Book of Matches published Bloodlines in Sept., 2023
I’ve been trying hard to be organized about walking to work. Purse over right shoulder, left hand in pocket, I march across the living room, stepping over kids, dogs, clothes, and newspapers. Ma waves at me, says, “Jesus, you look stiff! Loosen up, will you?”
“What would I do if I didn’t have you to say that to me? I say. Then I slam the door and walk right, left, right, left all the way to the box factory. But there’s always something. Yesterday, the neighbor’s dog ran out and chewed on my ankle like it was just another old bone. The more I kicked, the harder he bit. I screamed and hit him with my purse. He let go, but not before ruining my stocking and making my ankle bleed.
This morning was even worse. I was walking along, when a man drove his car up on the sidewalk in front of me. At first I thought he was going to it me, but then I realized he’d miss me by six feet. The tires made one loud thud and then the undercarriage sparked as it scraped over the curb. The man got out, scowling, and walked toward me. I got scared, and ran the other way. That’s why I was ten minutes late for work. I’d never been late for work before.
I can’t stop thinking about that man. Did he mean to run over me? Catch me? Will he try tomorrow? I can’t concentrate on my job. The boxes come down the conveyor belt, in a perfect, straight row, timed so I can fold them in the proper shape and stack them. They can only be folded where the’re marked, so each box has only one potential shape. Today, they arrive before I’m ready for then. They fall off and scatter all over the floor.
While my supervisor shuts it down, I take a break. Upstairs, I drink a coke and study a painting on the lunch room wall. It is a tree, as they should be, instead of the way they are: a large, thick vertical band with smaller perpendicular bands arranged across it in order of size. Why can’t trees grow like that? Instead of coming out of the ground, sprouting leaves and dropping them? The world is insane. I never noticed it until I started working at the factory. Here, it’s bright lights, straight edges, clean surfaces, precise measurements, and organization. It is soothing, tranquil. But out there, oh God! If a dog can run out and bite you for no reason, why not a dinosaur? The last few months, I haven’t wanted to leave here and go home. Right outside the building, the shadows of trees snake across the ground as I run past.
By the time I get home every evening, I am in a panic. And there’s Ma, cooking dinner with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth, a cloud of smoke around her head, and ashes falling into the food. You can’t tell her mood by looking at her. Sometimes, I try to do something about that house. I start at one end of the kitchen counter and put things away. Where do you put a pot when there are pillows, old shoes, and canned goods in the cupboard? What do you do with a fifteen-year-old Christmas card? Ma says, “Don’t you dare throw that away.” So I put it under her bed with the pots she has stored there. How did I come to be related to her? Who cast the black and white dice that put me there? Or in front of that man’s car this morning?
I finish the coke and put the empty bottle in the crate beside the machine where there is a little square for each one. As I leave the room, I run into Moses. He grew up in Mosetown, Pennsylvania. Nobody knows his real name. I find this fascinating. Moses offers to help me get caught up. He stands next to me at the conveyor belt, muscles moving under a blue tee-shirt as he bends the cardboard pieces into boxes that I staple. Over lunch I tell him he folds boxes as if he were playing the piano. “You slide your fingers,” I say, “tap them, make mysterious music.”
He laughs, “Someday, I’ll play for you.”
“You actually play? You touch a little rectangle and sound comes out,” I say. “How illogical.”
“Not when you know how a piano works. It’s all very logical: cause and effect.”
“Maybe it is,” I say, believing him. Moses seems to have all the answers. I wonder where he gets his confidence. “Do you see any hidden explanations for the erratic behavior of that tree outside?” I point at the window.
Moses walks over there. “Erratic behavior?”
“Those branches stick out every which way.”
“The tree is logical, too,” he says. “It grew from a cone that held its pattern.”
“Why can’t it grow like the tree in the break room?”
“You can’t expect trees to grow that way.”
I don’t want to tell him that I do, so I say, “Thanks for the help. I better get busy.”
“I’ll meet you after work,” he says. “We’ll go for a beer.”
During the afternoon, I take the boxes off one at a time, fold and stack them at the same height, width and depth. I decide a beer with Moses would be nice. When the last bell rings, I grab my coat and go outside. Moses is waiting. He threads my hand through the crook of his arm and into his pocket. We walk away from the factory.
“After you left,“ he says, “I went to the break room and studied that painting.
“It bothers me,” he says, “because it does look like a tree. But it also looks like a crucifix.”
I think about this. Is he trying to frighten me? Was there something straight-forward and logical about the crucifix? We walk down one block and across another, looking in the barred windows of pawn shops and army surplus stores. Soon we are standing outside a tavern. It”s raining. I touch the smoky, greasy window.
“We need to find a well-lighted bar with stainless steel counters and floors and clean windows,” I say.
“I like the looks of this place,” he says. “Let’s go in there.”
“It looks dirty to me.”
“It won’t hurt you,” he says.
I wonder how he knows this, but I’m not ready to leave him so I say, “All right. I have to go to the bathroom anyway.”
He sits at the bar and orders two beers while I find the ladies room. A fat girl sleeps on the floor in the corner. I think this is a trap. She’ll wait for me to pull my pants down and then she’ll grab my purse. I’d run after her, with my pants around my ankles, screaming, “Thief!” But then, I think, if she lunges for my purse, she can have it and my last two dollars. But even when I flush the toilet, the fat girl doesn’t stir. She only snores there among the discarded paper towels and strings of pink toilet tissue. Is it alcohol, meth, heroine? I’m a little envious.
I go sit next to Moses. He’s moving his fingers over the bar, pretending it’s a piano. The bar maid has large, gray eyes. Her hair hangs in a perfectly straight line across her back. “My name is Julie,” she says. “I am a Yakima Indian. My mother was a Blackfoot.”
Moses says, “My name is James Atwater, but they call me Moses.” He orders two schooners of what’s on tap.
After Julie steps away, I whisper. “Did you ask about her bloodlines?”
Moses shakes his head. “She never said a word until you sat down.”
“Why’d she say that?”
“It’s important to her.” He stops moving his hands to take a drink, but then he starts again.
“Why did you tell her your name?”
“It’s important to me.”
“Of course it is.”
Maybe he’s not the person I think he is. I wish he’d quit pretending to play the piano.
The door flies open and a thin, dark-haired man wearing huge glasses staggers in. “Butch the Bitch,” Julie says. “He’s drunk again.” She rinses a glass and sets it on a towel. “He got so drunk on his birthday that he leftt his bottle of vodka. You’re not supposed to bring your own alcohol in, so I took it home. I don’t even like vodka.” She lines the glasses along the edge of the towel. “Hey, Butch,” she says, “you want a cup of coffee or are you drinking yourself unconscious again?”
Butch says, “Bring us all a beer.” He keeps sliding off his stool. Julie sets out another round.
“Why do they call you Butch the Bitch?” I ask.
“When I was a kid, my Dad bought me two bitch malemutes.”
“Not a bitch and a male?” Moses asks.
Butch just drinks. He is semi-conscious. His long dark hair falls around his face. When he brushes it away, he bumps his glasses. As he straightens his glasses, he starts to slide off the stool. He catches himself on the edge of the bar.
“I’d ask the same question,” Julie says.
In the bathroom again, I find the girl gone and a spattering of blood in the sink. I wash it down. It leaves pink trickle lines on the porcelain that I do not scrub off. When I get back to bar, Butch is saying, “I want another beer.” Julie brings him one. Butch takes a big drink, says, “I ain’t paying.”
“Don’t give me trouble,” Julie says. “Give me the money.”
“If I have to call the cops on you again, you won’t be able to come in here anymore.”
“Big loss,” Butch says.
Moses puts his hand in Butch’s back pocket, pulls out his wallet, pays Julie and puts the wallet back. “Keep the change,” he says to Julie. They both laugh.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I say.
Butch says, “Goddamit, I ain’t paying.”
Moses only smiles. He stops thumping his fingers on the bar.
Julie puts Butch’s change down in front of him. “He doesn’t even know it’s already done,” she says. “I should’ve kept it.”
“There’s blood in the bathroom,” I say.
Julie goes to the bathroom. When she comes back, she says, “I’ll be damned. Did you see anyone bleeding?” She pulls my hands down to look at my wrists. “You didn’t do anything stupid?”
“Somebody did. I figured it was you.”
“How do you know somebody didn’t just have a cut?”
“I just know.”
“Do you believe that?” I ask Moses.
“I didn’t see the blood,” he says.
“Do you think I’d do that?”
“There was a girl sleeping in there when we first got here,” I say.
“Why would anybody sleep in the bathroom?” Moses asks.
“I didn’t see her come out,” Julie says.
I am frustrated. I finish my beer and set the glass inside the ring it made on the bar. Somehow, they have let me down. “I’m leaving,” I say.
“I’ll walk you home,” Moses says.
“I’ll go by myself.”
I sling my purse over my right shoulder, put my left hand in my pocket and march towards home. There are so many unwritten, unspoken rules. Someday soon I’m finding a place of my own, I decide. A place with no trees. Right now, it’s too dark for the trees to make shadows, but I know they are there.