March 2013

Superstition

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The story on the Tampa evening news would report that no one had seen little Cody until after he had been crushed beneath truck tires. All the candy-colored houses had blinds closed to the summer sun. The truck driver, in a whimpering interview with reporter Kelsey Grice, would say the kid came out of nowhere. Kelsey Grice informed greater Tampa that the kid’s babysitter, who was not interviewed, didn’t even know the did had gone out for a ride. Kelsey’s coral lipstick turned the words into an insult when she looked into the camera and concluded, “A tragic story.”

In the babysitter’s own recounting of the story, every night to herself before bed, the entire episode might have been avoided if it weren’t for the three calls. Cassie never shared her theory with anyone. She could see her mother, in the lounger on the screened in back patio, rolling her eyes. “Go on, honey,” she’d say. “Keep your little superstitions, but if God’s made up his mind that a thing’s gonna happen, it’s damn well gonna happen.”

To Cassie though, they didn’t feel like little superstitions. Her rituals felt like life preservers in a world full of undertows waiting to whisk her away. When she arranged her desk just so or repeated the last words someone spoke to her or touched her rabbit foot three times before a big presentation at school, Cassie was just trying to keep it all under control. After all, she knew that if she didn’t keep it together, especially at home, no one would.

At the dinner table, when Cassie knocked on the wooden surface or handled the table salt with extra care, her mother would sigh, “I don’t know where you got all those silly superstitions from.”

Cassie knew the answer. Nana, Cassie’s fraternal grandmother, had taught her the significance of omens and luck. Before Nana’s stroke, Cassie would stay at her house while her mother worked late at the restaurant. Cassie missed those nights. Nana would tell her stories about her own childhood, keeping rhythm with the clicking of her knitting needles. Cassie would make clumsy attempts at scarves she could never wear with a borrowed crochet hook, but mostly she just listened.

Cassie could never tell her mother any of that. To say that she missed Nana or to explain that Nana told her how to ward off the evil eye, would be to acknowledge Nana’s existence. And to acknowledge Nana’s existence would highlight the absence of Cassie’s father. And that could only end with mother crying or shouting, which Cassie would rather just avoid altogether.

Still, after the accident, when Cody had been laid to rest and Cassie stayed up late to go over that day’s events, it was Nana’s voice that would come to her. “The omen of three, dear,” she’d say. “Those three calls were bad luck.”

Cassie had been wiping down animal cracker crumbs from the coffee table when the first call came. She felt her cell vibrating on her thigh through the thin pocket of her cut-off jean shorts. At the same time, Cody’s baby sister, Mia, began to scream. During the one second that Cassie was distracted by the buzzing phone, Mia’s pacifier had ejected from the baby’s mouth and tumbled under the couch. While Cassie scooped up the baby to try to soothe her cries, Cody slipped out the front door. He had been bugging Cassie all day to take him out for a ride. By the time Cassie set a quieter Mia down on the stained lilac carpet, her phone had stopped ringing and Cody was gone. Cassie didn’t even notice.

Cassie’s story wasn’t the only one that wasn’t covered in Kelsey’s report on WFTS Action News. There had been, in fact, one witness to Cody’s last bike ride. The man, a stranger from up North, had crossed the street right as Cody came cruising by, streamers flying in the otherwise stiff, humid air. Marshall Hudson was in a foul mood when he crossed paths with little Cody. He was hot. His suit clung to his soft belly. He never had the right clothes for trips to the Southeast sales region. He had just abandoned the rental car, a piece of crap Chevy, back on I-4. Like him, it had overheated. On top of that, his cell phone battery was dead, like he thought he soon would be if he didn’t find some air-conditioning. He had set out on foot in search of a repairman, a pay phone, or at least a goddamn drink of water. The last thing he needed was for some brat to ruin the shoes his wife, Sue, had bought him when he got his promotion to lead sales.

Marshall jumped back out of the way of the careening bike. “Goddamn it you little shit!” he shouted. Immediately he felt ashamed of cursing at a kid.

Even more to his chagrin, the boy on the bike slowed and doubled back to wear he stood. The boy looked him straight in the face and said, “I’m sorry, sir.”

Marshall wiped the sweat from his brow. He found the boy’s gaze unnerving. “Next time just, watch where you’re going.”

“I will, sir. And you, sir, you shouldn’t cuss like that.”

Children never made much sense to Marshall. He and Sue never got around to having any of their own and his nieces and nephews were mysteries to him. When they were babies presented at family gatherings, he could never elbow in close enough through the crowd of adoring grandparents and more enthusiastic aunts and uncles. When he did hold them, he didn’t see what the big deal was. They smelled weird and threw up everywhere. When they were old enough to talk Marshall had no idea what to say. Now they were teens and everything about them seemed strange.

The kid on the bike in front of him seemed especially odd though. Marshall found it endearing. Meeting this weird kid with the flamboyant bike might be the one good thing to happen to Marshall all day.

“I guess I owe you the apology. I didn’t mean to lose my temper,” Marshall said to the boy.

“You’re sweating a lot,” was the kid’s only reply.

“I had to walk here. That stupid piece of…uh, car broke down on the highway. You wouldn’t happen to know where the closest gas station is, do you?”

“Sure.”

The boy walked with Marshall for a couple of blocks to a busy intersection.

“I’m not allowed past this invisible line,” the boy said, “but if you go just down there, past Burger King, there’s a gas station.”

Marshall thanked the kid, who turned and began to peddle away. Later, when Marshall turned on the evening news, he saw the kid’s streamers. Marshall remembered thinking they were a little queer. Now they were the only recognizable thing left of the bicycle. With trembling hands, Marshall dialed his home number. He would tell Sue he wanted kids now. He was ready. He’d tell work he couldn’t travel as much anymore.

But it would never happen. Sue never answered the phone. Marshall flipped off the TV, put on his suit jacket and headed down to the hotel bar to start forgetting he ever met a boy on a bike that day.

While Marshall stumbled over the uneven grass, muttering under his breath about the wisdom of a sidewalk and Cody was making his way back up the street towards home, Cassie received the second phone call. Cassie leaned over baby Mia, sprawled like an overturned turtle on the floor. Cassie shook her head back and forth, making ridiculous, horse-like sounds through her lips. The baby continued to fuss.

Cassie flopped on her side beside Mia, which put her pacifier in plain view where it was hiding under the couch. Cassie crawled over and reached her arm far into the dark space under the sofa. She patted a coin, a metal toy car–those could wait to be rescued another day–then finally the pacifier. As her fingers curled around the slobbery rubber, her phone began to vibrate. By the time she wriggled her arm free the phone was still. With one hand, Cassie wiped the pacifier on her shorts, with the other she slid the screen of the phone far enough out of her pocket to see that her once best friend was calling.

Cassie rolled her eyes at the phone. Ever since her so-called best friend had started dating an older guy, she rarely called. It used to be enough to just lie in the sand at Clearwater beach, eating out of the same bag of french onion Sun Chips and reading gossip mags. They’d talk for hours about what they were going to do when they left Florida. Alicia was going to California to be on TV. Cassie always said she’d go with her, but she knew she really wanted to go to New York City for college. She didn’t want to jinx it.

Nowadays, Alicia only seemed happy when boys were around. It seemed to Cassie that, as far as Alicia was concerned, the louder and more obnoxious the boy, the better. Meanwhile, Alicia’s hair got blonder, her bikinis skimpier, her days at school shorter, and her love for beer and cigarettes expanded exponentially. Cassie watched her becoming one of those Florida women that they wanted to escape from, like their mothers.

***

On the other end of the line, Alicia clicked her cell phone closed as a sweaty man in a baggy suit walked in the door. The bell above the door tingled in what sounded to Alicia like a cloyingly cheerful tone. The voice of the radio deejay pronounced it was a perfect day for the beach. Alicia couldn’t agree more, but she was stuck at this stupid job that her parents made her get. It would build character, they insisted. She had to save up for her own car, they explained. Alicia really knew they just wanted her locked up somewhere. They couldn’t put her in juvy themselves, so a job would have to do.

The man made a beeline for the cooler. He didn’t even wait to pay before cracking the seal on the sport’s drink and taking a long gulp. Alicia hated it when customers did that. How did she know he was going to pay? She didn’t want to get reamed for having a short drawer at the end of the night just because this old guy was so thirsty.

Besides, Alicia had bigger issues to worry about. Bigger than a short drawer. Bigger than a greasy, sunburned tourist. Earlier, Alicia had squatted in the employees-only restroom over a pregnancy test she had swiped right from the store’s shelf. The test said plus, which meant she had a plus one in her body now. All she could think to do was to call Cassie, who was babysitting some neighborhood kids. Alicia knew Cassie was avoiding her, but that all seemed a little silly at the moment.

In the store, the man circled the racks of Tostitos tortilla chips, Jack Link’s Jerky and Little Debbie cakes before bringing a Glacier Gatorade and a Kit Kat to the register.

“I see you decided to pay for that Gatorade you drank,” she said.

The man visible tried to contain his own anger. Alicia didn’t care. For all the things she was scared of, she wasn’t afraid of this man. Let him scream at her. Let him report her to the supervisor. Let him hit her even. In fact, she kind of wanted him to. Then she could scream at him too.

But the man just dug down into his damp pockets to retrieve the correct change. Without saying a word, he slammed the coins down on the counter. As Alicia scooped them off the counter and into her cupped palm, she missed and dropped them on the floor. The coins bounced and rung and spun. She could tell the man had just about lost his patience.

Alicia bent to pick them up and the man tap-tap-tapped on the counter with his thick nails. Alicia felt stupid. She didn’t feel like the badass she wanted everyone to believe her to be. She could picture herself through the man’s eyes. Thick black eyeliner, out-of-the-box black hair, a stud in her nose and eyebrow. It was all so ridiculous. How would it all look when she had a baby on her hip?

When Alicia straightened up, she knew her eyes were glassy, so she couldn’t look the man in the face. She bagged his things and slide the package across the counter.

“Not to be too much trouble,” the man said, “but is there a pay phone near here that I could use?”

“It’s out front,” Alicia answered.

The man gathered his purchases and walked away. Just as he was leaving, he said, “I just can’t believe how rude kids are these days.”

Alicia knew it was true. She was ashamed. She needed Cassie. Cassie the calm. Cassie the polite-to-grown-ups. Cassie the perfect. Most of the time, it got on Alicia’s nerves just how easy everything was for Cassie with her tidy little room and good grades. Cassie needed everything to be in its place, everything set to rights, which was why Alicia needed her now, to tell her how to make a place for this pregnancy to fit.

Alicia tried to call Cassie one last time. Shaking, she pulled her phone from her pocket and flipped it open in one deft move. As the phone rang and rang she crumpled in on herself. Alicia was scared. Scared of the little zygote. Scared of telling her parents. The way her stepdad would yell, maybe even hit her. The way her mom would slink silently into the bedroom to ignore the whole scene. She was scared of giving birth. She was even scared that her boss would notice when she did inventory that a pregnancy test was missing even though the entire “health and beauty” section (one shelf) was coated in dust. All he’d have to do was take one look at her giant pregnant belly and know she was the one who stole it.

Of all the things Alicia was afraid of that day, she never thought to be scared of telling her boyfriend the news. Later, when she finally worked up the courage, the domestic disturbance noted in the police ledger of the Tampa Tribune was overshadowed by the story of Cody’s funeral. She would try to hide the newspaper from her parents for fear they might put the pieces together: her bruised arms, the already hated boyfriend’s address, her frequent disappearances lately at mealtimes. Sometimes, Alicia would pull the paper out and scan the pictures from the funeral for signs of Cassie. She didn’t know that her friend hadn’t been able to attend. For a long time after the accident, Cassie was incapable of leaving her bed.

She was getting ahead of herself.

But that would all happen later. For now, Cody was still riding his bike, the truck that would hit him had just turned the corner, and Cassie had finally calmed the baby with the pacifier. Alicia was crouched behind the counter at the store with nothing to comfort her but the stack of paper bags and plastic bins of penny candy. She put her finger on the store’s panic button, but she didn’t push it.

***

Later that night, deep under the covers with the lights out, Cassie would remember the third call with clarity. The call that had summoned the accident. The omen. The mail had crashed through the slot in the door and startled her, but not baby Mia. Mia wriggled carefree on the floor, restored to bliss with her pacifier. Cassie stood, then bent to gather the credit card offers and catalogs from the floor. The smell of baby powder and milk were overpowering in her memory. She flicked through the catalog, the twisting shapes of smiling women in bikinis made her feel suddenly conscious of her thighs. Then, turning from the door, she heard a loud screech and a more subtle thud. It was at that moment when she realized she hadn’t seen Cody in a while.

Cassie didn’t remember dropping the mail. Later she would come back for Mia and see the envelopes scattered around her like a halo. Cassie just remembered running down the street, feeling all the good she had tried to do melting off of her in the Florida heat.

In her memory, as she was running, she already knew what had happened, although she didn’t know if that was true. She knew that the good grades she had earned, the times she had demurred from the groping advances of the boys at the beach, the letters she had written to Nana after her stroke, all that good was erased by this one bad thing. She was cursed.

Even years from the day of the accident, when she was rejected from her first choice college, she knew she was being punished. When her first love left her in the middle of the night, that was her fault too. When child services took away her once-best friend’s toddler son, Cassie felt her stomach curdle. After all, if she had picked up just one of the calls, then maybe her and Alicia would still be friends. Maybe she could have helped raise the son or just been there for Alicia. If she had picked up one of the calls, there would not have been three. Without three, there would not have been an accident.

It had all so quickly gone beyond Cassie’s control.

***

But on the evening of the accident, all greater Tampa watched as Kelsey Grice laid the blame squarely at the feet of the truck driver. The shot graced thousands of flickering televisions that night: the behemoth truck, petite Kelsey, and an empty space of asphalt suggesting the absence of a small child. Maybe the kid had swerved into the street unexpectedly. Maybe the driver started dozing off after a long shift at the siding warehouse. Maybe the very design of the neighborhood was flawed. Too may blind spots. A hearing, surely, would be held. Kelsey Grice shook her head and fixed the camera with her “such a pity” face. A tragic story. Over to you.