Split Level

Fiction by Patrina Corsetti

+++I didn’t take the transfer in order to advance my career. I don’t have a career. I’m twenty-three and I work for a large hotel chain as an assistant front desk associate/maid substitute.

I check people in and out as they are coming and going from important and obligatory and by-invitation-only events. When a scheduled cleaning lady fails to show for a shift, I scrub piss-stained seats, change T.P. rolls, strip sheets, refill mini-bar fridges, and vacuum up chip crumbs. I don’t mind the cleaning and never complain about it like the other front desk girls do. I enjoy folding the fluffy towels, pulling the sheets tight to make hospital corners, making the rooms new again.
+++Also, I didn’t take the transfer in order to drive my tiny, silver Dodge Shadow across the country on I-70, the interstate that ran only twenty-three miles south of him. That was just a coincidence, I swear, because my mother was the only reason I took that job transfer to the Arizona desert.

+++Before Mom got locked up, she always washed her money. Each bill was given a bath in the kitchen sink, cleansed with care like an infant. She used warm water, never too hot, and only a few suds. When she left the bills alone after the gentle scrubbing they would pop to the top of the water, instinctively knowing how to survive. After float time, Mom took her bills and placed them on a dishtowel in neat careful rows. Then, she would compulsively monitor the drying ones for crinkles. Her hands quick to stretch the dollars back into smooth rectangles. She blamed the damp east coast air for wrinkling and aging her loot and would have killed to live where her clean bills could dry wrinkle free.
+++Mom said she washed her money for the same reason my sister Beth’s boyfriend washed his Mustang every Saturday morning in our driveway. Both were wiping down their pride, giving it a clean start, washing off the rest of the world’s fingerprints.
+++When I told Mom about the job transfer during one of our visits through Plexiglas, she seemed to settle back into her skin, relax a bit.
+++“Go to Scottsdale, Sadie. Go enjoy that dry air.”
+++“Beth thinks I should take it, too.”
+++“She’s right. You should go. Get a fresh start.”
+++“Don’t think I’m ready, yet.”
+++“As soon as this cancer wins, I want you out of here.”
+++“Mom, stop.”
+++“You, stop. Once I’m gone, I want you gone, too. Got it?”
+++And now she’s gone and I’m in Burlington, Colorado, twenty-three miles south of him and eight hundred and twelve miles from my new job in Arizona. I’m starving and realize that I have once again forgotten to eat.
+++I pass a bowling alley and then pull into a McDonalds. The tweeky energy of post-Happy Meal screams pour from the playground. Kids. Lots of kids. And they are laughing and screaming and running with no real destination, only wanting to move and slide and climb and explore. It reminds me of the time I got my head stuck between the bars of the giant Hamburgler figure during one of our Saturday afternoon McDonald’s trips. Jailed at six. I started crying, the tears dripping onto the plastic grass below. Mom kept me calm by feeding me one salty fry at a time while we waited for rescue. Beth watched from an orange bench next to the fence, smirking.
+++An order and a half of fries later, a fireman bent the Hamburgler’s bars wide and gently lifted me out of my prison. He was sturdy and smelled of Dial soap. When he put me down, Mom hugged me and cried while Beth looked pissed, like she was wishing I’d never escaped. These days, they don’t have the Hamburgler. Too many stuck heads, I guess, or maybe, they just don’t want kids playing prisoner and lockup and rescue like it’s a game anymore.
+++I pull up to the window to get my nuggets, take one out of the greasy bag, dip it in some sweet and sour sauce before I even drive away. The tangy flavor slides down my throat. The hot breading burns. I take a sip of orange soda and slowly steer the car to the corner of the parking lot where a lone payphone stands, a thick book hanging from the metal box like an overgrown accessory.
+++It is 1999. It has been seven years and Mrs. White is still listed under her dead husband’s name.
+++“Hello.” She answers the phone, politely. Like she isn’t being bothered. Like her home is a business and she doesn’t want to scare away any potential customers, but I know it’s not real because it’s the same voice I use when I answer the phone at work. I know she’s faking it.
+++“Hi, is Jamon home? Please.” I add the please as a last minute thing, pausing long enough for her to realize that it isn’t instinctual for me to say please, or to be polite. It was her own forced happy tone that made me do it.
+++“No, Jamon is not home right now. May I take a message?”
+++“Oh. Um. No. Um. Thank you.” Silence. And then I lie. “I was supposed to meet up with him tonight and…”
+++“Oh, the party? Well, he will not be attending that tonight. He has to work. Why you kids couldn’t have had Jenny’s birthday at the bowling alley is beyond me, then Jamon could have been a part of it.”
+++“Oh, right.” I lie and pretend I know what she is talking about. “I don’t know either. I was just hoping to talk to him before he left.”
+++“Well, he’s left.”
+++“Okay, Mrs. White. Thank you.” No pause this time. We hang up without goodbyes.
+++Goddamn it! I hate bowling. I hate the noise. I hate watching the speeding balls slam into those helpless skinny sticks over and over. But, now I know exactly where he is. Now, I have to go to him.
+++I think of calling Beth to let her know that I’m okay, to let her know where I am, but then I remember that she doesn’t want to know me anymore. She doesn’t want to be in charge of me. She wants to live in Mom’s house with her boyfriend and let him park his Mustang in Mom’s driveway and scramble eggs for him every morning in Mom’s frying pan. Like Beth said, Mom is gone and everything is hers now. She’s right. For taking care of me, Beth deserves everything.
+++I walk through the double glass doors into the smoky lanes. Jamon works behind the counter and he isn’t a boy anymore. He has grown up and he is the painful kind of fat, the kind that looks like it hurts. His skin is rashy and he waddles as he walks from the cash register to the other end of the counter to get my size eight bowling shoes.
+++I had only known him as the boy from the picture. I had never let him develop muscles, grow facial hair, deepen his voice, pop beers, pop boners, land a job, drive a car. No, I had never let him behind the wheel of any car. He was always in the back seat watching through the window. His tiny head wearing a foam, green Lady Liberty crown, his seat belt safely fastened.
+++Because of this, I had been expecting a child. I had been expecting the boy from the picture, the one with his mom and dad on the top deck of that tourist boat bound for the Statue of Liberty. Mrs. White must have smiled at a stranger, kept the eye contact. Oh, do you mind taking our picture? This is our first trip to New York. The stranger, wishing he’d not looked up after checking out Mrs. White’s boobs, sighed and then gave in. Sure, no problem and then that stranger snapped their last family photograph, the one printed in all the papers after the accident.
+++“We only got nines,” Jamon tells me.
+++“How about eight and a half?”
+++“We don’t do halves here.”
+++“Nines are fine then.”
+++Of course Jamon had grown up and he had done it fatherless, like me, but not because his dad’s dick had disappeared into the skanky hole of a Hooters bartender, a line my mother always repeated when anyone asked what happened to that husband of hers, but because while changing a flat on the side of I-91, his father’s skull had been crushed under the front right tire of my mother’s maroon Oldsmobile.
+++They were on a family trip. A family from Colorado anxious to visit where it had all started. A tour of The City, a boat out to Lady Liberty, a late night drive to Boston to watch the sun rise. The reporters loved to quote Mrs. White about that one. “He’d always wanted to see the sun rise over the Atlantic, to be the very first person in the country to greet the day, to see its birth. In Colorado the day is already hours old by the time we get it.” I’d lived in the Northeast my entire life and had never seen the sun rise over the Atlantic. I had never seen the sun rise anywhere. Had never even thought about it.
+++Jamon hands me the red, white, and green bowling shoes, the right one has only half a sole, and tells me I have lane twelve. Lane twelve is too far away. I can’t see him from lane twelve so I ask him if maybe I can have a lane closer to the bathroom. “You know, lady problems.” It’s a lie, but Jamon responds with work-forced politeness. He’s a lie-handling veteran.
+++“No problem, ma’am. Take four.”
+++“Thanks, sweetie.” I wink at him and he stares at me until I hand over my black Nikes in exchange for the used shoes.
+++“Why do you need my sneakers?”
+++“For security. Make sure we get ours back.” “People really steal these things?”
+++“I don’t know. It’s just the policy.”
+++“Is that what happened to the other half of this sole?” I smile at him in a flirtatious, jokey way.
+++“Sure.” He smiles and low chuckles the way you’re supposed to when someone you don’t know makes a stupid comment and then he moves on to the family behind me: a mom, a dad, a kid. The boy was eight, maybe nine, but definitely not ten, definitely not older than Jamon was in that picture.
+++I walk to my lane and it is exactly where I want it to be. I can see him from lane four. I light a cigarette and start searching for the perfect ball.
+++I despise the bowling ball hunt. You can find one that is the right weight, but the holes will be too small and I am always afraid of that ball dragging me down the lane with it, getting swept away with the other knocked down pins. Or, you can find a ball that has the right size holes, a comfortable place for the fingers, but it will be so heavy you need two arms to carry the damn thing. Eventually I find a hot pink and white ball with acceptable holes, but still, of course, a little too heavy for my strength. Gold letters swirled out the name ‘Candy Lane,’ a silly bowling name if I’d ever heard one, but it does make me laugh a little so I decide to use it for the name displayed on the screen above because, obviously, I can’t use my real one. He can see everything.
+++Balls are rolling, rumbling down the alleys. Pins are clanging. There are constant cheers and laughs and turkey calls. It is loud and hot and hazy, and I think this place feels exactly like hell will and as soon as I think of that I think of Mom and one of our last conversations.
+++“I’m scared there won’t be a smoking section.”
+++“There probably is, Mom.”
+++“You really think so?”
+++“I do.”
+++“I’m still scared.”
+++“I know, Mom. Me, too.”
+++“What if He sends all the smokers straight to Hell? If He does, then that’s where I want to go.”
+++“You could quit.”
+++We laughed, knowing I was mostly joking and it felt good to hear her giggle again. We both knew she would never quit. She was already dying. The cancer had already won. I tried to reassure her.
+++“There is no way He sends them all to Hell, Mom. Lots of good people smoke.” What I had really wanted to tell her was that I was sorry and that it would actually be okay if she ended up in Hell because that was where I would eventually end up and then that way we could finally be together, but I didn’t want to upset her during those last few weeks.
+++“You really think I can smoke in Heaven, Sadie?”
+++“I really do.”
+++“I hope you’re right, honey. I really hope you’re right.”
+++“I am.”
+++This was Mom’s biggest worry about dying. She didn’t care that she would never stare into the Grand Canyon or breathe the fresh freedom air of the desert at night or take a hot air balloon ride or skydive or any of that other crap people are supposed to cry about because they never got around to it before cancer ate them. My mother only worried about Heaven’s smoking policy.
+++I stub out my Newport, pick up my hot pink ball, and start the wretched game. After two frames, I have a score of seventeen. Not bad for me. Not bad at all. Then I stop pretending to play and I watch him. He is fetching shoes and pretzels and sodas and beers. He’s doing it all, keeping busy, making his shift go by faster. I watch until there is no line, until he is standing behind the counter alone, and then I need a beer.
+++“Two dollars.” I hand him two bills from the collection Mom left me.
+++“That’s the cleanest money you’ll ever handle.”
+++He doesn’t say anything.
+++“Aren’t you a little young to be serving beer?” I ask.
+++“How do you know how old I am?”
+++“I don’t. I just thought you looked kind of young.”
+++“Well, I am, but Stan decided not to show up tonight so I’m running the show.”
+++I make sure he sees me look at his nametag. “You’re doing a great job, Jamon. I was watching.”
+++“I know. I saw you.”
+++“Oh.” I am flustered so I grab my beer and head back to the game. Frame three. Two gutter balls in a row. Twice, I didn’t hit anything. Twice, all the pins remained standing. Twice, my ball couldn’t stay in the lane.
+++A few heavy swallows and the beer starts buzzing me and I’m much calmer and finally Candy Lane starts rolling a little more like she should: into a spare and then into a strike and then into another spare. Not bad at all. I light a cigarette and stare at Jamon through the smoke.
+++A few more gulps and I am done with my beer and decide to let the game sit for a bit because I can’t stop watching him. I am drawn to the way he counts the money into the drawer and double counts it out of the drawer. He is a careful person. He is careful with other peoples’ money, with other peoples’ valuables.
+++I light another cigarette and feel the guilt fill my lungs. The day after Mom stopped breathing, I started smoking. At first, just so I could still smell her, and then because I had to, and now because it is the only time I feel at peace. I wonder if the cancer will get me too.
+++After the smoke, I leave my lane. I want to be close to him, again.
+++“Another beer?” He asks.
+++“No I’m good. Just the one for me.”
+++I just keep staring at him. His hair is light and curly like his father’s was. He is taller than me, but that’s not saying much. His chin is rippled. He has a brown smudgy birthmark on his left cheek. That mark witnessed everything. It saw his father’s head get crushed. It heard his mother scream. It heard Jamon scream. It felt hot tears. I can’t stop staring at it. It knows who I am.
+++“Is there something wrong? Do you want to switch lanes?”
+++“No. I’ll stay in my lane.”
+++I don’t walk away, but I don’t say anything. I just stand at the counter and make eye contact. It turns into a good old-fashioned stare down. Jamon looks away first, and I feel as though I’ve won because for my prize he speaks to me.
+++“If you wait until I’m closed up here, Candy Lane, we could hang out.”
+++“Okay, I’ll wait.”

+++I finish the damn game with a score of 78, definitely not my worst, but nowhere close to my goal of breaking a hundred. It was hard to concentrate. I sit down on an orange, plastic chair and chain smoke until his shift is over and he is counting his drawer and turning off lights, grabbing a clunk of keys.
+++“You ready to go?” he asks.
+++“Yeah.” I say.
+++“Sorry we can’t just hang here, but the boss installed cameras. He wants us out of here as soon as we’re done.”
+++“Don’t be sorry. I hate bowling alleys anyway.”
+++And somehow I have done it. I am walking out of the lanes with the boy. He is waiting to talk to me. He is waiting to know me.
+++We walk slowly to my car. The silver always looks shinier under parking lot lights.
+++He’s too young to go to a bar, and we can’t go to his house because his mother is there, so he suggests a spot he likes to go to look at the stars and he asks if I’m the kind of person that likes to look at the stars and I tell him that I’m not, but I should be, that I’d like to be, so let’s go.
+++We get into my car and I am about to remind him to buckle up, but he fastens the belt as soon as he sits down, his chubby hand reaches for the strap like it’s something he does every single time he gets into a car, no questions asked, even if he’s just heading down the street for a pizza, even when his mom drops him off at work and only drives the back roads. I drive slower than needed and I use my blinker every time I change lanes and I ask him if he’s too cold or too hot and tell him I can turn the AC up or down and he says he’s fine and then he tells me I drive like I’m eighty-three.
+++He asks me what I think about buying a bottle and I tell him that if we are going to drink, then we are stuck for the night because I don’t drink and drive and he says good he wouldn’t want me to and then I tell him I won’t buy tequila, that I hate tequila, and he says good so does he and then I buy us a bottle of Wild Turkey while he waits.
+++It’s a park, an older park, with a seesaw and a few bouncy animals and a swing set and supposedly a small pond, but Jamon says you can’t see it because it is too dark.
+++“You really can see a shit load of stars from here,” I say.
+++“Yeah, I’ve always liked this spot. When I was young my dad would take me here to feed the ducks. We called it the top of the world.”
+++My throat closes. I can’t respond. We walk over to the swings and each pick one out to sit on. He won’t stop looking at me. I light a smoke and breathe in my mother’s scent. I offer him one. He refuses. I exhale.
+++“So do you always take rides with strange women and then get them to buy you booze?”
+++“No, you’re my first.”
+++“Good. It’s probably not a good habit to get into, you know. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s dangerous to talk to strangers?”
+++“You’re not a stranger.”
+++I take a swig and don’t say anything. I can’t say anything. I pass the bottle of Turkey back to him and we have another silence contest. We swing for a while and I keep waiting, thinking he has to say something, yell something, scream something, but he won’t so I lose this time and speak first.
+++“How did you know?”
+++“That picture the paper used. It was always her with two daughters. You’re the youngest one, right?” He says the word her with a stabbing harshness.
+++“Yeah, I’m Sadie.”
+++“You look almost the same as you did in the picture, just older.”
+++“I feel older.”

+++We swing and the old chains creak. The stars are getting brighter, the canvas of the sky darker, the air colder.
+++“My mom took me to this park every Saturday morning after it happened. We’d feed the ducks and she’d watch me climb up the slide’s metal stairs and then she’d always have to remind me to slide down. ‘Come down, honey. Please. The other kids are waiting.’ I didn’t want to. I wanted to sit up there forever because from that high up I thought I might be able to see Heaven. I’d sit on the top of that slide that sat on the top of the world and look for my Dad.”
+++“I don’t see a slide.”
+++“It’s not here anymore. They tore it down a few years back. I guess they didn’t want kids climbing that high anymore.” I tell him about getting jailed by the Hamburgler and we laugh and swing and then he asks me the question I knew he was going to ask me.
+++“Why are you here, Sadie?”
+++“I’m moving to Arizona.” Of course, I know that isn’t what he wants to know, but I’m not ready so I take another swig and pass the bottle back.
+++“Why Arizona?”
+++“I got a job transfer. My mom always had this thing about cleaning her money and she had this crazy idea that if you lived where the air…”
+++“I don’t want to hear about her, Sadie. I don’t want to hear anything about her.” His angry voice is back. He walks to the car. I follow him.
+++“Getting cold, huh?” I say.
+++He doesn’t respond, so as soon as we both settle into our seats I tell him something I know will make him happy.
+++“She’s dead, Jamon. My mom is dead.”
+++I know I should have been ready for this. Of course he would say that, feel that, really mean that, but it shakes me anyway and I start rocking my neck and shoulders in the nodding your head and agreeing kind of way, but not meaning to agree at all. I sleeve the tears off my cheek, but I can’t stop all of them. The escaped ones roll off my face and onto the steering wheel.
+++“I shouldn’t have said it that way.” He hands me the bottle.
+++“No, I’ve had enough.” I light a cigarette and start to calm a bit.
+++Jamon puts the almost empty bottle on the floor between his feet. “Sadie, why are you out this way?”
+++I inhale and exhale, twice, before I respond. “I wanted to see you. I wanted to see how you were. If you grew up.”
+++“Of course I grew up.”
+++“I know. I guess I mean I just wanted to see what you’d grown into. You’re seventeen now, right?”
+++“Yup, seventeen. Feel older, though.”
+++We both laugh just a little, breaking some of the tension the mention of my mother had caused. He picks the bottle back up and we keep swigging and my nerves are loosening like an old pair of shoelaces that just can’t stay knotted. I can feel the truth starting to trip me up. Unraveling. And, then, finally it is here.
+++“Jamon, I lied about why I’m here.”
+++He doesn’t say anything. As if he knows that just one tiny word and I might chicken out, I might not do it.
+++“I’m here because I want to ask you to stop hating her.”
+++He stares out the windshield. His eyes are moving back and forth and back and forth.
+++“I want you to stop hating her. I need you to stop hating her.” We play the silence game, again.
+++I wait for his forgiveness, but it won’t come. He won’t say anything and now I know he will win it all because now I will tell him everything.
+++“She didn’t even do it. I did. I was the one driving her car that night.”
+++His eyes just keep moving back and forth like a spectator watching a tennis match or a news anchorman reading a teleprompter, reading things like a Colorado father was rundown by a drunk driver late last night. He was changing a tire when the driver, a 35 year-old mother of two from Marblehead, Massachusetts, violently slammed into the helpless man. He is survived by his wife and nine-year-old son. The driver has since turned herself into the police.
+++I take a deep breath and then the truth starts blowing out, collecting speed like an interstate bound tumbleweed. I can’t stop it from rolling across the highway. It just keeps rolling and rolling and rolling.
+++“I stormed off that night. We were fighting about money, Beth, Mom, and me, and I didn’t get my way. Beth was finally getting her shit together and Mom wanted to help her pay her first semester of tuition so I was, as Beth would say, S.O.L. for a bit. Mom wanted Beth to go to school because she knew she wouldn’t be around to help, that the cancer would eventually win and she wanted to know we could get along without her even though at that point she was in remission, she was supposed to live. So Beth got her way and I was pissed about the money because I wouldn’t get to go on my class trip and I was pissed because I was young and that’s the kind of shit you get pissed about when you are young, so I took the car and drove out to the ocean, just to sit and to get calmed by the waves, but first I stole a bottle of tequila from Beth’s secret stash because that’s what we’d passed around at the only party with booze I’d ever been to, the one Beth had the weekend Mom went to New York for a work conference and then I, not my mom, me, Sadie, I hit your father. I was the one who did it, and I don’t remember any of it. No. That’s a lie. I’m lying, again. I do remember it. Some of it. Parts. I definitely remember stealing the bottle. It had a gold label. I also remember the bump, bump, bump and I clearly remember throwing up on the steering wheel and it tasting exactly like black pepper and I remember the silver ashtray filled with butts on the kitchen table at our house and I remember Mom and me crying and I remember the lie sounding truth-like when Mom spoke. ‘Sadie, you were never in my car tonight, you were never driving my car tonight.’ And I remember Beth sitting there pissed off at the world, pissed off at the lie she was going to have to live.”
+++The sound of the passenger door opening makes it all stop. I finally stop. Jamon lets his head fall toward the pavement. He heaves. It sounds painful, violent. A putrid smell of Wild Turkey vomit wafts into my Shadow.
+++“You okay?” I ask.
+++He doesn’t say anything. My right hand is resting on the black shifter. Jamon takes it and squeezes my palm and then he reclines the passenger seat back and closes his eyes. Our hands slide off the shifter and onto the glowing gear numbers. And then we sleep.

+++When I wake up my hands are in my pockets and sweaty. Jamon is turned toward the passenger window, snoring. The dark wants to break. I quietly open the car door and walk to the swing I was on last night. It’s bleeding daylight all over the place. The cracking light is beautiful.
+++When I get back to the car, Jamon is stirring. “What time is it?” I ask.
+++“Will you drive me home? My mom is probably freaking out wondering where the hell I am.”
+++“Yeah, I’ll drive you home.”
+++The only thing Jamon says is where to turn. We pull up to a tan raised-ranch. I’ve always hated that style of house, how it forces you to walk upstairs or downstairs as soon as you enter. No time for decision-making. No time to think about what you really want to do.
+++He opens the passenger door and squints back at me. “Good luck in Arizona, Sadie.”
+++He walks to the front door as he pulls up his sagging jeans that are exposing rolls of back fat. He doesn’t turn back. I pull away and head to the interstate, to the highway that will take me to my new job in the desert.

+++A few hours into the trip I pull over at a rest area to pee. My feet hit the pavement and I see those damn bowling shoes. I think of Jamon at work tonight finding my black Nikes on the size nine shelf and I think of this making him smile. He thinks it’s kind of funny. Me, forced to trek through the desert in a pair of one size too big shoes only made for the smooth shiny lanes of the alley, never meant to go outside. My right side stuck with only half a sole. I even make him chuckle out loud as he throws my Nikes into the trash’s mix of nacho sauce and soda stained plastic cups. I make this be his memory of me.



Patrina Corsetti’s work has appeared in The Prompt and is forthcoming in The Passed Note. She holds a BA from Reed College and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught ESL in Thailand, China and most recently Italy. Patrina is currently a student at The Writers Hotel and is hard at work completing her first novel.