For months, Charles had been hounded by an evangelical Christian in a blue T-shirt. Whenever he arrived for his shift in the morning she was there, just as when he would leave on his lunch break, patrolling the sidewalk in front of his store with the diligence—if not the quiet stoicism—of one of Her Majesty’s beefeaters. She had an indefatigably positive manner; Charles found himself oscillating between admiration and loathing for her, often within the span of a few seconds. Like a collapsed star, she allowed no one to escape her orbit. All were cornered and confronted and told the glorious news: “He is risen!” In place of a pike she clutched a wad of handbills, tiny manifestos slathered in biblical font, bearing provocative titles: “YOU CAN LIVE A VICTORIOUS CHRISTIAN LIFE!” and similar, hypercapitalized exclamations.
She was there when he arrived the next morning. Being that the store had yet to open, there was no chance of Charles slipping in unnoticed. The parking lots were still empty, and she stood there, in her blue shirt and khakis, scanning the distance, fidgeting like a puppy looking for someone to bound after. Charles circled around and approached the store from the side, keeping out of her line of sight for as long possible.
“Hello, good morning, sorry, sorry, no time, running late, gotta open the store!” he said, when his discovery became imminent. He hurried past her and dug in his pants pocket for the key, cursing himself for not taking it out ahead of time.
“That’s OK, I can talk while we walk. Ha ha ha!” she said, chasing after him. “My name is Hannah—”
“I know that,” said Charles, but she continued on, unfazed.
“I’ve traveled halfway across the country to deliver a message. A message that will change your life!”
They were in front of the door now. Charles dug deep into his pocket, his hand in well up past the wrist, searching frantically. Every time his fingertips encountered the key, it was invariably tangled in the pocket lining or obscured by the small stack of dollar bills he had taken out to pay for his lunch with Jasmine.
“The scriptures have spoken . . . you too can be saved!”
“Ah, here we go!” Charles produced the key and held it up triumphantly. “I’m sorry, I’m late for punching in.” He jammed the key into the lock, opened the door, and slipped inside.
“Take this to read!” cried Hannah, somehow managing to throw a pamphlet through the opening before Charles could shut and relock the door. She remained with her face pressed against the glass, hands cupped over her eyes, until she was sure Charles had picked up the pamphlet and was taking it with him.
As he passed through the breezeway and crossed in front of the registers to the break room, he saw her finally pull away and take up her post again along the edge of the sidewalk. He glanced down at the pamphlet: “YOU HAVE AN APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH!”
The morning passed quickly. Though there were only three hours from the start of his shift to his lunch break, Charles had expected them to crawl by as he waited for the chance to see Jasmine again. In fact, it felt like only a few minutes had passed when he looked up at the clock and saw that it was noon—only one more hour until lunch. He left his register and went over to where Hui Zhong, a college exchange student they had recently hired to work part-time, was sorting through the return bins.
His first thought for where to meet Jasmine had been the Crescent Diner, but its associations with work and with the everyday made him quickly dismiss it. It was then that he realized how limited his experiences were, because he could not think of a single restaurant other than the Crescent that was nearby; he had never had occasion to look for one. Jasmine had solved the problem when she suggested a steakhouse out on the highway, about a mile from the store. Still afraid to admit he lacked a car, he accepted and told her he would meet her there just after one o’clock, even though he knew there was no practical way he could make it there so quickly, let alone eat and make it back to the store in half an hour.
Charles looked down at Hui Zhong bent over the baskets of frayed books and unwanted movies, while she sorted them into sections, her long black hair tied back in a braid that stretched nearly the length of her spine. He waited for her to notice him, but she remained oblivious, engrossed by the task in front of her. Finally he cleared his throat and said hello.
“Oh!” she said, jumping to her feet. “You scared me!”
Charles blushed and stammered an apology. “I know we haven’t had a chance to talk yet, and I wanted to introduce myself, especially since I’ll apparently be your supervisor. My name is Charles.”
He extended a hand.
“Hui Zhong,” she said, with a smile and nod of the head. Charles noted the pronunciation: Hoy-Zong. He extended a hand and she accepted it, limply.
“I have a favor to ask you, Hui Zhong.”
“You’re the boss,” she said, grinning.
“I take my lunch at one o’clock, but I’m going to be busy then and won’t be able to get to the punch clock.” He scanned the area to see if anyone was close by, listening. “I need you to go over there at one o’clock, take my time card and punch me out for lunch. Do you think you can do that?”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” she said.
“Of course, no problem. I just need to pick up some supplies for the store, you see? So I won’t be here to punch out at one. I’ll be going straight to lunch after I get the supplies.”
“I won’t get in trouble?”
Charles winked. “I’m the boss, remember?”
“Okay,” she said with a shrug, then went back to sorting.
At twenty minutes to one, there was a lull in the customers; Charles looked around and saw no sign of Ron.
“Hui Zhong!” he said. “Open your register.” Then, to the two people in his line, “She can help you right over there, on the other side.” He put up his “closed” sign, tore the name tag from the front of his shirt, and grabbed his coat and gloves as he scurried out from behind the counter.
“Don’t forget,” he said to Hui Zhong as he was leaving, “one o’clock”.
“Okay,” she said.
Outside, Hannah was busy trying to pin down people in the crowd who flowed around and past her, seamlessly, the way a stream circumvents a rock. Charles joined the current and ignored her as he hurried by. “Hey, did you get a chance to read the . . . ” was all he was able to hear as he sprinted across the parking lot, making a beeline for the highway. When he reached it, a new dilemma faced him, as the highway possessed no sidewalks, forcing him to jog through the manicured patches of grass that fronted the shopping centers, and to hopscotch through the concrete maze of median strips and car lanes that made up the entrances to the parking areas. While engineered perfectly for cars, it was apparent to Charles that the designers of these monstrosities had never considered the possibility that a person might venture there on foot. It might even be argued that they had laid them out so as to be inhospitable to the man of little means and no automobile. Charles felt distinctly unwelcome, looking down at his damp, soiled shoes.
It was five minutes to one when he caught sight of the steakhouse. As he got closer to the parking lot he began to search for Jasmine’s car, but couldn’t find it. That lifted his spirits and he increased his pace; he had hoped to beat her there so she wouldn’t see him approaching on foot. Beads of sweat dotted his brow. He hoped he had enough time to cool down and fix himself up before he faced her.
He stood there for a moment, regaining his bearings, staring around him at the world as if reacquainting himself. He thought about where to go next, what to do, but remained inactive, a body at rest running solely on inertia. An old proverb popped into his head, one he had learned in high school and used to repeat over and over in an attempt to appear mysterious: “If one’s words are no better than silence, one should keep silent.” It occurred to Charles that this applied to movements too – if one’s movements were no better than stillness, one should keep still. Unable to think of a single person or matter that required his attention, he decided to remain where he was, frozen in space until compelled to move again.
Like the reels of an old projector his imagination began to spin. He saw himself standing there on the pavement, staring off into the distance with Zen-like detachment while devotees placed flowers at his feet, and a gaggle of onlookers and media types asked each other what it all meant. His vision, however, was destroyed by the blaring of a car horn, and a sky-blue Buick that pulled out around him from which a man’s head appeared and cursed him for blocking the exit lane.
That was enough to start him moving. His first few steps took him back in the direction of his room. Like clockwork he remembered the book his mother had bought for him, still waiting on his nightstand. A warm front had rolled through that morning, giving the air the lush, almost balmy feel of Indian summer. Though he could not exactly enjoy the weather, he appreciated the break it provided from the constrictive cold that had plagued him for weeks. He walked taller now, freer, no longer thinking of Jasmine except to register surprise at how little he thought about her. It was a thought, admittedly, he had distressingly often.
Only when he came back to the book, pictured its slate gray, matte cover with the illustration of an old man driving a donkey cart and its title, Going Na Gosti: My Bulgarian Journey, slathered across the top in Breughel font, was he truly able to exorcise her image altogether. He thought about the author, C. Evans Fulbright – a preposterously blue-blooded name for a Peace Corps volunteer – and about the Peace Corps itself, an organization that seemed to belong to another era, and which, like the Foreign Service or Merchant Marines, he had always viewed through a romantic lens, imagining a society of detached and worldly young men wandering the globe having grand adventures laced with the danger and lustiness of exotic climes.
When he arrived home and opened his door, he found for the second straight day an envelope lying on the floor. His stomach knotted as he bent down to pick it up. Inside was another note from Barbara, written in a terse,legalistic manner:
Mr. Lime, this notice is to inform you that your payment of
$200 for purchase and installation of a new hot-water tank
at 158 Vienna Street is due no later than October 18.
Failure to provide payment on time could result in adverse
action against you, including possible eviction from the
The letter shocked him, not as much for what it portended as for the fact that Barbara possessed the ability to write it. Had she contacted a lawyer, he wondered? If so, why? They had no lease. She could throw him out whenever she wanted. Only then did the dread begin to set in. October 18 was Monday – only two days away. Two hundred dollars would wipe out his bank account. Then rent would be due in two more weeks, and that would be that. No amount of number-crunching could save him – the shortfall was spectacular and unavoidable.
Charles had heard it said that it was easier to deal with a situation devoid of hope than one in which hope exists, that rather than proving crushing it allowed the sufferer to let go, to surrender to forces beyond his control and achieve a blissful harmony with the universe. Like most philosophical maxims, he found the truth in it cold comfort when the situation applied to himself. Panic seized him as he shut the door and sat down on the edge of the bed, looking around in wonder that such decrepit surroundings could produce in him so much longing.
His eyes eventually fell on the nightstand, and the book that had dominated his thoughts just a few moments ago. Snatching it up, he immediately felt calmer, like a soothing balm had been spread across his nerves. The spine he held in his left hand, using his thumb to fan the pages like a cartoon flipbook. Then he turned the book over to read the synopsis on the back, and a pair of blurbs from two writers he had never heard of before – “Fulbright could make a trip through my kitchen sound exciting. A writer of rare wit and sensitivity,” said Jaromir Woodcock, author of Czech, Mate! The Trials and Tribulations of a Czech-English Upbringing. In the top-right corner was a photo of C. Evans Fulbright staring moodily up at Charles, his face a mixture of aggression and wonder, as if he were gazing upon a unicorn he wanted to pummel. Underneath was a short author bio – Charles was shocked and dismayed to find that he and Fulbright were nearly the same age. Now that he had something against which to compare, his life’s shortcomings stood out in stark relief. That there were those in their twenties who had already published books and traveled the world was not news to him, but he had only ever considered it before in the abstract. Those prodigious, young writers he did know of were from an earlier era, all old men by now, if not dead, more like myths than real people and hardly someone against whom he could judge himself. Now here was a contemporary, looking not all that different from Charles, who had accomplished all that Charles hoped to accomplish in his lifetime. With some trepidation, he opened the cover and turned to the first page, afraid what other existential blows might await him inside.
“Landing at the airport in Sofia . . .” it began.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randall DeVallance is the author of the short novel, Dive (2004), and the short-story collection, Sketches of Invalids (2007). His stories have appeared in several anthologies and more than 30 print and online publications including McSweeney’s, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, Vestal Review, and Word Riot. He lives in New York City.
The Absent Traveler: A Novella and Other Short Stories, is currently available for sale and readers are encouraged to order from Atticus distributor Itasca Books or you can click here to be redirected to Amazon.