By Lisa Levine
Sunrise pain. The sore place on her back where Angelique rubs her fingers, pressing the butt of her hand and kneading, hurts too deep for the warmth of blood to heal. Still she tries. Most mornings, the downhill walk to the Ferry Building eases her body into forgetting the night, but on this morning, with its fogged-up iridescent paint sunrise, her left hip and lower back seem locked in a grinding, immobile suite of minor agonies. Must have hated myself hard last night, she thinks, twisting and crunching through the cold. Her car’s padded seats, probably stripped by now. Towed. No time to look. Her stomach muscles clutch as she forces herself to stand up and toss her backpack seven feet down to the grassy field below her. She throws her right leg over the decorative edge of the tall stone urn where she ended up huddled last night, like the night before, and the night before that.
This morning, she’s sharing the ragged marine border of Golden Gate Park, where the urn, third in a row of urns, borders an outdoor stage. Scattered around the stage, a few homeless brothers sleep, rolled up in blanket rags. With the dark red rectangle of her pack below her, and her leg dangling into space, she turns to face the urn and finds her foothold on the scrollwork, smearing her thin rubber sole against the cracked concrete. After a few slippery seconds, she repositions the foot in a thin crack, and steps over the lip, lowering her left arm to embrace the unbroken curve above the decorative scrolls. Scrollwork is easy to descend: lower and lower until her right fingertips are the last bit of her body touching the urn’s inner wall. Four or five feet above ground, she stops for a breather, calming her jittery arms, then jumps down to the patchy grass lawn sloping downhill from the empty stage.
Her back flares, but then the pain shifts. Into her toe, then gone. Unbroken, lying motionless, Angelique tastes water in the air. Water in the air, on the blades of grass, everywhere; clouds tell her it will mist all day. None of the indolent bodies around her have made a move towards her backpack, where she holds everything she owns. Some of her possessions are for every day, like lip-gloss. Others, like her car keys, are useless most of the time. Yet she keeps the things, everyday ones and useless ones, worth their weight. She lies on her back in the wet, earthy grass. After I get paid this time, maybe a bus ticket. Get out of here. But thoughts of escape are distant, as she stands up stiffly and slides her arms through the straps of the backpack. Angelique stands up straight, taking another, deeper breath. Looseness. Better. Maybe I just slept funny.
San Francisco’s Main Library is a long, draining walk, best described by a vocabulary word buried inside Angelique’s memory: trudge. Why this word surfaces, when others lurk in her mind’s shadows when she needs them alert and crisp on her tongue, she could not say. Instead she walks, trudges, from Golden Gate Park to the broad, stepped library entrance. Waits. At eight o’clock, the doors open, a woman’s hand behind the polished metal, her face hard as she watches Angelique shoulder the pack. Angelique slips past the librarian, up the checkerboard staircase. In the third-floor bathroom mirror, she splashes lukewarm water on her face, looks up with an apology on her lips when a stall door bangs open and shut. But she’s hearing things. Just fear, fatigue.
Alone and spooked, she hurries. Lathers grainy pink soap between her hands and rubs the grit mixture over her cheeks and inside crevices: nails, ears, hairline. Steaming from the tap, the water warms to scalding. She doesn’t turn on the cold tap, grateful for the heat-pain that fades away as her cheeks and fingers dry. Warmed, her skin comes alive. She rips a strip of paper towel from the dispenser, folds it in fourths and dampens it. Slips the temporary hot pad under layers of shirts, against the ache in her back. With another wet paper towel she lifts her arms one after the other, working hand beneath layers of t-shirts. Scrubs sweat and dirt off from her armpits, breasts and stomach. Then she reaches inside the waist of her jeans and beneath long underwear to clean between her legs. Another paper towel, and she balances on one foot to remove a shoe and two kinds of socks. Her feet are red and swollen from new work shoes she found last week on a trash can lid on Russian Hill, and she wiggles them a bit as she takes one finger, wrapped in a towel, to run between her toes and underneath her toenails. Backpack in hand, balanced on the edges of her feet, she walks barefoot into the closest stall.
Inside, Angelique bangs shut the pale yellow door and locks the metal latch. Noisy. Noise comforts her, defies the silence. The whole library, all of it quiet around her, puts her on edge, uncomfortable. But she’s the creature others fear, the loudest thing in the whole place—wild and unpredictable. Libraries were built to rescue and reform feared creatures like her. It’s not a thing she thinks, but feels around its rough edges. Aware of her place, but unable to grasp it.
At the top of her backpack is a plastic grocery bag, double-knotted twice, a habit learned from watching Asian women at the corner bodegas on every corner in this town. Angelique digs at the knots with her clean fingernails. Focusing on actions calms her. Her fingers speed up undressing, yanking at her pants and sliding off her three sweaty t-shirts as one, arms inside arms. Wadded up in her backpack, the dirty layers will figure themselves out tonight. She stands, naked. Shivers, then begins to dress for work: Clean underwear. Bra. Arms in, then buttons buttoned on the dark green shirt, snagging loose hair on the pinned-in nametag. Black pants on, shirttails tucked. She wiggles a bit to get comfortable in the uniform and unlatches the door. Faces the row of mirrors, hers the only eyes in sight. Her body the only sign of life. Her job doesn’t require hair tied back, but opportunities to shampoo are irregular, and she twists it all off her face, looks in the library bathroom mirror and blinks. Swath of lip-gloss. Smile.
From the library’s broad steps to the wine shop service door is eleven blocks. As she strides along, mental rules reappear haphazardly. Dust shelf space. Shelve and re-shelve bottles, stack cork to base and base to cork. Set, don’t grind, the glass. Reds over here, whites there; dessert, sparkling, magnums, embezz—but her brain stutters. Every size bottle has a name, a name for every size. Every vineyard has a name, every region a name, every grape a name. Once she’s inside the store with customers, Angelique struggles to remember all the words, but she smiles nicely, with a wide mouth and shiny, glossed lips, and when none of the language of wine connects in her brain, she has her clean, country laugh. A customer told her that years ago.
One of the best sales clerks looks all kinds of wrong, her hair a nest haloing muddy, hung-over eyes and pale, dead lips. Grub, Angelique secretly calls her. Angelique isn’t skilled enough to look a mess or smoke close to the service entrance, like Grub and the others, or slip up and then talk her way out of a mistake like them.
In the two months she’s been at the job, Angelique’s sharp awareness of Grub has become a shape inside her. The shape lacks a name. It is insensible, genuine and undeniable. It started with envy. At first, Angelique would listen when the unearthly girl spoke about wine. Even she could hear the vines growing gnarly and grapes ripening where before there had been only motionless stacks of thick bottle glass, knowing her sales pitch was copied from the labels. Angelique recited, falsetto, what little she could remember, smiling without pause and hating Grub’s earthy, processed laugh. Every sale Grub clinched, her ugly laugh made Angelique forget the next word, even when it was printed on a bottle inches away. When no words came out from Angelique’s glossy lips, customers’ eyes wandered away, dismissing her as simple. They didn’t want her in their sight when she was silent. They could spend their money elsewhere. No sales, no commissions. But California minimum wage was something, so Angelique stacked bottles, swept for dust, and smiled.
Off at six. Grinding glass, one bottle against the next, every one lined up with the label facing out. Perfect. Angelique’s senses sharpen. Grub at her shoulder.
Angelique knows to speak first, stay ahead of trouble. She says: Where’s that one from? I like the shape.
Chile. Grub’s voice is a grotto. There is darkness within and secrets. But no warmth to Angelique’s ears.
Yearning for closeness along with work, she has struggled to connect with even the simplest instructions. Let’s mop the floor. We could unpack crates. Is there heart in such commands? But even Grub’s commands are more complicated. Bubbly before still. Gentle. Don’t rush over the ramp or you might disturb the sediment. These words Angelique hears, understands, but cannot follow, for they fail to touch her with their meaning. There is not space inside her head to slow down or take care. Her delicate balance in the world could go wrong at any second. Grub’s coolness rakes over her constant fears.
Yeah, I know that. I read the label. Grub’s face is translucent and dull, like powder in a compact, and dark eyes cool as morning. Angelique knows morning air, awake when others are sleeping. Look down. Don’t look her in the eyes. What she might see—I hate her. Lose my job.
I meant what part of Chile.
Underneath her polished cotton shirt Grub shrugs. Angelique doesn’t know that this morning, before work, the girl’s uniform still bore the warmth of ironing when she slipped it over her shoulders. With her two hands, after passing the iron back and forth in the tiny passageway between her kitchen and her front door, she lifted the pressed cloth to itself, button to button, just like Angelique. She was tired from a late class, perhaps a glass of wine with her professor, but that’s life, isn’t it?
I don’t know everything, Grub said. Ask Peter. He’s really good about regions. But most people, they don’t care. Just say a little, sell it. You don’t have to memorize the book.
Angelique could not even say when she lost words. Pinpoint a time when her mind stopped connecting one to another, the day or hour when the ability to speak kindness slipped away. Before the job started, she roamed, restless, pretending to herself that there was no way out—no car, no keys. For all she knew the car was impounded. But possibility was a taunt; Angelique needed absolutes as much as she feared them. Heart full of pent-up tears, she walked from the park to the marina, night after night, desperate to stay in motion, her legs leaden all the way up the sloping sidewalk and back down the opposite side.
The walks tuned her to a city of hills Angelique feels throughout her body. A few days ago, atop Russian Hill, she had spied a man setting boots on top of the trash bin. Angelique loitered, kicking around a discarded plastic something on the sidewalk, pretending to be busy while the man walked back into his house. Then she tied the bootlaces to her backpack and vanished from the block.
Grub’s words catch her attention again: The Super Tuscans. They can move up to the Sub Zero for this week. Gesturing, Grub flashes iridescent nails, smooth and shiny, like the inside of a shell.
Yeah, okay. I can do that. The bottles feel solid in her hands, weight, like something she could throw at concrete or crack on someone’s skull, if she had to. After unpacking a rack Angelique stops and looks at the man next to her who’s peering at the rows of crated pinot she has yet to stock. He is wearing a rich man’s shirt, bright, and pointy boots. She recalls fragments of charm.
May I help you select a vintage?
Oh, it’s for a bachelor party. My buddy’s out in Wisconsin. Have to ship it ’cause I’m missing the damn thing. He reaches into the box at her feet and yanks out a bottle by the neck. What, you think this will be okay?
Despite herself, Angelique is appalled. No, wait, there’s one on the shelf, she says. Angelique reaches for a bottle she’s already unpacked from this box, switches with him, cradling the temperature-controlled wine into his arms.
Well, what the hell difference does it make? If it’s in the box or over there?
For a second Angelique thinks she has fucked it up good, he sounds so angry. But the soft, thick shirt is a disguise; he is okay. On his face is a tiny unapologetic smile.
Are you cold? Still holding the bottle, his hands go to his waist, where he’s tied the two clean arms of a gray sweatshirt. Do you want my sweater? The bottle slips until he’s holding it by the neck again, but it doesn’t fall.
Angelique shakes her head, no. Smiles. No difference, she says. They’re both Super Tuscans. The man’s hands are frozen around the knot in his sweatshirt. Angelique is not swayed by his perceptiveness. Even in conversation, intimacy always costs.
Yeah, he’s been my best friend since fourth grade, the man says. You ever know anybody that long? Besides your parents?
Oh sweet Jesus. Buy it. Angelique memorizes the wall behind his head. She remembers her training, remembers Grub showing rare excitement over the high-priced bottles, naming the varietals, one by one. Tries not to think about commissions.
Well, sir, Super Tuscans are full-bodied reds. Lots of—your friend will remember. If you get him a wine like this. Nothing better than that bottle in the whole store.
No. Shit, never say no to a customer. Well, Tuscan, from Italy? Does kind of sound like Texan though, doesn’t it.
Yeah, we’re from Texas, and I was going to say, we don’t have wine down there to speak of. Nothing you’d sell in California.
In her periphery Angelique sees Grub looking at them. She laughs, an artificial trill—aha ha ha—and sure enough the man laughs back. How much are these things, anyway, he asks, turning it over in his hand.
Fuck, the sediment. She points at the price sticker on the back label. Printed in house. Even the price labels have a special look to them, a fancy border, and handwritten numerals Grub writes in her careful script. The man stands there, holding the bottle. Angelique stands with him in silence until she thinks of a discount to offer. I think we ship free, on those. So we could send them to your friend. Where did you say he lives?
Oh, he lives in Wisconsin, but the wedding’s in Des Moines. Bride’s got a 91-year old grandmother who can’t fly.
To this, Angelique can think of nothing cheery to say. Ignores the fact that not talking equals failure. Nothing she can do. Instead she waits, prays on fate to sway him into buying. Certain people believe in moving life towards its eventual destination, but there are other ways to reach an end than working to control every step. Angelique maintains her smile.
The man looks at the label for a long minute, shifting, almost bouncing the bottle in his hand. His ears are wind-chapped dark red, his face closed off to her. She’s almost tempted to back away when he says, Okay. Okay.
Angelique reaches for the bottle. Almost grabs it. Walk their purchases over to the register is one of her rules, older than this job. Ask if they want you to hold it while they look some more is from this place, hard to remember, plus why sell more, once customers find what they’re looking for? Expensive enough, one bottle. But the man, her lottery ticket, avoids her outstretched hand. I’ll just give you the address and pay, he says. Better make it four.
Her gut-level, unrelenting tension releases in a panic of euphoria. Uncertain how not to tip the scales away from herself again, and sure that the fortune dangling before her will be lost, somehow, in the shuffle of steps over to the register or in the squeak of packaging foam fitting into a mailing box, Angelique wants to make this one purchase nicer for him, her clueless savior.
Grub would show him food pairings or a tasting wheel, so he could impress the best friend, after the reception, as they stood in the lobby of some anonymous, expensive hotel, shaking their heads at how far afield their dreams had crashed and marveling at the beautiful sparks, the warmth of their past-self embers. Angelique can feel, but not feed, such a moment. Right now, no piece of this man’s future is accessible to her, and instead, she tilts her head as if for a picture, turns toward the register and puts a swing in her hips as she leads him over.
If the man notices her coarse efforts to applaud his choice, he doesn’t acknowledge them. He passes over a plastic card and as she punches buttons on the machine—twelve-hundred dollars out the door—her fatigue catches up with her. Only a few more days until payday and the commission on this sale will justify a hostel bed, partying kids and a thin mattress for a few days. Heat, when it comes. She doesn’t even bother to smile as she hands over the receipt for signature. And that’s when Grub swoops in, bat-like, as if she’d been listening to the whole transaction.
And did you find everything you were hoping to find?
The man looks at Grub, pen hovering over the slick strip of register paper.
Yes. He jiggles it, a nervous habit, Angelique’s eyes register without transmitting signals to her brain to say something assertive, hold on to this magnificent sale, override the delay. His fidget means he’s stalling while deciding how to answer a question he wasn’t expecting. Like with the bottle. She needs his signature. Without that, the entire thing could collapse; he could change his mind and be lured off into one of Grub’s incandescent talks about the color of ripe Muscat grapes.
Lips pursing testily but not yet forming words, the man from Texas looks at Angelique, and all she can do is smile again and mutter, Go ahead. There’s no traction in her tongue, not even enough to roll her eyes or make a gentle joke about marriage or anything, just the prayer inside her to get the sale closed and shipped so she can sit for a minute, out back, on the frigid cement bench that marks the end of public space and the start of this pier’s loading dock.
I’m okay, says the man. I have what I need. He signs his receipt, standing tall in his pointy boots. Thanks, he says.
Great, Angelique hears herself answering. Just the shipping address and that’s it. Grub stands with her arms crossed, watching the sale, while Angelique shivers with anticipation at her commission and possibly some relief that it’s over. She can be real for a minute, and it’s fucking cold everywhere—outside, inside the shop, in her bones. Four-hundred and forty dollars, on top of base pay and her other sales for the week. A bus ticket back to Nevada may even be the best decision now. Even with the job. Fuck her car; fuck her other options.
Enjoy the wedding, she says.
It’s over: he is folding his receipt up in a cracked leather wallet, then he stops again. Looks at her, up and down, but not with desire. More puzzled, this Angelique knows. Angelique knows pieces of her don’t fit, no matter how active she is at dulling her brain to anything besides work and sleep and food. Her glossy lips, hiding vocal chords that stutter to life and then stall out again. There is her broken heart and there is the fact that no man from before the one who broke her heart was worth tangling with, and she was streetwise and manwise enough to know better. Fall in love with trash when you know better, and you become trash, would be one of her rules, if anyone were listening to her rules for life the way employees are required to listen to Grub and her useless motherfucking wine rules. Then there is the strange feeling inside her, as the rich man gives her a parting wave that looks almost like a sideways salute, and walks out of the store, the feeling that people are listening, despite the tomb, the silence all around her, and she is just too tired to figure out who they are and what they see in her.
After the sale she cuts out for the loading dock, leaving Grub by herself deep in the pages of a wine atlas. Bums a rollie from one of the offload guys and stands at the end of the pier, smoking and watching their freight bang against the wooden slats. The smoke tightens her chest against cold air and calms her nerves. Angelique thinks of the night ahead, huddled inside a sleeping bag between a thick clay wall and packed-down sod, listening for mice and other creatures she can’t name who hunt all night with tiny, inhuman noises. The money won’t come till payday on a credit card sale. But things need doing. She needs to find a pair of scissors, cut her hair, keep rotating dirty clothes to the bottom of the backpack and clean to the top. Find a pair of long underwear and a book to block out the world. Routines learned by rote, since she was a girl in a trailer in Pahrump, Nevada, with a mother whose fingernails were as thick and smooth as old glass.
She takes a last drag and heads back inside. Grub stares at her, not speaking. Angelique almost walks behind the register where the girl is standing, fingers mid-transaction although there is no one to ring up. Years ago, before all the bullshit, she would have offered to close or something, but the store is empty and it’s twenty minutes to close. Just go.
Can you cover me? she asks Grub. I need to pick something up before five.
Sure, do you want to come in early tomorrow? Balance it out? I have class so that way it works for both of us.
Angelique nods yes. Don’t forget my last sale, she says, put it on there. That guy bought twelve-hundred dollars of Super Tuscans. Bragging is rude but she does it anyway, a rite she’ll always have energy for, uncaring of wine shop manners and Grub’s precise indifference.
Out on the sidewalk, Angelique looks at her feet and lifts one shoulder. She spent a night at a Catholic church once. Smelled like dust. Incense, one of the homeless women had told her. Tonight, flush with her good fortune, instead of lining up for the church, or watching the Mission shelter line begin to form, she continues down Howard. The morning fog has thickened into early evening, sky dark like a shroud. With weather like this around the bay, up north, the root stock has been dormant for months, lacking soil at the warmer temperature it needs although most of the vines were planted so many years ago they feel only suggestions of season, hints of temperature and moisture that trickle down to their level. Boots to concrete, Angelique walks away the evening, stopping for a while at the outskirts of a trash can fire by a pier. Black swaths of skateboards roll in an endless loop. Aylon could be one of them.
Aylon. The buzzed hair at his neck, tenderness of the nape where she once shaved his head for him, cheaper than paying someone, he said, giving her the gift of his scalp, a perfect place, Angelique thinks, to land the weight of a plump, opaque bottle. If she had wounded him, would he have stayed? For a time—three weeks, a month, six months—their separate lives had touched, edge to edge, surrendering aloneness to the nobility of love. If Aylon laughed at her heavy paperback wine book, he did it out of earshot. Maybe on the corner where he stood with his new street friends, he voiced private thoughts against her. Maybe he never thought about her. Either way, in his absence Angelique paid for her rented bed, one floor below his vacated one, and studied varietals, regions, and adjectives to describe unknown flavors. She wrote the words on notecards and still she could not remember Barossa and Coonawarra and Clare Valley the second she closed the book and flipped her cards face down. At least Aylon had kissed her goodbye, before he left.
But that was a long time ago. By now his skin, like hers, will have weathered to permanent lines and fissures. Only his pungent traces are ground into her life.
When she first heaved her backpack over the urn’s lip, she meant to make a gesture of anger—at her tiredness, at losing Aylon, at life—and thought the toss would fall short, backpack landing at her feet. Instead, zipped shut with everything she owned—keys, lip gloss, plastic bags of shirts and a one burner camp stove —the pack fell, by accident, down into the bowl of the massive planter. Angelique, standing below, had willed her head to become slack against her neck: look up. Look at what you’ve done. Then she’d sat down in the grass for a while, still staring up at the urn. Her mind drifted over peeling paint around stone loops, and she felt an ant bite her calf. Besides the wine book and her notecards she could not, at that moment, have named one specific thing in that backpack.
Fuck, Angelique had said. Then she had pushed off the ground with both hands, grabbing hold of two earlike concrete loops. She lifted one leg up and worked her foot into a comfortable hold around its top. Her arms wrapped around the massive curvature. With one foot balanced on a floret and the other dangling below, she hung out for a bit, resting. The upper lip of the thing just high enough to produce a spasm of fear beneath the ant bite: would she be able to swing her free leg high enough to clear the lip? Indecision tiring her, she gave up thinking of failure and swung her leg in an awkward, balletic arc.
Thigh scraping the urn’s rough inner wall, she didn’t fall. Incredible. Splayed against the planter, Angelique pushed off her arms and saw soft, dark soil as she cleared the lip. She stood up, fifteen feet off the ground, looking out over the dark green trees and the man-made lake and beyond the landscaping to the distant horizon. Privacy up here in wet air and earth and stone.
The morning after her best sale ever, at the library bathroom mirror, the words malolactic fermentation trip her up when she flips the notecard face down. In the tile silence, she says malolatic every time, and finishes the word wrong anyway, letter c like the overlooked tear in a shirt whose cloth is still whole. Glowing tubes from an exposed florescent fixture shadow Angelique’s face as she applies makeup with practiced hands. In the mirror she can see the restroom door open, wood older than the lights, and behind the door a woman, the same woman who unlocks the library every morning. Despite her hard expression, this woman has a soft, plain face. In fact everything about her is soft, from her dark pants to her shining, brushed hair. Her eyes cross the entire restroom, taking in, Angelique is sure, the array of half-used tubes and pop-top powders, the plastic sack jutting out of the massive backpack leaning against the wall.
Thank fuck she’s changed into her uniform.
Instead of speaking, the woman steps inside the restroom and steps inside a stall. When she exits a minute later, she uses the sink farthest from Angelique, a hurried, unglancing rinse of the hands; she does not look to the mirror, to the left or right of herself; she does not look at Angelique at all. But there are other restrooms, in other cities, and other potential angels upon whom Angelique can call. Instead of being watched she watches as the woman leaves. Manzanilla, she repeats in front of the mirror. Means sherry. For headaches and cooking. Red, like the Tuscan, but cheap. As cheap and clean as pity.
At work, when Grub emerges from the back office, Angelique is at the register. She hears the door scrape. Last week she noticed it was off the hinge, but said nothing. Entrances and exits are easy to track. Angelique lowers her head as Grub enters, reading: Ice wine is unique because of its ripening period. Angelique pictures her hands cupping the air as if they were holding a bunch of grapes. To make ice wine, vintners take ripe frozen grapes and press them out to get a sweet, high-acid juice. The uniqueness comes from the way the grapes freeze on the vine; no one makes ice wine in a freezer. The liquid produced is a true expression of nature and land.
Grub is peering at Angelique, head tilted to the side as if a little deaf. Angelique closes the book and looks up, measuring inches between their lips. I need a place to sleep. I need a true expression.
My back hurts, she tells Grub. But it’s the wrong thing to say, the girl lifts her shoulders in an elegant shrug. Side by side, they unpack last night’s deliveries, stack bottles cork to base, base to cork. They flatten boxes, face labels, wipe dust from the shelves. By the time Grub rattles open the grate and flips on the display spotlights, Angelique’s back is aching again, a pain as steady as early morning. She wants Grub to say something, anything, about it, but Grub won’t talk. Instead Angelique forces herself to ask her real question. You close okay last night?
The girl’s eyes don’t dart away before her words come out, but Angelique ignores her face. The money—but Grub is making her say it. Got my sale in there, right? The big one?
I don’t know. You can look, Grub says, gesturing at the register. Bag’s right there. Angelique looks at her, dark and unyielding, and desire pummels the backs of her hands. She reaches for the cash bag and flips through the center-stapled stack of receipts, but they don’t matter; it’s the folded paper with tip totals, handwritten in Grub’s familiar scrawl, that she needs to see. One hundred sixty-six dollars, next to Angelique’s name.
This isn’t right, she says, holding the paper out to Grub. Where’s my sale? Fifteen hundred, at least. What’d you do?
Grub spins the wine globe back and forth on its stand. He told me last night to split it out.
You fucking bitch, you’re not even going to try and lie to me? You stole that money. Fifteen hundred dollars, that’s my commission. We didn’t split.
Not my decision, Grub says, looking straight ahead. Peter told me to do it that way. After you left.
Angelique’s thoughts buzz around her, dangerous and angry, and she crumples the paper hard in her hand. My money, she says. Mine. I sold those bottles. What’d you tell him? That you helped? You didn’t help. You don’t help anyone. Peter wasn’t there. Her hands begin to smooth out the sheet.
You said you’d be here this morning to open, Angelique. You don’t work. You don’t do anything. And in her memory it’s the first time Grub has said her name, but inside these sentences Angelique—You an angel, Aylon would say, teasing—sounds twisted, ugly, like a dirty word. But she shakes her head to clear it. They’re words, only words. Focus on the money. True that Aylon left her, but he never lied. It’s lying Angelique hates, the way words must be remembered weightless, meaningless, just memories. Grub’s words seem like illusions, dreams, but they confirm Angelique’s worst fear: Grub is in control. Angelique knows she has no control, no direction. Her dreams, her words, will never surface, will haunt her in daylight and wake her in the night, shaking and drenched in sweat.
She drops the paper and closes her hand around the display bottle, cheap Beaujolais they’ve been trying to clear out for months. Her palm flat against the slim neck of glass, she swings the bottle at the air, but maybe she was swinging at Grub’s head after all because when the bottle lands it does seem that was where she meant to set it all along. Angelique’s shoulder absorbs the shock of contact, and Grub staggers back, staring at Angelique with startled, flat eyes. The bottle doesn’t break. Grub’s hands come to her face, tentative, feeling for the source of pain, and Angelique walks out from behind the register, looking around at the walls of bottles, stacked cork to base and base to cork. As Grub sinks to her knees, Angelique reaches into a cubby, some red she’ll never taste, and smashes the bottle against the metal frame. She reaches for another, both hands, smashing thick glass over and over into shards and pools of wine.
My bus ticket, she says to Grub, stunned and staring. You understand? My bed. Angelique stops, shattered glass in her hand, and watches the girl’s lips open and close, trying to form a word.
Lisa Levine’s fiction, interviews and reviews have appeared in Cutbank, Edible Baja Arizona, Edge: A Reading Series of Emerging and Younger Writers, Kore Press, and Sonora Review. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, in collaboration with Spalding University, and is a Wildbranch Writing Workshop member.
Photo credit: Andrea Franzius