Rob Roensch ~ Come to Me and I Will Give You Rest

In the Carl’s Jr. park­ing lot across the street, two teenage boys in hang­ing-open red Carl’s Jr. shirts were argu­ing with a square woman who was stand­ing in the dri­ve-through lane. Parked at the pick-up win­dow was a dingy white mini­van with a punched-out head­light. The woman stabbed a fin­ger into the air between her and the teenagers. One of the teenagers clutched his belt with a fist as if to keep his pants from falling down.

Then the mini­van lurched toward the woman and swerved, miss­ing her by a few feet. It cir­cled around, pas­sen­ger-side door flap­ping open.

That’s not good,” said Matt, think­ing, why did I say that out loud?

The three house­painters stand­ing next to him in the McDonald’s park­ing lot didn’t say any­thing, kept watch­ing.

The mini­van came toward her again, swerved away again. The woman screamed some­thing that start­ed with “You.” Then a man in bright orange sneak­ers was walk­ing toward them from the oth­er side of the park­ing lot. The mini­van jerked to a halt, fac­ing away.

It’s not right to stand here and watch, thought Matt. It’s not my busi­ness. He went to his car.

By the time he pulled onto the street, there were two cop cars in the Carl’s Jr. park­ing lot, lights whirling. The mini­van was gone. The two teenagers were sit­ting on the curb. The woman was lying on her back and the man in the bright orange sneak­ers was sit­ting next to her, his hand on her ankle, talk­ing up to the cops.

 

When Matt got to work Big Z was com­ing out of the main doors with the new bright-orange cart-get­ting vest on and Matt want­ed to tell the sto­ry right away but before he could Big Z. said, “Boss Lady’s look­ing for you.”

I’m not even that late,” Matt said. “What time d’you see her?”

I ain’t a clock,” said Big Z.

 

Ms. Brenda was sit­ting behind the desk in the shad­ow­less back office. The office wasn’t only Ms. Brenda’s–she was on the floor or behind Customer Service most of the time–but she had to do her share of the paper­work and sched­ul­ing some­where. She appar­ent­ly felt enough own­er­ship of the space to put a few things on the wall: a poster of soft-focus Jesus shak­ing a firefighter’s hand; a plas­tic, pewter-col­ored plaque stamped with swirly black words: “Come to Me and I Will Give you Rest.”

Matt wait­ed until he’d swiped in and clipped on his tag to say, “You want­ed to see me?”

Have a seat,” said Ms. Brenda. There was nowhere to sit. She was look­ing into the mon­i­tor. She was so much big­ger than the chair it looked like she was hov­er­ing. He want­ed to tell Ms. Brenda about the mini­van. Driving a car with a bro­ken head­light in the dark is like dri­ving with one eye closed.

I can explain,” said Matt.

Your girl­friend called look­ing for you,” said Brenda, still look­ing at the mon­i­tor.

Who?”

She said Julia.”

She said she was my girl­friend?” said Matt.

Why’s she call­ing the store?” said Brenda. “You got a phone.”

Sometimes it doesn’t get recep­tion in here,” said Matt. But he knew exact­ly why she called: to make sure he was at work and not some­where else.

Is that it?” said Matt.

You tell her you can’t talk unless you’re on break, okay?” said Ms. Brenda, look­ing at the mon­i­tor. “That’s what I told her, too. It’s rules.”

 

He was on 4 all morn­ing. Someone had final­ly fixed the sticky reg­is­ter draw­er. At 10:30 he told Ms. Brenda he’d already tak­en his fif­teen because he didn’t feel like mov­ing and didn’t want to have the excuse to call Julia. At 11 he got sent out on carts.

The sky was gray scram­bled eggs; the park­ing lot was crowd­ed for a week­day, and the cart returns were most­ly full. It would be a half-hour job.

Matt liked slam­ming the carts togeth­er and he liked feel­ing him­self in con­trol of the sub­tle shifts of pow­er and lever­age it took to push-guide each warped snake of carts back into the store.

He worked and thought about Kaitlyn-with-five-ear­rings from col­lege and he thought about Julia—it was her day off her job hostess­ing at Olive Garden, where they’d met and worked togeth­er before he’d been let go for com­ing in high. He did miss pok­ing his head out from the kitchen to spy on her at her stand, look­ing into the night for the next guest, neat and alert as a secret ser­vice agent. Usually she’d be just awake now, smok­ing a cig­a­rette in bed, on her phone, tex­ting him she was awake. His phone was qui­et. She’d been unhap­py recent­ly, didn’t want to talk about it, same as last year around this time: nine years ago she’d had a baby, a girl, and gave her up. She’d said she’d been too young; he’d been thir­teen years old, still obsessed with base­ball cards. He thought about the white mini­van, the woman lying on her back in the Carl’s Jr. park­ing lot, the man in the bright orange sneak­ers. He watched traf­fic going toward the mall and he watched a few seag­ulls trac­ing great cir­cles far above the park­ing lot. This all means some­thing, he thought. There’s some­thing I have to do.

 

After work he went to Julia’s place at Brook Run Townhomes and Apartments across the street from University Place Apartments, where he’d Natty Ice’d his way out of col­lege junior year. The park­ing spot in front was emp­ty for him as it usu­al­ly was and there was Julia at the bot­tom of their stairs still in the black tank top and paja­ma pants she’d slept in the pre­vi­ous night, strug­gling to drag up an awk­ward box almost as tall as she was.

What the hell’re you doing?” he said, dash­ing for­ward to hold up the bot­tom end. He got it just as she let it go.

It was next to the dump­ster,” she said, breath­ing hard. “Fucking col­lege kids would rather just throw it out than do some­thing use­ful with it.” He tilt­ed the box to see its face: a book­case, flat-packed, unopened.

How’d you know it was col­lege kids?” he said. She’s not talk­ing about you, he thought.

Come on,” she said.

You don’t even have any books.”

That’s not the point,” she said.

It looks new,” he said, to say some­thing. He crouched, gripped the box by jam­ming his fin­gers under the plas­tic straps that held it togeth­er. He couldn’t lift it at first; it was heav­ier than he’d imag­ined, bet­ter qual­i­ty than the ones he some­times had to load into people’s cars at work. He couldn’t say to Julia it was too heavy so he crouched a bit and took a breath and hurked it, step by step, up onto the land­ing.

I got this,” he said.

You’re total­ly sure?” said Julia. He didn’t let him­self hear her gen­tly mak­ing fun of him.

Yeah,” he said, crouch­ing again and bearhug­ging the thing, lift­ing it up in one grunt, car­ry­ing it through the door she held open for him.

 

Matt leaned the box on the wall next to the TV. Julia went right into the bath­room, turned on the show­er.

Matt pulled up the rum­pled Patriots blan­ket from the couch and tossed it on the chair and sat down and turned on the TV. He thought about when he unbut­toned Kaitlyn-from-college’s shirt in the red light of the num­bers of his clock radio. He thought about the mini­van out of con­trol in that park­ing lot, like there was no one behind the wheel. He tried to imag­ine how heavy an infant was.

Julia came out from the bath­room then, green ter­rycloth robe, hair wet. She looked younger after show­ers. She always wore stiff white shirts to work. She sat down on the couch, pulled her knees up, set­tled in next to him. He laid a hand on her warm bare knee.

I’m hun­gry,” she said.

There still that piz­za in the fridge?” he said.

She didn’t say any­thing.

There was some­thing he had to say.

You want to hear some­thing?” he said.

Make it good,” she said.

What’s that sup­posed to mean?” he said.

Nothing,” she said.

Okay,” said Matt. He thought about what to say next. “This was back in high school.”

Yeah,” she said.

There’s a par­ty out at someone’s cousin’s house, on the lake. And we’re drink­ing, you know, but that’s not the impor­tant part. I end up dri­ving back home by myself, around mid­night or what­ev­er. And I’m real­ly con­cen­trat­ing on the yel­low lines. Not that I’m too drunk to dri­ve. I prob­a­bly am, I guess. But I’m doing okay. I’m real­ly con­cen­trat­ing. That’s why I don’t react right. I’m on this long hill, going up. It’s a two-lane road. The speed lim­it is 50. And I’m con­cen­trat­ing on the yel­low lines. That’s why I don’t see. I see it, but I don’t see it. There’s two sets of head­lights com­ing at me. There’s a car in the reg­u­lar lane, and an 18-wheel­er or what­ev­er in their pass­ing lane, my lane, head­ing right at me. It doesn’t make sense. When I do see it, real­ly see it, they’re almost on top of me. And I freeze. I don’t even hit the brakes. It’s the 18-wheeler—this idiot in try­ing to pass on a hill in the mid­dle of the night—he goes around me, on my right, just like that, and keeps going. I don’t even slow down. I dri­ve home. I should be dead right now.”

What are you try­ing to say?” said Julia.

What I said,” he said. “The sto­ry. That’s what I’m try­ing to say.”

 

After Julia went to bed, he watched TV for a while. When the talk­ing-lizard-on-a-cruise com­mer­cial came on for the third time, Matt flicked the TV off and lis­tened to the no noise.

He stood and tipped the book­case box up from the wall and laid it, care­ful­ly, on the car­pet. He used a kitchen knife to saw through the plas­tic straps and thick tape. The box opened like a giant book—inside, a plas­tic bag of screws and bolts, stacked slabs of pale stained wood pro­tect­ed from each oth­er by sheets of gray tis­sue paper. He slipped out and unfold­ed the direc­tions. I have to put this togeth­er now, he thought. Tomorrow it will be too late.

~

Rob Roensch’s col­lec­tion of sto­ries, The Wildflowers of Baltimore, was pub­lished by Salt. He has recent work out in Epoch, BULL and Green Mountains Review.