Jell-O lady is the best one so far. Janice. You can’t be a mean lady and be named Janice. She calls me hon, even though I just told her my name is Melanie. I imagine Janice sitting in a bright cubicle farm, framed ad posters on the walls, shiny plants everywhere, neat desks and new light blue carpets. Maybe she gets free Jell-O on her breaks, any flavor under the sun. Cool and soft, so easy to eat, she doesn’t even have to move her mouth to chew. Lucky.
“So hon, can you describe the defect for me?”
“Well, when I opened the box, there was a red packet inside…but the outside of the box showed green Jell-O.” With my free hand, I tore open the closed end of the empty box, flattened it against my knee and flipped it over. Green cubes in a white bowl.
Just don’t look over at the nightstand, just neveryoumind about my container of green Jell-O sitting pretty there, under the lamp. Just look away. I myself study the ceiling.
Kind Janice, sweet kind unknowing Janice, has me read the codes printed on the flap. BF021, that is my code. Probably for one of the factories, the day of the week, the manufacturing line, what have you. Par for the course.
“Ok,” I can hear typing as she pauses, “For your trouble I’d like to send you a coupon for a replacement product.”
This is where I have to hang up. Because there had not been a red packet of powder in this particular box, the one with the green cubes on the front. There had been a green packet, all green sugary crystals, the promise of green Jell-O dutifully fulfilled. The container on the nightstand is all sorts of proof.
“Hon? Hon? Where might I send the coupon?”
I almost laugh. Where. The thin polyester bedspreads aren’t talking–not that you’d want them to. The long gray curtains covering the windows block out the parking lot sign, and the phone cord doesn’t let me reach that far to push them aside. Where was here?
Room 113 at the Motel 6? Or was it room 6 at the Super Eight? Is this a Rodeway Inn? A Ho-Jo? No matter. By the time the coupons chase us down, we’ll be gone.
With my finger I depress the telephone’s little bar to disconnect, as gently as I can, on kind Janice. Maybe she’ll think I wanted to say goodbye, but was cut off by mistake. Have fun at break, Jan, and have some Jell-O for me.
Praise J that 1-800 numbers are a free call, and that someone always answers. I like the routine the best. It is always the same: state your problem, then the apology, then the offer of coupons. No matter whom you call, the beer company, soda company, cookie company: tell ‘em your beef, they say sorry, you get coupons. Except I never want the coupons. There are so many other good things: thinking about where I was calling, listening for other workers in the background, imagining what the customer service person looked like. Sometimes I got someone who asked about me, where I was calling from, what the weather was like. Those are my favorite. That is my hope, always, that I’ll get that person.
Plus, no one ever questions me. No one ever says, “Really? Are you sure there was a blue corn chip inside your yellow corn chip bag?”
It’s because I am never outlandish. I never say I found a mouse in my soda, never a severed finger in a cheese block or an earplug in my soup. No nonsense, you know? No, my complaints are just things that maybe could happen. The foil lid to my yogurt is askew, creating a dangerous entry point for foreign bacteria. (Hey, biology was the last subject I paid attention to, I know what I’m talking about.) Perhaps I found a clump of chips molded together, all deformed and mutated. Hey, anybody can get stale M&M’s out of a vending machine, anybody at all. Maybe me!
I am halfway through my green Jell-O and just getting into an old Hitchcock film when Corinne comes busting though the door with her supplies.
“Am I on? Am I on?” Her plastic bags slide against each other as she dumps them on her bed while kicking the door closed behind her. She leans in to see the TV while shrugging off her coat. “What’s this? More black and white?” She stands still and gives me a look, “Come on, Mel, it’s after five!” She’s still got one arm in her puffy coat but manages to motion for the remote by flapping her hand.
“Aw, Cary Grant was just about to do something good.” I toss the remote onto her bed. She wants the news, she can change the channel.
“You and Cary Grant,” she says, lunging across her bags for the remote, “He was probably a scoundrel. Hollywood cheater.”
“I just like his voice.” I did. Smooth, capable, debonair. You don’t see debonair much these days.
I head to the long dresser to cover my Jell-O while my sister furiously clicks through the channels. I wonder if Janice has any kids at home, or if they’re older. Maybe she has an extra bedroom she’d like to rent out.
The first time I saw Corinne’s face on TV I thought she had won something. But no. No no no no lol no. I don’t know why I was surprised, really. We hadn’t exactly been angels. And by we I mean her. And dad. But at least he’s not still on the news.
When she finally finds the local station there’s a cheerfully plastic yet serious woman really belting out the news, like it’s her job, which I guess it is. Theresa Dewitt. With a fresh blast of music, her name swirls around the screen and comes to rest at the bottom, signaling a new news segment.
“Well isn’t she special,” Corinne says.
I had to agree Theresa delivered the news in a smug You’ll-Have-To-Deal-With-This fashion.
“Yeah, she could be a little more detached.” I expected her to shake her head sorrowfully as she reported on a yet another shooting in Syracuse. She practically sighs. She uses her Thankfully-I-Live-Elsewhere voice.
“Looks like she likes to shop. Look at that hair! Find out where she lives, k, Mel?”
“Yeah her hair does look a little too shellacked.” Like it’d break right off if you tried to bend it. I don’t comment on tracking her down because I am not doing it. She probably has cameras and a little dog with sharp teeth.
“Shhhh! Shhh!” Corinne waves her hand at me. “This is us!” She turns up the volume.
I wasn’t even talking.
Theresa Dewitt can barely conceal her repulsion: “The girl, known as The Ghost, is suspected to have been operating in the Cazenovia area and may have been spotted in the Manlius and Fayetteville areas. If you have any information—“
“Blah blah blah don’t use fountain pens, we know Theresa, we know.” Corinne talks over the part she knows Theresa’s going to say. “Ugh! What a snob. We should find out where she lives. I bet right in her precious Manlius. She looks like a dumb cluck. Probably won’t even take her own advice, thinks she’s safe. Serve her right.”
Corinne turns down the volume and drops the remote onto the bed. She reaches for her plastic bags, shakes everything out. I watch for a Reese’s to come sliding out. Nothing. “You open this.” She tosses me a bottle of pale pink nail polish remover. “None of that acetone-free shit this time.” Corinne thinks she is bad-ass, and I did too, I thought we both were, but that was four months ago when it was September and the sun still actually shined.
Corinne peels the sticker off a new plastic sandwich container and pries off the top, sets it on the nightstand. I pour in the nail polish remover.
“Which one do you want to do?” She reaches into her back pocket and comes back holding three checks like a card dealer. “You pick. Oh wait,” she says, using her thumb to push one out, “How about this one? National Parks.” Lightly imprinted on the check’s background is red flowing lava, black rocks, and a small bit of sea. Hawaii Volcanos National Park. “Closest we’ll ever get.”
“Whatever, Corinne. Just do it.”
With tweezers meant for plucking eyebrows, she slides the check under the liquid, swishes it around. The solvent turns from pale pink to light blue with dissolved ink. “Thank youuuu, Opraaah,” she sings.
“Poor Oprah.” I bet she never imagined this.
“Yeah, poor Oprah,” Corinne says. Her voice doesn’t quite match the sentiment.
“Corinne, she lives to help people. It’s like, her mission.”
“Well this is irony at its best, then, isn’t it? Or maybe we’re the ones she’s helping now?”
The nail polish remover gets bluer by the minute.
“I doubt…” I lean over to read the unfortunate soul’s name who happily mailed their National Grid bill this morning, “that Mrs. James Anderson would agree.” Mrs. J-A had a heavy hand because the J in what used to be January is taking forever to dissolve.
“Well, Mrs. James Anderson should have: A – memorized Oprah’s survival tips from 1985 like I did, or B – listened to Theresa Dewitt’s snotty warning tonight. Oh wait. Too late!” She laughs. And swishes.
Corinne has twisted Oprah’s helpful survival tips beyond recognition. She is obsessed with the eighties (hence catching that old rerun episode) and Oprah (thinks she should be inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame) but has warped Oprah’s good intentions something fierce. The episode that landed us here featured tips on surviving a plane crash (wear sneakers, sit in an exit aisle), warding off an attacker (poke the eyes), and protecting yourself from check-washing criminals (don’t use inky pens). That last bit I guess didn’t stick with many people from 1985 (or those who caught the rerun), cause people still use inky pens and then put their checks in their mailboxes, out there for the taking. Sitting ducks, we call them.
“Yeah, well, you had better hope I don’t call Oprah and tell on you.” I am only half joking.
“Yeah, well, as soon as Oprah shows up with my new car all wrapped up with a big red bow, we can talk.”
“Hey, she came from humble beginnings. She worked for what she’s got.” I get up for a towel. When I get back Corinne is whispering.
“You get a car,” she whispers slowly, in Oprah’s cadence, recalling another rerun where Oprah gave out free cars to every audience member, “You get a car.”
That episode always killed Corinne. Hey, maybe the audience were military moms or retired schoolteachers, maybe they were more than deserving. I usually argued the point, but eh, not tonight.
“Should have listened to Opraaaaah,” Corinne sings, louder and herself again, as she lifts Mrs. James Anderson’s now-blank check into the air. Fat blue drops drip back into the container. I lay out the towel and Corinne places the check carefully on top. Hawaii National Park looked better than ever.
“The Ghost likes to court trouble,” Corinne says, pressing on the gas as the light changed to green, “Oh yes she does. Head on a swivel, k, Mel?”
“Yeah, Corrinne, I’ve got eyes wide open. I totally bet Theresa lives here. I bet she doesn’t live in shots-fired Syracuse,” I said, “But do you think we should be here, I mean, they just mentioned us on the news last night.”
“Don’t be such a chicken. Did you see that picture they had of me? That was like three haircuts ago. Let’s just poke around, k? No mailboxes today.”
“Yeah ok fine.” I slide down in my seat anyway.
Manlius, so far, is pretty fancy-schmantz. We pass a shiny Ethan Allen showroom, a Lexus dealer, and a Talbots perched on a high snowy hill, where even the models in the windows look warm and satisfied.
Apparently the Manliusans are very proud of their swan pond, as evidenced by the flags hanging from every light pole. A sparkly snowflake decorated one side of the pole and a flag depicting a pond hung on the other. We found the pond, easy-peasy, right in the center of the village. We park and hunch our shoulders against the cold, to get a closer look and to read the sign. Every summer the pond is stocked with two specific and clipped-for-flying swans, enclosed in a black wrought-iron fence six feet tall.
“Eh,” Corrine says, “Big deal.”
“Probably looks better in the summer,” I said. Broken spider webs flap between the fence rails.
The swans are gone, the fountain off, the little island in the middle covered with snow, the whole pond mostly iced over, just a puddle of open water left. A laminated sheet stapled to the wooden sign explains that the swans overwinter in a local farmer’s barn, safe and sound. “See you in May!” the sheet proclaims. It is signed by the swans, Manny and Faye.
“Come on,” Corinne says, “Let’s get hot chocolate.” She heads to the walk-up coffee/ice cream stand next to the pond.
I manage to reach out and pull her sleeve. “What’re you, nuts?”
She spins. “Oh come on, you think everyone watches the news? Come on, I’m freezing.” She pulls her sleeve from my grip and reaches up to pull her hat down further on her head. “It’ll take two minutes.”
I pull my hat down, too, and my hood up, just in case, and follow her. I can’t turn down hot chocolate.
Freedom of Espresso’s outdoor counter had a sign taped to the window: No Hundred Dollar Bills Accepted. I am not making this up.
“Looks like we’re in the right place.” I nod toward the sign.
“Yep,” she says, reading it, “But they can’t do that, hundreds are legal tender. If I had one on me now I’d pay with it, just to make ‘em squirm. They’d have to take it. Maybe we’ll come back later.” She pauses and sticks her nose up in the air. “After Theresa’s.”
Before I can protest a man in a knit cap and fingerless gloves slides open the to-go window. “What can I getcha?”
“Two hot chocolates,” Corinne says. I watch Knit Cap for signs he recognizes her.
“Five-fifty,” he says, and slides the window closed. I watch him through the glass, make sure he doesn’t reach for the phone or pause to press any red emergency buttons he’s got back there.
He doesn’t. He slides the window open to exchange two cups for Corinne’s money. Sweet mercy.
“Why the swan jail?” Corinne asks, nodding to the pond.
“Years ago some kid got in there and killed one of the swans. Wrung its neck. Up went the fence,” he says, pouring coins onto Corinne’s mitten-coated palm, “They mate for life, you know.”
“Unless one dies,” Corinne replies, shaking her head and puffing air from her nose, “Then no more mating.” I know she is thinking about mom but seriously? This is not the time to bring it up.
“Yeah….” The guy looks a little too long at Corinne as she turns away. I grab the back of her arm like my dad used to do to us to get us to move along.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.” I walk faster.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says, matching my pace but turning to look back at the No Hundreds sign, “But we are definitely coming back.”
Corinne said no mailboxes but she loops through the streets behind the swan pond anyway. I cannot even imagine the jobs these people had. Neurosurgeons – no – Head Neurosurgeons. These guys did ten-hour brain surgeries. Who else? Judges? College Deans? Top lawyers – yes – all the partners lived here, right next to each other, when they weren’t working late into the night.
We usually go for the middling neighborhoods. We don’t want curving brick driveways, brass knockers, tall clumps of waving grasses, gates, cameras. Nope – we want something riiiiight in the middle. Nothing like our old neighborhood, either—no crooked posts, no rusty metal rods, no duct tape—and definitely no molded plastic. If Corinne spots even one of those giant green one-piece Rubbermaid mail boxes she’ll press on the gas and shake her head.
“Looks like a garbage can for your mail. No taste,” she’ll say, nodding her head in the direction of the offending box, “Bank account’s probably already overdrawn.”
Here there are fancy scrollworked metal boxes, with little doors in the back that can only be opened with a key. “Mmm-mm,” Corinne says when we cruise by a box like that, “Wish I could get some-a what’s in there.” But we can’t. So we go for the easy ones, for the houses of big-box store managers and real-estate agents who leave home early, the high-heeled ladies putting their mail out and their flags up, little red beacons for us. It’s better in the fall, when we could hear them coming from our lookout spot, the click-click of their dress shoes on driveways. “Sounds like money,” Corinne usually said, wiggling around in her seat for a better view.
Corinne reaches for her hot chocolate and brings it to her lips. “Too hot.” She lowers the cup and bangs it around the holder till she fits it in, not taking her eyes off the road. “Let’s get outta here. It looked clear up north. And it’s only noon.”
“Yeah, ok,” I say, even though in winter I think we should cool it. Footprints, tire tracks, the snow belt. You have to watch the weather every morning to see if you can leave your house and not die in a whiteout.
My idea is to follow the sun, like snowbirds. Back and forth, up and down the coast, right when the air turned chill – boom, we’d fly. No heavy coats, no mittens, no hats and the ridiculous hair that went with it, just sandals all the time. If we can do the check thing up and down 81 why can’t we do it up and down 95, spend a couple days in Key West, under some palms, let me dip my freezing feet in some sand, you know? But no, Corinne feels safer up here. She knows people. The car! The car! Her old high-school friend Bobby and his shop. So fine. I can do my Jell-O thing easier in the winter anyway. Back in September I had to bury the container in the ice machine. Now I just leave it outside the room and hope nobody kicks it.
By the time we get far enough away from swan-proud Manlius it’s too late, there are no red flags, mail must’ve already come, and everything’s too empty, we’re running parallel to the highway, small town USA. It’s too hard to tell where the bigger cities are, and there’s no such thing as a neighborhood up here, just random houses super far apart, horses and cows huddled in alternately muddy and snowy fields.
We drive by a house with the number spray-painted in neon green on the mailbox. “Yeah no,” Corinne says.
Just as well, we still have the other two checks and I am not in the mood to jump into a snowbank for what might be a handful of baby-shower invites.
“So back to 81?”
“North or south?”
“North, let’s not go back toward Manlius and Theresa Dewitt, please.” Not to mention Knit Cap and his searching looks.
I should say south, and can we just keep driving and driving until we splash into the Gulf of Mexico?
Corinne turns and turns and turns, following the highway signs. Each turn I think we’re going to see 81 but alas, another sign, more fields, more horses.
We pass a two-storied white-pillared high school, a wedding cake of a building. Port Byron, Home of the Panthers. Everyone in that frosted building already home. Says it right there on the sign.
I can feel Corinne looking, too. “What’s over there?”
“Just a pretty high school.” I bet in spring they have tulips around the flag pole, newly greened soccer fields, and their own cross-country trails threading through the distant woods.
“Hmmmm.” Corinne feels around for her hot chocolate, grabs it.
“Makes me miss ERA.” East Rochester Academy. I was a Spartan.
“Homesick for high school? Impossible.” She sips her drink and holds out the cup for me to fit back into the holder. “Finally cool enough. Geesh.”
At first I liked this whole bit, this outlawish, Mad At The World bit. I loved that Corinne moved back home. I loved standing up in that last calc class and tossing my test over my shoulder, a good-luck grain of salt. The rhino-skinned tough girl had finally arrived, and she didn’t take calc. She hung with her sister. But now I miss everyone, even the people I hated. Gossipy, judgmental types that could take you down for a spot on your jeans, lest you infect their clean-eating, ironed-hair lives. Maybe I could have hung on, I could have asked someone (was there a counselor I missed?) for a couch. People love a stringy-haired hungry girl, right?
Corinne finally finds an onramp and is solidly on 81 North before we see it – blue black clouds straight ahead. And it’s snowing lightly.
“Oh shit,” she says. It’s snowing harder. In the past two seconds, yep.
“I thought you said it was clear up here!” I grip the door handle as if it will help.
“I thought it was! Get out the map, Mel, how far is the next exit?”
“If we hit the wall we are fucked, Corinne!” I pop open the glove compartment, rifle through napkins and straws and grab for old maps. When I look up – it’s snowing even harder and the roads are covered. The car in front of us has disappeared. Corinne takes her foot off the gas.
There’s this wall, it’s more like a shower curtain of snow, and it’s terrifying. One second it’s clear and sunny and the next you cannot see the car in front of you. Because of the curtain, and the band behind it. Lake Effect.
“I know what the next exit is.”
I have the map unfolded and am mad flipping it around.
And then I know, without even looking at the map.
The Tug Hill Plateau. I have only heard about it on the news. It’s snowing on the Tug, they’ll say. Three inches an hour, they’ll say. Once it snowed eight feet in one day.
My arms fall heavy on the map. Corinne’s profile is stone, concentrating. “Remember the eight feet?” My throat squeezes tight on eight feet and it comes out panicky.
“That only happened one time, Mel, calm down—”
“But you can’t—” I can’t see anything. There used to be a forest on the side of the road.
“—Calm down! Hit the hazards!” She is white-knuckling the wheel.
You can never find the fucking hazard button when you need it.
Next I cheer on Corinne, the next stage of Lake Effect driving. First is anger that you’re even in this situation, then there’s panic that someone’s going to spin out and kill you, then acceptance, then you start the you’ve got this type sayings.
“Ok, we have the hazards on. See the reflector things? Stay between those. Ignore that guy! Ignore him!” There’s always an SUV buzzing by in the passing lane, thinks he has Four Wheel Stop. “You’re doing great!”
There’s no sound in the car (except for the map crinkling on my lap), there’s not even slush hitting the wheels, and I’d kill for slush right now, as she pulls off 81 and onto route 11. Corinne drives into the parking lot of the first thing we (barely) see, a gas station surrounded by 4×4 pickups driven by unworried people, probably. Snowmobiles in trailers and in pickup beds abound.
“Let me go ask about a hotel.” Corinne leaves the car running and jumps out before I can even offer to do it.
I get out and brush off the lights as much as I can but my skinny arms and wooden brush are no match for Lake Ontario. I get back in and throw the snowbrush into the back seat. Pathetic. Corinne comes back and plops down in a rush of swirling snow. She stress-laughs, a defeated heh. “It’s across the street. You should see the guys in there. Standing around with their coffees. Not a worry in the world.”
I knew it.
The motel is called The Snowed-Inn. You cannot make this shit up.
Whenever I get pissy I try to picture the Domestic Help-Line pad at our old doctor’s office. That pad was always empty, a telltale line of leftover glue at the top. Always just the cardboard backing left, imprinted with the same phone number and message as, presumably, the rest of the missing sheets. Every time I went into the bathroom, I checked on the paper pad, hoping that it’d be full or just a few sheets missing, only a little of the glue strip showing. But no. Always empty. Full glue strip. So either people were feverishly tearing away at the help line sheets or the nurses never replaced the spent pad. In either case, Mel, there are people worse off than you so Shut. UP.
I try to remember the Domestic Help-Line pad now but my head is itchy, my hands will not warm up, and my wild and desperate side is dangerously close to the surface.
And the smell in this no-tell motel is Not Normal. My best guess is that it’s a fishing in summer/snowmobiling in winter lodge. The wood-paneled walls must’ve soaked up the smell from every sweaty man that has ever slept in these beds. The only good thing is that we spotted a Pizza Hut across the street, the glow of the sign recognizable through the snow, and all we need now is a blank check and a nervous kid or an overworked mom at the register.
Corinne sits at the little table dipping a check with a Mickey Mouse background. I flip through my Ikea catalog. It’s wrinkled and battered but it helps me plan for my someday apartment, everything clean and tidy, smooth and Swedish.
“I am sick to death of this sweatshirt.” Ikea’s not working tonight. I mean, I can be earthy. I recycle. I don’t litter. I don’t wear deodorant so that I don’t add more plastic to the landfill. Or spend an extra dollar. But this GD sweatshirt has crusty sleeves from I don’t know what.
Corinne could bitch with me, commiserate, complain about the cold and the snow and being stuck. She says nothing, just continues swishing her check. I look at shelving units.
I don’t want it to slip out but it does, in the smallest voice: “It’s not fair.” I hope Corinne doesn’t hear me because she will jump. Her head swings around. She heard me.
“Oh really? And you think I’m having a party? You think I wanted China to undercut the penicillin prices?”
Ohmygod not China and the penicillin again. I peruse the lighting section. Corinne goes on about her lost job, about the factory that made eighty percent of the world’s penicillin, until the Chinese cut safety and quality corners – and the price. Her factory could barely keep the lights on, blah blah, until it closed and she was turned out, I have heard it all before. She is the world’s oldest twenty-five-year old.
“…well good luck with that!” She finishes up and I tune back in. I have no idea what she just said.
“I just feel like we’re pretty low on the hierarchy of needs, right now.”
She fixes me with a look. “Are you talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?” Her voice is level. She lifts Mickey out of the plastic container, lays him on the towel. Must’ve been some nice ink on that one. Easy.
I press on, matching her smooth tone. “Yes, Corinne, I think we’re okay with food and water but I’m a little concerned about safety and housing, it’s essential—”
“Are you wondering how we’re going to get to the tippy-top of the pyramid?” Her voice is weird now, sweet and sing-song-y, like how you’d talk to a baby. She jumps off her chair and bends over, her hands on her knees and her face even with mine. “Are you concerned about self-actualization?”
I actually wasn’t. I thought I’d get to that when I was, like, fifty. “No, Corinne, right now I’d like a clean t-shirt that I don’t have to wash out in the sink. Maslow said—”
Corinne slaps her thighs with both hands so hard it must hurt.
“I know about Maslow! You think I don’t know about Maslow? I went to college!” She straightens up and paces around. “Not that I needed to, because you learn that shit in high school if you pay attention! And I did pay attention, Mel, I did, I was third in my class and summa cum laude at Colgate.” She extends her arm and points at the door as if Colgate is across the street. “Do you know what summa is? That means my GPA was over 3.85. I worked my ass off for those grades and that job. You think I wanted this to happen to us? That I want to be here with you?” She is breathless. I think she is shocked I knew enough about Maslow to bring it up.
“If only you spoke Spanish!” I say, and she turns and runs for her shoes and coat. I knew that would get her, because next up is her second favorite topic, Puerto Rico and all the pharmaceutical jobs down there, if only she spoke Spanish.
“That’s right!” She pushes her feet into her shoes. “I could be in Puerto Rico RIGHT NOW!”
“But you fucking took French! Didn’t you! Good one Corinne!” I get the last word in as she yanks open the door and slams it behind her. I see her pass in front of the window, raising both her arms, and I hear her too, “She tells me about Maslow. Me! Me! I invented Maslow!” Her voice fades as she heads to the concrete staircase at the end of the building. “Fucking French!” is the last thing I hear. Even though I’m mad I hope the staircase isn’t covered in ice. Her sneakers have no tread. They are no match for the way she bounds around when she’s mad, even on a dry day. Maybe in a minute I’ll peek my head around the corner, make sure she didn’t slip and is laying there all unconscious. That’s all I need.
I should rip up the clean check and leave it on her pillow but I want Pizza Hut more than I want to piss off Corinne. Or do I? She’s the one who ran out. Tiny pieces of Mickey would show her who’s boss. I weigh Corinne’s reaction against my stomach. I leave the check alone. The Hut wins.
When Corinne doesn’t come back I open the door and peer down the hall. Nothing but blinking fluorescent lights and air so cold it feels abusive. A couple of idling rigs ring the edge of the parking lot. A line of snowmobiles sit closer to the building, lights on and steaming. I hear a woman laugh, a sharp smoker’s cackle, but all the riders are out of sight. Now I have to go check the stairs.
After I push my feet into my sneakers (who thought of grabbing boots in September?) and get my coat (Salvation Army – I don’t want to talk about it) and my key-card, I head for the staircase, praying Corinne’s dumb old head is not laying there bleeding. I’d really hate to step on her.
The staircase is empty. So is the lobby, but a bunch of big guys in snow pants and black jackets stand outside the main glass door. They stamp their feet, helmets under their arms, laugh. I should totally run upstairs and rip up Mickey’s face. No, Mel, remember the pizza.
The blonde at the front desk examines the ends of her long hair, and as I approach, before I can say anything, she pulls on a single hair, making two hairs out of one.
“Split ends,” she says, raising her head.
“I…I…” I forgot what I was going to say. I look away. I didn’t know it was possible, to pull split ends like that.
“You have great hair,” she says, presumably looking at my hair. I have no idea. I am busy counting ceiling tiles.
“Oh…a good haircut will fix you right up,” I say to the ceiling.
“Oh no way, I been growing this hair out two years now.”
Of course. Always an excuse.
The guys out front laugh and stomp again and someone revs an engine. Corinne I hope you’re as smart as you say you are because I am not in charge of you. I head for the lobby’s back door.
I take the concrete steps two at a time and know that I am a No Excuses kind of girl. At least I was. Corinne was, too. We wore plaid skirts to elementary school and each classroom posted this sign: No Excuses! But then we slip-slided to here, and along the way we gathered so many: why we couldn’t keep the house — ok that was easy, Dad was up in Clinton Correctional, aka Dannemora, which is what I like to call it, sounds like a resort — but before that, why we couldn’t fix the bb hole in the front window, why we couldn’t screw the doorknob back on the bathroom door.
I once overheard a conversation between two women in a sub shop that made me realize that excuses were really just faulty logic. One lady complained that she wanted a baby so badly she could taste it, but her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her because she had collected an enormous number of dolls and he was allergic to dust. Weird baby-tasting cliché aside, the answer was so clear to me but invisible to her: get rid of dolls, vacuum the hell out of house, make way for boyfriend and baby. But no, there was just this circular argument: I want a baby but I also want these dolls and my bf is allergic so we can’t get married or live together but I want a baby with HIM but I also want these dolls so we can’t live together as a family, around and around we go…remember ninth grade logic, those IF/THEN statements? Yeah, apparently this poor woman didn’t remember a thing.
Like the lady at the front desk: I do not want split ends. A haircut will cure split ends. But I do not want a haircut. I walked under the blinking fluorescents and tried not to have a mini-stroke from my beating heart and the lights and the fury of ignored logic.
When I get back to the room Corinne is there, sitting on the bed. She’s watching the local news, snug as a bug, while I’m off getting practically kidnapped and positively grossed out. A blue ribbon crawls across the bottom of the screen: Lake Effect Snow Advisory Warning. Three beeps as I unbutton my coat.
“Can you do the check?”
“Yeah.” I leave my coat on and my shoes, too, and I hope I soak the floor and she steps in a wet spot in her socks. At midnight.
Excited voices throw the news to a very excited team of weather people. A deep blue wedge signaling Lake Effect shows up on their map. One weatherman, all hopped up on meteorological fervor, points at the west to east band. “This band will move south during the night as the winds off Lake Ontario shift in that direction.”
“We are socked in,” Corinne says.
“Of course.” I rub my hands together to warm them. Cold signatures never look right. “You didn’t see this, this morning?” I keep my head down but tip my pen in the direction of the TV.
“This morning it was just a watch. I remember now.”
Summa cum laude my ass. I cannot believe I have to sleep in the same bed as her tonight. I hope I don’t kick her in my sleep.
“Ok. Done.” I get up and hand her the check, Ms. Morgan Jackson’s new signature right over Mickey’s face. It’s on Corinne tonight, and she had better pray for a newbie at the register.
“We should walk.”
All the idling vehicles have gone, and it’s quiet except for the retreating sounds of snowmobile engines. We don’t die crossing the street, and I have to admit the snow is pretty, mesmerizing, even.
Ms. Morgan Jackson of 193 Waterford Lane treats us to dinner. Praise J.
Two days later we decide to make a run for it. 81 South. The weatherman’s face this morning looked decidedly less excited, less like he’d been up all night studying maps and wind directions.
“Let’s bust on through.” Corinne clicks her seatbelt, determined.
“Yeah – and the next place? No sweat scented wood paneling, please. Let’s do this!” We kind of have to, even though it is still snowing. We are tougher now, baptized by a three inch per hour snowfall rate. Plus, we are down to one check, and that means a bank run. Cash. Never easy.
We need a city with a hospital, a research center, a defense laboratory, anything with neighborhoods, with money making, bill paying people.
From the highway I keep my eyes peeled. Closed closed closed. Everything. Modern-day ghost towns. Once busy highways now swept right by plywood-windowed factories, empty loading docks, parking lots filled with snow instead of cars.
We did this one town, a couple months back? Gloversville. A whole town named after one thing – the glove factory. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket. So now it’s closed, right, the workers and the leather and the thread and the paychecks all gone somewhere else, to China, probably, with the penicillin, and now what do they have? A couple of blinking traffic lights, a pizza shop (there’s always a pizza shop), sagging houses, and clinical depression.
Even the baby food factory, the one you can see from 81, is silent and still.
I turn up the radio, hoping to distract Corinne, get her singing, keep her from noticing the fading Beech-Nut logo.
“What, is China making baby food now too? We can’t make baby food here?” She notices.
“I don’t know, Corinne, maybe they just moved south, like we should.” I lean my head into my hand, against my window. Hopefully she’ll get the hint.
“I know shit,” she says, jamming on her directional to exit, “At least I used to. It’s not my fault I got so specialized, that this is all we have,” she sweeps her arm toward the crumbling brick factory, “What, we all have to code for Google?”
“So you’re saying you can’t find something similar to what you had?”
“I am a Chemical Engineer, Melanie,” she says, in this snotty voice, as if I just met her and speak a different language, “But do you see any chemicals around here to engineer? No! There are just dollar stores and laundromats for miles.” She juts her chin into the air. “And I am not stocking shelves with Chinese tampons and generic Band-Aids just because it’s honest. Where has honesty ever gotten the two of us?”
Another small town, it looks like. A strange mix of McDonalds and grain silos. It’s snowing again and Corinne is taking corners like the roads are dry.
“I was honest.” She points at herself. “You were honest.” She points at me. “Yet here we are.”
We are in the drive-through bank teller in a sleepy town, hoping for a sleepy teller, one that just wants to go home.
We get that careless teller and we get more Jell-O. Later I should totally call Jan.
All dollar stores have Jell-O. It’s a staple of the American diet. Plus, every hotel room, even the fleabaggiest motels, have coffeemakers. You make hot water in the coffeepot. Tip: run one pot through first, unless you want coffee flavored cherry Jell-O. You empty the packet into your plastic container (get one with a tight-fitting (I mean it) lid), pour the hot water in, put the top on, and shake to dissolve. Donezo.
My container fits perfectly on the railing outside our room. I scrape snow from beside it, nestle it in good.
On my way back to bed I wonder if there are any vitamins in Jell-O. Would it kill them to inject some vitamin C in there, maybe a little D for winter?
I want to nap but Corinne is flipping channels. I toss and turn and finally stare at the ceiling. No dice on the nap. “Corinne, do you miss our house?”
“I do. I miss the records.”
“Mel, those records are what got us in this mess.” She exhaled. “Those records and stupidity.”
“Oh. I always thought he used CDs to DJ, or mp3s, like on a computer.”
“Whatever. I’d break every last one of them if I knew back then what I know now.”
“Maybe he didn’t do it, Corinne, maybe he was set up.” I flip onto my side, wedge my pillow under my arm.
“You have watched too many movies. He wasn’t set up. The courts know all this stuff. He was selling, both at night and from the house. Don’t you remember all the cars coming by?”
I didn’t. “But why?”
“I have no idea. That is the million-dollar question.”
I sit up, pile my pillows behind me.
“I loved the company parties.” Bausch and Lomb had the best – a sprawling corporate park, huge company parties every summer.
“You did.” She laughs. “You ran around like a crazy woman!”
“I played EVERYthing!” I bounced in the blow-up house, I tied my leg to Corinne’s for the three-legged race, I played kickball, egg toss, origami, you name it, I did it. I even got the back of my shoulder painted, right next to my tank top strap, a big bright yellow sunshine, every year with that sunshine, since I was ten. “Remember the balloon toss? I was in it to win it!” I can still feel the water balloon in my hand, the fragile potential, the cool squishiness.
“And when we won the rabbit and raccoon stuffed animals? You practically fainted from happiness.”
I had a thing for woodland animals. Still do.
“We came from somewhere, Corinne.”
“Yeah but now we’re here. Fallen from a great height.”
We have. Our neighborhood had rusty duct taped tilting mailboxes but it also had us, and it wasn’t so terrible. We had a carpeted basement and air hockey and those plaid elementary school skirts until it closed down, and we had dad, Manager of Research and Development.
Corinne flips to an old movie and leaves it.
“Vertigo.” Unbelievable. Cary Grant and she’s not changing it. “Wait. Mute.”
Voices outside have me out of bed and peering through the peephole.
“No one is going to touch your Jell-O.”
Up on my tiptoes I see a couple people move on down the hall. The Jell-O is safe. Behind my container the parking lot is filling up with snow.
“Dude. You should see it out here.” It’s coming down so hard it is like the sky is mad.
“Again with the Lake Effect?” Corinne says. “It’s like Lake Ontario is giving us the finger. The middle one, you know?”
“Yeah. I don’t know why anyone lives here, or anywhere near here. So can we go south now?” The parking lot lights are a barely visible faint orange. Cold air rushes in under the door. I leave the Jell-O to the snow.
“You know why we can’t go.”
“Yeah yeah, Bobby can fix the car, I know.” I hope she can hear the eye roll in my voice. I hop back up onto my bed, bury my feet under the covers.
“And I could take my GED and enroll in some college with palm trees in their logo.” I motion for the remote. A diamond-encrusted Hollywood lady looks like she’s going to jump into the ocean. Where’s Cary now?
“Mel. Look at me. That is a reason why we CAN go. What is a reason why we can’t?”
“And there are bound to be jobs for a summa cum laude voulez voulez vous, like you!” I am not going to take the bait.
“Still a reason to go. And why we can’t?”
And nothing. She can fish all she wants. I am a master at holding grudges. You will need to send me flowers and cakes and balloon bouquets and heartfelt cards and dedicate a song to me on the radio every day in order to me to thaw out. It is because I am part Italian (so is Corinne but she doesn’t let it affect her) and we are not known for forgiveness and moving on. Instead we invented the mafia, which is all about grudges and payback.
“I can’t believe you want to stay here. Aren’t you mad, didn’t you just want to break all the records?”
“Yeah I can be mad and at the same time want to visit. It’s called complexity?”
“You are really harshing my may-o.”
She shakes her head. Dad taught us that phrase. When I was a kid I couldn’t say mellow, and I’d say may-o instead.
“We should go ask him why he did it, you know?”
Corinne just played her ace. Why give up free food and sunshine on your shoulder, bounce houses and squishy water balloons for part-time DJing and selling? Why put all that on the line? Why put us on the line?
“Corinne, it’s been four months, now we’re going to show up? Besides, if the roads are bad here, what do you think they’re like up north? It’s probably an Arctic tundra.”
“Yeah Mel, there are polar bears around every bend.”
Dannemora was a stone’s-throw from the Canadian border, so it was probably true.
“Besides, we’re no better, we’re going to go up there all righteous and ask why? Why are we doing what we’re doing?”
“We got pushed here. I’m not in love with this either.” She doesn’t mention Chinese penicillin or generic tampons or her Colgate transcript, praise J. I cannot get on that merry-go-round again.
Silent Cary runs his hands through his hair, grimaces, all his usual debonair gone. Bad guys afoot, probably.
“Look,” Corinne says. She unfolds a sheet of torn notebook paper, hands it across the beds.
Waterford Lane. Shalimar Lane. Mrs. James Anderson. A whole list.
“I’m going to pay them back as soon as I get my voulez-voulez-vous job, and you enrolled in that palm-tree school. Just wait.”
I hand back the paper. “You are lucky, Corinne, because I was just about to call Oprah on you.” She smiles and refolds the paper.
Even though I’ve unmuted Cary and he’s back to calm debonair, I can hear Corinne over on her bed, softy to herself in Oprah-cadence, “You get a car, you get a car…”
I once saw this illustration of a cartoon fox in his wintertime den – a cross section, if you will. He was lying face-up on his couch, wide-eyed staring at the ceiling, a book open on his stomach, a striped scarf wrapped around his neck. This fox, he even had a steaming cup of tea on the table next to him and two fuzzy bunny slippers strewn on the floor. The best part wasn’t even that he had a roaring fire in a woodstove, vented via a silver pipe that extended through the room into the ceiling and into the earth above him, even though that looked so cozy. I liked that you could see the whole picture, the snow piling up outside, the dark sky, too, and him on the couch, still and patient, doing his best, with his book and his fire and his scarf and his tea, waiting. I wish I had a real copy of this illustration, because I am like this fox. Except without the cute scarf and hot tea. Oh and forget about the woodstove and bunny slippers – ha! Me and this fox, we are doing the best we can. Under piling snow and darkening skies, there’s me, wide-eyed and still, waiting.
by Amy Emm
Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature