Barry saw her on the stairs as he drove away. It was only for a second, and there was no time to slow down - he was late for work already - but someone was definitely there, climbing towards his back door, and he was sure that no one had been nearby when he'd come out two minutes before. This seemed like information that he couldn't process; his stomach felt hollow and vile; he blinked and stretched his face furiously to clear the sleep from his head. The inside of the car smelled like grease and the damp corners of old dark basements. He rolled the window down angrily and tried again to look behind him, before he turned the corner onto Hillcrest, but the house was mostly out of sight, blocked by the sullen yellowed buckeye trees that lined the street. He couldn't see the second story at all, where his doorway was, and the then the traffic cleared and he turned and the neighborhood was behind him.
* * *
In the store the lights were humming and the lines at the cash register were long; he heard his name as soon as he was inside the doors.
"My man Barry knows what I'm talking about!" The voice made him want to speed up, but he slowed. Barely in the building, and Kale was bouncing gleefully at him, all shirttails and flying elbows. "Ain't that right, Barry?" Kale's pale, almost transparent moustache darkened when he grinned; the strap of his nametag was wrapped absurdly around his head. Clearly, his shift was over.
"What's that?" Barry said, voice flat and face stiff, trying for the perfect dead note of male nonchalance that would spare him the brunt of Kale's happy disdain - but Kale was half-gone already, thankfully, whirling through the exit doors. His grin flashed lewdly as he backed out.
"Barry knows! Poland and all that!" Kale cackled at nobody and was gone.
He clocked in; it was seven after. His eyes burned - another point. Three minutes late was a point. Three points and they talked to you; six points and you were fired. They'd already talked to him. Kale had thought that was hilarious, of course, like everything else. Poland. Marta was from Poland, the cashier. That wasn't funny, either.
He worked. Nora wanted him at the register, but Darrell was shift manager and he overruled her. "We need everybody we can get in LG" he told Barry flatly, not bothering to disguise how serious he felt the need must be to include even the likes of Barry Tomczak. LG was Lawn and Garden, and that was fine.
The store sold wood; the store sold pipes; the store sold sinks that didn't run yet and toilets that had never flushed. You could smell the wood as soon as you walked in the door; it was sweet, like something that had just been made. He'd loved that smell at first; now it made him faintly sick, like the first day of school. He didn't have anything to do with the wood, anyway. The men who cut and sold the wood didn't know his name, and he didn't know theirs. He'd never built anything. Mostly he ran the cash register; he unpacked boxes that someone else had unloaded; he wandered the concrete aisles slowly, clipboard in hand, and filled the spaces left among the tiny things - the light bulbs, the washers, the doorknobs.
Lawn and Garden was fine with Barry - some days that meant giant bags of topsoil or spectacularly sinister hedge-trimming tools that he didn't even know the names of, but this time it meant a lot of plants, and that was fine. The plants were on pallets, wrapped in plastic - you unwrapped them, you found a place for them, you watered them. Darrell seemed to think this was a job he was suited for, and Barry didn't care. He worked his cart carefully between the narrow parallel rows of cactuses and ferns and tiny misshapen trees, and tried to shake the feeling of strangeness from his head.
No one but him had climbed those steps outside his apartment for sixth months at least. But somebody had been there -- the picture was there in his head as he worked, the same way the fluorescent lights hummed their little hum all day long beneath the rumble and mutter of every other noise. He kept coming back to it, trying to force his mind's eye into focus, trying to fix on some detail of her clothes or hair, but he kept failing. The house, he could see, if he really tried. The white two-story house with peeling, indifferent paint; the wooden staircase, fifty years younger than the house, that led to his door - but the stranger's face as he drove by and then her back in his rearview mirror was a nervous, shivering blank. Neither old nor young; not wearing the perfect, crisp, modest clothes of the blank-eyed door-to-door church people or any kind of uniform that would mean she was there to read the meter or check for termites. Just clothes, invisible clothes, girl clothes - maybe some kind of jacket against the October chill? And was it something he had caught in her face in that part of a second, or something in her back, in the tilt of her shoulders as she climbed, that gave him the cold uneasy feeling that she had been angry? His hands were cold and stiff; his ankles hurt from crouching as he worked. No customers came near and he was glad. He was hungry and he wanted to be home.
* * *
When he got there, finally, she was waiting for him. A car door slammed behind him as he walked toward the stairs, and he stole a fearful backward glance. Terror flashed into the skin of his face in the instant he saw that someone was hurrying towards him; the menace always there in the dark silent street had turned solid and was making its move. The knife was there for him, the fist in the face, the guns in the shaky hands of washed-out trembling men - eventually it would happen to you. But he stopped, confused, when he saw it was the girl.
"Are you Barry Tomczak?" He stared at her in blank astonishment. There was no question it was the same woman, the woman from the afternoon. He was surprised by how small she was; she was looking up at him to meet his eyes, her sharp face framed by short dark blonde wisps of hair. He couldn't answer for a moment; he took a half-step backward. It was fully dark now, and the darkened crumbling houses seemed dull and faded under the streetlights. His hands were cold from the drive home; he'd forgotten his gloves.
"Yeah," he croaked, finally. He felt something hard in her look and he knew how he looked to her, with his flat stringy hair and his wide flat face. He wanted to keep moving; he wanted to be inside.
"Do you have a brother named Keith?" He stopped again. He felt himself blushing, angrily, suddenly ashamed without knowing why. So that was it. Of course. He let himself take another long look at her face, pale and ageless under the streetlights, and sighed.
"Have you been waiting here all day?" he asked.
* * *
In the end he had to invite her inside; there was nothing else to be done. He went ahead of her up the faintly creaking wooden stairs, feeling her eyes on his back, and let them in. He made coffee as quickly as he could, trying not to see his apartment as it must look to her - the bare yellow walls and colorless carpet, the blankets twisted damply on the couch that all-too-clearly doubled as a bed. Thankfully she stayed in the kitchen, which thankfully was clean. Her name was Maureen; she'd said her last name too, but he'd already forgotten. She drank her coffee silently for a moment. Inside she looked younger; she couldn't be more than twenty-five or so. His age, really. Her green hooded sweatshirt said "MSU."
"I haven't talked to Keith in a long time," he finally said. "Not since our mother - not for a year and a half, since our mother's funeral." No flicker of sympathy or embarrassment showed on her face; he wondered how much she knew already. Strange to think that this woman he had never seen before could know that his mother was dead. What else could Keith have told her, and what had she thought about as she sat in an empty car on his dark street, waiting for him?
"Were you at work?" She was looking at his chest, and he blushed again. Still wearing a nametag, of course. Still wearing a polyester orange vest. My Name Is Barry T - I am Happy to Assist You!
"Yeah," he said. He slipped the strap of his nametag over his head, and without looking threw it onto the counter in the corner of the kitchen, on top of a pile of junk-mail flyers.
"Does that totally suck?" she asked, in a tone of mild polite interest, like someone asking if it was still raining.
"Yeah," he said, and laughed. She laughed too, a tiny, silent laugh. He sat down heavily, finally, and rubbed his face fretfully for a moment. The deadly numbness of his workday was lifting; he was sitting at his kitchen table with a stranger, with a strange woman who was pretending not to notice his dishes from yesterday's lunch.
"See, I came by earlier and you weren't here," she said, and he wanted to break in - I saw you! -- but he let her continue. "I knocked downstairs and the guy told me you were probably at work."
"That's the guy." She laughed. "He asked me if I wanted to smoke a bowl while I waited. I told him I'd come back later."
Barry breathed out heavily. "Jerry owns this place. I mean - it was his mom's and now it's his. He sells a lot of weed. A real prince."
She was grinning. "Yeah, I feel like I made the right decision. Which is not to say that if a gentleman like yourself were to offer that I wouldn't indulge..." She cocked her head with a little comic twist to her lips. He laughed again, a little more easily this time.
"You've got the wrong guy, lady," he said. "All I got is coffee."
"Fair enough." She leaned back and stretched, easily and unthinkingly. "So I came back around seven and waited. I was about to leave when you showed up - I knew it had to be you. You've got the same hair as Keith."
That made him stop. When he'd seen Keith last, his head had been shaved, but Barry supposed enough time had passed that he could have grown it out. But he couldn't remember a time when anyone had thought they'd looked alike - Keith was all angles and bone, and Barry was slow and soft and always had been. Keith had stolen magazines and been in car accidents; he had made speeches at school assemblies that had made the teachers shake their heads and the students roar with laughter. When Keith was sixteen, he had taken a lot of pills and missed two weeks of school - when he returned his aura was more ironclad and fiery than ever. That was when he'd taken up with Laura - Keith had been Laura's great project. Barry had been thirteen - he remembered sitting in the hospital with his weeping shaking mother and feeling glad that he was missing soccer practice, and feeling guilty that he was glad. He never did play soccer again after that.
"Why do you know my brother?" He had to ask it, after all. She took a long drink of coffee and sighed.
"Keith and me lived together for a while up in Detroit," she said. "Did you know he lived up there?" Barry shook his head. The last he'd heard, Keith was in Columbus trying to start a band. Maureen drew a little pattern on the table with a fingertip as she spoke. "You know how these things go." She paused. "Do you?"
Barry shook his head.
"Yeah," she sighed. "Anyway, we did. And people get crazy, you know they do. Things got a bit weird. And with one thing and another I haven't seen him in a little while, but I'd like to talk to him, if I can. And I didn't know where he went, but I knew he had a brother from this town, and I knew his brother's name, and that's your name." She pointed, comically, with both index fingers. "And you're in the phone book, but your phone, I couldn't help but noticing, is disconnected." They both looked at the telephone on the wall - dead beige plastic weight. Barry didn't see the point in paying the bill anymore so he hadn't. The girl gave a final little shadow of a smile. "So I got on the internet and I found your house and you gave me coffee. Is that a good enough story?"
It was. It made exactly the right kind and the right amount of sense - never mind that Keith had been in the north and not the south. It was still Keith, and there was still a woman in his wake, eager and baffled. It was like Laura, all of those times - why was it when Barry thought about his high-school years, that it was Keith and Keith's desperate perfect girlfriend who appeared in every scene? Keith and Laura on the porch, screaming at each other. Keith on the phone, crying. Their mother begging Barry to take their picture, the two of them dressed up for something - a prom? Someone else's wedding? He couldn't remember, but he remembered their faces in the photograph, frozen in some comic travesty of a happy moment. He remembered Laura crying. He looked up.
"Yeah," he said. "That's something. I wish I could help you more."
Maureen sighed, and something about her seemed to settle and condense. She put both hands on the table, palm-down, and stared straight at him. Her eyes were grey, with flecks of orange.
"I was really - I was hoping you could tell me something more," she said. "The thing is - well, here it is - the thing is, Barry, that I'm pregnant."
He stared at her for a moment, feeling it all make him sick. This was it; this was the final joke at everybody's expense. She was here at his house and she was the victim of his brother and she needed the only kind of help that he couldn't ever give her. He closed his eyes.
"I don't know where Keith is," he said. "I'm sorry, I really don't."
There wasn't anything else to say. He took her phone number, just in case, and watched her leave. He put the number on his refrigerator, with a magnet shaped like an apple.
* * *
Kale thought it was funny to talk about Marta, the cashier from Poland. Her English was delicate and peculiar, and she couldn't grasp more than a tenth of Kale's scattershot innuendo, so he never let it stop. He didn't know anything about Barry except that his name was Polish, but that was enough to make him an unwilling part of the joke.
"Barry Tomczak! My man!" Kale yelling cheerfully, coasting along with a hand cart, feet off of the ground. "Is the Polish sausage good and hot, yo? Are the troops massing on the Polish border?" Marta was two checkout lanes over, oblivious. Barry tried to laugh without laughing. A customer was staring at him, a man in a white t-shirt with an enormous moustache. He had a tape measure on his belt. Barry stared back.
He was happier an hour later when he was back in Lawn and Garden. Nobody tried to talk to him there. The only customers were women, brisk and businesslike, and they knew better than to try to ask him anything. Nothing about him would lead anyone to believe that he could help them with their orchids, or their hedges. Every silent signal in his face and his movements said I just work here.
He watered the plants. The plants spread out in a flat green space and the shelves towered over them. The shelves had to be thirty feet tall. It seemed unbelievable how high they were, how determined people were to fill up every inch of space. There were lawnmowers up there, and giant water tanks - enormously heavy things that he couldn't believe somebody wanted to find a place for so badly that they had to store them up by the ceiling. How did they do it? It happened at night; at night powerful competent men with big machines came out on the sales floor and bent the vertical space of the store to their will - if they wanted it stacked high, it would be stacked high. Barry watered the plants.
Somebody was talking to him. He heard someone talking.
"So, can you, like, sell me some fertilizer?" He stared. Keith was there, in a shapeless grey coat, smirking. His hair had grown out. His brother. Barry put the water tank down, and tried to clear his throat.
* * *
"So I didn't know where you were living, now, but I figured you still worked at this hellhole, so I came looking for you." Keith seemed cold; he wrapped his coat around himself tighter as they walked across the emptying parking lot. "Where are you living? You live by yourself? Any ladies in the picture?" He laughed, and did some kind of unrepeatable little dance step. Barry snorted.
"Ask Kale," he said, absently.
"Who?" Keith asked, jumping in place. "Look, can we go hang out at your place or something? I'll follow you. That's my car right there." He gestured with an elbow, hands in pockets. "Go to a gas station - I'll pick up some beer."
* * *
They sat in Barry's kitchen and drank beer. Keith wanted to talk. It had been three years and he wanted to explain himself, to make his interesting life seem even more interesting. He'd been in Columbus a long time, apparently. His band had gotten some national press - had Barry seen it? He hadn't. Barry didn't read the kinds of magazines that covered the kinds of bands Keith was in - apparently Keith had almost opened for Modest Mouse, and apparently that was good. Then there was trouble - the singer in the band had a girlfriend, she and Keith had become close. Things had happened. Incredibly, he'd been married, for three months.
"I tried to call you, man," Keith said, face red and shining over his black sweater. "I really did. But your phone was disconnected, and I swear to God I couldn't fucking call the old man to get ahold of you. I mean, put yourself in my shoes. You know? And then it all went to hell anyway." He got up, and swung his arms, back and forth. "But now, you know, I'm doing pretty okay. I've got a little money set aside, and I thought I'd stop back through town, you know? Thought I'd see what you were doing. I haven't seen you since - well, shit, since the..."
They both sat for a moment. Barry drank his beer, and made a sour face.
"You haven't been in Detroit?" he said, carefully.
Keith stopped swinging his arms, and laughed. He stared back at Barry.
"Detroit?" he said. He was still smiling, but something in his smile had stopped moving.
"Yeah." Barry let it hang in the air a moment. Keith stood still for a long moment, then spun around furiously, spinning till he faced Barry again.
"Fuck!" he yelled, and Barry glanced at the floor involuntarily. "Who's been talking to you? Can't people even leave my fucking family alone?" He grabbed his chair and slumped across it. He seemed quiet, suddenly, and earnest. "What happened, Barry, seriously? Nobody gave you any trouble, did they?"
"What kind of trouble?"
"No, you tell me what kind of trouble!" Keith was laughing again. "Somebody told you I was in Detroit? Who was it? Who the hell knows who you are? It wasn't..." he stopped, and stared. Barry felt his own face go flat, and blank, and he knew that Keith was reading it.
"Maureen," he said, and pounded the table with one palm. "I can't fucking believe it but I totally fucking believe it. Maureen." He jumped upright again and grabbed his beer bottle. "She looked you up? Maureen looked you up?"
"Yeah." There wasn't any point in not saying it.
"When? When did you talk to her?"
"Two days ago." Barry got up, too, and walked over to the window.
"Two days? That is just incredible, man, just incredible. I only left there last - what? - Saturday?" Keith was a blur, now, gesturing and drinking. "She did love her internet. She should've been a damned private eye. Of course she knew your name, because of course I told her all about you."
"Yeah. You know how it is, man - you tell them all that old high-school stuff, they never get tired of it. I told her all about you, and Laura, and, you know, about mom and all that. You've got to say something." He stopped. "Do you even know what I'm talking about? Do you talk to women?"
Barry looked down. He pulled at the label of his beer bottle. Something ached in his chest. What was it about him that left him always in this strange, humiliating place? It seemed like some sort of misunderstanding. He tried to gather himself.
"What did you tell her about me and Laura?" Why did that make him feel so tired and shaky? What was there to tell, anyway? Keith and Maureen, talking about Laura's hands, her voice, her endless unfixable grief.
Keith stared at him. "I don't even know what you mean. I told her about Laura, I told her about you, I told her you were the best of friends, I don't know! You're telling me you just talked to Maureen Walsch two days ago - why don't you tell me what she said?"
Barry told him. There was a long and dangerous pause. Keith walked out into the living room and back and then stopped, balanced on one leg in the doorframe between two rooms. He stared at Barry for a long moment. Then he laughed.
"There's no way." He pointed with a finger as he spoke. "There's just no way. That doesn't add up at all." He clapped his hands, and grinned. "Maureen's a liar, did you know that? Maybe you could tell; maybe you couldn't. She's pretty good. She had your number. Just like Laura did."
"What do you mean?" asked Barry, thickly. His throat was growing tighter, and the ache in his chest was sharp and dangerous. He couldn't seem to look up.
"You know what I mean. Walking all over you to get to me, with that little maiden-in-distress number? Don't you remember - what, how old were you back then, tenth grade? - Don't you remember how she would cry?"
"Yeah, but Maureen's something different," Keith went on. "You know what she wants?" He fumbled in his pockets, spilling his wallet out onto the table. He grabbed a handful of bills. "This is it. She wants this money. Because, well, frankly, she helped to steal it."
Barry didn't say anything. Keith's voice was like a car alarm, like a cash register; he sounded like Kale for a moment. Barry suddenly wanted badly to see something outside of the warm damp kitchen. He stood slowly and walked to the back door, bottle loose in two fingers.
"Yeah," Keith said, behind him. "Maureen's not pregnant. I don't believe that for a second. She's fucking married, and she and I stole a whole big pile of money from her husband, and now she wants a little more of it. But I'm done with all of that, and I'm really sorry I gave her your name, but there was about fifteen minutes there when I thought she was, you know, a little better than that."
Barry rested his face on the glass of the window. Keith had stopped talking. He stared down at the backyard. There was a yellow cat picking its way carefully between two garbage cans. The taillights of a car were receding down the block. In the store where he worked, right now, someone was working a forklift and raising impossible things impossibly high off the ground. Was everything happening when he wasn't looking? Laura's hands, and Maureen with her little crooked grin.
"I don't know," he said, still facing the outside. "Shouldn't you, maybe, give me some of that money? Just to make sure I don't call her?" He didn't hear anything. Keith had stopped moving.
"What are you talking about, Barry?" he asked, finally. There was a hard, quiet note in his voice.
"Well, you know," Barry said. "I'm susceptible to these sorts of things. Women manipulate me. I might tell her where she could find you, or something. Like I might have done with Laura."
Keith was suddenly a lot nearer, behind him. Barry didn't turn around.
"What about Laura?"
Barry smiled, a little, finally. He turned around. Keith was a foot away, staring at him, but something had gone out of him. He looked a lot older than twenty-eight.
"I think I've probably seen her more recently than you have," Barry said. "Did you know she came to Mom's funeral?" Keith wasn't moving. His hair fell black and dense around his face. His left hand shook. "She did. I think she waited until you were gone, but I saw her. I talked to her. We talked for a while. You know she always loved Mom, you remember-" and that was that, he was done talking; he was done breathing for a moment, and the room had moved in some peculiar way. Some uncounted seconds later he knew that Keith had punched him but it didn't really make sense, didn't really come together until he had already hit the floor, and the table and the beer bottles had come crashing down around him. (He was still remembering; he was in a car with Laura and she was handing him a cigarette. It was the last time he'd smoked. He'd never cried with anyone else before and he was sure in that instant that he would never see her again.) By the time his head was clear and he could see the cut on his hand and the bruise on his face, Keith was gone. A fifty-dollar bill was on the refrigerator, where Maureen's phone number had been.
* * *
He was at work; he was under the lights, and his head still ached where the table had caught it. He opened and closed his hand and felt the burning protest of his torn muscles. Marta said something to him as he walked past the cash registers but he couldn't understand her; her delicate accent was swallowed by the rattle of the machines and the steady growl of voices. The lines were long. The men were buying wood in long thin strips; the men were buying tile in stacks and linoleum in long rolls. Lightswitches that turned nothing on. They had white shirts and tape measures on their belts. The back wall, the far end of the building, was a long way off, but he found it; he found the restroom and locked the door and stared into the mirror at his own blank face with its reddened, colorless eyes until it was time to clock in and go to work.
There had been a big delivery; he dragged the crates and spread the sheets of plastic and carefully cut each new plant free and set it in the place he'd cleared for it. No one bothered him, and after two hours he stood with an empty cart, and the shelves around him more full than he'd ever seen them. It was something to look at, in a place like this; people would have to be impressed by the variety, by the selection, by the presentation. Darrell would have to agree that the merchandising was sound.
He looked down and saw that his hand was bleeding again. He looked up and saw the lawnmowers hovering near the ceiling and the shelves that held their impossible crippling weight. They were toppling so slowly that you couldn't even see it, but they would fall someday. The air smelled like water and wood, and nothing looked right under the lights. No one was around. He smelled earth and water and worms and something else, something clean and bright and green as he breathed out slowly and took off his vest and let himself gently down to the tile; the leaves were wet and green and the soil was dark and he lay down in the empty narrow aisle and the quiet leaves closed over his empty head.