It was harder to muster the energy to lift himself. To skirt his legs across the top of the bedspread, and drop his feet to the hardwood surface below.
The sheets were warm. They settled around the edges of his body, wrapping close where his heavier parts sank into the mattress. Breathing the stale air of the room was somehow comforting. He liked the stillness.
Rolling over meant feeling the empty space next to him.
He thought of how the bed used to smell. How she used to make it sweet. Like something summery. Berries maybe. Or jelly.
He pictured her and let out a light breath, trying to make a sound vaguely like hers—when she would snore in fluttery sounds after reaching a deep sleep.
He suddenly felt like a dumb ass. He sounded like one, too. So, he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
~ ~ ~
The car was old and clattery. When Rob bought the rusty Dodge from a man in argyle, it came with an unnamable smell. He started calling the car Trusty because he could rely on that smell.
When he pushed open the heavy metal door to Super Sal’s back room, Marco was pulling something green from his front tooth.
You know, if you’d dump that piece of shit car, you’d get here on time.
I know, Rob said.
You drive Rosie around in a piece like that? With the car seat?
The sitter drives her.
Well, good for that.
Rob put on his name tag and got into the aisles quickly, avoiding his boss and anyone else at the store. Wearing the plastic name tag every day was like walking around with a wad of gum in his hair. With a piece of the wrapper stuck up there, too. The name tag was cheap and broke often. Sometimes, he took it off. Removing that stupid chunk of plastic made it easier for him to evaporate into the aisles and stock inventory in peace.
He was often interrupted.
Sir? Sir? Sir? women called.
When he turned to them, they looked for his name tag.
Hi Rob, or, So Rob, or, Canyouhelpme, Rob? they said.
Rob just wanted to make check marks on his list and get into Trusty, so he could get home to hold Rosie.
Marco had worked at Sal’s for seven years. He shoved thumbs into belt loops when he spoke, and Rob thought he looked like a Western movie deputy. The kind women always love, in spite of his murderous streak. He looked tough, but ran his mouth like a Jewish grandmother, rambling about rising gas prices, the quality of beef in the store, and the good old days. Rob wasn’t sure how old Marco was or when the good old days had been. He just knew that Marco liked knowing everyone’s business. He liked telling everyone the way of things.
You won’t be here that long, Marco told Rob his second week of work.
You’re Mr. Smarty. Mr. Smarty doesn’t belong here.
Marco said the same thing two weeks later. And two months after that. But Rob kept showing up at Sal’s.
You’ll leave. Just like me. I’ll leave, too.
But, Marco didn’t leave either. He was always busy, always talking, always getting caught up in something.
He liked to talk to women. The ones who worked at Sal’s and the ones who came in to buy mayonnaise or toilet paper. He loved hearing the daily unraveling of their lives.
Women tell you everything, Marco explained. Every day, the sky is falling, and they are frantic, trying to figure out where to hide.
Where do they hide?
In my bed, Marco said. Of course.
Rob wondered what kind of women Marco took home. He didn’t remember Catherine being frantic. Catherine was always calm. She stirred spaghetti sauce with one knee bent, her foot resting just at the side of her standing leg. Like a pink flamingo.
You’re funny, man, Rob said.
I’ve got it all figured out, Marco said. Then he brought his arms up, his fists clenching in tight balls. He flexed his muscles and smiled like a practiced belle in a southern pageant.
These guns don’t hurt my cause, neither, he said.
~ ~ ~
Jeremy was on the couch when Rob got home. When he heard the garage door, he picked up his hoodie and an empty plate of hardened cheese strands.
Pizza again? Rob asked.
Rosie loves it.
Rosie barely has teeth.
Jeremy shrugged his shoulders, ran fingers through a thick tuft of hair.
Two hours ago.
Rob poked his head into her bedroom, saw her tucked into a yellow ducky blanket, and smiled.
Rob reached into his back pocket.
How about 50 bucks? Rob said.
Jeremy slapped the cash away.
When are you going to let me pay you?
When I have kids, you can build them a tree house, Jeremy said.
When he heard his brother slam the car door shut, Rob settled into the couch. He sat in the deep indentation Jeremy had left. He sighed and stared at the black television. He thought of his previous job. How he’d get home early enough to see Rosie. Catherine would make weird organic zucchini pancakes for them. When Rosie smiled, he thought it was because they were green.
Then he thought of Catherine. How she’d clear the table and insist on cleaning the kitchen so Rob could spend time with Rosie in the living room.
He smiled to himself in the dark room and finally drifted to sleep.
~ ~ ~
In January, Marco told anyone who would listen to his plan to get out of the superstore. The entire month of February, he walked around Sal’s with a grin wider than his grandmother’s ass.
I’m so fucking pumped, man! I’m getting out!
Rob laughed and slapped Marco on the back.
Yea, Rob said. It’ll be great.
Only three weeks later, he told Rob he’d gotten a new job, over a sloppy beef sandwich with cheese. Juice dripped down Marco’s fingers, and in between licks he said, I’m getting the fuck out of this place.
Wow. What’s the job?
Customer service associate for Suburban Propane.
Rob looked at his own lunch, and waited for Marco to say more.
Yea, man. Don’t laugh. Everyone has to start somewhere. And I’m going to work in the office of this propane distributor. I’ll work with the customers and then work my way up. It beats the hell out of this $10/hour bullshit.
Rob looked at his friend with an ambivalent stare.
So? Marco said.
So, Rob said.
It’s a big fucking deal! We need to get shitfaced!
Marco wiped off his greasy fingers with a napkin and started to text everyone he knew.
I’m going to change my life, Marco said, his fingers tapping across the screen.
Rob packed the rest of his lunch and said he was returning to work.
As he put on his plastic name tag, Rob thought of his old boss, Steve.
You’re dismissed, Steve said.
Rob thought about the word. You’re dissing me, and you’ll miss me when I’m gone. Dis-missed.
Fuck it. Everything’s fine.
Rob reached back for his phone and texted his brother. When Jeremy said he’d be happy to watch his niece that night, Rob convinced himself he’d have fun celebrating at the bar with Marco.
~ ~ ~
The bar was full when the men arrived. The dartboard was getting action and the beer splatter made it easy to slide glasses to newcomers.
Jeanie didn’t tell anyone she would be there. But her skinny pants and tight sequined top were hard to miss. She’d started working at Sal’s just a few weeks ago. Rob hadn’t spoken to her much, but Marco knew her and her life story already.
Sweet piece of ass, Marco said. Hasn’t been with a guy since her last boyfriend. Six months ago. She needs a good ride.
What’s she wearing? Rob said.
What am I? A gay designer?
Marco waved Jeanie over.
You know this stuff, Rob reminded him.
Yea, ok. It’s animal print—cheetah something. Nice. I bet her panties are black underneath, Marco said.
Congrats on the new job! Jeanie said with a shout and a hug and a squeal of something alcoholic.
You started without us? Marco said.
You’re not the whole party, Jeanie said.
Rob searched the bar for the others from Sal’s. He jingled ice cubes in his tumbler. Jeanie moved her face in front of his.
What’s wrong? Jeanie said. You anti-social, Papa?
Rob took a gulp from his glass. Ice cubes knocked against his tongue. He let the drink slide down his throat, coating it with fiery lacquer.
No, Rob said.
So, you’re just rude?
You don’t like to tell a lady she looks nice?
He looked her up and down, allowing his gaze to bubble around her ass and slide down to her feet.
Your shoes make you taller, he said.
Marco laughed hard, slapping Jeanie’s ass, then moved closer to the bar.
You need more practice, Marco said over his shoulder. She won’t put out for that kind of shit.
A thick heat filled the space as the music grew louder. Bodies pressed against every wall, and the smell of hops and grass saturated the room.
The crowd swelled like a belly. It became easier to follow the rhythm of the people. When he finished his gin, Rob asked for another. When he bought a drink for Jeanie, she began telling her story. She wanted to become a nail technician. Learn “a real trade.”
When she slid her hand over his pants, Rob was surprised. He felt something he hadn’t felt in a long time. Rob let his face inch closer to hers. His ears buzzed with music and he felt a rush of adrenaline. He pulled away.
Be right back, he said, and found his way outside. He needed a spot quiet enough to call Jeremy.
You think you can stay overnight?
Yea, yea, sure.
Rob waited a minute, still thinking to himself.
You sure it’s ok?
Yea. It’s ok, Jeremy said.
Rob was quiet then, holding the phone to his ear, waiting for something to tell him not to go along with it. But then, Jeremy spoke up.
It’s been over a year.
Yea, Rob said.
I’ll make pancakes in the morning. Rosie loves that.
Rob tapped the phone, and stared at the words “End Call” across the cell screen. When he looked up, Jeanie’s smile hung in the air, above the crowd, the noise, and the bar’s rambunctiousness. As he tucked the cellphone into his pocket, Jeanie reached for his free hand. She pulled it to her ass.
I bet you’re not so shy after all, she whispered in his ear.
He leaned in toward her, wanting badly to kiss her. He wondered how many people would notice. He had never been one of those guys who kisses girls in the middle of a busy bar. But he leaned in anyway.
You taste like cherries.
I love grenadine, she said. And Shirley Temples.
He grunted a laugh and kissed her again. Longer this time. He let the bar and the people fizzle out of his mind, and told himself it was ok to think only of her.
~ ~ ~
He looked around Jeanie’s bare apartment and wondered why she had a couch and a bed and nothing else.
Have you been here long?
Where’s your furniture?
Who needs more than what I’ve got? she said.
Her bedroom smelled like cigarettes, nail polish, and apples. When Rob looked around, he saw a pile of scented candles sitting on a squat table. The container read, Apple Pie.
You like apple pie? he said.
Nah. I just like the smell.
He saw a ceramic swan next to the candle. Its feathers curved up, making a small dish along the ridge of its back. When he looked more closely, he realized it was an ashtray.
She winked at him. Only after making love.
He looked away when he heard her call it that. It was awkward, so he let her pour drinks. Cherry flavored ones. Strong ones.
The more booze you drink, the harder it’ll be, he told himself. Don’t get sloppy.
In Jeanie’s apartment, it was harder than it had been in the bar. He thought of Catherine. And of Rosie.
So they stopped counting pours, and though it was stilted, the conversation became easier. Rob felt the heaviness in his shoulders release as he gave into the drink.
He walked over to Jeanie’s bed and loosened his laces. He let the shoes fall to the ground and curled a finger toward himself, calling for her.
You want a back rub? she said.
He let her curls straighten in his mind. Let her hips narrow and face elongate. He moved his hands from her waist up toward thick breasts. Then, he let his mind imagine them not as they were, but as two perfect apples, modest but flawless.
And then he told himself he wasn’t actually making love to a woman who smelled like fake pie and cigarettes.
~ ~ ~
The pancakes had little blueberries set into each circle. Rosie pulled the blueberries out and squeezed them between pudgy fingers.
She loves them, Rob told Jeremy.
The men sat at the table, each in his usual seat.
Rob stared up at the kitchen ceiling. He let his stare stick in the white paint globs on the ceiling.
You still hungry? Jeremy asked.
I’m fine, Rob said.
He handed Rosie another pancake and drizzled syrup on it.
She loves to make a mess, Rob said.
A mess is ok, you know.
Rosie raised her hand with force and splatted it down into a thick, moistened pancake. She squeaked with a joyful resonance that made Rob smile.
Rob stared at the waves in Rosie’s hair.
She’s the one you get to keep, Jeremy said.
Rob stared at Rosie’s blueberry fingers, now sticking to the table.
We don’t get to keep anything, Rob said. Not really.