There’s been a number of former car owners flung out onto the gravel, right around here; knifed, heads crushed in, bleeding to death. No one bothers with those cases any more, with finding out who did it, because that would take time, and only rich people can afford to have police. All those things we never appreciated until we didn’t have them, as Grandma Win would say, Charmaine thinks regretfully.
Grandma Win refused to go to the hospital, once she got really sick. She said it would cost too much, and it would have. So she died right in the house, with Charmaine taking care of her up to the end. Sell the house, sugar pie, Grandma Win said, when she was still lucid. Go to college, make the most of yourself. You can do it.
And she had made the most of herself. She’d majored in Gerontology and Play Therapy, because Grandma Win said that way she’d be covered both ends, and she had empathy and a special gift for helping people. She’d got her degree.
Not that it makes any difference now.
If anything happens we’re on our own, Stan tells her too frequently. It’s not a comforting thought. No wonder he’s so rapid, those times he does manage to cram himself in on top of her. He needs to be on the alert all the time.
So instead of touching Stan last night, she whispered, “Sleep tight. Love you.”
Stan said something. “Love you too,” maybe, though it came out more like a mumble, with a kind of snort in it. Probably the poor man was almost asleep. He does love her, he said he’d love her forever. She was so grateful when she found him, or when he found her. When they found each other. He was so steady and dependable. She would like to be that way too, steady and dependable, although she has doubts that she can ever manage it because she’s so easily startled. But she needs to toughen up. She needs to show some grit. She doesn’t want to be a drag.
They both wake up early – it’s summer now, the light comes in through the car windows, too bright. Maybe she should fix up some curtains, thinks Charmaine. Then they could get more sleep and not be so crabby.
They go for day-old doughnuts at the nearest strip mall, double chocolate glazed, and make some instant coffee in the car with their plug-in cup heater, which is a lot cheaper than buying the coffee in the doughnut place.
“This is like a picnic,” Charmaine says brightly, though it isn’t much like a picnic – eating stale doughnuts inside the car with a light drizzle falling.
Stan checks the job websites on their pre-paid phone, but that’s depressing for him – he keeps saying, “Nothing, fuck, nothing, fuck, nothing” – so Charmaine says why don’t they go jogging? They used to do that when they had their house: get up early, jog before breakfast, then a shower. It made you feel so full of energy, so clean. But Stan looks at her like she’s out of her mind, and she sees that yes, it would be silly, leaving the car unattended with everything in it such as their clothes, and putting themselves at risk in addition, because who knows what might be hiding in the bushes? Anyway, where would they jog? Along the streets with the boarded-up houses? Parks are too dangerous, they’re full of addicts, everyone knows that.
“Jogging, fuck,” is all Stan says. He’s bristly and grumpy, and he could use a haircut. Maybe she can smuggle him into the bar where she works, later, with a towel and a razor, and he can give himself a wash and a shave in the men’s room. Not luxury surroundings, but at least water still comes out of the tap. It’s rusty red in colour, but it comes out.
PixelDust is the bar. It opened in the decade when there was a digital mini-boom here – a bunch of interactive startups and app creators – and was meant to lure in those kinds of geeky kids, with toys and games such as foosball and pool and online car racing. There are big flatscreens where they once ran silent movies as cool wallpaper, though one of them is broken and the rest show ordinary TV shows, a different one on every screen. There are some little nooks and corners meant for brainy conversations – Think Tank, that section was called. The signage is still there, though someone’s crossed out
The place wouldn’t stay open, except that it’s now the hub for what she supposes – knows, really – is the local clutch of drug dealers. It’s where they meet their suppliers and customers; they don’t need to worry about getting caught, not here, not any more. They have a few hangers-on, plus the two hookers, just high-spirited girls, no more than nineteen. They’re both very pretty; one is a blonde, the other has long dark hair. Sandi and Veronica, decked out in T-shirts with sequins and really short shorts. They were in college before everyone around here lost their money is what they say.
They won’t last is Charmaine’s opinion. Either someone will beat them up and they’ll quit, or they’ll give up and start taking those drugs, which is another way of quitting. Or a pimp will move in on them; or one day they’ll just drop through a hole in space and no one will want to mention them, because they’ll be dead. It’s a wonder none of those things have happened yet. Charmaine wants to tell them to get out of here, but where would they go, and anyway it’s none of her business.
When they aren’t busying themselves in the Fuck Tank, they sit at the counter and drink diet sodas and chat with Charmaine. Sandi told her they only do the hooking because they’re waiting to get real work, and Veronica said, “I work my ass off,” and then they both laughed. Sandi would like to be a personal trainer, Veronica would choose nursing. They talk as if these things might really happen one day. Charmaine doesn’t contradict them, because Grandma Win always said miracles really can happen, such as Charmaine coming to stay with her – that was a miracle! So who knows? They’ve been there a couple of the times that Stan has picked her up for work, and she couldn’t help but introduce them. Out in the car he said, “You shouldn’t get so cozy with those hookers,” and Charmaine said she wasn’t that cozy with them, but they were quite sweet really, and he said,
Once in a while outsiders blunder in, young guys usually, tourists from other, more prosperous countries or cities, going slumming, looking for cheap thrills; then she needs to be alert. She’s come to know a lot of the regulars, so they leave her alone – they know she’s not like Sandi and Veronica, she has a husband – and only someone new would think of trying to hit on her.
She has the afternoon shift, when it’s pretty quiet. The evening would be better for tips, but Stan says he doesn’t want her to do that because there are too many drunken lechers, though he may have to give in on that if she’s offered the slot, because their cash stash is getting really small. In the afternoons it’s only her and Deirdre, who’s left over from the cushier days of PixelDust – she was once a coder, she has a tattoo of a Moebius strip on her arm and still wears her hair in two little-girl brunette pigtails, that Harriet-the-Spy girl-geek look. And there’s also Brad, who does the scowling at the rowdy customers when necessary.
She can watch TV on the flatscreens, old Elvis Presley movies from the sixties, so consoling; or daytime sitcoms, though they aren’t that funny and anyway comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people’s sadness. She prefers the more dramatic shows where everyone’s getting kidnapped or raped or shut up in a dark hole, and you aren’t supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to be upset, the way you’d be if it was happening to you. Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people.
She used to watch a show that wasn’t a sitcom. It was a reality show called
Sometimes she chats with Dierdre. They tell their life stories, and Dierdre’s is worse than Charmaine’s, with fewer kindly adults like Grandma Win, and more molesting, and it has an abortion in it; which isn’t a thing Charmaine could ever bring herself to do. She’s on the pill for now, she gets them cheap from Deirdre, but she’s always wanted a baby, though how she’ll cope if she gets pregnant by mistake with Stan and her living in their car she has no idea. Other women – women in the past, tougher women – have dealt with babies in confined spaces, such as ocean ships and covered wagons. But maybe not cars. It’s hard to get smells out of car upholstery, so you’d have to be extra careful about the spitting up and so forth.