By Tommy Dean
Before Audrey had left for the city and the college that promised her a new kind of life, she had called her Daddy a hick. They were pretending she wasn’t leaving the next day, that her bags hadn’t been packed for weeks, that she hadn’t turned over all her flannel shirts to her mother, piling them up on the dining room table, repeating the word “Rags” over and over, as she heaped more clothes onto the pile. She’d given up her cowboy boots too, making a big show of it at her cousin’s fifteenth birthday party the month before. Her brother had taken her aside, pointing a stubby finger at her saying, “Setting the barn on fire wouldn’t be as rude, and least there was some insurance money in it.”
Her Daddy though, went about his work, getting the combine ready for harvest, checking the price on corn and soybeans, making proclamations like a prophet about next year’s crop, how Monsanto had finally gotten it right with the GMOs. She tried to ignore it, her embarrassment smoldering, until he had asked her to spend the day with him riding in the combine, the way she had when she was in grade school. The furrowed rows mowed down by the impressive width and weight of the tractor, focusing everything to a single line. The dust choked her, the silence stifling.
“If you weren’t a farmer, ” Audrey started.
“I don’t live with ifs…”
“You won’t even consider the possibilities?”
“I wish you wouldn’t either. Those places…made of steel and glass, not a shred of grass for miles, trees planted like decorations. Smell that chaff. The ground weeping. The way the stars freckle the sky. This is all I’ve ever wanted.”
“It feels like the last place on Earth. Every hill and gulley filled with corn or soybeans, or groves of trees. Land so flat, no wonder everyone’s a hick. That’s what you want for me too?”
The motor whined as he made a sweeping turn, pointing the header at the unsuspecting rows of corn, waiting mutely for their execution. he pats her thigh, his way of telling her to temper her emotions. A trick he used on the horses, or her mother after a glass of cheap wine. His silence mocked her. She wouldn’t allow him to roll over her, that life separating her from the passions that resided thousands of miles from there.
The next morning, he left before dawn, leaving her mother to make the usual excuses. Audrey left a sprig of grass on his pillow and left on a bus headed for the bright lights and the ornate cement of the city.
Rain, that continual annoyance of spring, pushed Audrey off the sidewalk and into the convenience store. Her phone was stashed in her purse alongside the few dollars she had left, the antique Barrette belonging to her grandmother that she took everywhere, and the bottle of Xanax she had acquired since moving away. The cell’s battery almost dead, and then she’d really be lost.
The store was dark, with low hanging ceiling, the aisles grungy with tracked in filth from the streets. This wasn’t CVS. Cellophane wrappers of every shade dotted the shelves. Their commercial beauty the closest thing this part of the city had for flowers. She had been there for a year and already she missed the smell of dirt, the sound of corn bullied by the wind, husks standing tall like the ends of arrows driven into the ground. The door clattered shut behind her, bringing with it the stench of wet cement and discarded cigarette butts. A man, skinny, but angular, shouldered past her. Another denizen rushing off to Nowhere, stuck like a pinball rattling among the skyscrapers, locked in the mechanics of bustle, feeding off self-importance.
She can’t think amongst all these people. Their closeness stole her thoughts, leaving her stranded with that constant anxiety of wanting to flee. But she promised Rowan, study buddy turned boyfriend, that she would give city life a try. “Can’t I just quit?” she had asked him last night. Her second semester was almost over, and she was only passing two classes, both electives, she didn’t think would transfer anywhere.
“I won’t let you. This,” he held out his arms, bicep still twitching from his workout. “Could be a great life,” he had said, before closing the door on his way to another workout.
A bodybuilder, with a near perfect GPA, his patience so serene like the Earth waiting for rain. His plan was to save her, from her one stop light town, her overwhelming fears of academic failure, from her skittish approach to strangers on the streets. She felt safe with him there, but he was always gone lifting weights. And she was just a seedling compared to his tree trunk width.
Now, she had been on her way to meet him at this new restaurant that catered specifically to those that look at working out as a way of life, supplementing all their entrees with protein and antioxidants. Vegan, but with flavor, the website promised. The Deadlift, it was called, which she had laughed at, bringing a flare of annoyance to Rowan’s face. He could be a little ridiculous, but she was trying to fall in love with all of this.
The man poked around the candy racks in front of the cashier, one hand holding up his baggy, rain splatter jeans, the other wrestling with something in his pocket. The black tank-top stuck with moisture to his bird-winged back, sleeve tattoos on both arms, the individual images blending into an inky forest. The cashier, an Indian man, raised his eyebrows, refusing to speak if he didn’t have to. She didn’t know if this is true, but it was what she’d do if their lives were reversed. Hide in plain sight, give nothing to this world unless it was asked for. When had she become so afraid of people, so hesitant to commit to anything, to risk even the most mundane of social tasks? It was exhausting, fighting to stay so insular. She had never invited such fear, but it lived inside her now.
Her phone chirped two times, and she fought the urge to check it. Less than 5% battery left, and how many blocks left to go? How many turns? So easy to get lost here, where the streets cut between buildings at odd angles. The skyscrapers blocked out the sun and she longed for a summer field of beans. Land so flat you could plan your escape.
She would call Rowan, but he hadn’t finished his workout yet, and he left his phone in his locker. She had left the college early, skipping her favorite class, Myth and the Image of Art, to get to the restaurant early. She was trying to surprise him with her newfound ability to travel across the city by herself.
She rummaged through her purse, hand grasping the bottle of pills, mouth-watering at the sound of its rattle. She dug out her phone instead, swiped past the key lock. 3% battery, the little bar flashed.
There was a commotion at the cashier desk, a fluttering like the sudden rise of a large bird erupting from a field into the air. The black muzzle of a small gun suddenly resting in front of her face.
The skinny, winged back man was screaming at her to “Drop it. Christ, just drop it.”
A confusion she wanted to explain. I just want to go home, but she was voiceless against this sudden upswing of violence.
“Oh,” she said, the phone knocked from her hand. A Hispanic lady, so short, grabbed Audrey’s hip and pulled her into the softness of the lady’s body. Audrey fought her revulsion. The man raised his foot and stomped down on her phone, the plastic shattering with a pop, a final chirp before he kicked it underneath a wire rack of Ruffles potato chips.
“Money now. Or someone dies,” he said to the cashier. He itched the back of his head with the butt of the pistol. Audrey knew she should look away, that witnessing came with its own useless dangers.
“We all die,” the cashier said, voice deeper than Audrey expected. She hated him for his calm delivery, his impulse toward philosophy, even while facing possible violence.
“Dead, as in right now. You got that, Abu.”
The Hispanic lady gripped Audrey’s wrist, whispering in Spanish. Her hands fluttering to her Rosary. But without the smell of hay, Audrey didn’t feel the nearness of God. The man with the gun, he was the god here, Hades, dragging them all into his underworld.
“What did you say?” The man’s shoulders flexed and rolled before he turned back to her, gun swinging wildly. She must have said that last part out loud because he was looking at her, confused, but wondering if maybe she had the answer to this riddle they had found themselves in. When she didn’t add any more, he feinted at her with the gun. Audrey cowered over the other woman, where they had become Siamese in their fear.
Without thought, Audrey says, “Give him the money. Do it, you fucker.” A hint of malice in her voice. The tone she used to take with her sister when they were younger until the girl cried. her sister following her father around like the family dog, so quick to do the chores, already dressing in flannel and blue jeans. Audrey was the only one that cried now in her apartment hours away from her family.
The man smiled at her, a couple of molars missing, a black hole sucking her in. Did he just wink? She couldn’t be sure. Since speaking, everything had gone a bit dizzy like riding the Zipper at the county fair. People’s faces zooming in and out of focus.
“Do as the woman says.” The man points the pistol back at the cashier, it’s muzzle bobbing like the head of a chicken. She didn’t trust that he wouldn’t accidentally pull the trigger. The men in her family treated guns with a reverence. They never pointed a barrel at something they didn’t intend to shoot.
“What did she call you again? Oh, Punjab. Don’t know what the hell that is, but I like it.”
The register chirped, drawer banging open on its springs. Money, fluttering like shed feathers, as the man turned for the door.
Audrey shielded the Hispanic woman away from his face, and then there was the memory of her sister running, Audrey’s foot flashing out, the blink of pain as her sister fell to the gravel driveway. And there was the man falling to the ground, a lot of cash hitting the floor as the percussion of the gunshot rattled the door. Followed by the sound of the shot singing out as it landed somewhere above the cashier’s head.
Here it comes, she thought, turning her back like a child resigned to the spanking they had coming.
“I oughta kill you,” the man says, his voice close, but intimate rather than violent. He laughs. “People, right? We’re all just people.”
Later, when the police come and she had already missed her date with Rowan, her cell phone forgotten under the chip rack, she told the officer about the man, this perpetrator they kept calling him, that he reminded her of home. When the officer asked her to be more specific she thought for a second about the city, how it was always hemming her in, how the thought of hems, reminded her of her grandmother and her quilts. Her grandmother, the thought of this woman, who tried to help her see the value of the farm, was often lost among the horns, and lights, the looming shadow of steel and concrete. She was sure they had some kind of security tapes, that questioning her was some kind of formality, but she found herself changing the details of the robbery, especially when she’s asked about the man’s description.
“He was one of those bodybuilder types. You know the ones with the broad shoulder, the twitching biceps, and a cement block for a head. I’m surprised he even had a gun. It looked like a toy in his bear claw of a hand. Threatened to throw us around like rag dolls. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
The officer jots this all down and puts away his notepad. “Should I call you a cab?”
Back at the apartment, she raided Rowan’s secret stash of wadded up bills and pays the cab driver. She held out an extra twenty. “If I gave you this, would you wait? I just realized I don’t want to be here anymore.” The driver nodded vigorously and then shooed her back toward the building.
She stood in the living room/kitchen/dining room with her arms outstretched, fingers almost touching both walls. The proximity between wall and skin was too much. She ransacked her half of the dresser, wadding her clothes into her two suitcases. She abandoned her textbooks, the ballpoint pens with the chewed caps, the necklace with the single pearl. All reminders of the new life she was supposed to live. Next to Rowan’s side of the bed, the scent of sweat and cologne, a smell of the City at its best, she made herself count to ten, the last three digits escaping her thoughts, voiced out loud, giving herself a chance to reconsider. If Rowan were here, surely, he’d convince her to stay, but only until the next time the city flexed its muscles brutally toward her. Then she’d be right back here, only weaker, more assimilated to the chances for violence that this City made you believe were common for everyone. No, she’d leave, but how to tell Rowan? The longer she stood there, the more she felt like a flower wilting under the stern eye of the sun. He’d never believe her story. Think she was making it up, a lie to make the separation easier. Then she’d leave him a myth they’d both believe.
She turned The Complete World of Greek Mythology to the page about Persephone. She scrabbled for one of the pens and jotted next to the title: “This is where you’ll find me.” She left the book on the arm of the ratty couch. She gathered her suitcases and walked out the door, down the sour milk smelling stairs, and back into the city.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.