3

“You left him in the car! Do you want him to die?” Martha yowled. “Tell me you didn’t give the key back to Miz Murray MSc. already. Please, tell me that. How am I supposed to get into the car without the key? You know that woman leaves for work every day but Sunday exactly at 14:00 and doesn’t get back to C-Wing until at least 22:00! She commutes something like sixty miles out to the Target and then some. I know she does. She must put an extra four hundred miles on that car all by herself every month, scavenging for what all! Six-packs of water, twelve-packs of twelve shades of classic,” Martha grimaced, “Naked pressed powders, bars of Lubaida aapa, sample-size Nivea SPF 49 packets and Golden Pearls twenty-seven to a box, 30-year-old bottles sweating vegetable oil, syn-oil in three-gallon jugs, bales of cotton underpants, bales of rolled toilet tissue and I do mean tissue, half-bales of rolled PET pulp towels, bales of burlap and two-kilo burlap bags of groundnuts, flats of alfalfa half-alive, mashed grape tomatoes, eighteen-inch hair cords, forks and sponges, cracked serial numbers, day laborers, night laborers, illegal surrogates, day-old dough nuts by the crate, floss or just the spindles,” Martha gasped and shuddered.

“I think, I told you. I about died of embarrassment. I caught her once pushing two dishes of embryos over at the garage for A-Wing in Pnang-Izquierda District. They were so hot, I swear, I could smell the nitro smoking under the lids. I was so jealous for a minute. One of those trades would put me in retirement for at least five months. But it passed. I was on my way to my three-step meeting up-elevator anyhow, and I know Miz Murray MSc. does not,” she emphasized, “have the connections to thaw and place that material in a clean room. No, sir, I cannot even imagine what buyer would want to trade with her without proper introductions.

“Did I see any instructions on her? Did she flash or flip a chip? No. She didn’t fan herself but twice with a slimy scrap of corrugated polypropylene. Some auctioneer she is. She nearly lost it the first time, when it flew out of her hand and just missed clipping the fellow standing beside me, who I did not recognize by the way, who was examining some worthwhile merchandise. A roll of 1957 Lincoln pennies. Now fencing that, melting or stringing it, could set someone up for a year of retirement.

“I told the man, on the down-low like, ‘Scarce as hen’s teeth.’ Of course he nodded a twitch, anyone would, and it was not a whole roll, but he had just pulled his pockets inside-out when Miz Murray MSc. accidentally chucked the plastic his way. For a minute she stared at me like it was my fault when he turned and walked away.” Martha stamped at the threshold of Bou Bou’s room, pufft pufft.

“Listen, Bou Bou, I do not regret for one instant bringing you into my home. I stepped up the day we met and did what needed being done. The thugs who had you cornered had no business in my sales territory, in my building, in my corridor, on my property. I can almost understand how you came to be there an hour earlier than you were supposed to be there, trailing that four-legged trash. You were such a cute, little thing in those roller skates and with those flaming green braids. I’d have to have been blind –and deaf– not to see you thirty yards down the corridor, coming around the corner, bobbing and weaving and singing at the top of your lungs. What was that song? Something about Friday woah?” Martha squeezed her eyes tight and hummed, “mmmm smell like a mini bar uh uh umm hickey or a bruise ooo, ooo it ruled.”

Martha emptied the memory when she opened her eyes.

“You took a risk. I took a risk. I admit it. At the time I enjoyed beating those, those scalpers within an inch of their lives with the loot I had in hand. Remember?” She sniffed. “A sack of potatoes, three kilos of 12mm lug nuts, two pairs of men’s Florsheim boots, and a field hockey stick.

“You are welcome, but I’ve packed your bacon so to speak. I’ve shared everything, well, almost everything, I know about distribution, about the dealio. But I don’t need any more babies. I have reaped my own, all but one.

“You know how Garrett is. You’ve lived here long enough to see. You’ve bathed him! Oh, I don’t care that he quit college. You know I’m no snob, but there are days like these when I just cannot abide wasted time. My wasted time, his wasted time, your wasted time, it’s all too much idleness at once for me.

“I give myself ten minutes three times daily in the water closet. Why he can’t keep the same two or three jobs running for one week, I don’t know. He refuses to report to the foundry. You’d think he was born with a death wish! How many times have you heard me say, honey, I’ve got four empty rooms that I’m trying to keep filled with live bodies. Grow up! I’ve got one FTE for myself and two side-lines. Does anyone,” she wailed, “even know anymore what full-time-equivalent stands for? A lot of sacrifice, that’s what. Commitment! Undivided attention! I need partners who will add value to a shared enterprise.

“Think, Bou Bou,” she inhaled. “I am grateful for the favors you’ve done. You found Garrett for me again. But did you ask yourself how am I supposed to get into the car, if it’s gone? Or if it were in C-Wing, how am I supposed to get into the car without the key?”

Bou Bou, splayed on her futon, peeled the strap of each sandal from her feet with a big toe. The left one, then the right, catapulted toward the ceiling, pufft, pufft. One spiked Jupiter’s gilded outer ring and crashed into the monitor bolted to her flip-top desk. The other careened into the canopy, mashing nylon peony blooms against the mobile dangling at the door. Its rusty armatures chimed. Dust and glitter drifted down toward Martha’s maroon pile carpeting. She pulled the carrot-top wig from her scalp slowly, sensuously, then released it from her finger tips with a twirl. It sailed to the mannequin leaning in a corner. A very long strand of transluscent green beads hanging from its decapitated nape swung sympathetically.

“Can you stop dreaming for one second, and pay attention!” Martha snapped. “Do you realize how careless you’ve been? You’ve brought him here, in the middle of daytime! You have asked those unsavory people at your work suspicious questions that they can throw to the mitties! If the mitties find you out, you’ll be executed. No prison!”

Bou Bou rolled onto her belly where she lay, muttering into the futon. She pushed off suddenly and brushed passed Martha into the kitchen. Cabinet doors rapped like bullets from a muzzle. Drawers screeched and clattered in protest.

“Plus don’t call my customers unsavory. They come every day and pay, which feeds me and feeds you. Some of them were nice!” She shouted.

“Are they nice before or after you dance half naked?” Martha sputtered through the din.

“You better get your son from the trunk, before he suffocates,” Bou Bou warned.

“Where is the car exactly, Bou Bou?” Martha bellowed.

“Our place. B-Wing, Level 4, Lot #263, Tier 2.” A mouthful of gelatin slipped onto the floor. She crouched hastily to wipe it up as she heard the shower stall door slide shut angrily.

A minute later the sound of torrential rain flooded 823. Carrying her bowl, Bou Bou hurried to Martha’s quarters to place the car key on her dressing table. Smiling at herself in the mirror, she spied a stranded bay leaf between her teeth. She leaned forward, then, Martha’s shower stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Following her cue, Bou Bou sashayed back toward the kitchen into the common room. She didn’t care if Martha caught her eating all the aspic again. Sucking on her spoon, she switched on the evening news broadcast and deliberated for about a minute which playlist to cue. There were half a dozen from which to choose, but she considered only two seriously, “Loud” and “Brassy.” She dared not to cross paths with Martha in her mood, nor did she want to hear to the crone’s war dance.

Pufft pufft bang, pufft pufft, swoosh bang, pufft pufft, “DAMMIT,” pufft pufft bang, pufft pufft bang thrump, went Martha while she dried and dressed. Thrump pufft pufft, “Ohh aww hoo hoo,” Martha warbled when she painted, patted, wigged and draped her private persona. Bou Bou knew that routine by heart.

She settled onto the sofa and shoveled another serving of gelatin into her mouth. The bowl rested on her breasts. Her legs dangled over one of its high, deeply pitted and spackled arms, her torso rested against a basket of laundry. Martha never called it the sofa. She called it The Chesterfield. Bou Bou could not relax, of course, until she heard Martha finally burst out of their apartments. Her exits, thought Bou Bou, would always appear like a ragged, pointy speech bubble filled with capital letters that detonated a scene, if the five of them were action figures in a comic book. Their exploits would always be news.

Everything broadcast was closed-captioned anyway. Bou Bou watched mute horrors and thrills of victory flee past the monitor, satisfied that “Brassy” would score well with any pair of two-minute dramas the mitties planned to flog that day until 18:00. At 18:00 she’d be walking out the door.

Garrett was not locked in the trunk of the car, Martha discovered. She had been worried, though she didn’t like to show it. She resisted the urge to pat her breast pocket again. That didn’t go with her uniform. It clashed with the tropical wool-weighted reputation for administrative efficiency that the suit represented. She had tucked the key behind the folds of the corp’s distinctively printed pucci hankie, because her suit had no other pockets, and her hand bag, wedged into her armpit, was already stuffed with necessaries.

The elevator was crowded as was usual this time of day, when shifts switched. Some residents she recognized. Some residents recognized her. Mutual respect in the elevator on the way down could be tedious, she felt. She wasn’t on the same schedule as anyone in whom she had a personal interest. All the same, at every floor the doors opened another flapping of customary greetings between cliques of passengers.

“How do, Major B.A. Celenza?”
“Fine, Ensign Dr. Morgenstern. And you?”
“Afternoon, Esquire Svjetlica MSc.”
“Tardes, Sargeant PhD. Swank-Teplas.”
“Hi, Right Reverend Chaplain Molodemas.”
“Prego, child.”
“Hey, Aparicio.”
“Liutenant Surgeon.”
“Seeing you, Petty Officer PM I B.S. Cohen.”
“Vice-President III Eguino-Dieu.”
“Right Reverend Chaplain Molodemas, namaste.”
“Signor PhD. Aparicio.”

And so on and so forth the courtesies multiplied. But Martha, unless she intended to carry a greeting out of the elevator into the lobby for conversation, merely wiggled her fingers or nodded in reply to the two co-workers who she expected to board about this time every day, WO. II B.S. Erdyneeva, Edna and Pvt. CRM VI B.A. Ochoa, Gabriel. A blessed day, as far as Martha was concerned, was a day that the elevator she happened to be riding reached carry capacity by floor twenty-two. That was usually the case. At that point the elevator car would refused to open, and it would fill with silence until it struck the ground floor. She wasn’t the only one. The most astute among her fellow travelers had given up acknowledging her existence unless they truly, desperately needed something from her.

Martha studied her implacable disguise in the mirrored panels behind her. In fact, she turned her back on the doors.

Garret had gone missing three weeks ago. Having the key and an exact location was some kind of relief. All the while she’d been dressing to go out she’d been composing a tale to tell Lot Attendant IV B.A. Ledo Johanssen about the mix-up in case he came upon her during his rounds. He wouldn’t be expecting her. Bou Bou had parked the car illegally in B-Wing garage. It was supposed to be in C-Wing in Miz Murray MSc’s allotment.

“B.A. Johanssen! Am I glad to see you,” she would say. “I am lost. A friend of mine has kindly offered to drive me to work today. My car is in the shop again. I would meet him in the drive, of course, but he rang me up when he arrived to alert me! He needs to fill his radiator immediately. It’s been so ridiculously hot this week, hasn’t it? I think, I heard the climalog this morning predict Code Blue. Did you? Something about unseasonable sun flares? So I let him into the garage. I’m so sorry. I really could not get to the office to get a permit sticker first. We’ll only be a minute. Honest.”

Martha did not own a whole, private car. She was sub-leasing 823’s allotment to a tenant in 543. She had no idea if 543’s car was actually parked in 823’s allotment, but its rental income paid for Martha’s time share in the car. She and Miz Murray MSc shared it with eight others. If the resident in 263 found the car before she did, he could demand that 823 rent due be penalized for every minute of inconvenience. Martha really had not budgeted for that expense.

If B.A. Johansson caught her skulking around Level 4 ramp, she would throw up her hands, dropping her pregnant hand bag, and say, “I looked on Level 2 and 3. Isn’t the water tap on Level 4?” The crucial thing, she had decided in the elevator, was to deliver the question at that moment as uncharacteristically flustered as humanly possible in her uniform. She had put two US one dollar bills, F series, in the hand bag just in case, to distract the lot attendant.

“You know, it’s been so long since I’ve taken advantage of the many amenities that Wing-B Property Management provides,” she planned to say conspiratorially on her knees, while slowly scraping trinkets back into her clutch. “I hope I didn’t give my friend the wrong directions. You, the valet team, take such pride in your work. And I am running late. You haven’t seen an early model BYD, a Qin, around, have you? White Sand color MPV with a four-panel roof?” This was a bald discription of the time share vehicle where Bou Bou had stored Garrett. Actually it was crusted with asphalt grains and decades of diesel exhaust, its slender body was ripped with bunge cords, and Miz Murray MSc had replaced one panel long ago with a thule cargo box.

Garrett was sleeping in the front passenger seat, Martha discovered. She barely detected him through the shadows as she descended the ramp. And she dared not shout out his name, agitated though she was. Martha silently fumbled with the key, slicing through the lock of the tower lift with the wrong end, the upside down side, backward side, then finally the correct face. As soon as she could reach the passenger window she used it to rap indignantly on the glass right next to his ear.

Garrett opened one eye and winked.

Martha marched around to unlock the driver’s side door. She got in to grip the steering wheel. The tiny interior reeked of re-fried beans. Her son had double-folded his long form like the hankie in her breast pocket into the bucket seat.

Then without a word, Martha backed the car out of Lot #263, and they drove to the office to pay the rent.