This last bit was not the whole truth. She had cried a little, but only because everyone else was. A few years later she would shed real tears for Martin Luther King and then for her Cal…”
by jacqueline downs
She only half-remembered what she had been doing. When people spoke of it, when the hush had turned into babble, they asked what you had been doing when you heard. But they didn’t really care about the answer; they only cared about being able to talk, form words, not really say anything, just speak out loud so that the sounds of their own voices would comfort them.
NJ had been shocked, of course. After, all, he was young, he had a family, a son who would grow up (but not, it would turn out, old) without him. But she hadn’t been completely fooled by him; he wasn’t so golden, she could see that. And his wife’s face showed the cautious anxiety of a woman who basks in the privilege that her maiden name, and now his name, offers, but comes in at fourth place, after work and ambition and the other women, so many other women. NJ wouldn’t stand for that. She was older, and she knew Cal would want someone his own age soon, but for now he knew more than to stick it anywhere else. She was always telling him: ‘I know it won’t be forever, I’m not a fool. Just do me the courtesy of letting me know in advance.’ He loved that about her: that she used phrases like ‘do me the courtesy’. ‘I love that you so smart, honey,’ he would say, in a mocking hick voice, and she would laugh, because she knew that he did love that she was so smart.
So, when the motorcade stopped and the shock was still being felt, little shards of trauma filtering through, settling on the tongues of those who had not seen through him, she added her own, matter-of-fact voice. People she spoke to insisted on knowing, and so she went along with their requests. They seemed to need it.
‘I was serving up, as usual. The TV was broken, so we didn’t know til someone…’
Who? Who? They always wanted to know every detail.
‘I was serving eggs and ham with rye toast to Jerry, from the garage on the corner, and Linda from the book store across the street came in and told us. She was crying. Everyone started crying. Even me.’
This last bit was not the whole truth. She had cried a little, but only because everyone else was. A few years later she would shed real tears for Martin Luther King and then for her Cal: one dead, the other gone, moved on, as she always knew he would.
The first time she met Cal, he walked over to the counter. She started to smile her usual smile, thought again, and instead looked at him warily. His mouth split open first.
‘Hey there ma’am.’ She stared some more. Then a tiny smile, a wriggle of the lips.
‘What can I get ya?’
He walked over to a seat in a booth near the TV and positioned himself so he could see the weather report. It was going to be sunny. It was LA after all. She brought his eggs and grits over, and poured his coffee. He watched her keenly, squinting slightly in his left eye.
‘You know, ma’am, you coulda been a movie star, you’re so pretty.’
‘Yeah sure, maybe if I fixed my teeth and my chin, and dyed my hair blonde and…’
‘Hell no, you’re fine just as you are.’
‘Well, thank you sir. That sure makes me feel validated as a woman.’
He looked up sharply, surprised. She was smiling. He looked at her name tag. ‘What’s the NJ stand for?’
‘For sure. What else?’
She left him alone with the TV weather report and sat at the counter, The Golden Notebook on her lap, one eye on the door in case Peterman came back to throw around the weight of his ownership, occasionally glancing at this young guy in the corner.
Cal peered closely at the TV and squinted, put his hand to his eyes to block out the sun. Turning his head slightly to the screen he could just make out NJ’s eyes, her mouth, the outline of her nose, reflected there, like a ghostly echo of the glamorous weathergirl, the TV sun embossed on her face.
When her shift had finished he was still there. ‘Wanna see a movie?’ he asked.
‘I’m 36’, she said. ‘Soon.’
‘Isn’t that a little old for you, boy?’
‘I like older women’, he smiled, chancing his luck.
‘Is that so? Well, no, I don’t wanna see a movie.’ Her voice became surprisingly soft, and so he carried on, not taking her words as the brush off she was only half intending.
‘Why not? There’s a new Sinatra movie. Everyone wants to see that.’
‘Not me,’ she shot back. ‘I don’t like movies.’
He was puzzled, as if he couldn’t imagine a world where people didn’t watch films. ‘Well, what do you look at?’ he asked. She couldn’t answer because she was laughing so much.
‘You young guys…’ It was the turn of her mouth to split, raspberry gloss on ice-cream teeth.
She took him to the Ferus Gallery. ‘There’s a museum here?’ Cal asked.
Later, over beer and pizza, and as the city lights turned the sky the colour of raspberries, he said, ‘You’re perfect. What’s wrong with you?’
She split her mouth again, a happy gash.
‘Nothing wrong with me,’ she said. ‘I work, I pay my bills. I meet my girlfriends for drinks. I don’t have debts, and I don’t own a goddamn thing, and it’s absolutely alright, nothing wrong at all.’
‘My, ain’t you a live one?’
‘You’ve missed your vocation honey. “A live one?” Is someone writing this for you?’
He protested with his mouth against hers, like something out of a story. Somewhere in the distance, fireworks went off. He broke away from her and they both turned, cheeks glowing, the last shatterings of light falling into the valleys. ‘It’s like every line you say, every special effect thrown in by chance and circumstance is like something out of a goddamn movie,’ she said. He turned to her and brushed some of her dark hair from her turned-up nose and asked:
‘If you don’t like it so much, ever think about not living in LA?’
‘You can’t get away from movies. But my home is here, my friends are here, my job is here, though I bet I could wait tables just as well anywhere else. You ever thought about moving to LA?’
‘I have now.’
‘Cal, you have to tell me, really: who’s writing this shit for you?’
They kissed again as the 5th of August turned into the 6th, and a distant clock chimed in the new day.
‘So, NJ, gonna tell me what that really stands for?’
‘I told ya,’ she grinned, ‘New Jersey. What else?’
(illustration: dee sunshine)
Jacqueline Downs lives in Crystal Palace (not the actual palace, though) in London, where she writes stories, edits books and makes a mean Old-Fashioned. Her stories have been published in Smoke: A London Peculiar, and on Smokebox, the Liar’s League and Storytails websites. She reads them regularly at events in London and Brighton, or has other people read them for her, and is a teller of true-life tales of debauchery at Spark London. More from Jacqueline Downs can be found in the Vault of Smoke.