Play the Fool
I always knew Marley would disappear. We worked across from each other at the Deerpath Shopping Center, me at the Russian knickknack place and her at the goth boutique, where she rang up anarchy T-shirts for tweens in five-hundred-dollar Nikes. She was a lot like me—smart enough to get the hell out of Lake Terrace once she grew up, but dumb enough to come back. For how long, I didn’t know. She put out a chill bloom-where-you’re-planted vibe but always looked like she was watching the exits, marking the days until she could peel out and leave Lake Terrace in the rearview.
When she did disappear, it didn’t go down how I expected.
The guy who set the whole thing off walked into Firebird Imports on a Sunday, the deadest day of the week and consequently the only time my boss, Larissa, trusted me to run the place alone. Less for me to screw up. I was laying out a three-card tarot spread when the store’s heavy glass door slammed open.
I jerked up. He was plastered against the inside of the door, breathing hard and staring out into the mall—a weight-lifter-looking guy with a bristly haircut on a blocky head, a faded Gold’s Gym T-shirt, and jogger sweats. He spun toward me and I froze, hands on the cards. There was an angry red gash on the man’s forehead.
A low warning throbbed in my mind. “Are you— Do you need—”
He took a stumbling step into the store and collided with a sign reading 60% off all musical spoons. The sign bowled over and he floundered after it, hooking it with his arm before it hit the ground. He looked like he was tangoing with a beautiful lady who had been, alas, enchanted into a piece of advertising.
A squeaky honk flew out of me, part dimwit guffaw, part concerned oh!
The guy jiggled the sign back into place. I glanced across the mall court: was Marley watching this? At Stone Blossom, the “alternative lifestyle boutique” where Marley worked, a pale mope in a Black Flag T-shirt slouched at the counter. No Marley. I hadn’t seen her all day.
“Do you need a tissue?” I pointed to my own forehead. “Or an ambulance or something?” My eyes slid to my phone. The low-charge light was blinking, as usual. I didn’t have extra cash lying around for new tech toys, so I plundered my brother’s castoffs. By the time they reached me, their best days were far behind them.
The guy flinched like he’d already forgotten I was there. A red splotch crawled down his temple and landed—plop
—on his shirt. “I’m fine,” he said hoarsely and disappeared in the jungle of display racks at the front of the store. I craned my neck after him. At least if he stole something, I could tell Larissa a piece of merchandise had made it out of here today. He picked up a lacquered box and stared at it with glassy eyes. “Just looking around.”
Shocker. Everyone was always just looking around. Earlier, a guy came in looking for a Cubs jersey, and I had to inform him, reading off our perfectly visible sign, that we sold only “fine goods from Russia and Eastern Europe.” Then a mom came in with three kids and a screaming baby, looking for a bathroom. I pointed her to the family one out in the mall, where someone had Sharpied a set of anatomically correct genitals on the dad icon.
“Suit yourself.” I sat down and swept the loose cards into the deck. I pegged this guy for a Cup, but a sloppy, backassward one, awash in reversed Swords. All emotion, no control. He’d probably just gotten in a parking lot shoving match with some other muscle-head over a dinged-up Jeep. In my head, I was already telling Marley about him. We’d been hanging out every Sunday night after our shifts for the past two months, in a tiny courtyard off the emptying forty-year-old white stone hulk of the mall. We talked while she smoked her unfiltered cigarettes, lighting up the dark with tiny fireballs. She was older than me by ten years or so, a tall, lean bruiser of a woman watching me from behind a wall of crimson-streaked hair, black eyeliner, and silver jewelry. The kind of look I’d always toyed with but never had the stones to pull off. She was my best friend, if you can call someone you’ve known only two months your best friend. It helped not to have any other friends. We were like rare specimens of some exotic breed of loser.
“Anybody actually buy this junk?” Gym Guy’s thick voice burst through my thoughts. He picked up a miniature balalaika and twanged its strings.
I did a quick mental tally of the bathroom family. “We just had six customers in here before you.” This guy was breaking all of Larissa’s rules: touching stuff, loitering, wearing sweats as regular clothing. Also being a dick, but that was more my rule.
Gym Guy doubled over, clutching his gut and grabbing a shelf of decorative plates for balance. The plates jingled.
“Hey.” I hopped off my stool. “Are you . . . ?”
He produced a bottle of pills. “I’m fine,” he huffed. “I got a nervous stomach is all.”
My phone uttered the first in its series of death beeps. Larissa was too cheap to get a landline for the store, so if this guy was going to pass out, he needed to do it before my phone died or I’d be stuck carting him to the hospital in my Ford Fiesta. I watched him shoot a handful of pills into his mouth and crunch loudly. “You know,” I said, “we have water if you—”
“I said I was fine,” he snapped.
A sorry laugh nearly bubbled out of me at this knucklehead pretending he wasn’t upset that someone had just bashed his damn head in. He’d probably been told all his life to suck it up, grow a pair, don’t be a pussy
. Whatever road rage pushy-pushy he’d just survived had obviously messed with him, but hell if he’d let anybody see that. He was already hiding the bottle of pills.
“Have it your way.” I sat back down, watching him out of the corner of my eye.
He fished his phone out of his pocket, glanced at it, then stuffed it back in. He wasn’t here to shop, but he wasn’t leaving. He kept looking out into the mall like he was waiting for someone. Or killing time until it was safe to leave. I stacked the cards up for the Vegas dealer shuffle my aunt Rosie taught me when I was a kid. The deck went frrrrt
into a neat dome in my hands.
Gym Guy swiveled toward me. He zeroed in on the cards. “Is that those fortune-telling cards?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” Interesting. I wouldn’t have pegged him for a guy who put much stock in spooks and spirits. I spread the cards back out, moving in slow circles. “Want me to read them for you?”
He looked out into the mall. “You know how to do that?”
“I picked it up here and there.” Aunt Rosie was a full-on grifter who hung around carnivals wearing headscarves and bilking grandmas out of their Christmas money. She’d started teaching me to read tarot cards when I was six, on one of the extended drop-ins that happened whenever she ran out of money or ditched her latest sleazebag boyfriend. My parents let her crash with us in exchange for “babysitting,” which consisted mostly of me accompanying Rosie on fantastic, semi-reputable errands that I knew better than to report to my parents. I spent a lot of time in empty daytime bars sipping Cokes and eating maraschino cherries while Rosie picked up crudely wrapped packages in the back room, or racing back and forth between monitors at the OTB to help her track her bets. She wasn’t super great with kids, so she just treated me like a very short adult, which I loved. Hey,
she’d say, picking out a stranger from across the casino buffet, what’s his story?
Then she’d point out all the signs you could pick up from people when they thought no one was watching, all the details they broadcasted loud and clear without saying a word. He’s here because he hates it at home,
she would say, or She hides the credit card bills from her husband.
“What’s their story?” was my favorite babysitting game.