunch. “So,” she said to me, “you’re the New Guy.” She lit a cigarette and asked me why I ate alone. I told her it was because of the cigarette smoke inside. She looked at the cigarette she’d just lit, and laughed. And she put it out. From then on, just about every day, she swung by and talked to me, fiddling with an unlit cigarette. I had nothing to say, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was a talker. She told me that. “So that makes you the listener,” she said. So she talked, and I listened, sitting on the dock while she stood leaning against a stack of pallets. When I got tired of squinting up at her, I looked at my food. Sometimes I looked out over the lot, where you could see the heat wiggle up from the blacktop. It was hot that summer. April had just moved here, and I remember her saying how she was discovering the place, getting to know the bus system, finding the neighborhood pubs and the secondhand shops, doing all the tourist things. She rode the dinner train up to the capital once and did the tour of the abandoned prison over in Old Town. She went to the zoo. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. They charged admission now. And they were getting rid of the cages. There was an Otter Island, and a Gorilla Haven. The cats where getting their own places, too, a savanna for the lions and grottoes with pools for the panthers and tigers. I was born here, and April already knew more about the city than I ever would.
Sure enough, the guys started in on me. Eugene wanted to know if she was a moaner or a screamer. Dave asked if we had set a wedding date, and if we were registered at any of the doughnut shops. Ruben laughed with the rest of them. But whenever we were alone, he said I should ask April out. He said that she wanted me and that it would be a waste to not go for it. I told him I didn’t even like her. “Fuck like,” he said. “What’s like got to do with anything?” He wouldn’t leave it alone. He wouldn’t leave
alone. I’d be working the floor and he’d be running up and down the aisles looking for me, whispering at me through the shelving that pussy was a gift from God, or cornering me with his cart to tell me that I had a duty as a man. We hadn’t said ten words to each other in years, and here he was getting all worked up about my duty as a man. I never liked Ruben. Who was he to tell me about being a man? Who was he to tell me anything?
* * *
She asked me about my running. I told her. I kept it simple, sticking to my regimen, telling her what I do and not getting near why I do it. She was playing with her unlit cigarette while I talked, flipping and catching it in her hand. But she was listening. So I told her she could do it, too, if she wanted. She was about my age, maybe younger, so it wouldn’t take long to get a routine going, and to see results. She just smiled and shook her head. She put the cigarette she was playing with in her mouth and lit it. “I lack discipline,” she said. “Which is something you’ve got a lot of.” She blew a thin stream of smoke above her head and swatted at it to keep it away from me. She was right. It
something I had a lot of.
Another time she brought it up again. She asked about my regimen, and it turned into this interrogation. She wanted to know what time I got up every morning and how long I stretched for. She wanted to know how long I spent on my calves, on my thighs, on my neck. She asked what direction I headed in when I ran and what streets I turned on and whether I took the same streets back. She stood above me with the sun at her back and fired her questions at me. I answered every one of them. It was kind of a game, like a lawyer and a witness, and I let myself get caught up in it because I thought she really wanted to know about what I did, that the details of my regimen, and my absolute knowledge of them, were bringing her around somehow. I was wrong. She bent down all of a sudden, real quick, and leaned in close. I could smell her hair. I could’ve looked down her blouse if I wanted to. And she said, “Well, maybe discipline is something a person can have too much of. Don’t you think?” And the way she was looking at me, I realized she wasn’t interested in running at all. I didn’t say anything. She straightened up and checked her watch and walked back inside. Lunch was over.
She was looking at me like she knew something about me, as if you could know a person just by looking in his face. She thinks she knows me. She doesn’t know anything about me. I’ve looked at my face. You can’t see anything in it.
* * *
Here’s something about me. I was running around the lake one afternoon when this woman fell into step alongside me. She ran well, with her legs in full extension. She clipped along in smooth, even strides, her shoulders slack and her arms relaxed, swinging in little arcs along her rib cage. There wasn’t a single wasted motion about her. She ran with me. We didn’t say a word. After four laps around she tapped me on the shoulder. She smiled and said thanks. I watched her pull off and head down a path toward the streets. I went to the lake regularly for a few months after that. I never saw her again.
When you run, you aspire to an economy of motion that has only one goal: to optimize the intake of oxygen so that you can keep running. Anything that impedes this one goal must fall away.
I don’t remember the woman’s face anymore. All I remember is the way she moved, the way everything about her was contained and effortless and perfect. Sometimes I imagine her alongside me when I run, and I try to match my every movement to hers. Our shoulders jostled each other when we rounded the turns that day. Her hair was in a single braid, a thick rope of hair that swayed across her back. You could hear it swish against her windbreaker. The rhythm of it paced us both.
When I told Dot about this woman, I remember her sighing and shaking her head, telling me to just let it go. If more people did that, she said, if they just left each other alone, there’d be less disappointment in this world. I’ve realized that everything Dot ever told me, all of her advice for me, came from somebody I didn’t know much about. I knew her husband was dead and that she had other kids besides Phil. They came up in passing when we talked. She never said anything bad about them, but she never said anything good about them, either. I didn’t know if she had any grandkids. I didn’t know what she did outside of work. I didn’t even know where she lived. Dot never smiled. “Bad teeth,” she told me once. But I remember her smiling when she told me this—the only time I’d seen her do that—and her teeth were fine. She didn’t sleep well, so she was always tired, and she moved around the office carefully, hanging on to the edges of desks and cabinets. She was a small woman, but she moved with this weight in her, like her gravity was different from everybody else’s, as if it took everything she had just to get across the room or to get through the day.
When I told Dot about the woman at the lake, she said as long as I was happy, why chance it with anybody else? Why risk what you’ve got for something you may never have?
* * *
So we went on a date. April caught me after work and asked if I wanted to buy her a drink. She gave me directions to a place she knew. “Turn right here,” she said. “Left up there.” She used her unlit cigarette as a pointer. She said she liked my car. It’s a ’69 Olds that belonged to my father, and he took good care of it. Change the oil every three months, he’d told me, wash it every other week, catch all the rust spots before they spread—do that and a car will last forever. That’s what my father taught me. April said that’s a good tradition to have, keeping the family car in shape.
The bar we went to was on a frontage road that looped north of the airport. It reminded me of every other bar I’d ever been in, with carved-up tables and wobbly chairs and ratty love seats against the wall. There were TVs mounted in the ceiling corners, all of them on, and a jukebox going, and people hooting around the pool tables in the back. And there was the smell of the place. I read somewhere that smell is the most primitive of the senses, that it can trigger memory more strongly and deeply than any other sense. This bar had that smell, and it all came back to me. Just because you change your life doesn’t mean you don’t miss things.
We sat at the bar, and the guy behind it knew April by name and gave her the usual, a vodka gimlet. I had orange juice. I wanted a beer. I admit that. But I didn’t have any beer that night. Beer had nothing to do with it.
She handed her cigarettes to me and told me to ration her. “I’m cutting down,” she said. And then she just started telling me things—where she was born, where her folks were born, what they did for a living. She had three sisters and two brothers, and she told me what they all did for a living. Some of what she said I never would have guessed. She was married once. She called her ex-husband The Mistake. And she had a kid somewhere, who she never saw because The Mistake was such a dick. But she thought about the kid all the time. She was learning how to crotchet, taking a class in it at the extension college. And she was a big reader, mysteries and true crime. “You know, crap,” she said. Then she ordered us another round and said, “Okay, your turn.” So I told her where I was born, where I went to high school. I told her about my folks being dead and what I’ve done to the house, fixing it up. I didn’t have much else to say after that. But again, she didn’t seem to mind. She asked me a few questions—what did I do in high school, what did I do for fun. When I couldn’t answer, she just asked me for a cigarette instead, and held it out for me to light, and thanked me.
The bar was getting busy. Everybody was coming up and saying hello to her. Her life seemed filled with people, crowded with them. Somebody shouted her name from the back, where the pool tables were. “Come on,” she said, “let’s play.” I told her to go ahead. “Come
,” she said again. “One game.” She put her hand on top of mine and said she’d teach me. But I told her to go play pool, and I guess she got the way I said it, because she held her hands up. “Okay, Okay,” she said.
There was a baseball game on the TV. Two guys next to me were watching it, and whenever anything happened, they hollered and banged their fists on the bar. One of them kept elbowing me accidentally and apologizing for it. Sure enough, he knocked my orange juice over. He apologized again and bought a round. He sent April’s drink to her. He told me that April was a great gal. I looked over at where she was, and when she got her drink, she bowed to us, and me and the guy next to me waved back. I watched her back there. She was having a good time, getting drunk. They all were. I turned back to the TV.
After a while I felt something on my leg, and when I looked down, I saw April’s hand, sitting there on my knee. She leaned on it and slid into her barstool. “I won,” she said. She leaned into me and laughed. Her hair was against my face. She was asking how we were doing, how things were going with us. I told her: “Fine, things are fine.” She was saying that she liked me, that she liked the shy ones. She was telling me this with her mouth next to my ear. I could feel her breath. I looked over at the drink she had put down on the bar. The glass was smeared with her lipstick all around the rim and halfway down the side.
So I told her about the guys making fun of her behind her back. She stiffened up, then pulled away to look at me. It was like she’d sobered up immediately, as if I’d just come into focus in front of her. “Tell me something I don’t know,” she said. I didn’t expect that—that she knew. I asked her how she could let them degrade her like that, how she could think so little of herself. “Why do you put up with it?” I asked her. And she smiled her little smile and said, “Same reason you do.” Then she grabbed her cigarettes and her drink and went back to play pool with her friends.