Once a month we’re swapping stories and articles with Vancouver literary magazine PRISM international to share our writers with a wider audience.
Helen Gruber wakes up at 11:00 a.m. on the green carpet of her twelfth floor suite in a discount hotel in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, because all the hotels, inns, and motels in and around the more well-known Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, are booked solid for the next two weeks. One of the largest biker gatherings in the world is about to commence and that is one of the very reasons she is in town with a suitcase full of pills. There is a meeting scheduled in the lobby at noon, a meeting she can’t miss, a meeting that will involve a lot of money for her boss Andre back home, who spends his days trying to repair washing machines in his front yard.
Shuttering her eyes against a hangover, Helen discovers an open window and her latest boyfriend, Cassidy, passed out with that very suitcase open in front of him on the double bed. Stumbling to her feet, she steps on a dead pelican at the foot of the bed, its wide bill clogged with half-digested oxy pills from the empty suitcase. Its eyes are still and its stomach is bloated.
Down on the beach, there are children running headfirst into the waves. Helen can hear their screams through the open window. She tries to break down the sequence of events that led her here, down this path that somehow ended with over three thousand oxy pills in a dead bird’s gullet. She tries to count the factors on her fingers, the reasons behind this latest disaster.
There is a lot to remember, but she does not have to include her thumbs.
The first reason left a distinct impression embedded in her chin, the reminder from a teeter-totter with no understanding of human error. Blue paint worked its way into the wound while her uncle ran to call an ambulance. Her father attempted to staunch the blood with the sleeve of his bright white shirt, which quickly bloomed in the afternoon sun. He threw it in the garbage afterward.
Helen was five and her eyes had been stuck to the sky, charting the evolution of clouds from snakes to bus drivers to elephants and back again. Then a fall and a crack to the chin. The abandoned, bobbing seat was there to remind her of one fact—to keep her eyes on the ground, to keep her expectations of this world intact. Everything that rises must fall, especially if your cousin leaps off the other side to chase after an ice-cream truck. Helen Gruber really should have seen this coming, but this has always been her flaw—trusting someone else to hold her up, trusting they won’t let her slip.
Larry Myer and Helen and drove through the blizzard in ’88 after a high school party at Tommy Hagan’s mom’s house. The streets were choked with two feet of wet snow. Larry’s hand probed for heat between her thighs, begging to be let in through all her layers, to peel her back until she was raw and new. His left eye was wild from the booze, its pupil unable to focus on her face. His left eye might have seen the bridge ahead, a support beam brought low by the weight of the snow. It was his hand though, squeezing tight against her padded thigh, which told Helen to duck. Larry did not get that choice, his brain still seeking to unravel Helen into pieces he could manage.
Helen did not see the transformation of his face, but felt his hot blood on her cheek, running between the cold touch of snow blown through the shattered windshield. Larry’s hand convulsed a few times around her thigh after the impact. It lit something inside her, spilled heat out of her into the frozen dark.
She did not tell that to the paramedics when they pried Larry’s fingers from her bruised thigh. When the doctor asked if she had anything else to add to her list of injuries or symptoms, she shook her head. Helen Gruber kept this new secret to herself, swallowing it whole, still breathing. She had seen what it was to lose somebody, to feel desire even after death. There was no bright tunnel, just cold after the blood drained out into the wheel wells. You could watch someone die and feel nothing if you really tried. You could make yourself colder than the world outside.
There was her first marriage at twenty to Mitch Talcum, who liked to do push-ups after they fucked, his muscled back rising and falling beside the bed while she fought off the urge to pee. Mitch liked to fall asleep beside her and wanted to pretend she didn’t produce any waste—no piss or shit. Women were a different, superior breed, he said. Before their divorce eight months later, he would give her seven yeast infections and recommend meditating, acupuncture, kosher salt rubs, steamed onions, and herbal tea to cure them. Eventually, it was pills from the walk-in clinic down the road that solved the problem. And the divorce.
Mitch did not like to shower. He believed sweat was the true cleanser of souls. He wanted to be like Buddha, would tell the other guys on his landscaping crew that to attain enlightenment they had to give up meat, give up cheese, and give up leather—nothing deserved to die. He ate beans and nuts instead, spent every night farting under the covers until Helen could not breathe. She wondered if she would suffocate to death in her sleep, if hell was filled with clouds of noxious fumes or just a man counting each push-up out loud, keeping track of his progress, keeping her awake forever. Mitch showed her how to leave, how to walk away, but she left with an undiagnosed case of human papilloma virus. Helen Gruber knew she always left too late.
Her mother’s funeral after her father left to shack up with her mother’s boss, a woman everyone called Big Frieda, at Nelson, Nelson, and McCaul. No one called it a suicide, but Helen’s mother left the Dodge Caravan running inside the family’s two-car garage with a Creedence Clearwater Revival Greatest Hits CD still churning out the jams until a neighbor cranked opened the door.
They played “Ripple” at the ceremony and a bunch of her aunts wept. Helen stood outside the slope-backed church and smoked, even though she did not smoke.
It felt good to struggle for air.
She found Big Frieda’s son in a bar that night, talked to him for hours, threw back shot after shot of tequila while all dressed in black. He told her about his new career with the local credit union, his time behind the loan office desk. He told her about hard choices, big decisions that affected a lot of people, a lot of lives. There were homes, not just houses, you know?
He told her about his divorce at twenty-two, so young, so stupid, and they both laughed and stumbled out into the parking lot together in the snow. His ex-wife had caught him due to some text messages, nothing crazy, just harmless flirting. Helen agreed women were unreasonable. Women could cause all kinds of problems when they got irrational, irresponsible even. They always took things the wrong way. Sometimes a man just wanted some comfort at 2:00 a.m.
She tries to break down the sequence of events that led her here, down this path that somehow ended with over three thousand oxy pills in a dead bird’s gullet.
When he slid out of his pants, Helen Gruber threw them out of the Audi into the snow. He smiled and took off his shirt, buttons popping in the process. A small swirl of black hair on his chest like a fourteen-year-old’s. A scar running down from his nipple toward his belly button. Helen didn’t ask why. She could see how hard his dick was when she grabbed the keys from the ignition and slammed the door behind her. She took his wallet and phone from his pants and disappeared around the corner as he struggled to chase her over the ice, briefs looped down over his skinny thighs. A couple smokers outside the bar cheered, but no one came to help.
Helen shoved the phone into a sewer drain. She kept the wallet, thumbed through receipts for groceries, gin, and a new massage chair. The wind snatched them and spread each purchase out across the street. It took all the credit cards out, all the cash too. She didn’t bother chasing the money. Sometimes you had to do these things for yourself. Sometimes you had to act.
Andre met her at one of his many laundromats, told her she was loading it all wrong. She should have put the towels in on their own, they took a lot longer to dry. At first Helen Gruber had assumed the old gray man was hitting on her, feebly swinging his withered bat at anything that passed him. He made no move toward her body though. He didn’t ask her about her boyfriend or her children. He told her to use the economy dryers—they were faster. She wouldn’t be stuck here so long. Laundromats could become depressing places. It wasn’t their fault. Not everything washed out, Andre said, and when he laughed she could see all the spaces between his teeth.
It was not a date when he called her up to his porch one day, his hands deep inside a dryer that refused to answer to its permanent press setting. Andre spotted her from the street lugging a pharmacy case behind her, another appointment that had ended in raised eyebrows and sighs from the secretary after she left the doctor’s office. The man had only stared at her while she went through her pitch—his eyes on her teeth, her hair, her back as she bent to open her black case. Everywhere but her eyes. He could not meet her gaze. He had nothing to say.
She eventually excused herself and wept in the hall.
On the porch, Andre asked her if she was happy with her job. Asked her if she wanted to make some real money, not a ton, but cash. Easy cash. You’re a pretty girl, he told her. And I doubt you’ve ever had a problem with the police. Tell me that I’m right.
His words were half-English, half-French, but she got the meaning well enough. She nodded. Andre laughed again, cranking a wrench to adjust the timer in the drying machine. The old ones can run forever, he told her. They don’t need any computers. Just gears and a bit of grease.
In a front yard full of lint traps, Andre explained this new job. How to judge the weight of bills bundled in a plastic bag. How to smile even when they shorted you. Helen listened to everything the old man said. He owned seven laundromats and he looked her right in the eye.
The first time they shorted her was the day Helen miscarried. It was in Windsor, in the fall, the city full of dead and dying leaves, and a few kids still trying to wear t-shirts, their shoulders tucked in like broken wings against their bodies. She felt the bottom of her gut drop, the blood rising and twisting her tight inside. Her heart rate accelerated as the woman across from her in the model home that operated as a front office for this small organization told her that they only had five grand this week, that she would have to come back for the rest another time.
Helen smiled, grimaced, and smiled again. Just like Andre had told her to, back on his porch. The baby was not Andre’s, he had never laid a hand on her, said that he did not mix business and pleasure. Pleasure was fishing up near Kenora, pleasure was watching his grandkids dive for golf balls at his son’s house in the suburbs. Business was scales and washers and powder. She was only two months along and it could have been Kevin, his broad mouth always greeting her in the stairwell. Bottles of wine, fucking in his twin bed and sleeping on the pull-out couch afterward.
It could have been Damien the plumber, after the third time she called the landlord about the leaking tub. She was worried about the bathroom floor collapsing down into the apartment below. They had fucked just once in her kitchen, hard against the wall, moans bouncing off the backsplash and the antique gas stove. She never called him back. Deleted his number instead.
She didn’t bother chasing the money. Sometimes you had to do these things for yourself. Sometimes you had to act.
There was Mitchell too, every few weeks when she went down to the Jarhouse and did karaoke, Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” under bright lights in a medium-sized city, a city just big enough to forget you, but not big enough to get lost. They only ever went back to his place, ate eggs in the morning with hot sauce. She always promised to text, to call, to send an email.
It didn’t matter who it came from because it was gone. Helen Gruber reached under her dress and then placed a bloody hand on the desk between her and the phony realtor. She left a bloody handprint behind and said that all the money would have to come in today. The realtor blinked.
Helen Gruber had learned to keep her hand steady even when it dripped with her own loss.
Cassidy fell into her lap at the same laundromat where Andre had found her counting quarters.
He spit into her mouth the first time they kissed, shoved his tongue inside and touched all of her teeth. He told her he could not cut it at the local college, told her he was afraid of going home, afraid of his old man and the rage inside that clapboard house on the prairie. He drew the letters for “love” on her back in the mornings and always held her hand in public. He told her she was beautiful, she was light, she made him feel strong when he knew he was weak, when the cravings got bad or when he just wanted to pretend he was somewhere else. Whenever he told her he wanted to be somewhere else, he always said she was there with him, staring down the Danube in Budapest, scaling cliffs in Chile, watching the sun refuse to set in Iceland.
Helen Gruber was nearing forty, the years climbing up her back, sliding down her cheeks, pulling at the corners of her eyes. All things go, Andre told her whenever she complained. Cassidy was young, too young, but he didn’t care. She let him sleep in the living room, let him eat the food from her fridge, watch her cable, run her hot water all day when she was out. Sometimes she came home to find him passed out in her bathtub, hot water beating against his red face.
Helen climbed into the tub with her clothes on and held him there under the water, waiting for him to wake up again, waiting for him to tell her he would try harder, that he would be better.
She liked the sound of how he lied because she knew he really meant it in the moment.
Helen Gruber met the bikers when they came up over the border for parties, met them at small taverns in small towns where the police rarely kept tabs on visitors. Everyone was always passing through, no one bothered to stay long enough to make an impression.
She had proposed the idea to Andre, after a long night of plotting and scheming over Labatt 50 and Canadian Club, a long night of navigating drunk biker eyes and misplaced caresses. She talked through all the problems with border agents, with a speeding car, with a single woman travelling alone. She would bring Cassidy. Some people might just mistake him as her son or nephew. Even better, Andre said. This would be her first project by herself. He was washing his hands.
Only a couple thousand pills to start on her own. Andre had friends at the border to help her get across, had his reasons to let Helen fly. He was getting old. He was selling off his assets. The doctors didn’t like his blood pressure, didn’t like the diabetes threatening to claim his left foot, maybe even his leg. Andre told Helen this was her chance to shine, but she still owed him. This was an investment, not charity. A laundromat empire was not built on kindness alone.
Before she left with Cassidy in a Honda hatchback Andre had registered in her name, Helen picked up the phone to call her father. She was not sure what she would say. Maybe she would mention the seesaw, the car accident, the taste of smoke after a funeral in the snow. Helen dialed and hung up, dialed and hung up again. Cassidy waited for her down in the car, picking his nose with long deep, strokes of his ring finger. He was very thorough.
The phone began to ring in her hand, a rattle in her ear. Once, twice, three times. A click and Big Frieda’s voice telling Helen to leave her information. They would call her back as soon as they had a chance. Helen listened to the dead air for a while, let her mouth linger on the receiver. She waited for the line to go dead. She waited for someone to tell her this was wrong.
Helen Gruber has finished counting fingers. She kneels down beside the dead pelican in her hotel room, its swollen body reeking of death and fish. The two smells belong together. Everything ends up in the ocean in the end. She pulls a metal nail file out of her bag on the floor and balances it on her fingers as the hangover bulges behind her eyes, makes her shake, makes her throat fill with a small lake of bile that eventually retreats. There are still children screaming outside, but they sound more like music. Their voices haven’t grown deep yet, haven’t curdled into something vile. The light outside is pink and warm.
Helen bends down and slides the sharp file into the dead bird’s large stomach. Cassidy remains useless on the bed, a mass of sweat and tangled hair. She pushes the dull blade through feather and skin and intestine into the distended stomach. She peels the abdomen open like a boiled egg and finds the damp pills clogging the hot insides of the bird, some partially liquefied.
Helen begins to empty the fat bird out into a plastic zippered bag, eyes watering. She does not ask why. She has a meeting downstairs in forty-five minutes and her hands are steady, assured. She is poised and calm. Helen Gruber has learned not to ask why bad things happen.
The pelican could not tell her anyway.
Andrew F. Sullivan is the author of the novel WASTE (Dzanc Books, 2016) and the short story collection All We Want is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), a Globe and Mail Best Book. His short stories have appeared in places like Hazlitt, The New Quarterly, Little Brother and Grain.
First published in PRISM international 54.3 (Spring 2016)