“By the Numbers”
THEY WORKED AT THE enclosed mall in King of Prussia. They wore plastic nametags, the corporate logo above a deep groove accommodating a Dymo label. Jenelle for the record store, Courtney for the bookstore. They had received reprimands for lateness.
Dinner is interesting. The plastic bag doesn’t melt in the boiling water. You cut off the top with scissors and lobster Newburg comes out.
From the paper: “Dartmouth Warnell, 19, of North Philadelphia, while attempting to escape from police custody, was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Afro-American Cultural Museum. A warrant for driving-while-suspended had been outstanding.”
The table is a phone company cable spool which occasionally insinuates a splinter. The
VCR format is unchic: Beta. The movie from the rental store traces an anchorwoman who finally turns into a werewolf on the air. They’ve seen it before.
Saturdays there are special events at the mall. It could be a ho-ho banjo band in red vests and sleeve garters. Or a begonia club. Or a cat show. There might be Cub Scouts all over the place. Everyone seems to put in the extra effort on a Saturday. Their jaws ache from smiling.
Courtney and Jenelle together in a bath. Pubic hair is ugly, but they’re afraid to shave. Many products for the hair, each based on a wholesome foodstuff. Plastic bottles bobbing.
J: I wish my toes were long and thin like yours.
Courtney and Jenelle in a stall shower, embracing in soap foam. Why they’re late all the time. Mist.
Courtney and Jenelle washing clothes by the Orinoco. (Black-and-white, dubbed.)
C: Why can’t I get my skirts as bright as yours?
J: You’re not beating them hard enough.
Rising smoke in the distance, music of chain saws.
She had enough imagination to feel molten plastic when she took the albums from the carton. These were red mostly, with lettering in white. There was a song about land reform, another about mascara. She thought of wearing leather next to the skin.
“Where would I find language instruction tapes?” She shelved the travel guides in overstock, felt once more this alien regret at not being able to type. Letters to show the way. Orange signs in her sightline: Romance Cooking Health & Fitness. She thought about her eyes in someone else’s face on posters all over town.
“Do you have How to Avoid Probate?”
Jenelle’s mother lives by herself in Cherry Hill in a house that’s almost paid for. Dad is trying to make a cleaning service go in south Alabama; he calls often, seems not to be doing well. She has brown hair, type O blood, allergies to shellfish and aluminum foil.
Courtney’s mother is Japanese, a war bride. Her father died last summer of asbestosis. Her brother is in his third year of biochemistry at Drexel. She is right-handed, underweight, wears glasses to correct a mild astigmatism.
They could be married to men like sleds on rails: top ten percent of the class, membership in a rowing club, an ability to anticipate currency fluctuations. They could be plain in Quaker bonnets, humming as they card wool, shaded sweetly by belief.
Rod turned back to her in his belted leather coat of a too-shiny material that was not leather. His wide dark eyes glistened with forgiveness. Courtney inhaled the coat’s laboratory musk as he gathered her up in his arms.
Jenelle heard the whispers in passing, her gray skirts brushing the cobbles, the black book cradled in her hand. She had broken the silence in fear, but her quiet simple words had then seemed to lift all eyes in the meetinghouse.
Was it a party? Jenelle is lying in bed, cold cucumber slices balanced on her face. She has unplugged the stereo, forbidden music. Wondering if he really will phone tonight, Courtney wishes for an interesting birthmark. Someone downstairs is raking leaves. Jenelle has an enema and feels better.
J: Why don’t we have towels that match? With our initials intertwined in a contrasting color?
C: I don’t know.
Strollers were unconsciously arranged around the fountain; the mothers could not wake their children. Earring Emporium had not had a customer all day. An NCR repairman set down his tool kit and wandered aimlessly. The sound track was muddy for Cinema III’s matinee. A man with no family bought a badminton set and charged it. An aquarium burst spontaneously at Petsateria; there was a brief waterfall over jagged glass, and then little flips on the carpet….
Courtney took the taped package out from behind the stockroom fire extinguisher. Her mouth was dry. The package felt funny. Too heavy? Too light? She was late for the rendezvous….
Jenelle put the mustard on her pretzel left-to-right, signing everything was go. Slowly, as if browsing, they moved toward the Westgate exit, past Jeans World, Muffy’s, the Cookie Castle. They were being followed. The two men wore state trooper glasses and trim black chin beards, but weren’t as young as they thought. Were they DEA? Libyans? No hesitation. Jenelle took the silver gun from under her rabbit jacket and gave each one two in the face. JFK time, brains on a pink dress….
Courtney and Jenelle hydroplaning in a white Camaro, spinning across three lanes of expressway, coming out of it and going harder on. The windshield a gray boil. Hiss of the police-band radio. Swerving headlights. The needle edging past 100….
“Don’t you read?” Courtney said.
“No, I’ve finished school.”
“Read and you’d know nothing ever happens to us. Just these little vignettes we’re not even aware of.”
“You mean it?”
“Anyway they do.”
Jenelle threw the package out the window, bit off the tip of the silver barrel. The gun was made of wax and contained a thin lime syrup.
Courtney and Jenelle in a cemetery with hoagies. From this elevation it is possible to see a white church, the empty river. New shoots of grass are just starting. The air is soft, receptive to the least aroma trace. Starlings forage between grave aisles, behind bronze-doored crypts. Oil trickles over Courtney’s lip. Jenelle catches it on her finger.
C: I wish we were in our eighties and could look back.
J: Me too.
What then do we want words for?
The tab on a file.
To say this was in Pennsylvania, during the second term of Reagan.
I am slightly nonplussed by the idea that I didn’t know anything about the extraordinary life of the late writer Hob Broun until I stumbled on the short story above. Hob Broun (born Heywood Orren Broun; 1950 – December 16, 1987) was an author who was born in New York City, but lived and wrote in Portland, Oregon. Following the publication of his first novel, Odditorium, Broun required spinal surgery to remove a tumor that ultimately saved his life but resulted in his paralysis from the neck down. Remarkably, he finished a second novel–and wrote the stories in Cardinal Numbers–using a kind of writing-machine: an oral catheter (or ‘sip-and-puff device’) connected to a customised word processor, triggered by his breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen. Using this technology, he completed a second novel, Inner Tube, and wrote the short stories contained in a posthumously published collection entitled Cardinal Numbers which was edited by Gordon Lish and which won an Oregon Book Award in 1989. He was working on a third novel when he died of asphyxiation after his respirator broke down in his home in Portland, Oregon. He was thirty-seven years old.