The alarm clock wakes me, like it does, like I ask it to, and I’m pissed anyway. It’s Chicago, end-of-October dark at 7am, and the floors keep getting colder. These old buildings, their fireplaces all sealed up after one of those citywide fires. No one’s ever stayed warm in this house in winter. I want a rug path to the dresser. I had one. I also have a cat. The two didn’t mix.
Fast forward forty minutes. Tile kitchen floors remind me of my laziness, and the shower ended a while back. Feet dry, I finally put on socks and slip some potato-starch toast in a zip-lock for later. I hate diets. Sun’s comin’ up clear and cold-skyed, and fuck work. And fuck my landlord too, standing outside the back door like a jerk, making me have to feign polite before coffee earns the too much I pay for it.
“Mornin’, Clarence,” I say.
“Hey, Amy, a dead guy,” he says, and points. A stupid game.
“Hmm? Oh!” Across our alley, and alongside a parking lot, from a stunted autumn willow some guy’s hanging by his neck, surrounded by gold-brown leaves. It’s a little far off, so I can’t make out his face.
At first, I think it must be a Halloween thing, dead bodies hanging all over. But this one’s different, I dunno, heavy—pulling the branch low, a wet spot across the front of his pants. Below, three cops stare at the guy, like they’re trying to figure out which of them’s gonna climb up there.
“Crazy,” I say and kinda mean it. I mean, I guess I’m sad, guess I’m jealous. Mondays.
“Yeah,” he says again. I realize he hasn’t looked at me, just staring at that body. If he wasn’t my landlord I’d grab his neck and yell.
“Sure. See ya.”
My car’s not in its spot. I pat my pocket, but I know the keys are there. I walk the three apartment-lined blocks to the bus stop. Iced-Lake-Michigan wind tears through the tunnel of buildings and pushes tears from my eyes. The bus stop bakery’s open anyway, and I care less than usual this morning about the smell of cinnamon rolls I can’t afford and, even if I could, can’t eat—gluten and all. It’s a short wait. I decide again it’s the last time I leave my car at work to pretend to be social. Don’t care who’s buying. The woman who sits next to me, in the blue plastic bus seat with the fabric covers that make your ass itch even through jeans, has ear buds in. I’m not sure why she bothers with the privacy. I can hear it fine. TLC, Waterfalls. She catches me looking and I look away, stare through the window and feel stupid. It’s automatic, lonely. The park we pass still has snow piled in the shade of trees.
I get to work five minutes early, but stand in what used to be the smoking section before the law, before they moved it away from the building and across the parking lot, far enough away we could pretend no one here smokes. They constructed this place in the ‘70s with built-in ashtrays. I wait for ten minutes, humming Waterfalls, step inside and push every button for the guaranteed five-minute elevator ride. Someone gets on at floor two and sees the lit buttons and judges me. I walk in late and no one notices. We’re all still waking up.
“Weird mornin’,” I say to co-worker Carol who rolls her eyes.
“Seriously. I am so hung-over,” she says.
I walk to the coffee pot—“The Bunn” we call it, even though it says Krups. The Bunn choked on the grounds two pots back, hissed a bunch and died.
“Weird mornin’,” I say to Greg-Receiving, and top off my nearly full mug.
“Yeah,” he stirs in the powdered shit. There’s half-n-half in the fridge two feet to his right and he’s told me he prefers it.
I want them to ask me why. It occurs to me, maybe I say weird more than I think, and most times, it’s not so weird. Maybe I tell too many stories about my cats.
I do something forgettable in between posting on Facebook about the guy in my alley until noon or so. Autopilot. At lunch, I head down to sit under the lunch-tree, but sitting there feels wrong, so I decide to go to the break room. Buzzing lights, three conference-style white plastic tables, and a few bites of toast go down dry, boring, stick at the back of my throat. My boss comes in, gives me the head nod the cool kids give each other. We’re friends, it says. We’re not really. Someone died in my alley. This day should matter more.
“Hey Greg?” My boss’s name is also Greg. Boss-Greg, Greg-Receiving. I’ve stepped into his office on a Monday after lunch. We all feel it. His big thing for the day: Sign and send time sheets. They’re laid out across his desk like a battle plan.
“What’s up?” the head nod, again.
“Can I cut out early today?”
He looks at me for the first time. Honestly, looks at me, a caring lift in his eyebrows. He walks to the door of the office. He’s going to close it, he’s going to take me in his arms and hug me awkward and tell me it’s alright to feel this way. And then he’s going to ask me.
He looks around the corner into the five-foot-high-cubicle crowded room, gray and fluorescent lit. He takes in the spirit of it, turns back, leaves the door open.
I look confused, I guess. Not the question I had prepared for. I flip through my mental note cards.
“Know what, it’s none of my business. Yeah, we’re good here today. Wish I could leave with you. Sure looks nice out. I’m not all business 24/7, you know? We should hang sometime.”
I just don’t know what to say.
“Anyway,” he yawns, “enjoy the afternoon.”
“Thanks.” And I numb.
“Can you shut the door on your way out?” He doesn’t look away from the pile.
“Course,” I say. I see the nap he’s going to take in the fingers he barely lifts towards the door.
Parking lot: In the car, I’m yelling, “Why doesn’t anyone give a shit?!” And Greg-Receiving knocks on my window, scares me enough to do a quick bladder check. I let the window down.
“You forgot this.” The coffee mug in my face says, I know kung-fu. He’s shaken.
He takes a step back, makes an unnatural half turn, stops, you can see his brain grinding, turns back. “You okay?”
Actually—I nod anyway. It seems to work. Composure on his face and conscience, he walks back and is lost among the cars: the hero who asked.
At home, I come in the front door and Google. Google used to be a number, now it’s a verb. I browse crime. There’s about twenty local news blogs repeating the same source story. A woman in her 30’s hung herself on Sheridan. The apartment super says, “She was just doing her laundry Friday night. Weird. She never caused any trouble.” I promise myself to never use that word again.
She had nothing to do on a Friday night. The two comments on the news story say, “Worst piñata ever,” to which Anonymous replies, “Your ignorant.”
I was there. Friday night. I’m always there on Friday night, laundry night, when the machines are open. She had looked away from me when I looked at her and she stared into her clothes tumbling in the dryer, whites and grays. I could have said anything. Instead, I returned to my book about another vampire love triangle.
It bothers me I got her gender wrong, that I couldn’t tell. There was nothing masculine about her. I pull up Facebook to make it right, and people are commenting on the World Series.
“Aw, damn it.” I spin the chair, the remote finds my hand, and the TV beeps on. Bottom of the 2nd. Red socks v. Cardinals, game five. I’m not too late.
What comes first: This is Chicago, and this is baseball. Know what it takes to live here. We root for the team who lost to us last, or beat us least, or lives farthest away, or bought the least of our players.
Top of the 3rd, these ump’s are morons. “Really?” I scream. I don’t actually know nuances of the rules, but no way that was a strike. And it gets worse. He slides in and stands on the bag. The asshole on 2nd calls him “out.”
“What the fuck! Are you blind? She was right there!”
Of course I meant, he. I increase the volume. Chicago, yesterday five people were killed in you. Nineteen were reported raped. I yell some more to make it matter. I turn it up more and I’m sure my mascara’s running, and I’m glad no one’s here to watch the loss.
Baseball. Volume. Chicago, these are games we play.
Josh Gaines ditched a promising military career to earn an MFA from SAIC, write books, run a profitless press (Thoughtcrime Press), and build blanket forts with his daughter. His stories and poetry have been published internationally, most recently in London’s Dark Mountain. Josh can be found performing poetry from his book, Cigarette Sonatas, around Portland, Oregon, or on Facebook at facebook.com/spiderjosh.