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In Case of Emergency, Good Luck

First Place



Page 3 of 4

"Bess," he shouted. "The keys! They're locked in the jeep." He slapped his forehead with a wide palm. "Thank God," he said. "Thank God the book's with you."

Fifteen or more grandmothers separated me from my husband, and in that distance I could feel my common meanness piled up, like so much brush I had to burn.

"I left it in the bathroom," I said.

Nathan turned away, pressing his palms into the sides of his head as if the world were a scary story he didn't want to hear.

"Excuse me," I said, banging on the door. "Can I get back in there?"

"What are we," shouted Fur and Rollers, "chopped kidney? You want I should bust in front of you?"

"No ma'am," I said. "But this is an emergency."

The ladies began to circle me. They smelled like catnip and freesia. I rattled the doorknob. I kicked and slapped.

"Emergency?" said a woman farther back in line. I could see her teeth lift slightly from her gums. "You bear five children, you lose bladder control, I show you emergency." A few women toward the back of the line were Chinese, and they, too, yammered at me in urgent and dismissive tones. I wondered if that calm and marginal 17th-century Death that appeared in my book would even know how to handle these ladies. I didn't envy his task.

They pushed me with their raisin hands away from the door. Annabelle emerged, her teal tracksuit a beacon in the dingy hallway. She clutched her quilted purse. Behind her I saw that the cabinet door sagged open, its shelves swiped clean.

She was less ignorant than I had been. She knew a thing of value when she saw it.

I unzipped the jacket of her tracksuit, praying to hear Dance of Death thud to the floor. I found nothing concealed, not even ketchup packets, my own mother's plunder of choice.

Annabelle cackled and smoothed her lavender hair. "You'll have to do better than that, child."

"What," I said, "do you want from me?"

I looked to the other women, but they waited in silence, as if for doctor's appointments or the express checkout lane. They let Annabelle name her price.

"Tell me a secret."

"I'm pretending to be barren," I said. "I don't know why. I guess because I want something that's only mine to know."

Annabelle lifted Dance of Death from her purse, pinching its cover between her papery fingers. "Interesting," she said. "But is it the kind of secret that can last?"

"Last?" I said. This time I did not lunge for the book. It looked right in her hands, and I wanted to earn it.

"I wipe the sauce from my Martin's face," she said. "Forty-seven years we are married. But what else? I write letters with a black jack dealer. He's 22. An Indian."

"You'll get too old for the pill," Fur and Rollers said. "It will stop up your blood."

"Sooner or later," said the crone with the failing bladder, "every woman wants a baby."

What I told her wasn't true, but standing there, the fluorescents buzzing above us, I knew it could be. "Once a month," I said, "I wear shades and go across town near the cooking school. I use my grandmother's name. Sometimes, when I'm supposed to be at work, I go there instead, this room I rent. Hello, Loretta, says the lady who runs the place."

"That's better." Annabelle laid the book in one palm and held her hands out to her sides, a scale not quite in balance. "But what do you keep in your secret room?"

"I don't know," I said. "We've only been married two years. Don't you think I have time to figure that out?"

"Don't wait too long," she said, serving me the book. "Your friend here wouldn't approve." Death comes back to momma. Death, that old peace bringer, learns for himself sweet relief. For some reason I feared that pages would be missing, so I thumbed through the book, the stale, dark whole of it, before leaving the truck stop for good.

At the diesel pump a man washed his windshield too slowly, and soap stained his glass. And then Nathan. Nathan brandished the lantern end of a three-foot lighthouse sculpture in his palms. As I have said, he is a giant man. And although he used its granite base as a battering ram, he did not have to haul the lighthouse with any real violence. He ambled around the Cherokee, breaking every pane.

"Triple A is two hours," he said, pausing by the driver side, letting the lighthouse linger in the air until he saw the book in my palms. "But we're still going to make it."

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