Issue 123 is our final before the Pushcarts are submitted. Stay tuned for those nominations. This issue brings you inside the heads of two people who see the world differently and for a few moments, let you in. Jason Fisk and Jaimie Eubanks give you a glimpse of life as they see it.
The place was called the baby garden. I went there sometimes, for no real reason. None of those babies were mine. I’d never had a baby; I’d never even had a dog. Still, for a few long months, that was the place I went. There was no safe place to step, the graves so close together that they looked like poorly laid brick. The whole place was small, the size of my bedroom as a child, or maybe a kitchen. Nobody was ever there. It’s a tragedy to lose a life so young, and I guess if it were my child, I wouldn’t want to see it either. I’d want to move on. Have another kid, one that lives. Take it to soccer games. Only come to the baby garden on the baby’s birthday, leave a single yellow rose on the grave, and after a few years, don’t even do that. Just pause for a moment every now and then and remember that it was sad. If they were my babies I wouldn’t want to remember them. I felt that way then, and I still do now.
Nobody came, not ever, and I could be alone.
I found the place at a funeral, my cousin’s. It was a sad death; she was young, just a few months older than me. It would have been a sad funeral either way, even when the death is beautiful, people mourn a little and each tiny bit of sadness altogether grows into one big sadness, enveloping the saddest person in the crowd. My father, he was the one this time. He practically raised her, like she was another me, only gone wrong. Not that she lived with us or anything, she didn’t, but she was more family than other people are. Maybe if she’d lived with us, then she wouldn’t have done the things she did. I could see him thinking it, as I watched him try not to cry. I was thinking it, too. If she’d been right there, we could have done more, could have stopped this. She never meant to, she would have done anything for him, maybe for me. She tried, too, cleaned up her act right before the end. It was too late, though, and she knew it. So she requested that a special song be played and let go. It was her only specific request. Nobody could get the CD player to work, and my father, who only stands or sits in proper chairs, got down on his knees in front of everybody with his gray hair and round belly and fiddled and fiddled. It lasted ten years, watching him do that, and when the music played I heard him singing in the tiny speakers. He’d written that song for her, and put it on a mix CD.
And the Pastor got her life all wrong in the eulogy. As soon as it was finished, I wandered away, not needing to mingle, not wanting to hear our friends as they tried to make me feel better. I couldn’t stand another person saying, “Man, this sucks. We should go out tonight. Gail would have wanted us to. She always shook off the bad stuff and had a good time.” I couldn’t hear it one more time without saying, “Don’t you understand? That’s why we’re here right now.” I walked away from all of that and I found my baby garden. There was a tiny little bench, looked like limestone, something fancy, all covered with moss. It was no good for sitting, but that never stopped me. I used to think I’d make a friend while I was sitting there, like I was waiting for something to happen. I’d think that somebody would wander away from a burial site and come join me, somebody else who wanted to avoid the mindless consolations and chit chat.
I kept going back, half hoping for that the first few times. When nobody came, and it was all right that way, I decided that wasn’t what the baby garden was for. Maybe I didn’t actually want anybody there anyways. I would have snuck out through the bushes if I heard somebody coming. That was not the place to go to make a friend, and I already had friends. They just weren’t what I needed. Being with them was being alone together, it was lonely. I needed to be together without having to become one with somebody. People who are together in a way that’s whole, that’s happy, those people lose themselves in the togetherness. Those people get so close, they can’t see anything else after awhile. I wanted to be connected to somebody without losing myself in it. I’d thought that’s what the baby garden was for, but it wasn’t. There was too much death there. It was for being alone and alone. It was okay, though, being alone together, having so many friends. Their emptiness wasn’t their fault. Nobody had real friends in those days. Some of them still haven’t outgrown the phase, even after a few years of their glamorized adult poverty, led by dead-end jobs and Pabst Blue Ribbon. There was no way to be close while communicating almost exclusively through misspelled text messages and undecipherable shouts over a band any night of the week.
You see, it wasn’t about being together or being alone. It was about being scared. All those people– people like Gail, people like me– they were hiding. Hiding from what, I don’t know. They dedicated themselves. I mean, I dedicated myself to working a crap job and standing outside dive bars every night, feeling cool. It was about standing next to each other scared and never talking about it. We were so clueless. We were all hiding behind beautiful young faces and tight jeans and blank stares. We were all that way and it made things easier. After Gail, though, I couldn’t not notice the empty of it all. Sometimes I turned off my phone. Sometimes I wanted to be together in a way that made me not so numb.
That last day I went for lack of something better to do. It was one of those useless days where you don’t have to work so you sleep too late, and by the time you’re ready to do something productive, there isn’t enough time. So I went to sit. It was cold; I didn’t stay long. An hour, if that. I looked at the frosted graves and frozen blades of grass. Almost everybody there was named Baby. Most didn’t have last names, either. Or birthdays. Or death days. They just said Baby and the year. One of them was named Faith; Faith was born and died in November of nineteen eighty-three. That is not the name of a child who lives. Dead babies, if they’re named at all, are named after ideas: Faith or Hope or Love. I wondered what her name would have been if she’d lived. Maybe Jessica or Amy.
I ate a sandwich while I looked at everything I’d surrounded myself with. I ate every crumb, also probably some fuzz from my gloves that stuck to the bread. It was a turkey sandwich. Onions. No tomato. It was good. After it was gone I felt there was nothing left for me in the baby garden, and so I crumpled up the sandwich’s paper wrapping, put it in my coat pocket and left, trying not to step on any one grave for an inconsiderate amount of time.
The baby garden was outside of the city. I’d walked all the way there, which had taken hours, but by the time I left it was getting dark. I took the train. It was cold on the platform, waiting, and all the people did the same dance to keep warm. We were a herd. The train was on time, and we filed on. We all got to sit, because it wasn’t too full. It was the loud kind of quiet that only ever happens on trains. We did not make eye contact.
I unbuttoned the top few buttons of my coat and took off my gloves.
A man’s phone rang, and he answered it. He wasn’t one of us. He should have been more embarrassed about us listening to him; the whole train car was eavesdropping. It was his wife, or maybe just his girlfriend. A serious girlfriend, if it was. They were in a fight. He kept saying things like, “Baby, you know I’m not with anybody. I’m on the train. Why can’t you trust me?”
He said, “No, I’m not with a woman. No. Not Lana. Why Lana? I would never go for a girl like her.”
He said, “You know I don’t mean that there’s a type I would go for. I’m with you. You know that.” His voice took over the whole train, though he didn’t shout.
Over and over he apologized and called her crazy and got insulted and told her that he loved her. I hear those conversations all the time, at work. Sometimes the man is with somebody, sometimes he isn’t. Usually, the woman called when he could honestly say he was alone. But if she’d called an hour earlier, an hour later, she’d be right, and he’d be lying. I worked at the kind of place where men go with girls that they know they shouldn’t be seen with. I didn’t really realize that until my Dad came to eat there. He came alone, just to see where I worked. I offered him the dessert menu and he said no. He said he had to go, and that I was in a place where people go to hide from their real lives. That’s how I knew that the man on the train was probably with Lana before he got on the train. The man wouldn’t admit to it. He kept denying, and his voice got clipped and short. Then he would apologize again. He loved the girl on the phone, I was sure of that. He’d just been too close for too long. He’d just wanted a little bit of himself for himself. That’s all Lana was. That’s never really okay, no matter how you go about it. A woman sitting near him coughed into her elbow, and the interruption irritated the rest of us. We all wanted to hear how it ended. He plugged his ear and kept talking, but the cough had changed things. He wasn’t alone anymore, poor guy. Everybody was there with him, having his fight with him, and none of them had been invited. He didn’t want us.
“Hey, I’m gonna have to call you back later, okay? Now’s not a good time. I’m on the train. Mhmm, I’ll be home soon, we can talk about it then, okay? Okay, I love you.”
When he hung up the phone, he shoved both hands into his coat pockets. He slumped down and looked at his knees, the way we all had been a minute ago. An announcement came over the loudspeaker that we were pulling into our next stop. Those of us staying on the train were glad when the man stood up and walked over to the doors, holding onto one of the cold metal poles and staring impatiently as the train slowed and the platform came into view.
I left the train one stop too early, on purpose. The collective was a construction, my construction; I was not part of a tribe or a community. I could not have spoken to the woman on my left or the man across the aisle. They would have thought it strange, and then I would have been with the man on the phone. Not with him, but alone next to him. He was the man on the phone. I was the weird woman who talked to strangers. There’s a difference between being a weirdo where nobody can see you, and being a weirdo in front of everybody. Walking can be nice. It was colder than I’d realized, and I’d forgotten my gloves on the train. I shoved my hands in my pockets and went down the street, slow, so I could look in the windows. Most weren’t interesting. I never cared for lit up displays of shoes or those mannequins that don’t have faces or hair, just angles and curves that seem almost human except without the humanity. I heard my phone beep, it was a text message:
prtying @ subterranean 2nite. skybox playin. it gonna be fab. be there.
It was a mass text, not to me, just to everybody like me. I remember, I saw a movie on TV once, with Gail, about mannequins coming to life. It was because a little girl needed a friend, and not some superficial friend, a real friend. The mannequin was horrified when she saw that the mannequins like her, the kind that look like people, were being replaced by the gray, plastic, faceless ones. The mannequin, she was so upset. Gail cried. I thought about that movie a lot in those days.
It was that time of night when the stores were closed, but the restaurants and coffee shops were still open. There was a young couple in the front window of a brightly lit coffee shop; they were newly in love I could tell. He’d pulled his chair to the side of the table so he could sit closer to her. He sat so close that their knees alternated, their inner thighs touching. The ends of her scarf were getting wet from the sludge of their shoes, I’m sure, but she didn’t mind. He was cute. The place was almost empty except for them; most people don’t drink caffeine this late. There was a man with his fancy laptop computer. Headphone cords dangled around his neck, like a stethoscope as he talked on the phone. He didn’t look happy. The words of the man on the train went through my head, and they became the same to me.
Baby, you know I’m not with anybody. I’m in the coffee shop down the street. Why can’t you trust me? I imagined him saying this as he did that thing men do when they’re on the phone and frustrated. The hands in the forehead, the sudden look up and lean back into the chair. Things he would never do if the girl was in front of them. It was always the same: No. I had to take some work with me tonight, and I’m trying to get it done, so I can see you. That’s what he was saying to her, I felt sure. He didn’t even want to see her after that conversation, I could tell.
There was an artist, a bald guy with chunky jewelry. He had supplies spread all over his table, and he wouldn’t stop staring at the girl behind the counter. It wasn’t creepy staring. He was analyzing, comparing, studying. As far as he was concerned, she was only other person in the place. She had a chair back there, and was resting head on the counter, staring out at what would have been the sky, but I’m sure was just a reflection of the coffee shop in the window. She looked miserable, with big eyes. She must have been working back there forever, to look that defeated about it.
The artist stood up and walked over to her. He kneeled on the ground right in front of the counter, to be at her eye level. She looked like she wasn’t sure how to respond, whether or not she should stand up, or stay sitting. Kneeling was intimate. She hadn’t noticed him watching her, so she didn’t realize that he had lost the need for propriety and distance before he ever stood up to talk to her. He said something to make her smile. A sense of mutual comfort and appreciation washed over them, and I was glad. It could have gone so wrong with the two of them. They seemed to be getting along, really connecting.
I stayed there watching those people. Watching the boy and the girl watch each other, the man on the phone watch the ceiling, but mostly the artist and the barista because their conversation seemed special. I stayed for a few minutes before I started towards the next window display.
He snuck up from behind. From what I understand, they always do. I didn’t walk faster; I stopped. What if he had a gun? “Gimme your wallet. No, the whole purse.”
I didn’t turn around and give it to him. I’m not a complete pushover. I just froze. Like how the bee won’t sting you or whatever if you just don’t move. Of course, this isn’t quite like that. So he walked around to face me, and said it again.
“Give me your purse.”
At this point I’d have given it to him. He did have a gun; I could see its outline pointed at me through his sweatshirt pocket. It was exactly the way they’d always said it would be in all of those self defense classes my mother made me take with her in Junior High. Except that I couldn’t move. Not at all.
So he reached to my shoulder, grabbed the strap of my bag and slid it off. He went slow, like at any moment I could move and kick his ass, or at least call for help, do something. He was right to be afraid, I suppose. To plan each movement deliberately, the way he did. Once he had hold of the strap, I didn’t feel him, or the purse touch me at all. He made sure of it. Feeling the bag leave could have got me to snap out of it. He did good.
My hands shook, either from fear, or because it was twenty degrees and my gloves were on the train I’d just got off of. That was all. I suppose I was breathing. So, small movements. Movements that feel the same as stillness if you’re not alone in a field on a sunny day with no wind. Well, I guess he figured he was safe; he could do whatever he wanted. He’d gotten the purse without my doing anything. So he put his hand on my shoulder and guided me towards a darker part of the street, near an alley. He barely pressed on me, but I went where he wanted like we were ballroom dancing. Then he opened it. The guy stood in front of me and started going through my purse.
He took out the cosmetics case, and looked inside of it. He grabbed the Chapstick for himself, and handed the case back to me. When my hand didn’t meet the case the way he’d expected it would, the whole thing crashed at my feet. My blush broke into little pieces but the case was all right. It could be salvaged.
He stooped down at my feet and started picking all of the little bits up. Mascara and eye shadows and lipsticks and concealer. I found myself looking down at him, noticing his face. He looked sweaty, nervous, small. He wasn’t a big guy; his features were right between sharp and doughy, which should mean his face was average, but it wasn’t. He wasn’t handsome, but as he kneeled, picking up each tiny piece that he dropped, I couldn’t help thinking about his face. There was something in the way he picked each thing up, so carefully, his concern showing on his face.
Once he’d finished putting everything back in the little case, he zipped it up, and, standing back up, grabbed my wrist, bent my arm, gentle. He put the case in my hand, and felt to make sure that this time, my grip would hold. He went back to looking at the rest of my stuff. He started giving things back to me. Things I would need. My day planner, my birth control pills, my keys, my cell phone. He spoke to me like he was really talking to himself, “You’ll need these…. These will do me no good, but you. You need them…” Things like that. He kept a little keychain, it looks like the box to Twister; Gail gave it to me for my fifteenth birthday. It was all beat up, but he wanted it.
He kept the half-finished package of Trident cinnamon gum. When he finally got to my wallet, I was sure he’d leave, but he went through that, too. I’ve never made a lot of money. I work; I do fine. Money isn’t a part of the life I chose. He looked at each credit card, each receipt. Deliberating. What did I really need? More than I would let myself admit to. He gave back my driver’s license, and my insurance card. That card would still be good for another two months, and I was grateful to him.
He was growing on me, I’m not sure why. I found myself feeling bad about having no real money. I saw the look on his face when he realized all those bills he was looking at: they were each only worth one dollar, no more. There were probably ten, maybe twelve one-dollar bills. Things work out that way sometimes. I didn’t want my money taken, but for just a second, I wished there was more.
There was my paycheck. Un-endorsed. I hadn’t had the chance to go to the bank that day; I was at work past five. I know some banks stay open later now, but mine doesn’t. I don’t mind. I like my bank. There’s a teller there, her name is Erica, who remembers my name before she looks at my account. It’s like the old days, I guess. It’s how I imagine the past was, at least. This poor guy had managed to mug a girl with twelve usable dollars, and three hundred dollars he couldn’t touch. Or it would be a much bigger risk to try.
“I’m going to have to ask you to sign the back of this.” He spoke clearly, like when he first told me to give him the purse, but listening all I could see was him making sure I didn’t drop anything he gave back to me. Making sure my belongings that weren’t to become his belongings were safe in my hands, and nowhere else. It didn’t carry the same force this time.
“What?” This wasn’t making any sense. The movies would have had me without my things, lying on the ground, in an Alaia dress counting to a hundred while the guy ran away. I should have to run to a payphone after. Have to say the man was mean to me. He needed me to sign the check? His name wasn’t Maggie Tucker. Would they even let him cash it?
“Sign it over to me. Just write ‘Pay to the Order of John Grappa’ and sign your name underneath. I’ll take it to the bank.”
I didn’t want to know his name, to have a way of getting back at him. Maybe that’s what I’d wanted at first, but now. Criminals shouldn’t have names, they should have alias’s, they should be notorious villains, be known by their scars, unattractive moles and moustaches. “There should be a pen somewhere in that bag you’re holding.”
He started looking, groping in the bottom. All of my purse’s contents, with the exception of my wallet, were now in my hands, stacked awkwardly, in the order he had given them back to me. He grabbed my cell phone off of the top, squatted on the ground, and started using the phone as a flashlight. He hadn’t seen the hidden side pocket before. That’s where I keep pens and things. Probably he hoped that he’d finally find something he would want, something he would deem worth having. He found a pen.
If we were going to be efficient about this whole business, I could have set my stuff down while he got the pen. I didn’t do this; I watched. All this looking, all of these opportunities to change my situation, and I didn’t. I felt safe, free to look without any further trouble. Running would change things, screaming would change things, looking would keep things for longer, let me learn this more. Like the way he held the pen out to me, as I stood there dumbly. Like those hands on the Sistine Chapel, only underhanded, and holding something. I started to set everything on the ground in front of me, but got all tangled up in myself. I sat. Right there in the middle of the sidewalk, with my planner on my lap and everything else scattered around me.
He got down on the ground with me, and placed the pen in my hand, same as he had with all of the other things he’d given to me. Then he set the check down on the planner, and placing his hand over mine, guided the pen to the paper. He let go.
“Why did you tell me your name?” I heard myself say.
“Your name,” I said, “Now that I know it, I can go to the police.”
“I know,” he said. He looked at my hands, my knees, the pen, the check, anywhere but my eyes. “Please don’t.”
“I mean, I think you know I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to.”
He was right. I knew. This man cared about me. He had a gun, but didn’t use it. He took care of me, made sure he only took what he had to. This was a good man. What he was doing… well. “Okay,” I said.
Pay to the order of John Grappa. Maggie Tucker.
When it was done, he took the check and the wallet, and put them in his pocket. Then he held onto each of my elbows and pulled me up to my feet. Once again he gave me everything he thought I might need. He stacked them practically this time. Planner first, then cosmetics case, then the cards, the phone, the keys, neatly. “Are you going to be able to make it home all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” I looked at everything I had left, and up at him. He was making eye contact, but more like inspecting. He was looking at eyes, but not my eyes, and nothing that was behind them, that’s for certain. Just making sure it was all in working order.
He said, “Okay then.” He reached out and touched my arm, right above my elbow. It was a gentle squeeze that lasted longer than it should have. We stayed there too long, because it felt safe. We moved on because we realized that we were going to be together even after we were apart. I stood and watched him turn around, with my purse slung over his shoulder. He walked ahead of me, and turned left at the corner. He glanced back as he turned. Just to check.
Jaimie writes from Minneapolis, where she reads Junot Diaz and Jane Austen while occassionally scribbling her blog here.
Yellowed newspapers and dried glossy news magazines stacked waist high, filled every room of her apartment. She desperately wanted to be a journalist. Writing the perfect article seemed just out her grasp. She kept every article she thought was written perfectly. She also kept the articles that she didn’t have time to read out of fear of throwing a perfect one away.
He was a promising journalism student she met at school. He wrote beautifully. After drinks, she brought him home. She carefully studied his face as they passed her collection of stacked periodicals. She led him to the bedroom. The paths in her house were only wide enough for one foot, which made perpetual motion a must.
They dove onto the bed where the motion continued until he rolled over in the sleepy afterglow. His feet swung over the edge of the bed. He found his pants and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
She laid quietly, in the dark, with her naked back to him. She saw the lighter flash on the wall in front of her, heard the tobacco crackle as he inhaled. She watched the warm glow of his lighter on the wall. She knew his eyes were exploring her treasures, as far as the lighter would allow.
You can’t smoke in here. That’s disgusting, she said.
He aptly gathered his clothes and skillfully slid into his shirt. Ash fell as he bounced into his jeans. He stuffed his socks into his pants pockets, and slipped into his shoes. She reached behind her, pulled the blanket over her naked back, and waited until the cigarette smoke no longer haunted the room.
Jason writes from Chicago, where he finished his second published book of poetry and can be read here.