You know that dream where you’re standing over your mother holding something and later, when you wake up, you aren’t sure if you were the one standing or the one on the ground? That’s just your synapses firing while you sleep, pow, pow, pow.
I like to read and I like celebrity gossip. One day on the bus I saw a poster for a play about Edgar Allen Poe. The poster had a red heart up in the sky like a moon with a black bird flying across it, and on the ground some empty bottles, and off in the distance, the figure of a woman. I didn’t go to the play but I did read some of his poetry from an old, green book. I thought the introduction to the poems, which included the details of Poe’s life, was very interesting.
Did you know that Edgar Allan Poe wrote on a long scroll of paper that was only four inches wide? I measured the width of the cash register receipt paper at work to see how it compared. It felt a little risky measuring the cash register receipt paper because anything you do at work that has to do with the money, they watch.
The introduction to the book of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems referred to his indiscretions and challenges without really going into the details. Normally that would annoy me because I’d want to know exactly what happened. For example, what was Anna Nicole doing in the hours leading up to her death? But it was an old book and it seemed that whoever wrote it was trying to give Poe some dignity even though he was pretty much of a fuck up, a car wreck waiting to happen, or actually happening over and over. He couldn’t hold down a job to save his life.
Edgar Allan Poe made me think of The Simpsons episode where Bart keeps quoting from “The Raven” and also the one where Lisa’s rival makes a diorama of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Lisa is jealous and her jealousy causes her to behave badly and her remorse causes her to hear the heart beating beneath the floor which is similar to what happens in the original story. Although in the original story, someone actually dies.
In the last paragraph of “The Tell-Tale Heart” there’s a good line. He shrieks, “Villains, dissemble no more!” To dissemble means to hide your true feelings. He’s asking people to quit pretending, to say what they really think of him. It might be funny to yell that out in the store some night or on the bus.
This couple came in to the store tonight. The man had a baby in one of those over the shoulder things, like a backwards backpack. There was a little boy with them. They brought diapers and formula up to the counter. The boy wanted some chips but the mom said, no. The couple began a conversation about how to pay for the diapers and the formula.
I waited. You have to be sort of invisible during this kind of thing because even though you’re there and it involves you, it doesn’t, and it’s embarrassing when people talk about their money. I tried to guess how many words you could write in a line on a four inch wide piece of paper. The answer is seven or eight.
The little boy kept asking about the chips.
It didn’t even seem as if she heard him or looked at him, but the mom said, “No,” and smacked him across the face. His nose began to bleed.
My mother used to wheeze and wheeze from where she lay on the couch. It was her disease. I tried to match my breath to hers. It felt as if I was turning a big handled wheel, pulling everything up and then back down and around in a large loop; thick cords of pulled pink taffy like you might see at the carnival or some seaside resort. You would get tired if that was your job, to pull that heavy taffy round and round.
My mother spent her last days on the couch. The couch was covered in a pale, floral fabric and had nine cushions and pillows that we were constantly rearranging for her. I say we because towards the end a hospice nurse came every day. She had a short haircut and a strong ginger scent. There were two swans tattooed on her meaty forearm, their necks entwined in a heart. She was kind to my mother. But I could have done without all the information about the dying process.
In the end there was just a quiet struggling for breath, for air that wouldn’t come, that stopped coming, and all the pillows and me and the hospice nurse and my mother’s body. Ginger listened to my mother’s chest with her stethoscope. “Everybody’s got a beating heart until they don’t,” she said. She’d been squatting over my mother’s body and when she stood up, her knees cracked.
The kid’s nose bleeding didn’t cause too much of a reaction from his parents. The mom said, “Put your head between your knees.” She said it, I don’t know, calmly or like it happened all the time. She had really long hair which maybe was fake, but it was pretty. I couldn’t blame her for it.
The boy bent over. He lost his balance and bumped against the counter. She pressed on his shoulder, I’m pretty sure about this, she pressed him down, didn’t pull him up. He collapsed on the floor.
“Get up,” she said. She yanked his arm and then he kind of yelped. But he did as she said; he got up; his face messy with blood.
I took a big gulp of air and said, “This is being recorded, it’s all on the tape.”
Looking up from his phone the father said, “What?”
The baby’s naked legs, dangled out of the backpack and they kicked a little which I was glad to see because before that they weren’t moving.
On the counter next to the hotdog cooker that heats the dogs by rolling them around and around so they’re glossy and plump, there are thin, paper napkins. I came out from behind the counter with some of those napkins, knelt down to wipe the boy’s face. I tried to wipe him clean but he turned and hid his face in his mother’s leg. So the blood got on her pants. I stood and put my hand up to her face. She batted my hand away.
“Go,” I said.
They left. I put the wad of napkins on the counter. I pumped some anti-bacterial goop on my hands. Then I did the things I needed to do to close out for the night.
You never want to look like you’re putting anything in your pockets or even in the trash if you don’t need to when you’re counting money. All the coins in the register felt warm to the touch and for a moment I was thinking about my mother but then I stopped. If you’re driving, you should think about driving, if you’re counting money, that’s what you should be thinking about.
Edgar Allan Poe was an orphan and a drunk although in the end he may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anna Nicole Smith took too many different pills. But her son had died and that’s what really killed her, in my opinion and in the opinion of others.
I pulled the trash can around to the front of the register and used my forearm to swipe the stained napkins into the trash. I set the alarm and walked out. The outside air felt cool, fresh, no hot dog stink to it. I could see the bus coming, glowing in the dark. I ran for it. I got a seat, my heart pounding.
I stared out the window back at the store and the lights we leave on to protect the store and I realized that those people tonight hadn’t paid for anything they got. I looked around at the tired people on the bus. “Dissemble no more,” I whispered, but nobody spoke. Some had their eyes closed. I think if I’d had pennies in my pockets I would have covered their eyes to help them sleep as we traveled to our destinations.
Cecilia Pinto’s writing has appeared in Esquire, Fence, Rhino, Diagram, TriQuarterly, Snake Nation Review, The Seneca Review, Quarter After Eight, Fifth Wednesday, qartsiluni, PoetsArtists and elsewhere. Her work is included in several anthologies including those produced by Dancing Girl Press, Beard of Bees, Cracked Slab Books and DePaul University. Her work with collaborator Alice George appears in print as well and is included in Saints of Hysteria, a Half Century of Collaboration, and Mentor to Muse, a book of essays on the collaborative process.