Wives pick through the avocados, press the rinds, sinking their thumbs into the meat to ensure that this one will produce quality guacamole. In the carts, small children wind their fingers around their metal cages, burn their palms on the nylon safety belts better suited for suicide. Where are the husbands? The only man in sight stands behind the chilled meat counter. He leans now, over the grinder, making sausages. His hand rests on the control, missing an index finger, perhaps an accident that someone has served on a plate of hors d’ouerves two plates down from the guacamole. Almost unseen, a teenager with unnaturally blonde hair sweeps the floors, down each aisle in an easy, angled movement that dances under the wheels of the carts, the only sound the leather pants she wears in defiance of the dress code. The one she tells her manager she would follow if only the job provided health insurance and now she slips a pack of Virginia Slims from behind the counter and steps outside. Nearly invisible, and she promises herself she only took the pack because wages are so low they really stole them from her anyway.
1974 Ford Maverick. Red body. Interior upholstered with unidentifiable grey fabric. 239,052 miles. Driven far enough to go around the whole world and somehow, she’s never left California. She finishes work and cruises. Round and round and round and always back to where she started: the vast blacktop in front of the supermarket, where the carts roll slowly in the wind. She likes to rev the engine when she takes the car out. Trail her cigarette out the window, let the end of it blaze red when the oxygen rushes by. She drives the automatic like a stick. She caresses her toes where the clutch should be — gently, gently — and the engine sings back as if it knows. As if she can never stall out.
Jones and Fuller
They lean across the fence that separates their yards. Like maybe Mrs. Jones’s son threw something into Mrs. Fuller’s petunias. Or like maybe Mrs. Fuller’s cat ran out the back door today and she’s searching for it in the boxwood hedge on the other side. Anyone who looks will think it’s innocent. Not that they’d do anything. Jones is an accountant and Fuller has never left the county. She doesn’t even believe in San Francisco. That’s where she tells her children the Easter Bunny lives. It’s where Santa Claus goes on vacation. They tell her they’ve seen pictures at school and they want to see the bridge — maybe even drive over it. Doesn’t she realize it’s only three hours away and they’ve never been on vacation? She says some people die instantly, nothing should be judged based on time. Go make your bed. Instead she spends her time imagining Mrs. Jones adding numbers in her head, how she still remembers how to write out the long division, how shocking her red nails look laid against the black calculator buttons. Mrs. Jones offers to help her balance her checkbook. She accepts. She could die anytime.
Night-time. One hour to close. They’ve reassigned her to stocking shelves. She doesn’t understand why a wife who walks by puts both a can of tomato paste and tomato sauce in her cart. She doesn’t understand how olive oil and mayonnaise end up in the same aisle. She rests her arm on the shelf above her and gazes down to the meat counter. She counts the butcher’s fingers, all nine, just to be sure. The carts around her squeak disharmoniously as they move past. Maybe someday he’ll slip again and the whole place will just fall silent. She imagines how she’d jump in, put the finger on ice, offer to drive him to the big hospital an hour away where she’d abandon him in surgery and never look back.
She watches him unplug the machine before he cleans the inside of it, wiping the small scraps of meat away from the stainless-steel cylinder. He shakes out the rag, splattering the floor. She needs a new plan. He’s clearly learned his lesson. The machine sparkles now. She can see the faint tracing of her reflection even from here, next to the canned tomato products, mayonnaise behind her and oil to the left.
At the end of the aisle, she pushes the laden stock cart around the corner. Her mother stands in the avocados, where the bustle has died down. Her brother sits in the cart, yanking at the nylon strap, rocking himself around just enough that the cart wheels hiss. Her mother doesn’t buy avocados, she knows, doesn’t believe in them. In any fairy foods. These ones come from Mexico and her mother believes in no such place. And yet her fingers keep stroking them. Perhaps to see if they are wax and will entertain her child.
Mrs. Fuller worries she will die surrounded by chintz. She sits in her nightgown, her hand covering a large, pink flower in full bloom on the bedspread. The bed, the wallpaper, the Sears-Roebuck art — it’s all the same. It surrounds her. Her husband moans or sings in the shower behind the locked bathroom door and she feels it coming on like an allergy. A knock. Her daughter enters, black leather pants disappearing in a shadow, something that isn’t there. The eye can’t recognize it, after all. It isn’t real. Goodnight. Almost grudgingly. Why are you still dressed? No answer except the shutting door, muffled by the cacophony of flowers everywhere. She squeezes the mattress to see if it’s ripe. In the bathroom, the shower turns off, and she slips between the covers without disturbing his half of the bed. She’s asleep before he’s even brushed his teeth.
She’s old enough, but never asks for a license. Her parents would ask Why? Where are you going? And what can you tell someone who isn’t sure what happens when you drive far enough to have to fill gas on the same trip? Every night they’re asleep by eleven, so no one hears her as she slips out, as she turns the engine over and backs out of the driveway. She drives back to the blacktop and under the flood lights, she lifts the hood and examines each part before setting off down the road that curls up into the mountains. She tells herself a story, the same one each night, hoping it ends differently.
Fuller and Jones
The checkbooks are balanced and everything is accounted for. They sit in her kitchen. Chintz china, the kind with pastel colored flowers that take themselves too seriously, sits on the shelf. Staring. Chairs with rose petal cushions that never seem to bloom. Lipton tea. A kettle that whistles as it shoots steam toward the plaster ceiling. White walls, of course. Eggshell, though, and a particular shade that took too long to select. Jones: clean stripes and penny loafers that look out of place against her stockings. The worn leather belt around her waist still settles into that spot in the same way as the first time Fuller noticed it. Jones walks her through the process. $32.00 electric bill and $10.00 water usage. That’s $42.00. Fuller leans back, impressed. $43.08 on groceries on May twelfth, and if you put the change — 92 cents — in the charity tin, you can save yourself the trouble of decimal places. That’s an accountant’s trick. Jones doesn’t have to think about numbers anymore. They just roll off her tongue and seem to calculate themselves. Her eyes on Fuller’s dress — white and cotton, hanging precariously just over the edge of her knee. So as she explains how to separate the debits and credits so the ledger is easier to manage, she’s picturing her in that dress, maybe on a lawn chair, wearing one of those big hats like Jackie Kennedy, and most importantly, open toed shoes. The kind where the big toe just peeps out and she can imagine that soft toe running up the back of her calf until her leg hair stood on end.
His wife will never understand how it feels to work in a bank, handling so much money all day and none of it’s yours. When he comes home, they eat dinner, and the Joneses come by too often for it to be comfortable. He sleeps next to his wife. They have sex when she wants to. She never does. He stares at the ceiling until he falls asleep, dreams of the ceiling. He thinks about looking further, but he’d have to move and it might disturb her, so he stays. He thinks about his 3.7 mile drive to work each morning. When he could be anyone going any place. The road in that liminal place, the turn at the end of Carrera Drive, the exact middle point between the driveway and the parking lot where neither can pull him and maybe one day he’ll just turn left instead.
At home she packs while the shower runs. Only take the necessities. A change of pants. A book she told her friend she’d read if only this place wasn’t killing her. A rain jacket. Leave everything else behind: photographs, family, anything that’s fashionable here. She draws a quick sketch, a self-portrait from the future: that lithe frame of women who go to parties now on her body. The stock clerk apron replaced and maybe just tossed out into the ocean. She opens the map one more time, just to reassure herself that the city is still there.
The lawns are quiet in the June air as she starts the engine. The hum of the motor echoes back from the flat faces of single story homes that line the street. She eases the car forward into the moonlight, only flicking on the high beams once she’s rounded the corner.
Although he won’t remember it when he wakes up, that night, he dreams about his car, the ceiling suddenly cleared from his mind. He drives west toward the bay. It doesn’t stop when it meets the ocean, but cruises across the rolling waves. He’s seasick but can’t seem to reverse the car. He presses the gas and the rhythm of the waves ignores him. The sky above him, blue, but with those tiny imperfections that remind him of plaster, even the spot that sags from the time his wife left the kettle on until all the water had steamed away while she dug out the hedge clippers to lend to Mrs. Jones when hers had become too dull. But the car continued to rock on the waves and he waited, hoping somehow stars would still appear.
The Fullers dance through their mornings in simple, careful steps. All at once, they must pay attention to every wrinkle, each cuff link, without noticing anything extraneous. There is no reason for the car to be gone. There is no reason for her daughter to be anywhere but oversleeping in her bed, so Mrs. Fuller studiously doesn’t look out the bay window onto the driveway. Rather, she imagines she does. The sky is its usual shade in this picture, and the lawn brilliant green against it. She sees it there, the Ford Maverick, as she watches Mr. Miller pick up his newspaper from his front porch across the street. She remembers his arthritis has gotten worse in the last three years, so he gets up slowly, painfully, one hand pressed to his right kneecap. Three eggs in the frying pan. Wonder Bread in the toaster. Coffee dripping from the machine. Mrs. Fuller still believes in a hot breakfast.
Because Mr. Fuller is methodical, he is careful not to check to see if his keys remain on the table by the front door where he left them. He unbolts the door and opens it. Picks up his paper. Flips it open and scans the headlines — all without a glance to the outside world. The newspapers are filled with stories. He clips some fairytales about the mythical land of the Soviets for his wife to read to their young son. You know what they say, he says, you’ve gotta nip this thing at its source. As she butters the toast, she asks, What’s wrong with communism, Martin? He snaps the paper. It stamps the individual out of you. Do you know they all wear the same thing? How’d you like it if you and Mrs. Jones wore the same dress, ate the same dinners? Huh, Debbie? How’d you like that? Mrs. Fuller thinks about the supermarket, about standing next to the avocados, about the wives searching through the pile, their polka dotted dresses swishing around their ravenous knees.
The police find the car a few hours later, broken down in a ditch along Route 4 next to a tomato field fifty miles away. Even though she’s missing, they conclude she can’t have gone far. This is the country, she might have walked somewhere and still be sitting at another family’s table, eating a sandwich before getting a ride home. She’s just a teenager, the sheriff reassures, She’ll come back. Mr. Fuller isn’t so sure. He can imagine how she looked, driving westward, down the hills toward the ocean. He tries to reassure his wife. He struggles to conjure the words that can make it real. Mrs. Jones might have seen her, she replies. He feels her leave but still the room feels full. In his mind, she is still driving. He sees her park the car, step onto to the railing of a vast golden bridge. He’s sure she won’t jump. No, just breathing deep the thick, foggy air and the sun burning red through the mist behind her, holding a suspension cable and for once, fearing gravity.
Trish Kahle is a journalist and writer currently based in Chicago, where she is working toward completion of a PhD. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Jacobin, Dissent, In These Times, The Ecologist (UK), Salon, and Socialist Worker (US). Her fiction has received the Roundthaler pize and was runner up for the Black Warrior Fiction prize. In 2009, the Center for Women Writers honored a portfolio of her writing with the Penelope Niven prize. She is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.