it’s a living #6

I’m about halfway home. The bus is chugging along, industrious yet tired, and I’ve got my earbuds buried in as far as as they’ll go. I’m listening to a semi-decent 80’s playlist on Spotify, and the woman next to me keeps looking at me like she wants to talk to me, so I make a point to look even more “sulky teen” than usual. It’s not that I mind a conversation now and then–might even welcome it if it serves as a distraction–but today’s not one of those days.

When David Bowie cuts off, I assume it’s a bad connection for half a second before the silence is traded for my ringtone. I pull it out of my pocket, see the name across my screen, and decline the call with panicked rapidity. The woman next to me sees this, her eyes rove across my face as if my shit is any of her business, but I refuse to acknowledge her, waiting instead for Bowie to refill my ears and the static to return to my thoughts.
One verse later: my phone rings again, and this time I stare at the incoming call as dread begins to sink in. They haven’t called at all since I last saw them a year ago, and I can’t think of a reason they would now. I decline the call.

The music hasn’t enough time to start back up before I feel a tap on my shoulder. I sigh. Take my headphones out.
“It’s none of my business…”
—That’s for fucking sure—
“But if your mom is worried about you, you should really answer and let her know you’re okay.”
I nod. The thing is, my mom probably is worried. Not about the things she should be worried about, but worried nonetheless. “Yeah.”
The phone rings a third time. Now I’m worried. What if something happened? Is Lucy sick? Hurt? That’s enough to get me to answer, and as I do I see the woman out of the corner of my eye looking smug as if she had convinced me to answer. I’m almost feeling contrary enough to hang up, just to spite her.

“Hello?” My stomach is turning itself inside out, and I can already feel that ever-familiar tremor working its way down into the bones of my fingers.
I hear a little gasp on the other side, small enough that it might be a crackle of interference.
“Hi Kip.”
“Mom.” My brain has come to a screeching halt. Mom, mom, mom. A weird word. A weird concept. Haven’t thought about it in too long. Sometimes Deanna is Mom-ish to me, but in a cool mom, doesn’t-enact-enough-discipline kind of way. Not real-mom. Not even surrogate-mom. Deeply involved aunt, maybe.
But this isn’t my deeply involved aunt on the phone, it’s my mom. Mom.
“How are you, Kip?”
“I’m… fine.”
“Yeah.” Yeah.
There’s a pause, and I take that time to shut my processing centers off. I can deal with whatever this means later.
“How’s Lucy?” It’s the only question that matters much; might as well start with it.
She laughs a small, strangled laugh. “She’s good.”
“Yeah. She misses you.”

Keeping the panic at bay is harder than I thought it’d be. The tremor has bounced back from my fingertips, traveled up my arms and into my core. “Why uh… why’d you call?”
“Wanted to say hi.”
“Oh.” Does not compute. “Hi.”
She laughs again. “Hi. Hey, um, where are you living these days?”
These days. Like the question is for a fucking business man who moves around a lot, and not someone she thinks might be homeless.
I don’t answer. If she knew, then they could find me. I’m not ready for that. From somewhere on the crowded bus, a baby starts screaming.
“Is that a child?” Her tone is hilarious.
“Yeah. I adopted a kid.” The joke comes unbidden, far too naturally, as if this is a normal conversation.
“Kidding. I’m on a bus.”
The bus lurches to a halt, the hissing tires fill my ears, and I don’t catch whatever she says next. “Listen, I uh—this is my stop. I gotta go.”
“Oh. Okay.”
“I’ll…” I can’t say that I’ll talk to her later. That’s far too much commitment. “Bye, Mom.”
“Bye, hon.” She takes a breath, like she’s got one more thing to say. I can hear the moment she decides not to say it. “Bye.”

As the bus pulls away, I can see the woman who sat next to me staring out the window at me, smug smile replaced with something sad and betrayed, like she had expected the phone call to lead to tearful and precious apologies, not a half-conversation stilted with bitterness.

The aftershock hits me the second I step inside the apartment, and I melt to the floor in a puddle of my own adrenaline.
“Wow.” Deanna’s voice startles me despite my assumption that she was home. “Long day?”
I shrug.
“Wanna talk about it speed-round style? I’ve got seven minutes before I’ll be unacceptably late for work.”
I look up at her. “If I come to work with you will you let me get drunk?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Hm. Maybe you are Mom-ish.”
“What?” Deanna grabs her dinner out of the fridge and snatched her purse from the counter.
“Nothing. Get outta here. Don’t be late.”
She stares at me.
“What? I’m fine, I swear. Go.”
“You’re sitting in front of the door.”
“Oh.” I scoot forward just enough to let her squeeze through.
She gives me one last look. “We’ll talk about it later, okay?”
“Sure.” We won’t.
“‘Kay. Bye.”
“Later, sucker.” I slam the door before she can look at me like that again.

it’s a living #5

Every weekday morning between 6:55 and 6:58 a.m., a guy comes into the gas station and buys a black coffee and a four-pack of powdered donuts. He wears khaki pants and a button down, has reading glasses perched on the top of his head like he’s a middle-age tax accountant, rather than the 20-something he appears to be. He always says “good morning” when he comes in, and “thanks a bunch” when I hand him his receipt. I say “morning, sir, welcome” and “no problem, have a great day” back. Those are the only words we’ve ever exchanged.

I know three semi-interesting things about him:

  1. His name is Jean-Pierre, pronounced with a proper French accent despite the fact that every other word out of his mouth sounds strictly American, which is an unprecedented level of sophistication from someone who spends their life in khakis.
  2. He always pays in cash with exact change.
  3. He has a tattoo that peeks out from his half-rolled-up sleeve. Flowers, maybe–it’s hard to tell.

From these mundane observations I patchwork together a wild and unlikely past. Perhaps he’s some sort of agent, covering his tracks by only paying in cash, trying to look as unassuming as possible in his desk job get-up. The tattoo is a mark of his organization, a pledge to them. The powdered donuts are for an informant of his who’s in hiding, who he meets every morning, trading information for the person’s favorite junk food. The reading glasses that he seems too young to need don’t actually function as glasses, but when he wants the guy in the surveillance van to see what he’s seeing, he puts them on and the tiny camera installed in the left frame activates. I figure it must be the left frame, because whenever they begin to slip from where they nest in his hair, he pushed them up with his left hand.

I wish he would pay with a credit card just once so that he’ll sign his name and I can confirm if he’s left-handed. He’s on the phone most morning, and it’s always in his left hand. I like to imagine that he was originally right-handed, but switched when he went off the grid so that his handwriting would be different. I don’t know if that’s a real thing. I hope it is.

When he comes in at 6:58 rather than 6:55, I assume it’s because he was up late last night researching for his next big… secret agent thing. I never get far enough in this creative exercise to come up with the details of his job, it’s mostly just outlandish explanations to small oddities.  

One day, I hand him his receipt, and he takes it, glances down at my name tag, and says, “Kip. What’s that short for?”

I shrug. “Just my name.”

He nods and picks up his coffee, lifting the cup towards me in a little toast. It leaves a ring of liquid on the counter that I won’t take the time to wipe up. “Well, chin up, Kip.”

He walks out the door, pushing it open with his shoulder while answering his phone. “This is Jean-Pierre…”

I haven’t seen him since.