Astray

by Kezia Wineberg

For Made Up Words

If Jude gave it any thought at all, he gave it plenty more than it deserved. The situation was of no real consequence; she would get over the slight by the end of the month, and May would roll into June with the sound of her footfall soft against the tile floor of his kitchen. Everything copasetic. In its place and as it should be.

He cracked a beer and stared hard at its label: Tecate in bold black letters, below what appeared to be a Mayan-inspired eagle. It was not his, this less-than-bold “American style” lager — he did not know at what point it had appeared in his fridge, behind the wilting lettuce and opened tofu packages. His girl, Mariella (Mari only to him), turned up her nose at all things alcoholic, with the exception of vegan egg nog on holidays. She was a strange bird. Half atheist, part Jewish, and fully unhinged in her most passionate moments. It was not love, necessarily, but more a twisting, visceral need followed by what he could only call apathy. Rinse and repeat. She would be back.

After the third or fourth sip he thought better and dropped the whole can in the trash. It would leak, but then something was always leaking. He needed to get better bags, stronger and thicker, ones that could handle the occasional full beer or cracked chicken bone. He scribbled it down on a Post-It note pad kept near the knife block and stuck the yellow square on the freezer door. There was a collection.

May was exam season, at least for her, and he tried his best to keep up with the times she was free, but really it was next to impossible. So he nodded reflexively when she spoke of each upcoming week, let his eyes play over the dip of her neckline, and relied on her sporadic sexual needs to dictate the nights they shared. It worked for the most part. She may have thought Jude was overly forgetful, but not inattentive. Never that.

“Got a light,” she’d say when he opened the door, then walk past him and drop her bag next to the couch. A statement rather than a question, made around the thin line of a Virginia Slim tucked between rouged lips. Pretty mouth. He’d not known they still made Slims until he met her four months previous, a girl in too big jeans smoking cig after cig in an alley, the butts piled up on the pavement in a semi-halo where she sat against the brick wall. In his apartment she’d wait while he rooted around in the coin bowl for a lighter, picking through packets of rolling papers and gum wrappers. There was very little actual change, just odds and ends that never found their purpose. Story of his life.

But Mari didn’t come around. Didn’t call. His unanswered texts and voicemails piled up invisibly out in the ether until pride prevented him from further debasement. He even looked up Tulane’s academic calendar online to see if she was in the middle of finals, but they had finished over a week ago. School was out and seniors were graduating. Was she? He couldn’t remember. It was a strange amnesia, he realized. There was no memory trace for the classes she took or even what year she was in, but he knew exactly where she adjusted the driver’s seat of his car to suit her smaller frame. Her voice rang in his ears when he was alone, and he often woke from sleep with the sensation of her hair on his chest. Ghost-hair girl. Written short-hand in memory.

The last days of May dragged heavily without her. In clichéd fashion, he started staying out later at the bar, long after his shift was over, drinking club soda and bitters as his co-workers bitched about the Saints or the Tigers or some other team he cared nothing about. Fries were passed around.

“You with us tonight?” asked Lou, who worked the other end of the bar three nights a week. His graying hair hung over his eyes, though nothing else in his appearance placed him within a decade of his true age.

Jude held up his glass.

“That ain’t liquor, man. What you drinkin’?” He raised four bottles, their contents flashing with reflected light as they settled. Face a question mark.

“I’m good. Just detoxing.” That was a lie. He hadn’t drunk since the Tecate went down the sink almost three weeks ago. Couldn’t stomach it, like booze had suddenly become poison. Was it possible to hex someone into alcohol intolerance, he wondered? Mari’s grey eyes hovered in his vision. They had this way of piercing in past his comfort, of constricting his throat where it met his chest. He felt it now, in her absence somehow more painful.

Lou was staring at him, a bar rag under one hand as he leaned against the counter. Displeasure written in the hard line of his chin.

“You ask me something?” He must have drifted. That was new as well.

“Boss gets a pallet in next week. But I’m figuring you’re not interested.”

“I’m interested,” Jude said, too fast. The other man raised an eyebrow in response; he countered by sitting up straighter on his bar stool. This shit was getting beyond his pay grade.

“Oh yeah?” Lou was now standing right in front of him, sizing him up. Calculating. “Even cut like last time. Five ways.”

The underside of Jude’s skin did a dance. He was suddenly awake. Say no, a voice said inside. Say no. “Even cut.” His voice came out gruff. He stuck out his hand; Lou shook it.

“Good then. Deal.”

He sat watching the growing chaos of his thoughts while Lou went back to cleaning the taps. It was then that Mari called.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey.” His heartbeat began ramping up again. Lou glanced over, silent. “You disappear for a month and that’s all I get? Hey?” Blood pulsed to his face, his breathing erratic.

“What? I had exams.” Defensive. Irritated. Childish. All things he hated. He didn’t know where to begin. What a piece of work.

“Where did that Tecate come from?”

“Tecate?”

“The one in the fridge. My fridge.”

“I don’t know.” There was a rustling on the other end. He couldn’t identify the sound; it only made him more annoyed.

“Are you sure? Because I don’t drink that Mexican shite, and I know you don’t either. But no one else has been around. So tell me.”

“I told you — I have no idea. You sure one of your friends didn’t leave it?”

“Positive.”

“Well, it’s a right mystery, then, isn’t it?” Her voice faded into a cough, a dry rasping not unlike his grandmother’s speaking voice. What she had left of it.

“You been sick?”

She sighed. “Yeah… I guess. Probably just stress.” She sounded aged, tired.

“We can talk later if you want,” he said, softer now. “You should rest up. Hey, you want me to bring you something? Some soup, or…” What else was good? It had been so long since he had been sick. “Kimchi? Pho?”

She laughed, “Wow, you’ve gone all Asian on me.”

“Just trying to help.”

“I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.” And she clicked off. Jude sat there with the phone still pressed tight. When he finally brought it down, his ear burned with the heat. Microwave buildup. Cancer looming. In other moments, thinking about the inevitability of brain tumors brought him close to panic, but he was too distracted now. Something was going on. Abruptly, he pushed the stool back and exited into the damp New Orleans night. Shelly would know; she always knew.

“C’mon, Shelly, this is my time of need,” he moaned through the gate. It was wrought-iron, and decorated with the beads and ribbons of Mardi Gras past. No different from hundreds in the quarter, except for the tiny wings that adorned the tops of the two main posts. As far as he could tell, they were not real, but only painted to look so. He had never gotten close enough to check; height had not been one of the gifts of his birth.

“I told you, not until you repent,” came her sharp voice from a place he could not see. There was a whole garden in there, with fountains and stone nymphs, strange-smelling flowers and trees that rose above the roof. Jude had not been inside, but felt the lushness it contained throughout his whole body. It was weirdly intoxicating to stand in this place, clutching the bars and breathing in the heavy perfumed air. There was a gravitational draw, a pull that triggered some distant flag in his consciousness, yet remained elusive.

“Repent? I’ll repent.”

“No you won’t.” The tone of authority. Ageless and potent.

“Why won’t you help?” His voice sounded whining even to him. That of a child to a scolding mother.

“You know the conditions.”

“Right. I can’t truly repent if I don’t believe. But you’ve done this for me before, and you knew I was just saying the words. I don’t mean any disrespect, but there are some inconsistencies in your logic.”

“It’s not logic,” she hissed. “It’s the way things are.” He still could not see her face in the darkness. Though the moon shone bright behind him, a forest of magnolia and palm trees obscured its rays, creating a perfect cavern into which light simply disappeared.

Jude changed tactics. “We’ve got a shipment coming in. I know you occasionally dabble. Any interest?”

“You audacious young man!”

“Really? ’Cause I can hook you up.”

“Get away from my gate.” A low growl began from near where he guessed her to be, and grew louder as the acid rose in Jude’s throat. Dog or human, he could not tell. He stood his ground.

“I’ll just drop you off some Thursday, yeah? A kilo? Two?”

Couillon.” Fool. “She is seeing someone. But not a lover. Now leave.”

Jude was caught off guard. “What? You mean Mari?” He strained against the metal, the corners of the bars digging into his flesh. No sound from inside. “Shelly? Shelly?” Nothing. He let a minute go by, two. “Are you there?” He suddenly felt childish again. What a waste.

On Monday evening things came to a head. He was just hanging up his underwear to dry on a new wire rack, which he was quite proud of, when Mari let herself in with the spare key. Her cold hands on his kidneys caused a chain reaction that nearly brought down the whole arrangement, himself included.

“Christ, you scared me,” he said. “Don’t do that.”

“Sorry; I thought you heard me.” From behind, her thin arms reached around his furred belly as she buried her face in his shoulder. She was shorter than Jude by at least an inch, a prerequisite for dating. Or fucking. Or whatever they were doing. Had been doing.

“Well, I didn’t.” He was annoyed, fidgety. He took her hands from his body and used them to guide her to the side of the bathroom near the towel hooks as he straightened out the laundry. Everything had been freshly cleaned and smelled of orange — the shower, tub, sink, and floor. Even the walls. He had scrubbed them last night at 4am, feverish and insomniac.

“Wanna make some dinner?” she asked. It was 9pm.

“Are you serious?”

“What?” Her face innocent, clueless. Maybe he should date women his own age; this was too tiresome.

“I can’t. I have to go do something.” Jude went into the living room and began scrounging around the couch cushions. “Anyway, I had tacos earlier. I’m good.” The matchbook had to be somewhere; he didn’t want to have to call Lou for the address. That would be embarrassing.

Mari sat down on the edge of the coffee table. “The Tecate was from a client of mine. I hadn’t known he had left it. Sorry.”

“What?” He stood up.

“It’s this client. Nice guy. Gym teacher at Lusher.” It was a charter school in Uptown, not far from campus.

“When you say client, you mean…?”

“Tarot. Readings. You know. C’mon; I’ve given you a reading before.”

“No you haven’t.”

“I haven’t? Oh.” She was still pretty when she frowned. A little upper-class pout framed in black hair and a hoodie.

He still couldn’t find the matches. “So you charge for this?”

“Yeah. Only twenty or thirty. Sliding-scale.” She smiled. Proud of herself.

“And you were working out of my house?”

“Only when you’re not here.”

“Wait…” He’d noticed things in his apartment being slightly out of place over the past few weeks, but had just written it off to distraction. She’d been there the whole time. Absent only in his presence.

“Hey, if it bothers you, I’ll stop. I get it. It’s just… I don’t have another place that’s convenient.” She was looking up at him now. He felt like her virginal face was miles below, distant with the taste of years long gone.

The matches appeared on a bookshelf behind her. He went and got them, flipped the cover. ‘6123 Saint Claude — back door’. Lower Ninth. Not his favorite area, but not as bad as the papers made it out to be. It was coming up since the hipsters started moving in after Katrina. Cheap real estate and all. He should have got in when he could.

“Look,” he said. “I’ve got to go. Just lock the door when you leave.”

She grabbed his hand. “I can stay,” she said. He shook it off.

“I won’t be back till late. Not sure when. Sleep on the couch if you like.” It was strange saying those words, but he didn’t know quite where he stood. The old woman had said Mari was seeing someone; what did that mean? Not a lover. But if not, if Shelly had meant the client, why was it worth mentioning? He checked his watch. He really didn’t have time for this.

As he walked out, she was still sitting on the low table, seeming sunk into herself, her back to him. He closed the door gently.

Lou and the other men were already on site, pumped up but silent. Ready. The pallet had been dropped off through an alleyway access; Jude had no idea how a truck big enough had made it in and out of there without attracting attention. In this city, though, nothing was as it should be. Within ten minutes the team of five had stripped the shipment of its plastic wrap and bindings, and were packing crates into their respective vehicles. All without a word. Clockwork. Like the heist movies he used to watch as a kid. Only something always went wrong in those films, despite the best efforts of the protagonist and his partners in crime. He waited for it, his muscles and chest tight with an exertion that went beyond purely physical.

But nothing happened. Nada. He took his share and dropped it at a pre-arranged storage locker on Canal, then drove to a residential neighborhood nearby and sat shivering in his car while waiting for his heart to ease up its sprint. It was the beginning of another long hot summer, yet he could not warm up.

Something shifted in his periphery. No more than five yards from his car, in a barely lit park, he noticed a figure moving slowly as if in a trance. Jude and his vehicle seemed to go unseen, another part of the faded nightscape. The man’s movements had a familiarity to them, but he could not place it. Smooth, effortless. Like a measured dance. Just out of reach he felt the whisperings of an old memory. He watched the man for a long time, breathing when he breathed, growing calmer and calmer until he no longer noticed where he was, what he had been doing. It did not matter. The leaves of the trees overhead shimmered in the breeze, catching and releasing the moon’s rays.

Around four he returned home, sliding his key into the lock to find it already open. He slipped in. Mari was not on the couch, but her bag was still on the floor; he checked his room. There she was, curled up impossibly small in a corner of the queen-size bed. Without meaning to, he smiled. What he felt did not have words. It was more a sense experienced in the body, a quiet release of sorts. He brushed his teeth and lay down next to her, careful not to disturb the covers. She sighed in her sleep.

In the morning he woke to find that Mari had brought pastries from a vegan bakery nearby. They did an incredible job with fake butter; he had no idea what was in it. “I got your favorite,” she said, holding up a pain-au-chocolat. It was half the size of her head. One day he was going to cut out sugar. He kind of wished it was today.

“Thanks. You didn’t have to, you know. We could have gone out.”

“But this is nice, right? If you want to get back in bed we could have breakfast in bed. That’s what I was thinking when I went,” she said, pausing to rip the corner off a croissant with her teeth. “But then you got up.”

“Then I got up.” His thoughts were having trouble congealing. They seemed to want to stay amorphous, lacking structure or relation. Mari was looking at him funny. “Sorry, I’m a bit out of it.”

“What’d you get up to last night? Your important thing?” she asked.

“Oh,” he sighed, “nothing much. Just a gig with friends.” It was a dream he had forgotten, a relic of a person he had never really been.

“Like music? You played a show and you didn’t invite me?”

“Not that kind of gig.” He reached out over the kitchen table to brush a large flake of pastry from her mouth. “It’s a long story. But not important.” She looked elfin and serene in his flannel shirt, at ease within its folds. Somehow she made sense and did not at the same time. He could live with that, he thought. Mari’s words continued to buzz lightly around him. He felt strangely open and vulnerable, yet not troubled by it. Looking at this young woman across from him, this half-innocent, he realized that she had a freedom that he had never been able to fathom. A levity of spirit that defied both poor choices and good.

Then he remembered. It was tai chi that the man in the park was doing, late last night. Blending his movements with the flow of the wind through the grass. Tai chi, he thought. Like recalling a lost self. Tai chi.

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Copyright 2016 | Editor Alto

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