HomeSouthern VoiceMake Us a Name

Make Us a Name

by S.P. Harris

Marlena leaned against the doorjamb, tired. She needed the night air to take the sweat and steam that had gathered at her temples, that had turned her hair into black tendrils. The mouth of the bar behind her blew moist breath past her and into the cold night. Chill bumps slalomed down her brown skin.

The other dishwashers would run from the door to the bus stop when they heard the brakes’ squeal echoing through the alley, but she liked the cold. She loved the way her new country took her breath and made it float visibly in front of her, the way it finally gave her a reason to wear the thick socks and jackets they gave her at the iglesia.

She puckered her lips and blew out that breath as if she was smoking one of the cigars the bar’s patrons flicked at her when the last call was sounded. The breath floated slowly to the frozen ground. Her eyes didn’t leave it, didn’t notice the thing happening down at the end of the alley – the magic of her new country kept her from seeing many things.

A twinkling melody a few feet down sounded and grew louder, and broke her from her stupor. She leaned her head out and saw a man lying on the ground, shaking. His foot was rolling around in a pile of broken glass.

She knew that bodies twitched and breathed for a time after they died. Still, something lingering in the back of her mind made her think it didn’t happen that way here — that these things didn’t happen here at all. In the dark, the blood next to his his head could have been another puddle. The man was probably just twitching in a drunken fit. Too many shots from the glasses Marlena spent all night washing for $7.25 an hour.

She stepped towards him, too exhausted for the alley’s shadows to scare her. “Do you need a taxi or something?” The man twitched on. “You need to get up,” she shouted.

His foot swung wide, tapping a polythrym on a dumpster. The sound bounced off the tight walls of the alley. A lonely, plastic rustling came from the dumpster. “Now you woke up the cat,” she said. “Well, if you’re just going to lay there,” she shouted so the man would hear, “I’m going to call the cops to make sure someone picks you up.” She hoped that would make him get up and leave. Men in her bar always ran off at threats of calling the police, though she hadn’t yet found reason to be scared of the law in her new country. The man just stayed there, doing his little horizontal dance. She pulled her phone from her pocket. “I’m not joking around.”

The rustling ceased and was soon replaced with a weary voice. “You don’t want to do that,” the voice sighed. She pictured the way the breath from that voice would have floated. It sounded less like fog over a morning lake, more like a ghost over a grave.

“Hello? Who’s there?” She stepped towards the man on the ground. The familiar smell of iron and shitted pants overpowered the bleach hiding under her fingernails. She didn’t think that smell existed here until now. Well past putting her hand over her mouth and whispering ‘dios mio,’ she clutched her purse close to her hips and turned around.

“Hey!” the voice shouted. “Stop!” She didn’t stop as much as her movements slowed to a crawl, hoping that the voice would forget she was there. The rustling came up behind her, quicker than her overloaded brain could process. The dead man smell was replaced with the piercing stench of old garbage.

Then he was in front of her. “You didn’t see nothing.” He wore a shiny black garbage bag for a shirt, and it seemed to fit him better than any suit or crown. His face was impossible to see in the dark, but she could see the breath floating out from his mouth. It didn’t seem magical anymore.

“I — “ loud shadows stumbled drunkenly past the end of the alley. She risked looking over the trash bagman’s shoulders at them. The one time she actually wanted one of the patrons to pay her attention, to feel their hot musty breath on her neck, to come save her from the trash bag man, they kept going. The alley grew quiet again. The man on the ground was still behind her.

“What did you see?” the trashbag man growled. She couldn’t find any words. He reached inside his trashbag shirt and pulled out a knife that somehow caught the only glint of light left in that alley – maybe the only glint of light left in the world.

It seemed huge out of the corner of her eye. When she found the strength to look at it full on, she had to suppress the urge for laughter – it was just a sharpened file from a pair of nail clippers. She’d seen men struggle to use machetes in her old life. Maybe they only had little knives like this here in the new country.

“What you look like in the light?” he asked, his breath lurking in the air and mixing with hers. The glint of the little knife disappeared. Something sharp pressed against her neck and she finally felt the cold her co-workers fled from. “It’s been a while since I seen a woman in the day. I’m long overdue for — “

Marlena managed to squeak out, “I won’t tell anybody.”

The intense cold left her neck. She waited for it to be felt somewhere else, to be quickly followed with the liquid warm of flowing blood.  She closed her eyes, held her breath and waited. The rustling started up again, and grew more distant. When she finally opened them, it was just her, the dead man on the ground, and the lonely ghost of her breath floating in front of her face.

*

“You cannot call them,” Elisa purred, not taking her eyes off the half-defeathered chicken on her kitchen counter.

Violet light slanted in through the window and made Marlena’s hands resemble a bruise. “I think I have to. I don’t think that … man would find me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“It isn’t that. The bluster of men always makes them say things like this. Men rarely act on their hot air.”

“Then what is it?” Marlena stood to help Elisa, but her knees hadn’t seemed to work right since the trashbag man held the little knife to her throat. She sat back down. The bruise-colored hand made its way to her chest.

Under Elisa’s hands, the chicken had fully transformed from a once-living creature to hunks of pink meat. She pulled a knife from a block. “It’s the men who don’t bluster – the ones that tell you sweet nothings — that you have to watch for. If it’s a sweet nothing, it’s just that – nothing you want. And the police, they are full of this.”

“But — “

Elisa turned around and waved the knife, forgetting it was in her hands. It kicked the purple glint into Marlena’s doe-eyes. She flinched. “No. You call the police, and they’ll find this place and no papers on anyone and none of us will be here anymore.”

Marlena didn’t realize she was holding her breath until Elisa turned back around and dug the blade between the thighs. “No, no … ” Marlena exhaled. “I thought this through. I’ll meet them somewhere public. Then they won’t see – “

The knife clacked on the counter. Conseula turned and waved her finger in Marlena’s face, but Marlena couldn’t take her eye off the knife. “Do you remember nothing?  Have you forgotten the rebels? The nationals? The militias?”

“Things are different here. The police aren’t — “

“Are they not men?”

The light had turned golden and lit up the back of Elisa’s head. Marlena wondered how someone could look so angelic and yet be so unbelieving. “The police here,” she said, “are not the men we knew.”

Elisa sighed and leaned down, losing the soft glow. The light hit Marlena in the eye. “All men are the men we knew,” Elisa sighed. She went back to carving the chicken. “Just … please don’t do this. Trust me for once. The police will ask for your address and they’ll check on it no matter what sweet nothings they say. They always do. I know you know how special this place is. You call, and we won’t be here no more.”

Marlena watched as Elisa put the chicken pieces in a pan, poured on some brown spices and threw it in the oven. She thought the temperature was too high, that the chicken would burn. She lifted her hand and opened her mouth to tell Elisa, but in her time in this new country, in this apartment complex built from every dialect of Spanish and Portuguese, she’d learned that there were as many ways to cook a chicken as there were people in the world, and they all tasted sweet. She didn’t tell Elisa anything.

*

The oncoming dark woke Marlena. She pulled on the white pants Elisa had washed for her, tucked her hair carefully into her work hat, though it immediately tendrilled out and waved in the stale air from the space heater. She left it humming and stepped out the door.

She passed dirt-caked men, sweating through layers of hoodies and blue workshirts, just coming home from another day in construction or landscaping or maintenance. Though filthy, they still removed their hats and said “hello” as she walked by. Children followed, looking for their fathers underneath the grime.

The bus was late, as always, but she didn’t yet care – she was still astounded that bus service could be so reliable and cheap, that it could exist at all. She looked down at her feet, at the light rubber shoes given to her by the bar and thought about walking to work – these shoes were comfortable enough to take her the miles she walked each night washing dishes and taking them to the kitchen and washing dishes and taking them back to the kitchen and washing dishes and taking them back to the kitchen. The distance was less than she used to walk daily to pick coffee berries, and the night was warm enough to let her see her breath without stiffening her fingers to worthlessness.

She took a step down the road and every one felt like she was walking on air. A song Elisa used to sing to her floated out with her magical breath. She was watching her song sink slowly to the pavement when the sound of glass breaking floated out of an open window and punctured the air above her. She jerked to a stop and looked up to make sure a body wasn’t about to fall and land on top of her.

Raucous laughter instead filled the night. Smiling, she looked up to see people a hundred different shades of brown hanging out of the tower’s windows, grinning and thinking the same thought Marlena had. How could any sound here be any sound other than celebration? This land was different, they all thought. There was nothing to fear.

She heard a hundred voices, all in different accents and tones and nasalities and dialects, turn back to their families, warm and clean in their new homes. “Everything is ok,” they all said, the grins turning their voices. “It was just someone having some fun. Listen to them laugh!”

“That’s somepin to hear, it’n it?”

“It is,” Marlena said. She turned to see a white man sitting on a bench behind her. He wore a stained gray sweatsuit, its bagginess showing that he was dogwood-thin. Seeing a white man in the tower was rare, but sometimes they came to hand out food and blankets and toys to the children. She smiled at him.

“Too bad it aint’ gon’ last,” he drawled through crooked teeth. The breath floated out of his mouth and lingered in front of him, like his words lingering in Marlena’s mind.

“What do you mean?”

He crossed his legs and leaned back, spreading his arms across the bench in invitation. “I mean to say I’ve seen this before. Seems nice now. All that laughin’ and carryin’ on. That broken glass ain’t gonna be funny for much longer.” He licked his lips. Marlena leaned back slightly.

Still, she’d dealt with men like this her whole life – Elisa had taught her well about their bluster. “I don’t know … if all of us here can come from somewhere different and live together just fine — “

“So you’re all living together just fine?” She nodded. He breathed in, sucking back in some of his breath-vapor. “Gotta be something lurking in the shadows here. Always is. This sort of thing – I seen it all before. It gets impossible after while.”

“Not here,” she said. “I don’t think anything is impossible here.” She looked down at her shoes.

He leaned forward and looked down the road. The hiss of air brakes and the squeak of rusted tires turning careened towards them. “We’ll see, won’t we?” He got up and stood next to her. “Y’on this bus?”

She watched his breath float in front of them and leaned back when his breath became one with hers. “I was thinking about walking … ” she said.

“It’s cold out, dear. And dark.” He leaned back and looked at her hips. “And a woman like you? I bet you look a lot better in the light.” The bus pulled closer. Something, either the squeaking drone of the brakes or the rasp of this man’s breathing, sent Marlena’s skin on a crawl.

The sick yellow of the bus’ headlight hit the man’s pale skin, giving him the look of a jaundiced newborn. She clutched her purse close to her ribs. “I think I’ll walk,” she said.

“You sure, darlin’?” He stepped on the bus and put his hand out like some bare-chested romance-novel troubadour. The fluorescent lights on the bus ceiling illuminated lines of dirt lingering in the man’s urine-colored wrinkles.

The bus driver’s throat clearing was the exact sound of the engine, just an octave higher. The man didn’t hear it. “We gotta go, Romeo,” the driver drawled, pulling the door shut. The brakes kicked air that dried the sweat on Marlena’s ankles.

The man walked down the length of the bus as it drove off, towards Marlena, never taking his eyes off her standing on the sidewalk. She couldn’t break her doe-eyed glare at him until the bus turned a corner. For all she knew, he kept staring in her direction all night. At least, the churning in her stomach made her feel like he still was.

The writhing snake in her stomach didn’t leave. She hadn’t felt this way since she stepped off the bus that had crossed the great desert and brought her here. She breathed out and back in a few times to calm herself. The breath floated in front of her face and sunk slowly before disappearing, as it always had here, but it was different in a way she didn’t have words for in any language she knew.

The night was full dark now, and her shaky knees wanted to ride the bus to work. She pulled the wrinkled schedule out of her pocket to see that another wasn’t coming for thirty-five minutes. She had to walk or face a dock in pay.

She started walking on those lighter than air shoes. The gulf of dark between streetlights grew longer and longer, and the celebratory laughter from the tower faded behind her. She found herself running between the oases of white streetlight. She couldn’t see the magical breath she cherished because she quickly ran past each one.

At a dark corner where a streetlight flickered in its last throes, she heard a familiar rustling, somewhere off to her side. Under the faded-red portico of an abandoned McDonald’s, a glint of light hit something black. It caught the light to become a sort of pallid gray, and didn’t reflect anything back. She squinted to look closer. It was just a trash bag laid out and smoothed on a chair — no murderer inside.

A car sped by and turned Marlena into a silhouette. A familiar glint of light jumped off a tiny metal object and hit her in the face. When her eyes adjusted back, she saw the blood-stained nail file, sharpened to a cold point. The grime covering it couldn’t hide the little knife that it was.

The tower was only three blocks behind her, full of fathers who had just scraped off the grime of a long day’s work to eat their wives’ chicken and listen to their children’s laughter in a hundred different dialects, full of people like her who had left home and ended up somewhere that once seemed impossible.

But everything was possible here. One murderer lurking in the shadows didn’t negate that she now lived in a magical land where things were different, where everything was to be trusted, where even breath looked beautiful. She belonged to that tower, to this country now. It had to be protected.

She darted back to the last pool of streetlight, and then the next, back towards her new home. Holding her cell phone up to her sweaty face, she said “Hello? I need to report … I think I know where the man … huff … is who murdered that guy on the news … he’s on the 82 bus towards — “

A deep voice stopped her. “Whoa, whoa, there. Would this be easier for you in es-span-yowl?” a man drawled.

He must have heard her accent. How kind of him. She made it back to the tower and heard life coming from the open windows. “Yes, that would be great,” she said in a pointed El Salvadorian cadence.

Coo-en-ta-may low, kay-ree-dough” he said.

His Spanish was slow and drawling and at times incomprehensible, but a policia who worked so hard to speak Spanish felt like a fairy grandmother from a children’s book. She told him the whole story.

“Well, we’ve got a team on it now, thanks to you,” he said. “What’s your name?”

Her smile covered her voice. “Marlena,” she said.

“Ain’t that a pretty name,” he said. The sound of a pencil writing snuck in to provide a minor-key counterpoint under their conversation. “Now, Marlena, I’m gonna need your home address.”

She could still taste the caramelized way Elisa made her chicken, how she turned something burnt into something beautiful. The streetlit tower casting a shadow over her, she breathed out, watched it sink, and told him.

S.P. Harris grew up in South Carolina, went to seminary up north and returned happily to Georgia, where he currently lives. He has previously had short stories published in The Bicycle Review and Poetica Magazine.

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