Dicing potatoes through the dinner shift, Rhoda glanced out the kitchen window at the blue rectangle, hovering over the lawn next to the outdoor seating. Just four primitive lines, traced upright into the evening air as if drawn onto a pane of glass. She had hoped she wouldn’t see it while she was at work, but there it was.
“Rhoda!” The chef de cuisine slapped the counter with his clipboard, making her jump. “Get your head out the clouds, girl. Potatoes are scalloped tonight, not diced.”
“No, Chef. I mean yes, Chef. Sorry.” Rhoda scooped the potato cubes into a bin and started over. She’d been pulled up twice for spacing out. The kitchen staff was starting to notice.
The Frame—that’s what she called it—had also appeared to her that morning. Picking up ingredients with Pink Smitty, she saw it in her peripherals, carved into the air by the edge of the wholesale distributor’s parking lot. I’m losing my freakin' mind she thought. Loading boxes of rotini into the van, she stopped and peered between its lines, down into a swale clogged with bramble, diapers and mulched coupons. It seemed that whenever Rhoda wanted to escape the strictures and stresses of life, there the Frame would be.
“What are you doing?” Pink Smitty had stopped loading the kitchen supplies and was watching her.
“Uh… spider web.” Rhoda waved a hand before her.
That’s what the Frame felt like. Insubstantial. Weightless. Made from something and yet nothing. Nothing of consequence. Not unless Rhoda actually stepped through it, and she wouldn’t try to then, at least not with Smitty watching. They’d known each other for a year now, first as coworkers at the restaurant, then later as friends going to punk and thrash shows together. Smitty was a real one. Still, seeing this Frame was an inexplicable fact she kept from those closest to her. She could barely explain it to herself.
On her day off, Rhoda spent the night doing laundry at the apartment complex where she lived with her mother and daughter. As she crossed the courtyard there with her basket on her hip, the Frame appeared to her again, hovering just over the patio by the shimmering pool. Hi there. Quiet night. Care to see what I’m all about?
These encounters implied invitation, as if the Frame was offering something. The more attention she paid to it, the more intentionality it showed in how it appeared to her. What had first seemed like random encounters almost a year ago soon became serendipitous. She’d first glimpsed it from afar, out in a field as she drove by. Then at the post office. It was in the record store, in the next aisle as she flipped through the thrash metal section. Once, it had blocked the curb as she hurried to work, pedestrians wondering what it was she was stepping around.
Placing her laundry basket beside the pool, Rhoda peering about to make sure she was alone, she then tossed a bit of gravel through the Frame’s opening. When nothing happened, she poked her foot between its lines and wiggled her toes in the air on the other side. Still nothing. Placing her foot down, she waited for a beat before stepping forward, passing all the way through. No biggie. Turning, she watched the blue lines fade away. That’s it? Maybe I won’t see this stupid blue rectangle anymore, she thought.
Next door, the middle school’s football field had been mowed that afternoon. She could smell the clippings and remembered how they used to get stuck between her toes as a kid. Behind the bleachers, someone had left the corrugated fence open. With the stadium lights off, just after the sprinklers, the grass was cool and inviting. Now that the middle schoolers were all at home she’d have it to herself.
Testing the turf with her heel, Rhoda felt the ground make a satisfying thump. The sound passed into the ground and she wondered if she stomped hard enough if she’d sense all the buried roots and rocks, like a kind of sonar. Kicking things until they were known was a giddy notion. Her knees and femurs tingled, like she could stomp all night. She wished something big would throw her against the ground just so she could hear a louder thump. Jeez, am I tripping balls?
She smelled deer droppings, spores from grass rust, chemical fertilizer that the lawn mowers had kicked up. Her stomach felt really good, like she’d taken the most perfect poop in all the world. Pounding her quadriceps with her fists felt meaty. How hard were her knuckles, anyway? If she bit them like testing a gold coin, would her teeth win out? Her teeth felt spring-loaded, like they could just shoot into whatever she bit like Dracula fangs. Biting felt really good, a deep atavistic urge which she satisfied momentarily by biting her own forearm. The harder she bit, the more her jaw tingled and she surprised herself when a metallic-tasting rivulet of blood streaked down to her thumb.
It hurt, but a good kind of hurt. And she could still make a strong fist. She tried a few awkward air-punches. Man, whatever these fists hit are in big trouble, she thought. Throwing her shoulders into the rotation felt great. She could punch all day, all the way across the field to that drive-through beyond the verge. In the humidity, its menu signs glittered bokeh between her eyelashes and she thought I want to be over there now. So she charged across the field, windmilling her arms.
Breaking through hedges, Rhoda’s bare feet slapped against greasy asphalt. A line of cars idled there before the backlit sign, drivers paying little notice to Rhoda leering from the wayside. Over the hot exhaust, a heady waft of sweet beef rippled unctuously from the service booth. A kid’s voice over the speaker, asking something. He wants to know… what does he want to know?
“Welcome to Wolfy’s. Can I take your order?”
“Hungry,” Rhoda demanded.
The Bronco behind her honked once, and she thumped her fist against its hood, pointing at the driver like forks of lightning might shoot from her fingertip. “Fieee you… better stop that you motherfuckerrr!” she seethed, blowing a quick snot bubble under the effort. The driver backed his hands off his steering wheel and made the ‘after you’ gesture.
The buzzing voice again, through the perforated metal box: “Can I take your order?”
“Yes, take it!”
“Um… what can I get for you?”
The line of cars in front of Rhoda smelled like dusty tire rubber and the concomitant chemicals in a tank of gasoline. Her eyes caught movement ahead at the booth: hands fluttering.
The car window spat money into the building window. The building window barfed burgers at the car window. Arms and hands slipped in and out between the building and the car like a fast-food french kiss.
“You gonna eat that?” Rhoda hollered.
And before the arms between the car and the booth had a chance to react, she slipped between them, tackling the bag of burgers with a football interception. Barefoot, she ran into the night, cackling.
“Mom wake up.”
Rhoda opened her eyes. Philly had climbed up onto the couch to kneel on her stomach.
“Ugh, you’re getting too heavy for this, kiddo.” Rhoda rolled and Philly slid off, planking stiffly between the back of the cushions and her mom. Rhoda’s mouth felt weird. She smacked her lips. Something oily had matured on her tongue while snoring. Her fingers felt rubbery and waterlogged.
“What’s a new-clear-salt?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Philly didn’t have any words to swap out, so she pantomimed big explosions, breath-whispering the sound effects.
“You mean a nuclear assault?”
Rhoda looked down to confirm she was indeed wearing her oversized Nuclear Assault tour shirt, sleeves cut off to make a shirt-dress, and oh crap, the laundry.
“What is it?” Philly asked.
“What’s what, honey?”
“A nuclear assault.”
Rhoda coughed, pinched her nose and turned over. “Your voice is a nuclear assault, baby.”
“No you! Your breath is one,” Philly shot back, recognizing the dis.
Parts of the evening were playing back in Rhoda’s head. “Hey baby, get momma a glass of water.”
“Grammie Bea said wake you up, up, up.” Philly bounced.
Rhoda’s mother, Bea, lingered in the kitchen, cleaning the same spoon over and over under the tap. Rhoda knew she’d sent Philly to wake her up as a little jab. Your daughter wakes you up. She takes care of you. Bea’s indirect, passive aggressive body language got under the skin, a mother-approved way of driving daughters nuts. But now Rhoda was a mommy herself it didn’t bother her so much. She filled a cup from the faucet, interrupting the stream her mother was using to work up a soap lather.
“How long have you been scrubbing that spoon, mom?”
“I have neighbors,” Bea muttered.
“You’re worried they’ll find out about your dirty spoons?”
“I’m worried you woke them up last night banging to that godforsaken music of yours in the carport.”
Without her key to the front door, Rhoda had lingered in the dark beside her mother’s Cutlass Supreme, face and shirt smeared in hamburger grease. Woken by the blaring thrash metal, Bea had come out in her robe clutching a broom and flipped the lights on. Two raccoons, sitting there with Rhoda, squinted in the overhead light, sniffing the air for scraps as if they’d been promised two hots and a cot.
“Shoo! Go on!”
Leaning away from Bea’s broom slaps, the raccoons looked up at Rhoda for a cue. Rhoda doled out two handfuls of smashed-up burger from the crumpled paper bag. Like drunks from the bar realizing there wouldn’t be an after-hours party, they each palmed as much hamburger as they could between their little claws and waddled out into the evening between the cars on the darker stretch of the lane.
“Where in God’s name are your pants?” Bea asked.
Without replying, Rhoda stumbled past her mother into the apartment, chuckling. “Huh, huh.”
“Don’t give me that idiotic goon laugh!” her mother cracked.
Now in the daylight, everything that mattered foreshortened into the present. That crazy urge to do things the moment they occurred had flushed from Rhoda like a breaking fever.
“Chuckley came by,” Bea mentioned it with an annoying lilt, still soaping the silverware.
“Fu—great. What did he want? You didn’t let him in, right? Did he look like he’d been drinking? Did you smell his breath?”
“I had an appointment, so he offered to watch Philly.”
“Mom!” Rhoda thumped the cabinet under the counter with the heel of her palm. “You can’t just leave her with him. He isn’t her father.”
“You don’t know that for certain.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“He came by to give you this.”
Rhoda’s mom pulled an envelope from out of a drawer below the kitchen cabinet. Rhoda wondered if she had debated giving the envelope to her or not. She searched her mom’s eyes for a sign she was withholding something. Then she opened the envelope. Inside was another check, and a photocopy of a pay stub.
“Great, he’s moving pianos. Probably going to throw his back out again.”
There was a sticky note attached to the back of the check.
Check the stub. It’s 25%. My lawyer says I have rights because you put my name on the birth certificate. Look, I know you won’t let me do a test, but come on. Look at Philly’s face. It’s obvious. Just because you think I’m a bum doesn’t mean you can change the truth.
Rhoda crumpled the note. If they found he was the father, it would set off a landslide of decisions establishing Chuckley as a permanent fixture in Philly’s life. And if the test came back negative, well that could set off a different kind of landslide. Questions, mostly from Chuckley. It would bring his friend Moser into the picture. Boy, that night was a mistake. Her friends had told her things. Things about her behavior that night that sounded like the wrong kind of crazy. Things that made her question whether her first encounter with the Frame was actually the first.
She wanted to look out the window to see if the Frame was there, but she didn’t. She was afraid she’d see it again, looking back at her from the street.
Back at work, julienning the celery at her mise-en-place, Rhoda glanced quickly through the kitchen window, just to check. Nothing. On laundry day she passed the pool where she had stepped through it and… nope. Not there either. Maybe it was like lancing a blister. These things that bothered her piled on her subconscious. Perhaps burger night with the raccoons was just her mind’s way of blowing off steam.
Even though she freaked her mother out and had a rockin’ headache from all the sodium, she felt wonderful that following morning. Despite how her mother had scolded her for setting a poor example for Philly, being childish was liberating. She wondered if this was something about motherhood that her own mom didn’t get. That sometimes you need to set aside the roles and just play.
If Bea would've just once played with her on the same level… Rhoda wondered if that would have changed who she was as a person. If she hadn’t always felt the need to goof at her mother’s rigidity she’d have wanted to be more of a serious person herself. She might’ve done more, been more.
Pink Smitty waited in the van after closing the restaurant, warming the engine while Rhoda locked everything up. Spray-painted matte gray and festooned with skate stickers, the old Econoline idled in the last space in the parking lot, side windows tilted outwards to aerate the reek of ditch weed. After power washing the rubber kitchen mats, Rhoda lugged them back into the kitchen and carried out the trash.
“Ugh, you smell like Simple Green,” Pink Smitty complained when he kicked open the back door for her. His eyes were bloodshot. “I swiped a sixer from the restaurant bar that we can sneak into the show. I think The Crumbsuckers are going on late… wanna drink in the lot behind the Kroger?”
“Nah, let’s just go straight there.”
Rhoda did want a beer, but Pink Smitty was nineteen. She was a lot older than him and she had a kid. Something in Chuckley’s note had made her more aware of that age gap. Downing longnecks in the battlewagon seemed a little juvenile. Yeah, she was going to the show, but the getting drunk part flew in the face of all the adult stuff she was supposed to be pro at. You can still go to shows and do mom stuff, she rationalized. Just be smart. Pink Smitty got wasted too fast and always ended up blowing chunks. He didn’t know his limits.
The van grumbled down the alley behind the venue. A loose line of punks and heshers loitered down the block from the doors. Some leaned against a chain link fence, others against the metal stairs to the brewery next door. Two kids, one with a band slogan markered under the flipped-up brim of his snap-back, the other with bleach-blonde hair and a pube ‘stache, were laughing and taking turns shoving each other into a pyramid of garbage bags.
Past the chub-rock bouncer, the mammalian mass of bodies surged under a fetid, burpy haze. An intermission track was galloping out of the PA system at full volume. Two bald guys wearing cargo shorts broke down one drum set while building up another. Rhoda hung back by the edge of the crowd, reconnoitering the kind of dramatic shit she’d have to face if there was anyone there that she didn’t like.
Over by the sound booth, Pink Smitty had joined Paul Sacco and his girlfriend, Gina, a beefy Puerto Rican sound tech with feathered hair and upside-down cross earrings. From behind the booth, she made eye contact, and then leaned down to say something to Ballbreaker. Fucking great.
Thelma Beaker, aka Ballbreaker (as listed in the liner notes on the new Enfant Sous Vide LP) was Chuckley’s new squeeze. That’s what Rhoda had heard. And she wasn’t there with Chuckles, meaning that he probably decided to not come because he knew Rhoda might show up. But Ballbreaker had come anyway. Rhoda caught their furtive glances, hogging the social circle below the sound booth, so she decided to give the merch tables a once over. Better let whatever that was air out.
When the band finally went on, the blastbeats shuddered the floor. Rhoda didn’t want to get sucked into the crowd. She tried hugging closer to one of the structural beams holding the roof up, but kids piled behind her in layers, jamming her into the swaying tide of bodies.
Coat pockets zipped to keep her wallet from flying out, she fiddled with a little tiny plastic case with foam earplugs. Why did they make these so hard to open?Her tinnitus was going to rage. One plug kept falling out. She tried pinching the foam into a little dart so it would expand in her ear properly. But then she realized she wasn’t surging shoulder-to-shoulder anymore. She was standing in the open. Shit.
Rhoda listed backwards against the wall of the open mosh pit but someone shoved her forwards again, snapping her head back. And like that, she was in the melee. Furious, she glanced over her shoulder and there was Ballbreaker, cackling where she had just stood. Rhoda came around the circle, ready to grab a handful of that bitch’s hair, but she had already sunk back into the crowd like a rogue commando.
Then she saw it—the Frame—hovering at the opposite edge of the mosh pit, as if it were waiting for Rhoda to orbit again. Fists and elbows and foreheads collided through its blue lines as if it wasn’t there, but she knew what would happen if she passed through.
“Let me out,” she yelled over the shredding demon riffs, sidestepping two zit-faced kids swinging each other around like a bolo. Someone pulled her into the seam between the standing area and the stage. Bodies leapt overhead. One kick-surfed across the crowd on a boogie-board. Ducking a boot, Rhoda pressed against the barricade and inched towards the side of the stage. She couldn’t see the Frame. Where did it go?
The line to the women’s bathroom was a single-file of hairsprayed shag cuts, crimped strands, some Farrah Fawcett blowouts jiggling over denim vests matted with patches. Raiders jackets bedazzled with rhinestones. A girl with black lipstick and a belt resembling a bandolier of bullets hollered, “Good freaking luck. This line ain’t moving.”
The men’s restroom looked like someone blew their nose in a shoe box. One dude leaned his head over the urinal, swaying with closed eyes and missing the porcelain. Rhoda barricaded herself in the last stall, crouched over the toilet with the seat down. She needed to decompress. To think. She needed to find Pink Smitty before he got too drunk on the beer he snuck in. He’d given her his keys in case he got too blitzed, or they fell out of his pockets like last time and—the keys! She could just wait the drama out in the battlewagon.
Rhoda kicked the stall door open, checked her eyes and teeth in the slimy mirror, but when she elbowed through the men’s room, a freak-shudder somersaulted in her chest. There was Chuckley, leaning beside the hallway payphone, still wearing his roadie back brace over a threadbare DRI shirt.
Moser, to his right, caught her slinking out and back-handed Chuckley in the chest. “Check it.”
Rhoda kept walking. The back exit with the crash bar would put her in the alley and she could lose him in the parking lot and—
A hand on her arm spun her and she flailed get the fuck off.
“Just, come on!” Chuckley laughed, as if she were overreacting. “I’ve been trying to reach you.”
“Yeah, my mom said you won’t stop stalking.”
“You’re never home. We need to talk.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Yeah, but,” another hand on her arm spun her around again. “But we kind of have to, wouldn’t you say? My lawyer says—”
“You don’t have a lawyer. Otherwise your lawyer would’ve written that letter, not you, loser.”
Chuckley leaned back at that one, laughing to the people leaning along the hallway, squinting with his hands up like you got me. Look everyone, she got me. She’s a smart one, huh?
“Stop coming by my mom’s house. And put a leash on Ballbreaker. Girl needs her shots.”
Rhoda was just about to push through the crash bar when the hand again.
“Hey! I’m not done talking to—”
Then there was a clink, and the sound of glass scattering against the linoleum floor. Rhoda turned, and Chuckley, with a faraway look, slumped to his knees. Pink Smitty stood over him, clutching the jagged neck of a beer bottle.
“Oh God. Smitty, no! What are you doing?” She cried.
The look in his eyes told her he hadn’t planned beyond this point. Breathing hard, he glared down at Chuckley, and then back at her, as if he couldn’t believe it, wondering did I win? Not good. The moment the shattered bottle remnant slid from his hands, Moser grabbed him, cranking his head forward in a half-nelson.
“Outside,” Chuckley grunted, holding the back of his head and pointing blindly past Rhoda. They were going to stomp him out in the parking lot. The others in the hallway, chanting boot party, boot party, broke around her, pouring out the back door like some toilet had flushed. Liberty spikes and bondage pants and fingerless gloves and mini skirts and metal clinking against cowhide poured around her. It would take too long for her to get to him. She could try to squeeze past the rubberneckers, but when she got to Smitty he’d have already taken the beating of his life.
Behind her, the hallway had emptied save one. The Frame. It hovered there by the payphone. She had to choose. She needed that release to save Pink Smitty. He didn’t have health insurance. He was her ride. But most importantly, he was her friend.
“Guess I’d better tag you in.”
Rhoda backed up until she had passed through the blue lines. Once it faded around her, she thumped her fist against her chest like Queen Kong and ripped the phone from the wall. Wrapping the metal cord around her knuckles, Rhoda shoulder-checked the crash bar and exploded into the parking lot.
“Hauser.” The bailiff’s voice echoed down the hall of holding cells. “Rhoda Hauser. You’ve posted.”
Stiff against a metal bench, someone had covered Rhoda with her jacket. She heard the clink of metal latches, alert beeps, and the jumpy banjo-mouth twang of a woman detained in the adjoining cell. When she sat up and put her feet down, her sock soaked up part of a cold puddle.
“Oh! Surprise, surprise, bitch,” the older blonde woman with meth-sunken cheeks hollered from the next cell.
“Janice! Enough.” The bailiff banged his nightstick.
“Betcha want this back!” She held up one of Rhoda’s boots. “She ain’t getting this back. I don’t even care.”
The bailiff, holding his hand out, gave Janice a stern look. She considered his palm for a moment, then passed Rhoda’s boot between the bars.
Rhoda’s lip smarted, and there was an oily feel under her nails from fighting. A beaten-up pump lay by the puddle, with the heel snapped. Her best guess: at some point a salvo of footwear was hurled between the cells. For a moment, she racked her mind as to who posted bail. Her mom again? Even after the last time? Smitty was too broke. It couldn’t have been Chuckley. He was the reason she was in here to begin with, and now a sickening thought blossomed in her mind. What if he does get a lawyer now? What if he uses this as leverage to wedge his way into Philly’s life?
As the bailiff turned the key, she could see it again—the Frame—inset against the metal frame of her cell door. The faint blue rectangle had traced itself exactly over the way out, leaving no space to step around.
“Fie… opportunistic motherfucker.”
“Excuse me?” The bailiff, oblivious, beckoned through the doorway and the Frame. “Out you go, slugger. Grab your stuff.”
Rhoda picked up the woman’s heel by the toe. Dangling it from her fingers, she tossed it gently towards her with a regretful look. Then, stepping out of her cell and through the Frame, Rhoda braced herself for release.