dead [ded] adjective 1. Having lost sensation, numbness; 2. Devoid of living things; 3. Without resonance; 4. Not circulating, stagnant.
The bus had a rocking motion that felt like resting against mother's chest, listening to her heartbeat and taking her in through the nose. A gentle back and forth motion combined with a series of sudden starts and stops that were nothing like mother at all.
Her first day on the bus left her tired and lethargic. She searched the website for side effects, but only found information on timetables, job opportunities, riding with bikes, wheelchairs and canine helpers.
The ride home had no air conditioning and the air outside was hot. It wound itself around her throat and choked her to sleep. That, paired with the mother-rocking of the bus choked her to sleep. The sudden stop left her with a falling feeling of breaking through ice skin on the lake, where snow drifts lulled across, dusting the surface rough and piling in the corners. The boats had been raised out of the water for the winter, sitting in dry dock to prevent the ice from crushing their hulls and rendering them useless.
The river, iced over or free flowing, bisected the land.
She fell asleep next to someone dressed in a sweaty uniform, dirt ground into the space beneath his fingernails. Dark half-moon arcs. He took the earth with him. He talked Spanish with people dressed like him. Their faces were covered with sweat sheen and despite slumped shoulders and the bags of sleeplessness collecting beneath their eyes, they talked rhythmically and laughed frequently.
The bus engine created white noise that was amplified by the air rushing through the open windows, open like eyes peering out into the world and the air rushing in like data to process in the visual centers of the brain. Firing. Electrons. Synaptic leaps. Freeways were travelled as freeways were built.
Lauren wrapped her arms around her backpack, trying to arrange the books to avoid sharp angles. She folded onto the backpack and rested her head, which felt like an overfilled suitcase trying to close.
It was the first time she had slept on a bus, in front of other people.
The landscape blurred outside of the windows, air rushed in. Lauren's eyelids fluttered with flashes of dreams. She dreamed in laugh tracks and contrived camera angles. She dreamed she was sitting on a bus, wearing Kenneth Cole heels, an A-cut skirt, and a white button-up top. Her make up carefully drawn in the morning had rubbed off over the day, leaving her naked and closer to insecure. Her backpack was Roxy. She had tea lights in her room and a woven bamboo rug, all white and brown. She kept a copy of the teachings of the Buddha on her night stand, but couldn't make heads or tails of it. She didn't understand the eight-fold path or the four arms. She had never been good with numbers. 1
She was the daughter of a mechanic and a business woman who divorced before Lauren turned six. When she was little, she felt something move in the darkness beneath her bed, a creak in the closet. She laid still and barely breathing, paralyzed by the thought of doing something.
The bus jerked to a stop and she was falling a short quick fall that felt like walking across ice and suddenly losing her feet. When Lauren woke up, a fresh gust of wind entered through the window and dried her skin.
When Lauren got home after her first day of bus riding, she threw all of her things onto the bed and disappeared into the bathroom. She turned the hot water on and let the heat turn her skin red as she scoured away the dirt of the bus. 2
Lauren cried. She hadn't expected to feel dirty. She hadn't expected to feel invaded. But there were so many eyes. Some of them had nonchalantly examined her and peered into her as though it were okay to invade someone else's space. To meet in that place and exchange pieces of the inside and the outside.
walk [wôk] verb 1. to move at a regular pace with a stepping motion
Walking dead, you try to shake the sleep out of your muscles, but it clenches down and holds on tighter. You return to the bus stop the next day. Waiting.
The chairs are the plastic kind that bleed stuffing out of deep gouges. Old advertisements hang limply, reminding people to cross the street carefully. That pedestrian safety is as much in the hands of the pedestrian as in the hands of the driver driving the car and carelessly reckless, not watching, not looking, not seeing, but already at their destination, and thus forgetting everything in between.
The bus is like that, like not remembering everything in between, just two points that connect. Somehow.
The smell alternates between fermenting vomit, disinfectant and old beer at the bottom of the can left in the sun for days. It's the kind of smell you expect to permeate you, your clothes and your skin. Though, you're not sure if it actually does, or if it's just the idea that permeates.
The people already on the bus, at this hour of the morning before the sun joins the living and the walking dead, sit up backbone straight fingering the pages of newspapers and discarding the boring or already read parts. Generally there is a pattern to the laying down of sections, it starts with the Classifieds, Sports or Business. Only certain people ever read the business section.
Women curl their eyelashes and slather on mascara in great exaggerated flicks of the wrist. The ritual of make up involves stretching the mouth beyond any normal expression of joy or anger or bereavement.
The aisle down the center of the bus, while sensible from an engineering standpoint, is a spotlight. The people on the bus, wedged uncomfortable in seats made one-size-fits-all, swallow you, in one way or another. A sidled glance over a book, through a newspaper, or a direct unflinching gaze. Inescapable.
You walk towards the back of the bus, not to be a martyr or anything. It's less crowded there. You look either at the ground or towards the seat you intend to take.
It's odd, this sort of desperate invasion of meeting someone else's gaze; when it happens, it's a shock of electricity surging through the body, starting at the feet and rushing up, over taking the spine, and seeping into the cerebrum in an uncomfortable embrace.
And so what, why should you care if someone looks at you? Taking you into their body with their eyes? Does it matter? But you don't remember what it's like to look into someone else's eyes.
Eyes meeting is a connection. A series of neural relays, a talking among parts, registering, processing, then filing. But there is something else ineffable in the act of seeing and being seen. Only that reciprocal act. The gaze that is met. Intent and intention. There is a place where the space between is diminished.
You sit down.
The air inside the bus is stale and lingers at the back of your throat like a cough. You can't help but think that, while sitting in the bus, the skin cells drifting off, the content of the breath, hair follicles, particles of us falling off at a rate incomprehensible and the sheer wonder of it, that we are sitting here, nose in books, eyes out of windows, the blur of time going by, breathing each other in.
dead [ded] adjective 5. without feeling, displaying no emotion
The road bisected the landscape. Lauren curved wildly off the ramp, swooshing into place between two behemoths. They dwarfed her, a Cadillac Escalade in front and a Ford Expedition behind. Her eyes roamed the interior of the car, tan cloth above, then metal, and somewhere in there were the airbags.
She hated being between, not being able to see ahead or behind. It pinned her, held her motionless and eager to engage something beyond. She looked to the sides, but there was darkness there. The pale tin-colored strip of road extending into the horizon was already written. It was known and knowable.
The darkness made her uneasy, made her shift in the driver's seat feeling the sides and roof of the car falling in on her, crushing her into smallness.
"Fucking nature," she said out loud before twisting the volume up and filling the void in her car with sound waves pouring out connections.
The music wrapped itself around her. She sank into it, nestling her back, open. She thought about a shopping trip with Maggie, about the start of her second semester at college, she thought about—the car in front of her stopping so quickly.
She lightly tapped her brakes when she should have slammed on them and veered onto the shoulder. The metal of the hood crinkled like wrapping paper scraped off a birthday present. Lauren caught a glimpse of paint cracking and popping off just before the airbag exploded from the steering wheel, punching her in the face.
Somehow, they pulled over to the side of the road. A woman wearing Prada shoes, or really good knock-offs, bolted out of the Cadillac and came at Lauren. The headlights of the passing traffic glinted off the woman's wedding ring, gold necklaces and diamond studded earrings.
"What the hell," Lauren heard the woman yelling. "I have a kid in the car. Didn't you see my fucking tail lights?" Lauren shrugged, staring at the airbag that looked like vomit ejecting from the steer wheel.
"Get out right now!" The driver's side door was stuck, so she crawled through the passenger's door. Lauren leaned against the guard rail, evading eye contact with the rabid woman.
The highway patrol officer took statements from the two cars that had stopped. Witnesses. They were recorded, information taken and filed into the accident report that would be given to the judge.
The witnesses talked with their hands about what had happened. The officer nodded his head. The stream of cars seemed endless, a ribbon of light, a dissection of the darkness by contrast. She witnessed the night pressing in on the freeway and the cars and her and the Cadillac woman with jewelry aglitter.
The cars naturally bunched up and slowed at the scene of the accident. Lauren detected the flash of faces peering out. Headlights from cars 50 yards away caught Lauren and fixed her. Her skin pale in that glow, like a bone bleached white from ages in the sun and having the meat picked off of it by raptors and insects.
It was a lonely place.
When the cop finally acknowledged her he curtly asked, "License, registration and proof of insurance." She handed him some slips of paper.
"Where's your proof of insurance?" Lauren shrugged.
"Fucking-A," the rabid Cadillac woman spat.
Fluid had bled onto the freeway. The tow truck driver spread kitty litter to soak it up. Chains and a sliding flatbed dragged the car onto the tow truck. Lauren watched, her skin tingled around her mouth and down the sides of her neck. Her eyes were spheres of water magically contained. Her car was loaded and hauled away to impound, though they should have taken it to the junkyard. 3
"It means you're going to have to take the bus, kiddo," Henry said as they left the station.
"The bus. Dad, do you know what kind of people take the bus," she stopped in the middle of the parking lot.
"Yeah, Miss Priss. People who want to and people who have to. You fucked up, so you're one of those people that has to."
"You could drop me off at school?"
"You're going to get your ass on that goddamned bus and that's that."
"Jerk," she muttered, too afraid to throw some of Maggie's criticisms in his face. 4
dead [ded] adjective 6. characterized by a lack of activity, silence
It was quiet except for the chatter of the driver and the bus. The relative lack of noise made the graffiti abyss-like. The dinginess of the windows, that plastic translucence, displayed the city blocks, square-cut buildings, square-cut trees and the rounded shapes of people with the novelty of stereoscopic vision.
Digging through her backpack, Lauren grabbed a book and settled into the black lines of text. But the bus had an odd smell. Too many different bodies, different diets, soaps, laundry detergent, perfume. It was overwhelming, walking unaware into a compost pile.
Different shoes walking through different dirt, synthetic clothes, stale fake cheese laden chips.
She acclimated to the smells, to the rocking of the bus, the stopping and starting, the right bus stops, the faces. Most of the same faces were on the bus every day. The guy with the tattoo on his neck, the group of Hispanic ladies, the black guy with the nice suits and briefcase, the guy with thinning hair and chewing tobacco stuck under his lip.
The sights were a repetition of billboards, office buildings and houses. People, street corners, traffic lights, signs. Sometimes the familiarity of a place would dissolve with Lauren's minute dissections. It would become strange and novel, all the grittiness would emerge that was normally hidden by habit or familiarity.
On the bus, she jerked forward with everyone else when the brake pads clamped down on the disks, and then the gas surging through tubes and into the engine chambers threw everyone back.
When they stopped to pick up more people, some with plastic bags bulging with groceries or cleaning supplies, dragging heavy on their joints, they crowded in and looked around for an empty seat. The full seats made the bags heavier, dragged them down further and amplified the tingling in their feet, bones spurring in their knees. The knot of exhaustion in their shoulders clinched tighter.
They crowded the aisles and stood pressing against each other, intimate strangers, staring at spots of nothing.
Lauren played the eye contact game, too. Here, in this space, eyes meeting meant open, it meant, "I see you." Sometimes being seen shocked her. The pupils dilating and fine flecks of tinted muscle tissue reflected awareness. It didn't have to be for long, a second, but her eyes meeting someone's else made her touch her hair, adjust her shirt. Made her . . .
Jimmy Hendrix played on as he looked at the woman in scrubs, staring at her hand. Lauren imagined the neurons in his brain, some connection made, bright like a halogen bulb and bare like a room with a dusty floor and a tattered cot in the corner; slow to come, slow to surface and reveal itself through action.
His fingernails were blackened and split. The skin on his palm cracked and dirt filled the cracks, filled every crevice. The dirt enveloped him in a cocoon.
Lauren felt dirty, too.
dead. adjective 7. complete, absolute
The seats were filled. The bus was careening down the hill. It smelled like bodies and the smell was like liquid, the bus a tank filled with the liquid smell of bodies and everyone on the bus treaded water to keep their heads above the scent. Their feet flailed; their faces remained serene. They talked about other things besides the bus, the space, the smell, the noxious rocking back and forth.
To the right, the ocean sprawled across the horizon, sinking its body deep into the crevices of the floor, arms and legs out to the sides. It wrapped itself around the horizon. The bus finished its downhill onslaught and squealed a pause at a stop. More people piled on, throwing their bodies into the tank, sinking in, trying to find a place to tread the water-smell.
On again, off again, speeding through the endless connections of corridors, stop and more people and more smell. The bus was filling up and it became hard to tread the smell like liquid.
Lauren treaded the water towards the back of the bus, where the seats were higher and where people were afraid to go. Some junior high kids sat back there, a short order cook, a nurse. It was too far to walk from the front of the bus. Too much smell like drowning.
The engine mounted to the back of the bus heated things up, naturally, and bodies heated things up, too. The windows were opened and the air rushing in replaced some of the liquid, making it easier to tread, until the bus stopped moving, held back by the traffic lights.
The wind rushing through the windows grabbed the pages of Lauren's book, lashed her own hair at her until her face stung from the whipping. Another stop, relief from one thing, torment from another.
More people. Lauren thought the bus was like the ocean; not the way it lay languidly when you observed it from a distance. It was the ocean up close and in your hands, tugging at your feet, rolling up to you like a puppy with a ball in its mouth and then closing its hands around your ankles to pull you down.
A man got on the bus. He was the kind of man everyone stared at from behind the pages of their books, out the corners of their eyes, through squinted lids. He was the kind of man everyone wanted to looked at without making it look like they were looking. And that wasn't out of not wanting to seem rude, no strict allegiance to moral propriety. There was danger in looking, danger in the eyes meeting and what happened, to that space inside, at being seen, being caught. There was danger in connecting with something they didn't want to connect with and the accompanying sense of drowning in the look. Danger of a Rubik's cube worked on for years and years so that all the sides were composed of matching colors and the look takes the cube and with a smile mangles it senseless.
Shocking. He wore an overcoat in July, he smelled like a short order cook who took baths in light beer and dried himself off with dirt. He came up to Lauren, stood next to her, he drowned her with his smell.
Everyone in the bus tasteed him as he walked the gauntlet to the back. He concentrated on the walkman in his hands, at least that's what it seemed like to Lauren. But he was wearing sunglasses, dark lenses obscuring his intent and connections, did he want to fuck with people's Rubik's cubes?
Dirt sunk into his hands. It filled pores, coating, it mimicked a second skin, hiding the dry pink layer and offering, in its place, grey and dark dark brown. Lauren sighed and tried to read, pretending not to care about the guy listening to Jimi Hendrix that smelled like stale alcohol standing right next to her. She tried to force the lines of black text to supplant the image of the man.
He swayed wildly as the bus sped up and teetered top-heavy back and forth.
"Don't touch my cube," Lauren whispered, knowing she couldn't be heard through the air rushing in the windows, knowing that the Jimi Hendrix blasting through the headphones masked her utterance. It was safe and made her feel bold.
She scowled into her book, hating him for being there, hating him for drowning her. Don't touch me, she chanted over and over in her mind, thinking the skin the primary permeable barrier, the gateway into the body, the betrayer.
She was drowning in him.
She tried to concentrate on the lines of text, the composition of words like strands of DNA. His hand was inches from her face. It was cracked at the finger nails and finger tips. Pieces of dry skin peeled away from the total organ in cell-shaped formations. He stared at nothing. His breath was alive with smell, bacteria, the smell of decay from within.
He stared at nothing.
But Lauren really didn't know that, not really. How could she know that with his eyes masked behind the dark mirrors of the aviators?
The nurse stood in front of Lauren, dressed in maroon scrubs trimmed with white. She had a tired vacant look to her that conveyed all the liveliness of a wax figure in Madame Tussaud's.
The nurse swayed along with the bus in the same way people bob in the ocean, succumbing to the push and pull, but detecting no difference between the puppy with the ball in its mouth and the hands tugging at the ankles.
Her hand gripped the pole above his. He was looking at her hand and then it happened.
The movie started, slow motion and dramatic, only the sound of the wind rushing. He lifted his hand off the pole and brought it close to his face, examined one side and then the other. He leaned into the pole and peered at the hand of the nurse. The colors jumbled. He made a connection without the eyes meeting. He drowned them all.
dead. adjective 8. no longer current, relevant, or important
The bus went by a junior high and high school. A lot of kids commuted to the schools in north Pacific Beach.
The boys, they never said their names, they talked jive back and forth. They pulled and tugged at their clothes; one wore a basketball jersey, preening in baby blue sheen, shimmering in the dark bus like a Virgin Mary. He adjusted his hat, twisting it even more off center.
People stared openly at them. Other people who were coming home from work glared at them and rustled their newspaper's excessively as if to say, hey you little jackasses, I'm reading here. One lady sat, oblivious to everything except the feeling of the rocking her body and the needles and yarn. She was knitting an amorphous shape of earthy green.
Lauren couldn't get the jargon of the boys out of her head and it infuriated her. Silence, silence, she thought as they talked about gettin' with girls, smokin', and trickin' teachers. She sparked at them, watched them grab themselves. She heard every word they said. They were inside her head where she couldn't chase them out.
The words combined with the smell, the liquid in the bus rose up to the neck.
"Nah, man. They didn't find my smokes," Baby Blue said to his friends. "You gotta learn to hide your shit." Laughing, he braced himself as the bus stuttered to a stop. He adjusted his cap again, baby blue to match his shiny shirt.
He pulled a thin cigar from his backpack and rolled in his palms.
The man had noticed, the one with the smell and dirt, the one with a hand to compare to the nurse's hand. They were the same basic shape. Lauren couldn't tell if it was the similarity or the difference that agitated her.
She watched him focus on the cigar, swaying, captivated by every loose flake of tobacco that slipped from the casing of brown paper into the bottom of the cellophane wrapper. The boys didn't notice at first.
They talked back and forth, amazed Baby Blue lasted the whole day with the cigar stashed in his backpack, mingling with his pens and pencils.
Lauren's spine took a pill bug shape. Lauren watched the man's nostrils pulse as he sniffed out the scent of a cigar. He gravitated towards it. They noticed.
The boys had hard backs and wide sneers. They circled him like chum. They didn't give a fuck about Rubik's cubes. Predators never do.
They went silent as the man grazed his lips with fingertips. His tongue flicked out of his mouth, darting like a silverfish. His lips quivered. He swayed. Baby Blue laughed, looking to his friends. He nodded his chin at the man, making sure his friends were watching.
"You want this, Old Man?" Baby Blue moved the cigar left to right, right to left, up and down. The man passed his eye exam. The cigar floated, moving, it hypnotized him. Saliva collected at the corners of his mouth.
Baby Blue and his friends laughed, mouths and eyes gaping open. "Check this out," he said. He took the cigar out of its packaging and slid it back and forth under his nose. "You want this," he gestured at the man with the cigar. The man held out his hands like receiving the Body of Christ at mass. Baby Blue crumpled the cellophane package, empty except for the few flakes at the bottom, and threw it into the waiting palms.
He brought the cellophane to his nose and breathed deeply, taking all of it into himself. He took the package in his fingertips and folded it into a perfect tiny square. Lauren watched it disappear into his pocket. The boys laughed with all of their bodies.
dead. adjective 9. empty
Lauren sat at the bus stop. The jacaranda trees were in bloom, the lavender flowers looked brilliant and vibrant on the trees and crowded out the green leaves. When the flowers committed suicide, they fluttered to the sidewalk, where they would get crushed underfoot and stain the ground with flower innards and ground limpid bodies.
Lauren always walked around them to avoid getting the stains on her shoes. Sometimes there were so many of them, a side-step to safety was impossible.
The flowers littered the bus bench, Lauren had to sweep the bodies aside with her magazine.
Her index finger stroked the smooth cover as she scanned through the pages of advertisements, blurbs, and articles. She glanced at her watch and dug into her backpack for a snack. A banana-peanut butter sandwich.
Her mouth wrapped around the sandwich and the thick combination of ingredients made her jaw in need of oil, "Lak d ti mar," she said out loud. If I only had a heart . . .
"What was that you said, honey," a voice from behind Lauren said. She froze, trying to see who it was from her peripheral vision while she madly chewed the too large bite of sandwich gluing her mouth together.
A full minute passed before she was able to respond.
When she turned around, she saw the body of the voice, the pregnant body of a man who had lifted up his t-shirt and was stroking his belly in a rhythmic clockwise fashion. Scars dotted his belly like toys scattered in a child's room and one long one ran from his hip, over his side and towards his spine.
He didn't look at Lauren. He considered the street, facing the direction the bus would come from, watching for the bus.
"This where the Number 30 come, right? The one for La Jolla," he said, jerking his head to peck a glance at her before returning to vigilance.
Lauren buried her face in the magazine again, "Yeah, this is it," she said as quickly as she could. She repeated "this is it," hoping to end the conversation before it started. She tried to find the place where she left off in the article about hollywood moms and babies.
"What time it leave?" Lauren sighed.
"About ten minutes."
"You go to school up there?"
"Yeah," Lauren felt safer with one-syllable answers. 5
"Man, that's the best thing you can do." Lauren closed the magazine. "Me, I went to Vietnam. Would've like to gone to school. Tried after I got back, but now my memory ain't so good. Can't remember five minutes ago, if you know what I mean."
He shuffled closer to the curb. The flowers popped beneath his feet.
dead. adjective 10. no longer functioning
Lauren imagined him belly crawling through the Vietnam jungles, the sky ablaze and smelling of chemicals that not only burned the nose hair, but also flayed the flesh from the body. She imaged him watching his friends shoot round after round into the dark dank of the jungle, screaming in terror at the unseen enemy. She imagined his friends flying backwards, their bodies popping like the flowers that popped under his feet.
He rubbed his pregnant belly absently. She glanced at her cell phone for the time. She had learned, after months of taking the bus, that people needing to dump their shit where magnetized to her. Maybe she had a sympathetic face, wide pools of understanding that acted as a salve on all wounds in place of her eyes.
One man confessed he had spent the night in a Mexican jail and had to wire a friend for the money because his girl took off with his life savings. He kept asking over and over again, "All I wanted to do was love her, what's wrong with that?" Things had been complicated by the fact that he had dual citizenship. "I'm not even welcome in my own country. People don't want me here and they don't want me there either. What wrong did I ever do to anyone," he asked Lauren. The tears cutting uneven swathes down his face made her turn away. She had looked for the escape of the bus, but, inevitably, felt more lonely once she climbed on.
She wanted to go back and talk to him. Ask about his family. Know something of him. She was too late.
The vet rubbed his belly and stared down the street. Lauren put her magazine away, intent on listening to this one. The scars had been caused by shrapnel and bullet fragments.
The bullets shattered with velocity and burned as they cut. "But these?" He waved his hand at his stomach. "These things heal if they don't kill you." He pointed to his head, tapping his temple, remembering his disembodied parts, making them whole again through touch.
"These things," he pressed his finger into his temple now, then stroked the side of his face. Lauren thought he was living in dreams. The kind of dreams that lovingly stroke to soften you for an easier kill. "These are things that stay. I'm walking dead, you know." He broke off the eye contact and returned to watching for the bus. He talked at her. She could have been a puddle of water that wet his shoes. He looked down the street, absently talking without making eye contact or seeming to care that she was there and listening, taking in his words and digesting them one letter at a time, one meaning at a time. That she was putting them together, reconstituting meaning.
"The government gave me Hep B. You know, hepatitis. The bad kind. There's five kinds, the other four aren't so bad. You can live with those kinds. But this kind, this kind you can't live with."
Lauren stared up at him. His name was Eddy. He wore a Padres ball cap that he scratched his head with, when he wasn't rubbing his belly. She imagined what it would be like to be walking dead. Would you walk on the ground like normal people did, feet make solid contact, heel to toe, pushing off with physical force, with the exertion of kinetic energy? Would your feet only touch the ground because your mind willed it so and was trapped in the illusion of being alive? What the fuck did it even mean to be walking dead? 6 Why did it make her feel like crying, like that one day in the 10th grade when the class watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Indian suffocates Jack Nicholson who had just been lobotomized? Robbed of everything he was, axons dismembered, memories and life and personality carved out like the wish bone from a Thanksgiving turkey.
"I'm walking dead, you know," he kept repeating it over and over, a thunderstorm that never passed. He was a plastic bag filled with air in the middle of the street waiting to be crushed by a car speeding by, hollow and shell-like without meat except he was all meat and connections. He had a vague recollection of what he had been and what he had wanted to become. He was able to compare that with where he was now and what he would be satisfied with if he landed that big government disability check. He talked about the little house and the business he would buy, his daughter would go to a good university, and the girlfriend he would marry and spend the rest of his life with, until his liver failed.
He was a routine; he was at the number 30 bus stop at 9:30 on Tuesday and Thursdays for his VA appointment, he was rubbing his stomach every five seconds, he was repeating, multiplying and dividing. He was walking dead.
dead. adjective 11. no longer burning
Lauren waited at the bus stop, perched on top of the bench with a book opened in front of her.
Eddy walk towards her.
"Hey, you taking this bus?" he asked. Eddy took his cap off and scratched his head. "It go to the VA?"
"Yeah, Eddy." Today Eddy had a mesh cap on with the insignia of the USS Maddox embossed on the front. He breathed in a raspy sort of way that was labored and when he moved to sit, he reminded Lauren of a rusting tin man.
"You go to school up there?"
1. The pistachios came in a long cylindrical tube of plastic. The long narrow shape was supposed to mimic the child-like novelty of Abba-Zabba packaging. Instead, it lined up the nuts in shells, some with mouths gaping and others with mouths pinched along the sides and just the narrow top peeked opened, like a spiral of evolution.
Lauren snipped off the top of the package, the heat-sealed grooves wouldn't give to her prying. The nuts tumbled out into the cups and made a sound like pebbles hitting half-filled Coke bottles nestled into a stream bed to keep them cool, though in the end they would be forgotten.
She took an odd pleasure in rolling the coarse bodies in her hands, feeling the salt of the nuts and the oil of her fingers combine to make her sticky. She broke a shell open, listening for the sound of crushing bugs as the hinge of the shell snapped and made one into two. Sometimes it was quick and well-oiled, as though the pistachio had opened itself for her. Other times, it was terrifying, peeling her nails from the quick as it exerted its own force against Lauren's. As if it didn't want to be eaten.
"Ridiculous," Lauren murmured as she raised the shell, slid it into her mouth where she would bite down on it with her molars, worrying the whole time that the nut would win and break one of her teeth.
But pistachios were infinitely better than sunflower seeds, which she had choked on once. She wasn't experienced enough in separating the seed from the shell. She kept the shells in her mouth for too long. They had turned the consistency of sodden card stock, like a birthday card floating in the toilet.
Her father had to slap her on the back, hard enough for a green hand print to emerge the next day. She spewed seed and shell fragments over the windshield and dashboard. Henry swiped his hand over the window surface on the drivers' side, smearing the spittle and oil of the nuts.
They pulled over, partly to see if she was okay, but mainly to clean the windshield to see out of it. Why did she have to stuff handfuls of sunflower seeds into her mouth? Why not one at a time, or at the most, five? She didn't need the eat the whole bag then and there?
Lauren had shrugged that slow roll of the shoulders, where you can feel the muscles lift and rotate the bones and the joint. "I don't know," inevitably tumbled from her mouth, at which point Henry turned away from her and was silent the rest of the drive.
2. The frantic fist pounding on the bedroom door woke Lauren up. Then her mom yelling about cleaning the house got her out of bed. She stumbled out of the induced night of the spare bedroom into the morning light streaming in through the defrocked windows of the living room.
"Come on, sleepy head. You need to help out, too." Maggie handed Lauren a pair of rubber gloves that Lauren's hands swam in, a sponge and a bottle of disinfectant. "Go clean the bathroom," Maggie commanded. Lauren shuffled away as Maggie called out detailed instructions. She was on her knees, scrubbing the toilet when Maggie came to check on her and stayed for five minutes, supervising.
"If you do a good job," Maggie dangled, "we'll go shopping and I'll get you some nice new things." Lauren nodded without looking up, afraid of missing a nanometer of bacteria that her mother would find with her supernatural blood hound nature for sniffing out germs and all things unclean.
Most weekends with Maggie were like this. Cleaning maniacally, showering, having breakfast, being told to go change because Lauren looked like shit, didn't she know red and yellow didn't go together, going to the mall, buying new toys and games and yet more clothes that Lauren wouldn't know how to coordinate into a sensible outfit.
Weekends with Henry were different. He worked on Saturday's, every Saturday. She went in with him in old ratted jeans and a t-shirt for which Maggie had given permission to be worn at the shop.
"Come here, kid," he'd wave her over to a car he was working on, pointing out different things, explaining their purpose. He gave her small safe jobs. She organized toolboxes flawlessly by the time she turned 11.
At 13, her mother had reclaimed her through "girls' day out" for facials and pedicures and makeovers. Henry's Saturday's at the shop, Sunday pancake breakfasts, and hikes along the beach, through Balboa Park and at the Mission Trails were, at best, second best.
"You've turned her against me, Marge," Henry said, slump-shouldered in his duct-taped 20-year old office chair.
"She's a young lady, Henry. Did you really think she'd love all your hokey bullshit forever? Girls like to look pretty, Henry. We like feeling pretty, not getting all greased up in a mechanic shop and dusty from a hike."
Henry looked through the garage office window, at Lauren brushing mascara on in the visor mirror of Maggie's new car. He never let her wear make up when she was with him.
"Just go." He left the office without looking at Maggie. She should have felt triumphant. Something inside her shrank, peeled away from the bone and curled into itself.
3. Henry had given her the car a year after she had gotten her license. She remembered seeing it at the shop for years, teasing Henry about wanting it if it was never reclaimed. But he had bought it from an auction for her.
The keys came in a teak box, hand-carved in the shape of wings.
"Thanks for the box, Dad," Lauren said, feeling cocky and confident from spending too much time with Maggie.
He left the room. As she threw the box into her bag, the keys jangled. She found Henry in the kitchen staring out of the window. It was hard to tell, he wouldn't turn around when she talked to him and answered in grunts. She thought he was crying.
Finally he said, "the car is outside. You can go . . . and come when you please."
Lauren couldn't say thank you, she shifted foot to foot, looking at the ground. He had given her something Maggie would never give her.
4. They drove fast northbound. Lauren played with lugs she had taken from Henry's shop. They left greasy patches on her jeans. She touched the ridges as she tried to screw them on her fingers.
"You're making a mess, Lauren. Get out a doll, for Christ's sake," Maggie muttered as she glanced over at Lauren's blackened hands. "I should have married and divorced a doctor. You know why, grease monkey?" Lauren shook her head. Of course she knew why because every time Maggie picked Lauren up from the garage, she said the same thing in the car. About wanting a cleaner husband and a richer ex-husband.
"Well let me tell you, kiddo. If you have a chance, marry a doctor or a lawyer. They're successful, have lots of money and come home with clean hands. And if you get divorced, they'll actually be able to pay you decent alimony."
"But Daddy says it should be about love and a partnership. He says it's important to be good friends and know each other real well before, so that way you can't fuck it up," Lauren said, examining the fingers on her left hand that she had topped with the lugs.
Maggie slammed on the brakes and pulled over. Lauren's heart stuttered.
"What did you just say?" Maggie leaned over the center console. Lauren pretended to look out the window and watched her mother's reflection there. The lugs fell off her fingertips one-by-one. "I said—"
"Nothing," Lauren whispered, still holding her breath.
"That's not what I heard."
Lauren tried to force herself through the coarse weave, push through the chair and the bottom of the car, the exhaust manifold, the wires and metal, so she could curl into a ball under the car, on the ground where it was safe.
"I said a bad—"
Maggie snapped back to her driving position, put the car in gear and took off. "Like your fucking father should be giving relationship advice. I don't have time to re-educate you after every single visit."
Lauren watched the mountains blur and disappear as the city came into sight. The lights over-powered the night that had come. The city lights, surging cars, and revolving doors of the strip malls chased it away, far into the stratosphere.
5. With strangers, Lauren felt infinitely more comfortable talking in single syllable words. This practice had been established after she unwittingly told a stranger her full name and had described her childhood in detail. He loved to hear about other peoples lives, he had told her, leaning in close to breathe in the scent of her breath. The tingle of alarm was swallowed in the din of the room.
He was a collector, he had told her. Somehow, she found this noble, imaging rare works of art in a downtown apartment of glass and steel. After he stroke the line of her thumb, after five minutes of learning Lauren's entire life story, she started imagining pieces of people tucked away in baggies amid frozen peas.
She saw him constantly after that, on the street corner, at the grocery store, even on campus. A month of this stalking had gone by before she said anything to Henry.
"Jesus Lauren, do you have to tell everything to everyone?" He stomped out and took care of the problem.
Henry started quizzing Lauren on a daily basis.
Q: What do you say if someone asks your name?
A: Give a fake name.
Q: What do you do if some one asks your life philosophy?
Q: What do you do if someone asks for help?
A: Walk away.
[Wrong, ask what kind of help they need, offer to call the police.
Okay, Dad. Whatever you say.]
But even after the drills, Lauren spilled out words haphazardly. Finally she decided, Yes, No, I don't know and Maybe were the best answers to 95% of the questions people asked. The four responses created four perfect walls of invisible, shatter-proof glass.
6. Walking Dead (wôk-i NG ded) the phrase connotes a zombie-like liminal existence, straddling the boundaries between a certain quality of dead, such as the lack of feeling, numbness, defunct, without resonance and dull as a dented bell, void, empty, empty hollow and out of play, dead is exact and straight, a light that has gone out and paired with motion gives the sense of a corpse reanimated, a body moving without spirit, the body guided, being walked like walking a dog. Walking dead is the motion without relevance or importance. Walking dead is the body discontinuing, the organs ceasing slowly and dying one cell at a time while the other parts continue. Walking dead is the mind disconnecting from sensation tangible or emotional, the body continuing without the soul in a repetition of movement. Walking dead is the body waiting in motion.