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.
“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.