Almost Like Laughter

By R. L. Aseret

With the dregs of her morning coffee, Whitney swallowed her last two codeine tablets. Damn. She’d have to see if the pharmacy would give her another refill. How many days had this bottle lasted? The label read “#36.” Less than a week: they’d hassle her. Better to go to a different pharmacy. But then she’d need a new scrip. Dr. Demarest dying was a tough break. With a new doctor, and worse yet, new office staff, she’d have to explain her teeth. She reached for her cigarettes and found the pack empty. She crumpled it and threw it at the trash. It landed on the carpet beside three others. Damn.

As soon as she heard Duane’s voice on the answering machine, she turned down the volume. Whatever you want, get it from your new little piece of blond fluff. She didn’t want to actually tell him, though, she depended on the check every month. Asshole, now he gets all the drugs he wants with her daddy’s money.

At the window, the sun drooped low in the sky. Soon Stephanie would be home from school. An acrid scent of chemicals wafted up, seeping in the slightly open window and cracks around the door. Down below, Hubert maneuvered the long aluminum pole with the net on the end of it, cleaning the pool. How’d she get so lucky as to have Mr. DIY for a landlord anyway? Normal landlords paid poolmen, plumbers, and gardeners to have services done. Hubert did it all. He had lizard vision, too. Even with his back turned, somehow he’d see her. The way the mini-blinds, five slats at face level anyway, bent at the side, made it impossible to block out light or sight. Now he’d be up here wanting the rent.

She hurried to the bathroom and dragged a brush over the outer layers of her hair, brushing it down and around her face. She practiced talking in the mirror without showing the broken brown shards of her teeth. She needed a cig to smoke while she walked, something to do with her hands. It wouldn’t do to have Hubert see her biting her nails. Not much cuticle remained, except for a little on her right ring finger and her pinkies. She pulled her hand from her mouth through force of will and stared at it, as if it might’ve acted alone.

In the refrigerator, she found the same jars of dill pickles and pimentos, the moldy unidentifiable, and a bottle of Rose’s Lime juice. Pouring a little lime juice in the cap, she dipped each fingertip in turn, and tried to shake away the pain while wildly dancing around from foot to foot, until she bumped her hip on the sharp angled corner of the Formica counter and stopped with a groan. Before, the codeine would’ve muted the pain of impact, now it just kept the pain she already had from raging. She’d never make it through the night without more.

Her rubber thongs stuck to her feet from that mystery stuff she stepped on. In her bedroom, she rummaged through a pile at the foot of the bed and, finding a pair of jeans, pulled them on, tucking her oversized formerly white tee shirt in. Grimacing, she pulled up her jeans again and tried folding over the waistband when she didn’t see her belt.

Where was her purse? Not by the door or on the dining table or the bed. Wandering around looking for it, she stubbed her toe and knocked over a stack of books. Finally, she found it wedged between the toilet and the tub. The bottom was wet, but then so was the floor, with what she hoped was plain water.

The only towel in the room was Stephanie’s Tweety Bird. She blotted her shoulder bag with that, flipped off the lights, and headed out. Opening the door a crack and peering out, she saw only two people, at either ends of the pool dozing in loungers. How could they expose so much flesh? Then again, how could they carry that much around? Were their muscles stronger? Seems like they’d have to be. Could she get cigs and codeine and be back before Stephanie came home? She heard Hubert talking to Mrs. Harbitty downstairs. She had to get out before Hubert came up.

She grasped the key to her deadlock and palmed the other keys on the ring to silence them. Wincing when the door creaked—why didn’t Hubert fix that?—she turned the knob all the way and pushed her other hand against the wood to keep it from hitting the jamb and making a sound. The wind raised goose bumps. She ducked back inside and dug in the pile at the end of her bed again until she found a corduroy shirt. She buttoned the lower buttons and tucked it in. Now her pants stayed up, though she knew she could still wriggle out of them without unbuttoning or unzipping them. The shirt was warmer, plus it would hide her body, useful in getting the scrip refilled. Sunglasses: they’d help, too.

After checking the window and not seeing Hubert, she slipped out the door and locked the deadbolt. Hearing heavy footfalls skidding to a stop on each of the front stairs, she scooted along the hall to the rear stairs and down as quickly as she could manage. She didn’t want her thongs slapping the stones embedded into the concrete staircase. Nearing the bottom, she glanced around. She didn’t want to be seen obviously sneaking. Her car parked in front posed a problem. How could she go the length of the building without Hubert or anyone else that mattered seeing her? Especially since she’d have to practically vault the concrete slab porches in front of each front door on the first floor to stay under the overhang of the upstairs hall.

Two bodies remained splayed on resin loungers. At one end of the turquoise pool, rippling in the breeze, lay that woman who lived at the end of the hall, Corinne. She always sneered at Whitney while reaching for more chocolate-covered or crunchy fried things or diet soda. The lounger at the other end held that Jeremy guy who’d plastered his bumper with Sierra Club, Save the Sea Otter, and “Join the Army—travel to far away places, meet interesting people, and kill them” stickers. She wanted to stick a Melanoma Kills sticker on his forehead—the way he always looked at her like she was too pale to live. Not everybody wanted to look like they’d been dipped in furniture stain.

They’d probably absorbed enough rays to produce that natural tranquilizer. That should keep them out there and out of it until the temperature seriously dropped. Mrs. Harbitty, on the other hand, wasn’t about to sit back and let someone dart unremarked across her field of vision.

She meant well, Mrs. Harbitty. Stephanie liked her. Ever on the lookout for someone else’s business to mind, since she apparently didn’t have any of her own to occupy her. Stephanie loved the way Mrs. Harbitty actually cooked meals and baked her own cakes, cookies, and, Stephanie’s favorite, fruit bars.

“What’s so great about macaroni and cheese?” Whitney asked once.

Stephanie shrugged and looked near tears, and stuck her thumb in her mouth. She always hated to be questioned. “It tastes good and it fills you up.”

Whitney considered asking Mrs. Harbitty to watch Stephanie, to keep her until Whitney got back. No, she wouldn’t be gone long, and besides then she’d have to talk to Mrs. Harbitty. Mrs. Harbitty always had that look on her face when she talked to Whitney, as if she was gathering the courage to talk about something that deeply pained her.

I don’t want to hear it, Whitney wanted to tell her. Better to avoid her, better to leave the building as soon as possible so she’d get back soon. Her jeans skimmed the edge of each concrete porch, the denim making that scraping sound. She wished it were quieter, but didn’t think it sufficiently loud to alert Hubert upstairs. Where had he gone anyway? It sounded as if he was cleaning the window gutters. Didn’t he have anything else to do with his time?

The toughest part was coming up, when she was no longer shielded from upstairs view by the overhang. Once she got to the end of the building, by the base of the stairs, if he looked toward the street, he’d see her. It couldn’t be helped though. She quickened her pace and continued walking heel first to minimize the thongs slapping her feet.

The door to her big old sedan made a loud protest when she opened it. She thought she’d heard her name before she shut the door, but she didn’t look up. She shoved the key in the ignition and stole a look at the gas gauge. Damn. Almost out. She checked the side view mirror, gunned the accelerator, and spun the steering wheel to its maximum. No hearing person in the area could have missed the rumbling roar, but she didn’t care. She was gone, out of there, on her way to get what she needed.

At the corner, she saw a sad girl standing on the left that looked like Stephanie’s best friend, Jane. But it couldn’t have been Jane, it was too early, school wasn’t out. Besides they always walked home together. Whitney turned a wide right and sped toward the pharmacy out on the circle. Why was that girl staring after her car? Maybe she had nothing else to look at. Or maybe the loudness of the engine attracted her attention.

Another pharmacy sat right on the same traffic circle. She always wondered how two of the same type of businesses could make it in such close proximity, but now it might come in handy. She could try the one where she’d gotten the scrip filled, and if they wouldn’t fill it, she could go to the other place and ask them to call the doctor’s office. Or maybe she should try the new pharmacy first. Somebody must’ve taken over for Dr. Demarest. Hopefully, they’d be cool and give her a scrip. It’d worked really well when for six or seven months she’d been able to alternate between pharmacies.

The new pharmacy was so busy they didn’t hassle her. Nobody had seen her teeth because she’d picked up a flu shot flyer, as if absent minded, and tapped it against her upper lip. She’d maintained that nonchalant attitude despite the old guy behind her trying to satisfy his nosiness. The clerk scarcely looked up, and when she did her blank stare spoke of mindless adherence to orders and rules, leaving her free to think up new mascara and eyeliner color combinations or fantasize about meeting pop stars.

The clerk’s tone and expression evidenced boredom. “Do you have insurance?”

Whitney shook her head, and said, “No, I’ll pay cash.”

The clerk really looked at Whitney for the first time, then squinted and turned uncertainly toward the pharmacists. All three had receivers between their shoulders and necks and their hands busy.

“My mother’s waiting for her medication.” Whitney tried for earnest with her teeth covered. “I have to get back.”

The clerk sighed and rang it up, confirming the nature of her judgment by the way she carefully took the money and dropped the change into Whitney’s hand so as not to have physical contact.

The other clerk, the one usually on duty, who Whitney thought of as a Nazi, always wanted to check each prescription, and verify the customer’s worthiness, before handing it over. This one didn’t get involved. Whitney wondered how hard it would be to figure out which shifts each clerk worked.

Whitney got herself cigs, too, so she was calmer. Although she preferred juice, she bought a bottle of soda because it was cheaper, and quickly swallowed two pills on the way to the car. Stephanie would probably be home, because of all the time Whitney had had to wait in line, but she’d probably busied herself with homework. Damn. Stephanie had asked for bread, peanut butter, and jelly, and she’d forgotten again. Her wallet was empty after getting the scrip, soda, and two cartons of cigs.

Maybe she could scrounge some change around the apartment. Duane might’ve given Stephanie some money when she visited him and his new wife last weekend, too. Remembering Stephanie telling her about a gorgeous peacock blue Persian rug that Duane and Kitty had prided themselves on buying made Whitney laugh. Stephanie said it was so beautiful, only it had a large irregular hole in the middle as if an enormous jawed creature had torn a bite from it. Kitty thought she was so clever, but she’d graduated from a state school, not Bennington like Whitney.

At the thought of Bennington, Whitney’s stomach panged her. Things were so different then, every day life as well as the future she expected. Drugs, sex, and acing a degree. What future had she expected? She couldn’t exactly recall, but knew she must’ve thought it would unfurl in front of her the way life had until then.

She swung the car into the alley. The brakes made a guttural sound as she abruptly stopped a few buildings past hers. She wouldn’t have to resort to sneaking out again, or if she did, it’d be easier.

Corinne had put on a riotously colorful robe printed with tropical fruit. Wearing high heels she crouched down by Jeremy, excitedly talking. When Whitney came into view, she stopped and watched Whitney walk to the stairs.

As she started up the stairs, Jeremy said, “Whitney.”

Whitney turned around and said, “What?”

Corinne whispered something, and he got flustered and waved his hand in embarrassed dismissal.

Corinne had a stupid, nervous grin on her face.

“Yeah,” Whitney muttered as she climbed the stairs, “have a good one.”

“Whitney . . . ” Great, Mrs. Harbitty had sprung into action.

Whitney sighed and stopped, wondering if she could reasonably continue walking and what the consequences would be if she did. Just as she summoned the nerve to resume ascending, Mrs. Harbitty’s quavery voice was right behind her. A note of injured chastisement in her voice, she repeated, “Whitney!”

Whitney closed her eyes, took a breath, and turned with fake surprise, “Mrs. Harbitty! I didn’t see you there!”

“Whitney, Stephanie doesn’t always eat right, and she seems to be more than at loose ends, she seems to be unsupervised and—”

“—Mrs. Harbitty. I’m sure you know that children do tell stories—”

“—Not that girl, I’ve never seen a child so closed-mouthed. Woebegone, certainly, but—”

“—Is there something I can help you with, Mrs. Harbitty? Do you need anything opened or gotten down from a high shelf?”

Mrs. Harbitty’s watery brown eyes and her voice were full of umbrage. “No, no, nothing like that, Whitney. Something had to be done, Whitney. It’s dragged on for far too long. Really.”

“Done?”

“Oh, this is really unwise.” Mrs. Harbitty wrung her liver-spotted hands, and her quavering voice trailed off as her hunched form disappeared around the corner toward her own apartment. “I never should’ve come out here like this.”

Snorting, Whitney briefly exulted that the old witch had finally seen the error of her ways. The confrontation ended without Whitney having to resort to subterfuge or lies—quite a change from Mrs. Harbitty’s usual behavior. From the upstairs hall, she saw Corinne and Jeremy still down at the same end of the pool. Corinne hadn’t retreated to her end. Something about their postures struck her. As if charged with static electricity, they seemed to be fighting some sort of energy that drew them together. Somehow it didn’t seem the least bit sexual though. It wasn’t that sort of attraction. If they didn’t work so hard not to look up at the hallway or at her and not succeed, but continue taking furtive glances, she probably wouldn’t have noticed. Hell with them.

A business card stuck in the crack of her door caught her eye.

Trudy Prescott

Children’s Social Worker

Department of Children’s Services

County of Los Angeles

The words Children’s Social Worker hit her like a brick in the chest. She stepped back hard. Suddenly, the behavior of Mrs. Harbitty, Corinne, and Jeremy fit. That was Stephanie’s friend Jane on the corner. Everything inside her began to whirl. Stephanie! That bitch Harbitty had reported her. Stephanie! Whitney felt Corinne and Jeremy’s eyes focused on her. Fuck these people. She snatched the card, thrust her key in the lock, and opened the door. As she shut it, she got a glimpse of Corinne still crouched by Jeremy’s chair as they both stared in her direction. She fumbled for the deadbolt knob, crying hard.

Images of Stephanie swam through her mind—her first sight of Stephanie, slick with blood and mucous, shortly after birth; Stephanie as a toddler reaching up to be held; Stephanie sleeping, her face innocent and rosy; Stephanie exulting over an “A” on her report card in Math; Stephanie’s tears when they had to move again; Stephanie’s flushed face when they’d encountered her friends from school in the grocery store. Stephanie! Whitney turned her back to the door and sank to the floor with her palms pressed together, fingers to her lips. Stephanie! Sobbing harder, she dropped her arms across her knees and her head to her forearms. Her sobs came hard and fast, sounding almost like laughter. Drool ran into her lap. Snot ran from her nose. No tissues in the apartment. She used toilet paper. She didn’t think she could ever stop crying.

She wept long enough to nearly choke on the mucous that rose up from the depths of her lungs. After hawking up greenish-brown gobs, she splashed her face with cold water. She told the mirror in a bitter, choked up voice, “You really should quit smoking.”

She lit up and tossed the match into the wastebasket, peering down to see if it started a fire. How could she give up anything this soothing? That steadied her nerves this way, that was so damned satisfying?

Still rhythmically gasping and hiccupping, she returned to the door to find the business card. Where had they taken Stephanie? Did they really think she was better off in some foster home where someone was in it for a measly few hundred a month?

The crumpled card lay on the matted carpeting below the hinges of the door. Something written on the back, she noticed.

Please call me as soon as possible regarding Stephanie.

Her chest and throat convulsed again. What the hell would this woman tell her? What could she herself say to bring this hellish situation to an end? How could she explain? How could she convince her that Stephanie was cared for?That Mrs. Harbitty was always sticking her nose into everyone’s business, and that Mrs. Harbitty shouldn’t be taken seriously? That no one should take a person’s child? That no one should have that much power?

She dialed the number, huddled on a dinette chair, hunched around the phone as though to protect it. She lit another cigarette from the one she had in her hand, the taste of lime in her mouth, and took a deep drag while the phone rang.

“Department of Children’s Services, Trudy Prescott.”

Whitney blew out the smoke that filled her lungs and began talking.

 

R. L. Aseret earned an MFA in Creative Writing and is constantly in the middle of a book, journal, and issue of New Yorker magazine. She believes daily reading (& writing) is necessary for survival, acts in support of social & economic justice, and encourages others to do the same. She has published a few fiction and nonfiction pieces, but has not submitted nearly enough.

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