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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Way the World Is

by Michael Henson




"That’s the way the world is,” the girl said. And she did not seem to like it.

 

Honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet, the woman wanted to say. But the girl did not skip a beat.

 

“All I did was take her in cause she was homeless and I get throwed in jail for what she done.”

 

A November wind rattled the windows of the lobby where they sat, side-by-side on a bench. The girl was a heavy girl – a woman, really; but to the woman, just a girl. She was thick in the body, weighted in the shoulders, heavy in the cheeks and around her eyes. She was pierced in several places, pierced in one nostril, pierced with a ring in her brow, pierced by an arc of studs in her ear.

 

"Here I come,” she said, “out the door at Wal-Mart. I got a cart full of groceries and diapers and what-nots to feed her and her kids right along with mine, and all of a sudden you’d of thought I was Osama Bin Laden. Here come the alarm ringin' and here come the security and a few minutes later here come the police and there’s my little kids a-cryin' and these cops want to know did I think I was smart tryin’ to get away without payin’ for that purse and I’m, like, what purse? And what it was, that penniless bitch I took in off the street had snuck this purse she wanted into my cart after I done checked out and she skips on ahead. She borries my keys, you see, and she says, I’ll go ahead and unlock the door. And she skips out like there ain’t nothing goin’ on.”

 

“She set you up.”

 

“She didn’t have the guts to steal it herself and she figured if anybody was gonna get caught it’d be me. And she would of got away with it, ‘cept I pointed her out and they ended up takin’ both of us to jail. and I’m thinkin’, there’s my little kids off to foster care, and they’re cryin’ their little hearts out. And my parents had to come up from Blue Creek to fetch em and bail me out.”

 

The woman had been nodding as the girl spoke, but she perked up her ears at the mention of the children almost gone to foster care. She was small as the girl was large, small-boned and spare of flesh with the quick, fierce eyes and sharp features of a fox. She watched the girl more closely now.

 

“But that’s the way the world is,” the girl said again. “You try to help somebody and you get stiffed.”

 

A deputy passed through the lobby with a gym bag over his shoulder. He called out, “What d’you know, Maggie?”

 

“I know I want to visit my old man,” the woman called. But the deputy slung himself and his bag through the door without another word.

 

The girl had lit a cigarette; she blew out smoke and nodded. “That’s just how they treat you,” she said. "They won’t let you smoke in the building.” The woman pointed to a sign above the counter. The girl raised a skeptical brow. “They can’t do no more to me than what they done already.” But she drew on her cigarette one more time, stubbed it out carefully on the rim of a trash can, then slid it back into the pack.

 

“They can slap you with a fine,” the woman said. “They can write you a ticket in a heartbeat.”

 

“Right now, I don’t hardly care. They could throw me right back in that cell and I wouldn’t care.”

 

“Honey, you don’t know what you’re sayin’.”

 

“They couldn’t do me no worse than what they done already.”

 

Oh yes, they could, the woman thought.

 

“What could they do worse than what they already done?”

 

Honey, I seen a lot worse, the woman wanted to say. But she held her peace.

 

“This is the worst that’s ever happened to me, ” the girl went on. “I ain’t never been inside a jail before. Never did expect to be. But there I was. And all because I wanted to help some girl out that wouldn’t help herself.”

 

As she talked, the girl folded her arms, unfolded them, then placed her hands on her knees. She looked toward the door where the deputy had gone and folded her arms again. “Like I say,” she continued. “If it hadn’t been for my parents comin’ up to make my bail, I prob'ly would of lost my kids to foster care. And God only knows what would of happened to em.”

 

“How many you got?”

 

“I got a boy and I got a girl. Three and two.”

 

“Little tiny ones.”

 

The girl’s shoulders sagged as if she carried a world of care. “That’s why I couldn’t stand to see her bein’ homeless and all. Cause she got three, and all of em under six. Ain’t even in school yet. So I understand what it is to have kids and you want em safe and fed and all. Then she comes complainin’ to me how she’s homeless and their daddy beat on her and she had to take them kids of hers and leave home. Well, big-hearted me, I had to take em in off the street.  I should of told her, I’ll take in your kids, but you’ll have to find your own place. I asked her, why in the world would you do something like this to somebody tryin’ to help you out? She says, well I reckoned you’re smart and you know how to talk to people and if you got caught you’d talk your way out it cause you didn’t know it was there. And I told her, 'Well, it didn’t work out like that, did it?' ”

 

The woman had been staring at the door, but now she turned to the girl. “You want to smoke that cigarette?”

 

“Ma’m?”

 

“You still want to smoke? Let’s go outside.”

 

“I can’t. I’m waitin for that bitch that put me in here.”

 

“Come on, you can whup her ass later.”

 

"I ain’t planning to whip her ass.” She stood, with a glance toward the counter. “But I do plan to give her piece of my mind.”

 

“You better.”

 

The woman led the girl out onto the front steps of the courthouse. Out in the yard, a trusty pushed a pile of leaves against the wind. “But you sure don’t want to whup some girl’s ass here in the courthouse cause they’ll put you in a cell inside a cell. They’ll stroke you good.”

 

“No,” the girl said. She pulled out her pack and tapped out the cigarette she had stubbed out before. “I ain’t a violent person. I just want her to know what I got to say.”

 

The steps of the courthouse were cold. They cupped hands for a windbreak, lit their cigarettes, and shivered together.

 

“I mean,” the girl said, “it just don’t make sense. You pick somebody up out of the gutter and you feed their children like they was your own. You do everything it says in the Bible to do. And here I am gettin’ arrested for the very first time in my life. And I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. I don’t do nothin’. I just go to work and clean house and take care of my kids and now I prob'ly got this on my record.”

 

“You done?” The woman nodded toward the cigarette.

 

The girl was not. The woman had hit hers hard; she had barely stopped to breathe. She flicked the butt of it ten feet out into the yard.

 

“Let’s get out of this wind,” she said.

 

For a second time, the girl stubbed out her cigarette. This time, she dropped it into the shrubs.

 

The young deputy was at the counter when they came back in. He glanced up from some paperwork and nodded toward the woman.

 

“You stayin’ clean, Maggie?”

 

“When can I see him, Tommy?”

 

“Tuesday. Visiting day.”

 

“But I can’t come on Tuesday.”

 

“Can’t help you, Maggie.” He turned and took his papers into an inner office.

 

“He’s the nice one,” the girl said. “That other one –I ain’t seen him yet today—He was mean.”

 

“What was his name?”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t know any cop’s names. Never did need to know any cop’s names.”

 

“Ain’t none of em nice far as I’m concerned.”

 

“At least he didn’t say nothing smart, like that other one.”

 

There was a stir in the inner office and both looked up.

 

“That’s her,” the girl said. “That’s the bitch that got me arrested.”

 

“That scrawny thing? Hell, you could whup her ass with one hand.”

 

The scrawny thing wore an oversize coat and kept losing her arms in the sleeves. She had long hair strung back behind her ears that fell down every few seconds into her eyes, so that she was in constant motion to pull back her sleeve, tuck back her hair, shift her feet, pick up a pen, sign where the deputy pointed, set down the pen, adjust her hair, and lose her arms again in her sleeves.

 

“Nervous little bitch, ain’t she?

 

“What’re they doin’?”

 

“Looks like they’re fixin’ to let her go.”

 

“About time. I posted her bond an hour ago.”

 

“You done what?”

 

The girl shrugged.

 

“After everything that shifty little bitch done you?”

 

“Who else is gonna do it? She don’t have nobody else.”

 

“Well I’ll be damned.” The woman stood, went to the counter, and called, “Tommy, when can I visit my old man?”

 

“Tuesday, Maggie. Visiting day is Tuesday.”

 

But I ain’t got no ride for Tuesday. I got a ride today.”

 

“Nothin’ I can do about it, Maggie.”

 

“Nothin’, hell. At least let me leave him some money while I got it.”

 

“Tuesday.”

 

“I got twenty dollars to give him for cigarettes.”

 

“He’ll live.”

 

“At least let me get him a can of Bugler and some papers.”

 

The deputy shut the door.

 

“Fuckin’ little prick!” the woman shouted. The deputy was not at all little. He was a tall, boyish, soft-shouldered man. “Little fuck prob'ly shut the door so he could collect his blow job. Little snot-nose punk ain’t worked the starch out of that uniform but he can tell me Tuesday when I know damn well what day visiting day is. Little pup ain’t let go of his momma’s tit and all he can say to me is, 'What d’you know, Maggie?' I’ll tell you what I know. I know I wiped the shit off his ass when he was a baby but he’s too good to do me a turn now.”  She turned to the girl on the bench. “You want to talk about the way the world is. Well, that right there’s the way the world is. Your old man is doin' six months in this little rathole jail over some bullshit and you can’t even get to see him because some shit in a uniform that you halfway raised can’t do you a little favor.”

 

“I know what you mean,” the girl said.

 

“No, you don’t know what I mean. Not til you done what I done. Not til you seen what I seen. Not til you heard them bars slam shut behind you and you know it’ll be two long years before you get to hold your babies again. Then you come and tell me what the world is like.”

 

“You’re pushin’ your luck, Maggie,” the deputy called from behind the door.

 

“I ain’t had no luck since the day I was born.”

 

Her ride back home was still at the pool hall and might be there another hour yet, or even two.

Yes, the neighbor boy told her. “I’m goin’ to town, but just long enough to drop off some papers.

 

Then, “half an hour” is what he told her when she found him at the pool hall. Then, “Just let me finish this rack” when she came back around.

 

So now she stood out on the courthouse steps, shivering in her jeans jacket, cursing softly. She had a cigarette in one hand and her twenty-dollar bill balled up in the other and she smoked and shivered until she had smoked the cigarette down to a nub. The jailhouse door swung open and out came the scrawny thing and the heavy girl right behind her.

 

“What do you want me to do?” the scrawny thing said. “I already told you I’m sorry.”

 

“You can tell my mom and dad why they had to drive all the way up here and bail me out.”

 

A gust of wind snatched away the rest of their words and the woman watched them take their argument up the street and around the corner. That’s the way the world is, the woman thought. One damn fuss after another. She looked across to the pool hall. Half an hour, she thought. It’s been that long at least. That boy’s liable to be there til closing time. What do I do til then?

 

The wind picked up a scatter of leaves and blew them across the yard and in the rattle of the leaves it seemed she could hear the scrawny thing and the heavy girl going at it hammer and tongs. Not another soul was out. She reckoned there were people drinking coffee at the Seven Fifty Grill and people in line at the bank and one or two that stood at the drug store counter for a prescription. But the wind had driven everyone off the streets and off the square. The trusty’s rake leaned against a wall.  Leaves had gathered under the shrubs, leaves in the gutters, leaves on the windshields of the parked cars.  She looked at her sweaty, balled-up twenty and wished she would not do what she was likely now to do. She crossed the street and looked into the window of the pool hall. The neighbor boy stared at the table and slowly chalked his cue. Another broke a new rack.

 

So she had time. Plenty of time by the look of it. That neighbor boy would play out every dollar in his pocket before he drove her back to Blue Creek. And then he would want to dun her for gas money, and all she had in life was that twenty. Her hands began to tremble; she began to ache in every bone at the thought of all that dead time and the money getting hot in her hand. She knew where she could get a quick Oxy-Contin for her twenty, something that would ease her mind and take away the ache and blunt the hard edges of memory and the world.

 

She gripped her twenty hard. She looked toward the courthouse where her old man sat in his cell and back into the pool hall window. She hesitated for another moment, and almost followed her twenty down to the alley. Instead, with a curse for the neighbor boy, for Tommy the cop, for the heavy young girl and the scrawny thing, she started to walk the cold miles back to Blue Creek.