Today I heard that Dave Eggers, the author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" has stores in NYC. These are magical places where children go through secret passages to classrooms for writing classes. They are also places of sale, items of interest include single pages of books with varying prices presented in my ever favorite fashion of performance art. Some pages a penny, others a thousand dollars. I instantly thought of my favorite page in my favorite novels - are they actually worth more than the pulp before and beyond. I say, "No."
This story came into mind. The fiction has been keeping me up at night this March and while I have been loosing sleep I haven't had the time to write. This story from my head today is representative of a lot of the story lines I wrestle with lately, a romance. I'll try to keep it light.
Cold and hard the tile floor of the basement apartment rudely but effectively woke Jo each morning as she staggered to the tiny bathroom of the temporary sublet she shared with a cat who had no patience for her. It had been three months and one long season of winter with little sign of spring for Jo, and the cat, Harper, was relentless. While Jo was a kind girl and enemy-less in all her world, Harper showed no trust for her and would not even let Jo benefit from his body heat. Jo was at a loss, never having had a cat growing up she gave the beast his space but never gave up trying for Harper's affection. It was Harper's house, his master would return and Jo would be history, perhaps this routine was familiar to him and he found it best to become unattached.
Jo defined unattached. She made due with another person's home, another person's souvenir coffee cup, a stranger's set of keys and whatever else that was not part of her own scant wardrobe and included in the sublet. She tacked her large orange sarong to the window frame of her bedroom to function as a curtain and outlined her home city's skyline to the large empty wall her bed faced with a grey crayon. Seattle's skyline was something she could sketch from memory without glancing at a thing. Jo never considered this a personal talent, every kid in her class at one time had their own hand at the same perspective. The day after she moved in she realized it was worth the chance of not being able to erase it, it made everything feel more like home.
Today there was a problem of a hint of a headache as Jo's cold feet warmed in the shower. Minutes of a hot shower brought the clarity from morning disillusionment, Jo was ill. Cursing to no one but Harper on the couch in the next room Jo stood dripping wet in front of an unfamiliar medicine cabinet. The bus would stop at the end of the block in twenty minutes and between now and then some miracle by way of chemistry was necessary to temper the fever Jo was now certain she had. Foraging as she tossed a towel about she filled her arms with pill bottles and bolted for the bedroom.
Stowing is a skill one can become incredible at if they so choose, it requires moving quickly often and taking what is necessary. Soon the list of essentials propagates in your mind so quickly it is like breathing. Take, for instance, the Mom of three in comparison to the fresh young Mother dear. Or rather, any seasoned veteran to newly minted recruit. With the smooth perfection and complete confidence of what the day would call for Jo filled her purse.
There were the essentials of any commuter, student, waitress, and now infirm, all in the one cluttered shoulder bag. Jo was sick, but in complete indifference she stood stoic at the bus stop applying makeup as the 10A3 South arrived.
Jo today thought of what would serve as a decent thank you for a kind bus driver who she daily witnessed being not only cheerful and capable but damn generous. She had been counting how often the driver stopped her routine to make life slightly better for someone. Not that anyone was ever hiring such a detective, but Jo excelled at discovering acts of human kindness. Jo just made notes, the notes could be the gift. Things meant little to Jo, experiences were all she collected with success. They made for easy packing.
Assignments and deadlines and Monday Night Specials rang though a heavy concoction of random over the counter pain relievers as Jo's night, and then week, zipped by in a blur with no condolences or relief from Harper.
Come Saturday Jo was thoroughly out of any options for presentable clothing. So, as gently as she could, displaced Harper from her sole laundry basket containing her earthly possessions and wandered with a book into the laundry across the hall from her apartment door. She stopped while reaching the door knob to open her own door at the sight of a letter on the floor addressed to she.
It had been slid under the steel door and was certainly for her. Certain in the fact that it said "Current Resident of Apt. 1B, Girl Renting From Nasty Other Guy." That was Jo.
Jo never liked doing laundry and didn't need to be presentable until her brunch shift the next day at the cafe. She set the basket down and opened the plain white envelope. Folded in uneven thirds were a thick pack of book pages trimmed to the width of the text so that no margin markings were left. Jo set the pages down and with a chill then whirled into a fit of heart racing panic.
It was strange, it meant someone took notice of her, they knew where she lived, they knew she was alone, they had the ever loving benefit of seeing her and she did not see them. If this were the Savannah, Jo was the freaked out gazelle. She felt in every shadowed corner and darkened street level window of her temporary cell - a predator was calmly noting her moves.
Jo returned the chain to the track of her door as another thought cracked into her throbbing head, "who else has a key?" She herself had given previous neighbors at old addresses spare keys. There was no way of knowing, her only contact with Harper's owner was through the leasing office and a P.O. box she mailed she rent check.
Moving to the kitchen to arm herself she thought better of it, feeling her own ridiculous and irrationality she instead reached for her phone. In a brief exchange of text messages Jo's only local friend was making her way over wonderfully suggesting Jo needed a night out of the house. Jo hated the feeling of being helpless and fought back the guilt of dragging Naya out of her way.
The call changed the trajectory of Jo's panic. Naya would bring her something to wear, fuss, paint her face and scoot her into a crowd of fresh faces all with names Naya knew but Jo didn't. Whatever came of it, they worked brunch together at the cafe in Jo's neighborhood so, at least tonight she wouldn't be sitting alone in the middle of the clear savannah.
Naya had filled Jo's sparse room with color. The second she waltzed in Jo was at ease. The stack of paper sat where she set it down and rather than discuss it Naya insisted the cab would be honking in twenty and Jo needed work.
With a bit of cheap wine, loud music, and drugstore clearance Revlon the pair were reborn. Where once stood a single Mother who's son was at his grandparents and the shaken over-worked lonely student now was a timeless posed-for-a-cell-phone-in-the-mirror-shot directly blogged onto the internet as "Girls Night Out!" Complete with smiles and eyeliner, Naya and Jo looked both fun and carefree. They charged out the door at the sound of the taxi's horn and ran straight into the arms of high heel pain and three dollar well drinks.
A night of bummed cigarettes and screaming at people over music effectively postponed the worry for Jo. She tip-toed over the tiled floor to wake Naya up from the couch. They scrubbed off the eyeliner and bandaged their feet for work. Having lost neither their cell phones or their keys the two of them proclaimed the night and absolute success and did the best they could on the walk to work to piece together what exactly they got into.
As the post-church crowd paid their bills and left generous tips Naya brought Jo their customary end of brunch bloody mary. Before Jo could protest Naya assured her with, "Relax kiddo, I had Deshawn hold the vodka. This one's just hot sauce and good old tomato, you're fav you freaking weirdo."
They counted their tips. Jo walked into the cafe three months before with a long list of references and a gaurantee she'd only work for tips. Paul was the kind of restaurant owner Jo could spot from a zip code away. It was a deal he couldn't refuse. Jo wore whatever name tag was left behind the bar, sometimes she was "Trudy" or "Stephanie", sometimes she was "Naya."
When she was "Naya" people would ask her where her name came from. Jo knew that Naya's mother named her after her favorite perfume, Anais Anais. Naya named her son Charles, cause she hated her name and her mother's reason for choosing it. Naya pressed what Jo was short for, "Just Jo" was all she got.
Putting her cash in her purse Jo realized she brought the suspect package to work. Taking it out in the company of the cafe staff she thumbed through the pages. They seemed harmless here, in the light of day they almost made her feel thought of and special. There was nothing scary about the story on them as from what Jo could tell, it was a fairy tale.
But, "Damn It!" she thought as she leafed through the fifty or so pages six inch high pages, they were out of order. She checked the envelope and her bag but they showed no sign of tampering. She had picked up the letter just as carefully as she set it down while Naya was in the shower and placed it between her laptop and text book in her bag. They were delivered like this.
On a freshly cleared and cleaned table in the now closed cafe Jo started to spread the pages out. Rounding the corner from the office to the dinning room Paul saw the table cloth of paper and laughed. "Used text books ain't what they used to be huh kid?" Jo didn't break her concentration but smiled. Paul sat next to her and with a concerned tone asked if she was serious and if she needed some cash for a new one.
Jo turned, she noted carefully how kind he was. Paul was not a rich man but it was clear someone like him would worry about a girl like her. With some trepidation Jo explained how she came into the pages. Paul's face read "I don't like the sound of this." He started with an interrogation highlighting things Jo never thought of. "Who has keys to the building's front door?" He asked. "Tomorrow morning call the leasing office and confirm they changed the locks before you sublet the place, they might give you hell at this point but they know better than to have not done that in the first place." Jo regretted worrying Paul.
Picking up the paper in the order she set them down she assured him no one in her building seemed more harmful than Harper the cat and that she would report it to the police that afternoon. She gave him an absolutely confident face and while assuring him she was fine her eyes saw the handwriting on a page that was half blank of ink.
Without flinching or breaking her sincerity to Paul she put the papers away and headed home with left-over quiche wrapped in a bundle in her hands. Five steps from the restaurant a plan began to form in her head and it had nothing to do with calling anyone. As she stepped in her building she did not descend the stairs, she climbed. On the second floor she chose one of two doors and removed from her bundle a styrofoam container of spinach quiche.
An old woman with thick rimmed glasses answered Jo's knock with a small overly cared-for dog in her left arm. The dog was silent, Jo realized instantly it's eyes were glass and that it was stuffed. The woman extended a hand to great her and said "Ah, aren't you the girl from downstairs? What brings you by sweetie?" Jo gathered herself quick from the shock of the stuffed maltese. "Hello, yes, sorry to have not introduced myself earlier, I'm Jo Carter from downstairs."
The woman invited Jo in and introduced herself as Pearl Flemming and the dog as Heidi. "Heidi and I have been in this building for twenty years!" Said Pearl. Jo declined the offer of company explaining she just returned from work but wondered if Pearl might like a quiche left over from the restaurant. "Its quite good I just can't imagine I'll eat it myself." Jo was completely out of her element. Old Mrs. Flemming beamed with thanks but over apologetically refused the gift. "How kind of you darling, but I've never eaten a single egg, I just have the most delicate digestion! And Heidi here hasn't eaten in over a decade!"
With a very awkward goodbye Jo decided the next door. After several knocks Mrs. Flemming's door opened again. "Darling that is Mrs. Geitner's apartment, my sister-in-law, don't bother calling on her dear." Pearl said with batting eye lashes and cloying tone adding, "She's a soggy old bitch."
With a nod and dripping sweet smile Pearl closed the door. Jo looked up the stairs to the third floor and felt the heat of a fever and for a feint second base tones from the previous night's dance floor pulsed her inner ear. Defiant Jo scaled the twenty-three stairs and knocked first on apartment 3A. The sound of running and a crash were immediately joined by the door lurching open. Looking down into a pair of gorgeous and wet brown eyes Jo smiled. The boy in front of her was no more than eight and all he said was "Who are you?" with a returning smile.
"Hi there," Jo said instinctively, sinking to his level, "I'm Jo. I live downstairs is your Mom home?" Straight into Jo's face without a second to spare the boy screamed "MOOOMMMM!!!" Jo flinched and lurched back onto her free hand as the siren continued, "MOOMMMM THAT GIRL YOU SAID WAS QUIET IS HERE TO SEE YOU!!!"
Looking at Jo the boy began to ask "Why do you have a boy-name?" as his mother approached the door. Thin and petite the woman effortlessly picked the boy up to her face. With him at her level and wide-eyed she started. "Kalil, you are not to answer the door or raise your voice in this house, understand?" "Momma, I forgot!" He pleaded. She stared at him very still. "I won't do it again," he said. She set him down, as Kalil smiled again and introduced Jo.
"Marta, nice to meet you, don't mind him, he's all boy. And me calling you quiet was meant as a compliment." Marta helped Jo up as Kalil hugged his mother's side.
"Sorry to bother you," started Jo as she took her feet. The change in altitude was not significant but it felt like Everest. The pulse in Jo's inner ear clouded out the rest of the room as a quick sweat and darkness over came her.
When she came to Kalil's brown eyes were perfectly align with hers. She blinked a few times and Marta came into view and Jo realized Kalil was in fact sitting at the top of the stares in awe and Marta was waving ammonia in Jo's face. Sitting up slowly Marta ordered Kalil to pick up Jo's bags and march them downstairs.
Jo rose apologetically with Marta's help and explained she didn't see the feinting episode coming. Marta walked Joe carefully down the stairs and waited while Jo fished her keys out of her bag. Kalil and Marta sat Jo down on the couch and Marta walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. Returning with a glass of milk she sat across from Jo on the coffee table and asked "You ok?"
Accepting the milk and drinking it down in one motion Jo answered, "better thank you, really I will be fine."
Marta followed up with triage questions before explaining she was indeed a nurse. After suggesting a good meal and rest and satisfied Jo was alright Marta and Kalil rose to leave.
"Jo, it was lovely to meet you, what were you coming up to us for anyway?" Marta asked.
"I waitress over at Cafe Morell and the owner sometimes sends me home with more than I can eat, any chance you like spinach quiche?"
Marta's dark eyebrows perked into high arches and she smiled saying "Eat the quiche, Jo, then get some sleep."
Kalil in a flash ran to Jo on the couch, hugged her and then ran out. Chuckling Marta closed the door behind them and Jo heard them climb the stairs.
On the couch Jo drank her milk and ate half a container of quiche. Then, clearing the coffee table, she took out the envelope observing the slow cautious movements of a ritual. As if she were preparing japanese tea ceremony.
To Be Continued....