Rielle, she was the excuses type. But her manager refused to believe anybody would be so ghoulish as to lie about her mother passing just to get out of a shift.
“Take as much time as you need—” Carly pledged the server, the line already dead.
The staff gathered in the kitchen for the pre-shift meeting, where Carly felt solemn-bound to tell them the news. The servers dwelt on their boots, pulled at their checkered apron strings; too young to have lost a parent, they were bullied by its enormity. Carly, who hadn’t spoken to her mother in years and knew the shape if not the weight of the girl’s loss, did what she hoped others, god forbid, would do for her, and proposed a burial fund.
That slapped the staff from their funk. Nobody was thrilled about handing over a chunk of tips, not for Rielle, cash-starved every fourth week of the month, sharking tables, whining over lunch shifts, demanding extraordinary exceptions for her ordinary problems. They could guess where her money went. Carly assured them no one had to give; if they could afford it, if they thought it might help, so on. She babbled as they stared blankly at her. In the half year since she’d been made manager a gulf had split open between herself and her former peers; they’d taken to enacting her suggestions with an ironic subservience, mocking her authority by complying with it; the more voluntary she made this fund, the more involuntary they would treat it, punishing her for every dollar donated until she would beg them to keep the money she’d solicited.
But generosity gathered with every table sat. The first cut handed over a twenty-dollar bill; the server working the private party in back declared his contribution of forty. (A way of boasting about his take-home, no doubt, but Carly took it.) The head bartender forwarded a $50 tip off one too-drunk tab. By closing the fund neared $500, double the haul she’d hoped for. As she secured the rubberbanded wad of bills in the bar register Carly praised herself for pushing the staff into a charity made all the more noble in being for someone none of them liked.
The next afternoon, thirty minutes past her in-time, Rielle staggered through the back door, crazy-eyed, gin’s flower-mean stench on her, slammed her purse into her locker, seethed at the first person to attempt condolences, and began making her rounds on the floor, muttering profanities, oblivious or perhaps hyperaware of the craned necks of happy hour customers, daring their judgments.
Carly was retrieved. Reille needed only one look at her boss’ face. “Fuck you and this whole fucking place,” she lit in. “Treated me like shit since the moment I got here—”
Tattooed on both Reille’s inner forearms was a flock of blackbirds, such that (she once said) when she pushed her arms together, in moments of panic, her flesh formed the sky. Now she seemed to be flinging these ravens at her boss, who scooted back in awe, before two broad-shouldered line cooks finally crowded the screaming server out the side exit. Her voice cracked into a sob as the door shut against her. The staff watched wordlessly from the floor, their introduction that grief involved more than sadness.
For the rest of the shift Carly hid in her office, shuffling and reshuffling invoices until her palms purpled from cheap ink. She’d wanted nothing more than to call her mother a few months back and brag about her promotion, barely past her Associate degree and already manager of a thirty-dollar-a-plate restaurant—she, who used to scamper down the grocery aisles helping match items on the shelves to the coupon sheet in her hand. That was back when the two of them spent each night leaned over her homework, her mother prophesying that hard work would vault Carly beyond her limits; long before she started writing bad checks, got caught swiping from the register at the dress store, took out loans in her daughter’s name, ruining Carly’s credit. The last Carly had seen her she’d borrowed $100, pinky-swearing to pay it back the next day. Carly left message after message pleading to forgive the debt, until she realized the debt was the point, the woman’s snarl: cheat or be cheated. Her daughter was just another debtor she’d outmaneuvered.
Carly’s phone buzzed just as she finished counting the banks: Underground, read Theresa’s text. Better get in on this before it's gone.
“How much is left?” she demanded as she stormed into the subterranean dive dark with black-uniformed servers. Sullivan, lumbering long-bearded athlete of after-work revelry, bellowed a welcome, then ordered a round of single-malt that forced the bartender up a stepladder. “That oughta take care of the rest of it,” he said, pulling the familiar roll of bills from his pocket.
Carly yanked the fund from his hand. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Plenty,” he assured her. “But as for this, specifically? We collected cash for our former coworker. Our former coworker rejected it. It reverts back to us. We couldn’t think of a better way to spend it than by having ye olde good time, which you may or may not remember was pretty much impossible when said former coworker was around.”
“Her mother died!”
“We toasted her,” Theresa swore, petite hand presenting an empty pint glass as evidence. “First round.”
Sullivan: “Can we have our fancy scotch now?”
“It’s not your money—” But the moment this left her lips Carly knew it was wrong. She searched the faces of Theresa, her employees, the bartender waiting to pour from the bottle of scotch older than all of them, then stuffed the cash into Sullivan’s paw and escaped the bar ignoring hollers to stay and enjoy the money it had been her idea to raise.
Theresa arrived on Carly’s doorstep two rounds later, per their plot to never be seen leaving together. But she didn’t usually carry such a cockeyed look. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“You all got loaded off a woman’s burial fund,” Carly said.
“We toasted her.” Theresa raised the ghost of the earlier glass. “To Rielle’s mom!”
They slept together that night and never again. An hour of phone calls via emergency contacts (her mother unlisted among them) the next morning eventually revealed Rielle’s mom’s sister’s address. Carly wrote a check for $237, the remaining amount she’d failed to salvage the night before, mailed it with a note saying it was from Rielle’s coworkers, to be put to the best use possible. She added she was sorry for their loss.
Carly only technically had $237. Her father had loaned her a couple thousand back when the creditors came hounding about her mother’s past-dues; she still paid him back a fistful every month. She called now to tell him she’d miss a round. “I don’t want your money, tadpole,” his automatic line. “Spend it on you.” But he had back problems, had been out of work for months.
A letter arrived from the aunt; Rielle, it read, hadn’t shown up to the funeral. Please, tell her we love her, finished the note in crimped ballpoint script. Please, tell her to come home, even for a day.
Enclosed, a snapshot of Rielle’s mother, taken at a pizza joint blinging with arcade games, a birthday party lit mid-eruption around her. Carly interrogated her face, a tired reluctant smile yielding no more to her than it had to the photographer. She and her daughter had the same high cheeks and squinted eyes, not pretty but striking, beauty you didn’t gaze at but still could snare your eye. What crime had this woman committed to ignite her daughter’s loathing? Or had it just been an overserving of selfishness and cruelty made rancid by resemblance, forcing Rielle each time she looked at her mother to detect the same in herself?
On her day off Carly drove to Rielle’s listed address; an eviction notice stamped the door. She scared up the landlord’s number, but he said he couldn’t give out her forwarding information even if he knew it, which he definitely didn’t. “Probably in the gutter somewhere,” he cackled, and Carly told him to be ashamed.
She quizzed the servers; they shrugged; all those nights guzzling their tips elbow to elbow, they knew nothing of each other. She phoned the unemployment office, but Rielle had never filed a claim; the police department hadn’t picked her up. Her phone number stuttered straight to voicemail, full; soon the line was cut.
Carly kept the photo of Rielle’s mother. Throwing it away seemed as ghastly as spending the burial fund; mailing it back felt cruel. Most of the time she didn’t think about it, except for those nights she guzzled a glass of wine too many (Theresa on her phone, you up?), when she retrieved the snapshot from her nightstand drawer and examined it on her narrow balcony. They hadn’t even been able to find a picture of the woman with her daughter.
Carly quit the restaurant, good riddance. Her management title nabbed her a job running the accessories section of a department store; soon she was overseeing the whole floor. She paid her father back the last of the loan. (“I don’t want your money, tadpole,” he said, but the check was cashed.) And she went out for drinks one January evening with a seasonal temp, Allison, who started sleeping over at her place every night. They were in Carly’s bed when she looked up at a constellation of photos pinned to the wall.
“Who’s that?” she asked and Carly identified each member, until, having exhausted the relatives, she asked where her mom was and Carly’s eyes slid by habit to the photo of a woman at a pizza joint. “Tell me about her,” Allison said.
Carly’s tale began with her descriptions of her mom pushing her down the grocery aisle in a cart, Carly learning to read by eyeing the coupons against the logos, real memories still warm. Then she improvised. “She was always there for me. Helped me when I needed money.” Carly imagined what Rielle would have wanted from her mother. “She forgave me no matter what I did. No matter what trouble I got in, she welcomed me back. There wasn’t anything I could do that would cost me her love.”
“I’d love to meet her.”
“She passed,” Carly said, and listened to the protest of shock, the same she’d once uselessly given Rielle over the phone.
“I’m so sorry.”
Carly untacked the photo for which she’d paid $237, saw again in the woman’s tired face the resemblance to the server who’d stalked the restaurant furious at some unseen force. Early on, when they were both new hires at the restaurant she and Rielle had gotten sloppily drunk one night after work, at a bar the rest of the staff had never heard of. Back at her apartment, Carly confessed for the first time to anybody that she hadn’t spoken to her mother in years; in return Rielle showed her coworker how she made the sky with her flesh. They’d ended the night curled in each others’ arms, too gone to do anything but find comfort in another person, a comfort that didn’t even last the morning: from the moment she awoke Rielle detested Carly for this intimacy, enfolding her with the rest of the world as a threat that preyed upon a weakness she hadn’t chosen.
Now every day, as she passed down streets pocked with gutterpunks or past bus benches slanted with bodies, Carly hunted in her peripheral vision for a high-cheeked, squint-eyed girl, pressing her arms together, to whom death had cancelled no debts.
“Don’t be sorry,” Carly said, tearing the photo. “They owe.”
Image - Gary Pearce
Bio: Evan McMurry graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in more than a half-dozen publications, including Post Road and Euphony, and his reviews have appeared in Bookslut and elsewhere. He is currently the social media editor for ABC News.
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