|September 2011 Fiction Anthology | Contents | Authors | echapbook.com | In Northern Wisconsin a Yellow Bus... by Stefanie Freele|
There are reasons why I didn’t contact Sherii for twenty years. For one, I thought she was dead. Years ago, at a party, one of those post-high school get-togethers with clouds of greenish pot smoke and clusters of people conscious of loyalty and belonging-ness, feeling obligated to hang with old friends, yet on the verge of trying to meet new ones, I ran into Denise. She smoked quickly with brief drags, like a non-smoker who only smokes when she drinks, and pushed me on the shoulder too hard. “Did you hear about Sherii? Drove into the quarry. Drunk.” Denise squinted and took in a longer draw, while keeping eye contact. “Could have been us.”
Denise herself died two months later, although I didn’t hear about it for five years since I was away studying acupuncture, not thinking about Denise whatsoever, but I did think about Sherii now and then, and how it could have been us that drove off the cliff into the quarry. We often got stoned at the quarry. There wasn’t a rail, nor even a sign. Sure, a foggy night, anyone could have done it.
I meant to get the details from Denise next time I came home, but then Denise died drunk-driving too, only she was beheaded as she “sailed under a semi.” That’s what Dad said in that stern don’t-let-it-happen-to-you voice, as if I’d taken driving into semis under consideration. The other reason I didn’t try to contact Sherii, as if I really needed another excuse, because, after all, I was basing my actions on the premise of her death, was the ten bucks I stole from her gym locker in seventh grade.
She didn’t accuse me then. I stared back (while sweat rolled down between thighs) into her searching and tearful eyes and denied, “I didn’t see anybody” even though I was the only one in the room while Sherii showered. We stayed friends through high school, but deceit kept us from being closer. The ten-spot issue happened over twenty years prior, and I wasn’t in any hurry to call attention to my crimes, even though making amends seemed to be the thing to do in your thirties, but Sherii’s quarry-death made one less person needing an apology.
On the way to somewhere, during a week-long visit with my parents, I saw a woman at Circle K that looked just like Sherii, but with wrinkles around the eyes and a bit of a belly. She fumbled with her wallet to buy two quarts of Colt 45. Her green uniform pulled tight along the waist and a patch on her shoulder read, “Department of Wildlife.” I eased closer and read the nametag. Sherii Fonstrup. It was her and she wasn’t dead.
The ten bucks didn’t enter my mind yet, but those love-handles held me mesmerized. Sherii had been a varsity track girl. I believe she hurdled. Or sprinted. Something around the track really fast, I didn’t recall. This version defied my imprinted vision of tall, thin, giraffe-like Sherii. She turned around, perhaps because of my critical bulge-thoughts. Guilt flushed my face as she spoke. “Court? Courtney? Is that you?” She smiled big with coffee-stained teeth and I met her eyes, her large black pupils. Much larger pupils than someone should really have in a brightly lit convenience store.
“It’s me. Sherii is that you?”
“Actually it’s Shur-eee now. Still spelled the same. S-H-E-R-I-I. But I gave up the Sherii lost-her-cherry bit years ago. Now the accent is on the second syllable. What do you think? Better, eh?”
I couldn’t get past her shiny black pupils, so huge and offensive. I irrationally hoped the cashier might notice and put a stop to her eyes, as if their size was illegal or, at the very least, immoral.
“Shur-ee works for me. Oops, I rhymed. I like it. Sounds French. Exotic.”
She swept the beer off the counter before the clerk could stuff it into a noisy plastic bag. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
When the clerk handed back my change, the old ten-dollar guilt flickered. I looked for reasons to stall rather than walk out the front door to stand next to bulging Shur-eee and her iniquitous black eyes. She waited exactly in front of my primer-red hatchback and astonished me by taking a long swig of her beer, in public and in uniform.
“Whatcha been up to, Courtney?”
I searched for a topic we might get past quickly so I could get in the car. “It’s been twenty years. Aren’t we due for a reunion?”
“Never went to any others.” She put her beer into a white government pickup and stood with her hands on her broad hips and faced me squarely. “Although our first one didn’t happen until year six because of Spiegel’s suicide.”
“I didn’t get informed of our tenth.”
“Maybe there wasn’t one, Court. I didn’t care for the longest time what happened to everyone. Now I’m a little curious.”
“I didn’t keep in touch with many people. Went away to college in Boston, lived in Nepal, Bangkok, and a bunch of other places. I’m an acupuncturist. Only back for the week. Just visiting my folks.”
“Come with, over to work. On Saturdays, I’m the only one. I’ll give you a tour and we can hang. Fifteen minutes from here.” She thumbed toward the lake and I followed her hand toward black clouds and rain lines in the sky.
I don’t know why I agreed to follow her. Was it her forceful thumb? The negative ions in the air?
Gusts of wet wind pelted our windshields. We pulled into an empty parking lot. Her blurred shape ran toward a glass door and waved toward me.
We burst from the rain into an office with several desks, dwarfed by deer heads topped with extraordinary antlers. Musty rain smells and beer breath filled the room.
“I’ve never seen antlers that huge. Must be as wide as my car.”
“Let me tell you about him.” Sherii pointed. “That guy is on a quest to get laid. All he can think about is sex. If you’re a female deer, look out. He’ll maul you with those.”
I thought she’d give me a scientific explanation. Her bluntness contradicted the authority of her uniform. “Isn’t the Department of Wildlife supposed to help the animals? Preserve and all that. Wouldn’t have thought they’d display deer heads.”
“All rednecks in this place. Did you know that some animals have a penile bone?”
I almost laughed, but her shiny, yet flat black eyes weren’t kidding.
She shook her head vigorously. “Some get in fights and try to rip apart the other’s penile bone.”
I couldn’t tell if she was teasing and had developed an uncanny ability to remain serious-faced, or if she truly spouted a fact I’d never heard of. “Survival of the fittest?”
She moved quickly for someone so out of shape. “Exactly. Let me show you something.” We walked out of the office and through a shop where equipment lined the room. She turned a red metal circle which opened up a giant door, about six feet wide. A cloud of what I initially assumed was steam floated out. However, when we entered, I found myself in a room-size freezer. Rows of stuffed bags lined the walls. “See.” A frozen blood trail, the kind that came from dragging bodies, led to a pile of animal carcasses, mostly mountain lions. Being resolved to a mostly Buddhist/vegetarian philosophy didn’t prepare me for the mound of what appeared to be haphazardly strewn wild animals. A bobcat’s tongue jutted as if he was biting it and blood froze on his nose in a black smear. His eyes remained large and permanently staring at my knees.
I covered my nose and mouth. “What happened to them?”
“Hunters. Trappers. Idiots. Accidents.”
“Why are they here?” Blackish blood, deep wounds, and hanging entrails dishonored the beautiful animals.
“Research. Or sent to the university.”
I could feel her looking at me, but I couldn’t decide which was more terrible, her black eyes, or the heap of bodies. “It’s a room of death. They’re frozen.”
“Ain’t going anywhere.”
She moved into my line of vision for a moment and blocked the view. I wanted her to stay right there, where I couldn’t witness the awfulness behind her.
“You have to see this one.” She inched behind a stack of white boxes and kicked a small fawn out of her way. She just kicked a small fawn. It’s dead but she kicked it. The stiff fawn slipped awkwardly across the back of a black wild pig and landed with its head in the bloody hind end of a larger deer.
I instinctively leaned to catch the fawn. “I don’t need to see any more.”
“Came this far. Come here, Courtney.” She didn’t command, but spoke as if I wouldn’t defy her either. Like her simple verbal nudge would bring me closer. And without reason, I stepped forward.
Without seeing its head, I could tell by the golden fur, I was looking at deer. Its hide ended raggedly along a stomach gash about a foot long. Sherii pointed inside the gash. I leaned forward to see the curled head of a closed-eyed unborn fawn, tucked inside its mother. “Coyote.” She pronounced it ky-oat. “He’s over here. Hunter caught him tearing her up. Smacking away at his half-alive tasty meal.” The fluffier furred leg of the coyote stuck out from the pile straight at me, its paw aiming at my heart.
My chest shivered uncontrollably. “I’ve seen enough.” A death smell pervaded my nostrils, which I found peculiar, as if scents should be frozen too.
She slammed the fridge shut and we warmed ourselves by the heater in the office. “That’s unbelievable. Horrible. What do you do here?”
She opened her mouth, but then dashed out the door, not leaving me with much time to think, when she came right back in with her bottle of beer, not offering me any. I wouldn’t have drunk anyway, since at the temple I took a vow not to put such substances in my body. She guzzled fiercely. “Never drink before four.” She blinked and studied the line of liquid through the bottle. “I suppose I should have offered you some.”
“I thought you were dead. Denise said you went off the Mainlen cliff into the quarry.”
“You did die? Or you did go off the cliff?” I laughed, but it came out jerky and short.
She sat behind the desk and I sat on a chair in front of it, as if I was being interviewed.
She burped. “High school sucked, didn’t it?”
“I’ve had a lot of experiences since then. It seems like a long time ago.”
“I didn’t go to college.” She gave me a look that flashed anger, or meanness, I couldn’t decide which.
“You got a good job.”
She leaned forward quickly. “Did I ask your opinion?”
No one spoke and neither of us moved. A clanking sound from back in the building stopped the silence.
“I think I should go.” I put my jacket back on. “Thanks for-”
“I’m sorry. Sit. I’m just annoyed. Feeling sorry for myself.” She took another swig, pulled out a pill from her top pocket, and swallowed it. “Here you are, educated, wearing a scarf, sticking needles into people, and disgusted by the locker.” She peeled the label on the bottle. “Here I am, fat, used to dead bodies, and surrounded by rednecks. Where the hell is Bangkok anyway and why would you go there?” She smiled sweetly as if to make peace with me, to forget her earlier abrupt behavior.
“I studied religion along the way. Philosophy. I believe in a certain concept of destiny.”
“You travel. I stay. You’re successful. I mop the floor.”
I didn’t respond.
“I’m the damn housekeeper. I’m the lofty Environmental Service Aide. My big destiny. God wants me to vacuum. He has a fantastic plan for me to shine toilet seats.” She slammed her empty beer bottle on the table, picked it up again and threw it toward a metal garbage can where it smashed. I found myself thinking that she’d get fired if her boss found the bottle in the garbage. She focused on the side wall. Her hand slowly crept to her front pocket and plucked out two pills. She chewed them slowly.
I leaned back and debated what to do. I finally settled on saying, “It seems that you’re in pain, Sherii.”
I expected her to leap across the desk and grab me by the throat, and I braced myself for it. But she stared at the wall for an uncomfortably long time. Finally, just when I was about to get up and quietly leave, she spoke faintly. “Why did you steal my ten bucks?”
There it was and it was all so stupid. Why hadn’t I just admitted it somewhere along the way? I rushed. “I knew you knew. It was dense and I’m sorry. I’m even sorrier for lying about it.”
She cleared her throat and swung her head toward me, her pupils seemed to cover her entire iris; I could not find any color. “We weren’t best friends. But we were good friends. In seventh grade, you, me and Denise walked to school together almost every day.”
Had we? I forgot that it was that often.
“I wanted to buy lunch.”
Her arms flew up in the air, reminding me of goalposts. I wanted her to bring them down and fold her hands tidily on her lap, but she dropped them slowly, leaving one hand to hover in the air, pointing at my face. “Your mom always made you lunch. I remember. Mine was wasted. She’d say, ‘Tomorrow, I’ll make you lunch. Go to your room. Give me peace and quiet.’ Meaning go away so I can drink.”
I felt defensive but thought about what might have happened to Sherii when her mother found out she lost her week’s worth of lunch money. “You’re right. My mom did always make me lunch. Constantly in the same recycled paper bag. I just wanted to go through the lunch line like everybody else, instead of sitting at the table with my brown apple and yogurt waiting for all of you. Embarassing. I wanted a chocolate shake so badly.”
She held a pen against the desk and pressed hard enough to dent the wood while she dragged the pen toward herself leaving a long scrape mark. “Thought you’d cop to it. I waited.”
I tried not to look at the desk, but remained there amidst the weight of missed opportunities for apology, swallowing my excuses, and finally retied my scarf just to keep some activity in the room.
Her mouth quivered as if trying to settle in on the right expression. It finally established a smirk. “I don’t feel so good right now, Court.” She looked up at the ceiling, a little too high and too long for my taste, and tapped her foot in a rhythm. “Give me my ten bucks.”
I hurried through my coat pockets and brought out my wallet while trying not to let my hands shake. Hidden behind a picture of my nephew, I found my emergency twenty and almost threw it. The twenty didn’t feel like enough. “With interest.”
She let the bill lie in front of her, smoothed it with an unstable hand while I moved to the door.
Her flat voice followed me. “Denise died too. Didn’t she?”
Without turning around, I answered “Denise died too,” and stepped out into the rain.
The heavy door, with its reflecting glass, displaying a murky reflection of myself, slammed automatically, reinforcing my abrupt isolation. “Too?” I was left to face the drenching wind as the lock clicked, keeping Sherii safe from people like me.
“Penile Bone” was previously published in the short story collection, Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press, 2009).