She always carried her basket the way they carried water in the old days, perched high on her shoulder like a vessel. He vaguely remembered learning something about that at church when he was a kid; not in the sermon, but in a well-worn dictionary one of his classmates had in his backpack. The book was subtly passed down from boy to giggling boy, each telling the next to “check out the V’s”. One dog-eared page had “vagina” highlighted in yellow, but by the time he found it, his older brother was yanking the book from his hands. He tried to punch him square in the stomach and missed; the only definition he could recall reading was “vessel.”
When it was heavy, she struggled to balance it, a thick quilt sometimes peeking over one corner and hanging down to shroud her petite frame. It wasn’t much of a cover—all he could see was the movement of her hips left-to-right as she crossed the concrete, a sad swaying, more pleading than provocative. She was about his age but looked a little younger, something about the gentle slope of her nose and curls that crowned her head like a tangle of wild snakes. He sat across the street on a bench, mostly in quiet observation, occasionally barking directions at tourists that read somewhere that his hometown was “quaint.” Though his church days had been put to rest some thirty years before, he hadn’t made it a point to watch her, to know her tiny movements, or to feel a strained sense of concern when she didn’t show up. He hadn’t made a point of anything in the last three years.
The basket almost fell once and only once when she hit a patch of ice, black and mostly hidden by some kid’s bootprints. A quick slide to a near-kneel, a loud exhale, and a nervous laugh. After that she stopped trusting herself, resting her right hand against the slatted plastic until she made it inside the laundromat. That was an impulse the two of them shared. His wreck had happened late one September night, brightness and a blow to the head, the sensation of a television being flicked off. Some idiot teenager and a phone, or a pipe, or a hand up his girlfriend’s skirt, nobody seemed to have their story straight on the cause. They left the scene with the boy’s arm in a sling, otherwise unharmed, whispering about getting home before the girl’s father woke up. He barely came away with his limbs attached. His body was splintered, a new series of rivets in an already-faulty foundation, propped up on a stretcher the way he propped himself on the bench, watching her catch her own fall.
She pulled in and out twice a week, in a car that seemed to lumber along the road instead of actually gripping it, unsure of itself, half-lost in daylight in a town reduced to a quarter of a street. Sometimes she smoked cigarettes during the spin cycle, long drags between two slender fingers, lips puckered in a puff of smoke that drifted far enough to engulf them both. He tried to occupy himself with innocent thoughts about the rust on her driver’s side door and the occasional sound of her coughing, but some days he wondered who loved her, if anyone had ever loved her, if he had ever loved anyone. His divorce, messy and verbally violent, had left him always alone, so he assumed the latter answer was no. But six months after the accident, his mobility had returned by means of some miracle, an unlikely cohesion of his new mixed-metal skeleton. He now sat in a cloud of her smoke on a bench across from a filthy laundromat that had caught fire four times in the last ten years. He had been there two of those times, watching as unresponsive then as he had been when she almost lost her basket, as he had been when the paramedics found him, as he had been when his former wife would tell him “No answer is still an answer.”
It was the dead of summer when she finally noticed him, a cracking oasis in the hot-orange afternoon, maddened by sweat and the occasional wasp buzzing by. He saw her approaching, cut-off shorts frayed and barely covering her thighs, an old David Bowie tour tee shirt in red and white. He looked down. His own clothes looked even more faded in the sun.
His heart palpitated in an inner-chamber breakdown; a pull when there should have been a push.
“Hey! Excuse me!” She jogged across the street through the non-existent traffic, stopping ten feet from where he sat, her hands on her hips. For a moment, their sway was less of a plea and more of a demand.
He looked up, squinting at her like he couldn’t quite make her out.
“Hey. Would you happen to have a cigarette I could borrow?”
He patted his tee-shirt, then his shorts, as if he may have had a pack of cigarettes in a pocket that he had forgotten about. When he opened his mouth to speak, all he heard was his own breath pouring out of him, loud and panicked like a busted water pipe.
She giggled at him. “All right then. Well, you have a great day.” She made her way back to the laundromat, swaying as slowly and pitifully as ever.
He spent the next few months trying to forget that day. His home, a crumbling, converted garage, remained unchanged. It was always littered with takeout containers, empty pill bottles, and a year’s worth of mail left untouched. He killed three spiders when they crawled too close; not all at once, but over time (small errors in calculation, the innocence of blind trust). He dodged phone calls from his ex-wife, demanding a check or a check-in or a reconciliation depending on the day. He wasn’t supposed to drink with his pain pills, but he often remembered that three shots in. His mouth, wormwood-tasting and fractured from grinding in his sleep, remained closed as often as possible. It took three weeks for him to get back to the bench, and he was relieved that she never saw him again.
It was the day after the first frost of the year that she pulled in, swinging the rusted door open before the car had even come to a full stop. She dragged the overfilled basket out of the backseat, her windblown curls dark as demons contrasting the glazed-white morning, an ill-fitting down coat open to the breeze. She didn’t make a sound, focusing all of her effort on lifting the bloated plastic to her shoulder. Three short steps, no hip swaying. Then he watched her mouth open slightly, her weight shift, and her ankle roll in succession; slow-motion, like an invisible fist closed and crumpled her from the ground up. She landed on her side, stunned for a moment, staring up at the sky. He leaned forward a little on his bench, resting his elbows on his knees.
The vessel basket laid broken and overturned in the tiny patch of grass left after the laundromat’s last fire, seeming a little too hopeful for its surroundings, especially now. The contents were scattered across the dark, dirty parking lot, bright hues a sharp contrast to dismal early winter. Among them: a man’s dress shirt, two pairs of boxer briefs, and a lace bra in some designer shade of pale green. She hadn’t even bothered to sort them by color.
She pulled herself to her knees and up, wincing and grabbing in the general direction of her right ankle. Slowly collecting the items from the ground, she loaded her arms and mumbled a few “goddamnits” here and there. She looked around to make sure no one caught sight of her fall, and she still didn’t see him. He sat unresponsive, just like when the place burned, just like when she almost lost her basket before, just like the side-of-the-road night when his bones were ground to powder under his skin. Just like he would do for whatever time remained.