“Please, God, let him telephone me now.” With dramatic flare, Alex breathed on the Nokia and polished it against his sleeve. He held the phone aloft, precious as a relic, beneath the old Monte Carlo’s interior dome light. “Please, in all your divine wisdom!”
Seated shotgun and a little drunk, Elaine giggled. She never tired of Alex’s joyful theatrics. But one uneventful moment later—when Alex tossed the phone across the dashboard—she realized that he was genuinely upset. As the Nokia bounced down to the floorboard at her feet, Elaine slumped in her seat, toying with the paintbrush ends of her own long braids.
Alex sucked in a calming breath, then turned up the volume on the stereo to a deafening level. It was already past nine, and Dave was clearly a no-show-no-call; meanwhile, Alex was ritually compelled by nervous habit to make noise in the wake of the unexpected. In fact, whenever deviations threatened any plan, Alex’s good judgment suffered. Elaine would have to be vigilant tonight.
The radio was tuned to the college station out of Lawrence (Elaine’s broken Bauhaus cassette was still jammed in the tape slot), but reception there in Topeka was spotty. Static fizzled in alternation with the latest electro-clash beats, an asynchronous ruckus to which Alex vogued lithely behind the steering wheel. Once his mood had improved satisfactorily, Elaine turned down the noise and accepted the consequence of his withering glare. “If your ‘telephone’ rings,” she air-quoted, “we’re not going to hear it.” But mainly, Elaine didn’t want to gain undue attention. They were parked outside the apartment complex of Mandy the Connection—in the tenant-only lot, no less. “Why don’t we cruise the Boulevard instead,” she said, and offered him their shared Wild Turkey fifth.
“Oh no, dear. We can’t miss it.” Alex finished off the whisky and rolled the bottle under his seat. He drew in a deep, sorrowful breath. “Shit. And Dave had the address…”
“That sucks, but we can find it. It’s a warehouse party. How many could there be in one night?” Elaine leaned over, chin to her knees, and rummaged in the vinyl purse at her feet. She hoped to hide her helpless near-smile, her relief that Dave had flaked. Alex deserved so much better! And as a matter of fact, she’d told Dave as much just yesterday—unbeknownst to Alex.
From her purse, Elaine extracted the envelope of their combined remaining tips from the café’s lunch rush. She squared dollar bills against the dashboard, and dealt the cash into a pile on her lap. Five, ten, fifteen—
“I guess you were right about him,” Alex said. “You’re always right.”
“Am I?” she said. She fanned herself with a handful of dollars.
Alex finally smiled again, showing those sugar-cube teeth. He turned the radio up once more and bounced in his seat to the static-laced percussion.
This time, Elaine allowed the loudness. She knew when to pick her battles. Twenty-five… Thirty… She scooped a mound of loose change from the open ashtray, stacked quarters on the dashboard. “And, thirty-five!” she said over the noise, with a ta-daaa gesture. She popped open the glove box and retrieved a Ziploc bag.
“And, nothing,” Alex sighed. “Dave also had the rest of the money.”
“What’re you talking about? Thirty-five’s plenty. Absolut, Smirnoff—”
“Actually, I ordered something else.” Alex shot her a hangdog look. “But don’t worry, it’s something fun.”
“Oh?” The single syllable followed a querulous tonal arc, as Elaine tucked cash into the baggie. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was Dave’s idea,” he said lightly. His next words followed their own meaningful tonality, as if to sweet-talk a pet with a treat: “Li-quid code-ine!” Alex rapped at the steering wheel with drumstick fingers, matching a syncopated roll on the radio. When he glanced at Elaine for approval of his percussive feat, he noticed her expression. “Sorry, Elaine. Dave said he mentioned it to you, but that you seemed unsure.”
“Why would I be unsure? It sounds lovely.” Elaine handed him the money, but her gaze stayed on the Monte Carlo’s dashboard. Zoomed in on its woven-texture surface. Contemplated the unobtrusive pattern there—so subtle as to be nearly imperceptible.
Alex pulled mischievously at one of her long braids. Elaine leaned toward him, going along with the braid-tug. He smooched her temple. She lived for this, the temple-smooch from Alex: her own unique token of belonging. Oh, the evasive sense of belonging! How easily one takes it for granted until it’s gone. Being with him was the first time she’d had it since she’d run away from home a year ago, her arms beset with bruises and burns. Being with him was the last sense of belonging she’d ever need.
“Anyway, it’s all fine,” Alex said near her ear. “Mandy offered me an arrangement for these situations.” He leaned back in his seat, sugar cubes disappearing behind perfect lips. He peered in the rearview mirror, checked his profile from different angles. With dramatic fervor renewed, he said: “Please God, help me through it!”
And suddenly, Alex pulled the keys from the ignition, killing the stereo. As he got out, an unnerving open-door chime replaced the radio’s remote static/music. Humid evening air drifted in, bringing scents of cut grass and pre-storm ozone. The night was warm, but Elaine crossed her arms against a chill. “What kind of ‘arrangement?’”
“Mutual benefit,” Alex said. “Mutual understanding of life’s underlying principle.” In one hand, he gripped the money bag by its zipped-up strip. In the other, keys jangled, swinging by their central ring: clink-dink, clink-dink. “Life’s unifying principle!” he declared. “One does what one must, to get what one needs.”
Is that what he’d said? The outdoor ambience mitigated his voice—distant traffic, whirring cicadas in the ball field across the street, the hum of an air conditioner in a nearby window. And of course that clink-dink of keys. Elaine stared at Alex, turned his indefinite words over in her mind, checked them from different angles. “But what exactly—”
“Just play along.” Clink-dink. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”
“Okay,” Elaine said quietly. Then, brightly: “Yes, dear.”
Among Topeka’s underage underground—the punks, the club kids and ravers, the black-metal cultic—Mandy the Connection was scenester royalty. But as Elaine followed Alex along a knobby carpet runner down the main hall—as she breathed in sundry scents of Lysol, warm dryer sheets, and burnt popcorn—she wondered: what does it mean to be royalty? To be relevant, to be adored? To be somebody important in the eyes of another?
Elaine’s own eyes grew wide as they reached apartment five, where the door angled open to reveal a petite woman in goth-y eyeliner, Mary Janes, and an oversized black
T-shirt. Mandy the Connection. How old was she? Twenty-five? Thirty? Despite her old age, she was pretty. There was a drawn hardness to her features, as if she were enacting icy willpower to refrain from smiling no matter the circumstance. But this merely added an alluring sense of danger about her.
“Sorry we’re late,” Alex said, proffering the bag of cash.
“Where’s Dave?” Mandy asked. She unzipped the baggie and thumbed through the bills. Elaine watched her, entranced, memorizing every movement.
Alex smirked. “Dave who?”
Mild amusement displayed on Mandy’s hard features. She looked up and glared at Elaine, who’d been staring. Elaine glanced away coolly, but her face warmed.
“Who’s she?” said Mandy.
“My friend Elaine,” Alex said. “Remember, I told you? She just moved here from Kansas City.” He emphasized those last two words, implied Elaine’s metropolitan savvy. As Mandy raised one manicured eyebrow, Elaine felt special. Relevant. Important.
There was a near-imperceptible hesitation before Alex added: “Her stepdad owns the Underground Sound club.”
Elaine froze cold next to Alex. An electric flash of panic zipped through her nervous system. What did he just say? Power drained from her as fast as it had risen up. She drew in breath to speak, but her throat was tight with rage. After everything I told him about—
“Wow, that’s cool,” said Mandy, her icy demeanor melting slightly. “Big city girl.”
Alex nudged Elaine with his elbow excitedly.
Still frozen, Elaine heard herself make a polite sound.
Mandy let them in. Alex moved fast, keys jingling. Elaine followed numbly. In just five steps, they stood in the main room of Mandy the Connection’s small apartment HQ. It was a schizophrenic hybrid of kitchen, laundry room, and living room—and all pertinent sundries were stacked and scattered from wall to wall. Dishes occupied an ironing board next to a bookshelf. Clean clothes were sorted on the dining table. Cracker boxes and a bread loaf sat atop an entertainment center, inside of which a Law & Order rerun played dutifully on TV.
Mandy reached under the dining table and dragged a large crate across the floor. She pulled from it a Smirnoff bottle and set it next to some folded towels. “Good enough?”
Alex glanced at Elaine for her blessing.
Elaine glared at him. Anger stirred sickly at the pit of her stomach.
Alex returned his attention to Mandy. “Perfect.” As he spoke, a peculiar sound rose simultaneously from the far side of the couch. A small dog’s bark? Elaine glanced around, eyes darting across the room’s cluttered landscape.
Meanwhile, Mandy scooted the crate back under the table and regarded Alex with what nearly passed as a half-smile. “You still want… the other?”
Elaine fought the urge to shout, No! But just then, the dog’s-bark transformed eerily into a cat-like mewl—then a dove-like coo—which then became distinctly human. Goosebumps speckled Elaine’s bare arms. What the hell is that? The incipient rage in her gut was quelled by curiosity: not the adoration-of-life’s-mysteries kind, but rather the ill-sense-of-dread variety. Elaine drifted from Alex’s side, moved slowly along the edge of the couch. Her line of sight focused on a metal frame that rose vertically above cushion-level, just beyond the couch’s arm. That metal frame moved, rocking gently—then was still.
“Yes.” Alex’s voice, from behind her. Miles away.
Elaine peered over the furniture, gaze following the metal frame’s downward slide. She gasped at the sight as it emerged before her: a baby was sitting in a stroller next to the couch, watching TV.
“Are you sure she’s okay with this?” It was Mandy’s voice this time, broadcast from some remote station. Elaine stared at the baby in blue terrycloth—as it wagged its arms and gurgled and kicked out onesie-footied feet. It barked a rough cough, then mewled and cooed at the screen as if in appreciation of Law & Order’s dark and unexpected reversal.
A beat of silence followed. Elaine suddenly remembered the others in the room, and realized she’d become their center of attention. She whirled around. Alex’s expression was unintelligibly aloof.
Elaine looked at Mandy, who had moved from the table to kitchen. Elaine said brightly, “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Good,” said Mandy. She turned around and opened a pantry cabinet. With her back to Elaine and Alex, she removed cans of food from an interior shelf and stacked them on the counter.
Elaine thought she saw sugar cubes flash in the corner of her eye. She would not look at Alex, could not stomach the sight of his smile. The vague-sick-dread feeling swelled, welled up inside her, threatened to manifest in tears. She stared doggedly at Mandy stacking cans.
And in spite of it all, Elaine was surprised to see what was now exposed inside the cabinet: a small combination safe, deep inside, ostensibly attached to the back wall. Mandy twisted the dial. In Elaine’s mind, numbers echoed. Twenty-five…
Alex sidled up next to Elaine.
He kissed her temple.
The safe popped open. Alex slid away again.
Mandy shoved the money inside the safe. From within it, she extracted a medicine bottle of syrupy red liquid. “Heads-up, Big City.” Mandy tossed the bottle to Elaine, who caught it by instinct. She considered it numbly. On the prescription label was the name of a codeine-based generic drug she did recognize, and the name of a person she didn’t—Isaac Smith.
In the meantime, Alex joined Mandy in the kitchen as she replaced the cans in front of the safe. Then the two beautiful creatures moved together toward the bedroom hall. Already a numinous physical force connected them, as if their individual spheres of personal space had merged. Alex leaned his head toward Mandy’s neck, and he kissed along its length—and Elaine simultaneously felt that very sensation from afar, those soft lips tickling her skin. It was an unwitting, unwelcome act of remote empathy that left her breathless, electrified, and nauseous.
“Keep Izzy company,” said Mandy as they passed Elaine and left her behind.
Five minutes later, the inevitable event: Elaine’s tears came in a rush, like rain gushing down from midsummer firmament after a long stretch of hot and humid promise.
But tears hadn’t yet come when the bedroom door shut assertively in the hall. At that point, Elaine numbly sat down at the end of the couch near the baby. Izzy glanced at her, then resumed a private endeavor to pull his foot to his mouth.
And tears still hadn’t come when Law & Order’s familiar credits rolled on TV, following yet another satisfying but noir-nuanced conclusion. The theme song ended, the screen went black. Sudden, unexpected stillness in the room allowed for unbidden realization. Abrupt silence showcased the purity of Elaine’s unsureness. Oh, the evasive sense of certainty! How easily one takes it for granted until it’s gone. In that instant of broadcast discontinuity, Elaine finally understood Alex’s loud stereo, jangling keys, and thrumming fingers on every surface. She finally got the need for noise in the face of deviation from the plan.
But even then, Elaine’s tears didn’t come quite yet.
“Ahh,” Izzy said, his voice huge in the quiet room. Elaine looked at him, intending only a perfunctory glance. Instead, when she found the baby gazing directly at her, she was immediately lost in those sweet brown eyes.
Izzy stared, taking in every detail, as if in awe. As if she were important.
As local news anchors lit up the screen to an exciting musical crescendo, Elaine wept.
According to the bank building’s clock a block down from Mandy’s complex, it was 10:15 when Elaine crossed Sixth Street with the stroller. Her heart beat heavily. Her mind swam with images of the actions she’d taken after the tearful breakdown. Pouring cough syrup down the drain in the kitchen sink. Stacking cans helter-skelter on the counter. Whirling the safe’s combination dial to its salient stops, drawing on the singular well of certainty to which she was privy. Shoving the Ziploc bag of cash into the stroller pouch behind Izzy’s seat. Grabbing a bottle of formula from the fridge.
Had it been her that had taken these actions? She felt strangely disconnected from the immediate past. But all signs said yes as she popped the stroller wheels over the curb. Here she was with Izzy, the bottle clutched in his chubby fingers. Here they were, moving under competing angles of street lamps and security lights, a gestalt form of
girl-with-baby-in-stroller casting multiple shadows in varying gradients. As they approached the empty ball field in increasing darkness, their silhouettes crisscrossed and merged, and finally dissipated in shadow.
Sprinkles of rain pinpricked Elaine’s bare arms. Loose change rattled merrily in the stroller pouch as they crossed the uneven terrain. Izzy’s terrycloth-clad bulk jostled with each bump, the bottle bopping in his mouth. “Sorry,” she whispered, though Izzy was unperturbed.
When they reached the field’s center, Elaine realized at last: she didn’t know where they were going. But in a far corner of the lot stood a little park—merely a climbing structure and swing set, and one lone bench. It barely qualified as a playground, but seemed a perfect destination for this sojourn. Elaine headed toward it, bumping along.
At the twenty-yard line, Elaine cut away from the field and approached the playground. By the time they reached it, light rain was falling. Elaine expanded the stroller’s umbrella over Izzy to keep him dry. She sat on the bench, turned the baby to face her. “Sorry,” she repeated, exhausted.
Izzy stared at her with deep interest.
A man’s voice echoed across the field, breaking hoarsely with the effort to project. Elaine heard her name and looked up to see two figures running across the cropped turf. She’d never seen Alex move so fast—a startling sight. As petite as she was, Mandy kept pace with him nonetheless. She had changed into jeans and a blouse, and now wore sneakers.
Elaine’s blood ran cold, her insides turned watery. She jumped up from the bench as imminent thunder rumbled. Rain gained gravity.
Alex skidded to a stop next to her. He spoke between heaving gasps. “What… the… hell… are you… doing out here?”
“We went for a walk,” Elaine said.
Mandy arrived, face ruddy with exertion and rage. Her eyes were wild as she pulled the stroller away from Elaine. She patted at Izzy to see if he was okay. She then rounded on Elaine furiously, fists clenched. “Explain your motherfucking self!”
Elaine cringed. “We went for a walk,” she whispered.
“She’s drunk, Mandy,” Alex pleaded. “She’s using bad judgment.” Gently, he placed his hands on Elaine’s shoulders. Warmth emanated from his touch, mitigating her
cold-blooded flow of guilt. He guided Elaine to a swing, onto which she ungracefully descended. She looked up at Alex with remorseful gratitude.
“Isn’t that right, Elaine?” he scolded. But his eyes sparkled: a playful glimmer so subtle as to nearly be imperceptible.
Doubtful, Mandy considered Alex’s words. She hissed at Elaine, “What you don’t know would fill a fucking book.” But her fury had diminished slightly.
Finally Mandy turned away. She sat on the bench, peered down at Izzy, and stroked his hair. Izzy smiled and cooed at his mother. At this sight, Elaine herself smiled—although her joy was truncated abruptly when Mandy snapped at her, “And where’s my goddamn money?”
Elaine pointed at the stroller pouch.
Mandy hefted out the Ziploc, coins jangling. She mumbled, “How the fuck did you know the combination,” but it wasn’t really a question. Elaine didn’t have an answer. As Mandy unzipped the bag and pulled out the cash, Alex grabbed Elaine’s nearest braid and tugged. He leaned toward her and whispered, “Down the drain? Really?” He rolled his eyes and mouthed silently, “All that for nothing!” Out loud, he added theatrically, “Please God, help us both!”
In spite of herself—in spite of everything—Elaine giggled.
Meanwhile, as the rain gained intensity, Mandy began counting the money carefully, confirming all that was hers was still there. Making sure that Elaine had taken nothing away that did not belong to her.
Elaine swung her legs back and forth on the swing. She gained altitude, her kicks gained force. Silently she counted along with Mandy, in a mindful act of empathy. But Elaine already knew—all it ever was, was all still there.
“Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five.”
Belonging was originally written for the Regulus Press 2018 Literary Taxidermy competition, in which it received an Honorable Mention. The first and last lines are from Dorothy Parker’s short story A Telephone Call.