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June 1, 2006 | Fiction

Had It Not Been

Crissa Chappell

Had It Not Been photo

The guy at table six wiggled his fingers. “Mind if I asked a personal question?”

“Go ahead,” said Miranda, reaching for the check. He was going to anyway.

Table Six grinned. His sunburned knuckles reminded her of all the Cuban fishermen in Miami, thick and sturdy. He was not the kind of person who would read, “pan-fried dolphin” on the menu and mistake it for a mammal.

“Are you sure?” he said. “I don’t mean to offend you.”

She shrugged. All the molecules in her body drifted away from him. She wished she were back in her room with a cat on her lap.

“If you were to die this second…by accident, of course…” The cigarette tipped from his lip. “Where would you go?”

The question had no correct answer. “Heaven, I guess.”

“You guess?” His glass was filled with green froth—rum and mint leaves, a frozen mojito. “You can’t say for sure, without a doubt?”

“Well, no. Can anybody?”

“If God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you say?”

She glanced across the marina, past the boats knocking against the dock, candles winking on tiki tables. A couple frat boys were balancing Corona bottles on their foreheads. 

“Let me ask,” he said in his foghorn voice. “Have you ever been baptized?”

By now, this sounded like a cheesy pick-up line. Except Miranda wasn’t the prettiest waitress in the place. She had nice fingernails. They grew so thick, she trimmed them with toenail scissors. No polish. Just a little buffing every night before bed.

“I was baptized as a baby,” she said. “My family raised me Catholic.”

Table Six nodded, as if he knew all along. “I assume you were sprinkled?”

“Sprinkled?” She scooped up his soppy napkins.

“If you were sprinkled, you were not baptized. The word comes from the Greek, baptizo, which means ‘to immerse.’”

“Well, I try to be a good person.”

“Heaven is a free gift. It’s not earned or deserved.”

Miranda shrugged. “So I’m going to hell?”

He stirred his drink and said, “Yes.”

She backed away from the table. The bar dimmed and shrank. Miranda marched toward the kitchen, stepping on her pen, which spun across the floor. She pushed through the double doors, past the gleaming metal tables, the sinks and stoves, toward the back exit. Standing in the alley, she gulped a breath. Then another. 

She reached into her purse and dug out her cell. “Holmes?” she said. For some reason, she couldn’t remember if she had dialed her boyfriend’s number or not.

“Hey, babe,” he said. “ I thought you were at work.”

“I’m here. Working.”

“You don’t sound right.”

Miranda skimmed the alley. A dumpster overflowed with cardboard boxes. “Produce of USA,” said the bold-faced letters. 

“Some guy hitting on you?” he asked.

She shook her head, although he couldn’t see. “It’s not like that. He was talking about some heavy stuff and I kind of freaked out.”

“What ‘heavy stuff’?”

“I don’t know.” Miranda could feel her pulse slamming against her fingertips. “Could you come over?”

“Where? The marina?”

She heaved a sigh. “Where else?”

“My truck is history, babe. It’s misfiring, drives sluggish, won’t start in the morning. I need to wait a couple hours for it to cool off and then I’m changing the sparkplugs.”

“Maybe you could find a ride?”

“You have a car. Make up an excuse and get off early, if you’re so freaked out.”

“That’s not the point,” she said. 

For a moment, he didn’t say anything. She listened to the crackle and hiss on the line. Holmes could stay quiet for an indefinite amount of time, the audio equivalent of a staring contest.

“Look,” he finally said. “What do you want me to do?”

“Just keep talking to me.”

“I am talking.”

Miranda had taken action all her life: rocking her SATs, churning out papers in grad school until she finally nailed her doctorate. And it had lead to this beer-sodden marina on South Bayshore drive. Now she wanted Holmes to do one small thing, to pull up and drive her away, and he couldn’t handle it.

“You know what? Forget I even called,” she said.

“Wait. I’ll give you a buzz when I get on US1. I don’t even know where I’m at right now.”

“I know,” she said.
 

* * *
 

Miranda stood outside the marina, waiting for Holmes, who was late, standing her up again. 

Miranda flipped her cell open and punched in the numbers. The phone rang and rang before it clicked to his voicemail. 

“Yo. This is Holmes. You’ve reached my telepathic thought-recording service. After the beep, think about your name and number and I'll think about calling you back.”

She hung up. 

“Taking a break?”

At first, Miranda didn’t notice the girl’s stare. So many waitresses had come and vanished, she couldn’t keep up with their names. On the rare occasion she tagged along with the other waiters after work, they seldom acknowledged her existence. It reminded her of a junior-high dance. The men herded into a corner, rambling about fonts they had designed for an online ‘zine or the “beats” they had programmed on their Macs. The girlfriends clung together, not saying much. Miranda would watch them nod into their drinks, their voices rising. Sometimes they’d blurt out something and she’d laugh so loud, it startled them. Like the time that goateed guy at the British pub (what was his name?) pronounced “beer” as if it were “bear” and she lost it. She laughed so loud, he looked at her and slurred, “Are you okay?”

“My shift’s over,” said Miranda.

“Cool,” said the new girl, what’s-her-name. Carly. She wore Adidas with tiny Italian flags glittering below the laces.

“So how’s your life?”

“Pretty straight,” Carly said. She had this squeak of a voice. “I stopped going to AA meetings. Now I have no friends.”

Miranda’s cell rang. 

Carly patted her hips like a gunslinger in a Western. 

“It’s mine,” Miranda said. Then into the phone, she whispered, “Where are you?”

“I’m having major issues with the truck right now.”

Down the marina, a jet ski was spewing rooster tails of water.

“What’s all that noise?” he asked.

“Nothing. I’m standing in the parking lot.”

“What?”

She put down the phone. For months, she had been thinking about breaking up with Holmes, but it never seemed like the right time. After dating for seven years (It wasn’t even “dating,” he said) they had become a kind of joke with her family. 

Last spring, Aunt Candice tied the knot again and Miranda was there alone (Holmes refused to go), the only non-gray-haired girl at the reception. Instead of tossing the bouquet, her aunt marched across the lawn, in front of all the guests, and handed it to Miranda. 

“Don't worry, dear. Your turn will come someday,” Aunt Candice had said, laughing. She had this gap between her fat square teeth that you could’ve poked with a ballpoint pen

“Actually,” Miranda had said, tossing the wilted lilacs on a table, “I’m not sure if I want to get married.”

She was tired of fending off questions. No, Miranda didn’t want a ring. She didn’t want to move into her boyfriend’s cramped apartment behind Dadeland mall, with all his DJ equipment, the soundproof walls cocooned in egg crates, and she didn’t want to talk about it. 

It was time to let Holmes go.

“I’ll call you back,” she told him, snapping the phone shut. She looked up and met the girl’s stare.

“I’ve decided that my job will just be my studio. Like your man, Holmes,” she said to Miranda. “I can blast, like, any kind of music and it sounds clear and perfect and shit.”

Miranda gritted her teeth. “That’s cool.” 

On Monday, she would face another crop of freshmen, mostly Cubanitas who clopped to class in heels and halter-tops. The girls snuck in late (if they showed at all), sipped Diet Coke or Malta every morning at their desks and said they couldn’t afford the book for class. Most had signed up for Poetry 202, thinking they could score an easy A. They wrote haikus in scented ink about “crazy nightclubs” and “amazing beaches.” When she scribbled comments in the margins (“Try using specific verbs instead of adjectives…”) parents complained because she wrote in red ink, which destroys a student’s self-esteem.

She taught five classes during the week, every night, at a business college in Broward County whose campus consisted of an exhaust-clogged parking garage. Some of the kids were in gangs. You could tell by their tattoos, clumsy Roman numerals looped around their necks. Others were homeless, like the middle-aged woman who copied her name all over her sneakers, just in case they got stolen. Cops would barge into class and perform “drug raids,” searching the kids, who weren’t really kids, and Miranda as well. 

Last month, a teacher in another classroom sparked up some incense. “Like some spooky mojo-voodoo,” said Miranda, who suffered “respiratory distress” and passed out on the floor. One of the students pushed the “panic button”—hidden under her desk—and security poured into the classroom. They found Miranda crumpled under the blackboard. 

“What happened?” the security guard asked.

“I don’t know,” she said.

The school still considered her a part-time “adjunct” professor. Each month she received a direct deposit slip for $15555.55. After graduating from FSU with a doctorate in British literature, buried in Stafford loans and a dissertation on Bronte’s water imagery that nobody would publish, she started witnessing on the weekends and moved home last summer with her parents. 

Without their help, she couldn’t even fill the tank in her rust-dappled Civic. Her father kept it humming, patched the holes with squadron green putty and scraped the bird splatters off the windshield. She never had to ask. 

Unlike the rest of her friends—grad school dropouts who never got around to finishing their papers—Miranda didn’t mind living with her parents. She called them by their first names, Doug and Linda, and they mostly stayed out of her way. 

“Those schools are going to be sorry they didn’t hire you,” her father said when another thin rejection letter arrived in the mail. 

"Dear Miranda: The task of our committee was inevitably both exhilarating and agonizing... "

“Since when is sorting through resumes exhilarating?” Miranda said. “And why couldn’t they address me as Dr. Kremer?”

“I’ll get the matches,” said her father.

Miranda worried about him sometimes. Since retiring from the Navy, he hung around the house, looking for excuses to phone the roofer or the Sears repair man. Miranda would spot a truck parked in the gravel driveway and turn around. Her mother would hover in the kitchen, brewing thimble-sized cups of cortadito for Sanchez, the guy who installed their fake barrel tiles.

“When I was in the service,” her father would say, “my berth was right above the mess and coffee was the first thing I smelled every morning. To this day, I can’t touch it. ”

Miranda glanced past the picnic benches, where a sunburned boy in a Marlins t-shirt was kicking the crap out of a chained-up bike. Behind him stood Holmes, gawking at the boy as if they knew each other. 

“Hey,” she said.

He stared. “I thought you were inside.” 

Carly scooted over and kissed his cheek, the Dade County equivalent of a handshake. She vanished back inside, scattering a haze of cigarette smoke in the doorway.

Holmes had parked his rust heap in a non-designated spot, practically on the boardwalk.

“You can’t leave your truck there,” said Miranda. “You’re blocking traffic.”

“They can go around. There’s room,” he said.

They walked along the docks, past the crystal shop with the Santeria statues rolling their eyes in the window. The 5&10 gone, now a parasailing outfit. As a kid, Miranda used to pick out Trapper Keepers and glitter pens there with her mother, whenever school started. 

Holmes twirled his keys. “Sorry I took so long. The freaking car kept stalling. Geez, your eyes are really red, girl.”

“My eyes are always red.”

“Why can’t you quit this lame-ass job? I mean, with your degree…” 

Miranda looked at Holmes—his steel wool curls shoved under a cap, despite the heat, his jaw stubbled with shadow. “By now I’m probably canned,” she said, shuffling ahead. “And my degree is the problem. Why pay for a professor’s salary when you can hire a teaching assistant to work for nothing?”

“I think you’re blowing this out of proportion.”

She whirled around. “You have no idea what I’m going through. There’s only so many openings and a thousand people fighting over the same position. Now I’m stuck and for the first time, I don’t know what to do. It’s not about making good grades anymore.”

Holmes shrugged. “Do retail or something. You could make—”

“I used to work at Johnny Rockets. I made a hundred a weekend. Wasn’t even worth it.”

“You cut me off.”

“Well, your epic plan was boring,” she said.

“I don’t have an epic plan.”

“There you go.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you snapping at me?”

“Because I’m through with all this.”

“Through with what?” Holmes asked, his voice jumping a notch. “The restaurant?”

She turned around and started walking toward the parking lot. He caught hold of her arm, jerking so hard, she stumbled.

“Let go,” she said, just as a car swooped past, nearly plowing into them. Holmes pressed her into his chest, blocking her view of whatever had happened. It was a move she remembered all too well, due to the countless times she had nearly walked into traffic, only to be snatched by her boyfriend at the last possible second.

Miranda opened her mouth. Before she could explain why she’d given up, it wasn’t working anymore, she heard a bang, along with the unmistakable noise of metal scraping against metal. 

“He rammed my truck,” said Holmes, craning around.

A sharklike Lexus had smashed into his bumper, which clattered on the concrete. The car had folded like an accordion—the front hood raised and steaming, airbags dangling like flabby balloons. 

Holmes sprinted to the driver’s side window. “Are you okay?” he yelled.

After a couple kicks, the driver finally managed to force the door open. He lurched out, mopping his big red face with a handkerchief. Miranda had never seen anybody, except her father, carry a handkerchief. His suit was flecked with powdery dust, as if he had spent the afternoon rolling out dough.

Miranda blinked. It was Table Six. 

He took a step toward them, stinking of rum and sweat. “The sprinkler,” he said.

“What?” said Holmes. 

Miranda touched the man’s shoulder. “You remembered.”

He nodded. 

“Look,” said Holmes. “This is my fault. I left my truck there, which was incredibly stupid.”

“You got insurance?” Table Six asked.

Holmes shook his head. “No.”

“It’s all right,” the man said. 

“No, it’s not all right.”

Table six peeled off his jacket. He walked toward his car, then turned and looked at Miranda. “Take care of her.”

Holmes squeezed Miranda’s hand. “I try.”

The men stood there, watching each other. Across the bay, a buoy clanged and the jet skiis sputtered. A chink of sunlight bounced off the Lexus, throwing back Miranda’s reflection. She wondered just how hard Holmes tried. As she leaned over to kiss him, she felt as if she were the one in the steaming Lexus, christened in powdery dust. Like some kind of near-collision. Like the salvation Table Six had promised.

Miranda stared as the man beamed at them. He slid back into the driver’s seat and cranked the ignition. 

“He’s blitzed.” Holmes muttered. “That was a nice car. Was. Past tense.”

“He only ordered one drink.”

As the Lexus swerved out of the lot, Miranda thought about how she could apologize to Holmes, but she didn’t know how to fit it into words. He was kneeling on the concrete, trying to lasso his bumper back together with rope—the same frayed rope that kept it in place. That’s what she’d always remember, how his hands circled around and around, securing it tight.

She waited on the sidewalk for a little while, then went to passenger’s side door.

Holmes fired up the ignition. Usually, the engine rattled like the cylinders were loaded with marbles. This time, it roared to life without a hitch, almost as if the collision had jolted something back in place.

“You don’t want to take your own car?” he asked.

“No. We’re leaving together.” She looked at the dust on his truck and his clothes and decided that with him she could wait a little longer. Only him.

image: Sean Carman


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