Every winter, the Jersey Shore freezes into an old car in the driveway, tarped and bricked until May. Spiders start to crawl indoors for warmth; skittering across your ceiling, getting a lay of the place. Everyone walks into my pharmacy looking like a neglected baseboard, dry flaky skin and pilled acrylic sweaters. Their noisy coats, complete with velcro patches full of lint and ski passes from 2013, start to crowd my plexiglass cell. I pass the time by trawling for girls with a flush in their cheeks, a slapped-around vulnerability, like that girl in V/H/S. Kate Lyn Sheil face. Girls who look like they’ve been treading water.
Once in a while, the fog clears up and the sun casts relentless daylight that none of these women are ready for. They’ve been losing their Vitamin D indoors in their layers, beanies hiding their oily roots. Rubbed raw by the dry air, they look like they’ve been crying. It keeps them busy. They’re exhausted from days of writing Herzen novels on the backs of their eyelids. Who is to Blame? It makes them so lazy. Ophelias floating on their backs, reaching for driftwood and lilypads and messages in bottles. Decision fatigue. Hypnosis. A row of women in latex caps waiting for a whistle. But even if something was able to pierce their catatonia they wouldn’t admit it. They’re comfortable as koi; their mouths open and undiscerning, swallowing all the different ways their fate can be repackaged, renovated, and resuscitated: astrology, tarot, true crime, SSRIs, benzodiazepines, amphetamines, contraceptives…
Some of the women that come into the pharmacy have that wrapped-in-paper look. Fresh from bad news at the doctor, or worse: just given a clean bill of health. I picture them in scant paper gowns shivering under fluorescent lights. I can hear them shifting on a strip of taut paper, how it rips and creases. They crinkle like deli Reubens while they lament fatigue, weight gain, mood swings, cramps, thinning hair, thinning eyebrows, brittle nails, and sensitivity to cold. They’re given a vague diagnosis, if any. Usually one of the three horsemen of estrogen dominance: endometriosis, Hashimoto’s, or PCOS. These low-iron ShopRite Botticellis leave the doctor’s office with the only solution given to women like them: birth control. The doctor wouldn’t dare tell them to lose weight, go for a walk, quit the $8 Barefoot chardonnay, no —
Better to sterilize them with synthetic estrogen that raises tissue copper levels, and depletes their zinc and B12. Better to poison them with heavy metals that make them even more paranoid, isolated, and driven to self soothe with drugs and carbs and buying shit off Etsy. Back in the 70’s, they’d be stamped a histapenic schizophrenic and shipped off to McLean. But now, they hide their dry skin and weight gain under black cotton and foldover waistbands while they vent on the internet where they talk each other into applying for medical cards.
I want to catch one of these women in the early stages of her metamorphosis. I’m fly fishing for the last girl in Tom’s River who hasn’t become a stoner shut-in and gained the agoraphobia 80, but my waders are starting to chafe. I want to look over and see my wife in the passenger seat, seatbelt dividing her breasts, tiny blue veins waiting for me, watching me run in to buy her folic acid. I can find the prenatal vitamins with my eyes closed. I’m back in moments, but she already misses me and keeps her fingertips on the back of my neck until we pull into the driveway.
The dating apps are too eager, too constructed. They’re for men who don’t know where to look:
Sometimes I even scroll the r4r’s until I can’t take it. Every post is a skunky, desperate flicker of butane. Every local r4r is a landfill of abandoned accounts (because anyone sane uses a throwaway they’ve forgotten the password to by morning). Just sleep it off, people. The few women who post there are stray dogs, rifling through bins for something bone-shaped. They’re field hockey women, charging in wet mouth guards that make their philtrums jut out like apes. Safety pins line the bottoms of their kilts.
I’ve learned plenty from whale watching at the pharmacy; I get to know a woman’s full name, age, address, and what drugs she’s on. But it turns my stomach. I miss fixing laptops in the Rutgers library. Girls would give me their whole computer for 3 days, treats on my snout. I started buying these cute animal-shaped rubber flash drives that they sold by the register in the student union Starbucks.
A duck for Yasmin, the blonde girl with thick Dutch lips and legs.
A cow for Vidhi, the Indian pre-med with silky hair down to her hips.
A fox for Marion, the tattooed French girl addicted to video games.
I wonder how campus looks this year. Back then, it was full of girls with long hair parted to the side, big sweaters and low heeled boots that went up their thighs like stockings. I miss the view from my office, the river of girls, blissfully ignorant of their active cases of ringworm or Crohns or psychosis.
My boss, Pat, thought changing our name from Route 9 Pharmacy to Garden State Apothecary would cut down on the recent break ins.
“Apothecary makes it sound like we don’t keep anything harder than Valerian.”
Apothecary makes it sound like we carry kratom and rose quartz dildos, but nobody consulted me.
The name change has been Y2K for our biggest demographic: the seniors of Leisure Village, wheeled in by their caretakers that only come in three types; underachiever alt girls with thigh tattoos, middle aged Nigerians, or one of their angry, impatient, and exhausted adult children. They relax when they hear me, good old Tom, explain yes, this is the same pharmacy you’ve been coming to for the past decade, Ethel. Being right downstream of seniors ensures we get the most gorgeous cornucopia of drugs: ambien, scopolamine, and every painkiller in every form; liquid, patches, and pills.
The foster mom of 5 comes in with a kid too old to be sleeping in a stroller. His legs hang over the side. There’s an orange Jergens stain on her sweatshirt collar year round. I fill three bottles of Risperidone and try to forget she exists.
I swear menopause is just another form of demonic possession.
The young women who come in tremble like deer as they tell me their name and birth date. I like to say their addresses a little too loudly so I can watch them check over their shoulders in a panic. They get flustered and fumble with their tote bags when it’s time to pay. Women under 40 don’t carry wallets anymore. Some girls turn so I can’t see into their purses, while others set their makeup, hair ties, tampons, notebooks, rolling papers, and receipts onto my counter while searching for their debit cards. Perverts. When girls are lowering their voices to tell me their government names, I wonder if they’ll think of me later while they’re mixing my Xanax with vodka. I give them my canned warnings about drug interactions and try not to stare at the bottle openers on their key rings while they stand there and nod and lie. They lie like I didn’t see them stealing Revlon before they got in line. So I savor the timid way they look at me when they come to pick up their antifungals, their antibiotics, their antipsychotics; the way their chins tuck away and their eyes dart under my shark belly because they know I know everything about them.
Today a girl’s backpack swung into the sunglass rack as she cut in front of the line. No one bothered to correct her. None of the queued up seniors and diabetics and opiate addicts even noticed. They’re so lethargic you could sew six of them into one of those gigantic denim couches that rot in American basements. She rushed up to me with her deep voice and dark bloodshot eyes, dark haired, nervous, and pale as an ash. Chapped lips and last night’s makeup.
In places too far north for grapes to grow, Finns and Vikings fermented yeast and honey into a scratchy sweet liqueur that kept them drunk through the winter. Mead loosened the hand that wrote Beowulf. Aristotle’s, too.
I stared at her tongue while she fidgeted and struggled to pronounce her prescriptions. It’s not white. Maybe the fungus is on her feet. Or maybe the Flagyl is for those ruddy cheeks hiding under dark side bangs. She wears too much black for her complexion. Ripped tights under shorts and someone else’s baggy sweatshirt. The little glimpses of her legs were bright pink from the cold.
“Can you say that one more time?”
She turned and sized up the people waiting behind her. She leaned over the counter and repeated herself, giving me a smell of her cinnamon gum and musky perfume. I wanted to see what was in that backpack, but her cards were ready in her coat pocket.
“Do you have any questions for the pharmacist?”
“Can I have my ID back?”
I love how girls always say can you, like they know I could just keep it. I do sometimes, if they don’t ask. They’re so grateful when they come in the next day, glowing with relief and thanking me for finding their ID and saving them a trip to the DMV. I pulled the card from under my keyboard and handed it to her, letting her tug it a little. She looked much younger than her age; heart shaped face, tight jawline, the kind of girl who gets carded everywhere. Maybe she was a little hungover and needed it to go find the hair of some dog. She shoved the paper prescription bags inside her coat and stomped out of the pharmacy, never giving me a glimpse into that backpack.
Laura’s phone number and address, warm from the printer, rode shotgun on my way home. The address led to an office park with the names of four Jews and an Armenian printed on a large glass sign. I sat in my car wondering if she was being sneaky or just spaced out when she put her doctor’s address as her own.
Plan B came to me halfway through my shift at work the next day. I called House of Paint from the parking lot and put a pair of navy blue coveralls on hold. I wanted to ask ‘Betty’ if they named their store after the wiggers who wrote Jump Around but she hung up.
The canvas coveralls hung over my headboard, making my room smell like a camping chair. I wonder what Laura looks like in a sleeping bag. A simple search of her name revealed a disappointingly sterile online presence. Blurry concert footage, sunsets, other people’s pets.
I charged one of my burner phones and drafted her a text:
A Sears Home Warranty technician will arrive tomorrow, 10/17/2015, 7:00-9:00 AM for scheduled maintenance. Please reply to this message with a photo of your washing machine’s model number located inside of the door.
iPhone users never change their exif settings. All I needed was a photo.
She responded quickly, with two pictures. A blur and a redo. And now I know she lives in a vinyl sided split-level in Brick Township with overgrown sweetgrass in the front yard.
My roommates were in the kitchen mixing drinks and using every inch of counter space. Ryan, Paul, and Mikey are in a 90s cover band called Shiver Phoenix (RIP). They sound like shit and come home from shows with $40 in a mason jar and girls who tag along like rain soaking the hems of their baggy jeans. I don’t know how Ryan came to own this house, or keep it. Rent’s cheap.
Ryan was leaning against the kitchen counter shirtless in unbuttoned jeans and one red sock. He never wears anything under his jeans and I can see a fleur de lis of golden pubes underneath his thumb ring. His hooded eyes make him look permanently stoned and secretive, and once in a while a girl will tell him he looks exactly like David Gilmour. Sure, he’s got Gilmour’s eyes and hair, but he also has those jowls everyone from central Jersey seems to have. They hide under his sandy beard, but I see them.
One of the girls they tracked into the house tonight is a loud Filipina in a Monmouth hoodie. She keeps crossing and uncrossing her muddy sneakers on the arm of the couch. She’s yelling at her drunk friends as they struggle with the sliding door and slam their palms on the glass, the same way seniors bang on my pharmacy window at 6:57 AM.
I need to get my leftovers from the fridge but Paul’s leaning against it. He was pulling out all the stops for a mixed girl in volleyball shorts, feeding her strips of bread dipped in ShopRite chipotle olive oil and telling her he infused it himself. There’s an orange stain on his poncho and I can see her staring at it, covering her mouth while chewing, waiting for him to stop talking. She was a whole head taller than him. Ryan calls him Paul Simon when he isn’t around. They call me Tom Jones to my face.
My crystal glass was in the sink and full of dried red crust— someone had used it to drink V8. Both ice trays were empty. I grabbed my bottle of gin out of the freezer and wrapped a rubber band an inch below the glass neck. Snap. That’s my limit. I have to wake up early and pretend to do manual labor tomorrow.
I waited in my car until 7:15 AM. She’d never believe I’m a Sears guy if I came on time. Laura picked up on the third call.
“Basement’s unlocked out back.” she mumbled and hung up.
I put on my cap and a 3M mask and walked around the side of the house, hoping there were no men around. I dreamed this was some kind of sorority of knocked out women. I imagined every soft surface in the house draped with pale legs and long hair, silent as kelp. At high and low tide, the women stir to take their seafoam green Clonazepams and go back to sleep.
I took a moment to sit on one of the patio chairs near the basement door before going inside. When I stood up, the frayed rattan caught on my sleeve, leaving white paint flecks on my new coveralls. I hate the mid-Atlantic attachment to wicker. There is no justification for dowdy, withering, impractical outdoor furniture. Don’t they know they’re being sold a byproduct? Giant piles of rattan ballast, discarded from cargo ships, would lay around ports until a shrewd Bostonian turned it into furniture and carriages. A real life Rumplestiltskin. I set a timer on my watch.
The washing machine was surrounded by a moat of black jersey and neon lace. Everything was black except the underwear. Everything was cotton except the underwear. Dumb little Laura. I checked the pockets of her hoodies and jackets and shoved a few receipts into my coveralls. A pale green thong fit right in my chest pocket, but I took it back out, knowing whatever I’d take, I’d never get to see against her skin, cutting into her hips, pulled to the side. The floor above my head started to creak. An electric kettle clodded back onto its stand and the fridge squealed open and shut. Heavy steps started to come down the staircase. Bare feet, dolphin shorts, David Blaine t-shirt, and finally her face came into view.
I swear I saw her face painted on a lacquer box when I was a child. Symmetrical strokes of black, white, and pink that stared back at me in the window of an antique store.
“Are you done?”
Her voice was even huskier than yesterday. She seemed like one of those people who needed to be archaeologically excavated from bed.
“Just finishing up in the basement. I’ll check your kitchen appliances next.”
“If I need to pay for something, email it to my uncle Roger.”
“Today’s service is a complimentary routine maintenance as part of your Sears...”
She went back upstairs.
I did some Wim-Hof crouched in the moat of panties and leggings and band shirts and dug my fingernails into my palm one by one. Cars, phone, computer.
She was sitting cross legged at a formica card table that wobbled when I came into the kitchen.
“I’ll be done in 10. Does this house have radiators, central heating, or compressed air?”
“Central, I think.” She rubbed her eyes and looked at her fingertips. The corners of her eyes were full of black goo. You really never wash your face, do you? “There are vents in the floors.”
“Mind if I take a look? We’re having a cold snap next week.”
She shrugged and took a loud sip of coffee. The bag of grounds was open on the counter, fallen on its side and making a mess.
“I’m going to have to check the bedrooms. Is anyone else home?”
I turned away so she wouldn’t see the relief in my eyes. The Jeep and Impala winked at me from the driveway. We’re old friends now. They’re in on it. They’re hiding magnetic GPS trackers in their wheel wells. I’m guessing either car could be hers, but I know she prefers the Jeep. Women love SUVs, Hummers, Jeeps, and Ford F-150s that they can’t park. Cars they can barely get in and out of. A few months ago, a bobbed woman in big sunglasses and a Chevy Tahoe rear ended me in the Wawa parking lot. When it comes to jackets and cars, all women are crossdressers.
The first bedroom was covered in folded men’s clothes, camping equipment, and cardboard boxes. The second was an office. The third was Laura’s, reeking of her perfume and that synthetic vernix that covers everything you take home from the mall. Her carpeted room had one window and a pepto-bismol colored bathroom. Her laptop was open on the floor. I locked myself into the bathroom with it. I heard her pacing through the kitchen and didn’t risk taking time to look behind her bathroom mirror. I had a good idea what was in there.
I came home to the satisfaction of seeing Ryan’s cheek rub against the dirty arm of the couch. He was half asleep watching TLC with an ashtray on his chest.
“What’s with the Dickies?”
“You look like a plumber. You get fired from the pharmacy, Jonesy?”
“Hey, have you ever been to this bar in Asbury Park? It sounds familiar.” I showed him one of Laura’s receipts.
“It’s one of the only good spots around here. We play there sometimes. I send you Facebook invites and you never come.” He contorted his face into a little pout.
“I’ll come to the next one.”
“Doubt it. Why are you asking me about receipts?”
Ryan’s laptop was permanently plugged in and open. Its broken fan fills the kitchen with white noise and heat. The only time it’s ever closed is when someone’s insomniatic one night stand patters into the kitchen and slams it shut. I pulled up his Facebook and invited Laura to SPRIP’s next show. He’d invited 382 people. A drop of Meade in the bucket.
Laura was having a bad time at the concert. She had the shoulders of a girl just trying to stay out of the way. Not in line, not in the crowd, not at the bar. A t- shirt looped through the strap of her backpack and a beer in her hand. Her hair was washed and brushed but she kept twirling her ends until they looked stringy. I hate live music. I hate hearing people sing, it makes me feel embarrassed for them. I can’t see the t-shirt under her arm. If she bought an SPRIP shirt I’ll strangle her with it. Our basement is full of boxes of them. When girls lose their tops doing whatever they all do down there, Ryan throws them one and they act so grateful. They walk around in nothing but those big shirts like a Cult of the Gildan Dawn.
I couldn’t think of anything to say to her so I thought of how to get some leverage. I went behind the merch table and asked her if she’d paid for the shirt. I repeated myself, louder, but she kept twirling her hair and looking at the light fixtures.
I followed her to the bar. She recrossed her legs and angled them away from me. Ryan clapped a hand on my back and I adored him for a moment.
“You made it!” He wrapped his arm around me and introduced himself to Laura. “Are you coming to the firepit after this?”
There were only 5 chairs around the fire. A tiny olive skinned girl was sitting on Laura’s lap and showing off a necklace she bought at Red Rocks, a sliver of pinecone encased in resin. Laura and Jenna rattled off festivals they’ve been in that ecstatic way girls talk to other drunk girls they’ve just met. I got up to get her a coat.
I sprayed cologne around the collar of my shearling jacket, wishing I’d listened to the gypsy girl at the Macy’s perfume counter. She had me pegged as part Armenian almost immediately. She threw darts of what sounded like Russian and Farsi at me and cooed when I shook my head, just English. She pulled out perfumes in black bottles that promised tobacco and leather and cardamom, with words like guilty and wanted printed in gold. I didn’t know how to tell Layla I didn’t want to smell like an Arab and asked her what American girls buy for their boyfriends. She rolled her eyes. “There’s always Armani and Polo.”
“I noticed you were shivering.” I put the jacket around Laura’s shoulders and asked her if she wanted another beer.
“Bring me another,” Jenna interrupted.
“Trade School Tom! What happened to the Dickies? Did you guys see that the other day? This man came home donning some Dickies, you had to see it.” Ryan nuzzled his beard into my neck as I stared into the refrigerator. “Nice find, by the way.”
“You should go for the tan one, with the pinecone around her neck. She’s cute.”
“We’ll leave it up to the girls, huh?” He clapped me on the back on his way out. I thought about the safe in my room, and what I could put into his White Claw. No benzos, he’s worked up a tolerance. Maybe something sitcom and crass, like a laxative.
I’ve never looked into Ryan. It’s just that he looks like a guy who might have a pierced cock that he’s proud of, and I don’t want to stumble upon that. I’ve intercepted check-thin envelopes from a woman with the same last name. A Merchantville address. I’ve thought to look her up but then I think of all the jowls and the impulse evaporates quickly.
Through the window I could see a different girl wearing my shearling jacket. I was sobering up and starting to lose my nerve. I imagined the sound of Laura moaning under Ryan muffled through 6 inches of plaster, mere feet from my head. I couldn’t change the tape. The idea of them fucking rattled in my head like keys trapped in a dryer.
My safe is hidden behind strategically chopped and glued Franzen and Patterson hardcovers from the thrift store. I keep my burner phones and menagerie of flash drives in there, as well as amphetamines, opiates, benzodiazepines, abortion pills, beta blockers, and edibles. Everything I could steal from the pharmacy before Pat got too keen to our ‘break-ins.’ I wonder if he suspects me. Even so, a man like Pat? Any minor social friction floods his engine. He’d rather deal with insurance for months than cops for hours.
The girl wearing my jacket made a fuss when I asked for it back. When she took her phone out of my pocket, a folded sheet of printer paper slid out with it. Laura saw me snatch it from her.
“What was that?” She squinted her eyes and swayed in front of me. She smelled like vanilla and woodsmoke and her house. I loved knowing what her house smells like.
“Work stuff. Private.”
“Tom’s a fed!” Jenna yelled.
“Tom’s a pharmacist,” Ryan corrected her. “And he takes privacy very seriously. Hungry hungry HIPAA.”
Laura wandered into my next door neighbor’s yard, into Gabe’s forgotten pile of lawn flamingos. She pierced the ground with each of their spokes, setting them upright in a ring. She threw her jacket off inside the circle and laid down, putting chapstick on in wider and wider concentric circles, down to her chin. She looked drunk enough to piss herself.
“Do you have a lighter?” she mumbled, before pulling a yellow bic out of her coat and thanking herself. She put the business end of her cigarette in her mouth and struggled with the flint with that little black thumbnail bitten down to the quick. I helped her up. Her palms were so soft it was almost disgusting.
We watched my backyard from Gabe’s. The fire was dying down and Jenna was ringing a bell she’d found in the kitchen. She was sitting in Ryan’s lap, her long black hair fanned out over his bare chest.
“I can feel my nose getting numb.”
“If it was numb, you wouldn’t feel it.”
“Can you drive me home?”
“End of the month. Cops are out.”
She ripped one of the flamingos out of the soft ground and walked back to the firepit.
“Tom hates cops.”
“Tom hates everything.” Ryan intercepted the flamingo before Laura could feed it to the fire.
The girl who was wearing my jacket walked up to me and touched my chin. “You look like this guy I saw on TV.”
“No, a guy on Forensic Files. He killed a girl’s whole family, even her dog, and stuffed their bodies in a hollow tree. He held her captive in his house full of leaves, just bags of leaves all over the floors and stacked up the walls. He was obsessed with leaves.”
I started to feel a little paranoid. House of Leaves was one of the thrift store books I butchered to create the panel in front of my safe.
“He begged the cops not to cut the tree down. That’s how much he loved nature.”
“You do kinda look like Matthew Hoffman.” Laura smirked.
“Now you’re in on this?”
I hoped Laura was drunk enough for that to sound playful. Women can’t drive or figure out their taxes, but have an encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers. I looked the guy up on my phone. Ohio physiognomy. Receding hairline. I went inside for a hat.
The girls followed me inside like ducks. Ryan herded them downstairs to play cards. He renovated the basement last summer in anticipation of needing a place to bring girls when the firepit gets too cold. He even hung fairy lights and one of those hippie harem tapestries from Amazon. I’ve seen girls get so drunk down here it makes me wonder if they know they’re in a gingerbread house for groupies and not their dorm rooms. I can’t stand to be down here for too long.
The next morning I went back downstairs before anyone else woke up. I stared at the two of them intertwined on the big denim couch near the dryer and thought of the first time I’d seen her; the sound of the sunglass rack and her hoarse voice. Hungover sweat tickled my ribs and my Ativan hadn’t kicked in yet. He didn’t even try last night. All it took was being the last two people awake in the basement. I waited for her white Jeep to disappear from our driveway before venturing out of my room again. Ryan had just woken up and was half naked in the kitchen.
“Were you crying earlier, Jonesy?”
“I swear to god I heard you crying but Mikey said you were probably just watching something.”
I ignored him and took out the eggs, butter, and hot sauce.
“You know you can always come talk to me. My door is always open.”
His door is always open.
It leaks smells and sounds and glimpses of his hairy legs and surfer’s ass as he slips into one of two pairs of low rise jeans that smell like Guantanamo Bay. Sometimes as I’m walking to the bathroom at night, I see Ryan with an unfamiliar girl curled up on his chest while they watch one of three shows on his laptop: Walking Dead, Entourage, or The Wire. He always waves at me as I pass and the girl flinches to cover herself and I look down at the ex-white carpet under my feet and I’m too nervous to pee once I get to the bathroom.
“You don’t think I slept with her, do you?”
I thought about my safe.
“Bro code, Jones. We just cuddled.”
I believed him. If he scored he would have dangled that shit in my face.
The only thing Laura has in common with my roommates is that they never have anywhere to be. She started coming over a few times a week to smoke their weed and raid our fridge and go to thrift stores and fill our house with vintage ashtrays and framed paintings of forest animals and other junk. They’ve bought pillows and easy chairs and beanbags that could barely fit in her Jeep. They make bonfires every night. They’ve burned every stick in every yard down our block. She dug through everyone’s trash and burned every cardboard box, every receipt, every scrap of paper she could find. She says that’s what her family used to do. Ryan told me she comes from Polish stock. Camdenites. Trash burners.
I came home from work to Laura sitting cross legged on the living room carpet, crying. Ryan and Mikey were sprawled out on the beanbags, doing their best to appear concerned.
“For weeks I’ve had this bad feeling, like I’m being followed. And then I found this.”
On the coffee table, next to the new ashtray, was one of the GPS tags.
“Back in July, she was driving with her brother when he lost control of the car and slammed into a church. He lost consciousness, and she ran into the basement to get help. She borrowed a car from someone in that NA meeting and ended up denting it in the hospital parking lot. Now that junkie’s trying to sue her, months later, out of nowhere.” Ryan told me the whole story without even craning his neck. Sounds like he’d heard her blubber out this story a couple times this afternoon and was trying to cut to the chase.
I crouched next to her like a camp counselor. “This could have been planted by a PI, insurance claims investigator, or a lawyer looking for evidence.” I picked up the tag and dropped it back on the table like a coin. “This is a desperate move. An intimidation tactic, even. You should just throw it into the Atlantic.”
She put the tag back into her pocket. “Or burn it.”
I was so relieved that I joined Laura on her nightly trespass for firewood. She unfolded our tarp a few doors down and covered it in sticks, pinecones, and fistfuls of leaves. At one house she waved to an old lady I’d never seen before, watching TV in her living room. Laura tried to start a sentence with me, a few times, like a kid afraid of her parents. I wondered if I was supposed to offer to pull the tarp.
“So Ryan says you’re a pharmacist?” Her voice tilted up. “What’s that like, any fun?”
I wondered if she knew about me, how fun my job can be, how fun I make it. How I had too much fun when I was fixing laptops at Rutgers and got caught because Russians are the most paranoid fuckers on the planet. Polina Sherbakova stomped into the library 5 minutes before closing, looking for me. She stood there and hissed at me with that tongue, a carpet on the wall. I liked hearing my name from her mouth. Tom Kasabian. Her perfume smelled stronger than when she came to pick up her Dell a few hours before. She’d even put on higher heels before coming to confront me.
“I found some-sing on my hard drive.”
“Our repairs come with a 30-day guarantee. If your device is still…”
“I know you fucked with my computer. And I don’t trust you to remove it. You’re going to buy me a new Macbook, or I’m calling the cops.”
I had stayed up late the night before looking through her photos. I saw every way that she used her french tipped nails and bleached hair to tease me; hand bras and mermaid curtains. There were also family photos that showed me she had two brothers who were built like walk-in freezers so I gave her the money and quit.
Her flash drive is my favorite: the snow leopard.
“It’s a job, I guess.”
I went to the bathroom and looked up Laura’s brother while the others built a fire. Squat rack videos and Kevlar-Oakley car selfies. Group photos with his cop dad and cop uncle.
Laura. The fucking infanta of a central Jersey cop dynasty. And I didn’t even ask what the tracker was. The three of them saw me immediately identify it in the living room. She could have been testing me. Anyone in law enforcement can easily get Apple to tell them who bought it. I got it off eBay with an account tied to a burner email— but from my own IP address.
I drank a soapy Blue Moon and mentally inventoried my safe as I looked around the backyard. Mikey was asleep in his camp chair. Ryan was pissing malt liquor into the fire. Laura was breaking sticks on her knees. I could give them something that would make them all fall asleep and die peacefully in the cold. I could give them Ambien, car keys, and convince them to drive on the highway. I could gas them in the basement. Or I could fix some gin & tonics.
I went back inside and put Ryan’s warm computer on my lap. I copied and pasted our address to the Filipina, Jenna, and couple other women he’s fucked. I couldn’t think of a chaser and just closed the chats. I’ve seen him do more with less.
The girls didn’t respond. After an hour I brought Mikey a blanket and Ryan a high dose of zinc. I told him it was ashwagandha. Once his guts were emptied out around the backyard, I suggested we go inside. I half-carried Ryan to his room and gave him what he hoped was Zofran.
“You’re going to feel so much better, Ryan.” Laura said over my shoulder, handing a glass of water down to our patient.
300mg of demerol on an empty stomach will feel great for a few hours until he’s knocked out for the night. Maybe longer. I tucked pillows under his arms and a towel under his neck so he couldn’t roll over.
I went out back into a bamboo thicket on Gabe’s property. I dug a hole one foot deep and buried my safe. I used my hands— I would not be seen with a shovel tonight. Gabe was watching TV. All our neighbors down this street are old and housebound. I wonder if they watch us.
I joined the others in the basement with a surprise and they eagerly swallowed the paper parachutes I’d prepared. Only Laura’s had MDMA, Mikey and Paul would be passed out within the hour. I helped her up the stairs because the scopolamine patch I’d stuck on her back a few hours ago was starting to kick in.
Devil’s Breath. Burundanga. Belladonna. An ancient, versatile cure for sufferers of motion sickness, seasickness, Parkinson’s tremors, tight-lipped MK Ultra subjects, or postoperative nausea. It’s popular among the hospice nurses at Leisure Village because it silences their patients’ death rattles. Combined with morphine, scopolamine submerges a patient into twilight sleep; a state of no memory and no pain. Like two fat snakes twisting into one another, they produce an anesthetized, half-conscious, robotic state where a person can access their memories, but not their imagination. They can’t go digging for a lie.
It was time for Laura’s interview.
“Do you know who’s been keeping an eye on you?”
“I told you guys. I got into an accident.”
“You said you hit someone’s car.”
“I made a mistake. That’s why I moved. My uncle has a house in Brick, he’s never around. He’s been taking cruises back to back since my aunt died. It might sound morbid, but that's what she told him to do with the life insurance.”
“Sounds like a practical woman.” I had forgotten the wicker furniture. “What did you do?”
“Sometimes my brother would let me drive the cop cars, unmarked Chargers. We love those cars, they remind us of the pitt we grew up with. Muscly, low to the ground, keyed up. But I never really got used to that accelerator…”
She sat up and pulled my blanket around her. She had developed a relentless jaw tic from the MDMA that seemed to rock her whole body. I gave her a can of pink wine from the mini fridge I bought last week. I wasn’t going to let her clam up.
“I love wine in a can.” She flipped it open after a few tries.
I waited for her to take a few big sips. “Finish your story, Laura.”
“One night, Greg and I were driving around Washington Township after a night out. We were doing a little drive-by. He wanted to check up on his ex. He just wanted to know which lights were on in her house, which cars were in her driveway, what was in her trash…”
“Kitchen and bedroom, her Honda Fit, Michelob Ultra.”
“Was he angry?”
“No, she was alone. It calmed him down a little. He let me drive home.”
“Did you get into an accident?”
“I hit the accelerator too hard and crashed into a janitor who was leaving her shift at a church. The Charger was totaled so I took her keys out of her apron and drove Greg to the hospital in her van.”
“Were you injured?”
“No. But Greg had a concussion.”
“Did they investigate the crash?”
She oozed down my bed like butter down toast, stopping at the crust. She looked up at me and pulled my hands over her face, down her neck. “Let’s watch a movie.”
“Do you think anyone else is watching you?”
“You’re watching me right now,” she whispered.
“If you know, you need to tell me.”
Her face contorted into a swollen grimace, like a soft fish ripped from 2,000 feet under the sea. She started to cry, “I can’t go to prison,” wailing over and over again. “Ever since I found that thing on my car, I’ve been afraid to be in my own house for too long. Afraid they’re gonna arrest me. What if they’ve bugged Roger’s house?”
“We can check tomorrow. With or without you. I can pretend to be a Sears guy, in case someone is casing your house. They can’t link us.”
“I think a fake Sears guy already came to my house a month ago. He smelled good and he wasn’t holding a clipboard.”
“Did the nurses at the hospital see you that night?”
“We went to the hospital where my stepmom works. I called her on the way there.”
The investigation was closed. The union gave Greg 24 hours to sober up before he got breathalyzed in the hospital. The charger was compacted. The dented van was impounded, wiped down, and returned to the family. The Methodist church was ordered to cut down their hedges and construct a low cement wall around the parking lot. Greg’s little sister was never with him that night.
“Do you have your Klonopin with you?”
“In my backpack. Want some?”
“Don’t take it tonight. It doesn’t mix.” I took the wine out of her hand and gave her a carton of milk.
“How did you know I have Klonopin?” She poured the milk down her throat, getting it all over her face and chest. She handed me the empty carton and asked for more. I gave her water and hid her backpack under the bed. I held up a sweatshirt in one hand and a t-shirt in the other. She pointed to the sweatshirt and lifted her hands up obediently. Her arms, breasts, and ribs were covered in goosebumps.
“I want to take a shower.” Her vowels could barely escape her clenched jaw.
“I know you’re cold. Your body is just having a hard time calibrating. You can’t take a shower yet, your body temperature will drop dangerously as soon as you get out.”
“I’d rather die than go to prison.”
I took her underneath my comforter and held her firmly as her body shook in my arms. I’d never comforted a woman before but I couldn’t give her an Ativan on top of everything else. I gambled on the scopolamine, alcohol, and molly and hoped she’d remember the warmth of my chest and not what I was about to tell her: the truth.
I let her touch the canvas coveralls I’d hidden in a suitcase. Her face and shoulders melted once she realized no one had gotten wise to her DUI manslaughter. No one was coming to lock her up. She wasn’t going to be the lone cop’s daughter in Gloucester County Correctional. She curled into the fetal position and I could barely hear her last slurred whisper as she drifted into sleep:
“Tom, have you ever thought of becoming a cop?”