by Sarah Lynn Knowles
When I’m through my shift at the Finer Diner, I fold my tips to a thick fat roll. I say bye and happy new year to my boss Harvey, who says bye and happy new year to my tits and hands me a bottle of champagne to take since he ordered too many and there’s extra. “Thanks,” I say, and Harvey shrugs and shoos me towards the door with a flapping hand. “I see that mug on your face all day,” he says. “You take this where you’re going, turn that sad face upside-down.” The little red bell with mistletoe taped on chimes crisp when the glass door shuts. Outside the air is blank and dark. It was supposed to snow but it hasn’t.
The 24-hour pharmacy is three blocks up. From here to there and everywhere else are cackling girls in sequined dresses gripping the elbows of boys blowing paper horns that sound like ducks. A blonde in glossy black stilettos teeters past a sewer grate with a cigarette arrowing from her frown. A lanky boy with Warhol hair and a suede-elbowed blazer fakes like he’s going to shove her. On every square of gravel it’s hollow heel scrapes and click-clack-clicks.It’s glitter hiccuped in whiskey-breath laughs and smeared against the lines of lashes. It’s painted girls, boisterous between bars like costumed sponges liquor-soaked. The closer the ball gets to dropping, the quicker shots get tossed in the anxiousness to secure a midnight kiss, to prevent a year alone.
On the sidewalk my laced boots clomp dull thuds. This week, for me, marks 10 full years since Mom passed. Ten, ten. Has it really been ten? All week long this nagging knowing, made more real now that I myself am mere months from disappearing, too. That same disease settled inside me, so many curled buds set to blossom.
At Atlantic Avenue I don’t make the light and get stuck instead on a traffic island, where fast-passing cars whip gusts around me and leave thumping bass lines trailing. Both sides’ breeze is strong enough to spin me like a hotel’s revolving door if I let it. The circling wind snakes between my ankles and around my legs, across my chest and up to my nose. From my traffic island perch I think, Oh god, how easy. To take one step forward, or back, straight into the path of an oncoming crash. To be here one second, to vanish the next. To be gone. Swift sets of yellow lights begin far and dim in my peripheral and brighten to a warming glare. I look down at my boots and think, One step, just one. Either forward or back, timed right. You choose.
The light changes, and I go.
At the drug store’s entrance, giddy frat boys with six-packs in each fist trip over each other’s feet. The gang’s baby-faced caboose presses his shoulder against the door to hold it for me. “Thanks,” I say, and he blinks a shy smile before scurrying his popped collar towards its rainbowed mass of friends. I slide my hood off the back of my head, and my boots march towards the pharmacy where I’d dropped off my prescription during a break. I hadn’t thought there’d be a line but there is one. I step into the queue of sniffles, joint aches and drooping eyes, a purgatory in stark contrast to the merriment outside. The woman ahead of me wipes a gloved hand against her nostrils. I shift from leaning on my right leg to my left. A throat clears behind me with purpose. I turn.
“I know you,” says the man behind me. He is old, maybe 70. His leathery skin is a map of wrinkles, and his wiry white hair is thick but clipped close against the skull. His eyes are beady, small, and when he squints they are smaller still. “You’re the one who serves me pie.”
I file him into context along with his two-week string of shitty tips. “Oh. Nelson, is it?”
“That’s it, that’s right,” he nods. With eyebrows raised he looks at me, sliding his hand in a pants pocket to jangle some change. He waits for me to say something.
“I forget,” I say finally. “What kind was it today?”
Nelson scratches his head and squints his eyes so tight they disappear. “Today was… ah, blueberry.”
“Oh,” I say, glancing elsewhere. “Good choice, blueberry.”
“I thought about apple, but it didn’t feel like an apple kind of day.”
“Well. Gotta go with your gut.”
He nods and laughs in his usual way, with one hand flat against his belly. Within diner walls, when I’m on the clock, his over-enthusiasm is in day-brightening contrast to so many grumpy coffee-slurpers flipping their sagging newspapers straight. But sandwiched between this here and this now, I feel uncomfortable rather than receptive. In the pause I try to pivot, to face the front of the line instead.
“So, how long you work there?”
“At the diner. How long you been working there?”
“Oh. I don’t know, eight months?”
“Eight months, eight months,” he says in a concentrated way, like I’ve stumped him with a math problem. “You like it?”
“Well, the pie’s good,” he says. “I think I’ll keep coming. Fresh-baked pie and a pretty girl to serve it to you? Not much better in this world, I don’t think.”
My closed-lipped smile is flat and thin. With all my might, I will the line to move.
“Why are you here instead of out with friends for the holiday?” he continues. “No parties?”
He shakes his head like he’s personally offended. “In my day?” he says. “A pretty girl like you? You’d have your pick of all the parties. You’d be the belle of the ball.”
“Thanks,” I say. Only the woman with the snot-spotted glove stands between me and the counter now.
“Maybe you took home some of that blueberry pie at least.”
I tap the plastic bag sticking out of my purse. “I’ve got champagne.”
He laughs. “OK, OK. That’s good,” he says. “New Year’s. Gotta have champagne.”
When the mousey-looking girl behind the counter finally calls “Next,” I smile politely at Nelson before stepping away. I tell the girl my name, that I’m picking up. When she squints, I say my name again. I spell it. When she turns to search, I watch her — her thin back hunched and two flat hands pawing through the third basket down, the one marked “C” in black ink on fluorescent paperboard.
I feel a hundred years go by. My fingertip rubs anxiously against that spot becoming bare at the base of my scalp as I watch her flip from the beginning towards the back again, and it’s then, right then, that I know I will not take the pills she sells. Suddenly I know it, that I will not take the pills — I won’t — and the decision is final and firm like a lead weight sinking. It flushes my face and warms me all over. I unzip my coat in a hurried way.
“Oh,” she says, examining the gaudily-stickered bag with my name and address typewritten across. “Have you taken this before? Do you have any questions?”
“I’m good,” I say.
“I’ll need you to sign right here on the line. You sure no questions?”
“I’m good,” I repeat. “It’s my second round.” I scribble my signature and hand her the money — a thick stack of ones from that day’s tips. When I turn away from the counter, Nelson steps up behind me. The little pills shake against the canister’s sides, sounding like a maraca filled with beans.
I duck behind a cardboard display of fruity taffy splashed yellow, orange and pink. Lately it’s this feeling of being ever-so-slowly chased. Despite efforts to ignore the sensation, I feel that gray cloud parked behind me, constantly looming in my peripheral but disappearing when I spin to view it in full. Sometimes a ghostly fingertip taps lightly on my shoulder, invisible but definite. And I know who it is, what it is, and why. Its electric touch twitches brisk between my bones, slowing to settle like a fate inside.
For a long time there has been this weight in knowing. In bed late alone in the dark, that phantom finds me, always, and feeds me film stills. A flickering glimpse of Mom, frail and hairless, her bones sharp points beneath a sheet. That stretched mouth sucking wisps of breath with the strength of her whole body. The hollow sound, that dry, dry gasp. Mom’s wide, dead stares and the shakes that shook me. The weird finality of a nightmare at long last ending. And my ominous sleeplessness in the ten years since.
And now that it’s my turn I feel the veiny tentacles, too. Those writhing, wrapping fingers in the flesh of my chest, sowing seeds they know will grow.
Near the sleeping pills a statuesque couple hurls angry accusations back and forth in sharp whispers almost louder than screams. I will be quick, I decide. I lean past them and grab two different packets at random — one pale violet, one primary blue. The latter box is generically decorated with strips of lines and hard-edged fonts on white. In the corner of the purple box, however, a mild-mannered moon in a sagging sleep cap gazes peacefully towards the stars. Oh god, I think, dragging my boot soles towards the register: More than anything I want to be the moon.
When it’s my turn to pay, the pimpled boy behind the counter swipes the boxes’ bar codes swiftly past the screen. “Oh, one more thing,” I say, and drop a couple of miniature chocolate bars from the bowl beside us onto the counter, too. “That it?” he asks through his nose.
“Yes,” I answer. “Thanks.”
In the glass vestibule between inside and out, I slide the plastic shopping bag into my purse alongside the champagne. The boxes nudge the bottle back so it exposed neck now rests against my armpit. Through the window I squint at a drifting speck that could be snow but isn’t. I take a deep breath to zip my coat past my chest, where my patient disease swells and seeds.
It’s a ten-minute walk to my apartment now, and 45 minutes until it’s time. I step back into the garish sidewalk parade. Above each pedestrian’s gleeful, shrieking head, I visualize a timeline floating, with pins stabbing points to indicate this particular night. Some of these biographical charts stretch long and are evenly littered with noteworthy notch after notch. Others draw the same length but are less eventful, stretching smooth and soft and quiet — birth and then school and then job and then death. Some lines end with fat, unignorable dots – a dramatic finale finish — and most of these run short and jagged. Each notch on them is a huger thing, a fatter fraction of life compared to the longer, further-spanning charts of scattered tics. With less life lived, each moment weighs more, though none of us can know that ’til we’re told it’s time to know.
I’m startled then. I hear, “Hello.” I turn. Nelson. “You walking this way, too?” he asks.
“Oh,” I say. “Hey.”
“It was supposed to snow tonight, you know,” he says.
“No sign of any storm yet, though. Just that funny feeling in the air.” Nelson steps into pace with me. We are invisible to every grinning pretty thing scrambling to get to the last bar in time. We are a dull two-bird formation flapping past a watercolor sky. “You headed home?” he asks.
“Yup,” I say, looking stiff-straight ahead. I cannot have his smalltalk shattering my focus, however well-intentioned. I cannot break this plan now that I’ve been so brave to make it.
“Got your champagne for the new year, but not any pie.”
“Shoulda got that pie, maybe just one piece for you. Today for me was a blueberry day, but apple woulda been OK, too.”
“You got your champagne, though. That’s OK. Pretty girl like you probably don’t eat a lot of pie, just sip on champagne, like a real belle of the ball would do.”
We pause at a stoplight. My fingers rest against a sleeping pill box whose corner I can feel through the skin of my leather bag. I wish Nelson back into his vinyl corner booth past the kitchen near the bathrooms, where he belongs instead of here. I need him gone before my focus rattles further, before I lose the immediacy of my intent. “So, Nelson,” I say. “Which way do you live from here?”
“Oh, a ways in this direction. Just down a few blocks down Fulton Street and then over.”
“Well, this way we’re going now. And then down a few blocks. And you?”
“Huh,” I say, rolling my middle fingertip over the box corner. “Sounds like we’ll be parting ways here.”
“Well, I don’t mind walking a pretty girl home. To make sure you’re OK on the holiday.”
“That’s really not necessary.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. Who will serve me pie if you aren’t safe to come to work next time?”
“Sir? No offense, but I would like to walk alone.”
Nelson clears his throat twice. Across from us the light changes. A girl with a rhinestone tiara leads a pack of skinny minions across the street, the whole lot of them blowing puffed cheeks of air through feather-trimmed paper horns. “Happy new year!” the leader shouts, raising hands above her head. “Happy new year!” her friends call back. I watch them pass, but Nelson doesn’t. “Alright, OK. I see,” he says. “Just gotta walk my three blocks down, to Fulton. Then I turn right to go my way and I’m gone.”
“Thanks,” I say, and we cross the road, but his questions keep coming and coming. What’s it like, Nelson wants to know, working for what’s-his-name? Harvey? Is he nice? Does he schedule me for the days I want? Do I get regular days off? How about holidays? What do I do when I’m not at work? Do I like to sip champagne?
With every word I’m faltering, so I swing my legs to longer strides and quicken the pace of my steps. Nelson keeps talking, and keeps keeping up, but his breaths are audible a half-block later. Our hurried bodies weave between party hats and glitter-feather boas, around ankle-strapped stilettos and boots that hit at the knee. The next yellow light prepares to turn red. When I barrel through it, the champagne bottle’s neck bumps a rhythm against my upper arm. I reach the curb, and Nelson is one heavy-breathing step behind me.
I maintain my same momentum, straddling a thin line between a walk and a sprint. Now it’s a block and a half to Fulton Street, and one block further for me after that. Before the clock strikes twelve I will be home to swallow the pills I chose. The champagne will likely still be chilled. No more doctors. No more tests. My timeline will cut when I decide, not when a rope-finger root the color of murk gains its tightest grip around my heart.
Inside my face a smile is starting. A street lamp marks my ribboned finish line. Still, I know my mind will change if I slow by even the slightest. With my eyes focused forward, Nelson’s heaving gasps behind me are my only evidence he’s there. With a dozen or so yards left to go, I think I hear him gasp, “Waitress,” but I don’t turn to confirm or to answer his call. I keep going and going, my lungs balloons, and with every slap of boot against the pavement, I feel that ever-clinging cloud behind me dwindle by an ounce.
The street lamp: I am almost there and then I am and when I pass I touch it. Its bulb bathes me in yellow light as I loop beneath its glow. Don’t you dare look back, I think, turning finally onto my street. My head recites it — don’t, don’t, don’t — in a sing-song rhythm that consoles me. I do not look back but I feel him there, at the streetlamp now, his whole sagging body panting, gasping air – his exhale swirling into the night’s mess of hollow laughter and wheezing paper horns. But I do not look, and I won’t. I won’t.
Mere steps away from the front of my building, I press the bag of boxes of pills aside to ferret my keys from the bottom of my purse. When my fist finally finds them, I nose the key’s tip into the knob and take one measured breath before stepping through the door’s frame. Oh god, how easy, I say in my head. To be here one second, and then.
Sarah Lynn Knowles lives and works New York City. Her short fiction has won prizes such as Slice Magazine’s “Spotlight Author” award and Perigee Publication for the Arts’ annual fiction contest. Online, she runs pop culture blog Sarahspy and edits collaborative art / fiction / music journal Storychord. Follow her as @sarahspy on Twitter.