Fiction

The Fifth Wall

Malinda McCollum

Sam’s Tackle Box was wall-to-wall merchandise, packed so tight it fooled most customers into thinking everything for sale was already on display. But Elana Hall wasn’t fooled. Though the store stunk of bait and brine, she could still catch the sour odor of methamphetamine, which Sam himself cooked regularly in a well-vented room above the sales floor.

Elana came to the Tackle Box with her daughter, Jeanette, every week, though neither had much affection for fish. Still, the kid went wild in the place, and broke away from her mother as soon as they passed through the door. Elana, troubled and aching, paused next to an arrangement of musky lures and watched her go. Weren’t children’s senses supposed to be more acute than adults’? Shouldn’t Sam’s reek and clutter be too much for her girl? A dim memory surfaced from her own past, a trip to New York City, to Chinatown, the smell of fish so overwhelming that she begged her dad to return to Des Moines straightaway. The fact that her daughter could handle Sam’s—the fact that she sometimes seemed to love it—suggested that Jeanette was already leaving childhood behind. Physical senses dulling, their loss soon to be offset by increased insight and guile. A pain pulsed behind Elana’s eyes. It frightened her, this coming Jeanette. This clever spy replacing her dreamy little tot, who understood and wanted not much at all.

“Friends!” Sam’s third wife called from behind the register. Her name was Janice, and she wore studded wristbands, a leotard and a long, low ponytail, as if any minute she might either punch somebody or pull out a sticky mat and pop into Downward-Facing Dog.

Elana allowed a thin smile of anticipation. Janice pushed a button beneath the counter, and they both listened to a faint bell ring overhead. There was the solid sound of boots hitting the floor. A door closing. The ee-aw of the stairs. Then Sam himself, from behind a green curtain on the side wall, still handsome and imposing at sixty. And Elana as happy to see him as when she was a kid at the Ceilidh, when he’d grab her to join a Gordon dance with his now-dead first wife and her dad.

She moved toward him quickly. But out from an aisle ran her daughter, crashing into his legs. Sam lifted Jeanette, and she opened up to flaunt her horrible new braces.

“Mom said they make me look beautiful!” she squealed.

“Your mom’s a real sweet lady,” Sam said smoothly. “Your mom’s something else, that’s for sure.” He set the girl down. “In fact, I’d like to talk to your mom in private. I have an idea for your birthday present that I need to float.”

“We got some Fuzz-E-Grubs in,” Janice called enticingly.

“I haven’t put them out yet, but I’ll let you take a look.”

Her daughter rushed to the counter, and Elana followed Sam though an aisle of rigs and out a rear screen door to the Mirage. Thirty years ago he’d created it by fencing off half his parking lot and planting oak trees and grass. The last six months saw the addition of motion-sensitive lights and barbed wire. The lights were designed to function only at night, but through the years the oaks had grown aggressively, and the Mirage was overhung with a dense awning of leaves that nearly blocked the sun. As Elana and Sam entered, individual foods clicked on and spotlighted their movements—her sitting in a ratty mesh lounger, him hauling himself into the bass boat he’d parked on blocks.

This was in June, during a summer when the seventeen-year cicadas emerged from underground. The trees were filled with buzz, males drumming their abdomens while females laid eggs and died. But in spite of the noise, the headache Elana had been fronting all day stepped back. Around Sam, things settled into place. He took over whatever story you were telling so you could sit down and shut up.

She rolled her sleeve to her elbow. Sam unsnapped the boat’s cover and climbed into the hold. A month ago she’d lost her job at Hy-Vee for spitting at a customer who complained about her bagging pace. Jeanette’s braces came next. Still, even without cash, Sam kept advancing her. She knew he had a reason for stringing her along—the man was no saint—but she figured that being aware of it meant that she was complicit. Being complicit in her own destruction made the danger seem less.

Sam climbed down from the boat with a syringe and a strip of tubing. When he offered them, she shook her head.

“Do you mind?” she asked. “My eyes are wrecked.”

Obligingly, he bent to her, circling her bicep with tube. She bit one end and tasted rubber. Sam slapped the crook of her arm, until he stopped.

First came the Nip. Then the Whirl. Elana pumped her fists and rose from the chair, head bobbing, until she bumped a low branch and loosed a rain of cicada shells. Sighing, Sam plucked the molted skins from her hair.

“Seventeen years ago,” he said, pinching a dry skin to dust. “Where was Elana then?” Her head rang as images flashed from that summer. Third place in Jig at a dancing comp in Chicago. Pink champagne from the gas station, drunk in Greenwood Park. The driver’s ed teacher, Mr. Hunt, yelling about her lead foot and rolling stops.

“That was not a full stop!” she croaked now, remembering his hoarse voice from the passenger seat. “In California maybe that half-assed stop would fly. But not here, I assure you, not here!”

Sam cast a sharp eye upon her. “Funny you mention California,” he said. “You ever been?”

“Un uh. Un uh.” She stepped away from him, to give everything its space.

Sam carefully retucked his shirt before lowering himself into her chair. “Let me be straight,” he said. “I’m not one for cutting off people. But I can’t see as to how you’re going to pay this large debt you’ve acquired.”

So this was the day! A flicker of fear, but the speed transformed it to energy. “Maybe we can brainstorm,” she said brightly.

“I’ll start.” Sam stroked his beard, the pale gray of it strange against his hard, tanned face. “Let me paint the big picture. Demand is high, which is good, but the bad news is I can’t keep up on my own. Most operations around here are sourced in southern Cal. It’s time for me to plug into that game. The catch is that that particular pipeline is no secret to anyone, narcs included, and they’ve got the highways between here and L.A. all staked out. Some unfortunates try the bus as safe passage. Remember that guy nabbed on Greyhound with ten pounds of crank in his socks?”

“What about flying?”

“X rays, dogs. No, the road is the only way to go. The one question: What’s the best cover?”

He went on to describe his strategy of outfitting a vehicle and its passengers as if the whole enterprise were an innocent family trip. Plenty of luggage in the trunk, plenty of snacks in a cooler, guidebooks and maps prominently displayed. The problem was, he said, that even if he and Janice tricked themselves out as tourists, the disparity in their ages made them appear suspect. It wasn’t Janice, he continued, but himself. There was a criminal air about him that he’d never been able to shake. That, along with a tendency to get shifty-eyed in authority’s presence, meant that he’d be forced to sit this trip out.

Elana tried to stay with his speech, but the meth jumped her ahead to his as-yet unspoken proposal that she go to California in his place. The idea both terrified and attracted her. That’s how it was with most things those days.

“I want to give you the chance to clear your debt,” Sam said, leaning forward to set his elbows on his knees. “I’ll forgive everything if Jeanette rides to California with Janice.”

“No,” she said automatically.

“Imagine. A cop pulls them over. What’s this? A mother and daughter taking a summer trip. What could be nicer? More straight up?”

“A good mother wouldn’t risk her kid that way.” But already she perceived a slight inner crumbling. “How could I be a good mother and let her go?”

“A good mother wants what’s best for her child. Think. What do you want for Jeanette?”

She envisioned an island with coconuts and wild horses.

“For her to end up somewhere else,” she said.

“Right,” said Sam. “Somewhere else entirely. This trip could show her a lot of different ways to live.” He reclined in the chair. “Besides, you know I loved your father. I’d never do anything to hurt his only grandkid.”

“What about me?” she heard herself whine. “I’m his only daughter. Look what you’ve done to me.”

Sam stood and took hold of her wrist. At first she thought he was comforting her, but as his grip tightened she received the real message: Pain.

“You dug your own hole,” he said evenly. “I brought the shovel, but you put it to dirt.”

“Without the shovel I couldn’t have gone very deep,” she pointed out.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I’m not stupid,” she mumbled. “I’m weak.” Then some sort of aural hallucination overtook her, reducing their discussion to one word—California!—cried with delight. California! California! California! With each repetition the word sounded less strange and the voice more familiar, until she recognized it as her daughter’s, from inside the store. Was it possible that her daughter had stumbled into her consciousness, discovering a decision she thought she hadn’t yet made?

“I’m going to California!” Jeanette cried. Elana wrenched away from Sam and peered through the screen. Her daughter ran toward her, braids flying, so quickly there was no time for warning.

Jeanette crashed into the door at full speed. Dazed, she tried to pull away, but her braces were tangled in the screen.

“Oh dear,” Janice said, behind her. “I’ll get pliers.”

Jeanette screamed. The sound pierced Elana, but before she could move, Sam was kneeling before the door.

“Honey,” he said urgently, “calm down, or you’ll hurt yourself even worse. How about I give you the rest of your birthday present? Then play you a little something on my pipes?”

Jeanette’s next sob stopped in her throat. “Okay,” she said, sniffling.

Sam ambled toward his boat, the motion lights flashing like he was a paparazzo’s prey. After a moment, Elana willed herself toward her daughter. Jeanette’s lips were stretched back from her mouth. Her gums and teeth were flat against the wire, like a caged monkey in a lab.

“Sweet pea,” Elana told her. “I’m going to open this door really slowly. You walk forward when I do.” When she turned the handle and pulled, Jeanette inched over the threshold into the Mirage. Elana held her hand and squatted opposite the screen.

“Your hand thwet,” her daughter said in an accusing tone, tongue thrusting against the screen.

“I’m sweating,” Elana said quickly. “You scared the crap out of me with that wail.” She let go to wipe her palm on her jeans, then clutched Jeanette’s hand again. “Why did you say you’re going to California?

“Janith thaid you thaid okay. For my birthday.”

“That really sounds fun?”

“Your faith ith weird.”

“You ought to see yours,” Elana said. She licked her lips.

“So you want to go? You wouldn’t miss not having me along?”

Before her daughter could answer, Sam returned, a purple plastic suitcase in his hand. When he unzipped the case, it was stuffed with new clothes. He removed a pair of red canvas platform sneakers for Jeanette’s approval. They were far too high for an eight-year-old girl.

“I love them!” her daughter exclaimed.

“Let me see those,” said Elana.

“Careful,” Sam said, handing her a sneaker. It was surprisingly light, and when she examined the sole, she saw it had been cut out and reglued. If she had a knife she could wedge the tip in and peel back the rubber, but even without a knife she knew what was inside. A hollowed-out platform. An empty two-inch space. They were going to stash meth in her daughter’s shoes. It was wicked enough to make her woozy. Though if cops found drugs on Jeanette—she caught herself reasoning—they’d know her daughter was an unwitting pawn. The nearest adult would be the one accountable. And Elana would be miles away. If the cops came after her next, she could explain that an old family friend had offered the trip as a gift. How could she be expected to know the journey’s true aim?

She wanted to ask Jeanette leading questions, but her daughter was transfixed by the sight of Sam. Whistling, he sat in the lounger and assembled his bagpipes, fitting the melody pipe and drones to their stocks. Jeanette watched him fixedly, until Janice returned with the pliers and a small pair of wire snips.

Catching sight of the tools, Jeanette stiffened. “Nooo,” she moaned.

“It’s all right,” Janice said. “I’m just going to untwist the wire and maybe cut away a bit of screen.”

“Mom,” Jeanette whispered.

“We need to get you out,” Elana reassured her, squeezing her hand. “Would you feel better if I do it?”

Her daughter gave her a wary look. “What about Tham?”

He halted his assembling. “My fingers are too big, honey,” he said. “I can’t get in there.”

“Do you want me to do it?” Elana asked again.

Something bleak descended onto her daughter, darkening her thin face.

“No,” she said at last. “Janith can.”

The other woman nudged Elana from her spot. When the pliers opened, Elana looked away. She switched her attention to the lounger, where Sam was tuning his pipes. First a note on the chanter. Followed by a note from the tenor drone, not quite there. He adjusted the sliding joints and again played the chanter. Then another near miss. More adjustments, and the drone became shorter. Once more, the original note. The tenor note, played in response, remained a hairsbreadth off-key.

Elana’s shirt was soaked in sweat. “Isn’t it close enough?” she asked angrily.

Without responding, Sam mouthed the blowpipe and started “Scotland the Brave.” The low notes thrummed in her chest the way they did as a child, when during the summer Sam and her dad practiced in the yard. She’d listen from the attic where she slept. All the heat in the house rose there, and she’d remove her nightgown and throw the sheets on the floor to get cool. She’d close her eyes and hold herself rigid, in order to catch the tiniest draft if it passed. Most nights she’d be awake for hours. The heat rarely broke before dawn.

Now here was the same tune, the same player. She tried to bring back the sensation of being still. But the secret was gone.

“Finished,” Janice announced, shaking out her wrist.

Jeanette didn’t respond. She stared at Sam, who puffed his cheeks and pressured the bag beneath his arm. Noticing this, Elana slipped behind her daughter and eased her away from the door. Then she bent to her ear.

“You know, baby, they call California the Golden State because they discovered gold there, yes, and because of all the yellow sand too, of course, but golden also because everybody wants to go there, to be there, and myself, I never have, so I think you’re really very lucky, you’re luckier than me, and—”

“Quit talking,” Jeanette snapped. “I want to hear.”

 

§

 

An hour later, Elana walked Grand Avenue alone. Out of a passing car, a driver tossed a lit cigarette. Elana pinched it from the sidewalk, hand trembling as she brought it to her lips. She nursed the stub for five blocks before throwing it away.

Once home, she tore open an envelope of lime Jell-O. She wet her finger and poked inside, licking off whatever stuck. After the dark streets, the kitchen seemed snug and intimate. Blue bowls dried in a wooden drainer, an herb garden grew in Styrofoam cups on the sill. Elana switched on the television. Let the thing glow and roar for a while.

She poured the rest of the Jell-O into a teacup. Onscreen, an interior designer instructed his viewers not to forget the ceiling in their decorating plans. “Very important,” the man declared. “The ceiling is your fifth wall.” The show cut to footage of a sloppy angel-themed mural, but Elana couldn’t get past the words. If the ceiling was truly the fifth wall, then the floor, Lord help her, must be the sixth. At the thought, all six walls began moving closer. She fled, with her teacup, to the yard.

There, the cicadas’ singing had taken on a rowdy, boastful aspect. Elana paced the perimeter of her bricked-up patio. Her daughter was staying with Sam and Janice and would leave at sunrise. They were aiming for Ogallala by noon.

She’d done a terrible, evil thing. But suddenly, under the black sky, she felt blessed. Her debt was paid. More important, she’d finally hit rock bottom. After this, she and Jeanette could begin again. No more drugs. No Tackle Box. No Sam. She breathed, imagining clarity as a glittering steam free for her to inhale.

Back in the kitchen, she turned off the television and went to survey her daughter’s room. Her sweet love! Hot tears spilled to her cheeks, and she staggered onto her daughter’s bed. The body was exhausted, but the mind galloped. Even with closed eyes, she could see Jeanette’s monkey face. Despairing, she looked to the ceiling for solace. In one corner hung a thread of lint, twitching in a feeble breeze.

 

§

 

Jeanette’s riding shotgun, next to Janice, and her mouth hurts. In her pocket there’s wax to protect cheeks from braces, but wax is nothing, it’s really a joke. Her mother said to try aspirin, but Jeanette doesn’t ever take it, and she doesn’t ask Janice for anything now. The truth is she thinks this must be what it feels like to be older. The ache makes her feel tired and wise.

Janice says, Out here, in spring, people set fires to their lawns. Burn off winter weeds so grass comes back green and strong.

Jeanette thinks Janice is sort of ugly, with those droopy eyes and her bad skin.

Sometimes on windy days, Janice says, the fires get big and take houses.

Jeanette ignores her, looking up at a barn as red as soup, with wooden slats that let sunlight through.

Just over the hill, Janice slams the brakes hard. Tea splashes from the mug she’s holding onto her sweater and the legs of Jeanette’s jeans.

Look, she says.

Jeanette does. The sky’s purple with sunrise. Thick haze drifts over the road.

Unless you want to go crazy, Janice says, make sure you’re often in the presence of beauty. Or in the presence of ugliness if it is the truth.

Jeanette shivers because her mind’s been read. She says, I think you’re ugly sometimes.

I’m true. And truthfully, sometimes you’re ugly too.

But I’m not true, Jeanette says.

Janice sips tea. Dishonesty has its own kind of beauty, she says. Especially if it reveals a deeper truth.

Can we have tacos for lunch? Jeanette asks her.

What?

Can we have tacos?

Why do I bother, Janice sighs, but with affection in her voice, maybe. She pulls Jeanette close and twists a piece of her hair to its root.

 

§

 

Like she was attacked by a drunken boxer, Elana hurt. Fever burned in her eyeballs and the membranes of her nose. Lying in her daughter’s bed, she chewed on a piece of lip until it ripped free. The new morning filtered in, bringing no hope whatsoever. When she pressed a thumb to her lip, it came back with blood. The promises she made to herself? Ha. Overnight the blessing she received had been withdrawn.

Sam lived in one half of a duplex a few blocks from the store. Elana hesitated on his porch before ringing the bell. He’d instructed her to lie low until Janice and Jeanette returned. He planned to close the Tackle Box and spend the weekend piping at the Highland Games. Nobody was supposed to contact anybody. There would be no postcards or calls from the road.

When the door opened, Sam was already wearing his kilt.

He looked angry, but unsurprised.

“What are you doing here?” he said. “We had a deal.”

“I don’t want her to go,” Elana said.

“You know they’ve already left. Why did you come?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but lacked the energy to speak.

“Say, ‘I’m powerless to face real life.’ Say, ‘I’m a junkie who’s sold out my soul.’”

There was no call for him to talk like that. Her indignation gave her a moment’s strength. “I don’t feel powerless,” she said slowly. “Not at all. Desperate, maybe. Like I could do anything. Even call the police.”

Sam glared at her. “You’ll get busted and lose her forever.”

“In this life,” she said, “all of us have things to lose.”

“You dead-eyed . . . ” For an instant she thought he’d hit her, but somehow he regained control. “What am I doing?” he said, straining for an affable tone. “You and me, we’re friends. For a long time now. We should help each other through this rough patch.”

“I could use some help,” she said.

“There’s no reason to go through this alone. It will be a hard week for both of us.” He smiled tensely. “How about this? Why don’t you come with me to the games? Might be a nice diversion for you.”

So he understood that it was safer to have her near. To keep her addled and quiet. Good.

Once she was inside, Sam said offhandedly, “Check out the third drawer in the john.” There she found a glassine envelope and a kit. The tubing in her mouth tasted like a pacifier. Two fingers rapped against her skin sounded like trying to shake ketchup out. After she fixed, the exhilaration of the previous night made a more muted return. It was like if she squinted, she could see an end point to everything, looming in the distance like some far-flung sign. One last week, she vowed. One last week, and she was through.

On the way to the Games, she jabbered to Sam about her redecorating plans for Jeanette’s room, the wonders she’d work on that fucked ceiling—wait—fifth wall. He listened in silence.

“Here,” he said finally, when they pulled into the fairgrounds’ dusty parking field. He gave her a small baggie of pills. “In case you want to bring it down.”

The entrance to the Games was flagged by banners announcing the weekend’s reuniting clans. Sam paid her admission, and they entered the gauntlet of exhibitors and vendors peddling everything from bangers to medieval swords. In one spacious booth, a falconer in black gloves attended a hawk tied with bungee cord to a steel V-framed perch. As Elana approached, she saw the man fasten a silver bell to the hawk’s leg. Above the bell, the bird’s plumage was cream and brown, its posture freakily erect. Elana stepped closer. The hawk appeared sleek-bodied and hungry. He was a fearsome creature, even tied.

The falconer glanced at her. Then at Sam.

“What do you throw a drowning bagpipe player?” he asked.

Sam sighed before answering. “His bagpipes.”

“You got it,” the falconer said, standing tall. “Cheers. You know, they say the Scots have a good sense of humor because it’s free.” He reached behind him for a whiskey-filled quaich, but Sam declined his offer and took Elana’s arm.

“Go ahead,” she said. “I think I’ll hang out here a while.”

“Let’s go.” He increased the strength of his hold.

“Ow,” Elana said, loudly.

The falconer’s eyebrows lifted. Across the row, a pretzel vendor paused as she counted a man’s change. Sam assessed the scene. After a moment, he released Elana and brushed some dust from his shirtfront. “Be at the stage in half an hour,” he said, through his teeth.

“Don’t worry, Pops,” the falconer cracked. “I’ll keep an eye on her.” Beside him, the hawk lifted both wings until they nearly met overhead. Sam gave man and bird a measured gaze before finally walking away.

The falconer laughed. “Is your daddy piping today?”

“He’s not my daddy,” Elana said. “But he’s piping for Highland Dancing.” She accepted the quaich and drank. “You may not believe it, but I used to dance myself. Many years ago.”

“I bet you were something in your hornpipe suit.” The falconer was too young for her, but he had a sly manner that made her feel indulgent of his youth and aroused.

“What about you?” she asked, returning the cup. “You hunt or you only do the Games?”

“We fly most days. Even if it’s just driving around the neighborhood with my arm stuck out, hunting sparrows from the glove.”

She stared wide-eyed at the hawk. “You fly this thing at sparrows?”

“Other days we go to the country with a couple ferrets. Loose the ferrets to flush the jacks out of their holes. Then this beauty wastes them.” He clapped his hands. “Rabbit stew all around.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to use a gun?”

“Always easier to use a gun. But I’m not about easy.” He shook his head, grinning. “No, I take my pleasure in the process.” He bent toward her. “And if I may ask, what do you take your pleasure in?”

She shrugged. “I’d say product. Mostly.”

“That was my guess,” he said. “But maybe I can change your mind.” He assumed a wide stance and cleared his throat. “There’s this process called manning. It’s when you train the raptor to tolerate your presence. Convincing her it’s in her best interest to stick around.”

She was interested. “How’s it work?”

“Like you might bind her wings in a sock so she can’t fly off at the sight of you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Elana said.

The falconer seemed amused. “Then onto the unconventional ways.” He lowered his voice. “I know one way to cut the manning time in half. Learned it from an Arab fellow over in Cairo. Seeling, he called it.”

“I’m listening,” she whispered back.

The falconer placed a glove over her face. It was large enough to cover all her features. She let her tongue flick out and taste the grain.

“In seeling,” he said, “you sew a raptor’s eyes shut with a single piece of thread.”

She punched away the glove. “What the hell?”

The falconer blinked. “Don’t get the wrong idea.” He gestured to the hawk, who observed him blankly. “There’s no master/slave thing happening here.”

“I hope that bird claws out your eyeballs!” Elana cried.

“You got the wrong idea,” the falconer insisted. “I live my whole life around hers.”

Elana swiveled wildly. People were gathering, and in the distance, she saw a man with a red security sash take note. Meanwhile, the falconer pleaded for understanding. The hawk stretched, extending its tail feathers in a fan. Elana broke into a panicky jog that carried her past the athletics field, the Exhibition Hall, and a Campbell Clan Reunion before she arrived, sweating, at the outdoor dancing stage. The competition hadn’t started, but the stage was crowded with girls practicing jumps and high steps. The girls wore gray sweatpants under their kilts, and their hair was twisted into what looked like painful buns.

She made her way to a patch of lawn near the front of the amphitheater. Beside her, a couple on a blanket fed each other fresh shortbread and shared a cup of lemon tea. Elana’s pulse felt erratic, and her forearms itched. She choked down two Valium, but forbade herself from scratching. It was small punishment for her flirting. For flirting while her child might be in danger. She wept softly at the idea.

“Your daughter up there?” the male half of the couple asked, mistaking her tears for pride.

“Where?” she said eagerly, before catching herself. “I mean, no, I don’t have any kids.” Mentioning Jeanette would only lead to further questions: How old? What’s she like? Where is she now?

“Sorry,” the man said. “None of my business.”

“Nope, no kids yet,” she repeated. “Maybe someday.”

Over the loudspeaker, the MC called for Novices to gather.

He introduced three judges, who assumed center seats. Finally he brought on Sam, who appeared with a wink and his bagpipes, hitting his spot at the rear of the stage.

The first group competed in the Fling. Elana tried to lose herself in the kids’ goofy missteps, but without luck. Denying her daughter’s existence had left her sick. Why didn’t she mention Jeanette and, if the man asked further, explain that she was at camp? She considered leaning over now and telling him, but he would think she was crazy.

Onstage, Sam ended the tune with a flurry of grace notes. He counted one-two-three, and the little girls bowed. Next, a cluster of Intermediates mounted the stage, one of whom looked so much like Jeanette—the braids, the braces, the hyper air—that Elana had to lower her eyes. The action was enough to ease her into sleep.

 

§

 

In mid-Nebraska, there’s a red school bus parked way off the road, and that’s where they pause for a while. Janice’s girlfriend lives there. She and Janice sprawl on beanbags and smoke clove cigarettes, listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Come here, Janice says.

Jeanette sits beside her, and Janice twists her into a yoga position, feet behind her head. Jeanette’s back against the wall keeps her upright. Her tailbone’s rock hard on the floor.

Can you imagine? the girlfriend says. I mean, really.

Great popularity in her future, Janice says.

Yeah? Jeanette wonders.

No, Janice says. No popularity. Your fate is to always be alone.

Hey, the girlfriend says, pissed, don’t saddle the poor kid with that.

I’m liberating her, says Janice. Being alone you’re free to take risks. You’re beholden to no one. That’s the kind of people the world needs.

Not nice, the girlfriend says, rising from the beans. Not nice at all! She adjusts her vest and wobbles out of the bus.

Janice sighs. Women. Then she crawls toward the door, calling Kelly? Honey?

Jeanette watches her go, not worrying, because she knows she’ll return. But soon she hears glass break, a door slam, a car start and drive away.

The problem: she has flexibility, but not strength. Her arms are trapped by her thighs, and she doesn’t have enough muscle to lift her feet over her head. Lift, she mutters, lift! Nothing. Joni sings about kissing a pig on some street.

A few minutes later an older girl saunters in, buttoning a plaid cover onto a Bermuda bag. She stops and studies the scene before setting down her purse and grabbing Jeanette’s shoes. Her freed feet thunk-thunk on the floor.

Thanks, Jeanette says, toes stinging. She tries to stand, but the girl says no. Always end with the Corpse pose, the girl says. She tells Jeanette to lie on her back, arms out to the side. Make your legs heavy, she says. Open your shoulders. Now relax and let your tongue settle down.

 

§

 

Elana started awake. Onstage the Premier class had just finished Flora’s Fancy, and held their skirts out stiffly, like clean white tents. Sam whispered one-two-three from his corner. The girls performed lovely bows. It was the final dance of the morning, and Sam lumbered off the stage.

Red-faced from anger and lack of breath, he came to where Elana was sitting. “Nodding off up here in front of everyone,” he chastised her.

“I can’t do this,” she said. “We have to stop it. Something terrible’s going to happen on this trip.”

“Come on,” Sam said, yanking her to her feet. “There’s another piper for the afternoon session. I’m off until tomorrow. Let’s split.”

On the way to the car, they passed the falconer. Elana ducked her head and tried to hurry by.

“Hey, Pops,” the falconer called. “What do you have when a piper is buried to his neck in sand?”

Sam pivoted toward him. The falconer’s hopeful smile began to fade. It took Sam three steps to cover the distance between them. Then, with a neat jab, he slammed the hawk. The bird’s feet stuttered before it dropped like a rock from the perch, swinging upside-down from its cord.

“Not enough sand,” said Sam. He kept his fist clenched, like the falconer was next. But the anguished man was cradling the hawk, trying to revive it, and eventually Sam’s fingers relaxed.

 

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