Josh Zlatkus is a mental health counselor living, working, and writing in Philadelphia. He earned his BA in English language and literature from the University of Chicago, and his master’s in clinical counseling from La Salle University. During the first half of the week, Josh provides therapy for Medicaid and Medicare clients. During the second half, he writes short stories and plays. He is an avid hockey player and fan.
A Place Too Small to Escape
“Here we are,” she said. “Walmart.”
“It’s the last on the list,” he said.
“Listen to me.” She put her hands on his cheeks. “You’ll be fine. Just forget everything that has happened before. Try to focus on today.” She kissed him squarely, then unlocked his door.
Smiling, he said: “I will.” And before he went in, he leaned his head through the window. “Hey, it’s Walmart – they have to take me, right?”
It was now November, and Rhode Island was soon to become the loneliest place in the world. Already the once-waving grasses, along with the sun-smiling dunes, had grown gray and cold. On her way to work, Catherine could see flocks of wild turkeys deep in the woods. The moon hung low and yellow most nights, the sky depressingly clear. Out there, a greater space than I can imagine, she thought, and down here, a place too small to escape. The water was too cold for tourists but lapped nonetheless.
It had seemed a grand joke at first, that Russell couldn’t find a job, but lately she was uncovering more and more reasons to believe it. He had – how could she put it? – a talent for being slightly off the mark. She began empathizing with his interviewers. She couldn’t explain it, exactly, but increasingly when she sent him off and he came back empty-handed, she discovered that within herself something like a sense of justice had been satisfied. Either way, she was closer to despair than hope. Russell remained oblivious to everything throughout.
“Baby,” he’d said over breakfast one morning, a few months back. “Friendly’s, Olive Garden, or The 99? – or all three?” His smile was infectious, but Catherine had to excuse herself for the bathroom.
Recently she was showing up to Sal’s Bakery, where she worked, by 6:45 a.m. – a full hour and a half before her shift. It used to be that she would arrive with just enough time for a cup of coffee, but now she sat in the predawn parking lot and read. Sal, who was a kindly old man, promised to put her on the 7 a.m. shift as soon as he could, though she’d never asked.
She was restless after work, too. Sometimes she’d go to Stop & Shop, eat a huge slice of chocolate cake, and walk home as penance. In the morning she’d have to walk back, which drove Russell insane. Too many vehicles on their way to work, he would say, but they only had the one car. On other days she would beg him to take her to the movies – with her money, of course – despite his protests that they should be frugal, should watch Netflix.
Driving home from Walmart, she didn’t have the energy to coach him as she normally would have.
“He asked me my weaknesses so I told him that sometimes I lose focus.” Russell was holding onto the handle above the window. “And that’s the honest-to-goodness truth.”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“At another point, he asked me where I saw myself in ten years, but I didn’t know how to answer that. I mean, do they want me to hang around for that long? Or would they see that as settling? Then again, they work there…”
“So what did you say.”
“I asked him to give me an example, like what his answer would be. He seemed surprised by that, but in a good way. He said he’d like to be a regional manager.”
“So then what did you say.”
“I told him, ‘That sounds good to me.’ What do you think about that?”
“Well, what did he say.”
“Nothing; he just jotted something down.”
Catherine looked in the woods for turkeys, but there were none. She ran her eyes along the salt lines of the car in front of her. Everyone on the street was gray and blind, tethered to plans made in the dark. Where were the tourists with their hats and sunglasses, teeth bright against the background of a tan? She missed them more than she had in years. As she turned onto their street, she noticed her tank was almost empty.
“In the end, he asked me how realistic it was that I would take the job. He said he was worried that I was overqualified.”
“Maybe that’s why you didn’t get it.”
“Oh, I never said I didn’t get it – the guy said he’d call me next week, at the latest.”
She parked around the back of their apartment complex. Russell opened her door and placed his arm around her waist as she walked up the steps, her own hand resting thoughtfully on her lower abdomen.
“Hey.” He turned her toward him as she rummaged for her keys. “It will be alright, won’t it? I mean, everything else is great, isn’t it?”
“You know I love you, Russell.”
“I know you do, Cat.”
They pushed through the door and into their dark apartment. Catherine threw her keys on the counter and began filtering through the mail. Russell turned on the TV. She looked over to see the bright images reflecting off his face. Outside, it was nearly night.
A few years back, when she and Russell had first moved in together, they were cuddling in front of the TV, watching a show, when Russell suddenly turned it off.
“What?” she’d asked, but he hushed her. Moving stealthily over to their cabinets, he took out two brand new glasses.
“Let your eyes adjust to the darkness,” he said.
“Russell, what are you talking about?” she whispered, excited.
He was already moving to their glass screen door, his eyes on something she could not see.
“What are you doing?” She followed him. Soon his nose was pressed against the glass.
“Fireflies,” he breathed at long last. He opened the screen door and rushed toward the most recent flash, his arms waving and the glasses glinting in the moon. Catherine watched him, in a child’s breathless amazement, until he caught one of the little fellows and at the same time shattered glass across their lawn. She had laughed until she cried.
Now, she pushed the mail away. “Do you want to go out tonight?”
She knew exactly what he would say as he looked over from the couch.
“Babe, I hardly think we want to be spending money at a time like this.”
“Just for tonight. As a morale booster.”
She saw the lines of understanding, so well known to her, creep over his face. “Look, I know Walmart was the last on the list. But remember, I kept the list short on purpose. On Monday I’ll start looking again. Plus, I’m sure they’re going to call.” He turned back to the TV.
“It’s just that at work the other day someone’s car broke down – ” she said hurriedly, using her hands to speak, “so Sal gave her a jump and – and when I told him how nice it was he – ” she tapped a piece of mail on the counter and bit her lip. Then she fixed her eyes on the piece of mail as if it were the only thing in the world holding her together.
Russell came over and held her trembling hands. “It’s okay, honey.”
She began to heave quietly. “It’s just that he – looked at me, like, with so much – meaning – and said – he told me – ‘Everyone – everyone needs a jump – from time to time.’” She began gushing tears.
“Let’s go out,” he said. He disappeared into the coat room, emerging with her jacket.
“Come on,” he cooed. “Put this on. It might get chilly tonight. Let’s go out.”
They went to Bennigan’s and requested the same booth where they’d sat on their first date. They had to wait an extra fifteen minutes, but Russell said it was worth it. Once seated, he ordered a few of their favorite appetizers through the hostess.
“We don’t have to go crazy, honey,” Catherine said. “It’s just nice to be out.”
“Are you hungry?”
“I’m starving,” she admitted.
“Then let’s just enjoy it.”
And they did. It was one of those nights, Catherine would say, looking back, that one remembers for the conversation. Not what was said but what was communicated. Russell would replay it in his mind over and over. She smiled at him and wiped at the border of her eye. Looking around, each thought but did not say I wonder if they’re hiring here. I’ll check it out later, Russell told himself.
The appetizers hadn’t been on the table for long before Russell challenged her to a French fry fight for the final slider, a childishness she gave into, thinking, Who knows what it takes to jump-start a couple? Then memories of their first date, never tired or old, filled in the space before entrees – the whole time Russell exuding more and more until he had her in gales of laughter…
After entrees: “Cat,” he said, “I have it all figured out.”
“Oh do you?”
“Yes. We have what, a thousand dollars left saved?”
“And we’re burning through about two hundred a month, as things stand?”
“Without dinners like this, yes.”
“OK!” he said, smiling. “So I’ve got five months to find a job.”
“That’s not so long,” she said.
“You’ve been searching for longer than that...”
“But barely. And it means I’m that much closer.”
“Do you feel close?”
“Yes. Yes I do. Especially with this jump-start, I do.”
“I’m glad,” she said, and held his hand.
She was ready to leave but he ordered an apple crisp, her favorite.
“Russell, you shouldn’t have. I’m full as it is.”
“You don’t need to worry about a thing. You’re beautiful.”
“Oh, cut it out.”
“You are.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Cat?”
“Are you excited for us?”
“But – are you really?
“I really am.”
“OK. I believe you. I can always tell when you’re being honest with me.”
They ate their apple crisp together, in silence. She was all of a sudden tired. When the bill came, Russell grabbed it quickly.
“Let me,” she said. “Seriously.”
“No, Cat. I have this one.”
She had to give in. She knew that, in his mind, tonight was a luxury they could afford, now that the future was all figured out.
Later, after cradling Russell’s head to sleep on the couch, Catherine got up quietly and passed into the bedroom, dragging her suitcase out of the closet. “Hush!” she told herself. It was imperative that she left him in the dark.