How her mother, how anyone, could live without overhead lighting, Irene couldn't figure. The natural light streaming in through the living room picture window, through the awning window over the kitchen sink…this sufficed for the widow Mattheson during the daytime. When night fell, the curtains would close and a single lamp would come alive.
How, Irene wondered, could a person combat inertia in such somber settings?
She suspected that the King James Bible lying on the coffee table--in between two empty candy dishes--was a passive-aggressive gesture. Her mother continued to warble the praises of prayer and physical affections, despite Irene's insistence that she would hit her knees for no man. Despite every embrace feeling like thorn-riddled vines wrapping around her upper body.
"Pretty day," the older woman observed. "The violets are gorgeous. Have you seen them?"
Irene looked up and over to where her mother sat, concentrating on the upward path of cigarette smoke. She swallowed a sigh and absentmindedly slapped at her thighs. As her mother took a penultimate drag, Irene turned her attention back on herself, staring semi-interestedly at her right arm. Using one finger, she traced the "Big Dipper" pattern created by eight small brown spots spread out just under the crook.
"You ready to go?"
"Just a minute. There's something I want to show you first."
Irene pressed fingernails against palms. The TV hadn't been turned on in over two days, since the morning she'd awoken and screeched at her mother's hideous taste in small-screen entertainment. (Apparently, it was paternity tests and game shows or bust for her dear mother.) Seconds later, another sigh was denied life as the other woman joined her on the couch, clutching a photo album. The only photo on the very first page was the very first ever taken of Irene Mae Mattheson. Of mama Mattheson's four children, only the oldest and youngest had extant baby pictures, less than a dozen in total, frozen memories that she valued above any other possession bar her own wedding ring.
"Look at how cute you were."
"Right. I look like I have an invisible boot pressed up against the left side of my face."
Irene said nothing further.
Every Friday morning for the past two years, mother and daughter would go grocery shopping using, primarily, the funds on Irene's Electronic Benefits Transfer card. Irene considered these vital jaunts the closest she would ever come to a "walk of shame." She was dependent on the government to eat, officially one of the too-many people that her late father volubly held responsible for the continuing ruination of America.
"If Dad were still alive," Irene began, rising from the sofa, "none of this would be happening. You know that." She watched her mother's face, especially the hooded eyes, hoping to detect some indication that her words were more than merely heard.
Once months of unemployment forced her back to a hometown she loathed, Irene sought control over at least one significant aspect of her life. In short order, she focused upon her diet. Fiber bars, protein bars, and pounds of fruit replaced the meat-heavy dishes she'd always enjoyed, and rarely did her daily caloric intake reach quadruple digits. In two years, her troubles had resulted in the loss of over one hundred pounds.
Helping her mother out with food assuaged a small measure of the guilt she felt knowing that the poor lady was using part of her social security check to keep her daughter alive. There was little she could do for the ravages of age; although the widow Mattheson didn't look her seventy-two years, she certainly moved them, and her legs in particular tended to ache throughout the day.
Her daughter's dejected posture knew no specific time. Irene followed alongside the shopping cart, eyes following each item as it was placed inside, the twin flames of gratitude and resentment blazing behind them.
Every week, the same things.
"Your lack of urgency disturbs me," Irene frowned. "It's like you don't believe in making the extra effort for me because you believe in God and he'll take care of it all in due time. I need a change now. I need things to happen."
She rummaged in her shoulder bag. "You know why these cards are orange? 'Cause it's a bright color. So whenever a person uses it, other people will be sure to notice it and cast their judgments accordingly."
Repetition. Builder of muscle, demolisher of spirit.
"Be a good citizen," Irene smirked over the engine's rumble. "Eat hot dogs and pies and wash it all down with soda and beer. Read the Bible on the toilet to stay regular. Drive a big truck while bellowing the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and honking at the anti-abortion protestors gathered outside the health clinic. Adopt a bald eagle for Jesus. Have sex on top of a fireworks truck." She turned to face her mother. "Are you proud of me?"
"Of course I am."
"Then you're a fool. I'm a failure through and through."
"You are not."
"By my standards I'm a failure, which means that I am. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. I don't have to live with anyone else's assessment or opinion, just my own. I mean I've lost all this weight for what? Just to leave a better-looking body to bury?"
The drive back to the single-story home took, on average, ten minutes. Irene knew better than to waste baleful stares on certain sights around town, but more often than not her resistance was low. (Or her masochism was high. She vowed to determine the exact cause if and when she earned her life back.) Her old elementary school unfailingly turned the blade from steel to rubber. She yearned to revisit the place other people insisted her education began, to sense the changes that did and did not happen in her decades away. She longed to walk room to room as a means to close windows.
"Just imagine how different life would be right now if people cared," she lamented, averting her gaze away from the man on the corner holding a placard announcing how much God loved the unborn.
"People do care," her mother retorted, voice thick with thirst and exasperation. "They do want to help."
"Sure, just not enough people and not enough help. I mean, my own sister…two-faced leopard. I quit my job, she quits on me. That's fair? Is it? Huh? All I need's a hand, a foot. Up the ass, to the face."
Spin and kick the side of the truck, punch a brick wall, hurl the bags in her hand as though participating in the hammer throw event at the Olympics, scream until her voice liquefied and burned a furrow from her throat to her abdomen. These were the urges she resisted en route from vehicle to building.
Once Irene had made her way inside, she set the bags on the kitchen table and began the process. Cold items first, the milk and coffees, the meats and frozen snacks, then the canned goods, and finally the cleaning goods, the napkins and detergents. Irene performed the routine wordlessly and retreated to her bedroom.
She took a seat on the edge of the unmade bed. Instantly, new temptations dropped down from the ceiling and popped up from the carpet. Having mastered the art of moderation, she could usually ignore them until they disappeared, frequently replaced with the twin peacocks of abstinence and indulgence. Both of their trains possessed allure, both appealed to her sense of vanity. Their arguments rarely deviated from the template, steps as familiar and dependable as those in a foxtrot or waltz, plumage swaying from one of the room to the other, until their only audience finally mustered the inner strength to choose: starvation or saturation?
I AM BAD. DO NOT EAT. AT ALL.
I AM GOOD. DO EAT. AS MUCH AS YOU CRAVE.
LISTEN TO THE SPIRIT.
HEAR YOUR BODY.
Weak resistance one day just meant she'd have to smash the reset button the following day. One relapse did not spell out the beginning of the end, a descent into some fat-lined pit she couldn't climb her way out of.
Movement could assuage some of the horrible feelings. Irene popped up from the bed and walked briskly through the kitchen, not bothering to tell her mother as she left the house. She circled the block, sun warming her. She crossed the street and moved north, ignoring intermittent stomach cramps. Twenty minutes, almost all spent lamenting the ineffectiveness of her reinforcements. The deluge simply could not be halted.
She returned to her mother's home, stepping over broken rocks and smashed timber. Reflecting on times agone twisted her spirit into constrictor knots, and it had to end.
Across the street, a car door creaked open. A small, short smile for the small, short woman ready to climb inside. Betty was a busy body, a trouble starter, the embodiment of Irene's disgust with her current situation. She was just one of several women in the small suburb who staggered about, ornery and petty, their watchful eyes and wrathful tongues spying and snaring the weaker of the collective, keen on dragging them down into a thin white inelastic hell.
The idea that Irene was living out the life she was meant to lead, the truth that failure was her destiny, that success was something that happened to other people, proved even more unpalatable to her than the idea of oblivion. Yet she could not shake the feeling.
The unbroken voice inside assured her that a "useless" person was not possible, therefore a "wasted life" was an oxymoron.
The other voice, streaked with passion, kept hollering about the life a person desired compared to the life they deserved.
Each voice screamed themselves absent once the chains began lifting the coaster cars. Each car would stop, some at different points along the track. Some were removed before the launch; others made it a few feet. Several took a turn too sharply, or vanished in the midst of a loop. Those lasting the circuit--to the end, to the beginning--were ostensibly the fortunate ones.
Even if they did wind up staggering and sick.
So many words, all hitting the two most vital targets with precise impact. Irene shuddered, placing one hand flat over her breastbone, counting exhalations until her nervous system stopped acting so, well, nervous.
Eye contact mattered. No one explicitly told her so, she simply understood. Always let the other people on the street--especially the men--see your face just as you let them see yours. A sunny afternoon meant more bodies than usual in the square, but they would be moving quicker than usual as well…Irene, quickest of all.
The resentment flared from her nostrils. Why did she have to move back? Why couldn't she have remained in Ferrisville, surrounded by people who had common sense and decency? Never once did the word "yeehaw" pass her ears, not even sarcastically. Three years out and in without a single shotgun blast. She lived less than one mile from her workplace, and almost as wonderful was the presence of a 7-11 one block over.
Sheetz was eight blocks away.
Irene had begun sobbing upon realizing that she had no choice. She explained to her mother over the phone--insisted, in her despair--that remaining there any longer than one year would bring about death. Irene had meant it literally, but her mother, unable to grasp more than one concept at a time, tut-tutted her youngest child's dire prediction away.
Self-recriminations and bittersweet recollections powered Irene's legs along. She had blown through the suburb, one mile in total, and then back. Her body yearned for more fire. On a whim, Irene took out her cell phone and dialed a cab. Five minutes later, she found herself at the intersection of West Washington and Jonathan Streets, near the fat-encased "heart" of the city's downtown, having already walked half of a mile. She was getting ready to retrace her steps when she spied a busker at the corner of Potomac and Frederick Streets, his guitar case resting near a street lamp. It wasn't his musical effort that stopped Irene's movements so much as his sartorial one: denim jacket, denim jeans. What a brave man.
THERE IS SALVATION FOR US ALL
IN EVERY PIECE OF SKY THAT FALLS
I MIGHT BE A LITTLE CHICKEN
DO WHAT I CAN WITH WHAT I'M GIVEN
Irene had been given her last two jobs, both by the same woman. The first she had relinquished willingly, the second she had impulsively hurled away in disgust. With it went the goodwill and generosity of her oldest sister. The myth of noblesse oblige didn't surprise Irene, but the revelation that blood and water weren't so different after all--that had stung.
"You like that, huh? Heh. I've been doing this for a year now, about time I got good. I've been all over western Maryland. First time here, though. It's a nice little downtown area. Shame it doesn't have much to offer people. Lotsa empty buildings. Is that a recent development?"
Irene chuckled and stuck her hands in her jean pockets. "No, it's been pretty desolate down here for a while now. Since the mid-nineties, really. Ever since Wal-Mart touched down."
The busker scoffed. "Might as well make all these buildings, offices, and extravagant places to eat. But then," he chuckled, "where would a Joe like me go?"
She guessed he was at most an inch taller than her; above his upper lip sat a sparse mustache that several elderly women could duplicate. Irene watched the resting streetlight, undecided.
"I started out in front of that convenience store on Frederick Street. Didn't even make it a week before the police encouraged me to find a new spot to entertain people. I noticed the hookers are still there, though."
"Well, yeah. The cops can get some use out of them."
The busker's laughter smacked Irene between the shoulder blades. She watched as he placed his black flat-top on dress velvet and paper, listened as the lock snapped, but still she could not decide.
"Walk with me? I'm just a couple blocks away with my nephew."
Irene nodded, riveted by the white hairs shooting, like porcupine quills, from the perimeter of his ball cap.
"Fantastic," he grunted, lifting the guitar case with his right hand before switching off. Irene appreciated that there wouldn't be a big bulky black thing to worry about bumping into.
Half of the block was taken up by the Treasurer's Office and the Department of Assessments and Taxation, all brick, faux-gold and glass, a building Irene used to visit almost daily as part of her first full-time job. She frowned, even as the busker began speaking.
"Four-oh-seven Potomac. That's where I'm at. Not a coincidence, by the way. Mind if I explain why?"
"Sure." Irene tried to keep her voice light. He was friendly enough on the surface, and a walk was a walk.
"Maryland Theatre," he announced, nodding to the right. "I'll be playing there soon if I keep it up, how about it? Okay, well, as I was saying. The reason why the address I'm currently staying at is not a coincidence, has to do with the fact that when I turned forty years old, I decided to start living my life in seven-year increments. Every seven years would be a regeneration of body mind and spirit. You ever heard the old saying 'Life begins at forty'? It's true, absolutely true, if you want it to be. Then, it begins again. Forty-seven, fifty-four, on and on. I'm fifty-six, so I have five more years till I'm reborn again."
"Forty is a very important age. It was when I realized I needed to start living life."
The busker turned to face Irene and revealed a mouth mostly full of teeth.
"They're both holy numbers too. Did you know that? Just pick up a Bible. The Great Flood went on for forty days and nights. Moses on Mount Sinai, forty days and nights. Moses himself, he lived in three distinct forty-year periods. That's a hundred and twenty years!
"With seven, well, that's obvious. Seven days of the week, no matter what the song says. Seven days to create the Heavens and the Earth. It's all…nothing is random. There's rhythm to everyone that happens, even if you can't hear it."
"I try and tell my nephew about all this. He just rolls his eyes and changes the subject. He's a good kid. I'm trying to convince him to learn the guitar. We could make a tidy profit out here. The street corner Indigo Boys!" He brayed, slapping his free hand against a denim-clad thigh.
A weak smile strained Irene's skin. The pair had just passed a near-empty corner cafe and a vacant space that, in its former life as a used bookstore, had provided Irene with hours of distraction. She had been well into her life in Ferrisville when the owners closed shop, and she took the news as further confirmation that she had escaped not a moment too soon.
Why run on a broken leg?
"Hey, miss. Pardon me but, why are you such a grumpy face? You should be a happy face. The sun's out! The birds won't shut up! How about it!"
A pudgy, limp-locked woman approaching from the opposite direction gave the pair a considerable berth.
The busker pulled once at the brim of his cap before shooting Irene an anticipatory look. She took a deep breath and, in a handful of tightly-wound sentences, explained her rash of poor decision-making compounded by even worse luck. At spiel's end, Irene took another meaningful inhalation of warm air, stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans, and waited for the repudiation from a stranger.
His steps slowed so that Irene was a full foot ahead of him before she adjusted her own speed. She watched his face, watch it cloud over briefly before clearing.
"Stop looking back! Mourning what was, what shoulda been, it's not healthy!"
All words Irene had heard before, but never in such a loud, wheezy whisper.
"You are one with the world here. The world here is one with you. How old are you?"
She grimaced. "Thirty-eight."
"Really? You don't look it, miss. Anyway, you are approaching the prime of your time here and you are not ready. At all. Because of an unearned sense of entitlement!"
The feeble noise of protest Irene made only strengthened his case against her.
"I need help," she insisted. "Just some help. I don't expect to have it all handed to me."
"Uh-huh. Well either you gotta learn some patience or you gotta hunker down and decide you're gonna do it all on your own. Which is hard but not impossible. Your attitude right now, whew, your attitude is not at all bueno, and if you don't change it you'll never be happy. And being happy is the whole point of life, by the way."
"You expect everyone to care as much about your life as you do? That's not realistic. That's borderline insanity. No one will ever care about you as much as you. Not even family. No ma'am."
Irene swallowed and swallowed, but the knot in her throat refused to budge.
"While I'm in the habit of saying things you've heard before, here's one you ain't: when life hands you lemons, rub 'em in your eyes and let the citric acid go to work. And just like that, here we are."
"Here" was a collection of bricks painted a sickly-yellow and stacked two stories high. "Here" was home.
The busker pulled twice on the brim of his cap. "Thanks for the company, miss."
Irene nodded, chagrined at having blurted so much of her personal predicament to a stranger. "Here." She reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a five-dollar bill. "Have a good day, sir."
Irene had the outfit ready: salt-and-pepper sweater, black dress pants. Inoffensive. Comfortable. She had purchased--no; her mother had purchased--the simple ensemble for just such an occasion. Bit by bit, her "fat chick" clothes were finding their way to the bins, replaced by frame-friendly attire that she trusted to tell the tale truer than any bathroom scale.
Her mother, in a feverish attempt to improve her youngest child's attitude, once asked what company would want to hire anyone so relentlessly morose and negative. In lieu of pulling out a tooth with her bare hands, Irene explained that the world-weary mask was only worn when appropriate. Which just happened to be most of the time. She knew enough, was still in enough control over herself, to be able to slip it up and off of her head when the time came to impress a potential paycheck-signer. The true Irene, the one who yearned to feel alive, would then emerge.
Witness to the butterfly would be Horne & Sylvester, LP, an up-and-comer in local real estate located fifteen miles away from the Matheson residence in the Noland Valley Business Plaza. Irene spent most of the prior decade working in real estate, building a strong skill-set that made her a solid candidate for a data entry position. Her last bosses lavished praise on her performance, her speed and accuracy, her above-average comfort level with computers.
Everyone made mistakes. Everyone got a second chance. Everyone knew that was the way of the world.
"Why aren't you willing to make peace with the family?"
"Nothing lasts forever. Things will turn around, they have to."
"You'll be back on your feet. You've done it before. Remember?"
Irene did remember. Constantly. Vividly.
She stood still, gaze fixed on the bare wall, listening to her natural hum, imagining rippling red and coiled blue surrounded by fuzzy green and white.
"Good morning. May I speak to Irene?"
"Hello Irene, this is Becky from Sylvester and Horne. We received your resume and were wondering if you would be available for an interview."
Nowhere i'd rather be, Nothing i'd rather do.
"Great. Are you free tomorrow afternoon? We have times available from one to four-thirty."
Free. I am. It's a beautiful state. America in miniature.
"I have you down for Thursday, two p.m. We look forward to seeing you."
Forward. With me.
Irene stretched and glanced into the reflective glass before moving on to the kitchen. She grabbed one of the handful of bananas resting atop the fridge. It had been fifteen hours since the last one, and Irene knew she could not afford to go much longer without ingesting more solids. Such lengthy neglect, she'd learned (and re-learned), triggered the sharp palpitations, short breaths and general sluggishness that catapulted her into a self-cannibalizing panic.
The trek to the bus stop was short, and the pollen-heavy air had a near-hallucinogenic effect. Passing a small group of beef-and-soda-powered natives, she felt the separation between them acutely. Down the steps and along the sidewalk, to the spot on the metal bench next to the 16-ounce cup of coffee attached to the man's hand. Suit, tie, distracted look…he had faked it and made it, a go-getter on the come up, and he was an exemplary citizen.
Irene knew, she could be that man.
As a woman, of course.
Once she re-entered the working world, earning money, regaining personal agency, Irene would set aside a day to throw a party of one. Likely, that day would be a Saturday. There would be pizza, topped with black olives and pineapple and jalapeno peppers; there would be a trio of donuts, two creme-filled, from the local joint with the funky hours. There would be regrets, but even they would be searching her for stray confetti.
And the day after--fruits and vegetables. The entire week after, in fact. Yellows and red and greens and the occasional shade of orange. Irene had it all planned out.
She couldn't wait.