She Throws Herself Forward To Stop the Fall

Judy’s blue Honda could barely do the speed limit when it was going up a hill, and Pittsburgh was like a small, misshapen mountain. She down-shifted to second, then up to third, then accelerated onto the Parkway. The traffic was a disaster.

She had to be at work at nine. It was 8:56. She didn’t have any cigarettes. She loved cigarettes. It’d take a full ninety minutes to get the fryers going before the early crowd started trickling in for lunch. Her craving for nicotine was enormous.

Cigarettes, she thought, and down-shifted.

Once, when she was fifteen and had been smoking for three years but didn’t have the money for a pack of Camels, she chewed some of her brother’s Skoal. Long cut. It was a big pinch. “Suck it,” her brother said. So she sucked it. The nicotine came and burned her mouth and calmed her nerves. She sucked some more. The grains of snuff started to fill her mouth. It was like her tongue was covered in grime. Like she’d licked a dirt road. She tried to get it out. She spit. She coughed. She dug with her finger, but it was everywhere, gagging her, making it so she could barely breathe. She ran to the bathroom and locked the door. Her brother stood outside laughing. The vomit raced up her throat like a locomotive.

Judy downshifted again. Then up-shifted. Someone could get rich starting a company that delivers cigarettes, she thought, then turned into the truckstop where the Kentucky Fried Chicken was located.

Her boss was at the counter with a bag of money. Wanda was a big fat black woman who called everyone, even black people, whitey.

Wanda said, “Whitey, you late.”

Wanda was mean, but she was fair. Judy liked her except for the days when she hated her. Wanda was often confused about the world. Judy was, too.

Judy said, “Do you see this?” and held up the key to her 1991 Honda Civic. “This goes into the ignition of a car that is running on three cylinders and needs new tires. I poured a quart of oil into the engine to get here.”

Wanda said, “You still late.”

Wanda got to wear a brown shirt and a gold nametag. Judy wore a red shirt with her name stenciled in cursive on her right tit. It made her feel ridiculous. She refused to wear a hairnet unless the district manager was in the building.

Judy said, “I don’t have cigarettes. You can’t imagine what that’s like.”

Wanda said, “I punched you in. Not for you. For me. I’m tired of being the manager who has employees constantly punching in late.”

Judy said, “Fine.”

Wanda said, “Fine would be you coming in on time.” Then, “Your hair looks nice. Where you get that done?”

Judy said, “Thanks. The barber college.”

Wanda erupted with laughter and said, “You kidding?”

Judy said, “I’m not kidding.”

Wanda said, “Oh my.” She said, “Well, they do good training.”

Judy rolled her eyes. She was so far gone, nothing could embarrass her. Haircuts: the barber college. Cold: the clinic. Teeth cleaning: the community college. She couldn’t wait until she had a degree, a real job, and, for the first time in her adult life, health insurance. She could almost imagine going to a doctor and knowing who the doctor was.

Judy said, “I have to leave early to take my Art History final.”

Wanda said, “The hell you do,” and stopped counting the money that she was putting into the registers.

Judy said, “Well, I do.”

Wanda said, “You go animal house on your own time.”

Wanda hated college. She thought it was for rich kids. She thought it was frat parties and hanging out in the dorms. It didn’t matter that Judy was older than Wanda, made less money, and lived in a transient motel.

Judy said, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Wanda said, “Well, you don’t,” and, “Shit,” but like it was two words: she and it.

Judy had an A in the class. The class was not hard. She went to Pitt, but a branch campus. The professor didn’t seem to care. He never took attendance. Class let out early. Lots of people had good grades. Nobody studied. Judy studied a little. She was twenty-nine. Most of the students were teenagers. The older students transferred out. By older, she meant twenty. The boy who sat next to her, who was embarrassingly cute, worked as a plumber and talked a lot about pipes and how much he hated wearing latex gloves.

Judy looked at her watch. School was there. Work was here. She was bad at judging the distance between the two, and her mistakes were always pissing someone off. Like Wanda. It was ten o’clock. The fryers were bubbling. She needed the grade. If she kept an A average, she received a small scholarship that paid for her books.

Judy walked back to Wanda’s office. The door was locked. The door was always locked. Judy imagined Wanda in there, checking out internet porn. Everyone knew she looked at the gay sites. Or maybe she was gambling. Wanda claimed to make ten grand extra every year from playing cards on-line. Judy couldn’t play cards. Mostly she smoked and went to school and fried chicken. She hated frying chicken. She would have liked to kiss the twenty-year-old plumber from art class, but it would have made her feel foolish. It was still fun to imagine.

“Open up,” Judy said.

“Go away,” Wanda said.

“I need the phone.”

Wanda opened the door. Her shirt was untucked, her big belly barely covered by the fabric. Her upper lip was sweaty.

Wanda said, “Not on my time. Phone calls on breaks.”

Judy said, “Do you want me to stay?”

“Of course, you gonna stay, bitch,” Wanda said. “You work here.”

“Then I need to call my professor.”

“Get a cell phone.”

Judy said, “Don’t make me hate you.”

Wanda said, “Please,” and laughed, then moved so Judy could use the phone.

The professor’s name was Roberts. He was a fat man with a goatee who carried a lunch box and wore mismatched socks. He did not have tenure. Maybe he was part-time. He complained a lot about the administration, the pay rate, the hiring practices. Judy thought he might be insane. Clinically. None of the other students seemed to care. Judy dialed the numbers and waited until he picked up.

She said, “Hi. This is Judy Powell. I’m in your 3:30 Art History class.”

Professor Roberts said, “And you can’t make the final today.”

“Right,” Judy said.

“Because your mom died,” Professor Roberts said and snorted. “I understand. We’ll work something out. Grade-wise.”

“My mom didn’t die,” Judy said. “I’m at work. I was wondering if I could take the final with your night class. I’m sort of stuck here.”

“Don’t bother,” he said.

“Don’t bother what?” Judy said, trying to sound polite.

“How are your grades?”

“All A’s,” she said.

“You’re fine. A for the final. A for the class.”

“Really?” she said.

“What’s your name again?”

Judy repeated her name, and added a short physical description of herself and where she sat in the room.

Professor Roberts said, “Sure. You’re the older gal, right?”

“I’m twenty-nine.”

“Sure. You talk. You participate. You’ll do fine.”

“I don’t know how to thank you.”

Professor Roberts said, “Don’t bother.” Then, “Where do you work anyway?”

She said, “KFC. On the Turnpike.”

“Me, too,” he said and laughed.

“Me, too what?” she said.

“Me, too. KFC. I teach at the KFC of universities. How much do they pay you? Are they hiring?” He coughed, but away from the phone.

Judy forced an awkward laugh. She wondered if she should hang up, drive to campus, and take the test.

“Maybe I should just come in,” she said.

“I told you,” he said. “You’re fine. I love mashed potatoes and gravy.”

Wanda stood outside the door with a whisk broom. Wanda looked at Judy and shook her head. The fryers were raging. It was, for the first half hour, a terrible smell. Not like burnt feathers and gizzards, but that’s all that Judy could ever think of. Wanda lifted the broom and did a little dance.

Judy said, “What?”

Wanda said, “Parking lot.”

Judy said, “With a whisk broom?”

Wanda said, “Uh huh.”

Judy said, “Christ,” and took the broom.

Wanda said, “Check my top desk drawer.”

Judy said, “Why?” and had seedy thoughts about gambling and porn.

Wanda said, “Fuck ya then.”

The desk was covered in neatly stacked piles of paper. Wanda was a paperwork machine. Judy opened the drawer. Inside, between the neatly arranged paperclips and ink pens, was a pack of Marlboro Reds.

“For me?” Judy said, her eye practically twitching at the thought of smoke.

“I stole ‘em off Keenan last night,” Wanda said. “The boy’s fucking fat. He don’t need to smoke.”

Judy said, “I could kiss you.”

Wanda said, “How about you sweep while you smoke instead?”

Judy said, “I’m a sweeping chimney.”

Wanda said, “You’re a chimney sweep.”

When Judy should have been in class, she was where Wanda said she’d be: at work. It was almost four o’clock. Judy felt greasy and tired. She ate three biscuits when Wanda went on break. She smoked all of Keenan’s Marlboros. They were smooth and delicious, even though they were not her brand.

Later that night, at home, she called her mother. Her mother was living with a man that was not Judy’s father. The conversation was short and pointless. Judy called her Aunt Lila. Lila, who was almost fifty, was taking night classes to become an accountant. They talked every day. Aunt Lila asked how Judy was holding up. Judy asked Lila the same question. They were both too tired to say much else. Lila said, “I love you,” and Judy said, “I love you, too,” and they hung up. Judy lit a cigarette. She flicked the ashes in a diet Coke can. She didn’t have anyone else to call, and that made her sad, but she knew that tomorrow she’d be too busy to feel sad again.

Judy thought about her final. Maybe she should have gone in and taken the test. She dialed the professor’s number. When his machine picked up, she gave her name and social security number and restated their earlier agreement: A for the final and an A for the class. She hung up the phone, but didn’t put down the receiver.

Why the hell did she need art history anyway?

She was a criminal justice major. She wanted to be a cop.

The next day, Wanda was in a mood. Lunch was over. The store was empty. The tables needed to be cleaned. The floors needed to be mopped. Nobody wanted to mop. It was amazing how slick the floors got after the lunch rush. All that fried skin missing customers’ mouths. Judy had two packs of cigarettes and felt fine.

She said, “I’ll do the parking lot. I’m not mopping.”

“You do the parking lot, you do the bathroom, too,” Keenan said. “Where’s my cigarettes, bitch?”

“Smoked ‘em,” Judy said.

“Real nice,” Keenan said, but he smiled, and Judy knew he wasn’t mad.

Keenan was seventeen. He went to high school half a day, then worked half a day. He could count the money, run the receipts, and do a closing in under fifteen minutes. No one else could do it in under thirty minutes. But he didn’t have any plans, and he liked to smoke a lot of dope and eat macaroni and cheese. Judy was the same way at that age.

Wanda came out and said, “I’m in a mood.”

Keenan said, “Shit.” He said, “Go lose some money on the internet. Everything’s taken care of out here.”

Wanda said, “Whitey, you know nothing of the chicken business. You wouldn’t know a drumstick if it bit your ass.” Wanda turned towards her office. Over her shoulder, she said, “Clean this shit up,” and slid a mop bucket towards the front of the store.

Keenan said, “I hate when she calls me Whitey. It’s fucking retarded. All that lard in her gut is making her funny in the head.”

Judy said, “I’ll be in the parking lot,” and took the whisk broom. She said, “I’ll do the bathroom when I get back, white boy.”

Keenan said, “White this,” and flipped her a long black finger.

Wanda screamed, “Judy!” from her office.

Judy screamed back, “What?” and headed that way.

Wanda’s office door was open. She shuffled some papers and looked pissed. Judy really needed a cigarette. If she didn’t get one soon, she’d eat, and then she’d hate herself for eating more fried junk. The chicken strips tasted exactly like the French fries. The French fries tasted like the biscuits. It was all the same. Wanda turned and wrote a number on the sales board. It was worse than last year’s sales, and not even close to their goal. Wanda was shocked by this every day. Judy didn’t know why.

Wanda said, “Is Keenan stealing food?”

Judy said, “How would I know?”

Wanda sat down. She put her hands behind her head and sighed. She said, “You gonna bullshit me now?” Then she leaned back and the chair almost tipped. Her arms darted out to her sides like tiny wings on a baby bird that was just learning to fly. Wanda said, “Whoo shit!” then she threw herself forward to stop the fall. Judy tried not to laugh. Wanda righted herself. She fixed her shirt. She leaned forward and pretended to be comfortable. She folded her hands on her enormous stomach and shook her head. She said, “You almost made me fall.”

Judy said, “Okay.”

Wanda said, “I ask you again: is Keenan stealing food?”

Judy said, “What did I just say? I don’t know.”

Wanda said, “I’m watching you. I’m watching him. I’m watching his friends. I’m watching your friends. We got an inventory coming, and I know we low.”

Judy said, “My friends don’t come in here. I’m not in high school.”

“Don’t act like it then,” Wanda said. “I know you give a biscuit to your sister before. I seen it from my office.”

“Whatever,” Judy said and took her whisk broom.

The parking lot wasn’t getting swept. Instead, Judy smoked three consecutive cigarettes and flicked the butts at Wanda’s Ford 500. It was a nice car, new, with a gold metallic paint that glittered. Judy wondered what it would take to become a manager. Training? Paperwork? Wanda had a GED. Judy had school but not enough to mean anything. College was like buying a house one brick at a time. She took another long puff. Manager. She had this thought sometimes, and it scared her. Fried chicken for the rest of her life. Fake mashed potatoes, the flakes falling from a box like snow. Bags of frozen soup coming off a freezer truck, and boxes upon boxes of chicken parts. Judy lit a fourth cigarette. She would have liked to do this for the rest of her shift, but she heard Wanda inside, screaming. There was Keenan’s voice, being defensive. Then it was quiet. Then there was screaming. If she was a cop—when she was a cop—she’d stop this. She’d pull her gun. She’d say, “Enough.”

Judy took her cigarette and walked towards the Ford 500. After a few steps, she dropped the broom to the cracked asphalt that she was supposed to be sweeping. The car looked even better up close. It was huge, like someone had put Judy’s apartment on wheels. She leaned close and put her face to the glass. The interior was leather, a beautiful brown, smooth and without the cigarette pocks that marked the interior of her own car. There was a CD player, and what looked like power windows. Judy’s Honda had over two hundred thousand miles. It had been her mother’s car, then her aunt’s, then her mother’s car again, and now it was Judy’s. She pressed harder against the glass of Wanda’s new shiny Ford, hoping to get a glimpse at the odometer but her breath clouded the glass. She took her shirt and started to wipe away the fog. It was quiet and cool, and Judy inhaled from her cigarette. There was a cough, and it took a second for Judy to realize it wasn’t her own, but Wanda’s.

Wanda was three feet away and she had her hands around the wooden handle of the whisk broom like it was a neck she was about to ring.

Judy, without removing the cigarette from between her lips, said, “Sorry.”

Wanda extended the broom for Judy to take and said, “Sorry’s what you gonna be if you don’t move your greasy hands away from my new car.”

Judy stepped away from the car and towards Wanda.

She said, “I was just looking.”

The sun was out, shining over Wanda’s shoulder. There were clouds. Judy let her cigarette fall from her mouth to the asphalt beneath her feet.

She stuck out her arm.

She took the broom.

Dave Newman is the author of the novel Please Don’t Shoot Anyone Tonight (World Parade Books, 2010) and four chapbooks, most recently Allen Ginsberg Comes To Pittsburgh. His poems and stories have appeared in literary journals in the UK, Japan, and the USA. He lives in Trafford, PA.

Photo Sources
KFC, The Hot Glove
Animal House, Digital Ink Report
Cigarettes, The Telegraph

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