LOIS AND CONAN
Lois gulps down three cups of coffee from a machine behind the laundromat washers. Thirty-five cents each, hot but it smells bad, she thinks. Mice pissing in the works. She shoves her cup under the soft white spout. Indeed, the staining of things from the inside. Lois feels like her mind has been pissed in, back behind places, stinked up. Time spent alone cakes around her like adobe, something from determination. What else. She pokes holes in the cup, rocking against panic, waiting for the caffeine to cancel out the nerves. The hems of her jeans are frayed from picking and soft white threads stick to her tube socks. I overthink. Her mother used to circle a finger by her ear and say “Tick, tick, tick tick tick.”
“What? I’m figuring it out,” Lois would answer, rise irritated, close a door for silence.
There is no quiet place. Those monks who pray and count beans into the trillions god bless them, have to buckle down through thin mountain air, skimpy robes, the hungry villagers, neighboring armies even. Surrender, it’s our condition. She yawns. Go with the flow.
Her sneakers bang in the dryer. She sees them tied to her wrists, jerking around as she marches through town trying to figure out how to be useful. People do get it together. Despots, floggings, massacre, high winds, debt. Like animals who can endure venomous bites and alchemize the poison, alter themselves permanently but not roll over dead. Most girls are fouled up by sickos, for example. People are nuts. Squeezed, or all weaved out and loose. I’m not sure when it matters anymore. Rubbing her socked feet together, she watches a light blue piece of lint puff around the floor on tiny jets of air created by the slightest movement of her feet.
They say you can’t distinguish the anxious from the depressed. They say warm personalities deflect criticism. They say stress frays actual synapses in the brain, ripping off their wagging tips, making it hard to ever stay calm. We live in heightened states of fear and no one knows about the chicken or the egg and apparently it no longer matters whether fear itself has bred so much treachery or vice versa. What happened to those tiny girls in the news, anyway? Raped and murdered, over and over, everywhere you looked. Now they’re gone. Today apparently anti-malaria medicine causes psychotic episodes and might explain the recent spate of murders—vets from the war in Afghanistan killing their spouses.
Lois had left all her clippings at Sam’s. She started a new pile this week. Thin strips of newsprint lie across each other on a small desk in her room drying in ripples.
There was that whole thing about soaring divorce rates, domestic violence, various toxic effects on the soldiers. The dryer whines. Lois wraps her finger in a single strand of hair near her neck and tugs. There were two lists: exposures and symptoms.
Anthrax vaccines, smoke from oil-well fires, the sound of chemical alarms, fuel on skin, dead animals, maimed soldiers, artillery close by, mustard gas, chemical gas, nerve gas, SCUD missiles exploding within one mile, combat-related injury, the witness of anyone dying … A knobby spiral of hair forms as her thumb and forefinger spin the strand.
Irritability or outbursts of anger, fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness, feeling distant from others, tingling in fingers and arms, fever, numbness in fingers and toes, burning sensation in the sex organs, anxiety, violence and word-finding difficulties. Lois pulls another hair, grinding her teeth. She pictures a field of crushed porcelain over red sand. After a study of 12,000 Gulf War veterans, scientists have decided there is no such thing as Gulf War Syndrome.
Lois stands abruptly in the quiet. Outside, plastic American flags hang from damp telephone poles, some sticking to the wood, wet from the fog. The whole thing is starting again. Lois turns toward the dryer, which has stopped, and feels a rush of cold air on her back.
A man stands just inside the doorway, wild-eyed and shaking. He’s barefoot. A thin white rope holds his pants around his waist. “I’m Conan,” he says in a loud, high-pitched voice. “I live with the wolves.”
“Hi. I’m Lois. I live by myself.”
“I live in the forest.”
Lois has barely spoken to anyone in the two months since she moved to this town. Shut tight since Sam died, she has been thawing slowly, ungluing a silent concentration that has stood in for grief. She has spent nights and days in her apartment, and in its small, square, unkempt yard, with only intermittent outings in search of work. Last week she walked in the evenings, looping out toward the neighborhood’s perimeters. Yesterday she reached the edge of town and found just a marshy wasteland with tall damp weeds, ugly from the battle between wildness and development. Her sneakers had been soaked through.
Conan stands a few yards from her, one pale hand patting a washer while he looks around nervously. Yellow sulphur smells rise from him like heat. Lois taps her fingers on the dryer door along with his patting. This is who has come. Conan reminds her of Sam.
“Uh, I knew a guy in high school everyone called Conan,” Lois offers, tossing her damp sneakers quickly back into the dryer and gesturing toward a seat. “He was huge. I saw him lift the back end of a VW bug once. He would carry people, girls. He could carry a full keg on his shoulders and run up the hill with it.” She’s nervous, laughs. She had actually barely known the guy in high school, had only been invited to a few of the park parties. From a stone ledge outside the main circle she had tracked the shadowy movements the way she’d watched the ant farm in fifth grade. Two break off now into the trees, one is pinned by another near the garbage can. What’s that longhaired one ’ s dragging? Oh she’s passed out. They haul ’ s their females into the bushes, play air guitar. When cops came, Lois pulled quietly backwards into the woods and out of sight, watched everything scatter.
“His real name was Carl,” she starts again and fades, “he got arrested all the time.” I don’t know if he ’ t ’ s getting any of this . Conan’s forehead seems to grow paler, draining.
“I had some acid and some crack last week with vodka and soda.” His teeth jitter as he speaks, and then he says, a little louder, “I had Cool Ranch Doritos and I saved a wolf from the fountain!”
Okay. Lois peers at him. “Did you get arrested?”
“Yeah!” he says, snorting. Gaps between each tooth press his mouth wide.
“It’s warm in here.” Lois reaches for change in her pocket. Maybe she can buy him a cup of coffee from the crappy machine. I’ve got nothing to offer. Lois faces the line again, the one set down between seclusion and unpredictable human interchange. This choice has glinted up at her since she was a young girl, wicked, hissing with paranoia. To connect or disappear. It’s easier when everything is such a wreck right on the surface.
“Where are your shoes?” she asks. The gray skin around Conan’s eyes glows with exhaustion. Conan shakes his head and moves toward the door.
“Where’s yours?” He laughs, trembling.
“In the dryer…”
“No.” He backs up, still shaking his head,
then pushes out the glass door and is gone.
Blur of a white car passing, branches of gold
street maple bending up in the wet spray—
Lois shudders, alert suddenly to loud details
all around. Water, wind, light, tires, the smell
of heat and soap—everything pops in, like a
messenger or a message. What’s my problem. ’
s The sudden conversation bangs open a door
in her head. She takes her sneakers from the
dryer, puts them on damp and goes into the
Sun presses white behind the fog but doesn’t break through. Lois walks fast, past the video arcade, nail salon, a yellow building with green doors—the Chit Chat Lounge. Smoke and bar smell seep out and she stops. She keeps an eye out for Conan. Would he go in for a drink? She squints against the darkness. A man at the end of the bar nods toward her, huge head with small eyes and wisps of white hair combed across the forehead, a mouth lost in wrinkles. She nods back and keeps walking.
Time has passed so slowly, or has not passed at all for Lois. She has been frozen in a cool, silent cocoon, all her knobs turned down. Now she bobs her knees waiting at a red light and feels stiff. The people are here, just pick one. It’s not the presence of other people that rattles her so much as the idea of knowing them. Impossible, she thinks, has almost always been sure. “Why don’t ’ t you make some friends?” Her mother’s voice rings inside her own. “You and Sam can’t ’ t only hang out with each other.”
Lois and Sam didn’t discuss their isolation. They relaxed in its familiarity, resigned. They kept a cordial distance from each other’s intimate details. Neither did they discuss their mutual apprehension toward socializing beyond the safe bounds of their own worries. Unspoken rules webbed them together, bonded them with carefully constructed pragmatism, their shared history wired underground, out of sight.
Lois glances briefly at a Hallmark display in the window of a party store—stuffed puppies, a dusty champagne glass. A photo cube sits on a cardboard school bus. Early family pictures on each side, grainy and faded, signal jokingly to her—nostalgia, heh-heh, don’t we all. ’ t But the past as a plastic box, Lois thinks, walking on, is perfect. Each side fl at around the corner from the next. You can never view them all at once. She fills one for herself: Closed door of the dining room where her father had bent over a typewriter, surrounded by stacks of books, an ashtray, dirty cups; her mother rounding the corner into the hall, talking to herself as she scooped Lois up off the floor, whispering “He won’t come out, honey. How the days are long, ha!”; her brother Sam curled up with a calculator behind the Laz-y Boy; the bare tree out front, a bed pillow caught in its dry branches—“Oh, a ripe pillow tree,” her mother had joked, annoyed. “It’s not my job, dammit.” She’d cursed the city for months before finally going out in her slippers one morning and yanking it free. “It’s dead anyway,” she’d said under her breath, shoving the dirty thing into the trash.
Lois’ father left when she and Sam were toddlers. A self-absorbed agoraphobe, his accomplished books on political economy contradicted the indulgence in personal isolation. It’s too simple to think I ’ s ’ m just like him, Lois thinks. She hears her mother’s rolling opinions, like large stones, wedged in every doorway—musings and defamations her mother mumbled aloud to herself, to the dash of the car, to the cold chicken she methodically skinned and stuffed on Friday nights. With so much significance jammed up all around, who has the wherewithal for parlance.
Lois turns down the alley behind the party
store. There’s something I ’ s ’ m missing. She
wonders if she’s ever met someone halfway.
Someone besides Sam.
In junior high there was Carmen, an olive-skinned, red-haired girl who turned to Lois one day in Social Studies and said, “What’s cookin’, good lookin’?’” Lois had peered at her through frizzy bangs and stared. Carmen smiled and turned back around. “I know something is,” she said over her shoulder. Lois knew Carmen was the only other kid in the class acing every test like she did.
“Yeah, you too!” Lois finally managed to blurt back. Carmen laughed and the next day they started writing notes.
Carmen wore flat Chinese shoes, striped socks and a green windbreaker. She was nearly as tall as Lois. Her hair was a dense bush of fat curls and her hooked nose and gold-brown eyes set her, in Lois’ mind, leaning against Ionic marble with sandals, blue robes and laurels, the whole bit. It was a synchronistic wonder the day Carmen showed up with a Maxfield Parrish picture duct-taped to the back of her PeeChee folder under “Led Zep Rules.” Impossible gold light rimmed the edges of deep blue water and pink rocks where girls stretched and napped at sundown. Yes, that’s where we belong, Lois blanked out momentarily—washing her feet while wind lifted her silk sash above mountain rock.
“Your head is humming and it won’t go because you don’t know …” Carmen sang along with “Stairway to Heaven,” tapping her small gray tape deck in the sun behind the gym. Lois hated changing into the nylon shorts and thick double-sided t-shirts and sat with Carmen, squinting and patting her hands along. “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold …” Carmen wrote poetry, read books and listened to music. Her mom was an Irish-Jewish beatnik, her father, a Puerto Rican independista who was, like Lois’ father, brilliant but absentee. At school, this made Carmen as weird as Lois, whose mother was a well-read social worker raising Lois and Sam alone. They bonded on the outskirts and sealed their fate in writing.
Carmen’s notes were fast and full. There would be a drawing with a joke, a question, or a poem. Scribble-eyed monsters dove into spirals. “We have to get out of here!” one would howl to the other. “Pirates will fish us from the grip of the old bitch in no time!” yelled the other. Lois wrote back. Filling a whole head with black ink, she drew a girl’s long stick body falling into the earth, pulled by the weight of cement leg warmers. Hands reached out for her on either side, grasping to help her back up, but her wire stick hairs fanned out like rays of the sun, ending in voice bubbles screaming: “Don’t believe a word they say!”
By thirteen, Lois began to peer out at the world through a tiny hole in her chest and the censor introduced itself: “I’ll take over now.” Decisive, exclusive, the disembodied psychic boss built a tall stone wall around her and commanded from within. Her mother was laid off, Sam’s anorexia began, and Lois relied now on the force and form provided by the new presence, its sword and discipline, drawbridge and gated towers. Don’t come in here. She spent hours staring out her window, trying to see through black shadows in the trees, sides of buildings, the places beyond reach of street lamps. Anywhere untouched by society would do, a pure blank space, unmarred by mankind, the government, the principal, her teachers, the counseling office, the girls at the end of the yard. All of them shitass.
Lois wrote notes to Carmen and then threw them away. She wrote in a diary, digging into the pink pages until whole sections were slashed through, the words FUCK IT hanging on scraps. She wanted to tell Carmen about the voice inside, but knelt instead on the floor of her room with the lights out, hoping to catch sight of it, the overbearing thing which spat yes or no. Lois stuffed 35 aspirins in her mouth and chugged the last of the grape juice. She tied her diary to her belly and waited. The next day at school she found Carmen and they lay with their heads under a bench at lunch, listening to Carmen’s radio. Lois didn’t tell her about the sick night.
A few months later, Lois cut her wrists, in the wrong direction, and walked across town to Carmen’s house. Her jacket sleeves were sticky, the tip of her nose cold as a rock.
Carmen looked pleased to see her.
“Goldie!” Carmen’s code name for Lois. She could tell something was up.
“Hi Red, can I come in?”
Carmen’s mom was smoking a joint on the living room couch. “Hi Lois, what’s cookin’, sugar?” She was an actress and substitute teacher with loose rules and four smart kids. The house smelled like the health food store. Lois loved Carmen, knew it in this moment. Lois loved almost no one outside her own family, and did not register love as a red balloon valentine in the heart but like her skin could come off and wrap around the person. She would stand peeled and bloody and not complain. Her emotions traveled through a trick course with swinging doors like a pinball maze. King, ding. Red lights. Some noise. Every now and then a shutdown, everything dark with no sounds.
Carmen took Lois into the back bedroom. She made it easily over the wall. “Sure I see it,” she said to Lois, smoothing Lois’ hair with her fingers. “The wall is always there and they can’t see it but we can. We’ll never let them in and we don’t ever have to go back out.”
“Yeah,” Lois sobbed heavily, her voice warbling with relief to hear Carmen’s good sense. Lois’ face was swollen from crying; her barrettes hung crooked and snagged. They sat for hours knee to knee on Carmen’s sunken bed, wrapped in homemade quilts, whispering about this complicated and mysterious situation just beyond their under standing. Carmen got it, the shitty chasm torturing Lois, threatening to swallow her into nothingness or leave her stranded forever separate from everyone else.
“Wanna smoke a roach? I got one from my mom’s ashtray.” Carmen opened her palm.
“Okay.” Lois felt stiff and woozy. “Do you have any Band-Aids?” Suddenly the idea of losing too much blood seemed vaguely foreboding.
“Um, I don’t think so.” Carmen’s bathroom
cabinet was stocked with Chinese
liniment, a jar of blue beads and a tube of
natural toothpaste. They tied socks around
Lois’ wrists and lay on the bed smoking the
resined paper. Lois fell asleep with images
of herself and Carmen as a hybrid mix of
Maxfield Parrish girls and the tow-headed
Houses of the Holy children pressing through
mortar and brick like ghosts.
Still buzzing from caffeine, Lois squeezes crushed M&M’s into her mouth from an old packet she finds in her jeans. The sugar rushes in, high, killing the sour taste of the laundromat coffee. She crosses an empty lot to the back of the bus depot, pushes in through the heavy doors. Cavernous and gloomy, the room reminds her of the basement swimming pool in an old brick community center where her mother swam laps alongside tiny, wrinkled ladies. High rectangular windows let in light but the walls of the depot are tall and shadows engulf whole corners of the room. A group of children crowds around the snack bar, a few travelers wait, read, check the clock. “Reservations,” “Information,” “Destinations”—black letters on green signboard organize the station. Lois scans the wooden benches for Conan’s head.
A woman stands over her open suitcase, chewing gum and re-folding her clothes, humming. Three kids slide noisily onto the bench near her, wet cherry mouths chewing on candy. The two boys double-team the girl, try to wrench a plastic wrapper from her hand.
“Noooo,” she whines.
“Hey, hey now.” The woman stops folding and steps in front of the kids, hands on her hips, her voice sharp in the musty air of the lobby, ringing against the green tiled walls. The kids look up at her all at once. They suck their cheeks, stop swinging their feet. She points with long red nails and gold rings, red-black hair swept up in a webby twist. Her eyes are rimmed black, her cheeks rouged, lips lined orange and fi lled with pink. It is hard to imagine her losing control.
“Girls always get what they want,” she says to the kids. “You’ll learn that when you get older. Girls always get what they want.” The kids look up at her, jittery, respectful. She turns back to her suitcase, picks up a blouse and says to Lois, who has been standing there staring, “I don’t know whose they are, but I don’t let mine run loose like that.”
Lois nods and watches as the woman’s hands move fast like a banker’s, folding each piece square with itself. Sam had taught Lois to fold hospital style, department store fresh but she never got the hang of it, didn’t care.
“I got three—a two, a five and a six,” the woman continues. “They mind me first, then my husband. When he came back from the Gulf I had to hold a re-orientation in my household. ‘That’s your daddy!’ He hardly said a word for three whole months. You learn to be thankful for what you’ve got. Last time I was here, a lady was dangling her kid by his ankles. I said ‘You know what? You shouldn’t play upside down games. It’s not good for his brain.’ She just ignored me. Fine, suit yourself. People don’t listen. She’s probably got a retarded kid now and that’s expensive. If you can avoid a hazard with lifelong effects, I’d say why the hell not try. Because there are other things come along where you have no choice whatsoever.”
“Yeah.” Lois watches the woman’s earrings, tiny gold unicorns that quiver from side to side. She glances around the station and then back. The woman turns to look at the wall clock above Lois’ head, and Lois notices a red and yellow crescent of bruise around her temple.
“I’m going to my sister’s, it’s her
birthday. She’ll kill me if I’m not on the
10 o’clock bus.”
Lois had wanted to be a lady like that. When she was nine years old she glued cutout pieces of paper onto her fingertips and ran them over her face. She wore wax lips, she stuffed her bra and her underpants and posed for her farmer doll. Anxious even as a child, Lois had worried she might get in a car wreck and die before she grew breasts. Would she know the feeling of her boobs pressing against another chest? She worried that by the time she was old enough to press against another, she’d have grown them and would never get to know what it felt like to be fl at against someone too. She took a kid into her closet one day after kindergarten and said let’s french. They pulled off their shirts, stood bare and fl at, chest to chest and Lois put her tongue in his mouth. The kid went for it, for about a minute, then pushed his way out, said he had to go. Lois realized she would also not grow up to be a man and so would never get to try the feeling of someone else’s boobs pressing against her hard boy chest. Time moved this way, slowly and methodically, portions of an afternoon smoothed fl at by mulling possibilities. Like the expansion of the universe beyond the solar system and then the galaxy. Lois followed each next thing out past the others until she got to a blank TV screen, static and buzzing. So far, this was where the universe ended.
Lois’ mother explained most things. She mixed fact with fiction, but always gave an answer. Geology, evolution, politics. She was forthright and to the point, sometimes blunting a discussion inadvertently with the force of her opinions. “The president is a pig, they’re all pigs.” She sat at the kitchen table after work with her feet up on a stack of phone books on a wicker stool, smoking a cigarette and drinking Olympia beer from the can. “It’s the water, ha!”
Lois never got why that was funny. On weekends sometimes they went to a museum. “These are just wonderful, marvelous!” her mother exclaimed in a whispery voice standing in front of the surrealist paintings. “It was a real breakthrough when these guys started messing with the still life.” Lois stared at boobs melting into clocks, hollow bodies merging with horses and tables. One link with the adult world, unbelievable, Lois had the sense that someone was onto something close to truth. Lois felt similarly great when doing a scarf dance to Barry Manilow. “At the Copa, Copacabana! Music and passion are always the fashion …” Her mom walked past from the shower, a towel turban wrapped around her head, paisley undies hanging low on her hips, “Oh, god, Barry Manilow. What a pig.” Lois pushed her door closed. This has nothing to do with pigs. This is about cold drinks, dancing by a pool and eating coconut ice cream.
Sam would hold his hands to his ears in the hallway, hunched over his books. He seemed to block out the sharp edges of his mother’s convictions, but pluck some piece of soft essence from the center of her wisdom. He brushed the pages of his dictionary with his fingertips, fluffing the edges—duck wing, free bird. Sam inverted the family’s hawkish intelligence, upending givens in language itself with made-up hybrid words of his own. “That’s not a word, Sam.” He tuned in and out. Lois felt she had no knobs for adjusting the incoming frequencies and picked up everything her mother said. Picked up most things, a crowding which would later make her seek emptiness on her own scalp, twiddling and plucking her hair until bald areas and scabs appeared. The three of them spoke rarely of the father who had been unable to leave the house or care for the babies once they were walking, who stayed locked in his room writing, until one day he packed up and ran.
Lois’ mother kept his pictures in an envelope next to the encyclopedias, black and white photos of a thin man slightly hunched in the shoulders, handsome in a white shirt and slacks, a thin brown beard accentuating the angles of his jaw and chin. She brought his books home as they were published and quietly put them on the shelves where Lois and Sam were free to browse. If they wanted to talk about him, she’d have it. They didn’t.
Lois had knocked lightly on her mother’s door one afternoon, after a letter had come with his publisher’s return address. Hearing no answer, she’d let herself in and saw her mother lying face down on the bed, crying. “Mom?”
“Get out!” She didn’t turn around, just threw a pillow to the floor and pounded the headboard with her fist.
Lois didn’t speak to her mother for two days, until she had come in and apologized to Lois, called Sam into the room and told them both matter-of-factly, that their father had just requested never to be contacted by them, ever. Apparently Sam had tried to send a note via the book company, desperate to understand the blank spots in his mind, the glaring, empty channels rubbed free of marks where there should have been maps for how to proceed. Skidding around on two wheels, Sam knew they would each eventually crash. Their mother rode them forward, half fueled by anger and resentment, half by love and a cool, unmistakable knowledge that her children were perfect, asymmetrical gems cut from deep inside the rotting earth.
“If you’re going to do it, do it right the first time,” her mother had said, when Lois laid the tool box down and set out to patch the hole in their kitchen floor. Mice came and went as they pleased and Lois’ mother insisted they fix most things themselves. Handing her a level and measuring tape, her mother said, “Men are eye-ballers. They rush through and screw things up. Shine ’em if they say you’re going too slow. You won’t be the one doing it twice, so long as you’re a stickler to begin with.” Lois was compelled by her mother’s confidence and invested in maintaining her respect. Lois carried on in the hard-nosed manner of her mother, alienating children at recess, trying repeatedly to apply a more subtle tone.
“You’re bossy!” kids would yell.
“No, I just mean if you rotate counterclockwise around the court, the four-square teams will line up evenly!” She thought of herself as helpful, a captain of sorts.
“Whatever, Lois, you’re out!”
As she matured, this tone, which resonated
inside her as earnest, enthusiastic,
integral, was often misinterpreted as spooky,
arrogant or derisive. The bright light Lois
felt swooping through her could apparently
hit the world like a laser. She learned to
scale everything down and coil inward.
Back out on the main street, cars pull in
and out of lots, Saturday shopping has begun.
Lois tries to imagine the re-insertion of
herself into a lifeworld with friends, a regular
job. War and a sweeping phenomenon of
political debauchery hang over everything
now and she wonders in particular about
the importance of rejoining a populace, is
there one, what’s left. Toil. But how to distinguish
some purpose, set apart as we are
from the animal kingdom or a rocketing
natural world. The cycling of certain questions
frustrates Lois, drives her into nervous
calculations and fatigue. Thousands of years
of asking, like people continue to doodle the shape of an eye, an old favorite across the
millennia. What powers do we have, anyhow?
Suddenly she thinks of the opening
scene of Norma Rae, the jumping spools and
dust-clotted shuttles of the textile factory.
Aw Norma Rae, that saggy little mouth.
Your jeans looked great in every scene. She
imagines Sam dressed as Sally Fields, in
tight bellbottoms leading the workers in
a march to city hall. The question of what
to do bleeds into the issue of with whom. I
don’t have anyone ’ t ’
s phone number. Can you see this Sam?
They had spent long nights loading numbers into the computer, Sam punching in words, codes, while Lois scribbled down the links meticulously as they appeared on the screen. Four years ago they had figured a way to filch money from the international credit accounts of corporate super stores.
Sam’s desk was cluttered with vitamins, supplements, books on herbal remedies. He barely made his rent each month, bussing dishes, cleaning floors, spending what he had on rare extractions and tinctures. Their mother had succumbed to breast cancer a few years earlier, the disease spreading rapidly throughout her body until she quietly OD’d herself on Seconal and Compazine one night. “This is just shit,” she’d said to Lois the day before. Sam and Lois moved into the same apartment building.
Lois cycled through a variety of jobs, carpet-laying, dog-walking, proofreading. Sam’s hyper-intelligence, combined with his excessive need for control, disabled him from succeeding in most fields he could have pursued—computer programming, financial analyzing, chemical engineering. Employment structures, with bosses, schedules, meetings, agendas, short-circuited Sam’s concentration and sent him into babbling furies. Menial labor allowed his mind respite and space but left him alone to find challenge. Calculating the body’s needs down to cellular minutiae satisfied him for stretches at a time. “The brain is directly connected to the intestines, toxicity fl oxes the works, makes literally shit for brains, no kidding,” he’d explain. “Flox” his word for fluctuating toxins fucking things up. He dropped effervescent green powder into a glass of triple filtered water and stirred.
As a child Sam suffered a debilitating
sweet tooth, a food compulsion which eventually
drove him—along with the realization
at age 14 that his father was a complete
asshole who’d broken his heart forever—to
all manner of eating disorders, and finally
circled him around to the controlled raw food
and water ordeal. Older than Lois by two
years, Sam had tried as a child to enlist her
as an accomplice in his first burglings, crimes
usually involving sweets of some kind. In order
to win her confidence, or her belief in the
power of pure cane, Sam once filled her cereal
bowl with white sugar, sprinkled some
corn flakes and milk on the pile, and made
her eat it. He wouldn’t let her up from the table
until it was gone. Of course, their mother
came downstairs after one tortured bite and
promptly noticed Lois with both small hands
flattened over her bowl. Sam watched to see
if she’d squeal. Lois believed Sam had access
to infinite, scrolling information, special
knowledge which pushed way past the
reaches of rote school lessons. She willfully
took the rap for pilfering two hundred times
the allotted single spoonful for cereal allowed
in their house. Lois wasn’t into sugar.
She wanted facts, words, answers, problems,
questions, scenarios, hypotheses, and, at a
young age, philosophical tricks and puzzles.
Sam had plenty, and Lois handled his sweet
tooth with bravado and cunning, keeping
him supplied with Caramel Torpedos, Nutty
Buddies, Power Dips and Chocolate Darlings
by any means she could.
When Lois considers companionship now she feels like she’s picking through dark mud. She wants to trust someone. She wishes her mother had taught her how. “Most people are stupid,” her mother often warned. ” Lois feels nauseous thinking of her mother’s loneliness. Angry at what she’s inherited. But “ I, ” there is none. “ Me ” is just one more padded vessel knocking around on top of the earth. Blinking with eyes. Gaping and ready to suckle. The rest is a game of chance.
Now and then Lois envisions taking a
shot at it. The woman at the bus station did.
“No, really, I adore you,” she imagines saying
out loud. The scene is unclear, but she
glimpses the shape of herself, on a screen in
the distance, glowing in chainmail cut down
the center with satin, mouthing words across
tall grass to another human being—You’re
great, I, I think you’re great.
In a park at the town’s center, a fountain sprays above a stone pool, the water sputtering in staggered patterns. Pigeons hobble and coo under benches, a man sleeps on one. Lois circles the fountain, mesmerized by the sound of the water’s splats, the sight of sky through the droplets, a sloppy, glinting shutter. The world is raucous to her, vaudevillian. Sam would have thought so too.
He had been bottling rainwater. “The pollutants from the air diminish after the third day of rain and water from southwesterly storms is more pure than any other,” read a note found on his desk. It had been raining for four days straight, an unusual downpour for that time of year. Sam was climbing up to the roof each night, collecting samples and monitoring them through his dime-store microscope. He’d taken to visiting the roof frequently since his mother’s death, and could be heard muttering and sometimes yelling to god, or to the neon bar sign, that his father should never be pardoned. “Take him off the list!” Guilt soaked through him, distracting him, pinching off the sharp points of his senses. Lois was working nights and sleeping all day.
Severely depressed, but clumsier still,
Sam slipped from wet shingles where his
plastic bottles were strung from the antenna
to the chimney, and fell five stories to
the pavement. Lois had stood in the hall of
the apartment building, mute and shaking,
until Jimmy the super walked up, his tinny
voice cracking through like an alarm. “Lois,
I’m real sorry.” When his hand touched her
arm, she felt herself split into gray parts spiraling
away from each other.
Lois reaches out, lets the fountain water hammer into her palm. All of a sudden, from somewhere behind the benches, a lady hollers and two cops run across the grass. “He’s over by the trees!” the woman shrieks from a car window. Lois spins, tries to locate the action.
“Raaaooooow! Raaaoooooww! RRRRRrrrrrrrr!” At the end of the park, a small naked figure jumps out from behind a tree, fl aps by then disappears behind another. Lois squints. Black curls fl ounce, a wisp of pale torso, tiny butt cheeks.
“Raaaaaooooowwwwww!” It howls again, arms outstretched.
“Conan!” Lois yells and waves, walks quickly in the direction of the trees. The cops swoop onto him. Conan is down and Lois can’t make out what’s happening. “Hey! Hold on!” She runs toward them. They have him up fast, haul him naked and wriggling to the squad car, drive off. Lois looks around. A man stands next to her now, the one who’d been asleep on the bench. His voice is like a metal shovel dragging over rock.
“Heh. Barry’s at it again. That boy loves to get nekkid! Ha haaa.”
“Barry? I thought his name was Conan,” Lois turns to the man, out of breath. She absentmindedly takes the stick of gum he’s holding out to her.
The man snaps the pack into his fist. “Barry’s been ‘Conan’ since he got out of the service. Let his hair grow out, started living in the park. Runs through the fountain howling like a wolf. They said he was a real sharp shooter too, top of his class. Man, he held it together for a good long while.” He coughs, wipes his mouth with a hanky and turns back toward the fountain.
“Aw Jesus.” Lois looks back in the direction of the trees. The two walk side by side.
“I’m Granger. You new in town?”
“Yeah.” She blows a small bubble out the side of her mouth and puts out her hand. “Lois. Lois Minkov.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Granger shakes her hand, nods. “Wanna play crazy eights?” A deck of cards juts from his shirt pocket, Lois makes out a pretty lady head, blond bouffant.
Pigeons scatter as they sit down on the bench. The sun has burned through the fog and warmed the wood. Lois loosens off her damp shoes and lets them dry in the heat.