She likes walking home on these kinds of days. The sky is a flat gray threatening rain or snow or a combination of both. Anything is possible in November in western New York. All the kiddies have broken out their J Crew sweaters and are probably tucked warm in their dorm rooms or are gossiping over flavored coffees (featured flavor Pumpkin Spice!) in the Commons.
This is what you get for being a townie, she thinks. You get to walk on the street edged in mud because the car’s in the shop again. The kiddies speed by in their parents’ discarded Volvos and Jaguars. They don’t honk their horns or hoot at her. In fact, they don’t even notice her until they’re practically on top of her. What’s someone doing walking on the road? They swerve dangerously close to her on the curves. To them she is invisible.
She works in the University store on campus. She got the job the summer after she graduated from high school. It seemed pretty cool at the time although she had sworn to herself that she would never work at the University. She knew too many women in housekeeping, too many men in maintenance. Her aunt worked housekeeping. In May, after everyone left, she would bring home the treats that were left behind. She’s brought back unopened cans of soup and condensed milk. There were half-full containers of laundry detergent and brand new bottles of expensive shampoos. Sometimes there were
clothes and jewelry too. Her aunt pressed them into her hands—silky sweaters, loose charms from bracelets, spray perfumes from Macy’s, tortoiseshell hair combs and barrettes.
“Take it, Sarah,” her aunt urged. “These girls don’t miss anything.”
So, she took it all without a word. She folded the sweaters carefully in her bottom drawer. She sprayed the perfumes in between her breasts before a date. In winter, she used the barrettes to keep the hair out of her eyes.
She doesn’t feel badly about using these items, never worries that they might be recognized. Her aunt is right; these girls don’t miss anything. They don’t even know it’s gone.
Her own job involves supervising the student workers in the store. She’s good at it. According to her last evaluation, she is professional, hard-working, and a “quick-thinker.” She tolerates the students she works with because they are mostly scholarship kids. Many of them grew up in neighboring towns and can only attend this University if they work. They live on Ramen noodles and tap water and their shirts are stiff and rough from being hand-washed in the sink.
Along this stretch of road there are the bars that the undergraduates try to sneak into with their fake IDs. In the spring, when everything starts to melt, she will be able to go into a store and buy her own beer. She won’t need Lucy Carson’s brother anymore.
“Same as always?” he asks and brushes her palm with his sweaty fingers.
It’s something to look forward to.
When she gets home her house is chilly and quiet. She slips off her shoes and checks the radiator. Her dad’s still at work and her mother’s probably on a run, she thinks. She runs a pick-up towing business and the living room is buzzing with the staticy police report of a car wreck. Her mother is a big woman; tall and naturally strong, her muscles now verging on fatty. Still, she’s someone you’d want around in a car accident, whether it was to get your car out of a ditch or to help temporarily set a broken bone. She wears purple or blue sweat suits and wields the eye shadow with a heavy hand. Thursday nights she meets with her girlfriends on State Street. They play Hearts and drink cheap beer. Sometimes they get silly and make candy-colored mixed drinks for each other with little umbrellas.
Her sister is twenty-three and lives with her husband four houses down. She’s seven months pregnant with her first child.
Her dad is an assistant manager at Ames department store. He wears a smiley face tie on Fridays. Despite the separate orbits they seem to operate in, her parents have a good marriage. They screw with surprising frequency and mutual enjoyment. Sometimes she hears them through the thin walls and she pounds her fists on the metal edge of her bed in time to their noises.
“Enough,” she’ll finally shout. “I’ve got fucking work tomorrow!”
Because of the job, she is allowed to take six credits a semester. It’s a liberal arts University so she takes courses like Philosophy, Accounting, and Environmental Science. She has no real plans, just some vague notion of a degree.
This semester it’s English Comp and Spanish. They’re both night classes because she works during the day. She likes night classes. There are more people like herself. She sits next to the other townies and asks them questions about where they live and what kind of work they do. They’re suspicious at first and watch her out of the corners of their eyes. They confuse her with the lazy undergraduates who’d rather sleep during the day than bother with classes. But she mentions her mom’s name or she tells them that she grew-up on Fourth Street. Then they warm-up to her.
Sometimes a few of them will gather in the bars outside of town to shoot pool and drink. And sometimes during a slow dance, a wayward hand will creep from the small of her back to her ass. And sometimes with a sort of tired, tipsy permission she says nothing and simply allows the hand to rest there, tucked into the back pocket of her jeans.
Last week, Professor Mott marked See me on her paper. It was her persuasive paper. He teaches English Comp in a world-weary kind of way. She happens to know that he is all of twenty-eight.
Fuck, she thinks looking at his looping handwriting. She’s a pretty good student. His two little words enflame a rage somewhere deep in her belly. She tosses in bed that night, sleeping badly and dreaming of murder.
When she goes to see him late the next afternoon, he’s hunched over his desk. She takes off her wool cap and tries to fluff out her mashed-down hair. He has a lamp on his desk that gives the tiny room a warm, intimate glow. Sleet batters the window above his desk.
She knocks on his door and hates the timidity in her knock. He looks up and smiles at her. He has his hair done just so. It’s slightly tousled and shaggy in an appealing way. Gel or mousse is probably involved, she thinks. She knows he’s published a book of poetry and had his short stories appear in big magazines. He’s here working on a novel. She can tell that’s what he’d rather be doing—off in his apartment writing. The smell of coffee brewing in the background, heavy woolen socks on his feet.
She wonders how the cold will get to him. He grew up in Arizona. Western New York winters will strip him bare. Instead of gaining a few pounds like everyone else who’s hunkered down to wait out the cold, she can see he’s lost weight. She stares at his chapped lips and thinks about frostbite. He probably wouldn’t even recognize the warning signs. She imagines him teaching class with black-tipped fingers, the tip of his nose missing.
“Please sit down,” he tells her.
He finds one of her first papers and pulls it out. “Sarah Jemsen,” he says slowly. And the words, her name, are rich and foreign in his mouth.
She shifts slightly in her chair. Her boots are starting to drip dirty water, a combination of mud, snow, and rock salt, onto the floor.
He skims through the paper. “You are very talented,” he says and looks at her.
And she’s caught between two things. Suspended over this abyss of what to do. That old rage still swirls in her stomach. How dare he? Who does he think he is? The scarf thrown around his neck in a dashing way, the little pucker to his mouth. She wants to take him apart with her fingers. But now she wants something else too.
Balls, she thinks and leans over and kisses him, watching it from far away. She tastes the honey from the green tea he’s drinking. She imagines the little stone houses of the southwest and cactus plants. She imagines she tastes the grit of sun-warmed sands. It’s a place foreign to her. It’s right here in this country but as accessible to her as if it were on another continent.
She makes him lower the heat in his car. She’s being burned alive. The inside of the car smells of warm bare skin and heated leather seats. There are papers scattered on the back seat.
“Is this how you treat our work?” she teases and waves an essay under his nose.
They’re out by the old stone quarry and the stars are tiny bright holes in the sky. She knows if she steps out of the car, the cold will hit her like a physical thing. But there’s no need to leave the confines of the car. She presses her knees up against her chest and wriggles her toes on his torso. He’s naked and the moon gives him a hard blue sheen. She puts her hand on her belly and feels the faint marks from where his teeth nipped and grazed her skin.
The last time was in Billy Nash’s pick-up; her jeans tangled around her ankles and Billy suddenly shy about his dick, his hand shielding it from her eyes. They went out to Primavera, the only decent Italian restaurant in the county. They both ate like they had been starving, warming their hands over the candle on the table. The waitress filled their breadbasket three times. Afterwards, he drove her home, his gun rack banging in the back.
“It’s only November,” she tells him.
“So?” he says wrapping a strand of her hair around his forefinger.
“So, there’s a lot of winter left.”
“A lot?” He says in a resigned voice.
He came in May last year. It can still be pretty cold in May. One year there were flurries on graduation day. The snow’s usually over by May, though.
Five solid months, she thinks. Five months of getting to hide her body under layers of clothing. Her big ugly boots, the laces crusty with ice left by the door in the mudroom. She gets to watch him in class for only a little while longer.
“You’d think I’d be used to it by now,” she says and reaches around to hook her bra.
Her body is a mini-furnace, though. Under the blankets, during those long winter months, her past boyfriends scooted towards her nakedness. They shivered in their sleep, their drafty windows leaking icy air. They shivered until they came in contact with her skin and woke flushed and sweaty in the morning. They teased her about eating more. They liked her a little fatter, fleshier so that there would be more of her to warm them on those long, long nights.
She suddenly wonders if he knows how to handle himself if his car hits a patch of ice and starts to skid. Do they teach that to them in Arizona?
“ How old where you when you learned to drive?”
He drums his fingers on the dashboard, gives her breasts a sidelong glance. “I was a city kid. I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty.”
Does he know about the different kinds of snow? The heavy, packed snow? Wet snow? Dry snow? These back country roads don’t get plowed that often.
This car, she thinks. It’s light. It’s nothing. He chose it for its color and flashy shape and funny commercial. A bitter taste floods her mouth. He could get hurt or killed in this goddamed car. In January he could end up buried in some embankment and even if he didn’t die he still might be spooked enough to want to leave when the spring came. He’d leave and go to New York City or someplace and she wouldn’t take another goddamn writing class ever again.
He’s kissing her now, light touches down her neck. She avoids his mouth. She doesn’t want him to taste her bitterness.
“What?” he whispers. “What?”
“Let’s go,” she says.
“You have an old soul,” her mother told her once during her Tarot card and séance faze. “Like you’ve seen everything before and it all pretty much pissed you off.”
“Pretty much,” she answered.
They can be discovered out here. A lot of the kiddies come here to make-out. She doesn’t understand why when they have their own warm dorm rooms. Some of the more progressive ones do it because they know the townies do it and they want to be real. The same way they want to get to know her.
She wants to see if he’ll survive the winter. Oh, he’ll survive it physically, but she wants to see what he does when the sun doesn’t show itself for thirty-two days. That happened last winter, she recorded it in her old blue notebook. She wants to see what he’ll do once the snow flakes stop being pretty and the sight of them kick starts a deep grief in the pit of your belly. Deep in winter in western New York, snow gives you the feeling that somehow you’ve been forgotten. This is when she will take in his measure. She wants to see how he emerges in April, blinking in the weak light and the tentative greens springing up around him.
She warms up herself in the summer. She wears short skirts to show off her good legs. She’s been known to smile and make half-hearted small talk with some of the kiddies in the store and class. It’s just the Winter, she wants to explain to some of the nicer ones. I’m not always like that.
Last spring she sat on the porch swing with her mother and talked about her sister and her husband. This Spring there will be an infant with them. She will help her father tend the vegetable garden. She will go for long walks along the river and come back feeling better, a little more at peace.
But right now she wants to be home in her own bed. She wants to close the door and call her sister. She’ll tell her everything but she won’t say that she could be his heat source, dragging him through the worst of this winter by her own teeth. I’m a townie, she thinks suddenly. And that counts for something.
He dresses and drives her slowly back to her house. The snow begins when they start up the hill and she watches his jaw tense. Before she steps out, she takes his face in her hands and wants to say something so badly but can’t. Some advice on driving in bad weather. This is how you attach the chains to your tires. This is what you do when your car hits a patch of ice. You have to turn into the skid and not slam on the brakes no matter how scared you are. And as your car is spinning, you have to stay suspended in that uncertainty. Just stay that way, breathless before any number of outcomes awaiting you.
Marylou Fusco has lived in Philadelphia for eight years. She has won the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference and Philadelphia City Paper’s short fiction contests and has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. A nonfiction piece about bread is forthcoming in the literary journal, Many Mountains Moving.