“Pretend She Don’t Scare You a Bit”

My giant yellow stepladder shifted, then rose up on one foot, and a minute later I was there, on the concrete, like that, sweetly, aimlessly recalling the history of my escape.  Now I’m in the hospital.  Can I move my arms and legs?  Yes, I can, now I can.  It was yesterday I was paralyzed.

I’m working in school supplies, next to pet supplies.  Charlene brushes past me, lets her hand drag across my butt, laughs.  “So close, but yet…” I say.  Her smock is untied and her blue silk blouse is unbuttoned halfway down.  “Dream on, college,” she says.  She takes a box of pencils and slips it into her blouse, then draws the smock tight and ties it.  Charlene steals things, for fun mostly.  I do, too.  There isn’t a lot of fun working in a place like this.

I go back to work, watching the white metal ceiling for the bird that sails around in the steelwork and surveillance cameras up there.  A starling.  It got in months ago, but it hasn’t been around for at least a week, so maybe they were right, and it died of thirst like they said it would.

Charlene’s boyfriend, Patricio, dumped her last week for a black girl on dayshift named Lakeshia.  Patricio is my best friend here.  He’s big.  Charlene is small, short, sexy, in a Spanish sort of way.  The stuff that dreams are made of.

In the pet shop there’s a kid looking into a fish tank, hands around his face, forehead on the glass, staring into the aquarium.  Guy’s about twelve.  The store is Wannabe Walmart, it’s near midnight on a Friday, we never close.  I’m sale-ing stuff, putting on Manager’s Special stickers, $1.99, a hundred and twenty boxes of pencils.  It’s a trick.  The computers’ll pick the new price up anyway, and there’s a sign on the shelf, but they think the customers like to see these stickers.

I wish I could be there staring in at the neon tetras, watching them zoom around.  At least they enjoy their little pointless lives.  We used to have a baby boa constrictor, but it died.  It was really murder, the dumbass store management murdered it.  They wanted $99.00 for it.  Duh.  Like they’ve never seen who shops here.

“When you going to take me out to dinner?” Charlene says, bumps me a little with her hip.  “I am off at two.”

“I can’t afford you.  I eat peanut butter and jelly.”

“Oh, I love peanut butter and jelly,” she says, and licks her lips.  “White bread.”

“Well, okay, good. I’ll pick you up, ten after two.  Hey, Charlene, what do you do with all the stuff you swipe?”

“I don’t know what you talking about, college boy,” she says.  “You need a rain gauge?  A Beretta?  Some car wax? You go to law school, you can defen’ me, okay?  I pay you in merchandise.”  She flips her shining, shoulder-length hair, and from nowhere produces the box of pencils and tosses it back on my shelf.  “I got pencils,” she says.  “Two o’clock.”

I watch her walk away, swaying.  She’s a certain kind of sexy, buys expensive clothes, wears them a little loose, walks good, the voice, knows how to look at you, smiles.  A woman who knows everything.  You look at her and think, Nothing I could ever do would make this woman nervous.  And then she’s out of sight.  I look up into the white steel rafters.

Later, after I’m off, in the back Patricio comes up to me carrying a pool cue in each hand.  “Man, you poaching my woman?” he says, and stares hard, until he starts laughing and I breathe out.  “First thing she did was come to tell me, cholo,” he says.  “Here, you’re gonna need some of these. Rocket fuel.”  He puts a couple pills in my shirt pocket.

“She wasn’t serious,” I say.

“Serious?” Patricio says.  “She is desperate.  Just pretend she don’t scare you a bit.”  He holds one of the cue sticks out to me.  “Take this.  We gonna get that bird.  He been back here all night.  Been shitting all over the stock.”

Outside the breakroom is the warehouse area, the stock piled on pallets in rows like a lumberyard, or a library. Patricio’s got big yellow fourteen foot ladders at opposite ends of the long, narrow space.

“There he is,” Patricio says, pointing up to the starling sitting on the bottom of one of the exposed steel joists. “Bird-ball,” he says, grinning, and swings his pool cue like a bat.  “I be Sammy Sosa, you be that red guy.”  He means Mark McGuire.

We climb the ladders carefully and run the pool cues along the corrugated steel of the roof for the racket it makes, to start the bird flying.  Air must be twenty degrees warmer up here. As soon as the starling lights somewhere we shout and bash at the ceiling again, and he’s off again.  The ladders rock and shudder as we slash at him and he flutters out of range until one time Patricio swings and almost falls, and the starling jumps frantically straight up and thumps against the ceiling, then drops four feet and swoops back toward me on the far side of the ladder, in perfect position, rising, floating, right in the center of the strike zone.  It feels like I’m shaking my head but I’m not moving.  I’m leaning. My arms jerk the pool cue out horizontal, for a bunt.

He doesn’t hit it.  He stops on it, instantly, bobs over head first and rights himself, then spins around, weird, dance-y footwork, to face the other way.  He’s black, green, feathers iridescent as his wings disappear, gasping for breath, watching me with one coral-colored eye.  He is perfection.  “You got him!” Patricio yells.  I have got him, I think.  I own him.   Right there, right then, the ladder starts to move.

Steven Barthelme

About Steven Barthelme

Steven Barthelme has worked as a taxi driver, in construction, as an editor, in advertising and public relations, and as a university professor. He has written two books of short stories, the most recent titled Hush Hush (NY: Melville House, 2012), a memoir, Double Down, co-authored with his brother Frederick, issued in 1999 by Houghton Mifflin, and an essay collection, The Early Posthumous Work, from Red Hen Press in 2010. Last summer he was bitten by a snake, which happily chose not to be a Cottonmouth.