I’d just wrapped up the last session when this lady walks over, looking agitated.
Yes. Agitated. Do I have to repeat everything? So this lady says, “You got time to come with me? I need your help.”
I had nothing to do. Third day of a three-day workshop, plane didn’t leave until eleven this morning, so I thought, “What the hell?” She looked tolerable, you know? Right on the fine line between trim and worn-out.
I’d spent the weekend making an auditorium of fat people believe chicken-fried steaks taste like cigarette ash. Next weekend—Memphis—I’m supposed to make a couple hundred smokers—at $175 a head—associate cigarettes with pig blubber. Or something. I haven’t made up my mind yet. So, yeah, you could say I had no plans for the evening. I followed her in my rental.
Your downtown’s like every other; the glamor wears off real fast. In half-a-mile we were passing pawn shops and boarded-up windows. Her place was a real shithole. But you’ve just been there, right? Two rooms over a taqueria, two, maybe three car lots across the street.
She looked ashamed. You could tell, the way she went up the stairs, she wondered whether she was making a mistake. It was hot in the apartment, even with the windows open.
You said the windows were open?
Yep. Even so, I smelled the piss from the door. A kid lay bunched up on a bed in the living room, back to the door and knees to the wall. Skinnier than her mom. Bald. Hooked up to an IV. Maybe the TV was broken. Why else would the kid stare at nothing? Just one other door. Had to be the bathroom. I guessed the lady slept in the recliner. It looked scratchy as hell.
“Can you make her think she’s someplace beautiful?” She leans into me, whispering. The kid didn’t seem to be paying attention, but the lady still turned away from the bed before touching her own head here. And here. Her chest too.
“Cancer?” I whisper.
She hushes me. The girl rolls over, whimpering. She looks at us like a deer hit by a car, trying to make it back to the woods.
“Wait outside,” I tell the lady. She inches the door shut. After the stairs finish creaking, I check the window. She’s standing on the sidewalk, hands in her pockets, swaying.
I go over to the kid. “Look at me.”
She focuses on my eyes, gets relaxed, stretches out on her pukey sheets. I start making suggestions.
Making suggestions to a twelve-year old girl?
You’re outta line, buddy. She was a hypnotherapy natural. Pupils dilate and contract: lids close on cue. I tell her to think about pink carpet, flowered wallpaper, stuffed animals big enough to hold her in their laps. I don’t know what kids her age like so I just throw in any damn thing I think of. It has to be better than what she’d been putting up with.
She smiles. I figure she likes what I’m saying. After I get the room fixed up, I go the extra mile—sometimes a guy gets tired of half-assing it, you know? “There ain’t gonna be any more pain,” I say. “Sleep easy.”
When we was all wrapped up, I hoot out the window and the mom comes back. You gotta understand, the girl was still smiling, resting quiet. The mom touches my arm, she goes over to the bed walking all soft. She kisses her kid on the forehead. Then she stiffens up, she drops her head on the kid’s chest, she looks up at me squealing, “What the hell did you do?”
“Look at me,” I say. “Look at me. In my eyes.”
She stares. Her butt’s hanging off the bed and she won’t let go the girl’s hand, but she’s a natural too. I see where the kid got it.
“It’s beautiful here.” I explain about the new stove and the pantry full of food, about the two new beds and the air conditioner. “She’s been asking for a burger,” I say. “Maybe a cold coke to wash it down?”
So she goes over to their crap kitchen, just one of those gas two-burners and a beat-up fridge, and she starts fixing a burger, enjoying the hell out of those granite countertops and built-in grill. I don’t know when I’ve been more proud of myself. She hums as she gets things out of the refrigerator, swinging those double doors wide open; she’s moving like a dancer over the chipped linoleum. While the meat’s frying, she walks—no—that woman glides into the living room and leans over. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
I knew what she was doing. I told her there were roses on the dining room table.
I left while she had her eyes closed. I locked the door from the inside.
Yeah. Absolutely. I turned the little thing in the knob. Counterclockwise. I tried not to creak the stairs as I left. When I got across the street, I looked up. I thought, from the way the lady was holding her hands, she must be carrying the girl’s tray. She was smiling.
And that was the last time you saw Molly Birk and her daughter?
Look at me.
In my eyes.
I tell you, she was alive when I left.
Katherine West is the bemused possessor of an English degree from Oklahoma City University and a well-worn hard hat. The degree launched her into a career welding and inspecting railroad cars; the inevitable wear & tear sent her back to her desk in Norman, OK where she is completing a novel about Rumpelstiltskin and the fallout of greed. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Drabblecast, and The Fish Anthology (Ireland) as an honorable mention for their International Short Story prize. Her website is katherineannewest.com.