Excerpt from The Distance
It was after 2 a.m. when Annie dropped Meredith in the parking lot at the base of the stairs that climbed to her second-story apartment.
Want me to wait? Annie asked, but Meredith shook her head no.
I’m good, she said, and she tilted her head back and touched her nose, first with her left index finger then with her right. Annie laughed. Yeah, you’re good, she said, but take it slow going up those stairs.
Meredith leaned in through the open window and kissed Annie on the cheek. Are you okay to drive home, foxy?
Both of them started to giggle then, recalling the 50ish man who’d driven past them in his Lincoln earlier that evening as they walked from Shorty’s to the Motherlode and had shouted FOX-Y! through his open window as though he were in a late seventies teen summer movie. For the rest of the night they’d called each other Foxy, and Annie had introduced herself as Foxy to a roughneck who’d bought them drinks and played a losing game of pool with Annie while Meredith heckled them both from a bar stool in the corner.
I’m fine, baby, Annie said, and touched her nose.
Meredith started up the stairs, then stopped and turned and watched Annie drive slowly across the parking lot and turn south on Paseo. As the sound of Annie’s car faded, Meredith could hear faint R&B drifting across the parking lot from the apartments opposite hers. Luis is still up, she thought. I could go smoke a little with him, but then she thought about the babysitter and remembered the hour and decided to go upstairs instead.
When she got inside she found the TV on, the sound down low, an old black-and-white movie that Meredith didn’t recognize throwing a dancing light over the dark living room. Bethanne, the fifteen-year-old from apartment 1326, lay asleep on her side on the couch, her head resting on her cell phone. On the floor at the base of the couch was a lumpy fleece blanket with an arm sticking out one side and some long blonde hair out the other. Meredith closed the door gently, turned the bolt, then softly walked the three steps across the carpet and bent to slide her arms under the back and legs of the sleeping boy, lifting him, blanket intact, and pulling him to her chest. He didn’t stir. She walked carefully, suddenly more aware of the effect on her balance that the evening’s drinking had caused.
Stepping into her bedroom, she felt her way to the bed and lowered the boy onto his back. She peeled back the blanket so she could see his sleeping face in the dim light. She smiled at the soundness of his sleep, then leaned down to kiss his forehead. I love you, baby, she whispered, and brushed his hair aside with the backs of her fingers. Then she stood up, kicked off her shoes, and lay down beside him, her arm over his chest, and she let the steady rhythm of his breathing guide her into sleep.
The next day was her day off so she’d planned to sleep late – had drunk the third shot of tequila knowing that she could sleep it off – but she’d forgotten to turn off her alarm clock and it started its buzzing at 6:25. It came to her as a fire alarm, pushing into the dense fog of her dreamless sleep, setting her unconscious mind to frantic work inventing a story to explain a fire alarm – she’s at work, the waiting room is full of people talking and reading magazines or staring at Oprah on the TV, then there’s the alarm and they’re all up rushing to the front door, pushing, and she knows she won’t get out and the phone starts to ring and as the panic overwhelms her and she begins to cry, the adrenaline pulls her from her torpor and she’s awake and she’s sick.
Sliding her arm from beneath Gordie, who had squirmed himself sideways in the bed, she rushed in the darkness toward the bathroom, tilting as she went, losing her balance and slamming her shoulder into the corner of her dresser, but arriving at the toilet before sickness overwhelmed her and vomit rushed up her throat. Stomach muscles tensed, her back arched, she leaned close over the toilet to make sure she didn’t miss and make a mess she’d have to clean up later. Her throat burned and she could taste the harsh metallic tinge of the tequila, and that made her wretch again. Her diaphragm spasmed twice more, and when she was sure she was empty she reached up and pulled on the flush lever, then slumped over against the cold wall of the bathroom.
A little after one she drove out of the parking lot and turned south to Main, then west past the lumberyard and the Goodwill, stop and go through downtown and its peculiar mix of traffic, F150 pickups with Navajo kids in the beds, Cadillacs striped with gold trim, municipal sedans, heavy oilfield trucks with Halliburton logos on their doors.
Clearing downtown she turned and climbed the hill past the back side of the airport, on her left the huge metal buildings like outsized trailer homes that housed industrial welding shops and oilfield equipment repair and heavy machinery, on her right the hill dropping away to the river, grown over with tumbleweeds turned dry and brown in the cool fall air. She drove too fast until she caught herself and slowed to a few over the limit. A mile up the hill she turned away from the river into a dingy tract development, tiny homes with dirt yards cluttered with broken bicycles and ruined sofas and Japanese cars on jackstands, weeds growing up through the open hoods from which the engines had been pulled. Everywhere the detritus of marginal lives, signs of minimal ambition ever unfulfilled.
She parked on the street behind a Toyota with dark tinted windows. She sat for minutes, looking out the passenger window at the front door of the house, her lips moving in silence. Abruptly she pulled the door lever, sprung from the seat and slammed the door shut, and pulling herself upright and forcing her shoulders back, she walked quickly to the door and knocked hard on it. The breeze had grown colder as the afternoon sky had clouded over, and she gathered the cloth of her jacket in her fists and wrapped her arms across her chest. She could hear the indistinguishable drone of daytime television from inside the house. She knocked again, longer and louder. The door opened an instant later.
The woman, a couple years older than Meredith, big across the hips and chest but with a thin face made severe by sunken cheeks, red dyed hair pushed haphazardly into a short-brimmed winter cap, stood rigid, half obscured by the partially opened door, arms crossed over her cotton sweatshirt. He’s not here. What do you want?
Do you have a check for me? Meredith tried to look past the woman into the house but the passage was blocked by the woman’s hulking form.
You drove out here just for that? Why ain’t you at work?
Can you just get my check? It’s two weeks late.
Seriously. Why you have to take our money? Get yourself a job.
I have a job, Sharla.
Why ain’t you there?
It’s my day off. Come on, Sharla, it’s cold. Can you get my check?
Just tell me this. What’s your right?
What’s your right? Why do you get to take our money?
Meredith considered whether she had the stamina for this struggle, whether anything she could say would make a difference in the face of this malice. Finally she spoke, measuring her breath to keep her voice level. The judge says so.
The judge don’t know shit. You’re a crap mom.
Sharla, I don’t like coming over here. You don’t want me here. Her voice began to rise and she felt the will to prevent it begin to fail. Just get my check and I’ll leave.
Sharla shook her head slowly and twisted her mouth into something between a grin and a snarl. You’re a skank. She dropped her arms from her chest and began to swing the door closed. I’ll get your check if you’ll get your skank ass off my porch. The door clacked shut.
Meredith stepped down off the porch, telling herself it wasn’t to acquiesce but to put distance between herself and Sharla, for she felt the sting of blood in her cheeks and the knotted muscles in her jaw and feared she might lunge or strike at the woman. She stood in the patches of dry grass in the front yard below the bottom step for several minutes, her stomach tensed and her fists balled in her jacket pockets.
Finally the door opened and Sharla stepped onto the porch, the check in her hand. Meredith put a foot on the first step and Sharla raised the check high above her head. Uh uh. Don’t you come up on my porch. You want the check you can work for it. She flung the check out into the air above Meredith’s head, where the wind caught it and pushed it across the lawn and into a clump of drying yuccas that stood in a circle of crushed gravel in the neighbor’s yard.
Meredith watched the check land and flutter in the wind, then looked back at Sharla, who stood with a sickening grin frozen on her face. They stood this way for several seconds, neither of them speaking nor moving. Finally Meredith turned and walked quickly toward the check. Before she could get it in her hand it cut loose in the wind and pinwheeled farther down the street, Meredith in pursuit, her pace quickening to overtake it. From the porch behind her she could hear Sharla’s throaty laugh and she fought against the need to cry. Three houses down she finally pinned the check under her foot and stooped to pick it up. She tucked it in her pocket without looking at it and, head down, walked back up the street to her car.
She drove around the corner, out of sight of the house, never looking over to see if her antagonist still stood watching, then she slowed to a stop at the curb out of the way of traffic and turned off the motor. She pulled the check out of one pocket and her cigarettes from the other and sat there studying the check until she’d smoked one down to the filter and then another. Then she started the car and drove back down the hill to home, feeling colder than she remembered ever feeling.