Us Taking Care of Him Taking Care of Us
Hazel is the only girl in the house still awake. She sits by the window watching for the small flickering light that is Barry walking across the night-dark lawn toward the house. Hazel can tell by the way his flashlight’s beam dances how much Barry has had to drink. If the light moves wildly, swinging and jumping through the darkness, if it pitches toward the sky then shines across Barry’s wide white face, then to the ground and back again to sky, Hazel knows to breathe deep. She knows to practice saying in her mind all the things Barry likes to hear. She reminds herself that it’s his face and hands he wants her to touch—not his hair, thinning to nothing on top of his head, and not his middle, which has grown too full and round to fit his clothes.
Tonight Barry’s light bounces like a thing alive. It swings and dances from the barn where he parks the car all the way to the black walnut tree by the road. There it traces a quick arc through the air and lands still for a moment in the grass. Hazel sits wondering if she should go to him and help him to his feet when the light begins to move again in small quick flashes toward the house.
“Which one of you is it?” Barry says, pushing open the door, as if he’s forgotten who’s working, though Hazel has been in his employ now for twenty-nine months, two weeks, and two days, and has worked every Tuesday night since she was hired.
“It’s me. How was the tavern?”
“Full of jackasses,” Barry says, going past her down the long burgundy carpet that leads to the living room. The humidity outside has puffed his curly black hair to a wiry frizz. “Going anywhere nowadays with legal booze is like walking into a fucking trivia game show. Bunch of ego-fucking-maniacs sitting around talking about how much they know. Who gives a shit about world events anymore? Nobody can leave the country and no one can come in, so who gives a shit?” Barry reaches up to unbutton his sweat-damp shirt and stumbles over a velvet ottoman that had been moved out of its ordinary place by the fireplace. Hazel had pushed the ottoman over to the window earlier in the evening to brush one of the other girl’s hair and had forgotten to move it back. The room shudders when Barry’s heavy body hits the floor; plum-sized crystals in the chandelier overhead tinkle in tiny applause.
“Fuck,” Barry hollers, reaching for his flashlight, which has rolled under a large oak bureau on the other side of the room. “Who said you could move things around?”
“No one.” Hazel’s heart thuds in her chest and her neck feels tight, like one of the crystals from above, cold and sharp, has lodged in her throat. She helps Barry to his feet and leads him through the dark living room, steering him past things that could send him again to the floor—wide and cracking leather armchairs, an old glass coffee table, the marble bust of a twentieth-century political leader now long forgotten.
Barry’s kitchen is like a hole in the night, spacious and dark.
“Can I get you a glass of water?” Hazel asks.
“I want chocolate milk,” Barry says. “On ice. With a bow tied around it.”
A request for something simple that no longer exists. It’s a joke many people make, to make light of the way things are, or, if the joke-teller is mean-spirited, to throw salt on wounds.
“I’m sorry,” Hazel says.
“Speaking of gifts…” Barry reaches into his pocket for a handful of peanuts and scatters them across the floor. “Here. Something from the city.”
Hazel thanks him. She bends to the floor and begins stuffing the nuts into the pockets of her apron.
“How many girls like you get presents, huh?” Barry asks.
“Guess I’m just nice. Or maybe you’re just special.” Even in the dark Hazel can see that Barry is swaying slightly, as if to music only he can hear. “Which is it, Hazel?”
Hazel says nothing and in the silence of the old mansion, the fact that Barry could strike her now if he wanted without anyone knowing is like a vapor that fills the room. Hazel and the other girls are supposed to be protected from abuse. The point of the New Industry Movement—People Helping People for the Good of All and Rebuilding the Middle Class through Service and Wealth Sharing—was meant to reform society, end homelessness, and reduce violence. Protection for the Poor. Opportunity for All. It all seems like empty propaganda now, and though Barry has never struck Hazel or the other girls, Hazel knows he could.
New Industry Service Worker is the formal name for Hazel and the others. Just like New Industry Patrol Force is the name for the new police. And New Industry Guards are the new watchmen. New Industry Land Stewards work on the government farms. The term Passenger Girls came later. Domestic service in exchange for housing and associated amenities. “Amenities” came to mean mostly transportation. Cars and gasoline. The women who applied for New Industry service work became passengers in other people’s lives while maintaining ties to who they once were. Their jobs during the day, their membership to society, their participation in the economy stayed the same. This was the theory. The reality is more like scrambling for peanuts on the floor.
“I’m ready to go upstairs,” Barry says finally. “Being the nice guy makes me tired.”
Hazel follows Barry up the long flight of stairs to his bedroom on the second floor. Her limbs are numb, her mind hollow with the weight of the long night ahead of her. With each step, the moisture drains from her mouth and she feels something inside slipping away to a deep, unreachable place. Hidden. This is Hazel’s way. I do this for shade in the murderous summertime, she says to herself. I do it for clean water and safety from the terrorists killing hundreds now every week. I do it for toilets that flush and clean clothes. She’s said it so many times it has almost lost its meaning. But it’s habit, so she says it again and again, to the rhythm of her feet climbing stairs. And a new verse, still fresh: I do it for Alicia and Melody.
The night is a long one—Barry’s large, restless body next to hers, the tang of his breath near her face, his low moans and hacking coughs, air hissing and farting from his body in loud sudden bursts. His hot, heavy limbs clutching her, making her feel as though she might suffocate in his skin. It is physical touch, yes, though sex it is not. That is not Hazel’s job. Holding Barry. Letting him hold her. Staying close. Whispering things he wants to hear. These are the Passenger Girl’s tasks. Barry Solomon’s Passenger Girls.
Hazel knows there was once a time when Barry wanted his girls to desire him, to be impressed by his car, his money. She knows there was a time when Barry was sensitive to their cringes. She knows too that by now he’s long lost the desire to be loved by them. Now all he wants is to be entertained, to be obeyed. So, Hazel and the others do whatever he asks, which is almost everything. Everything but the giving of their flesh. For that, he’s not allowed to ask. If he takes it against their will, he breaks the law, and the fine is greater than he can pay. It would cost him his house, his car, his buried canisters of gasoline.
It’s required that a copy of the law hang in every home where a Passenger Girl works. It’s required that it hang in a place where all can read it. In Barry’s house, the document hangs in his living room beside old photos of the men in his family—his grandfather and great-grandfather, his uncles, all as fat and rich as he. “If forced to perform sexual or otherwise inappropriate intimate acts,” it reads, “the employer of New Industry Personnel is required to pay a fine of up to the entirety of his possessions per offence. Furthermore, depending on the severity of the act, the violator is subject to a period of manual labor determined by section IV of the Code of Conduct and Responsible Use of Goods and Services Delivered by Those Working for The Department of New Industry.” Barry is disorderly at times, a drunk, but he has never broken the law.
When morning comes, Hazel leaves Barry tangled in his sheets, naked, wetting his pillow with an opened mouth. Across the hall, Alicia and Melody are still asleep. They had the spare room last night—the room where sleep is possible. The room with the high round window that lets you see the stars and, at certain times of night, the moon. The Sky Room they call it. Hazel stops, pushes open the door, and looks in. It’s a ritual, a way of turning her mood from dark to light on mornings when she can still smell Barry on her skin.
She reminds herself that she’s through. It’s over for another week. That the next night she spends in Barry’s house she will spend with one of the other girls under the glow of the high round window. Hazel likes nights when it’s her turn to share the Sky Room with either girl, but she likes nights with Melody the most because Melody is older and knows how to talk about important things—like how they can’t keep this up forever, how eventually they’ll need to find some other way, that even Barry won’t be able to hold on to all he has for too much longer. Melody can talk about all they’ve lost without making it sound like they’ve lost too much to go on.
Of course, Hazel likes her time with Alicia too. Alicia is sweet with her kinked-up, coiled blond hair and her big eyes still full of that innocent kind of unmoving stare. When Hazel and Alicia have the Sky Room together, Alicia slides in close, her small frame fitting just inside Hazel’s curled body. The two of them breathe in unison, their stomachs rising and falling together, their arms wrapped like ropes around one another, tight. Like sisters. Alicia is sixteen, long-limbed and silky-faced. She’s sweet and hungry for approval from the other girls, snuggling into them whenever she can, offering compliments: I’ll be as smart as you one day, won’t I, Melody? You’re the best cook I’ve ever met, Hazel.
Hazel aches with feeling for Alicia, whispers over and over chant-like prayers for her when she’s not around. She wants to see Alicia in some place safe, but it’s with Melody that Hazel feels truly strong. It’s when she’s with Melody that she has that small glimmer of hope that someday things will be different. Besides, Melody occasionally has tobacco, and when Melody lies next to Hazel in the Sky Room, her handsome round face lit by the moon, smoke swirling up to the ceiling in soft curling lines, she whispers the angry truth about things, and something in Hazel relaxes, like letting go and settling into the warm mud that is sharing a shitty situation with someone you trust. And sometimes Melody sings. Usually they’re songs she’s made up—her own words to tunes both she and Hazel remember from forever ago but can’t quite place. Sometimes she just hums. But when she makes music, the hard shell around Hazel’s heart cracks and something soft and warm seeps into her blood. “Don’t stop,” Hazel tells her. “Please don’t stop until I’m asleep.”
Hazel closes the door to the Sky Room and goes quietly down the stairs to the kitchen. She reaches into the pocket of her apron for a handful of peanuts. They’re old and waxy. Disappointing. Like the thought of all that needs to be done before she and the other girls can go into the city. Hazel used to get excited about it—getting to drive Barry’s car. But now it’s lost its flair. Now it just feels like desperation, like dependency—and the price she has to pay for it, Barry being the moody type and prone to outbursts, is unpredictable. Still, it’s better than the alternative. Of this Hazel reminds herself every day, like the fact that peanuts are good for you, even if they taste like dirt.
This morning, the pull of hunger is tight and sharp in her stomach, and Hazel wants more than nuts. In the fridge, a drawer with her name on it. Inside: four eggs, a jar of sauerkraut, a crooked and bumpy squash, five small dirty carrots, and a small glass jar of goat’s milk. These things are Hazel’s, given to her at the co-op where she works. She’s allowed to have them—they’re hers. The other girls are allowed to have them too, though they haven’t worked for them. They contribute in other ways. Hazel never has to wash her own clothes, for example, and she’s glad for it. It takes too long, and in the winter it makes the skin on her knuckles crack and bleed.
Above her drawer in the fridge is Barry’s food. Tubs of fruited yogurt. A baked potato. A boiled chicken, the skin freckled with spices—basil, rosemary, flakes of garlic and pepper. A block of ice the size of a car battery nestled in a bucket melts into water that Hazel will later use to make tea. She pushes the ice with her finger and watches it spin around itself. She imagines what it would be like, knowing where to find the black-market ice sellers and having enough money to buy more than a cup of shavings. I’ll have a block, she imagines saying to one of the dark-masked men, the cooled air travelling from his motorized cart like a blessing. She imagines handing over a wad of cash and knows that because she is a woman it will cost her more. The fact makes her angry, makes her restless and hungrier than she’s felt in months. She flattens her hands against the ice in Barry’s refrigerator and waits until numbness turns to pain. Still she keeps her hands there, waiting for the sting of cold to become greater than her anger. “Rage comes and goes in waves,” Melody said to her once. “If you wait, it’ll pass.”
Melody the wise.
At 7:00 a.m. the electricity comes on with a shudder, the bulb over the sink flickering, the refrigerator humming to life, the digital clock on the stove suddenly blinking 12:00, neon green and flashing. Hazel takes the baked potato and a leg of chicken, places them in the oven and goes upstairs to Barry’s room.
“Barry?” Hazel’s voice is soft, almost a whisper. “It’s morning.”
Barry rolls over in bed but does not open his eyes.
Hazel nudges him. “Come on. You’ll be late for work.” She goes to the window, opens the curtains, and a soft cool light fills the bedroom. It illuminates Barry’s collection, his stacks of televisions and computers, stereos and DVD players—antiques, useless like most of Barry’s belongings.
“Breakfast,” Hazel says. “It’s heating up downstairs.”
“What have I got?”
“What kind of meat?”
“Chicken.” Though Hazel knows Barry knows exactly what type of meat he has in the fridge, seasoned with exactly what type of herbs. “You need to eat it,” she says. “Your ice is melting.”
Barry sits up and looks at Hazel. “You think I don’t know that? Ice isn’t free. You girls want to keep using my fridge you’ll have to start doing more. For the ice.”
Barry sits at the table in the kitchen, napkin tucked into the collar of his shirt. “Protein is good for the brain,” he says. “That’s why there’s a difference between us and all those nits living out there in the city. Ever notice that? They look at you like they don’t know night from day. Like they could eat the hand off your arm. You know why?
“Why?” Hazel says.
“They don’t get enough protein. But you know what’s more important than protein?”
Hazel pokes the chicken and peels the skin away with a fork. Juice runs down the soft white meat and pools in the tray beneath it. Her mouth waters. “What?” she says.
“Variety. Protein needs starch and starch needs vitamins and sugar. Salt. It’s chemistry. The brain needs it all.” Barry stands from the table, goes to a cupboard on the other side of the kitchen, and bends to work the dial on the metal padlock around his cabinet doors. His big fingers fumble with the lock and he curses, having to start again twice before the lock springs open in his hand. He reaches in and takes out a bag of smoked trout, a jar of strawberry jam, a heavy-looking loaf of brownish-gray bread. “Make something with this too,” he says.
Hazel, Melody, and Alicia have never been allowed in Barry’s cupboard, but Hazel knows what else is inside. Alcohol, dried fruit, chocolate—things Barry won’t share.
Hazel takes what Barry has given her and goes to work slicing his bread and spreading the sugary jam across it. The slippery red fruit makes her jaw tingle with want. This, Hazel thinks, is what I’ll take first if I run. She’ll start with the jams, will lick a jar clean with her fingers before filling her bags with the rest. The pickles and tomato sauces. The bags of rice. Then she’ll go out back to the garden and fill her bags with the vegetables she and Alicia and Melody grow. She’ll put as much as she can fit into Barry’s car along with the gun she knows he keeps in his closet before driving as fast as she can to Canada.
In Canada, it’s said there are groups, whole communities of people, who have found a new way. Hazel has envisioned her escape so many times it feels more like a memory than a dream, but she knows she’d never even make it to the border. Barry’s car is registered. It’s chipped and monitored. Plenty of other Passenger Girls have tried to escape with their employer’s car thinking they could remove the tracking equipment and take off, driving faster than the law. A girl named Izzy tried last summer. She’d been a pretty mixed up girl from Maryland, a loner, impulsive, trying to flee without a partner or the help of a RAT, a member of the illegal Runner’s Assistance Team. A RAT has a higher chance of guiding someone out safely. RATs have unchipped cars and know when to trade them out before they’re detected by the police. RATs have friends, other people working with them who will loan their cars or even drive a runaway to one of the little-known refuge sites set up in almost every state and in clusters along the border. But RATS are hard to find. Their services are expensive, and even if you do manage to find one, they can’t guarantee safe crossing. One can’t be 100 percent sure the RATs are who they say they are. Could be criminals who’ll take your money and leave you stranded. Or worse, they could be undercover cops.
She hadn’t thought things through, the girl from Baltimore. She’d made it all the way to New York before they stopped her. Hazel had seen a photo of her on a gel screen in the used electronics shop on Lexington Avenue. The girl’s face was puffy-eyed and swollen, her lips purple. The cops had beaten her even though she was young, just a teenager in a t-shirt and jeans, a pink butterfly-shaped barrette in her hair. Now she was in prison, if she was still alive at all. Hazel admired the girl for her strength. They all did. But still.
Barry finishes his breakfast and leaves the discards on his plate like a taunt. Slick chicken bones and smears of strawberry jam on small tough crusts of bread. Scraps for his puppy dogs. Like the peanuts. He wipes his mouth with his napkin and smiles at Hazel. “I feel good now.” He reaches into his pocket then and jingles his car keys. “You want these?”
Barry holds them in front of her face and wiggles them. Hazel lifts her hand and waits for Barry to drop them into her palm. He sometimes does it quickly, and sometimes he teases her, making her reach for them, begging. This morning he drops them without ritual.
“Thank you,” she says, but the phrase is unnecessary. She’s worked for these keys. They all have. It’s their right.
Hazel listens for the sound of Barry’s EcoGas Excel—a cheaper version of the car she, Melody, and Alicia get to drive, though still too expensive for most. When she hears the car buzzing down the street and away, she sets her attention to preparing food for herself and the others. She takes three eggs and the squash from her drawer in the fridge. She cuts the squash into thin slivers and puts them in a bowl. She beats the egg in with a fork and as she cooks she watches her hands. As usual, she sees her mother’s hands in her own long, swollen-knuckled fingers, the V-shaped veins that branch out from her wrists. It’s funny how hands are what she remembers when the faces won’t come. She wonders what her mother would think of her now, her only girl, grown up and living her life as a PG. She wonders if she would understand.
When the eggs have fried around the squash and the whole mound looks like a flattened orange and yellow bird’s nest, Hazel shovels under it with a spatula and flips it, oil sizzling. She starts the tea—boiled water poured over small mint leaves she picked from the patch growing on the side of James Hollis Avenue near the co-op. She wishes to God it were coffee, the ache for caffeine as familiar as the smell of Barry’s sweat, the sound of his watery snore. She’d even take just the coffee beans now. Would crunch them between her teeth and chew them until they were dust on her tongue.
Hazel is sure that Barry has coffee hidden in the house somewhere. She gets a phantom scent of it sometimes, quick whiffs of it hovering in a corner of the kitchen and disappearing again too soon. With the smell comes the memory of her small crumbling apartment on Catherine Street and how, in the days before the power rationing, her small plastic coffee machine sat warming a full pot at all hours of the day. The way she would sit on the metal balcony high up on the east side of the building and watch the sun come up with a cup in her hand. She’d listen to the sound of the cats in the alley below, picking through the garbage of the Italian restaurant next door. The coffee in her cup had been made from beans that came all the way from Colombia—it seems impossible to her now, all the things from so far away they used to get so easily. So many of them her favorite things. Avocado, the smooth green oily meat in her mouth, the big seed a ball she would throw off her balcony and listen as it plunked and rolled on the asphalt below. Mangoes, the sweet stringy fruit she would pick from her teeth hours after she’d finished. Coconut, chocolate, ice cream. Things she never knew she’d one day miss.
The longing for that time, for the mindless innocence of it, is almost more than she can bear. She’d been only nineteen when she lived alone on Catherine Street. A child. Now she feels much older than she really is, more like fifty than thirty. She’s tired, jaded, afraid. Some nights when she shares the Sky Room with Melody, she talks about that time that seems like forever ago. “I just want to feel that way again, you know? It’s not the fancy things we all had that we took for granted—the food and the nice clothes. The way we used to just buy stuff without thinking about it. I don’t give a shit about the stuff. I just want to feel alive again. Like I did when I could walk down the street alone and not worry about whether or not I was safe. When I could imagine my own future and feel like the things I wanted were possible. I just want something to look forward to.”
“Please,” Melody always said. “All that wish it was like it used to be talk is just a trap. It doesn’t do anybody any good. Just let it go. You got to move on, Hazel. You won’t survive otherwise.”
Hazel washes the small dirty carrots, cuts them, mixes them with sauerkraut in a bowl. She remembers to run the bath before the electricity turns off again and there’s nothing to heat the water. With a piece of cloth torn from an old bed sheet and soap Melody made with lye she got in exchange for one of her old amber rings at a market in the city, Hazel wipes away the layer of gray greasy slime from the inside of the tub, the ring of Barry’s filth. Last night before he’d left for the tavern, Barry had taken a long bath, had rolled around like a hippopotamus in his tub the size of a small swimming pool, with ceramic tiles, Jacuzzi jets long broken, and a tall, slender silver faucet that Hazel, Melody, and Alicia shine—just one of their daily chores. While he soaked he made Hazel read to him stories from an old children’s book he’d found in a trash pile outside of the building where he works. They were fairytales about people living underground, about people making light with sand and staying warm with sunlight they stored in jars. Barry snorted and sucked his teeth at the stories while he rolled around in the gray soapy water, sticking out his fat hairy legs toward Melody and waving his feet. While Hazel read to him, Melody rubbed oil on her hands and massaged Barry’s toes, the skin on his feet like scales, his thick toenails overgrown and yellow. Hazel was glad to be reading then, glad that her hands were touching paper instead of Barry’s skin.
Melody told Hazel once to think of it as them doing what they have to do. “In a way, it’s us taking care of him so he can take care of us. We’re keeping him from ducking out, you know. His tiny little soul hidden in there underneath all that disappointment. He’d be dead from self-hate if it wasn’t for us,” she said.
Maybe she was right.
Hazel runs the water in the tub and Melody and Alicia come slowly, quietly into the bathroom, their faces slack with sleepiness, small pink lines branching across Alicia’s cheek. Once a week, when Hazel, Alicia, and Melody use Barry’s hot water, they eat their breakfast in the tub. Today—squash egg nests, sauerkraut salad, mint tea. Hazel steps out of her clothes and into the water, careful not to drop her breakfast into the bath. Melody and Alicia say nothing, their heads still thick with sleep. They eat. They wash, they slowly wake up.
The water is hot enough to turn Alicia’s pale skin pink. She pulls her thin legs up to her chest, balancing the plate on her knees. She chews slowly, not looking up from her food. Melody glances a thank you at Hazel before leaning over, her plate held tightly in one hand, a fork in the other. Melody’s body is full, round, and coffee-colored, the full-figured, dark opposite of Alicia. Hazel is the color of dried pine straw, her people having come from some sunny place long ago, South America, or one of the islands in the Caribbean. At least that’s what her mother used to tell her.
“I had the dream again,” says Alicia, her mouth wide, orange squash mashed up on her tongue. “The one where we’re all under water. Where everything is floating all around us—cars, farm machinery, zoo animals, giraffes and zebras and stuff. We can breathe,” she says. Hazel and Melody have heard this dream many times before, but they let her sift through the words and pictures of it anyway because they know it helps when they listen.
“There was a car down there,” she says. “Barry’s body inside.”
“The animals eat him,” Alicia says. “They start with his face. The zebras first, blood flowing up from the car in red clouds.”
Hazel nods again, not looking up from her plate. She takes another bite. Coffee, she thinks. God.
“And they keep eating until he’s gone,” Alicia says, “Like, totally gone. Not even his clothes are left.”
Melody makes a grunting sound; it’s a sound that says I hear you.
“And then, when they’re done, there’s just his car sitting there, but now it’s lighter without his body in there holding it down, so it starts floating slowly back up to the surface, bubbles coming up all around it.” Alicia pinches a bit of squash nest between her fingers and lifts it to her mouth.
“Did we get in?” Hazel asks, though she knows the answer is always yes.
“And we float up with it till we reach the top.”
“And you woke up then,” says Hazel.
Alicia nods. “Wash my back?” she asks, her voice small and cracked with another retelling of the dream. She hands Hazel the soap, and Hazel is gentle with her, like a mother. She sets her food unfinished on the side of the tub and circles her finger in the air, telling Alicia to spin. She lifts Alicia’s hair and twists it into a knot on top of her head. A strawberry-shaped birthmark is there on the slope of her neck. Sweet and small, like Alicia. Hazel moves the soap in small circles on her back, crossing the ridgeline of her spine, feeling the curvature of her ribcage. She’s too thin, Hazel thinks. Probably been saving her food again, to sell at the square, or to give to others she meets on the street. It’s Alicia’s way of making friends, of building alliances, just in case. “It doesn’t work that way,” Hazel has told her. “You can’t buy loyalty.” But Alicia does it anyway because she’s the type of person who must learn by mistakes.
Melody leans over the side of the tub and drops her empty plate on the floor. It wobbles for a moment and is still. She sighs and sinks into the water, her heavy legs crowding the other girls, who shift and adjust to accommodate her.
“Sing something for us?” Hazel says to Melody, but Melody shakes her head no. She won’t sing during the day. “The sunlit world is too hectic for singing. There’s too much else to do. Besides, I don’t feel like it,” she always says. So Hazel hums instead. Her voice is low and wavering. It’s a warm sound but not a beautiful one. Hazel knows that if she hums, eventually Melody will get annoyed by the sound of it—the off-key, off-rhythm quality of Hazel’s music.
“Oh, shut up,” Melody says. She clears her throat.
Both Hazel and Alicia smile. It works every time. Melody soon closes her eyes and the music coming from her throat is like a bird in the room—flying over their heads, flapping its long wings, beautiful and mesmerizing. Hazel and Alicia sit back, let the sound wash over them, more cleansing than the water.