3 prose pieces by Jenny Pritchett
I am seeing breasts everywhere: the streetlight, my shadow on the wall, the gibbous moon, nipples on the ends of my pens, my knuckles. I call my mother, and she says she is feeling lost, misplaced, has in fact been leaving scarves and gloves and hats on the El and in her car and in restaurants and other places she doesn't even know where.
"It's like I'm afraid of being forgotten," she says. "I wonder who these lucky people are who are finding all my stuff. That scarf cost me $40." I suckle the receiver, her voice a pulse in my ear.
The store is called Dunwoody's Goodies, and it's a seasonal storefront on the main strip in Lafayette, California. At Christmastime, the windows are frosted at the corners with "snow" from an aerosol can, although it has never snowed here and most likely never will. The store is one large room divided by a row of tall, bushy spruce trees, which are crammed with display models of Christmas ornaments, each of which has a small numbered sticker on its bottom. When a customer finds a wooden Santa ball or a tin hand-painted crucifix that speaks to her particular sense of the holiday, she takes it to the woman behind the counter, who has a sleigh bell on a cord around her neck. The woman comes out from behind the counter, exclaiming about the perfection of the choice and telling the customer she chose the same ornament for her daughter-in-law this year, that they have a tradition of exchanging ornaments—well, she (with one hand pressed to her heart) started the tradition and has kept it up since her granddaughter was born, although her daughter-in-law hasn't actually given her an ornament since 1999. Then the woman holds the ornament at arm's length, seeing how now it represents the neglect and thoughtlessness of daughters-in-law too busy to keep up family traditions, and without another word finds the stack of small, square boxes holding that particular ornament and hands one to the customer with a tight, disapproving smile.
Then, if the ornament is a gift, the customer follows the sign at the back of store with an arrow pointing down a hidden staircase, and at the bottom she takes a number from Jason Henderson. Jason takes the box into the closed gift-wrapping room, glancing at himself in the two-way mirror, at the collared shirt and tie he told himself he'd never wear after film school, and watches as Carlos works hurriedly through an ever-growing stack of small, square boxes, tearing sheets of red-and-white paper from the ream bolted to the table.
The customers in the gift-wrapping line don't realize Jason and Carlos can hear them. They come into the store with their annual tendencies toward goodwill and start out promising themselves to be patient. It is the Christmas rush, after all, and they are expecting long lines at every store. But when they see there's a line at the gift-wrapping, and they see Jason, the host of the gift-wrapping, neutralized by his uniform and divorced from his accomplishments (a college education and three short films), they decide to demonstrate their goodwill by striking up a conversation with the other women waiting in line, which goes something like this:
"How can it possibly take ten minutes to wrap a box? The box is this big."
"You've been waiting ten minutes?"
"How hard can it be? If I'd known it was going to take this long, I would have done it myself."
When Jason gets off his shift, he sees their Mercedes SUVs parked on the street and thinks they look like a corral of shiny, black vultures.
They hadn't let him out of the house since it happened. Ray quietly showered in the mornings and dressed in the clothes Maggie fetched from his house. Dan had set up the back room with the pull-out couch and a TV on the sewing table, and Maggie poked her head in twice a day to ask what he'd like to eat. All of them traipsed through on their way in and out of the house, Ben and Sarah reaching for him before Dan pulled them back by their tiny wrists. They couldn't use the front door. The reporters were out there, big white vans with satellite towers staking him out like the FBI, TV anchors from competing stations bending their ankles in the grass as they chatted over iced coffees. Maggie wanted to get her mother over to see Ray, but Dan didn't think she could handle the front yard.
Ray had simply lost control of the car, stepped on one pedal when the other was called for. He'd been near the farmer's market and something had caught his eye—a bucket of lavender; he'd thought Norma might like a sprig for the bathroom—and by the time he'd looked up again he was heading into a red light at full speed and jerked the wheel to the right and slammed his foot on the gas.
The descriptions in the paper were something out of a horror movie: the body of a man, his first victim, strewn across his windshield until he'd managed to stop; three women in the same family knocked into the concrete, heads flattened into a pool of blood; a child, not yet three, ripped from the hand of her father and caught in his wheel well; more than fifty people dispatched to area hospitals with lacerations and broken bones. He himself had experienced nothing more than a long, green bruise where the seat belt jerked against his breastbone.
In the back room of his daughter's house, he kept the front page of the LA Times folded on his knees, creased three ways, reading and rereading the small black letters. Worst of all was his own picture, his tall, slightly stooped figure, calm visage, round spectacles, balding dome and neat moustache, leaning on his cane and chatting with a young man he remembered as Officer Yountman. The man had been earnest and seemingly at a loss as to how he should apprehend such a contrite and present perpetrator. He had pulled a pocket-size notebook from his shirtfront and leveled the heel of a pencil in Ray's face.
"What did you see?" he had demanded, as if Ray were only a bystander. Ray had gestured to the airbag in the car, a white buoy that eclipsed the driver's side of the Mercedes.
"I'm so sorry," Ray remembered saying, "but I didn't see a thing."
The officer, having no idea what to do with him, had let him leave in a taxi with Maggie and Dan. Only one man from the crowd, bereft and with brown discs of blood matting his beard, had lunged in their direction, and to Ray's surprise it was Officer Yountman who restrained him. Ray hadn't expected to make an ally of anyone here, given the circumstances.
Maggie had sat in the back of the cab with him, squeezing his hand, tears streaming down her face, until she realized he was not upset but only utterly confused. He had felt them against his car, a series of thuds and thumps, and he'd rolled over a number of them as well, even dragged one woman under his front tires until he came to a stop next to the baked goods. She'd had to have the car lifted off her and her skin peeled from the street. But he hadn't seen a thing, his face buried in the airbag, and more than that he'd barely heard anything—he'd been listening to "Fanfare for the Common Man" with the volume cranked, and when he'd finally been able to feel for the door handle and push himself outside, the flourishes of the French horns had filled the air, and the crowd had gaped at him as he gaped at them, wondering how he'd ended up so far from the road. It had taken him a moment to notice the dead man on the hood of his car. Angel of Death, the paper called him, running a picture of his avuncular face next to one of yellow police streamers blocking a blue tarp on the street, a toppled high-top sneaker inches away. Elderly man plows into crowded marketplace at height of lunch hour.
Maggie and Dan issued a statement apologizing to the families that same afternoon. Later that evening, Maggie snuck out the back door and took the bus across town to see her mother, thinking Norma might want to stay with Ray in her back room. But her mother held the same page of the LA Times on her lap in the living room, covering her mouth with one hand and shaking the ice cubes in a highball glass in the other.
"Are they talking about the same person here?" she shrilled. "Is this my husband?" She had stabbed the picture of Ray with one of the fingers balancing her cigarette.
Norma decided to stay home, and Ray took the news worse than Maggie expected, breaking down for the first time that day in ugly, choked sobs and gripping his forehead. Dan herded the kids into the living room so Maggie could sit next to her father on the thin, bowled mattress and cry into his neck. She was terrified that at any moment the knock would come at her door, a handful of papers shoved in her face (although she didn't really know how these things worked), indicating a lawsuit on behalf of the survivors or of the families of the deceased or of the State of California. She knew it would come; it had to come. Her father had killed nine people. She didn't believe in the forgiveness of strangers.