Ainsley steers with her right hand -- her left's limp in her lap -- while she stares mostly out the driver's side window. She has left it raised because she hates the wind in her eyes more than she hates the sweat that steadily races down her face, neck and arms despite having shut every heater vent. And she's talking to herself: Now and then she falls in love, defined by fetishists, finding subtle faults with her hockey player's dark side, that malevolent nadir rustic, him.
Sofia copies her mostly and watches the curb roll past. She has lowered her window because, for the past month, the engine has been running hot and the heater won't shut off. In her lap sits a large paper sack, the top neatly folded twice; the EBT tally stapled to it totals $17.43. She knows there'll be no tip, for her anyway. She prefers those ever-rarer cash orders, the difference slipped into her pocket, and her mother asking, No bank then, Sofia? And always her pat reply: Another miserly slagger. The heat from room 308's hot and sour soup and chicken mai fun sloshes between toasty and scalding; Sofia's thighs sweat uncomfortably.
Ainsley hates this job, driving around City delivering grub to scutz who are, she says, too goddamn lazy to leave home, much less cook; hates that she feels the need to ferry Sofia along.
Between sixth and seventh grade, Sofia hates having to spend her summer break riding shotgun, even though her breasts haven't yet reached half their adult size, even though she has kissed only one boy, whose nervous hands stayed clamped on her hips, and as he held his hips away from hers, whom she couldn't even feel.
Ainsley remains convinced otherwise.
Sofia, having scanned photos of her mother when she was Sophia's age, knows they look identical, could be twins separated by a decade and a half. Despite Sofia's objections not only that Ainsley's assumption is completely wrong, but also that her word choices are phallic, Ainsley has justified her decision with: You're at that age when your destiny's sprouting, shooting outward and upward, reaching for what it thinks is the sun, but is nothing more than a dire settling.
If you ask Sofia, she thinks Ainsley just wants a listener, which she both is and isn't. It doesn't take much.
Ainsley either hasn't noticed yet or she lets Sofia think she hasn't, and if it's the latter, the daughter lets the mother believe it. Regardless, Ainsley talks, the years long past still present (as this is for Sofia), mostly about how she has only been loved once, and how, nine months later, a change purse had to be split at its hinges. Thank God for episiotomies, she'd groggily quipped to the obstetrician, meaning to say epidurals.
Once the nurse had handed Sofia to Ainsley, mother saw daughter as a much smaller than expected and plinked-out piece of loose, but no less, change.
Sofia has preserved many of these, Ainsley's oddly comforting nursery rhymes.
The mother's naked infant screams, yeasty pink goose-bumping from dank kitchen, as she carries it toward the stove. Cracked window-frames, warped floorboards. Historically: summer, mosquitoes; winter, frost-licks. Currently: seasons waffle, like stilettoed steps taken on unsure ground, so what you get whenever is anybody's guess.
She lays her infant on a baking sheet, yellow snot trailing along a new path. The mother has preheated the oven to 300º and removed its top rack; as she opens it, hinges screech, warmth wafts. She kisses the infant then slides the baking sheet onto the bottom rack. The infant's protests are muffled for a moment only to resume louder than before.
But is it really loose change if it's a single coin? Or's it a matter of sides? What Sofia means is, at least monthly, Ainsley will say that she isn't a she.
If you're not a girl, Sofia will egg -- despite knowing that her mother's 'trist, Dr. Wudam-Allegheny, wants both these delusions and the between-speaks redirected toward some concrete topic, as if words are so simply solid -- then how'd you have me?
I know, Sofia, Ainsley will reply, still can't reconcile that.
Because of her job, Ainsley's grandfathered icken (slang for the engine-class, that is: internal combustion and increasingly retro) always reeks, a humid combin of lo mein, moo goo gai pan, General Tso's and Szechwan chicken, pepper steak, sundry fried rice, cabbage, lobster, crab and shrimp, only recycled, sublimated into a weakly bound form of matter. Stale and hot and baked into the upholstery, the icken smells like a scout troop had camped in it after eating baked beans for dinner. Or Ainsley. At home, around family, flatulence is to be expected. A diffused reminder of one's slow rot, one's presence. But even in public, Ainsley just does not care: walking, bending over, to her letting loose without regard to how loud or wet it might be is the same principle as sneezing.
During her first week as a delivery driver, a job her case manager had gotten her, Ainsley had shocked the cooks and waitresses. Even though she registered their disgust only as a trilling cacophony, she deservedly felt more paranoid than usual. She'd said, Never've I felt such a snowy blank.
The owner of the restaurant, at the end of her first week, had finally asked, Could you do that in private? This he'd conspiratorially told Sofia a week ago, when school let out. Then he asked, She all the time like that?
Sofia had shrugged, said, Blame her upbringing, and waited.
So then you --
I've mostly raised myself, Sofia laughed. The owner consulted the name tag that Ainsley had stuck to Sofia's shirt, couldn't read the erratic scrawl, and asked how to pronounce her name. She replied, Sofa minus A plus E-ah, and because Ainsley had never referred to her boss by his real name, Sofia was obliged to ask, And yours?
See plus tan, like on beach. Your momma, her name it confuse me at first.
Ain't silly minus T and one L, Sofia said absent-mindedly.
Sofia felt her face warm.
Also, Ainsley has a habit of saying things, without prompting, that you'd rather not have heard. What's important to her, she generalizes, will be important to you. So, after telling you about her monthly peanut oil injections for hemorrhoids, she'll say, If I slept nude on white sheets, every evening I'd be the virgin bride, my honeymoon spent in the marriage bed in my husband's cottage. While every morning, to the villagers' approval, my husband'd be able to hang my honor on the clothesline.
Ainsley steers the icken into the front car park of a three-story extended stay hotel near the airport. Sofia's view is the breath and sigh of a grouping of lower-set hills, which soon flatten. Beyond this are a stretch of hurricane fencing, a no-man's land, and then the runway. Although it was no longer needed, the runway had been preserved, and after dark its severe blue lights, which the airport authority kept lit for effect, converged in a blurry wish.
It's been busy, Ainsley says, Maleficence can wait. Then: The warranty around midwife laughs out loud, and a bartender living with leaves --
Sofia pats her back pocket to make sure the pen's still there, gets out of the icken and walks as slowly as she can past the closed check-in office, up three flights of stairs, and then the length of the third-story. The hotel's a T slanting against the margin of the road. Backside, by the elevator, there's a soda machine that's so old it still has a coin slot, as well as another car park.
At the far edge of this car park, two brimful dumpsters sit in the shadow of a tall rock face atop which she can see the ass of a strip mall.
Sofia strolls down the back staircase, cuts through the car park, past the many vans lacking side- or rear-windows (she knows girls who dub these models Take-n-Rapes), over the far curb and the small sickle of weeds, to the rock face. She places her free hand against the faceted stone, which is cool, and wishes that flesh felt the same: angles instead of curves, intransigent instead of pliable, an ability to weather existence at a much slower pace.
Several lazy degrees from vert, with many juts and slits for holds, the rock face would be easy to scale. She'd like to try, but she knows that as soon as she has climbed too high to jump down safely, some animal would chance along, find and then eat 308's order.
Here, the original interstates had carved through hills, leaving high walls of striated granite and limestone along which there are foot-width ledges at twenty-foot intervals. Every year upon these walls, scutz tag their unending-but-ever-so-soon-to-end devotion to whomever with iridescent spray paint. Primer, she thinks, remembering a year before when Ainsley had scoured away a rust spot on the icken and then spray painted over it. The color of the paint was barely distinguishable from the rust, smoother if anything, and Sofia couldn't understand why all the effort had been necessary if that was the result. A nice base, Ainsley had answered, for what comes next. But there wouldn't be another paint job, and the misshapen blotch of muddy red was left to fade slowly like the accident Sofia's first period had created. Although Sofia never wants to see her name bombed up there, she has often wondered about those who -- on moonless nights, while traffic whooshed several stories below -- had spidered across those ledges.
Something burning and slimy drips onto her right knee: the soup tub's leaking. Sofia braces the sack from below as she races to and then up the back staircase.
A quickness outside time, one during which the mother shuts the oven, hugs herself. This isn't about malice -- she has none -- but she knows that the playground fodder -- her infant blackened, its lips and toothless gums shriveled -- would assume otherwise. She rips the oven door open, scoops her infant off the baking sheet, uses an elbow to activate the faucet. She bathes her infant under the tap for the hours and hours that will pass before its wailing weakens to a sustained whimpering. And for years after the scars have healed, faded, been outgrown, the mother will continue to see two bands running parallel to her child's spine.
The even-numbered rooms are front-side. Heading toward the front staircase, Sofia counts down -- 320, 318 -- she can see the icken -- 316, 314 -- can hear it idling -- 312, 310 -- and because the sack-bottom's soaked through now, she kicks 308 three times.
Sofia hears a door inside the room flung open, a cough, then a man saying, In a sec. The peep light's snuffed for several moments before the man answers the door. Green eyes, goatee, hairy chest, thick arms, dripping wet, he's covered by a towel that shows a slit of upper left thigh. The TV's blaring, the shower's rushing.
Wasn't expecting you so soon, the man chuckles. He points to a small circular table, Put it there, and, as he turns to the side, his towel slips.
Although he crouches quickly, Sofia's able to see -- as he stands, mumbling, Sorry, sorry, and covers himself -- the profile of his ass, the bobbling mushroom head of his penis, the broad flank of a thigh, and the everywhere swirls of hair, wet, dark, animal-like.
He glances between Sofia's face and his order. Something wrong?
Sofia's tongue feels anesthetized.
The man arches his eyebrows.
Leaking, it's, she mumbles finally, don't wanna --
The man whips his towel off, saying, Use this, as he folds it in half.
More soup dampens, scalds Sofia's hand. She glances at the ceiling, notices the fat and about-to-drip beads of water that have condensed in the corners; steam from the shower begins to sheet her face and arms like sweat.
The man lays his towel on the table, nods, Here.
Sofia's not looking at it, but she can't not see the lava lamp rise and fall below the awakening, the flushing, the movement of hair with each breath. She drops his order on the towel, then back-walks out the door.
The man casually checks his food. Where you need my sig?
Sofia shakes her head and sprints toward the staircase. Halfway there, though, her right leg wobbles at the ankle, slips out from under her. She lands on her palms and right shinbone, both her breath and voice stolen by the inertia of the crash.
Lifting her hands, she sees that both palms are cherried and peppered with tiny dents from the concrete walkway. She stretches her right leg out. The skin of her shinbone's broken, trickling blood, bruising already. Even though she has begun falling more often, and even though this fall isn't that painful -- just one of the many she'll have over the next four years until two separate surgeons proffer the same opinion, really, a decision she'll have no choice but to make, and that eight years since will still feel raw, defining, an itch unscratchable -- her eyes well. She gags on her pulse, the taste of copper.
She has seen footage on the med-surg channels of ribcages opened like Halloween-theme window shutters, of naked hearts getting operated on between beats, so she knows what that organ looks like: the controlled teetering, clenching, spewing. Sofia swallows hard as she stares at the blurred blue past the breath and sigh, trying to stop her heart for a few beats.
While this isn't what she wanted, not really, for the rest of her life, the mother will imagine: how the tale would've been passed from kid to kid, from grade to grade, during lunch, recess, slumber parties; how a family that's long since forgotten her (after the trial and media coverage subsided, and in a decision of profoundly poor taste) would've cremated the infant's remains, releasing the ashes into the river; and how, on that sentimentally frigid day, all would swear to have seen fish, fooled, nipping at the divide.
Without a word and still staring at the runway lights, Sofia plops herself in the icken, slams the door.
Any mortician can laugh and drink all night, Ainsley shifts the icken into gear, asks, Where's the tally?
Sofia pats her pockets, muttering, Fuck.
Bountiful son, Ainsley yawns. She shifts the car back to park, reclines her seat, and shuts her eyes. With a looking glass inferiority complex, she mumbles, but it takes a real support group to live with a jersey holstein --
Sofia steps out of the icken; the mouth of the cut yawns, smacks its lips. Climbing the three flights, every other step hurts. Finally, with her good leg, she kicks 308 hard several times. She uncaps the pen, watching as the peep light's snuffed again, this time longer than before. While waiting, Sofia's fear gives way first to frustration, then to disgust. She understands this pattern, her one-off role in it, and grins: It's his turn now.
308 opens the door quarter-way, hiding everything but neck, face, a clip of shoulder; the TV's still blaring, the shower's still rushing. What? he says, quickly glancing behind Sofia, to either side of her.
She shifts to her left, peering into the room. 308's order is still where she dropped it, the EBT tally still stapled to the paper sack. Steam wisps from the open top, a finger wavering in ultra-slow-mo.
That's criminal, you know, Sofia meets then holds 308's stare. He looks confused, his jaws clenched. The water, she tilts her head, extends the pen. Doncha waste a lake?
His face makes a What? expression, all irritated and condensed.
You were right; I do need your sig.
His expression shifts, collapses to a smoothed worry.
For your order, Sofia says. They like to track all that.
Sure, 308 clears his throat, yeah, takes the pen, hunches over the table, and signs his name.
The white's mine, Sofia informs him, and my ride's waiting...
A man exits room 310, turns to walk to the front staircase.
Sofia steps back so 308 will have to open the door wider in order to reach her. And it works, and he does, rushing halfway outside, mumbling, Shit, shit, his entire body looking as suddenly small and frightened as the thing bouncing between his legs.
The fuck? 310 spits, stops walking; the loud and coarse scuff of his boots, the sound of teeth grinding during one's sleep.
308 wads the slip in Sofia's hand, and then slams and locks the door.
310 asks her if she has been hurt. Staring at her hands, Sofia says, No. 310 starts banging a fist on 308's door, yelling, Why doncha open up now, pedop? After a few moments, he uses his wireless to call the police, telling Sofia, This'll do.
Walking away, Sofia realizes that her forehead has wrinkled, that her eyes have narrowed, that her lips are smiling, but she doesn't know whether she looks angry or happy.