My girl and I talked it over and decided that since I was the one making hay in the sunshine, the registration stickers that came earlier in the week should go on my truck, and we’d use her car more at night. The sun was out, the sky was blue, but those streets out there were no less mean and the only way to get that money was to go out there and hussle it up. After kids.
By noon I’d collected enough money from around town for jobs yet to be started that I could pick up my meds, pay down some bills, and miraculously have enough left over for lunch out on the street. As far as I knew, my bank account hadn’t bottomed out enough to get squirrelly yet. The splinter buried deep in my forefinger hadn’t gotten infected enough to back itself out, but I had it in a splint fashioned out of blue painter’s tape and leftover popsicle sticks, which kept it from throbbing constantly. Exactly that much in my universe seemed okay, and everything else could be filed under mid-winter burnout.
I had decided long ago that Carytown had nothing for me, lunch or otherwise, but slow-rolling in the lunch rush past Kroger I was visited by the crunchy memory of a ready-made sushi roll. It had avocado mixed in with some crazy orange mess and the whole thing drizzled in plum sauce. The memory of the burn was enough to pull me twice around the swarming perimeter of the parking lot until I was forced down to the hood end of the store where the fire trucks set.
Down where the facade of boutique shops faded and the neighborhood picked up with moldering beer-soaked backyards enclosed by slime covered fences on the verge of collapse. There was a picnic table tucked under a row of maples where the employees smoked just outside the rarely used cafeteria entrance. The tables were always fucked up and the trash cans overflowing, but it offered the potential to pass unnoticed.
Instead of firemen parked down the shaded length of Nansemond, there was a small fleet of box-sided vehicles belonging to a landscaping company. As I wedged into a narrow spot between two immaculately painted trucks, I wondered if they belonged to the company my girl’s not-entirely-ex-husband worked for. I’d never met the man, but at this point I was pretty sure he’d recognize my truck. I noticed the group of them, in hoodies that matched the trucks, blocking the trailhead of the desire line where it cut away from the sidewalk and went over the slight hill of liriope and mulch that spread out under the maples. Grabbing a post-lunch cigarette before heading back to the trucks, I reckoned.
My mood was foul enough that it dictated I march right through the middle of them. Muscled-up college dropouts. If one of them had something smart to say, it was probably safe to assume that was my girl’s old man, at which point I’d probably just need to go ahead and throw hands. Besides, I had known enough landscapers I was pretty sure there was the wife-beating ex-husband of somebody inside that knot worth taking a poke at. In the overall hierarchy of the trades, I held Mexican sheetrock hangers in much higher esteem.
One particularly solid clean-shaven white dude with the perpetually irritated swagger of a foreman eyeballed me from under the perfectly rounded bill of his company hat. I decided if he was still looking when I got there he’d be the one I’d speak to. “If you’re feeling froggy, Son, then go ahead and leap.”
As luck would have it, the wall of meat parted on the sidewalk and wordlessly let me pass. At first I was disappointed that nothing happened, but after a minute was more disheartened by my own hard-headedness. As if a beatdown and some weekends in jail would help me take care of the man’s kids that I happened to be living with — or my own.
I imagined myself on the ground in the middle of a boot party cackling like a maniac. One of my biggest problems is that even I’m not sure exactly how crazy I am. Something reckless in my blood. Something I carried with me. If I had the words, I’d put a frame around it in order to identify it. Like everything else, once you gave something something a name, you could work towards eliminating it.
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied.” But then, just like Scott Kelly sings, “the blood that flows through me is not my own.
Even though the parking lot was packed, there were hardly any of the angelic elites down by the lunch line, regardless of the allure of Salisbury steak, or whatever special it was, that hung in the air. It seemed half of Richmond knew not to trust it. The recipes must have come down from corporate; I couldn’t figure how else those nice folks were able to fuck up mashed potatoes. It was uncanny.
I found the sushi case, sitting dead center of the floor, a neon oasis of brilliant pinks, oranges and pastel greens. Under the bright fluorescent lights of the case, it was the embodiment of wholesome. Dazzled by how perfectly fabricated and ideal everything was, I decided not to ruin it by musing on how it was made. I found the “Scooby Crunch” in the upper echelon of the case, covered in corn flakes. Of course, at nine ninety-nine, it was the most expensive roll they had.
I took my place in line behind two little old black ladies and a third at the register. A black man behind the counter approached me, “What can I get for you, chief?”
“Oh I’m good to go,” I said, and showed him my plastic box.
“Is that all you having for today? A hard workin’ man like yourself?”
“Yessir.” I laughed, and he hustled on to his next task. The tall Asian lady I seemed to dance with whenever she stocked the canned vegetables came in behind me. We gave each other a quick smile and I unintentionally noticed her lunch appeared to be a small meat substance from the hot lunch line, nestled alongside a dozen pickle slices in a styrofoam cup.
I noticed the two women in front of me appeared to be sharing a tray’s worth of items. The one closest to me was digging in her purse — looking for some change, I reckoned. Her friend, holding two sets of keys, a hat, and two pair of leather gloves in one hand, and a series of crumpled one dollar bills in the other, smiled nervously back at me. The register plainly stated $3.22. The lady with the purse handed her friend a dime. The black lady running the register looked completely unaffected but her lips were pursed as if to say she wasn’t about to take any foolishness from me.
I was suddenly aware that not only was I the only white male within fifty yards, I was also a solid foot and a half taller than anyone else in the immediate proximity. I smiled at the register lady and bowed my head, taking the opportunity to examine my food and hoping I hadn’t come off as “Mr. Uptight Construction Asshole.” I thought to myself, If there was a benevolent Spirit of the Universe that connected all things and watched over us with concern and affection, She would surely be amused by this quiet drama playing out in the Carytown Kroger.
When she was younger, my daughter would collect the cellophane grass lining the topography of these black containers. She was certain the sushi grass was indicative of a better world, wherever sushi came from. I described to her the tiny harvesters that worked the fields, gathering jagged-edged reeds by the bunches, bright green and pinstriped. Careful not to get into the wasabi, she would fold the ginger into perfect pink tulips. Even before she had the language for it, her small hands could wrap form around a thought and give it shape. Nothing more than marks on paper, hieroglyphs, flowers, the sky, her daddy.
Remorse it was that had followed me in that side door, and remorse I felt strongly, suddenly in my chest, realizing more than anything else, I missed my daughter. It had been ten days since last I held her. I could feel myself pulling her weight into my lap, being careful not to brush her small breasts that seemed to have come out of nowhere. I could feel her absence, acutely, in my two arms, as if I would never ever hold her again. I acknowledged this feeling, told myself it was a lie, and let it go.
I felt the presence of the woman behind me, standing just a little too close, of course, and felt the older black woman messing about with her belongings. I closed my eyes and let the moment envelope me. One of those times of grace. It was not entirely unpleasant, nor was it without pain. I really didn’t need all this, I said to it, I just wanted to eat my ten-dollar bullshit roll and get on with my fucked-up day. The feeling washed over me once more, and was gone.
I came back to Earth just as the lady at the register passed a receipt along with a nickel and three pennies to the open hand of the lady next to me. She managed to give her friend the change and get the receipt into her purse in short order. Her friend looked again at me, not quite rolling her eyes, to which I just smiled. I could feel the Asian lady behind me fidgeting awkwardly, just like I’d known her to do for years. It occurred to me that my only job for the day was to stand right there, still, and feel the nearness of those women around me. I was safe, here, for this moment. If I could be certain of nothing else, I could know this was my home. I would forever belong to it.
RVA Reader is an irregular series spotlighting fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction by Virginia authors. If you’re interested in seeing your work appear in future editions, send an email to [email protected] with the subject line “RVA Reader.”