Casey: August 2000 • Name: Winter 1992 • Jambi the Angel
Soundtrack: “Name” by the GooGoo Dolls
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Casey: August 2000
I lingered over my tables while the Gillespies lingered over dessert. If I let my future in-laws leave without exchanging pleasantries with them, I’d never hear the end of it from Ronnie. My only saving grace with them was the fact that my father was a surgeon. Sighing, I finally dragged myself over to their booth. “Howdy folks,” I said. I noticed a smear of whipped cream on my sleeve and wiped it off, sucking my finger.
Ronnie’s father dug into his half-demolished shortcake, not bothering to look up.
Ronnie’s mother, Rose Gillespie, put on a careful smile. “Victoria, dear, maybe you could do with a little more…decorum. You are marrying our son, after all. Even if we’re soon to be family, we don’t have to behave like we’re not still in the workplace.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” I amended. “I meant to say, I hope you both are having a lovely evening. And now I must be on my way, as I have yet to reach my nightly quota of assholes.” Pushing it? Maybe, but I knew they wouldn’t fire me. Family ties have their perks.
Ronald Sr. finally stopped eating long enough to acknowledge my presence. “That’s the spirit, Tori,” he said indulgently. “Keep it up and one day you could be a manager, just like Junior over there. And after I kick the bucket—” He indicated the whole place with a sweeping gesture while Rose frowned and flapped her hands at him— “This’ll all be yours! That is, unless you’re off storm-chasing for NASA by then.” He chuckled, turning back to dessert with a shake of his head.
I walked away without a good-bye, a slow wave of anger and humiliation burning its way through my core. I possessed what Ronnie referred to as a “vanity degree.” During fights, he loved to bring it up, speculating I’d chosen an obscure field of study to ensure I’d never have to get a real job (as if the blood, sweat, and tears shed by the Waste-resses for a mostly thankless clientele somehow didn’t constitute a “real” job). Three years after completing my master’s, I was still wearing the shitty pink uniform and wiping counters, only dreaming of being a scientist (yes, for NASA), a storm-chasing meteorologist, out-racing the raging supercells that tear across the plains this time of year.
But: All through college as I’d studied Atmospheric Cross-Continuum Geodynamics, the future in my mind had always included Marissa. By the time I finished grad school, somehow she’d be back, safe, found.
“They’re waiting for the government to come fix it all for them.” From around the corner, I recognized the cultured voice of Casey Byers, the elderly gentleman who held court Saturday evenings at the end of the counter nearest the kitchen door so he had a view of the galley, shooting the bull with the other men who came and went. There was Jimmy, who used to run the Napa out on West O; Stan, who still owned the liquor store by the carwash on Highway 2; a few other oldsters would show up every now and again. Casey Byers wore cardigans regardless of the weather, and always carried a silver-handled cane (which he never actually used for walking, so far as I could tell). He always ordered the same thing: warm apple pie with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.
He never left a tip.
“Oh, Miss? More decaf. Apple pie. Warmed up, á la mode.”
Technically, Casey Byers was in Marki’s section, but she was busy, and taking him off her hands would be doing her a favor. The old man knew all of our names—or should have by now. He always called Ronnie and his dad by their first names. The rest of us were labeled collectively “Oh, Miss.”
“And how was your day?” I said with all the politeness I could muster, grabbing the orange-handled pot and warming his cup.
“Not as bad as some, not as good as others.” His gray eyes spared me a bored glance. Casey Byers always managed to make you feel like you were intruding by trying to be nice to him. He shook out the newspaper, scanning the columns in search of another topic to hold forth upon. As I went to warm his pie, he spied a morsel. “LPD says the homeless population’s on the rise,” he said. “Jobs in every storefront, but somehow these people can’t seem to find a one.”
“I heard most of ’em are men’ly ill.” The rest of Jimmy’s comment was drowned out by the hum of the microwave.
“Thanks for the he’p,” Marki whispered, sweeping the hot dish out of my hand and sliding open the ice cream freezer.
“Any time.” I went to the register as Marki served Casey Byers his pie á la mode.
“Get you anything else, Casey?” she asked cheerfully.
“Thank you, Miss.” He gave her a brief nod without looking up. Marki hurried off to attend to her other customers while I rang up a family of four. The toddler was asleep, collapsed over the young father’s shoulder. I was still smiling at them when Casey Byers leaned over to Jimmy and muttered: “Now, there went a good mammy. Didn’t think they made ’em like that anymore.” The two men shared a quiet chuckle.
Slowly I turned. “Hey, Casey. Say, how’s that pie?” I went over and leaned on the counter. Stan and Jimmy turned away, suddenly preoccupied. “You know, I’ve spent this whole evening smiling and curtseying for asshats like you. So, what’s that make me? Am I a ‘good mammy,’ too?” I tried not to jump in surprise as Marki reappeared, moving slowly up beside me, arms crossed.
“You know, boys…” Casey Byers set down his fork and with dignity pushed away from the counter. “I think this place has gone downhill.”
But Marki wasn’t through with him. As he gathered up his cane and started walking away (without paying), she remarked, “The dark ages ended awhile back, in case you missed it. It won’t be long before we elect a black president.”
Casey Byers made a disgusted noise and muttered something under his breath. Stan tossed a few bills on the counter and stood up, still diligently looking elsewhere. Jimmy followed suit. “Don’t let the hail hit you in the head,” I called after them as they shuffled out the door. I was shaking.
A strong hand fell on my arm. “Dude. You need to calm down right now.” Marki was looking down at me with a grave expression, but her eyes were brimming with hilarity. I inhaled deeply, trying to slow my pounding heart.
“It’s going to hail?” said a woman in front of the register, peering out the dark window.
“Oh, yeah.” I took her bill and rang her up. “Golf balls. Not for a couple hours, though.” I bit my tongue to shut myself up. Marki, who had started wiping down the counter, threw me a sidelong look.
“How do you know that?” the woman asked as I counted her change.
“I’m a meteorologist,” I replied. “Have a nice night.”
At that moment, Ronnie took my arm and guided me firmly into the galley. “What just happened out there?” he demanded. “What did you say to them? Casey Byers didn’t even touch his pie!”
My rage was returning. Marki was scraping the uneaten pie into the trash. I jabbed a finger at Casey’s empty stool. “That pompous old fuck just called her a mam—”
“Sssshhh!” Ronnie hissed, darting forward as if to forcibly silence me and looking around fearfully with eyes like saucers. “Someone might hear you!”
“Someone did hear her,” Marki growled. “Now I’m suing this damn place.”
Ronnie goggled at her for a second. Then the three of us dissolved into giggles. We leaned on the milk dispenser, completely losing it, thumping each other on the shoulders and wiping our eyes. For just one moment, it was almost like the old days, when we’d laughed like this all the time. “No, really, what’d you say to him?” Ronnie finally asked when he’d recovered himself.
Marki said, “I told him we were going to have a black president.” This sent us off into more hysterics, not at the possibility of a black president but that this had been Casey Byers’s final straw.
Ronnie sighed, beginning to reassemble his Manager Face. “Tor—I just want you to keep your cool in front of the customers. If Dad finds out—”
Marki and I both rolled our eyes and went back to work.
But something else that had come out of Casey Byers’s mouth tonight was also stuck in my brain, for some reason. LPD says the homeless population’s on the rise. I was propelled with sudden force into the chill of a certain winter night on the UNL campus.
Name: Winter 1992
Snow swirled across the sidewalks as I left the physics lab and headed in the direction of campus common. I had a late shift in about half an hour. Since the Night of the Chandeliers (as Marki and I had dubbed it), I pretty much floated through my shifts, singing Warrant and Queensrÿche songs under my breath as I served meals and wiped down tables. I tugged my heavy winter coat close around me, thinking after close Ronnie and I would probably drive out somewhere to look at the frozen stars and fantasize about the future.
The shadows were deep around Bessie Hall as I hurried alongside a tall bank of skeletal lilacs. A hand shot out of the branches and groped at my sleeve. I stumbled sideways, suddenly engulfed in the stench of urine and body odor, looking wildly around to see if there were any other people close by. There was no one.
But the face peering out from between the naked branches wasn’t threatening. He seemed old, but his eyes were those of a terrified child. He wore filthy sweat pants and a thin, hooded sweatshirt. “Please…” he said, his mouth twisting in anguish. “They’ve got people in cages down there.”
“I—I’m sorry, I can’t help you. Is there someone I can call for you? What’s your name?”
“It’s gone. They took it away.” He began to weep, softly.
The bushes rattled, and then a second man stepped out, gently taking his companion by the arm. “Don’t mind him, dear. He’s wacko,” he said tenderly, clutching a dirty blanket about his neck. He didn’t smell much better than his friend. “You got a dollar, maybe?”
I dug around in my backpack. “I’ve just got some change,” I said, holding it out.
“Bless you,” said the second man, putting the coins in his pocket. Our breath plumed in the space between us.
I shrugged out of my coat and held it out to the first man. He only stared at it with haunted eyes. The second man took it from me and tucked it around his friend’s thin shoulders, his eyes filling with tears. “Bless you,” he repeated in a whisper. “You’re an angel.”
“Take care,” I said lamely. I slung my backpack over one shoulder, hunching against the cold.
“I’m lost.” The first man’s voice fading as I hurried away. “I’m lost.”
Since college started, I’d sometimes pass dark shapes huddled on the steps of the student union. Most were silent. Once, I heard two men discussing the dangerous mind-control frequencies hidden in the Muzak piped down from the union speaker system. Some students, and even some teachers, made fun of the homeless, as if being schizophrenic or having dementia was their fault. I felt bad for them, but guiltily dismissed them from my own mind when they were out of sight.
But tonight’s encounter left me shaken. The thin man’s barely audible voice still whispered in my head: It’s gone. They took it away. I gripped my cold steering wheel, eager for the warmth and noise of the restaurant, for the glow I always felt, now that I had a boyfriend. A real, live boyfriend. The chill of winter began to recede.
“Hey, Tor.” In the back office of the restaurant, Ronnie gave me a kiss, then a concerned look. “What’s wrong? Where’s your coat?”
“There was this homeless guy on campus…”
“You were walking across campus alone at night—again?”
“He was cold,” I pushed on. “I gave him my coat, and his friend some change.”
“You shouldn’t give them money, Tor. Nine times out of ten, they’re just going to spend it on drugs or booze.”
I clocked in and went out onto the floor, stowing this new and unfamiliar jab of irritation in a small box in an unused closet of my mind.
Jambi the Angel
First time I tried booze? Let me just say this: It was epic. Right around the time Mount Tambora blew its top in Indonesia (which I had nothing to do with), and those downer Brit freaks were torching Your capitol, three-quarter-million gallons of beer just exploded out of a bunch of ruptured vats in London and messed over St. Giles something fierce. If I hadn’t come to the rescue by swallowing roughly half the killer flood of suds as it roared through the streets, more souls would’ve been lost than the unfortunate few who were.
How did it feel? Oh mercy, gimme some more. It’s no wonder Y’all spend so much time chasing the perfect buzz.
True, my brief visit also resulted in a sudden blizzard that brought more snow than any in the last 300 years, but it also froze the Thames, trapping a lot of the brewsky and thus preventing even more casualties.
All this is to say, don’t hate on us ‘cause we’re big. That law, the one about not interacting with Your world without first being called by You, dates back several thousand years to the scribing of the Book of Bethenos. You know, the one instructing You in the Tongue, enabling You to communicate with us…oh. Yeah. You wouldn’t know, ‘cause Edward Marshall, in his extremity of grief, locked it up tight the night You were born.
But I’m on a tangent again. Jambi, just jim-jammin’ up here.
Bethenos died giving birth to Noah’s little bro, Joah. But baby, not afore she wrote that book—or something wrote it, using her hands.
Funny thing—no one in that family had ever learned Akkadian Cuneiform. Or any other kind of writing, for that matter. In the end, their pop said that’s what killed her, making all those “evil” symbols on clay tablets. And so, the book—Your book—became the first written manuscript, and Gilgamesh can take a flying leap.
Pop was all about burying the book with her, but somehow it escaped that fate and found its way into the hands of its solitary intended reader—Joah, the first You.
And on Page One are the Laws.
And the First Law is: We are not speak to, or otherwise make contact with, any persons upon the Earth unless called upon by You. Except, that is, if Your soul happens to be in danger of being gobbled up by a demon.
I could be paraphrasing.
But rules were made to be broken, don’t You see? I proved we can help without harming, if we’re careful. But since Your birth, Torgus has kept an even tighter rein on the rest of us. We’re meant to obey the laws, not to understand them or their origins.
Were we permitted to talk out of turn, we would beg one thing of You, and one thing only: Do not give up Your name, no way no how, like that poor fellow in the lilac bushes (who’s still wearing Your coat, by the way). We do not know the exact meaning of this. We have only hints from the dark dreams of Daath, and Damballah’s intermittent flashes from Your brain. Trust me, if there were any way in hell we could interact with Your world without Torgus and his precious rules…
And so, all these long millennia, we’ve been up here looking down…on all this beauty, this sorrow, these wars, these triumphs; drinking in the births and deaths of languages, feeling the shivers of music from Gymel to death metal, all of it flashing by in the blink of one of our giant, orange eyes, aching in silence for the company of You. So much life. Such gorgeous life. Rock on, baby.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.