Reine Bouton: Moving On
My SLS: Native New Orleanian. Lover of family, jazz, grits, gumbo, Mardi Gras, porches, and Pimm’s Cup. Besides living in New Orleans, I have a son, a dog, and a cat, and have taught English at Southeastern Louisiana University for the past fifteen years.
The counter smelled sour, like a bar the morning after, Meg thought. She wiped it again before realizing that the rag itself reeked. “Idiots,” she muttered. Whoever closed last night did a shitty job. But she guessed that at least someone actually showed up for the shift. The Fauna—a crappy coffee shop in the Marigny didn’t exactly inspire loyalty in the drifters who came around looking for a paycheck—they generally didn’t stay long or show up regular. In fact, Meg was a rarity, lasting a little over two years and never missing a shift no matter how late she stayed out the night before or how bad she felt upon waking. She was there. Always.
She really had no place else to be.
Three years seemed to be about her limit for staying put and this place had been as good as any so far. Starting to sweat in the humidity that was such a part of New Orleans, Meg continued cleaning up, waiting for Arnie to arrive. He was always first in. Liked a large black coffee in a mug and sat reading the Times Picayune from front page to last.
Once, she unlocked the door before he showed up, hoping he’d just come in, but when he arrived, only stood there.
“It’s open!” she’d shouted that day.
Nothing. Could he hear her?
“Arnie! The door’s open!”
Still nothing, so she walked over, her battered Converse sticking to the floor, and pulled on the door.
“It was open?” she said.
“But I like you to do it,” he said softly.
She smiled at how gentle he was. Maybe even a little off. “Ok Arn, I gotcha.”
This morning, she continued to clean, fanatically even, spritzing and wiping every surface with watered-down bleach, careful not to get any on her favorite, soft black sleep shirt. While she’d only rolled out of bed a half hour earlier with a hangover and a mere three hours’ sleep, Meg still looked fresh, and young and pretty too, though she could never see herself that way—only as the tomboy she’d always known herself to be. She never realized how people were drawn to her. Her short black hair was like a China doll’s, with bangs cut across cat eyes. She had a wide face with high cheekbones, which might make her look hard and tough until the half smile that was surprisingly quick to come, could transform her. Solid from years of sports, Meg appeared strong and sure.
Only, she was fragile and as lost as a child who could never settle—uncertain—a life-long wanderer.
A knock on the door had her moving toward it to let Arnie in, but as she approached the vine-tangled archway, she saw an old lady standing there. Not standard Marigny fare. This lady looked like someone’s grandma who lived in Ohio or something. A slight, gray-haired woman with glasses and a worried look on her face, she wore a cardigan and held her arms close, as though she was cold, which, really, couldn’t be possible in this city.
“Morning,” she said, letting her in.
“I’m sorry, I’m early aren’t I?” the lady’s voice, a thin piece of tissue. “Is it alright?”
“Sure, sure, no problem, c’mon in,” Meg stuck her head out of the door, looked left and right, but the streets were empty except for two boys riding rickety bikes.
“What can I get for you?”
The lady was studying the coffee-stained menu intently. “Oh I don’t know. I might need a minute.” Her glasses were secured by a delicate chain around her neck and Meg just watched as she pushed them up on her nose when they slid down once, twice, three times. “I think, maybe just a café au lait?” She seemed sweet, Meg thought, and she wondered how she’d found her way to this ratty neighborhood.
After she got her coffee, the lady sat down at a table and stared out the window, a book unopened in front of her.
The morning was off somehow and Meg felt off herself as a result. The minutes ticked by and she busied herself sending some texts, but deleting most others. Those trying to get her to come back out with them, she ignored easily—wouldn’t respond to them again until she felt like it, which probably wouldn’t be for a while. Ex-girlfriends wanting to catch her again; she would not let herself be caught. And one she longed to hear from, but was trying desperately to not think about. No, better not to think of her at all. It was easy for Meg to shut down, she simply did it—it was like flipping a switch. She’d compartmentalized people and things her whole life. Do it, enjoy it, survive it, then if it becomes too much, push it down someplace, almost into a box or something, and then move on.
Take Lucy—Meg hadn’t talked to her for two years now. The last thing she told Meg in a voicemail was that she was a closed book bitch, which normally would have made Meg laugh, but by then she had already moved past it and so simply deleted the message. Better this way. Just walking away, no one had to get hurt. Or so Meg thought. The ones she’d left, they’d tell her that the walking away was more hurtful than the staying and fighting. It was about loss. The loss of Meg for some people was a pain she could never believe nor understand. She’d steeled herself against those kinds of feelings but other people hadn’t, and when she left, blocked her phone, stayed out of contact, those she’d left behind ached with the absence of her, only she would never know it.
She was lost in her own thoughts when she realized the lady was standing in front of her again, her coffee cup empty.
“Can I please have another? It was so good. I don’t know how you get it to taste like that—I never can.”
Meg laughed. “I know, right? Always tastes better someplace else. I think so too.” She poured coffee into her cup, steamed some milk and added that.
“It’s just coffee and milk. But mine never tastes like this! Must have something to do with that steaming business.”
The woman seemed genuinely interested, which surprised Meg. She figured that by now, the whole world understood the coffee business—one, what a racket it was, and two, the basic mechanics of how to make a latte or a cappuccino.
“Hey,” Meg said, “You want me to show you how to make a coffee drink?” Why not, she thought, on this slow morning. And she needed the distraction. The woman’s eyes lit up and she practically bounced in place, leaving Meg to wonder how anyone could get that much of a thrill about making a simple cup a coffee. The lady put out her hand, a slender, old hand with prominent veins and frosty pink nail polish.
“I’m Ellie,” she said. “And I hate being retired.”
“Oh. Ok,” Meg laughed. “When did you retire, Ms. Ellie?”
“Please, just call me Ellie. I’m feeling old enough these days. Is it nice to be as young as you are? I can hardly remember.”
“I don’t know how nice it is. It’s kind of a pain, Ellie. For reals. So when did you retire? That’s gotta be awesome, right?”
“Two months ago. From the New Orleans library. It’s awful. And boring. To be quite honest, I’m mad. I never wanted to retire but they made me. Budget cuts-smudget cuts! It’s ridiculous if you ask me!” She pounded a small fist on the counter. Ellie was mad, but Meg thought it was cute in a way, because this nice old lady’s mad was a blip on the radar for some of the things she’d witnessed, even within the past twenty-four hours. “I loved that place! Don’t think I’ll ever look at a book the same again…”
“I hear ya,” Meg said. “Sounds like it sucks.” She opened the door to the coffee bar and waved Ellie in. “C’mon, I’ll show you how to make a cappuccino.”
For the next half hour or so, Meg gave Ellie a Coffee 101 lesson, and to her surprise, had fun doing it. Where she just intended to humor the old lady and show her how to make a good cup of coffee, Ellie’s enthusiasm was contagious. It was nice how she didn’t require anything of Meg beyond this one act. As she asked questions, Meg showed her more things, actually forgetting about her cell phone and all of the people who were pulling at her. When a customer finally came in, Meg suggested that Ellie make his order. And she did, without a blink of the eye, waited on him and fixed his coffee with no problem. She only looked confused when it came to working the register.
“I got this part,” Meg smiled.
Ellie held up her hand for a high five and Meg hit it softly, and tried to remember the last time she’d given anyone a high five, if ever. Ellie said, “Thank you for showing me all of this! I haven’t had so much fun in I don’t know how long. Is it alright if I stay a little longer and read? I feel like I’ve already been here too long, taken up too much of your time as it is.”
Meg felt sorry for her. “Sure, no problem at all. Help yourself if you want something else and chill for as long as you want. What are you reading?”
Ellie walked to the table and held up a book, Bury Me Standing, it read. “Perfect, isn’t it?” Meg couldn’t help but laugh, and when Ellie joined her, she wished she had more moments like these.
“I love that book,” Meg said and reached for a book on top of a stack—Kerouac, Orwell, Eugenides among others. “You read this one?” She was holding her worn copy of Gypsies by Jan Yoors.
“No, no, I haven’t! Is it your favorite?”
“Yeah, it’s awesome. You need to check it out, uh, I mean get a copy.”
Ellie grinned, “It’s fine dear, really. Well, it will be.”
Meg went to look outside again. The air was still and a mangy cat rushed past her feet.
“Is something wrong?” Ellie asked.
“You know, one of my regulars isn’t here, and I’m wondering what’s going on. It’s just weird.” She didn’t say anything for a few moments, her mind running through the possibilities. “He’s always here.” She saw concern written on the woman’s face, and so asked, “Will you do me a favor?”
Ellie sat up straight in her chair, clearly thrilled with the prospect of a directive. “Sure! Anything.”
“Will you watch the bar for a little while? I just want to walk down the street and check a few places, see if anybody’s heard from my customer who’s gone missing. You mind?”
“Not at all!” She was up and scooting behind the bar, and Meg couldn’t help but grin. If only other people who worked there were half as enthusiastic.
“Cool,” Meg said. “Have yourself another coffee if you’d like.”
The streets of the Marigny were pretty quiet in the morning. With the exception of an occasional dreadlocked hippie or kids playing hookie, it was peaceful. Recently, and unfortunately, professionals had infiltrated the neighborhood and it wasn’t as grungy as it used to be. Gentrified is what they were calling it. Bullshit, was what Meg called it. A bunch of posers, those people trying to look cool when they so weren’t. She preferred it like it used to be, with all of its flaws– because of its flaws. Although crime had gone down and houses were being renovated, the neighborhood seemed to be still hanging on to some edge, at least for a while longer she hoped.
On certain days, it still felt a like a secret here, a part of New Orleans some people still hadn’t discovered. A mix of old and new, artsy and gritty, a place where Meg felt comfortable with the incongruity. Narrow streets made even tighter by cars that crammed next to curbs because of the dearth of driveways. Skinny, brightly colored shotgun houses, each with its own personality, some with Mardi Gras flags and shiny beads draped on wrought-iron rails, others with clusters of potted plants and found objects crowding the porch. It was cozy here.
“Meg!” Two-Tony called out to her as he stood outside his store smoking a cigarette. She waved and headed toward him. “Meggie May I was just comin’ to find you. Our boy hasn’t been around today. Whassup with dat?” He smacked his hand on his thigh as if a tune was playing in his head. “Whassup with dat, whassup Meggie May?”
“I don’t know, I was wondering the same thing. He never misses coffee at my place.”
“I hear ya, I hear ya. Me either. Dude always come round here at 8 o’clock sharp. Shaip! Dude’s like Rainman, could set your watch by ol’ A-man. Pack o’ gum and a lott’ry ticket. Every day, right as rain. Right as Rainman. Ten minutes to Wapner. Ya heard?”
Two-Tony was as black as he was tall, and no one knew why he called himself Two-Tony and not just Tony Jr. or Tony the Second or even Tony Two. He owned a corner convenience store and was more often outside than in, preferring to have a smoke and a chat, he liked to say. Today, he had a red, green, and yellow skullcap on and, as usual, slapped his leg when he talked.
“So I ask ya, whassup young lady?”
Meg could only be around Two-Tony for two minutes—maybe that’s where he got his name—before she felt like she might develop a tic or something. She had enough of her own self to control without taking on new habits.
“He never showed up this morning,” she said, moving on. “I’m going to ask around. Something’s up, though.” She shrugged, waved back at him. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”
Stopping at two other places on the street, talking to the usual suspects, Meg had no better luck tracking down Arnie. She just had a feeling about him today and knew without a doubt that something was wrong, felt obligated to find out what. Though she only talked about surface things with him, never had anything close to what you might call a deep conversation, she felt like she knew him in some way. Time had made them close. Consistency and repetition. Every day, same time, same table, same coffee, same small talk.
Few things in Meg’s life were as constant or simple or undemanding as this one person, she acknowledged, and she guessed that was one of the reasons she’d set out on this quest, leaving the coffee bar in the hands of a complete stranger. However, she could imagine sweet old Ms. Ellie behind the counter, handling that joint and decided that she might even have the place cleaner than when she left. For now, Meg was on a mission because this day felt off kilter and that was the last thing she needed. She’d seen it too many times. Once something was off, everything else had a way of deteriorating, and that’s when her routine got derailed and she got herself in to trouble.
Meg herself had been off balance for the past fifteen years of her young life. In the last few years, however, she’d stabilized a bit, found a couple of friends who, while dysfunctional and needy, didn’t urge her to do the things she was doing before, which were a sure path to an early end. More of her friends than she cared to count were dead already from overdoses or bizarre circumstances, and she was surprised she was alive and in relatively good health. If only the people around her would stop sucking the energy out of her–draining her life force with their neediness, her crazy friend Bart liked to say–then maybe she’d have a chance to breathe and figure out exactly what to do next with her life. Or first. What to do with her life for the first time because until now, she’d never actually made a conscious effort or plan, just lived in the moment—for the moment.
One last stop, and Meg would call it quits—she couldn’t really spend all day roaming the streets when she was supposed to be at work. The T Bar was a few blocks away, and she knew it would still be open, that there’d be some stragglers from the night before hanging out there. The bar was dim and Drake was playing, the bass so strong, you could hardly hear the words. Ricky, a bartender, who lived down the street from Arnie, looked at her, like what was she doing here.
“What up Meg? You here for a drink?” He was a cute Korean whose face was pretty like a girl’s.
“Nope. Looking for Arnie.”
“Scoops?” He shook his head–his small hands were quickly drying glasses and setting them aside. The guy looked wide-awake and wired. Ricky dubbed Arnie Scoops after he’d seen him scooping junk out of a neighbor’s garbage, and while he teased him about his habit, they’d never discussed it seriously. Arnie wasn’t ashamed or mad about it, just indifferent. Meg and Ricky had sat at the bar many nights speculating on Arnie’s deal—he was like the neighborhood mystery. But no one wanted to ask him anything directly because he had a wall a mile high around him. Plus it was more fun to speculate.
“Did you see him last night before you came in?”
“Why?” His hands stopped moving.
“Dunno. He hasn’t been around this morning. Not like him.”
“Maybe the old man got him an old lady,” he laughed.
She left, and working her way back to the coffee shop, realized that she’d covered a lot of ground and gotten nowhere. That felt oddly familiar and discomfiting. She imagined a hamster spinning in one of those metal wheels. Round and round but never reaching a destination. Horrors. She wished she could go and keep on going. Not sure where yet, but someplace far, far away. Eventually, she’d get it, figure out where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do when she got there. Thailand sounded perfect, or maybe Berlin, although she might self-destruct in that town, which had already almost happened before on a five-day stint. No, she’d have to stay away from that town. Portland sounded cozy too, or maybe someplace in Colorado where the people were chill. She’d sort it out soon enough. At least, that’s what she kept telling herself. Lots of time to figure things out.
Meg walked in to the coffee shop.
“Sorry it took so long.”
“Hi!” Ellie said and started wiping down the counter. “How did your search go? Did you find him? Nothing much happened here. Everything here was smooth sailing.”
“Whoa, Ms. Ellie. How much coffee did you drink?”
“Two. No, three. But one was a Vietnamese coffee. Those are my favorite. So delicious!”
“That’s lot of caffeine for one morning.”
“I can tell! I feel like I’m about to burst. But I kind of like it!”
“How was it?” Meg asked.
“I had the best time ever! But I only hope I did the money right—the register was a little tricky.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. You got it goin’ on.” Meg said. “No, I didn’t find him, which is kind of crazed because it’s not like Arnie to just disappear. I’m going to see if I can find his number and call.”
“Well, I’m sorry you’re having a hard time, and I hope you find your friend.”
Meg looked up, thinking. “He’s really not my friend, but he’s just always here, you know? I don’t think he has any family or anything so I feel like I should at least try to see if he’s okay.”
“That’s sweet of you. Can I help?”
“Nah, you’ve done enough. But thanks for holding down the fort while I was gone. You did awesome. Might have to hire you,” she teased.
Ellie’s eyes got big. “Really?”
“Uh, I was joking, but, well, maybe. Would you want to? Work here?”
Ellie reached over and gave Meg a quick hug, “Yes!”
“Oh. Okay then.” She pulled loose. “Let me check out at the schedule and I’ll see what I can do. It would probably just be a few hours a week. That alright?”
“Alright? That would be perfect! I can’t even believe it! And I wouldn’t have to be retired anymore. Thank you Meg.” She clapped her hands like a child.
Meg laughed. “This isn’t some prized position you’re getting here, I hope you know that.”
“But it’s something. I don’t have to sit around all day and stare at the walls and avoid nosy neighbors coming over all the time.”
“I hear ya,” Meg said and, writing her number on a napkin, handed it to her. “Give me a call and we’ll figure something out.”
Ellie looked like she’d won a prize, and started collecting her purse and book to leave. “What’s this man’s name? I’ll see if I can find out any information.” You could tell she wanted to feel like part of something else.
“Arnold Langley,” Meg said and walked into the storeroom.
She came back, “Arnold Langley. Why?”
“But I know him!”
“You know Arnie? That’s bizarre.”
“I worked with him at the library for years and years. Decades really. Something is wrong. Arnold was nothing if not regular—never missed a day of work. Not ever. No, no, no, this isn’t right. I didn’t even know where he lived, or really anything at all about him and we worked together for so long. That’s terrible, really.”
“Look, you ask around and I’ll do the same. Maybe between the two of us, we can figure it out. Could be nothing, but still.” She started to unload the dishwasher. “Can’t believe you know old Arnie.”
“So odd how things work sometimes. I just couldn’t take one more minute of being at home and decided to get out of my boring old neighborhood and winded up here. All in one day, I met you, got a job, and lost Arnold! I can’t believe he comes here all of the time. Yes, let’s do our best to make certain he’s alright.”
Meg nodded, liking the retired librarian and soon-to-be oldest barista around. “Here’s my number. I’m glad you came in today Ms. Ellie.”
“Me too. And please, Lord, it’s just Ellie,” she said.
The next day, Meg puttered around enjoying the breeze coming in from the wide, open windows and was happy that she was off of work. Her tiny apartment was spotless and spare with high ceilings, everything painted a clean taupe, and with minimal furniture. For the most part, she liked being on her own—the nice thing being that she could always find someone to hang out with if and when that niggling lonely feeling arose, which wasn’t very often. Meg enjoyed being able to make the choice, feeling in control because for so long, she realized that she’d only had a false impression of being in control, when she most definitely was not. So now, the little things meant a lot. Deciding what she was having for dinner, if she wanted to stay home and do nothing or go out with friends, who she wanted to hire at work—these were real choices and because they were small, it wasn’t so epic to get them right. They gave her some tiny anchor in a world that until recently had been spinning without cease.
She curled up in her reading chair, a worn orange leather chair she’d gotten from the thrift store, with A Visit from the Goon Squad—she’d heard a lot of hype about it, plus it won a Pulitzer, but so far she didn’t see why. She would read only a little more. Thirty pages was her limit, and if it hadn’t grabbed her by that point, it was a goner. When she was younger and obedient, before she got off track, she used to read books to the end regardless of how boring or bad they were, until she was old enough to realize there were too many books in the world to waste her time reading the crappy ones.
Her phone vibrated again, and not even bothering to look at it, she turned it off. She’d fielded enough texts and calls this morning and was giving herself a break. Maybe it was nice to be wanted, and she guessed that she brought it on herself in a way, by throwing out so many lines, but she got tired of feeling that a rope was cast about her and everyone was always pulling on her, tugging, demanding, guilting, asking.
And so the rest of the afternoon was spent in comforting quiet, except for some music she had on, as she buried herself in the book, actually finishing it, without being able to understand what exactly had kept her reading beyond the spot where she expected to stop. Maybe it would come to her, why she winded up loving it. At least, she thought she did, but, whatever the reason, something compelled her to finish it, so that must mean something. Then, feeling sleepy and relaxed, Meg closed her eyes and dozed off.
Though she wouldn’t like hearing it, anyone walking in and seeing her like that might think she looked like a child. Curled up in a ball, holding the book to her chest, she looked about eight years old. Her soft pink cheek and dark eyelashes made her seem innocent—content—and her chest rose slowly while the rest of her was still, except for her feet, which rubbed against each other as they had when she was young, and she would put her self to sleep because she was afraid of the dark. Her mother had peeked in on her many nights and seen the same tableau, was reassured that everything was right in the world, until the day it was not.
Before long, Max, her dog, was up on the side table, licking her face, willing her to get up and play. She laughed and, dropping the book, pulled his solid body onto her lap. He was a gunmetal grey pit bull, his coat shiny now where it had at one time been mangy and rough. Rescued from a horrible situation, Max was smart enough to be grateful for landing in the lap of someone as kind and caring as Meg. She’d nursed him back to health and treated him like he mattered.
“What? Whatcha say?” His whole lower body wagged in response to her. More licking. “Haha, okay, okay. Max! C’mon, let’s go out.” He froze, poised for a moment. “You wanna go outside?” He barked and jumped off of her, catching her shirt in his teeth and tugging her. “I’m coming! Slow your roll.” That dog made her so damn happy, she could hardly stand it. She wanted to kill the person who’d abused him. Literally. People like that didn’t deserve to live, she thought, as she let him out the back door and watched him roll in the grass, enjoying the sun on his belly. Sitting on the stoop, watching her dog, Meg finally addressed her phone, which she was sure was about to blow up. And she was right. There were ten missed phone calls, thirteen texts, and five voicemails. Nothing especially intrigued her except two messages from a number she didn’t recognize. When she listened to it though, she smiled, imagining a person from another century talking into some modern day contraption she might call a ‘cellular mobile telephone.’
“Hello? Meg? I hope this is your phone because there was just a number and no voice on the recording. Well, anywho, this is Ellie. From the other day in the Fauna coffee shop. In the Marigny? You let me watch the coffee bar for you? I hope you remember me. I was just calling to find out if you’d heard anything about Arnold. I’m worried about him, and I…”
Time ran out before she could finish, and in the next message, she spoke quickly, determined not to be cut off again. “It’s me again. Ellie. That thing cut me off! I’m going to talk fast. I was calling about Arnold to see if you found him. Call me if you can. My number is 504-555-3829. That’s 504-555-3829. And it’s Ellie. I think that’s it. Oh, my! I had more time to talk than I thought…” Meg laughed as Ellie was cut off again, and she could picture her stomping a small foot in frustration.
She called Ellie back, because really, she was the only one in that cluster worth talking to. They made a plan to meet at the coffee shop tomorrow to figure out what to do next. And while Meg heard concern in Ellie’s voice, she also thought she detected excitement too—the poor woman must be bored out of her mind.
Her quiet day turned into a restless night and, unable to sleep, she found herself wandering the streets, which were empty, and brightly lit by moonlight. It should have been darker at this time of night, but it was almost like dawn. Although she felt that familiar itch, Meg was forcing herself to walk Max and not go out to a bar or her friend’s because she knew she’d be happier in the morning for making that choice. Things would go badly, she was certain of that.
On impulse, she took a turn, deciding to head to Arnie’s house. She didn’t remember exactly where he lived, but she’d seen his house once and would know it again if she walked past it—it was memorable for its ramshackle look. A deep purple, the house was the skinniest shotgun on the street and seemed to lean to the left; comic strips were taped to the windows from the inside, and dozens of bowls filled with water and cat food filled the front porch. Meg remembered riding her bike down the street one evening and seeing Arnie go into this house—how he spotted her, gave a small wave, and slipped into the barely cracked front door. What a strange creature, she thought, but liked him anyway.
Tonight, she weaved in and out of streets to Max’s delight, until she found the house, which looked dark and deserted. No cats loitered around the area because, as she quickly saw, the bowls were empty and knocked about, a sign that only confirmed the absence of an owner. She walked up the steps to the front door, trying to find a tear or break in the newspaper-covered windows, and seeing none, knocked. The house was silent. And still.
“Arnie! You there?” She tried the doorbell, but it was broken. “Hey Arnie?” Windows and wood were covered in a fine layer of green, as if the earth was slowly trying to consume and suck the house under the ground and everything and everyone in it. Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she reached down to silence it. The crooked iron gate to the yard was closed but not locked, so she walked around to the back. Max was sniffing everything he passed, as suspicious as Meg. Arnie’s yard looked like a real junkyard—who would have ever guessed that he was anything less than fastidious. When he came into the Fauna, he picked up his straw and empty packet of sugar and pocketed them, wiped down the table with a napkin and brought his empty mug to the counter.
She now said, to no one, “Arnie, look at this yard.”
While she was trying to think of it as more of a found object artsy kind of place, as she scanned the yard, she acknowledged that it contained nothing more than miscellaneous stuff haphazardly strewn around, covering and killing the grass so that it looked like a kind of wasteland. It really was a junkyard—maybe it was his side business? Old broken bikes, car tires, sheets of corrugated steel, stacks of bricks, empty buckets and more littered the yard. Maybe he was building something? There was hardly room between where the crap stopped and the back porch began, yet she worked her way up to the door and pounded on it.
“He isn’t there,” a wheedling voice called out from next door.
“What?” Meg jumped, feeling like a criminal.
“I said he isn’t there. He hasn’t been around in days. Who are you?”
“I’m from around. I see him at the coffee shop.” Meg couldn’t see who she was talking to, just a shadow behind a screen window in the house next door. She thought it was a man, but wasn’t even sure. “Do you know how I can find him?”
“Nope. He’s a freak and a hoarder. Keeps mostly to himself.”
“Ok then. Thanks,” Meg said, waiting for him to leave, only he didn’t. Just stayed still in the window, watching her. She put her hands to the back door window, trying to get a glimpse of anything, but this house seemed as if it were hermetically sealed with meticulous care. However, she thought she could smell, coming from the cracks around the door, a mustiness that seemed more like decay than disregard. Then she decided, this mission was a bust and she knew no more than when she came, except maybe that her hunch was right. Arnie was gone.
As she left, she felt her phone buzz again in her pocket, and for a moment considered tossing it into the mess of Arnie’s yard. Free of it at last. But, she never could. Holding it in her hand, looking at the cracked face, she saw a text from her sister, and now she’d wished that she had thrown the damned thing away. Mom’s dead, is what it said.
And the world went off kilter once again.
Her body was like lead and she suddenly noticed small things like how tight her shoes were and how itchy her skin had become; yet inside, she felt as empty as the street before her. No thought or feeling intruded into this moment, and it wasn’t until Max pulled on the leash, that she finally started taking steps forward. Scuffing the ground with her foot as she walked, moving farther and farther away from Arnie’s house, she made herself head back home. Only, after a few blocks, she sat down on the curb, pulled Max close, and buried her face in his neck.
Sitting in the uncomfortable airport chair, people on either side of her, Meg tried to focus on her book but kept getting distracted. The departure screen blinked overhead: Boston, Orlando, Aruba, Salt Lake City, Rome, Portland, Denver. Any of those places would do, she thought. Better than here or Baltimore, where she was going. The funeral seemed as though it wasn’t real and Meg wasn’t even sure of what to expect when she got there or even why she was going.
Meg left home when she was a teenager–bolted out of the house, slamming and breaking the door, much to her mother’s horror. Meg couldn’t take it anymore. After her mother had threatened to send her to rehab and her father agreed, she felt like she had no choice. She was angry with her mother, whom she always thought was on her side. But that time, she didn’t—she couldn’t—even look Meg in the eyes. Not that time. Refusing to do what they demanded, she knew she would be fine on her own, so she left, furious with their betrayal, and never looked back. Not once. Her sister had only recently tracked her down and sent benign texts from time to time, just enough to keep the lines of communication open. Her sister knew how she was and when not to push. Until the other night when she got that brief text, Meg had acted as if she didn’t have a family, which was the best way to manage, she believed.
Putting her finger on the page in front of her, she forced herself to concentrate on the words on Bury Me Standing, the book Ellie had loaned her about the gypsies. Gypsies were transient, detached. Survivors.
Then, a metallic voice called out, “Now boarding Flight 332 to Baltimore, all First class passengers and those with small children.”
She refused to look up, though, and began reading aloud softly, “It seemed extraordinary that people could continue their lives surrounded by the scorched and smashed remnants of the past. But they were defiant rather than stoical. One had to imagine that they were sticking it out and determinedly not moving a single charred brick as if the hope of compensation lay in what was so powerfully represented in all that rubble. They were doing what came naturally: carrying on, adjusting surviving.”
“Seats 18-25 now boarding.”
Putting her ear buds in, she turned on her music and continued to read.
Eventually, the seats around her emptied like sand out of a bucket. Meg tugged the plugs out of her ears, closed her book and saw the last airline attendant adjust her red blazer and close the door. Still, she stayed a while longer to watch the plane she was supposed to be on fly away.
It was time. She knew that she would pack her things and move on. Clutching Ellie’s book—one she wouldn’t now return—Meg walked through the airport, counting in her head and focusing on everything around her, noting the details of the carpet, the lights, the signs, forcing herself not to think about how she would not be telling the coffeehouse she was leaving and also how she would not be taking anymore of Ellie’s calls or let herself worry about where Arnie might have gone. How she would forget those she’d allowed herself to care about. In fact, they were practically out of her mind even now. As she reached the parking garage, without missing a step, she walked into the mugginess and toward her car. She would leave quickly. She would be alright. Her friends in Lafayette would let her stay with them for a while until she could get herself set up again. It was better this way.