Saint never had a lot of luck, but then again, who does?
Mall food court. She was asking this manager for a job, a man with an eyebrow ring and a University of Kentucky tattoo.
“Says here you worked at Toyota,” said the manager. “Why’d you quit a job like that?”
“Circumstances,” said Saint. Smoked since the age of 12 and sounded like it.
“They must have paid you well. Something like $19 an hour? Can’t offer you more than $7.25 here. Minimum wage. Gotta drag yourself up in retail, babe.”
Three missed calls from Molly already. She called too much, on account of withdrawal induced anxiety.
“You don’t smile much, do you? Not a lot of personality?” He glanced down at Saint’s personality. Two B cups worth in a Walmart bra that pinched when she twisted the wrong way. Grotesque.
Easy to be proud. Easier to walk out. But the world ain’t got much time left on it, and after all she’d done to keep them both alive she’d be damned if she and Molly spent the last days under a bridge.
Saint leaned over and did the most she could with her V-neck tee. She lifted the corners of her mouth. “I smile just fine.”
The locals, the ones whose ancestors came over from Germany and floated down the river and settled this town and had streets and hospital wings with their distant cousin’s name on them, they called it the Dead God. Looked like somebody shot the world’s biggest coyote, or maybe a husky, and threw it into the Ohio. The space where its guts ought to be all jammed full of trash and scrap metal. Smelled like the chemical farts coming out of the polymer factory. Smelled like scorched engine oil and gasoline. Smelled like the river.
What everyone said was, that if you saw it, your number was up. Get right with the Lord, don’t cross the street, load up every gun you had, cause something was out there looking to kill you. Might be years, but it’ll get you, and it won’t be peaceful. It’ll be a heart attack while you’re driving so you go head on into a semi. Or you’ll get your arm stuck in the wood chipper and bleed out before the ambulance can even be called. Or maybe you’d go hunting, and just not come back.
Saint was nine, the first time she saw the Dead God.
That’s why Saint had two Glocks, a shotgun, and an AR-15 stashed in hidden panels where Molly couldn’t find them. Why she had MREs and blankets and fresh water and purification tablets in the trunk of the car. Why she’d taken archeology and history and intro to composition and wanted to enter the seven-year combined M.S./Ph.D in Theology with a concentration in Applied Eschatology at Yale University.
But eschatology doesn’t pay, and then Molly showed up. Saint affixed her halo, and the whole thing was forgotten.
A trailer with a screen door on a loose hinge that slammed shut too hard behind Saint. And a Molly to sit on the couch and watch the television. That was all there really was in life.
“Got the job,” said Saint, and took off her hoodie. Her arms and shoulders were sun-browned, freckled.
Molly twisted her head away from the television just enough to allow Saint to kiss her almost on the bottom lip. The place smelled like old coffee and the ashtray was overflowing. A can of Mountain Holler dangled precariously between Molly’s thumb and forefinger.
Saint walked into the kitchen. Looked in the fridge for a 99 cent pound of ground beef.
“You ought to watch this,” said Molly. “It’s called Relinquish. Invaders from an alternate universe.”
“I don’t like the manager. Kept staring at me. I didn’t enjoy it.”
“Liber Null. Metacommentary. Real Italo Calvino shit.”
“You didn’t defrost the meat, did you?”
“It’s surprisingly coherent. Invigorating. I’ve been questioning fate, wondering if it was always inevitable that I arrive here. If nothing happens in God’s world by mistake, then am I to assume the actions leading one to desperately need a program of recovery might also be necessary, in some way? Have I been punished, or spared a worse fate?”
“All this from a TV show.”
“Streaming. The meat will cook the same frozen or not, and by the time I remembered it was too late and I figured it must have been going bad to go that cheap, and would benefit from remaining frozen.”
Saint retrieved the brick of hamburger from the freezer and dropped it in a pan. She brought down the box of Signature Saver Ground Meat Quick Dinner Kit and pretended to read the label. Molly lit another cigarette.
One time when she was a child, Saint had wandered off from some kind of neighborhood event thing, a block party or ice cream social or barbeque, and walked down the street and in between a gap in a fence and found herself somewhere with dappled light in the buzzing summer heat. A place that could have been the woods just as easy as someone’s backyard.
She took off her shoes and felt grass under her toes, far less soft than she imagined or hoped it would be. She walked towards some kind of arch in the tree branches, hoping to cool off and be quiet, and sat in the roots.
Something came at her, slowly, out of a place in the air. It looked kind of like a wolf, or at least the size of one. Really though, it looked like a coyote, lean, long legged, this one iron gray. Except it wasn’t all gray, cause part of its head and patches of its body didn’t have any fur or skin or meat on them, just bone. An empty eye socket with no flesh around it, just a jagged collection of screws and pins. But the one good eye was the kind of sick yellow-orange no one can abide looking at for too long.
Smelled like sewage, and burnt plastic. Gasoline.
“A child,” said a voice that could only have been from the coyote-thing. Such a human voice. “Thought they’d have learned by now.”
The coyote-thing circled in the dirt, dog-like, and sat down not far from Saint. “There ain’t much time left.”
Saint was too scared to move.
“Oh, it’ll start here, right here. The world, any day now, she’ll commence to dying. I wouldn’t worry about it overmuch. Dying ain’t so bad, and it sure as hell ain’t the end. Things just kind of keep going.”
The coyote-thing sniffed the air. Like a dream.
The store was called Nirvana. After the band or all the hippie shit they sold, Saint would never know. Indoor/outdoor carpet and bare fluorescents. Not a dollar gone to waste on a curated shopping experience. Saint liked Nirvana just fine, she guessed. Unpopular opinion, but she liked Pearl Jam more.
It was a local store, privately owned by the manager’s uncle, a portent of doom if there ever was one. Once your mall starts putting in local institutions, can no longer support nationwide tenants, you’re fucked. Might as well close the place down and move on out to St. Louis or maybe Denver, cause the city ain’t gonna be livable much longer.
The manager kept coming in to check on things, make sure the inventory was accounted for, check the take. He took a liking to Saint.
“You’ve got potential,” he’d say. “You could go places in a town like this.”
At first it was always that. Something professional, with a smile. You’ve got potential. One day I see you running one of these, maybe down in Owensboro. You ever thought about a career in merchandising? I know the job ain’t much but it’s an honest living and a chill vibe. You live alone?
And eventually, once he’d cottoned on to who and what kind of person he was dealing with, he’d lean on the counter and stare out the door. A woman would walk by, jeans and boots, and he’d whistle and call over to Saint.
“Damn, you see that? Lot of fine women in the mall.”
He’d do it again and again, over the hours he spent loitering in there, not technically on the schedule but clearly bored. He’d say he was just enjoying the view. He’d bring up some kind of camaraderie, as if they both shared an appetite.
And it wasn’t that Saint was immune to the charms of a woman’s body. It was just that it didn’t work quite the same way. It was quieter, warmer, ambient. She liked to think it was more respectful. That she and her kind took everything in at a glance, saw a whole person, how they flicked their hair, how they smiled with just enough crooked teeth, how they rested their weight on one leg or another, the way they held a glass or a knife or touched your shoulder.
“I know you can see them,” the manager would say. “Come on, just cause you got a girl at home doesn’t mean you can’t look. I’ve got a wife and she couldn’t care less. We’re only human.”
And Saint would look up and see some pre-pregnancy soccer mom, somebody who looked like they didn’t have any real idea of what it meant to work, somebody keeping her personality under layers of expectation, somebody who voted Republican and made audible twists of the face if you even mentioned touching someone else’s vagina, and Saint would say “Damn, she’s fine,” and go back to sorting out trays of tiny crystal rings.
“That manager came back today,” said Saint. “Creep.”
Molly nodded and turned her face just enough away from the screen so Saint could brush her lips with her own. “I just started this show, Birth of a Murderer,” she said. “You seen it?”
Saint shook her head. She went to the freezer and took down two frozen salisbury steak dinners, the dollar store kind.
“We’re paying for all the services as is,” said Molly. “We really should be watching more new content. Expand our horizons. My sponsor tells me to listen for the voice of God. Maybe she’s in one of these shows and we just haven’t found her yet?”
A hard worker can go far in an auto plant, not a union job anymore but nothing is. The neighbors, they’re so busy hollering all hours of the day and night, they won’t even notice or care when a butch gal slams her girlfriend up against the wall, fingers all over the place and both of them making sounds ain’t from the earth. Somebody can live well like that for a good long time. They can leave their family home at 21 and get three good years out of it before the Dead God comes in to bring Armageddon down on the world.
Before their girlfriend’s opioid use ramps up.
“He worries me, even though there ain’t no reason for it,” said Saint. She punched the buttons on the microwave.
“Somebody in the meeting today, they said that God is everywhere.” Molly scratched at herself. “Sounded like hippie bullshit to me. Pantheism, the coward’s concept of God. It occured to me that I wasted my time with college. I should have become a preacher. What a grift.”
Saint wanted a beer like nothing else, but all things considered it wasn’t possible to keep anything stronger than diet soda and Skoal Wintergreen in the trailer. Sometimes Saint resented all that. She wasn’t the one with the problems. She’d been drunk twice, once at a graduation party, and once on her 21st birthday, when she’d snuck out and gone to the Tick Tock Lounge after Molly fell asleep to shoot pool and just get away from the constant vigilance, the caretaking, the neverending tears.
Molly lit a cigarette. Indoor smoking was a concession Saint had made after Molly’d gotten back from the court ordered treatment. “If I’d been a preacher, none of this would have happened. My daddy would have never found out, and I wouldn’t have had to hide because nobody would pay attention to a couple ladies doing Bible study. And I could have moved to Portland and come out and done weddings for cute non-binary couples.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” said Saint, “if you really aren’t listening, or if you don’t care, or think it’s funny.”
“What I take issue with most of all is predestination. If nothing happens in God’s world by mistake, then the actions which drove me here were also planned. My recovery is predicated upon subsuming my own will and accepting God’s, and yet had he not driven me towards such choices I would have no need for this.”
“If you didn’t start popping pills you’d have never come back to Indiana.”
“The only satisfactory answer is that my choices were engineered in order to sabotage my own free will. A selfish drive by our Creator to bring me to heel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m willing to accept the empirical evidence and to utilize these methods for as long as they prove effective. But I am being asked to essentially annihilate my own consciousness in order to stem the progression of my chemical dependency, and I find that deeply problematic.”
“And you wouldn’t have had to teach at that school.”
“Whether or not I can hear you is irrelevant. Has it occurred to you that I am accustomed to a different sort of conversation? That maybe I’m not getting everything I need from seven narcotics and/or alcoholic-centric group meetings a week? Ask yourself how you feel about living here, then imagine that you used to drink with Pulitzer winners. And now, you can’t even drink with the guy that scrawls filthy graffiti in the women’s room.”
“And you wouldn’t have to put up with me,” said Saint.
Her girlfriend’s eyes welled up and she leaned in and burst into tears all over the shoulders and chest of Saint’s ratty old t-shirt, and Saint, by rote memory, by pure habit, stroked Molly’s hair and told her how okay it was all going to be.
“You sure you’re a lesbian?”
The manager’s breath too close on her left side. A slow day. The old fear-stained question.
Molly would define herself as queer in order to deconstruct and decolonialize the white, cis-centric binary view of sexuality, and also because she’d fucked enough trans guys to get aroused by Old Spice. The old butch gals who occupied a corner of the local gay bar would have spat back in the affirmative without a moment’s notice. Saint, she’d never really thought of it at all. Other people called her a lesbian. It was just how things had turned out.
“I don’t know. Yes,” she said.
“Which is it? If you don’t know, then how can you say yes?”
He got even closer. They weren’t touching. Together they rested on the edge of sexual harassment. Saint felt her stomach curdle and she pulled away.
He stepped back, hands up in the universal okay, you got me gesture. “Sorry.” He wandered away, out towards the open door and into the mall. “You ain’t the only one with problems at home, sweetheart.”
She stared down at the paperwork. “I’d kill for a beer.”
The bartender at Tick Tock was undeniably cute. Saint decided this under the influence of Budweiser number three. She’d drained the first one in two minutes, ravenous after months of someone else’s sobriety, followed by another, before settling in to kill this one slowly, sober up and use mouthwash before going home.
At the moment however, the cuteness of the bartender was undeniable. Saint idly watched her larynx bob up and down, musing about what it would be like with someone not born female, if it would matter, if she would care.
Three missed calls from Molly. A short text exchange, just enough to confirm a late arrival at the trailer, to insinuate the presence of friends.
The manager leaned over to Saint. “You think that one’s a tranny?”
To be alone. To not have to care for someone else, or to ponder one’s own doom. What a luxury it must be, to not expect disaster so thoroughly that you have long since ceased to fear it. So easy to leave. Take the one beat up old car and drive off, not even that far. To Indianapolis, or Louisville. Get the same job, in the same trailer, only with no falling-apart girlfriend, and no prophecies from rotting coyotes.
“Come on, don’t tell me you aren’t wondering,” said the manager.
His Pantera shirt, rebel flag displayed proudly. RIP Dimebag. The smell of alcohol leeching out of someone. Garlic, mouthwash, Old Spice, gasoline. It smelled like danger.
“I’ve been wondering since the first day I came here,” said Saint. “And I feel bad for wondering, ‘cause some part of me feels like it ain’t my business and another part of me feels like I shouldn’t even care to begin with.”
The bartender came by, just checking on their drinks, bringing them new ones, ready to ply them with shots. Saint smiled.
“Damn right, you shouldn’t care.” The manager drained his Budweiser and started on the next. Designated driver usually means beer only. “All the same in the dark, you know? Wouldn’t be too far from a strapon.”
Carbon levels rising. A new virus every year. Rising incidences of certain forms of substance abuse as people, flushed with panic, attempted to quiet the screams within. Famine, flood, fire. Saint wasn’t sure how it would happen, but honestly she could hardly believe it had taken this long.
“You think the world is gonna end?” asked Saint.
“Don’t need a prophet to see that.”
There was a kind of dead end alcove by the bathroom. Saint didn’t let him kiss her on the mouth. He wanted to take a stall but she firmly vetoed. He clearly didn’t understand what was happening. She let him touch her all over, as close to her breasts and crotch as he dared. He bent down and snuffled and licked her neck. He hiked her up the wall and ground his gut and hips against her leg.
Hadn’t been touched, like that, in months. Either of them. And with the world ending a little drunken rub back and forth couldn’t hurt. He was something grotesque, an automaton, an unsexual being. And honestly, she knew he didn’t quite understand what she was, something that appeared like a woman but didn’t move or act like one.
The manager pulled away frustrated. “Really?”
“Sorry. Ain’t gotta wonder.”
“I gotta piss. I’ll take you home.”
Saint didn’t pick the bartender ‘cause she probably would have asked if the bartender was a bottom and then fucked her regardless of the answer.
Saint was already walking across the parking lot by the time the manager finished shaking himself. She’d taken the last Budweiser to go, sipping intermittently.
She couldn’t imagine the trailer. There wasn’t anything there worth holding on to, just a stash of guns and ammo and all-weather firestarters, and the person she loved most in the world.
The street took a bend, and suddenly Saint realized she was walking through some kind of park, or maybe a vacant lot, or somebody’s art project. It was all grass and weeds but also concrete and dappled moonlight far too bright for a waning crescent.
She sat down on a stump and sipped more beer. And waited.
It came out like last time, through a gap in the trees but also the air. The stink of gasoline. Exactly as rotten and dead as last time, the same weary but not unkind attitude.
Saint said she figured time was up. That her oldest friend had come by to take her away.
The coyote-thing cocked its head politely, waiting on her to elaborate.
“Isn’t it time for the world to end? And not a moment too soon, either. Come on, you bastard. Don’t keep me waiting. I’ve been waiting my whole life, and nothing’s come of it. The knowing. It’s hell.”
They sat. Stars moved. A cell phone rang, again and again.
“Can I sit for another moment? Just a moment longer, and then get back to Molly and kiss her all over and go to a midnight meeting, to McDonalds and not even order off the dollar menu, and stay up with her and watch whatever. Only if I can just sit for a moment.”
There was no answer. Just an eye, yellow and orange. The smell of slow-moving disease. The gentlest indication that nothing would ever be good or pure again, but that all would be well for everyone, if only they could wait for things to take their course.