Jennifer Pratt unwraps the cellophane on her pack of Kents and neatly tears open the foil beneath before thumbing the lighter in.
The stranger beside her laughs. “Thought I was the only one to have a car old enough to have one of those.”
The lighter pops. Jennifer pulls it out; holds the glowing coils to the cigarette grasped between her lips. She inhales deeply, sucks down greedily. “Want one?”
The stranger waves a hand away. “Can’t. Pregnant again.”
Jennifer looks at her. “Are congratulations in order?”
“Unexpected, both of them. This wasn’t the way I’d planned for life to go.”
“Plans usually work that way.” Jennifer half-turns in her seat to look at the stranger full on. Who is this woman beside her? Jennifer craves her story the way she craves nicotine and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Only her story will give the woman body; expanding her form into bones and flesh and sinew; giving her a shape, concrete and firm. Jennifer holds the cigarette to her mouth. Inhales again.
“Why did you help me?”
Jennifer closes her eyes, re-imagines the scene that took place twenty minutes ago. The stranger’s kid had been screaming bloody murder: great tears and snot rolling down her face onto the woman’s shirt. I ran out of gas. Can you help me? The stranger had asked three times. Each time, she was denied.
Jennifer had felt humiliated for the woman. She’d just wanted it to end. Now, she shrugs. “I’m responsible.” The words are a burden and a curse and the truth of her life. She has borne them for too many years. “Has she fallen asleep?”
They had driven around for twenty minutes, Jennifer finally pulling into a fast food parking lot to have a smoke. Again she inhales and she can hear the cigarette burning the paper.
The stranger turns and looks into the back seat. “Yes, thank God. But I don’t want to go home, not just yet.”
“I’m in no hurry.”
“My husband will be furious.”
“People run out of gas all the time.”
He only gives me twenty dollars a week for the car.”
“That’s barely five gallons.”
“I know.” The stranger stares out the windshield. “Sometimes the only thing that will get the baby to sleep is a car ride.”
Jennifer switches off the radio, cracks a window. “Sorry the car smells funny. Actually, I smell funny.”
The woman sniffs. “I’m smelled worse.”
“Cod fish. My sister loves it.” Jennifer hates it. Hates the way the odor of the cooking flesh wraps itself in rising steam, entering her clothes like the perfume of a lover. Her clothes–her hair–will smell for days. She taps the ash out the window. “When I was eight years, I held a match to my face, waiting to burn.”
The woman flinches. “Why?”
“To see if I would burn.” She stabs out the cigarette in the ash tray; immediately lights another. Her cell phone rings. “My sister,” Jennifer says. “Listen.” She puts the phone on speaker. “Hello?”
The car fills with an angry voice, accusing and bitter. “You’re smoking aren’t you?”
The stranger lifts her eyebrows.
“I went for ice cream.”
“Didn’t get me any, did you?”
“You said you were dieting.”
“When are you coming?”
“Are you driving? You know you’re not supposed to drive and talk on your phone.”
The stranger smiles.
“No. I’m parked.”
“Are you with a man? Do you have a man in your car?”
“No, Jodi. There is no man in my car. Unfortunately. Be home soon.” She clicks off.
“Yipe,” the stranger says.
“Try living with her.”
The woman looks across the street. “Pep Boys. Burger King. Boston Market. Hospital. All lit up like neon sex.” She laughs. “And then the Sheraton. That’s what got me into this mess.”
Jennifer nods. “That’s what got me into trouble too.”
“You have kids?”
“No. A twin. Jodi.” She sighs. “Look at the lights.” Jennifer points to the hotel. “All those people inside there, with no idea we’re watching.”
“Top floor no lights,” the stranger says.
“Next floor, two lights, side by side,” Jennifer adds.
“One floor down, one light on all the way at the far end of the building.”
“A floor below that, one light one all the way on the other side,” Jennifer says. “Funny, the patterns we make.”
“Look.” The stranger points at a car waiting at the traffic light. “Turn signal flashing. Getting nowhere.”
“What’s your name?” The woman asks suddenly.
“No.” She’s always insisted upon being called by her full name. “Jenn Pratt sounds choppy, like a piece of wood split across your knee.”
The woman laughs.
“I always told myself I’d marry a multi-syllable man. Two at least, but three would be better.”
“Is there anyone?”
“No.” She exhales great curls of smoke through her nose. “Never will be.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’ve got my sister to take care of.”
“Can’t she take care of herself?”
“She was born with two club feet.”
“Not when your father believes in the devil.”
“What do you mean?”
“When my father first laid eyes on Jody, born one hour and three minutes before me, he shook his head. Told my mother Jody was the spawn of the devil.”
The woman snorted. “That’s cloven feet, not club feet.”
“I know. My father was religious but not educated. He didn’t wait around to see if I was of the devil. I never met him.”
“Probably for the best,” the woman said.
“My mother laid the blame on me.”
“By positioning myself higher in the womb, by squishing my sister, I, according to my mother, had damaged my sister’s legs. Therefore, I had driven away my father and ruined our lives. My mother refused to have my sister’s legs operated on. Said I needed to be reminded of my sin.”
“You never told me yourname,” Jennifer says.
“A good, long name,” Jennifer says.
“My husband hates it, that I didn’t take his name.”
“He’ll get over it.”
“Did your mother get over your sister’s legs?” Marguerita asks the darkness.
“No. She died when she was thirty-eight. I was eighteen.”
“Don’t be.” Jennifer rolls up the window: It’s started to drizzle. “On her deathbed, my mother told me Jodi was my responsibility now. Utterly and completely my responsibility. Sometimes I think my mother wanted to send herself to an early grave, just to avoid the responsibility of Jodi.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” Marguerita nods at the glowing cigarette.
“I turned down two marriage proposals and a job transfer because Jodi refused to go. I can’t get a dog because Jodi doesn’t want one. When I want a cigarette I have to sneak out of my own house, paid for with my own money, because Jodi doesn’t like the smell. Well, Jodi, I have something to say to you,” Jennifer yells, shaking her fist at the window. “I hatecod fish!”
The child in the backseat stirs. Jennifer feels herself blush. “Sorry.”
Marguerita shakes her head. “Can’t she get surgery now? I’m sure…”
“You don’t understand, Marguerita. This has become the pattern of our lives. You can’t change it now.”
Marguerita is silent for a time, and Jennifer can see that she’s quite young; still in her early twenties.
“My husband beats me,” Marguerita says.
Jennifer sighs deeply. “I’m sorry. Can you…?”
“I have nobody.”
There’s a drainage pipe beneath the road leading to the restaurant. And here in the silence and the dark Jennifer she can easily imagine a dead body inside. “Shall we stuff him in the drain pipe?” Jennifer points.
Marguerita giggles. “And your sister just after him.”
They smile in the dark.
“Oh, look,” Marguerita says. “The pattern has changed.”
Jennifer looks across the street to the hotel. She smiles. “It has, hasn’t it?” Three lights are now on on the top floor. The second floor is completely in darkness. She starts the engine. “Shall I drive you home?”
“No. I think I’d like to go there.” Marguerita points. “To the hotel.”
Jennifer reverses, then pulls forward. She puts on her turn signal. Right.
At the entrance, she puts the car in park. “Let me help you…”
Marguerita has already lifted the sleeping baby over her shoulder. Jennifer releases the car seat from the buckle. Marguerita grabs it with her right hand. “Thank you, Jennifer Pratt.”
“Thank you, Marguerita Fernandez.”
Marguerita frowns. “For what?”
“For showing me how patterns don’t have to stay the same forever.” She gets back into the car, scribbles a number on a piece of paper. “My cell phone,” she says through the window. “Call me if you ever need anything.”
Marguerita nods and rubs her forehead. She is tired, Jennifer can tell.
“How will you pay?”
Marguerita suddenly seems to age thirty years. “I have ways.”
Marguerita gives a weary smile. “Some patterns are not meant to be broken.” She turns and walks into the hotel.
Jennifer pulls away from the curb. Just before she reaches home, she tosses her cigarette out the window; chases it with the pack.
She pulls into the driveway and takes the front walk. In the living room, there’s a blue glow from the television screen. Jennifer pauses for a moment to watch. She creeps closer…closer until she’s standing directly in the flowerbed, so close she can hear the laughter from the television. She kneels and listens, heart beating rapidly. The rain assaults her skin with heavy droplets as she crouches in the cover of darkness looking at the naked feet of her sister propped up on the cocktail table.
She rises and goes to the door; slides the key in the lock. “I’m home.”
Kelly Garriott Waite on Google+