Excerpt from The Distance
Monday, a little after one, she walked across the parking lot and watched the mail lady sort the envelopes into the bank of mailboxes. She could see before she was even across the asphalt that the bin was still half full, so she zipped her hoodie to her chin, pulled a pack of cigarettes and lighter from her jacket pocket, lit a cigarette, and shifted into a patch of sun between the shadows of the two apartment buildings.
Thought you quit, said the woman, never taking her eyes from the stack of envelopes she held in her left hand.
Meredith took a long pull then exhaled noisily. I’m always quitting. Problem is I’m starting as much as I’m quitting.
Ain’t that the way? The woman shook her head as though the struggle were as much hers as it was the girl’s, and kept on slipping envelopes into boxes.
Meredith stepped over a few feet, staying out of the woman’s way but getting a line of sight into her mailbox—middle block, fourth row down, second from the left. Still empty.
How about you find me a check in there, lady?
You expecting one, or are you asking me to do some sort of magic?
Meredith moved back to her strip of sun. I’ve been expecting one for a while. Now I’m to the point of needing one.
Well, hon, I’ll do what I can. She picked up another bundle, snapped off the rubber band and dropped it into the bin, riffled the envelopes like a deck of cards, and went back to sorting them into boxes. She was at it another six or seven minutes, Meredith all the while smoking and hopping from one foot to the other to generate a little heat. When the woman finished she turned and gave a shrug. I’m sorry, miss girl. Looks like it ain’t your lucky day.
That much I already knew, Meredith said.
The woman pulled at the retractable lanyard that held her keys to her belt, flipped through them one by one until she found the matching key, and began closing and locking the big doors on the banks of boxes. Meredith turned, giving a half wave over her shoulder, and walked quickly back toward her apartment.
She jogged up the stairs and through the unlocked front door, grabbed her keys from the top of the breakfast bar, then turned and went right back out and down the stairs to her car. 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. Passing the ornate marquee of the Zuni Theatre she wondered if there were anyone in this town who had seen a movie there. She couldn’t remember it ever being a movie house, though she knew it once had been. Now it stood empty and dark and ignored by everyone on the street.
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 unfulfilled.
She parked on the street behind a dropped 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 indistinct 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, she said. What do you want?
I need my check. 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. 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 her will to control 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. 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 patchy dry grass in the front yard below the bottom step for several minutes, her stomach tensed and 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.
Unh unh, she said. 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 and, head down, walked quickly 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.