In a darker humor, though, I saw myself as less necessary--an outsider, a facial nerve, or nothing to do with the brain at all, only an adenoid or inflamed sinus, in my stained magenta dress.
After five days, my lucky dress was not looking lucky at all, despite its magenta and its weight and its complete comfort. I took the rest of my car-worn clothes to the washer and dryer with a box of soap and a handful of quarters from Demetrios Market down the street.
The basement door barely hung on its hinges in one dark corner under the main stairwell. The steps to the basement were narrow, with a railing on one side only, and when I reached for a light switch on the wall just inside the door, my hand instead moved past torn drywall to bare beams, spinal cord.
The basement smelled like Clorox, cat litter, mildew, and starch. A green light leaked in through a high, narrow window. I saw the washer and dryer at the far end, one bare bulb hanging over, with a pull chain.
Next to the washer was a wooden crate of clothes marked "free" on the side. Most of the clothes in the crate were damp and matted.
I looked through the box for a dress that was almost a nightgown, a shifting bit of nothing, and found flannel shirts, all too big and stained with paint. There was a pair of chef's pants, black-and-white checks. Then I found a salmon-colored cotton dress with a white collar and big round buttons. I slid off the lucky dress and put the salmon-colored dress on instead, moving fast, crouched in a dark corner.
The dress was wrinkled but not too musty, and fit fine. The dress was made for me.
My eyes adjusted to the dark.
Piles of stored furniture were marked with names written in marker on masking tape: Belinda, Kyla, Trevor. I lifted a blanket on a pile named Martin, a box of old records on top of a red wooden chair.
I walked down a corridor between furniture and back along another path. I saw a box full of silver soles and black leather, jumbled, tap shoes labeled Lucy. In one far corner a sheet over a tall shape was named Jamie.
I was in the core of the building's memory, synapses covered in dust. Any time you have history you have ghosts, memory made physical in the objects left behind. Just as I started to lift the edge of a blanket, I heard someone say it--"Jamie?" And I jumped back.
It was Tracy, in the dark. When I turned, she said, "Sorry. You look like Jamie, in Jamie's clothes, and Jamie's furniture."
I said, "Just looking around."
She said, "You look beautiful, in Jamie's clothes." Then she said, "I can't bring myself to get rid of anything. I always think, what if somebody comes back?' But nobody does come back, not here. Come have a drink. We're in Tino's room."
And that was the beginning of everything.
Tracy took my hand, and it didn't feel like a decision when I followed her around a dark corner, through a doorway, where the narrowness opened up again into another room. With Tracy leading me I wasn't a facial nerve, an outsider.
Tracy, Sonny, and now Tino, my new friends, soon to be like family I'd come to wish I'd never met. Sonny was sitting on the floor with an electric bass that wasn't plugged in, was only a faint clink of a sound. He had his bandaged foot up on a chair. The room smelled of bandages. Sonny said, "Hey. Welcome."
The room was lit with candles and the red lights of a stereo, and in the candlelight I saw that the walls were covered with pictures of naked women--naked breasts and thighs, vaginas so spread they were clinical.
Down low, close to the floor, I saw the wide shape of another man, big head and thick shoulders, sunk in a short, soft chair.
Tracy said, "Have you met Tino?" and stepped over his legs, then asked, "Beer or whiskey?"
Sonny said, "Sit down," and made room on a couch by pushing a random pile, a collection, out of the way. I sat on the couch. Tracy sat on the arm of the couch. She handed me whiskey, a short glass with no ice. She said, "I'm guessing you're a whiskey drinker, same as Jamie." She was turning me into Jamie.
Tino, already in conversation with himself, said, "The CIA was created in '47. Before that it was the OSS. That's what Julia Childs was--OSS, stationed in Manila. Long before she got that cooking show."
Sonny said, "I'm buying this bass from you, Tino, when I get my money." He ran a thumb over the strings.
Tino said, "I'll believe you got money when I see it."
Tracy leaned close, said in my ear, "When I was really messed up, one thing I stole was instruments. I'd see instruments lying around, and you can get good money." She said, "I don't steal anymore."
Rick said, "When I get my settlement, I'm buying an amp too."
Tracy whispered, "I have values now. And responsibility." I felt her breath against my ear, smelled whiskey and smoke. She said, "Sonny's getting money for his foot. Insurance."
Tino said, "I want to know how Julia got her cooking show. What kind of OSS deal was that?"
Sonny said, "I could have a cooking show."
Tino laughed and said, "Yeah, a fucking shrimp-peeling show."
To me, Tracy said, "Ignore him. He gets like this." She said, "Sonny's making us dinner, right?"
Tino said, "Who're you ignoring?" and he pulled Tracy toward him, onto his lap. She let herself fall off the edge of the couch, onto Tino, holding her glass up high and steady.
Sonny looked up from the bass. He said, "Yeah, sure. I'll make you something."
Tracy sunk into Tino's lap, one arm over Tino's neck, drinking her drink around Tino's face now. Then she reached with her left hand to hold her glass over a candle, letting smoke layer a black spot, the ice melting, condensation on the glass dripping into the flame. She said, "It's Sonny's favorite thing, cooking and foot massages. Sonny's a nurturer," and she laughed. She nudged Sonny's bandaged leg with her toes and said, "My sweet chupapega."
And Tracy was the brain stem, the pineal gland, the whole limbic system--the balance between Sonny and Tino.
Tino said, "What was that award again? Best dishwasher of the fucking year?" He said, "Best slave. Best chore boy."
Tracy said, "Shut up, Tino. Be nice."
Sonny didn't look up when he said, "Three years in a row." Then he looked at me. He said, "Dishwasher, then prep cook, working toward sous-chef, before I messed up my foot." He plucked the bass.
Tino said, "Delusions of grandeur, and you're peeling shrimp."
I saw the pale, scraped legs of Joan of Arc moving through the alley out the narrow window above. Tracy rolled her damp whiskey glass along the inside of her bare arm. I started to get up. Tracy stood up too, and reached to pour more whiskey in my glass. She said, "Your laundry's not going anywhere." She sat on the couch, pushing me back down, her hip to my hip. Instead of handing me my glass, she rolled the glass along my thigh, below the hem of the wrinkled cotton dress.
I took the drink from her, leaned back into the couch. I'd quit noticing the smell of bandages, quit thinking about the pictures of naked women. The room was warm and dark and the whiskey had the right bite to it. The couch sunk in at the middle. I sunk into the couch. Everything was encouraging me to stay.
Sonny looked up from the bass and said, "You ever seen an eyebrow like this before?" He raised both eyebrows, wiggling his eyebrows at me. His left eyebrow was even longer than it'd been the first night I met him. A singularly long and graying eyebrow.
He looked back at the bass again, kept playing, and said, "I have a scar, under my hair, from where they made this eyebrow."
Tino said, "Not that old sob story again."
Tracy said, "Lay off, Tino."
I said, "What do you mean, made your eyebrow?"
Sonny smiled. His smile was crooked from scar tissue on one side. From the left, from his better side, it was a sweetly lopsided smile. He had my attention. He said, "Got bit by a dog when I was a kid at my grandma's house. She had a farm in Idaho, and they had cattle, and there was one cattle dog that didn't like kids, and I was the only kid there."
"Didn't like you," Tino said.
Sonny said, "That dog about ripped my head off."
I said, "You're kidding?"
He turned around and pushed together a clump of his tufted hair. I saw the pink line of a scar where no hair grew underneath. An eyebrow-shaped scar across the back of Sonny's head.
"Way to meet the ladies," Tino said, and threw an empty beer can at Sonny. The can missed Sonny but hit the bass.
Sonny picked up a rag and wiped stray drops of beer off the body of the bass like he just happened to be polishing it. Sonny said, "My ear's reconstructed too. I keep my eyebrow cut back with clippers." He said, "At least I didn't lose my eye."
Tino said, "Then you couldn't see how ugly you are," and he laughed.
Joan of Arc passed in front of the window again. Tino saw him. He said, "Hey. Your boyfriend's here, pretty boy," talking to Sonny.
Sonny looked up, at the legs passing by.
Tino said. "He's living in your goddamn Duster."
Sonny put down the bass and climbed on a box near the basement window, trying to see out. He said, "Damn that fucker. If he steals my tools, I'll kill him."
Tino said, "Get that piece of crap car out of here. There's kids and ladies in the building, we don't need perverts."
Tracy leaned over, whispered in my ear. "Joan of Arc sleeps in Sonny's Duster."
Sonny said, "You don't know he's sleeping in it."
Joan of Arc bent down, and his face was at the window. His mouth was soft and open. He pressed his forehead up to the glass, looking in. He couldn't see us, in the dark, but he was looking for something.
"He's looking for you, lover," Tino said, laughing again.
Sonny threw an empty can of beer at the face in the window. "Get out of here," Sonny said, though Joan of Arc couldn't hear him. The can only hit the glass with a loud smack and fell to the cement floor. Joan of Arc jumped, then moved slowly away, soft and pale and dirty.
I folded my clothes against the narrow folding shelf, a board painted white and fastened against the wall. There was a dress I'd bought in high school, dry clean only. I'd taken care of the dress for years, but now ruined it with washing and couldn't remember why I'd kept it as long as I had, anyway.
I put my high school dress in the free clothes bin. I had an old work shirt from when I worked in a restaurant where they'd embroidered our names on the pocket. I threw the work shirt in the free bin too, and it was as freeing as quitting the job a second time. There was a shirt Matt liked and another shirt he'd bought for me secondhand. I had a pair of pants stained from spilling sloe gin, a green-and-cream blouse, a cotton nightgown.
The last time I'd done laundry was right before I moved into my car. The whole reason I left Matt was that I'd been doing laundry for us at a Laundromat. I thought I found a pen Matt left in the long, skinny front pocket of his old overalls. When it was a needle--capped and clean, but still a needle--my first idea was that I didn't have the right clothes, that I'd gotten somebody else's beat-up overalls.
It's not about drugs. It's about trust and words and meaning what we say. It's about drawing a line.
Matt would suck a transdermal patch.
Matt would lick a used needle, chew on an IV tube if he thought it had traces of anesthetic left in it. He'd tell me he was clean, tell me his nodding off was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome set in again, coming to with fibromyalgia acting up, chronic pain in his skin; he'd tell me anything.
I folded the lucky dress, the magenta dress. All I wanted was the one dress, for luck. The rest of my clothes could go in the free bin, not worth the quarters I used to wash them, a severing of memory from who I'd been.
It's easier to make laundry decisions after drinks.
Tracy came out of Sonny's room. She said, "Lindeen, I'm not feeling right. I feel dizzy. I keep seeing stars flash at the sides of my eyes."
My name sounded strange in her voice. I said, "What do you need?"
She said, "Walk me to Urgent Care, would you?" She said, "Sonny can't walk with his leg, and Tino's a mess."
I said, "I can give you a ride." The hospital was the same hospital where I worked in the research wing. It wasn't far.
She said, "In a car, I'll be sick. I'm already sick. I need the air, and to move."
Outside the building it was still early. Leaving the dark of the basement with the taste of whiskey had the feeling of coming out of a movie theater into an afternoon. It didn't feel wholesome--I felt grimy, already veering from my plan of doing everything right, the whole goal of starting over.
But I'd only had a little to drink, and walking my neighbor to the hospital could count as the right thing to do. A hospital is its own entire community; the research wing where I worked was as good as across town from Urgent Care.
Tracy and I stopped at Demetrios Market. Tracy sat on the curb while I went in and bought her a soda.
I handed her the soda and said, "Maybe it's the heat."
She said, "I've had spinal meningitis. It felt like this--with the stars and the headache, and my neck aching too." She held my hand to stand up. Then she put her hand on my shoulder. I put an arm around her waist, and her waist was tiny. She took fragile baby steps, walking like she was in high heels and a tight dress, though she was only in shorts and sandals.
Tracy put a hand to her forehead. She said, "Maybe the whiskey was bad."
I felt the dullness of a drink wearing off too early in the day, nothing like meningitis. I was still wearing the salmon-colored wrinkled cotton dress. There was a clamminess to the fabric, the feeling of being in the damp basement free box.
I said, "What's up with Tino, and those pictures?"
She pressed her palm to her eyes. She said, "What pictures?"
I said, "The pussy shots. What's that about?"
She shrugged. "What's it ever about? But Tino makes a hobby of it. Like a collection." She said, "God, it's bright out."
I said, "Is the pain more in the front, or on the sides?"
She said, "It's making me sick. It's all over."
Nerve pain could travel anywhere. I said, "What happened to Sonny's foot?"
She said, "Ask Sonny. He likes to talk about it. Makes him feel important. I can't even think, right now."
I said, "Does it feel like a migraine?"
She said, "I have no clue what's like a migraine," and the way she said it meant don't ask again, don't talk at all, just listen.
In the hospital, Tracy was taken to the triage, and I was glad to see her go away. I sat in the waiting room reading magazines until a nurse came and asked if I was a relative. I said, only a neighbor. I didn't even know Tracy's last name. The nurse told me I might as well leave, told me Tracy would stay overnight for some tests.
I said, "What kind of tests?" I'm interested in tests, particularly for the brain.
The nurse said, "We'll take good care of her."
I walked home with my hands empty, the sun on my hair and on my face, the dress recovering from its basement clamminess. The sun was calm and cleansing.
I saw Joan of Arc digging through a dumpster. He was inside the dumpster, in his blue dress, walking carefully, holding a paper bag in one arm and up against his chest--holding the bag like it could've been a baby. His other hand was reaching through trash. I saw him pick up something that was maybe a pizza crust, maybe a chicken bone. He looked at the piece of thing he'd found, brushed off one edge against the skirt of his dress, then took a bite.
It was that evening I put the first sandwich out for Joan. I made two sandwiches, one for me and one for him. Tuna with pickles on fluffy wheat. The wheat probably would've been white if it wasn't made light tan with molasses in it, the only kind of wheat they sold at Demetrios Market.
I changed back into my lucky dress; the dress now clean again and fitting fine. I put my sandwich on a plate and I put Joan's sandwich on a paper towel and then carried his down to the alley in back. I left the sandwich inside Sonny's old Duster, on the passenger's side, where it would be both out of the sun and visible. There was no door on the hinges of the passenger's side of Sonny's car, leaving the car wide open.
Then I went back upstairs, climbed out on the roof, and ate my sandwich at the edge of the roof there, looking down. That's when I first saw inside Sonny's rooms, through the window. The lights were off in the rooms. Where light filtered through I saw the gleam of glass everywhere. I saw stars floating in the room, shining even in the near dark.