The concrete scratched against her thin cheek as she eyed the boy from around the corner of the convenience store. Redheaded and thin-boned—he was harmless looking. He topped off the tank but didn’t bother with the receipt. Careless, too. There was another boy with him, tall and skinny with a ski cap pulled down over his hair like some gangster. More like a fool. He’d gone into the store and now loped back juggling two small white sacks tossing one to the other boy. City boys not used to a day’s work. Honyockers, her dad would have called them. Dimwits and boobies who moved to Montana thinking to wield the wild and disordered land. Ha.
She knew she’d get nothing if she came back empty-handed—except maybe a knuckle-knock upside the head—so she called out. “Hey boys, come ‘ere.” Her first words of the day came out throaty and wet. She’d spent the day hunkered in the shadows with only her worn coat for warmth.
The boys cocked their heads her way and then paused.
“Please come here. I need help.” Her voice insistent now.
They shared a look of disgust she knew all too well before edging towards her.
“You need something, ma’am?” asked the first boy.
She hadn’t been called ma’am in so long she almost snorted. But then she remembered. “I just need to get out of here.” Her tone was whiny. Her dad had hated snivelers, and she’d have been popped for that. “Can you give me a lift to my hotel, boys?”
The redheaded one looked to his friend who shook his head. “Well,” began the first one.
“It’s not far,” she whined again, wincing at the remembered smack. “The Cormack.” It was the first hotel that popped into her head. “You know it?” Coarse strands of gray hair blew over her face, which she brusquely tucked back into the tight-knitted hat. She hated anything on her face.
They stared stupidly at each other. So young, dark downy mustaches framed their smooth lips.
She turned to the first boy. “I’m sorry to trouble you. But I just can’t take another step.” Leaning into the building, she held her hand to her neck.
“What’s your name?” asked the second one.
What the hell difference did that make? “My name is Margaret. My friends call me Maggie.” She surprised herself. That was good.
“I’m Kyle,” said the red one. “And that ugly one is Jason.”
Jason was actually the better looking of the two but handsome in a hard way. His chin like a blade. Like her father’s. She gave them her best smile. “Pleased to meet you boys.” Perhaps he’d give her something special for two of them. Her heart skipped at the thought. But how many times had he drunk it all away? Yet this was different. If she could just manage it. She pulled off her mitten and extended her hand first to Kyle—his was warm and slightly callused—and then reached towards Jason, who skimmed rough fingertips over hers before wiping his hand on his pant leg.
“Well?” she asked Kyle. He had one of those tedious church-going faces. Probably sat up front. She had a bible verse at the ready just in case. Psalms 82:4. “Rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” She never troubled herself with the words of the bible but the shelters taped verses to every wall.
“Okay,” he answered finally.
The other boy let out a curse, but she ignored him. “Thank goodness.” She had to move quickly before he changed his mind. Pointing to her taped-up suitcase, she said, “Pick it up from the side, please. There’s valuable stuff in there.” In fact, that bag carried nearly everything she owned. She could list it all and knew in a second if anyone had messed with it. A change of jeans, two heavy flannel shirts, a wool vest with a brown horse sewn onto the back, a knitted gray and blue pullover sweater, four pairs of woolen socks, three of underwear, brown mittens with one thumb missing, her blue quilted housecoat, a toothbrush, comb and hairbrush with worn-down bristles, a mostly-used tube of pink lipstick, her green spiral notebook, and a miniature blue doll no larger than her thumb.
“All right,” Kyle answered, grunting as he first lifted the heavy case by the handle and then balanced it in his arms. The bag had once had wheels on it, but they’d broken off. Fibers blew from the corners like broken webs.
“Careful, careful now,” she warned as the boy placed the case in the back of an SUV pushing it up against an expensive-looking pair of sneakers. He pulled the hatch shut and then opened the back door for her.
“Oh, I can’t sit in the back,” she said. “I get car sick.”
“Get in the back, man,” Kyle told his friend.
The other one—Jason—got in and slammed the door so hard she jumped. Little fucker.
Kyle walked her around to the passenger side, lightly touching her by the elbow. Her first thought was to grab away her arm. She didn’t like people touching her. But for just a moment she found herself sagging against him as he helped her into the seat. She didn’t know what she weighed, but it wasn’t much. A bag of bones is what he called her. They all did. She fastened her seatbelt while the other one sat silently in the backseat watching her.
Once they were all inside, the two boys tore into their sacks emitting a heavy meaty odor.
“What are you eating?” she asked.
“Burritos,” answered Kyle.
“Oh.” Her fingers, dirty with bitten-down nails, played with the button of her coat. “I haven’t eaten anything at all today.”
His face fell. “You can have mine if you want it.” He pushed his burrito towards her. “They’re not bad,” he said. “Really.”
She pulled back her shoulders. “No, thank you. They don’t agree with me.” As he ate, she worked her mouth in silent chews.
“Do you know where you’re going, dude?” Jason leaned forward. His eyes brushed over her.
“It’s downtown, I know that,” she answered for him. Turning to Kyle, she said, “Can you turn up the heat? I’m very cold.” The thermometer showed sixty degrees outside even though it was late autumn, but he clicked on the heater. She hugged herself, waiting for warmth. Underneath her coat she wore a wool sweater and knitted vest, yet she was shaking. It was if the sun never touched her.
The boy in the back rolled down his window and stuck out his head. Like a dog.
“My grandma’s always cold, too,” the front seat boy told her.
Reminded him of his grandmother, did she. That was good. She dropped her head into her collar and could smell her own breath. Clawing through her purse, she found a sticky candy and sucked on it, still shivering. Now that she was finally inside, the cold seemed worse, but she needed a drink more than anything. If it wasn’t worth waiting for, it wasn’t any good. Quit your bellyaching. Everybody’s gotta work, and everybody’s gotta pay. “Oh, what am I going to do?” A tear clung to the point of her nose before dropping.
Kyle, she thought that was his name, handed her a napkin from his bag. “You all right?”
“I’m just so very hungry. And tired.” That part was true. She’d never felt so tired. The napkin smelled of food as she wadded it up against her nose and cheeks.
“We can get you something to eat.”
“You can?” She brightened. “Oh, you boys have been sent by the angels!”
“Sure.” His smile lit up the otherwise plain face. “Let’s get you to your room first, and then Jase and I will get you something. Okay?”
“What?” asked Jase, or whatever his name was.
“Oh, that is just grand!” She gave Kyle her best smile. Her teeth were still in pretty good shape. She’d lost one, but it was at the side of her mouth, and you mostly couldn’t see it. “The angels were looking out for me today. Mmm hmm. Yes, indeed they were,” she said, gaily pulling her coat around her.
The redhead turned down Main Street. “Are we getting close?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t really know,” she answered. “I’ve never been there.”
“Oh, I thought you said…”
Her eyes skittered over the first boy. She wasn’t supposed to say that. But it wasn’t dark yet. She needed to keep stalling.
“Whatever, man,” said the other one. “I need to get home.”
She plucked at the hem of her coat. “No, I haven’t checked in. But I was told I had a room at the Cormack.”
“That’s okay. Look it up, Jase.”
The boy pulled out his phone and tapped on it. It lit up with buttons and squares.
“That one of those I-phones?” she asked him.
“It’s on Fifth and 27th Ave.,” he said. And then to her, “Yes, you have one?”
She stiffened. “No, I just heard about them. I hear they’re very expensive.”
“Show it to her, Jase.”
He shoved the phone over the seat.
She took it from him and held it in front of her. “I wouldn’t know where to start.” She touched something, and it vibrated in her hand. “Take it back,” she cried, nearly throwing it over the seat. She turned her back to him, unnerved by the contraption and all its lights and sounds.
They traveled down 27th, the tall banks and finer restaurants dimming behind them in a last wink. The car made a right onto Fifth. Here, the buildings seemed flattened, and silhouetted against the light, looked as if they’d been burnt out. The big red badge of the Salvation Army saluted them as they passed, followed by the blinking blue and white lights of the free clinic and the startling yellow placard of the thrift shop.
“There it is,” blurted the boy from the backseat.
The tires crunched over broken asphalt as they pulled in beside a straggle of overgrown hedges. Behind the building an overfilled garbage bin disgorged the rot and remains of little left. She worried they might leave her then, but they followed her through the smudged glass door, the redhead carrying the old suitcase by the handle this time.
The lobby was dark and settled with age. A path of worn footsteps trailed the faded carpet to a scuffed counter. A marble countertop was all that remained of any past dignity. She clutched her oversized black purse as the boys waited a few feet behind her. They were skittish and out of place reminding her for a moment of the prissy lady in clicky heels who darted past her on the street, shoving a dollar into her cup without looking at her. But these boys weren’t getting away.
A greasy-haired man in a yellowed tee-shirt and black western vest leaned over the counter. A cigarette burned from an ashtray at his elbow.
The redhead joined her at the counter. “Excuse me. This lady, Maggie, has a reservation here.”
A smile teased her lips.
“Maggie what?” He didn’t look up as he took a drag of his cigarette.
Straightening her shoulders, she announced, “Margaret McKenzie.” She liked the sound of it. She was quick that way.
He flipped through a black spiral notebook. “Don’t see it.”
Her shoulders fell. She’d come this far but now wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do.
Through the smoke the man raised wiry eyebrows. “We have plenty of rooms, lady. How many do you need?”
She hefted her purse to the countertop, her fingers tightening against the clasp. “Just the one. How much?”
“Forty-nine dollars plus tax.”
“Well, I…” Digging through tissues, a crumpled cigarette package, napkins, salt, jelly and sugar packets, her fingertips finally found the worn velvet coin purse. Slowly she counted the bills until she got to twenty-seven. She turned to the boys. “I don’t have enough.”
The nice boy dug out his wallet. “I have seven dollars.” He looked at the other one.
“Fuck, man.” The ski-capped one got out his wallet even though he needn’t have. “Four here.”
Ken? Kyle? held out a fistful of crumpled bills. “Will this help?”
She narrowed her eyes. They had a credit card. Just like he said they would. She’d seen the boy use it for gas. Remembering now. He was watching. “No, it’s still not enough.” She blinked tears to her eyes. It was so easy these days. “Let’s go.” She picked up her bag.
“I wish we had more,” said the stupid one, taking the suitcase from her. “I feel like an asshole,” he whispered to his friend.
“I’ll have to find something cheaper,” she said, as the three of them left the hotel. “It’s the Fargo, then.”
“Where’s that?” asked the first boy.
“It’s just down a couple of blocks. Back the way we came.” She gave her head a quick shake as her eyes darted through the parking lot. She must hurry now.
“Maybe the other place will be nicer,” he offered.
“This is it, Kyle. I mean it,” muttered the dark one.
Looking over her shoulder, she bit at a nail.
The boy drove back down 27th. The sun was sinking behind the mountain rims, bending rays into patterns of light and dark. She hated this time of night. Black was black and day was day, but sunset could sneak up on you.
“I see it.” She pointed a curved finger at a dark one-story building.
The boy pulled into the side parking lot, looking up and down the deserted street. He’d lived here his whole life, she guessed, and had never been to this side of town. As the three of them made their way to the door, two men drinking from Styrofoam cups moved aside to let them pass.
“Do you know how much this place costs, Maggie?” asked the first boy, his voice rising above the absurdly cheerful bell.
The dimly-lit lobby seemed to sag even more as they entered. In the mirror, her time-worn form seemed almost to disappear.
“It’s eighteen dollars a night even though it’s a dump.” She raised her voice and looked directly at the man behind the counter. She knew this place all right. All she could get these days. “With your eleven I’ll have enough for two nights.” Maggie extended her hand to the boy—she’d forgotten his name—as he and then the other one handed over their cash.
The boys waited by the front door as she made her transaction.
“Well, you’re all set,” said the dark one. His hand was on the door handle.
“Aren’t you going to help me with my valise?”
Two blank stares. Oh good heavens. “My bag. My suitcase?”
“Oh, sure,” said the redhead. He picked up the suitcase and started down the musty hall that smelled of dirty socks. The other one followed.
She stopped at Room 8. The large key trembled in her hand as she held it to the door.
“Let me,” said the nice stupid one, taking the key and slipping it easily into the lock. The door swung in revealing a low-slung bed and a chipped dresser.
She sank onto the bed and unlaced her clunky shoes. The thick soles were heavy and hard to walk in, but it was hard to find size eleven B’s at the thrift store. She kicked them off, just to rest a moment. But she mustn’t. Not yet.
“Well, I guess we’ll be going now.” It was the front seat boy this time.
Couldn’t wait to leave her here, could he? He was just like the rest. “I thought you were going to get me something to eat. I haven’t eaten all day.” She clenched her hands in her lap. “Oh, please, boys?”
“We’re out of money,” said the black-haired one. He’d taken off his cap.
“Well,” said the other, pulling at his earlobe. “My mom makes me keep an emergency stash. I could use that.” He looked to his friend. “We did say we’d get her something to eat.”
“Oh.” She clapped her hands, sitting upright. “You boys have truly been sent by heaven. I prayed today. I said, ‘Lord, I’ve had my trials, but today especially I need your help.’ And look here! Now, I don’t want you to spend much on me. You’ve done too much already. Maybe a muffin? Do you think you could manage that?”
“Do they have them downstairs?” asked the other boy. “I saw a vending machine.”
“Yes,” she answered slowly. “But they’re stale, and they have nuts in them. I hate nuts.” She took out a threadbare tissue from her purse and blew her nose, loosening a thin powder that blended in the dust. “There’s a convenience store at the corner. You can walk there.”
“Fuck, man,” said the dark one.
She feigned indignation as Kyle, yes that was it, gave his friend a warning look.
“Oh, please boys. I’m too tired to walk there myself. And I’m frightened of the dark. You never know who you’ll run into. ” They shifted on their feet. “But with two of you…and being young men, you’ll have no trouble.”
“Okay. A muffin? Just one?” asked Kyle.
“Well, two if you can spare it. And a cup of hot water. I have tea bags.”
“All right. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Remember, no nuts.”
“Jesus, lady,” the one began.
She pulled off her hat, shaking free her curls. Her thin, gray hair fell down her shoulders. “Is this too much to ask?” But she mustn’t get upset.
Kyle grabbed the boy by the arm.
“You are my angels,” she said again. “My guardian angels.”
Pulling aside the dusty blue and gold paisley curtain she watched from her window as the boys came into view. In the parking lot the same two men took pulls from a bottle. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. At dark, he’d said. The boys were walking over to their vehicle. They should just get inside and go. The redheaded one leaned over the driver’s seat. He must have found his money for he closed the door, and they headed back through the parking lot. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Sinking onto the bed, she pulled off the two pairs of heavy socks and massaged the bright red bunion on her left foot. Maybe tomorrow she could go into an actual shoe store and get some goddamn shoes that fit. Then she went into the bathroom and soaped up the thin rag they passed off as a washcloth. Stepping out of her baggy slacks, she kicked them away, and then pulled off her vest and under tops. The bottom one had a rip in the armhole. Naked except for her underwear, she slowly rubbed the hot, clean rag over her neck and underarms sighing as it washed away her stink.
She’d turned fifty-six on her last birthday, but she looked miles past that. She was mostly unrecognizable to herself. Had she ever been pretty? She doubted it. What was the use of hanging onto anything beautiful in this life, anyway? The skin under her eyes was puffy, yellowed and crisscrossed, her cheeks sagged, and her lips nearly bloodless lines. Purple bruises patched her skinny arms. She didn’t know how she’d gotten them. Reheating the cloth, she unsnapped the grayed, stretched-out bra letting it hang from her shoulders as she rubbed down her neck to her white saggy breasts. It was getting harder every day. She’d have to dig a little deeper, he told her. Give something back if she wanted to stay. She’d run away once. But he’d found her. Given her a thrashing for it. Her mother had made him look for her. Otherwise, she knew he wouldn’t have bothered. Just another mouth to feed. She’d cried, but her mother told her to stop it. “You’re disgusting,” he said. So did all the others. Used to be sex sufficed. But no more. She leaned in close to the mirror. Those boys could have gotten her a nice meal with their card. Gotten her a bottle, at least. She mustn’t forget that.
She rinsed out her underthings, hung them over the shower rod and changed into her housecoat. Then she dropped the miniature doll into her pocket, running her fingers over the outline, just to make sure. She paced the room, dirt and hair sticking to the soles of her feet. She shook a last cigarette from the pack.
A few minutes later a knock landed lightly upon the door. Quickly, she stubbed out the butt and blew away the smoke with her hand. She hoped they’d been gone long enough.
“Just a minute,” she half-sang. Rattling the door loudly she stood before them in the soft blue housecoat that fell just below her knees. Her veined feet were bare. The boys glanced away. She pulled them inside and grabbed the sack from the dark-headed boy. “Bran?”
“Everything else had nuts,” said the redhead.
“Tastes like cardboard.”
His eyes dropped. “They sounded healthy. We got you a banana, too.” The other boy held out the overly-ripe, speckled fruit.
She sighed. “It’s all right. Better than nothing.”
“Here’s your water.” The redhead held out the cup, and Maggie rummaged in her purse again, procuring the tail of a tea bag covered in lint. She stuck it in the cup and swished it around.
The second boy shifted his weight and glanced at the dumb one.
It was nearly dark. She looked up from her tea. “Oh boys, I’ve been so lonely. Can’t you please stay while I eat my little meal? I do so hate eating alone.”
“We really have to go, Maggie.” It was the first boy this time. “It’s getting late.”
She sniffed. “All right.” Surely it’d been long enough.
“Just for a couple of minutes, then.”
She glanced up, surprised, unsure who’d spoken. The boys watched as she spread her napkin over her knees and then opened one of the muffin packages with her teeth. She placed the sticky muffin on the napkin and tore a little edge off the top. She chewed silently, taking small sips from her cup. A door banged down the hall, and she gave a start.
“No one would help me today,” she said. “Except you boys.” She took a small swallow. Her hand shook against the cup and a dribble trailed her chin. She’d waited all day by the gas station. After using the restroom once, she’d had to hide so they wouldn’t shoo her away. Hidden against the wall, no one had noticed her. Not for hours.
“We’re glad we could help, lady.” It was the second boy. “But we gotta go.”
They were both looking at her. Their faces open and seemingly kind, but nothing was pure, she knew that. Everything had a dark and a light side. Even her mother, a dull gray frightened woman, had owned a music box. Unopened, it was a beaten up old beige box; but, inside, a tiny ballerina in a blue costume danced. Sitting cross-legged with long plaits down her back that her mother had braided into her hair, she’d watched it go round to the tinny notes. One day, for no reason, she’d grabbed the little doll, broken her off her stand, and slipped her into her pocket. She couldn’t have said why. She kept it there throughout the day, feeling the sharp little edges with her fingertips. Growing more frightened by what she’d done, and afraid of a whipping, she hid the ballerina underneath her bed. But her mother never said a word about it. The next day the box was just gone from the shelf.
She looked up. “Didn’t your mothers tell you not to talk to strangers?” Uncertainty crossed their faces as if they’d been caught in a lie. They’d find out soon enough they should have listened to their mamas. Mamas knew what to do. “There are people just outside this room that’d slit your neck for twenty bucks.”
There was a noise behind the door. The first boy put his hand to the knob.
Her heart was beating fast. Too fast. She couldn’t think. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she said. Suddenly very cold, she dragged the top of the bedspread over her shoulders. The remainder of her muffin fell to the floor. Maybe if she covered her head, they would all go away. She pulled the spread over her eyes. Inside, all was dark. No sound but her rattled breath. A light pulse in her fingertips, a soft rhythm toward silence. Peace. Her hand found the small figurine and gripped hard, its tiny feet piercing her skin. Humming to block the noise, she swayed back and forth.
“Maggie?” more urgently this time.
She peeked out of her shelter. The boys were there, looking at her. It took a moment to remember.
“Are you all right? Your hand is bloody.”
The second boy was peering at her. “Jesus, lady. Are you okay?”
What were they talking about? Her eyes blurred in the light.
Jason. That was his name. She had moments of clarity. Right then she could rattle off all her brothers’ and sisters’ names. Esther, James, Howard, Martha. Her mother was Anna Elizabeth, her father Roy. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was David, her grandmother Katherine. She’d been born in Idaho, but the family had moved to Montana when she was a young child. Her father had worked on farms and ranches, and had done odd jobs for people; from the beginning, a living for beggars. But that one day. It was at the end of autumn. Just after harvest time. Her father had been working long hours digging potatoes before the frost. Her older brothers and sisters had worked alongside him. It must have been a good season, and he must have brought some of the money home that time. For they were at a fair. There was a carousel. She wanted to go on it, but her mother told her no. Suddenly, she was gripped in strong arms and placed on the hard back of a slippery brown and white pony, reins thrust into her hands. The pony lifted up and down as she went round. Her mother’s face was blurred, and this frightened her more than anything. She tried to smile, he was watching. Then the ride was over, and she was pulled from the horse. Her mother patted her head, her fingers lingering longer than usual in her curls.
She got up and rummaged in her suitcase for the notebook. If she wrote things down when she remembered, she could read them over later. She brought the book back to the bed and sat with it in her lap. Her thumb ran over the pages, but she didn’t open it. Instead, she gripped tight to the ballerina. It hurt, but she didn’t care.
A sharp knock sounded on the door. She froze. “Shh,” she said holding her finger to her lips. Then the sound of soft footsteps moving away.
Getting to her feet, she wiped her hands down her housecoat, smearing a red stripe along one side. The boys were flattened up against the wall. Her heart raced. A thud against the wall. Then a bang. Their youthful faces paled in the light, looking to her.
She flung open the door and stuck her head into the hall. “Well, go on then,” she yelled. “You don’t want to be out on these streets after dark.” Two doors down the man leaned against the wall. His thick arms were crossed over a bulky chest. Although his face was in shadow, she knew it to be an ugly one. He spit on the floor as she pushed the boys out of the room.
Shielding herself between him and the boys she shouted, “Shoo! Scat! I don’t want you here.” There was movement, but she didn’t turn to look.
“You heard the lady. Come on, Kyle.” The dark boy pulled him by the arm.
Kyle gave her a look—frightened, confused, hurt. But it could have been a hundred faces. Still…these mattered, somehow.
She threw up her arms. “Didn’t you hear me? Go!” Her heart was palpitating, her underarms and hairline wet with perspiration. “I’ll scream if you don’t go,” she yelled again.
“Okay,” said the redheaded one backing up. He glanced at the man down the hall.
Another door opened, and another man poked out his head then pulled it back in.
Then, the boys were gone. She sighed in relief.
She made it back into her room and bolted the door. Leaning against it, she struggled for breath. Crossing the floor, she stepped past her notebook and broken muffin to the window. Hands shaking, she drew back the curtain. The boys were hurrying to their car, mere shadows in the lone light bulb. Their figures lit up as Kyle opened the car door. Then all went dark. As they pulled out of the lot, she thought she could see three faces. Was he in the back seat? She didn’t want him there. They were good boys. They couldn’t help being born. She watched until the taillights shrank to tiny red dots she could barely make out. Until she no longer knew what she was looking at. She dropped the curtain and stared at the blood along her fingers.
The sign outside had said “Free HBO.” She turned on the set, but the knob broke in her hand. She remembered she was waiting for someone. She checked the hall, but nobody was there. For some reason this made her unsettled, anxious about something or someone. But she was used to that. All she wanted was a drink. She closed the door and wondered if he’d bring her something when he returned.
© Kelly L. Simmons
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Kelly’s interview]