Marlow only leaves her locker unlocked for a moment, as she goes for a drink. But when she comes back, her CD player is gone. She looks up and down the hall, and there at the end of it is Andy, walking away.
School is grey. That’s the colour she paints it with. In math class, she watches Andy, and there’s something so convincing about the way that he refuses to look at her, that tells her everything she needs to know. Here’s a derivative, she thinks. An integration, a curve. The CD player came from her grandmother. It’s a gift, she thinks. It’s music.
School ends. And school is grey. She walks into the world, following Andy as he walks towards the school buses. I have no one to go home with, she thinks. People do not sit next to a girl like me, because they’re worried about what I might do, even though I’ve never really done anything. I’ve just never done anything. But Andy takes a turn before the buses and walks to the edge of school instead, on a pathway that takes him into a subdivision. He walks the roads home.
Marlow follows. She studies him, the backpack over his sweater. The dingy basketball shoes on his feet. The way he walks. On a front lawn, she spies a shovel, and knows that she could pick it up and club the boy across the head. She could do it so easily, and probably even get away with it. But instead she follows, as he walks to a main road and goes into a corner store. She goes in, too. He buys a soda, pays in coins. Hasn’t seen her yet, even though she’s in an aisle not far away, pretending that she wants to buy licorice.
I don’t know where you live, she thinks, but soon she finds out. It’s a nice house. A nice house with nice cars, but that doesn’t say anything about him. He goes in and she just stands there, staring. He’s probably in there having a look at the CD player. Maybe playing his own music in it.
Later, she’s in the retirement home. It’s the same place her grandmother used to live in. There’s a dozen plus seniors in front of her, all watching her as she turns on music. “I hope you like this,” she tells them, and then helps them warm up. It takes them a while to get into it, like this is not something they want to do. But she urges them on, stretching and turning, like she’s a leaf stuck in a minor breeze, a hint of wind enough to keep her in the air but not enough to really take her anywhere.
The old people watch her and follow along. They keep going right to the end, when she tells them what a good job they all did, how proud she is of them.
“Kevin,” says Andy. “He’s a janitor.”
The receptionist blinks. “You’re looking for a janitor? Are you sure you don’t want to see a class schedule?”
“Just the janitor. Kevin.”
The lady behind the glass shrugs. “I don’t know the names of the janitors.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“And you don’t know the names of the people who keep this place clean?” he asks.
Her eyes narrow. She makes a phone call, then another one. “I’m sorry,” she says, eventually.
“For what?” he asks.
“Kevin doesn’t work here.”
Andy holds up his phone. “Says here that he does.”
“Kevin Green,” she says. “What kind of friend are you if you don’t even remember his last name? Anyway, he used to work here, but not anymore…”
“Where is he now?” he interrupts.
She blinks. “I told you, I’m sorry. Kevin passed away last year. He was shoveling the walkways and had a heart attack. I do remember him. I’m sure you know that there was something wrong with him.”
Andy breathes. Leans forward. “What do you mean something wrong with him?”
“He was slow,” she says.
“What’s that got to do,” he gasps. It’s tight, this feeling, he thinks. This constriction that grabs you and reminds you how old you actually are, and what you’ve done so far. “What it’s got to do with having a heart attack?”
“I have no idea. I’m not a doctor.”
“Does he have any family?” barks Andy. Sweat is accumulating on his back. His ears are thrumming.
She stares. “I can see that this is important to you.” Taps on her computer. “Nope, no family. He was abandoned by his parents when he was young. Probably because of his condition. Grew up in foster care. That’s about it. I’m surprised as a friend that you didn’t know that.”
“Did I tell you I was a friend?” asks Andy.
She stares at him. Eyes narrow. He can see himself in her glasses, he thinks. Dark coat. Coffee in hand. Some random guy having a look around. Some guy looking for Kevin.
On the way home, he drives fast. It’s not what he usually does. He even passes a cop, but the guy doesn’t come after him. He takes turns faster than he should, not enough to be dangerous, but just enough.
In his house, he goes to the basement. There are boxes on shelves, old things he never looks at. There are yearbooks in there, photos of all the people he used to know. He can see the photos in his head, can remember what those kids looked like, the things they used to say to each other. How they behaved, and what he thought would happen to them. But he doesn’t know where they ended up. He doesn’t know any of those people anymore, not one of them, or what happened to them – except Kevin. Kevin the Monkey who used to eat dirt and grin about it. Kevin the Janitor at the sportsplex, wielding a broom like a champion, keeping everything clean for all the kids, the little people who would all grow up to be so great that Andy can’t stand the thought of it. Kevin the Dead, he thinks. The passed away, the heart attack.
He stares at the boxes. They don’t care one way or the other if he’s there or not.
Marlow puts a pin in Poland.
The phone stays silent. The emails vanish. She’s barefoot in the office, behind her desk.
Lunch comes, carrot sticks and hummus. Afternoon tea, herbal. A couple of crackers.
Forty-five, she thinks. It’s the twenty-sixth of June, two thousand and fuck you. I’m forty-five. Later today, school will get out for the summer. The kids will disperse. They’ll say that they’ll see each through July and August, but most of them won’t. Instead, they’ll spend the sticky months in their houses, feeling like they’re free. But then July will turn to August and a chill will get into the night air, a reminder that you always go back.
Forty-five, she thinks.
Her phone rings. “Marlow, there’s a man here to see you.”
“In person?” she asks. “Who?”
“Says he knows you. That you’re friends. Won’t leave his name.”
“What’s he look like?”
Anton pauses. His voice drops. “Has a lovely beard. Indian guy.”
When Marlow was young, she told only one person what she was going to do with her life. That was her grandmother, but she’d gone and died. There are no witnesses to judge Marlow for what she’s actually become against what she’d dreamed, she thinks. Unless grandmother is out there, somewhere. On a boat, fishing. Drinking from a flask, wearing a big visor to keep the sun off her wrinkles, in some dancing, opaque afterlife where there is no dry land.
I should talk to him, she thinks. I should go down there and take him to the cafeteria, where he can explain what he did those months ago. Don’t you dare, comes grandmother’s voice. You don’t need this, says the old woman in the visor, as she hauls up a huge fish and guts it on the deck with a long, curved knife. That’s disgusting, grandmother, says Marlow. But grandmother just grins and drinks from her flask. She throws the bones of the fish back into the ocean.
The phone rings.
She leaves the office and walks past the cubicles. She started in one, when she was twenty-three. With her first pay cheque, she’d bought a take-out meal of the best Chinese food in town. The next day, a leather jacket. Two months later, a new car. Her stay in the cubicles had lasted seven years, seven whole years of wondering what the next step was, until someone had given her an office. A small one. There, she’d been partial to taking off her shoes as she worked. The big office had come later. Anton had come later. Years had moved by, because that’s all they were: years. Glued-together moments and seconds, that could as easily have been disconnected, people flipping through her life as she flipped through theirs, getting to this place, this moment occupying this one space, a thing no one else ever could replicate.
Anton looks up as she reaches him and points at the Indian man sitting in the lobby chair. Anton’s eyes are wide, like he knows something is wrong, either that or he just can’t quite understand this man’s beard, made as it is of night sky and salt water.
Marlow stares at him. He gets up. Comes closer to her, his arms out as though to say: I mean you no harm. The hell he doesn’t, says grandmother. The hell. Her boat careens into the horizon, faster than it should be, spray somersaulting into the air and turning to ice before it can splash down again. It’s all ice, the world, she thinks, as she stares at this man, and then walks past him out the door. Down the stairs. To her car, which takes her down the street and onto a highway. Twenty minutes is all it takes to get to the retirement home. There’s a class going on inside. A young nothing standing up front, showing the old people how to stretch, starting them slow and encouraging the seniors to stay with it. To just keep going.
Marlow stands at the back of the room, just behind the old people. She puts our her arms and stretches to the left. Then back to the right. Together, the line of human beings moves, the only people to occupy that space at that time, ever, synchronized as they reach and turn before a wind that might exist somewhere else, but doesn’t here.