Jennifer Pratt unwraps the cellophane
on her pack of Kents and neatly tears open the foil beneath before
thumbing the lighter in.
The stranger beside her laughs.
"Thought I was the only one to have a car old enough to have one
The lighter pops. Jennifer pulls it
out; holds the glowing coils to the cigarette grasped between her
lips. She inhales deeply, sucks down greedily. "Want one?"
The stranger waves a hand away. "Can't.
Jennifer looks at her. "Are
congratulations in order?"
"Unexpected, both of them. This
wasn't the way I'd planned for life to go."
"Plans usually work that way."
Jennifer half-turns in her seat to look at the stranger full on. Who
is this woman beside her? Jennifer craves her story the way she
craves nicotine and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Only her story
will give the woman body; expanding her form into bones and flesh and
sinew; giving her a shape, concrete and firm. Jennifer holds the
cigarette to her mouth. Inhales again.
"Why did you help me?"
Jennifer closes her eyes, re-imagines
the scene that took place twenty minutes ago. The stranger's kid had
been screaming bloody murder: great tears and snot rolling down her
face onto the woman's shirt. I ran out of gas. Can you help me?
The stranger had asked three
times. Each time, she was denied.
Jennifer had felt humiliated for the
woman. She'd just wanted it to end. Now, she shrugs. "I'm
responsible." The words are a burden and a curse and the truth
of her life. She has borne them for too many years. "Has she
They had driven around for twenty
minutes, Jennifer finally pulling into a fast food parking lot to
have a smoke. Again she inhales and she can hear the cigarette
burning the paper.
The stranger turns and looks into the
back seat. "Yes, thank God. But I don't want to go home, not
"I'm in no hurry."
"My husband will be furious."
"People run out of gas all the
He only gives me twenty dollars a week
for the car."
"That's barely five gallons."
"I know." The stranger stares
out the windshield. "Sometimes the only thing that will get the
baby to sleep is a car ride."
Jennifer switches off the radio, cracks
a window. "Sorry the car smells funny. Actually, I smell funny."
The woman sniffs. "I'm smelled
"Cod fish. My sister loves it."
Jennifer hates it. Hates the way the odor of the cooking flesh wraps
itself in rising steam, entering her clothes like the perfume of a
lover. Her clothes--her hair--will smell for days. She taps the ash
out the window. "When I was eight years, I held a match to my
face, waiting to burn."
The woman flinches. "Why?"
"To see if I would burn." She
stabs out the cigarette in the ash tray; immediately lights another.
Her cell phone rings. "My sister," Jennifer says. "Listen."
She puts the phone on speaker. "Hello?"
The car fills with an angry voice,
accusing and bitter. "You're smoking aren't you?"
The stranger lifts her eyebrows.
"I went for ice cream."
"Didn't get me any, did you?"
"You said you were dieting."
"When are you coming?"
"Are you driving? You know you're
not supposed to drive and talk on your phone."
The stranger smiles.
"No. I'm parked."
"Are you with a man? Do you have a
man in your car?"
"No, Jodi. There is no man in my
car. Unfortunately. Be home soon." She clicks off.
"Yipe," the stranger says.
"Try living with her."
The woman looks across the street. "Pep
Boys. Burger King. Boston Market. Hospital. All lit up like neon
sex." She laughs. "And then the Sheraton. That's what got
me into this mess."
Jennifer nods. "That's what got me
into trouble too."
"You have kids?"
"No. A twin. Jodi." She
sighs. "Look at the lights." Jennifer points to the hotel.
"All those people inside there, with no idea we're watching."
"Top floor no lights," the
"Next floor, two lights, side by
side," Jennifer adds.
"One floor down, one light on all
the way at the far end of the building."
"A floor below that, one light one
all the way on the other side," Jennifer says. "Funny, the
patterns we make."
"Look." The stranger points
at a car waiting at the traffic light. "Turn signal flashing.
"What's your name?" The woman
"No." She's always insisted
upon being called by her full name. "Jenn Pratt sounds choppy,
like a piece of wood split across your knee."
The woman laughs.
"I always told myself I'd marry a
multi-syllable man. Two at least, but three would be better."
"Is there anyone?"
"No." She exhales great curls
of smoke through her nose. "Never will be."
"Don't say that."
"I've got my sister to take care
"Can't she take care of herself?"
"She was born with two club feet."
"Not when your father believes in
"What do you mean?"
"When my father first laid eyes on
Jody, born one hour and three minutes before me, he shook his head.
Told my mother Jody was the spawn of the devil."
The woman snorted. "That's cloven
feet, not club feet."
"I know. My father was religious
but not educated. He didn't wait around to see if I was of the devil.
I never met him."
"Probably for the best," the
"My mother laid the blame on me."
"By positioning myself higher in
the womb, by squishing my sister, I, according to my mother, had
damaged my sister's legs. Therefore, I had driven away my father and
ruined our lives. My mother refused to have my sister's legs operated
on. Said I needed to be reminded of my sin."
"You never told me your
name," Jennifer says.
"A good, long
name," Jennifer says.
hates it, that I didn't take his name."
mother get over your sister's legs?" Marguerita asks the
"No. She died
when she was thirty-eight. I was eighteen."
Jennifer rolls up the window: It's started to drizzle. "On her
deathbed, my mother told me Jodi was my responsibility now. Utterly
and completely my responsibility. Sometimes I think my mother wanted
to send herself to an early grave, just to avoid the responsibility
"Is that what
you're doing?" Marguerita nods at the glowing cigarette.
turned down two marriage proposals and a job transfer because Jodi
refused to go. I can't get a dog because Jodi doesn't want one. When
I want a cigarette I have to sneak out of my own house, paid for with
my own money, because Jodi doesn't like the smell. Well, Jodi, I have
something to say to you," Jennifer yells, shaking her fist at
the window. "I hate
The child in the
backseat stirs. Jennifer feels herself blush. "Sorry."
her head. "Can't she get surgery now? I'm sure..."
understand, Marguerita. This has become the pattern of our lives. You
can't change it now."
silent for a time, and Jennifer can see that she's quite young; still
in her early twenties.
beats me," Marguerita says.
deeply. "I'm sorry. Can you...?"
a drainage pipe beneath the road leading to the restaurant. And here
in the silence and the dark Jennifer she can easily imagine a
dead body inside. "Shall we stuff him in the drain pipe?"
Marguerita giggles. "And your
sister just after him."
They smile in the dark.
look," Marguerita says. "The pattern has changed."
looks across the street to the hotel. She smiles. "It has,
hasn't it?" Three lights are now on on the top floor. The second
floor is completely in darkness. She starts the engine. "Shall I
drive you home?"
I think I'd like to go there." Marguerita points. "To the
reverses, then pulls forward. She puts on her turn signal. Right.
the entrance, she puts the car in park. "Let me help you..."
has already lifted the sleeping baby over her shoulder. Jennifer
releases the car seat from the buckle. Marguerita grabs it with her
right hand. "Thank you, Jennifer Pratt."
frowns. "For what?"
showing me how patterns don't have to stay the same forever."
She gets back into the car, scribbles a number on a piece of paper.
"My cell phone," she says through the window. "Call me
if you ever need anything."
nods and rubs her forehead. She is tired, Jennifer can tell.
will you pay?"
suddenly seems to age thirty years. "I have ways."
gives a weary smile. "Some patterns are not meant to be broken."
She turns and walks into the hotel.
pulls away from the curb. Just before she reaches home, she tosses
her cigarette out the window; chases it with the pack.
She pulls into the driveway and takes
the front walk. In the living room, there's a blue glow from the
television screen. Jennifer pauses for a moment to watch. She creeps
closer...closer until she's standing directly in the flowerbed, so
close she can hear the laughter from the television. She kneels and
listens, heart beating rapidly. The rain assaults her skin with heavy
droplets as she crouches in the cover of darkness looking at the
naked feet of her sister propped up on the cocktail table.
She rises and goes to the door; slides the key in the lock.
Kelly Garriott Waite on Google+
Labels: Fiction, flash fiction, scriptic.org