Mary Ann

The gas station attendant wasn’t moving fast enough. A man in front of me huffed as the attendant scurried about the store fixing things, moving with a slight limp on her left side. She was all of sudden aware that there were people at her door, so she started rushing to please us guests. The man was irritated in an airy, hot headed in summer way. He left with a half-grunt when she told him to enjoy the rest of his day.

When it was my turn at the register, I asked why she apologized so much, and she said it’s something she does (and she was sorry that she was sorry). I do it a lot too, and I tried to tell her with my face and leaning in language. She wore glasses, gray, stringy hair that hung in her face, and heavy wrinkles that sagged on her cheeks. She had to be at least in her 60s. I don’t know; I can only really tell age by how worn-in a soul is. Hers was a broken in mitt, an old tune that everyone remembers the words to when the melody starts to really pick up.

My eyes were hungry for her smile. And then it happened, proud and tooth-heavy. I asked if she could break a five-dollar bill for me, and she made a ripping movement with her hands. I cackled at her joke.

We held up the line talking. Five people were soon standing behind me as I asked her questions about her life, which seemed to revolve around being a gas station attendant. I joked about rushing and time. With a crooked smile, I glanced at the fake watch wrapped around my wrist. She laughed. When she laughed it wasn’t scratchy. It was gurgly and girlish in the way that girls get when they think no one is looking.

Her name is Mary Ann, and she’s alive and limping but well in Empire, Michigan. If you run into to her, hold up the line and make each other laugh. It will carve out the browning parts of your insides.

A Day in Bay City

San Francisco — where buildings dot the horizon like assorted Easter eggs in a cramped basket and climb up up up on sidewalks. The streets give me that pre-fall kind of feeling. My eyes start off frog-like, protruding from their sockets. But I tone down my gaze, demote it to a mild shiftiness, still cautious and untrusting.

I think about a lot about brakes. About how continuously pressing on them is probably not so hot for cars. I wonder if anyone could last a lifetime here without a dent or scratch or two. How many precious hours of the day do drivers spend shaking their heads, waving their fists, or honking their horns?

We drive around and around, our car hiccupping down slopes between red lights. Sean chomps on a piece of the beef jerky we packed for road snacks.

“There’s a shitload of Teslas on the road. And blonde women driving Land Rovers. What’s up with that? And bikers — oh shit, I didn’t even see that guy,” he notes, his attention strictly on the road.

Sean steers our bare bones rental car. I imagine he’s homesick for his wet dream of a Suburu, probably missing him back and sitting in its lonely spot at the O’Hare airport.

“There’s also a lot of people without homes here,” is my first input.

I know we are on vacation, and I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but I can’t help but take more than a causal notice of the amount of people sitting like stones or wandering with no direction in mind. Back in Chicago, this is a commonplace sight and interaction. I’ve stood witness to lingering individuals as well as gotten as close as listening to a few stories, passing off a few cigarettes, purchasing a few sub sandwiches. But this feels different. It’s a clear pronunciation with extra glare. Here in the glittering California daylight, the numbers are overwhelming. Somehow in a city built on top of itself, with homes towering on hills, the lost and forgotten are at the base of it all, making it more visible, larger.

I try my best not to make anyone feel like an exhibit, but can’t help watch a man meticulously stack aluminum cans in a cart bubbling over with newspapers, bags, paper plates, lamp shades, and other odds and ends. He ties a rope to the end of the cart and drags it along the street with ease, singing in a voice as scratchy as the beard on his face. Here is a man at work if you look close enough. There are others working in between intersections. While we wait for a light to turn green, we watch two men shake hands and slip something into them.

There’s people slouched in lawn chairs, stooped over walkers, huddled under bustling, blue tarps used to cover cars to be sheltered from rain and people.

A woman, fast asleep on the ground, stirs at the sound of a sharp whistle. A cable car scrapes along metal strings in the sky like a marionette on wheels. The woman opens an oversized jacket, and out pops a puppy with fur the color of coffee with extra creamer and piercing, alert eyes that match the sky. The woman rubs her eyes in between petting the puppy. Her lids are puffy; she wears a look of exhaustion that says she hasn’t truly rested in years. She watches the passersby move swiftly past, not holding her gaze on anyone in particular, just the general blur of pants and sneakers whirring past her face. The puppy licks her hands as she continues to soothe him.

Sean clears his throat and redirects my attention. He suggests we explore the sights. We cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The traffic crawls, which gives us a chance to stare up at the high, metal beams.

“If you look to the right, you can see the Golden Gate. See, do you see?” Sean says.

Sean is wearing his boyish face. He’s all bright eyes and big smiles. Halfway through the bridge, I realize I have to pee. I cross my legs and whistle along with the radio. We’re listening to KFOG-FM, and the radio DJ keeps calling his listeners “fog heads.” I wait until I can’t take it any longer, and I inform Sean of my emergency. He makes it worse by telling me to stare into the bay water.

By the time we reach the Wharf, I’m screaming at Sean, demanding he pulls over. He barely reaches the curb as I rocket out the car door and haul myself into a fresh fruit market. I march bow-legged to the checkout area.

“Can I use your bathroom?” I wince in pain.

The cashier is a young man with a shaggy haircut and a nonchalant stare. “Uh yeah, but it’s outside. And I need your ID,” he said.

“I don’t have an ID on me right now. I literally just jumped out of a car, and I’m about to explode. Please, I gotta go.”

“Okay, but please return this key. Oh, but before you return it, be sure to use it to the lock the bathroom door.”

He hands me a silver ladle with a key hooked on the bottom of it. I thank him from the bottom of my bladder.

Outside the bathroom, a man asks me for a dollar. His teeth are nicotine-stained and his shirt is oily with a large hole near the collar. I search my pockets, even though I know my wallet is in the car.

“I’m real sorry, man. I don’t have anything on me,” I tell him, feeling guilty.

Sean and I drive on in silence. I apologize to him for snap-turtling him during my moment of urinary weakness.

“That’s okay. What’s next?”  he asks.

“I want to see the Full House house. I want to thank Uncle Jesse for helping me through my childhood.”

Instead, we visit the Palace of the Fine Arts, a colossal domed structure that sits behind a lagoon with a fountain and drowsy swans warming in the sun and curling into their wings. The giant building looks like it was taken from a page of Greek mythology. There’s a motif on the structure that especially catches my attention — the weeping women, statues who are stationed at the corners of boxes above the colonnade. I can’t see their faces. I only can tell they are crying and holding on the best they can.

People on bikes ride and families with strollers saunter along the lagoon. Someone is running with a GoPro strapped to the front of his helmet.

A young girl rides between Sean and me. She’s wearing a helmet with ladybugs and pants with butterflies. She brakes, and all four of her bike’s wheels screech to a halt.

“Excuse me,” she says. “But did you know that there’s ice cold lemonade over there?”

Sean and I follow her stubby finger to the stand aside the lagoon, manned by two children who look her age.

I smile at her. “Do you happen to know the kids working the joint?”

She bashfully twirls the glittery streamers pouring from her handlebars. “They’re my cousins,” she admits.

“Well, I am kind of thirsty. What about you, Sean?”

“I could use a drink,” Sean plays along.

“What’s your name?” I ask the girl.

“Sasha,” she giggles.

“Well, Sasha, I like your salesmanship. And also, your butterfly pants.”

Sean and I feel good about ourselves as we walk back to his car. We slurp down our lemonade.

Sean pats my knee, telling me he’s low on caffeine. We stop at a coffee shop on Columbus Avenue. I volunteer to retrieve the coffee, and Sean stays with the car. The woman working the register is a magnificent piece of street art — tattoos swimming down her arms, Cleopatra eyeliner, curling nails, bleached hair, a halter top, no bra. Lana Del Rey gushing from a radio. The shop has a couch, a few tables and barstools lined up along the window.

Two women sip coffee at one of the tables, setting their cups down every now and then to interject an exclamation into a conversation that’s muffled against the sound of grinding beans.

A man lumbers in. He wears a wrinkled plaid shirt and a black hat with a straight bill and a patch of worn thread. He’s carrying a large monitor in one arm and pulling off a backpack with his other arm. He sits down at a table behind me.

I order an espresso and a mocha latte.

“Excuse me, but you can’t do that in here,” says the cashier.

“What … ” I hesitate.

I check my hands and glance at my feet to see if maybe my limbs are doing something without my knowledge.

“Sir, you need to leave,” the cashier says in a stern voice. She moves from the behind the register and steps into the sitting area.

I swing around to face the monitor man. He’s holding a blunt the size of a Cuban cigar in one hand and an orange BIC lighter in the other.

“Are you serious right now?” he asks, lurching from his seat.

“I mean, it’s one thing if you’re going to sneak it into the bathroom. But like, really, right in the open? Not cool. This is a business, and I need you to leave,” she says. Around her wide eyes are black eyelashes, straight as raised cat hair.

“Come on, Bro. I buy a coffee every single day here, Bro. You’re trippin’ right now, Bro,” the man says, raising his voice, taking a step closer to the cashier.

The women who were talking at another table begin to quickly gather their belongings. They tiptoe out the door. I’m the ghost in middle of the coffee shop with my mouth hanging ajar, standing numb and still, wondering if I should inform this guy that the cashier is not, in fact, a “bro.”

I look into the man’s eyes for the first time. There’s a yellowish tint in them. His eyebrows are scrunched together tight enough to become one brow. I can see the individual drops of spit flying out of his mouth. I’ve never seen someone angrier. He doesn’t seem to be looking at the cashier though, rather beyond her, like he’s confronting the demon standing on the other side of her body.

“Why are you playing me like this, Bro? I’m a good customer,” he pleads, his voice cracking with desperation.

“Leave. Now, before I call the police,” she thunders.

This sends him spilling over like hot coffee. “Bro, fuck the police. I’m not leaving. I’m gonna bust your face in, Bro. I’m going to break everything in this motherfucking store, Bro.”

I feel as inanimate as the plastic lid I begin to stare at in the middle of a table. I feel like I should say something. Except, I don’t know who to sympathize with. Should I utter words to soothe or distract him? Or should I back her up, tell him to get the hell out?

In the end, I choose motionlessness. I choose silence.

They both stare wildly at each other, daring each other to move first. The cashier makes the first move. She pulls out her phone from her back pocket.

She dials. Her voice quakes into her cellphone, “Yes, I need help. There’s a man here who is threatening to put his hands on me … Yes, it’s a real emergency … I swear … Yes, this is a business … Can you please come?”

Why does she have to convince the police to come? Aren’t they supposed to show up, no questions asked? I brew a silent war for her and other women who work alone.

He whirls around, rips his things from the table in one movement and flees the coffee shop.

“I’m so sorry this happened,” I tell the cashier woman who finally allows her face to appear shaken; creases line her forehead, which she rubs with her palm. She nods without really hearing my words, and I feel as if there’s nothing I can say to void the current events.

Business as usual, she finishes up my order and hands me my drinks. She follows me out without a word and locks the store behind me.

I walk to the car. Inside, Sean taps away at his phone.

“What took so long?” he asks.

I say nothing. I close the car door and take a sip of my coffee. As we drive, I scan the streets for the fleeing man.

Monsters in your rear-view mirror

“Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.” ~John Updike

It’s 8:50 in the morning, and I’m sharing the road with the bag-eyed stragglers who have yet to make it into work. The coffee I shamelessly slurped from a lidless mug has yet to kick in.

Stopped at a light, I peer into my visor’s mirror and use the inside of my sleeve to wipe off yesterday’s leftover makeup. I check the clock again. 8:51, splendid. If I keep this pace up, I can waltz into my place of work on time and grace my co-workers with my disheveled appearance.

My attention staggers to a blue blur in my rear view mirror. Someone is coming up on me fast. My instinct is to move, but instead I check my speedometer. I’m going 50 mph in a 45 mph zone.

No, I will not move, I say in my head to the woman in the four-door blue Mazda. And surprise, surprise, there’s a car on the right side of me that I am keeping pace with.

Sound familiar? Go on, admit it. I won’t judge. I know you have blocked in a speed demon on the road before.

Time for my own confessions: I am not a meek driver. I am usually going at least 5 to 7 mph over the speed limit at all times save for school or work zones. In other words, I won’t mow down a senior citizen crossing the street. I make an ample amount of left hand turns out of risky driveways and bulldoze through yellow lights if I believe in my heart of hearts I can make it. Maybe I’ve had one too many Taco Bell burritos behind the wheel. I’m not an aggressive driver, but I’m also not a purring pussycat.

I will also admit that I am not immune to getting angry at other drivers. Have I ever truly endangered anyone’s life before? Not yet, no. For this, I still have time.

But lately, I have gotten this curious buzzing heat in my ears that I can’t seem to shake off. I have noticed a slight moldy gray color on my knuckles when I grip my steering wheel a little too hard. I sometimes feel something twitching underneath my face, a facial expression of pure constipation. The face of “I’m so angry I look like I need to shit.” What I am describing to you are the beginnings of road rage.

A few times I have even let it possess me. I can’t help myself. Even in traffic, when I know I’m not going anywhere, when I know glaring at the person next to me won’t get me home any sooner, I feel the need to let everyone know that I am just a miserable as they are.

During these times, phrases like: “No, no. By all means, you first, fuck face” and “Wow, you’re a flying douchebag” have left my cynical lips. No one can ever hear me, of course. It just makes me feel better in a pathetic sort of way. Speaking these words to myself somehow sobers my rage.

I have yet to let it escalate further—being drunk behind the wheel without prior alcohol consumption. I’m sorry, but some people who drive the way they do, intoxicated by their own anger, might as well be drunk. It’s a special form of bat shit crazy.

The woman driving the blur of Mazda behind me resembles a winged, fanged creature that probably escaped from Hell. She wears a pair of sunglasses, but I can imagine her eyes rolling Exorcist style into the back of her head.

She begins to cling to my car’s ass, willing it move faster. There’s a line of traffic further down the road and a car right next to me. Like Melville’s Bartleby, I prefer not to, and choose to do nothing. I continue to drive the same speed.

She’s livid. I can see her mouth reciting incantations in my rear view mirror. I would be lying to say I don’t get some satisfaction at the sight of her babbling mouth starting to foam.

Her car begins to rock in between the lines of the left lane. I check my mirror. Her mouth is wide open now. I can see her teeth, white as shark teeth before they’re covered in mealtime blood. She looks hungry for Sarah flesh.

When that won’t move me, she lays into her horn, and she doesn’t let off. By this point, my exhaustion has officially worn off. Her horn screams and wakes me up from the sleep I haven’t even had yet. For half of a mile, this woman holds her horn. I feel like my car is getting raped.

This is the part where I would normally back down in order to save my life, but there’s nowhere for me to go. Because we’ve stopped. There’s a wall of traffic in front of me and on the other side of me.

Cruella de Vil skins ten puppies before she rolls down her window to call out to me. “Hey you stupid bitch, if you don’t know how to use the left lane, don’t drive in it! Some people have to get to work!!!!!” I watch her beat her steering wheel like a drum at the beat of every syllable she spits outside the window like an enraged camel.

I give her the benefit of the doubt when I wonder if she’s on her way to a hospital or crime scene. As she stuffs her neck more outside her window to scream at me, she reveals a long strand of glossy pearls dangling in front of a ruffled blouse. She probably works in an office like me, not anywhere she’s saving lives. I wonder if there’s any amount of money in the world that gives someone the thumbs up to drive like this.

“Learn how to fucking drive the speed limit! It’s the left lane!! THE LEFT LANE!!” Her voice is hoarse by now. I swear I can actually hear the scratchy, rawness in the back of her throat.

I watch intently. I’m entranced by the monster in my rear view mirror. I think about taking a picture of her so I have a visual aid to accompany this story when I tell it later.

She visibly heaves. She pauses for a second, most likely collecting her breath and saliva for the next round of obscenities. She was burning herself out, screaming, flailing, and savagely pointing to the left lane. She looks like Gumby on fire, all lit up in my mirror.

I talk myself out of whipping around and telling this lady to forget about work, and to drive herself to a facility where she can be assessed properly. Don’t saying anything, Sarah. Keep your calm, woman.

My stomach quakes with acidic hatred as I grip my steering wheel until my palms hurt. I can’t take it. I roll down my window. “Are you serious right now?” I ask her.

That sets her off even more. I watch her throttle out of her seat belt. This is it, I think. This is the part where I die. I have heard stories about people getting out of their cars with a baseball bat, crowbar, or weapon of some kind and using it to smash another person’s car.

The man in the white Honda next to me intervenes. He’s as shaken as I am. “Hey lady, where the hell do you want her to go? Do you see?” He waves his hand, spanning the view in front of us. “We’re all stuck in traffic! No one is going anywhere!”

She won’t bother with his logic. It doesn’t make sense to her. “THE LEFT LANE!!” she bleats raggedly.

Finally, traffic begins to crawl forward. When she gets the first chance she breaks away from behind me. As she passes me on the right side, she shoves her French manicured middle finger out her window.

Further down the road, I pass her up as she gets sandwiched between two trucks. She slams her fists into the steering wheel again like a toddler who just won’t get her way.

5 minutes away from work, I replay the scene in my head. I think about the bulge in her neck, her bugged out eyeballs. I don’t think I have ever seen a woman look less unattractive. What is it about driving to work that makes some people so ugly? Is the job really worth it if this is what you look like going to it?

Nope, not one bit. Luckily, I found a way to curb my own road rage. Whenever I begin to feel that familiar homicidal gurgling in the pit of my stomach, I will think of her. So thanks. Thank you, Ms. Mazda. Thank you for giving me a terrifying taste of what I can become when I begin to let my job, my time, my life control me.







Late ride through Chicago

The moon should wear a helmet during late rides.
There are those who do more than steal away night;
they become it.

In darkness, we press our feet
onto metal platforms,
swivel on circles to see
strands of lights woven
into wheel spokes
like cobwebs.

Miniature disco balls,
Styrofoam sticks,
and plastic wristlets
burst with LED bulbs
Greens and reds
glow like coal
in their containers’ bellies,
grow dull like clouds
pregnant with fireworks.

All this so onlookers may see
our neon silhouettes
rotate on flashy machinery.

There’s a man with music
blaring from a pair of speakers
crackling on inconsistent cement;
another man carting a wagon of PBR
cans he cracks open with his teeth—
“One for the road,” he cheers
to bystanders outside bars.

We plot the right lane
like dots on a scatter graph,
staggering along an unknown line.

It’s not a race as the countdown begins.
At the finish, first and last won’t matter.

We sprout wings over Chicago.
Our reach spans the tips of towns,
topples into China, Old, and West.
We coo pigeon calls in tunnels—
voices bounce like graffiti
on brick walls, billboards,
rusty pipes, and road signs.

“Can you hear us?” ask the curled letters, furled like lips.
“Can you see us?” the neon lights swim with bioluminescence.

Our merriment meets resistance:

In Humboldt Park,
A van cuts into the sidewalk.
It collides with bikers busy
with daydreams in the dark,
ignorant of anger sitting
behind a sliding door.

“Move out of the way.”
“Run them over,” a woman
tolls like a church bell
rusted by premonition.

It’s not a race as the countdown begins.
At the finish, first and last won’t matter.

The driver inches, plows forward
as one rider bends like a blade
of grass under the car’s weight.
Once hit, he begins to shake his fists
at faces muffled by tinted windows.

The rider’s crowd jeers for vengeance,
hovers like crows over cornered meat.

But the van claims its territory.
It steals away with the bike,
screaming metal onto the street.

The undercarriage is on fire.
Sparks fly and morph
into orange nightmares,
close encounters
with our own kind.