There's this throw rug of crushed cigarette butts back by the garbage bin, which Jenny doesn't understand because how hard is it to put your cancer stick out and take two steps and flick what’s left into the trash? Hundreds of flat cellulose cylinders with their ragged charred ends, like spent bullet casings which, musing on it as she takes another deep unpleasant drag on her last Spirit, is totally apropos.
No, she's not trying to quit. Yes, she knows it's a disgusting habit that doesn't even give her pleasure anymore.
What's your fucking point?
A dolphin grey Amazon Prime delivery van bounces down the alley, stirring up a miasma of Baltimore urban decay. The driver's rosacea and aspirational neck beard are familiar to her from all his chummy banter across the barista bar: his name is Chet, or maybe Chuck: skinny decaf butterscotch macchiato, no foam, no tip. Now he leers at her from the open side window as he drives past. Last week she complained to her manager about Chet’s relentless attempts to ask her out and got a lecture about customer primacy, a how-to on using her wit and charm to defuse uncomfortable interactions “before they start” and while doing so perhaps up-sell to the man the apricot scones that were always piling up because they arrived from the bakery rock-hard. The manager concluded with a suggestion that Jenny not wear so much make-up. And a long-sleeve shirt would cover the dueling dragons that curl down around her upper arms.
He’s an asshole, sometimes.
She smokes. Her phone chimes. Text from Jeremy. Her brother had his monthly lunch with their mom, no insight into the memory lapses. Earlier, Jenny had texted a suggestion that Jeremy call the doctor directly to find out what's going on, although she was pretty sure it wasn’t going to get them anywhere. Now Jeremy confirms it: the doctor told him if they want to know about their mother, they need to ask her.
Jenny sends a shrug emoji. Then the smiling brown pile of poo.
Texting her brother is so much better than talking to him, and this is why she invented the argument that she's been able to string out for the past three months. Its catalyst was a typical Jeremy Troon harangue on how Jenny was pissing her life away on sybaritic indulgences in childish defiance of their mother's stolid and cautious career path and their dad’s reverse-role as primary caretaker. This rapidly devolved into a shouting match in which Jenny accused her brother of feigning ADD in high school to buy more time for his SAT tests, so he could get into Johns Hopkins, something she didn't really believe but had always been jealous about because her own test anxiety had resulted in mediocre scores and, by this same theory, doomed her to the third-rate state school she dropped out of junior year. Jeremy countered with a dig about weed stealing her ambition. She insisted weed helped her anxiety and accused him of only dating sociopaths, then kicked him out and cut him off except for texting, which didn't count as real conversation but enabled her to keep tabs on him since that was one thing she had promised her father before he died.
With her mother, the communication blackout been longer than three months, and Jenny didn't need to invent anything. The last time they were together was her birthday, just the three of them. Her mother has made a point of mustering "the family" on special occasions for the past few years; she finds this super ironic, considering that they're all adults now, and that her mother missed so many important family milestones back when they were important. When they were kids. Her kids.
They were never close, never had the mother-daughter thing Jenny assumed all her friends had. The lunches, the intimate girl talks, shopping for prom dresses and sharing little secrets. Her Texas Ranger grandfather once told her, in his blunt single-syllable declarative style, that the reason she didn’t get along with her mom was because they were so much alike. “Coupla fucking warrior princesses,” he’d say.
She doesn’t believe that for a minute.
Their relationship got worse after her father died when, as irony would have it, her mother began spending more time at home. The mom phase lasted fourteen uncomfortable months and then Jeremy moved back from the dorm to be Jenny’s adult surrogate for the remainder of her high school while her their mother (who used her maiden name, of course, professionally, erasing all connection to the domestic Troons) went back out into the world of commerce and did whatever it was she did there.
On the one-year anniversary of Dennis Troon’s funeral, Jenny slipped out with her friend Rachel and got her father’s portrait tattooed on her back, left shoulder. First ink. She didn’t tell her mother, and her mother didn’t notice the bandage that covered it for the first few days. But when Jenny finally uncovered and looked at it in the mirror, she was horrified at what she saw. Although she’d given the tattoo artist her favorite photograph of her father, what she discovered on her shoulder was some sort of black and green wolverine -- not the X-man, the animal, and badly drawn at that. So badly rendered that Jenny burst into tears seeing it, and her mother had heard her and forced her way into the bathroom (how did she know how to jimmy the lock?) and thus discovered Jenny’s ugly secret.
Not that her mom was judgmental; she had offered to take her daughter to have it removed. Jenny, however, in her grief and embarrassment, insisted that she didn’t want to lose it; she wanted it fixed. Which she now knows was impossible, but all her fraught history with her mother caused her to dig in and refuse any help.
A couple years later, stoned and moody after dropping out of college, she tried to have another artist turn it into a rose. Her brother says it looks like a hallucination broccoli. And ever since, Jenny just doesn’t take her top off except when she’s alone, not even for sex, although that hasn’t ever been much of an issue. She’s told her few hookups she has a hideous scar from a childhood kitchen grease fire, and she used to hope they would think this was something her mother had done to her.
Lately, she’s just ashamed of the whole fiasco. And sometimes wishes her mom would bring it up, and offer again to go with her to have it removed. A twist of worry and guilt: maybe she doesn’t remember?
Shayda bangs out of the back door and into the alley, dragging two black plastic twist-tie trash bags and looking surprised to find Jenny already back here.
"You on break?"
Jenny takes one final drag on her cigarette, and mashes it out on the bottom of her shoe. "No. Why?”
“We’re short behind the register. And somebody just did an online order for, like, ten gazillion variations on vente mocha frozen frappe shit.” Shayda takes some scarlet lipstick from her pocket and applies it blind, like a slash, to her mouth.
Jenny flicks her cigarette butt onto the ground and helps heave the trash into the bin. One of the bags splits open on a sharp metal flange and spills half its contents back out onto the pavement.
The Amazon van rolls back up the alley, passing them, slowing to a crawl, Chet’s face in shadow, on the driver’s side away from them, but his eyes turned this way, and bright, like they’re back-lit. “Hey, ladies.”
“Ew. I know that guy.”
“Chet,” Jenny says.
“Chuck,” Shayda corrects her. “Creep cupped my butt the other day when I was restocking napkins.”
A claret tongue splits the lips of the Amazon driver and he waggles it at them, lewdly.
Something in Jenny snaps. She reaches down and picks up the first thing she can find: a stale scone sopping with milk so spoiled she nearly retches as she reels back and throws through the van’s window a perfect spitball strike that hits Chuck on the side of his head and breaks into pieces that will be hard to clean out. He howls. Jams on the brakes. Throws open his door.
“Fuck fuck fuck.”
Shayda says, “Oh Jesus,” turns and runs back inside.
Out of his vehicle, spitting, coughing, one eye clotted with viscous scone bits and half-shut, in Chuck’s hands is one of those steering wheel lock bars with which Jenny assumes he’s going to try to clobber her.
“The fuck are you doing?” he’s shouting, doing a stagger-walk around his van, clawing fetid crumbs from his collar. “The fuck do you think you fucking are?”
What Jenny thinks is she needs another weapon, and there’s an awkward length of rebar under the trash bin that, once she’s yanked it free, is way too long to be practical but for one brief breath she imagines herself lifting it and running Chuck through, like a warrior princess would.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” Jenny barks at him, because she remembers it from a movie. “I’m Chuck the Creep’s hell on Earth. A bitch with balls.”
“What’s going on here?” Dimitri, her manager, has stepped down from the back door.
“I’m pressing charges,” Chuck whines, letting the wheel lock fall to his side and starting to dig in his jacket for his phone. “Assault.” Now that she can compare Chuck to a normal sized man -- in this case Dimitri, but could be anyone, really -- Jenny confirms what she suspected all along: Chuck’s smallish. His saggy chinos, rolled up, still manage to pool over his trainers.
“I threw a scone at him,” Jenny confesses. “He’s the serial dick I told you about, D. Gets all pervert handsy when we come out from behind the counter.”
“She attacked me with a bio-muffin.”
“Stop embarrassing yourself, man.” Dimitri has only two interests: handpicked mycotoxin-free fair trade certified organic Nicaraguan beans, and cross-training. His forearms are bigger than Chuck’s legs. The manager may be an asshole, but he's her asshole for once.
“Get out of here,” he tells the Amazon driver. “You buy your coffee beverages somewhere else from now on.”
After one defiant, disgusted sideways spit, Chuck turns and swaggers with all the dignity he seems able to muster, back to his van, and they watch him climb in and drive away. Could be Jenny’s imagination, but she would swear she hears Chuck screaming as he pulls into traffic.
“You smoking out here, Jennifer?”
“Good.” This is the longest conversation she’s had with Dimitri since he hired her.
“Thanks,” Jenny says, and means it.
“Shayda thought you needed help.” He glances at the rebar she’s still clutching, then spies the mess at the bin. “Put your sword away, and clean that shit up.”
He leaves, and Jenny does, but not before typing a reminder into her phone to call her mom.
Daniel Pyne is a writer living in California.