Down and Out City

By Laura Weiss

Inside the repair shop where I take my cracked phone to be fixed, the tattooed guy behind the counter says he’s forgotten to turn on his home security camera. He can’t stop thinking about his stuff. Someone will steal it. For sure.

“What stuff?” I ask, to be polite, in the way I used to be in the times before these times. 

“Everything in my house.” He leans across the counter. His voice rises. “You know, don’t you, they’re out to kill us.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“Who?” I whisper. From somewhere deep within the store, a cat screeches. 

“Them.” His pale eyes lock onto mine, daring me to prove him wrong, his gaze recalling my mother’s the day before she ran off with the dog walker.  

 “Actually, my phone is fine.” I jam it back into my pocket. The ropy-armed clerk follows me outside. Post-pandemic plywood bandages storefronts, and the ice-slicked streets are chalkboards left unwashed. 

“Wait, miss, wait,” the clerk shouts, his footsteps thrumming. “Don’t leave. I can fix your phone.” 

In my mind, he tracks me through the city. From the fire escape, he jimmies open my window. He sets the place on fire.

A few days later, humpy gray clouds threaten snow, and the air smells sour like the rich lady who employs me as her personal assistant. I snap a photo of my friendly neighborhood peddler with his junk—tattered books, a purple piggy bank, a blender, a Santa-attired teddy bear, an overcoat, its crimson lining split open.

The vendor shakes his fist at me. “No pictures.” 

My insides accordion into prickly folds. I wonder what’s happened to my old pal, the man who said hello, the peddler who clowned around, the guy who grinned at the camera, pleased his image graced the only painting I’ve managed to finish since art school. Once, he would have offered discounts on his books, like the one I thumb through now, a CostaRicaThailandMexico guide sitting atop a pile of cheap jewelry. The cover is awash in turquoise sea and sky. I ask how much. 

“Five, like it’s marked.”

Inside my apartment, the door is bolted shut. The air within me drains. The jagged blades of my house keys jut out from the gullies between my fingers, my pathetic attempt to jerry-build the brass knuckle a man described on Nextdoor. From a home protection site, I buy pepper spray. Worry coats my stomach. Worry the keys are dull. Worry the spray won’t spray. 

My days and nights are spent indoors, curled up on the couch with the CostaRicaThailandMexico book. A picture of a woman on a beach, her head tilted toward the sun, seawater caressing suntanned legs, causes calm to sluice through me. For the umpteenth time since art school, I paint the urn carved into the façade of the building across the street. My cuticles are ravaged, bitten to the quick, a habit acquired from my mother who chomped on hers relentlessly after my father died. On my laptop, an au pair employment site lights up the screen with CostaRicaThailandMexico parents hunting for helpers. 

Do I like kids? Enough, I decide. 

Emails go out to six moms, two dads.

A few days later, a mom replies. She sends a picture of her dog. She sends a photo of her house. No image of children. This is odd, but I push past my hesitation and think about the mom’s creamy white villa festooned with purple Bougainvillea, and there’s also a pool, a perfect rectangle of cerulean blue, the same pool that appears in the photo my mother sent me of her new home in the tropics.

The CostaRicaThailandMexico mom wants me to start immediately. This is a place where I can progress beyond an urn, a place where my white hands will darken, where silence will snuff out the noise in my head. The radiator clanks. 

To the childless mother, I say: Yes. Oh, yes. 

Soon luggage collects at my front door. A backpack bulges with paints and brushes, with my favorite coffee mug, with a crisp white blouse and trim black skirt to change into when I land at the CostaRicaThailandMexico airport, where a chauffeur, whose photo reveals shoulders as wide as airplane wings, will carry me in his Mercedes to the yummy vanilla villa. 

One final run to the drugstore. 

“Where are you going?” the salesperson asks, ringing up a travel-mouthwash, a mini-deodorant.

“To paradise.” 

The salesperson emits a wistful sigh. On her neck, a bruise matching the cadmium red on my artist’s palette, blazes. My eyes fasten on that mark, while the man who surely beat the salesperson seizes my mind. I should call a hotline. Or the police. Relief bubbles within me at the prospect of delaying my departure. But upon further examination, the mark appears pink. Maybe it’s a love bite. A hickey. With a mix of relief and anxiety, I grab my purchases and leave.

In the Down And Out City, the metal gate of the phone store clangs shut. The peddler is gone from his street corner. An Uber has been summoned. On my app, a bug-car jitters forward, twitches, then comes to a dead stop.

A passing taxi ignores my frantic waves. A girl on a bike glides by, her golden hair streaming, a flag leading a parade, and I yearn to journey with her through the Down And Out City, stopping at the place by the river, where in the long ago times, the night sparkled with light.

A cab bucks to the curb. I peer inside. 

“Get in, would you?” the driver says, flashing me an annoyed look.

*   *   *

Laura B. Weiss is a BLR (Bellevue Literary Review) reader, a Virginia Center for Creative Arts Fellow, and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, NPR, and Publishers Weekly, among others. 

Leave a Reply