Nancy Jo CullenWebsite@NancyJoCullen
This piece is one of 13 short stories set to appear in The Journey Prize Stories 26 anthology, available October 7. A huge This congratulations to author Nancy Jo Cullen!
At 1:27 a.m. Maggie’s phone blinked and whistled on her bedside table. Startled out of sleep, she knocked the cat off the bed. The grey beast yowled and sashayed out of the room. (To register his ill will the cat peed on the bathmat but Maggie wouldn’t take note of that for another six hours.) Maggie grabbed the phone, Lacey Vandermeer Text Message, it read. What on earth? She ran her finger across the glass screen and Lacey’s message popped up: Ty for the great fuck, baby I needed that. Right above Lacey’s message was Maggie’s earlier message, highlighted in green and sent at 8:37 pm, Don’t forget you’re coming to show me how to make tapenade tomorrow. 2 pm sharp. 😉
Maggie blushed and sweat sprang from her pores. She kicked the blankets off her legs. I think u meant to send this elsewhere she typed quickly and hit send. Maggie pulled off her nightie, wiped her brow and armpits then lay spread eagle on the bed waiting for the flash to dissipate. Again, her phone whistled: MOM! LOL!! Ooops!
It’s bloody scary to get a text in the middle of the night. Maggie hit send.
Srsly mom, I’m sorry, came the reply.
And now, she was awake, thank you very much. Maggie turned off the sound on her phone and tossed it across the bed. The streetlights glowed from behind her white curtains. Bloody light pollution. She flipped onto her stomach but it was no good either. She grabbed her phone and opened Twitter. Sure enough at the top of her feed was a post from Lacey: That moment when u send ur mom a text meant for your lover. #awkward #atleastimgettingsome. The tweet had been favourited by Dane Davis. (Good God, who named their child Dane Davis?) Maggie opened up Dane’s profile: short, dark hair, thick black glasses, buttoned up shirt, and brownish complexion. Boy or girl? Hard to say and, with Lacey, impossible to predict.
Maggie switched on the lamp and typed another message; I have a job interview tomorrow FFS!
You’ll do great!
NOT my point!
An honest mistake!
Maggie switched off the lamp and, again, tucked her phone under the pillow. She was going to feel like hell in the morning.
By 2:00 p.m. Maggie had finished a 10K run, forty push-ups, forty chair dips and one hundred crunches. Her left hip was giving her trouble but twenty bucks for a yoga class was out of the question at this point in time. Maggie faced herself in the dining room mirror (hung just so to make her apartment look larger than it was) and lifted her arms above her shoulders; so far she was staving off scrotarms. Her face was another matter, her complexion was smooth but the lines around her eyes were deepening and the skin on her upper chest was starting to pucker. On the up side, no double chin and her hair colour looked totally natural.
Of course Lacey was late. Maggie flopped onto the couch. Her stomach was killing her, the side effect of another job interview. The interview was conducted by a toxic little snot named Jasmine; Maggie guessed her chances for the job were nil as soon as she walked through the door and spied Jasmine’s Betty Page hair cut and gold stud in the left bottom corner of her mouth.
Maggie thrust her right hand forward, “Maggie Vandermeer.”
Jasmine passed Maggie a limp hand then quickly withdrew it, she ran her finger down Maggie’s resume, “So, you’ve been working in PR for—” she stopped her finger back at the top of the page and looked up, “six years?” Her voice rose with the question.
“Closer to twenty-three,” Maggie said. “Since my daughter was almost four. That’s my selected resume.” She pulled a four-page document out of her bag, “I have the complete resume here.”
“That won’t be necessary. Are you conversant in social media?”
“I use Facebook and Twitter. I’m Linked in.”
“My mom doesn’t get Facebook at all,” Jasmine said. “You know, she posts weird things on my wall. Unnecessary things. That touchy, feely stuff with sunsets and oceans.”
Maggie gave Jasmine an understanding nod.
“We’re trying to build a brand here so our staff have to be adept at social media. You know, we want to trend because people like us, not because we look like sentimental throwbacks. Not because people are laughing at us.”
Maggie nodded again.
“So it’s important that our people can leverage a strong social media presence.”
“I have twenty plus years of public relations experience to leverage.”
“Mmm hmm,” Jasmine said. “What would you say your greatest weakness is?”
The interview didn’t improve. As her chances faded Maggie made a last-ditch attempt to get Jasmine to look at her resume by mentioning that her daughter was Pushyboots, which definitely excited Jasmine’s attention, just not in the way Maggie had hoped that her close relationship to the famous sex-advice blogger would do.
Jasmine slapped her desk and exclaimed, “So, you’re the Former Drinker?”
Maggie nodded. “Ten years this September.”
“I can’t believe I just interviewed the FD!” Jasmine stood up.
“I guess you’ll have something to talk about over lunch.”
Jasmine opened her office door, “Well, thank you very much, Maggie Vandermeer. Say hi to Pushy. We totally love her.”
Lacey arrived at 2:24 p.m. “I said 2:00 p.m. sharp,” Maggie said.
“Artichoke, olives, capers,” Lacey raised the cloth bag in her hand, “Besides you could do this yourself. It’s totally easy.”
“The point was to have a visit with you.”
“I’ll make us a coffee,” Lacey walked into the kitchen.
It wasn’t the afternoon Maggie planned for. Although she arrived in a happy mood Lacey was gone at 4:13 p.m. At 2:31 p.m. Lacey was bubbling with excitement over a pending book deal based on her blog. She was thinking about quitting her bartending job.
“Trust me, you might regret that,” Maggie said.
“My book contract?”
“No, quitting the bar.”
“I’ve been doing it a long time,” Lacey said. “I can always find another gig.”
That was true enough. By the time Lacey was seven, Maggie had trained her in the art of the perfect vodka martini. A fearless inventory had caused her to recognize that. Lacey should be allowed to say so.
The tapenade took all of three minutes in the food processor. Maggie lifted a spoonful of the mixture to Lacey’s mouth.
“No.” Lacey held her hand up. “It’s best to let it steep for a couple of hours.”
“Well, I can’t eat it all by myself!” Maggie said.
“Don’t be crazy. It’s great with a chicken breast, or on pasta.”
“I don’t eat pasta.” Maggie patted her stomach.
“Jesus mom,” Lacey said, “You have to stop obsessing on your weight.”
“Caring about how you look is different from obsessing.” Maggie licked the tapenade off her fingers to prove her point, then changed the subject. “I met a Pushyboots fan at my interview today.”
“How did Pushyboots come up?” Lacey asked.
“Well, you know, she didn’t think I could trend. Or whatever.”
“Trend as a verb. You know, make something trend. So I told her you were my daughter. It’s tough out there,” Maggie said. “At my age.”
“It’s hard everywhere these days. That’s why people strike out on their own, make their own work.”
Maggie lifted her eyebrows but said nothing. Of course, Lacey was right. And, also, grossly oversimplifying the situation. As if she hadn’t thought of going out on her own. Of course she’d thought of it, but she preferred the structure of a job. At a job, work starts at 9:00 a.m., work ends at 5:00 p.m., overtime is banked and paid days off are taken in lieu. It was efficient.
“It’s kind of weird though, you bringing up Pushyboots.”
Maggie never should have said mentioned it. “I was losing the interview.”
Lacey shrugged, “You shouldn’t do it.”
“I can’t say you’re my daughter?”
“Not in that context.”
“I don’t complain about you writing about me.”
“I don’t write about you.”
“What about the FD?”
“I’m writing about myself, even if I mention you. Plus, it’s in code, nobody knows who you are.”
“Jasmine knows who I am.”
“The little twot who interviewed me.”
“Jesus mom, stop creeping me or I’ll block you.”
“I didn’t thank you for the great fuck.
“Oh. My. God. Let it rest!”
“Let’s just try a little bit of that dip now. These lentil chips are yummy.”
“You go ahead.”
“Look at me. Don’t I look like someone who could trend?”
Lacey nodded. Barely.
“I’m not stupid.”
“They probably want someone young enough to train. You know, in their way of doing things and such.”
“I’d be obliging.”
Lacey raised her eyebrows.
Maggie pointed a finger at Lacey. “You have no idea.”
Lacey looked at her phone. “I’ve got to go, Mom.”
“Say hi to Dane for me.”
“Very funny.” She kissed her mom on the cheek and closed the door behind her.
And then, the long evening stretched in front of Maggie.
It is a commonly held belief among those abstaining from alcohol that sobriety maintenance cannot be managed by enjoying any sort of relationship with other stimulants, aside from coffee and cigarettes, neither of which Maggie could tolerate. However, a little weed could go a long way toward mitigating the effects of life. Most certainly she wasn’t smoking all day long, and it certainly wasn’t as if she was getting her kid to roll her a spliff, but weed created for Maggie a soft focus lens view of the day. In fact, it helped a great deal. Of course, she didn’t announce it at meetings, and she was careful to only attend a meeting if she was straight. For sure, the meetings helped too, but some days Maggie just needed a little more. It was hardly a crime.
It was hot and close, a perfect summer evening. The sidewalk was crowded with pedestrians, and lovers, and drunks, and on the roads helmetless bicyclists in shorts and tank tops pedaled around traffic, slowed by the din and sparkle of nightfall. In summer everything was young.
Maggie turned into the gates of the park. The white stone and wrought iron of the arches were, Maggie believed, resplendent. She liked to amble through the gates as though she was walking onto her own estate, and that further up the park stood her own Pemberley, or some such place. She tilted her head slightly and smiled, then took her place on a bench and crossed her legs carefully, one flat gold flip-flop dangling from her toes. She held her iced latte in front of her turquoise painted toes and snapped a photo. She typed #lactosefree #summernights #turquoisetoes #maggievandermeer, then she posted it to her Instagram account. She knew how to bloody trend.
A burst of laughter rang from behind the bench. Maggie turned, two university-aged girls in light cotton dresses lay on their stomachs reading a small newspaper. Their long hair fell over their shoulders and grazed the top of the blanket. One of them rolled onto her back holding her stomach, still giggling. They were as beautiful as they ever would be. From Maggie’s perspective, they were near perfect.
She stood up and walked casually in their direction. She smiled at the girl on her back. The girl on her back smiled at Maggie.
“Beautiful night,” Maggie said.
The girl flipped back to her stomach. “It is,” she said. She turned toward her friend and flipped to the next page of the paper.
Maggie could take a hint. “Have a nice night,” she said. “Don’t talk to strangers.” She walked up the path toward the north end of the park, peals of the girls’ laughter chiming. “Being alone is not the same as being lonely,” Maggie reminded herself. She held her phone against her ear so as not to look crazy. “Being alone is not the same as being lonely,” she said.
It wasn’t for want of trying. Maggie had taken photos of: a cupcake piled with maple icing and topped with a slice of bacon #reward, #runninglife, #maggievandermeer (of course she’d only had two bites and thrown the rest away), herself in new white-framed sunglasses #summer, #instacute, #maggievandermeer, the cat wasted on catnip #wasted, #catnipped, #maggievandeemeer, and a photo of her with a dashing Mexican actor who played in some spy show Maggie hadn’t seen, but there was a crowd of women encircling him so it seemed like a good idea to get a snap, #hotstuff, #javierdiaz, #swoon, #maggieVandermeer. In addition, she’d been tweeting weather reports, news of the day, photos of cute animals, and whimsical observations such as, as much as it is reality we will not live trouble-free lives, so we will worry when they come, all followed by the hash tag, Maggie Vandermeer. Still, she failed to trend.
“What’s up with the hash tag?” Lacey asked.
“I’m trying to trend.”
The phone was silent then Lacey sighed heavily. “Maybe you need to see someone,” she said.
“Being alone is not the same as being lonely,” Maggie said.
“I meant a doctor, not a date. I think you’re depressed.”
“I’m being proactive.”
“It’s ridiculous, Mom.”
“It’s ridiculous to take action?” Maggie was indignant.
“It’s ridiculous to think you’re going to trend.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Maggie said and hung up.
When Lacey called back Maggie put her phone on Do Not Disturb.
And so Maggie found herself at the job fair sitting in a in a hard chair in a banquet room crowded with college graduates and the LocaFolk! logo projected on a screen at the front of the room. Flanking the screen sat a row of festival workers there to explain the month-long food and cultural festival that the girl with the microphone, Kayla, kept referring to as a harvest festival as though no one in the audience had ever eaten a Thanksgiving meal in their lives.
I want to poke myself in the eye #punishing, #jobunfair, #ihatedpeprallies #maggievandermeer, she tweeted.
She returned her attention to Kayla just in time to catch the warning that under no circumstances could anyone selected as LocaFolk try to engage the attention of the celebrity chefs that attended the event. Apparently, that was the last thing a celebrity chef was interested in, and if you even tried to talk to a Jamie Kennedy or some other such person you would be promptly fired. Capiche?
The crowd nodded its head in agreement. Maggie suppressed an urge to bleat like a sheep. Desperate times.
After waiting for an hour (she was number fifty-eight), Maggie was led to a room where six tables were set at a discreet distance apart from one another; each table was occupied by two interviewers and one interviewee. A bearded boy with a waxed moustache, and a sallow-faced girl with large framed glasses interviewed Maggie.
Her first mistake: Maggie shook their hands vigorously. Did no one care about the importance of having a firm handshake? As soon as her butt hit the chair Maggie felt the energy drain from her body. Deflated, she could barely muster the force to open her mouth.
The girl, Maggie thought her name was Jenna but in the span of thirty seconds could no longer be sure, held a pen poised in front of a pad of paper where she’d neatly printed Maggie Vandermeer across the top. The boy, Dustin, clasped his hands and asked her gravely, “Have you been to any of our events at LocaFolk?”
Maggie nodded and smiled. “No. Not really. I don’t eat out much.”
Probably Jenna scribbled a note.
“Food intolerances,” Maggie added.
“What brought you to LocaFolk?”
“Yeah,” Maggie nodded again. “You know, I’m not sure.” She drew a deep breath, “Okay, I need a job.”
Dustin blinked, Jenna wrote another note. Her letters were neat and round.
Maggie tried again, “I’m forty-eight years old. I’ve been in the workforce nearly as long as you’ve been alive. I don’t even know what I know, but I know a lot. Trust me, I’d be an asset. I’m not just saying that.”
Dustin nodded. Jenna tapped her tooth with the end of her pen.
“And I’m very fit. I can run 10K in forty-five to forty-eight minutes.”
Jenna started to scribble again.
“So, you know, I can stand for long periods.”
Dustin and Jenna exchanged a glance. Dustin pushed his chair back.
“Would you like to know what I’d do if a customer was displeased?”
“No, no, that’s good,” Dustin said. “Thank you Maggie. It’s been great.”
“Thank you, Maggie.” Jenna said airily.
Maggie graced the pair with a full-toothed, sparkly smile. “The pleasure has been all mine,” she said. She stood up and pulled her bag onto her shoulder. She wasn’t going to try to shake their limp hands again.
I could start an etiquette school…? Maggie sent the text to Lacey.
Lacey’s reply rang back in less than a minute. It’s 4 am!
Well what do you think? Maggie hit send.
No!! Jesus. Turning phone off. Now.
Maggie flicked the burning ash off her joint and dropped it in the ashtray. She opened Twitter. Well, that was a stupid idea, she typed, #maggievandermeer.
It’s not like she really believed she was going to trend.
She set herself up on the floor and executed ten push-ups, careful to keep her shoulders away from her neck and her spine straight. She flipped onto her back. She tightened her core (keeping her spine in a neutral position) then she lifted her legs six inches off the floor and held the position. She should apply for a job at Lululemon, or be a fitness instructor. The baby boomers would relate to her. She let her legs drop. She’d like to see pasty little Jenna pull that off. Or that Dustin, she saw the tobacco stains on his fingers.
She could teach all those fat chefs how to eat properly.
She pushed herself into a back bend. How many thirty-year-olds could do that?
Her kitchen was shining. From this angle she could see the freshly polished, black fridge door. She could start a cleaning business. She let herself back down into a resting position. Except, ew. There was something about other people’s pubic hair that just made the bile rise in her throat.
Maybe Lacey could get her a bartending job. It would be nice to talk to the people and to help them. Except not really, unless she wanted to kiss her sobriety good-bye.
When the stores opened she would buy a lottery ticket. Why the hell not?
Lacey was awfully quick to judge for someone who, herself, sent unwanted texts in the middle of the night. Maggie sat up, grabbed her phone and texted Lacey: Judge not lest ye be judged. She wondered if Lacey, who had never even set foot inside a church would know even what she was talking about.
If you know what I mean. Maggie hit send.
Really, Lacey had some nerve. I mean, SRSLY?? Maggie hit send.
You’re turning off your phone??? Maggie was on a tear. She hit send.
Do unto others. Maggie hit send.
If you know what I mean again. Maggie hit send.
A better person would stop texting. Maggie stood up and brushed her hands on her thighs. She was hungry so she poured herself a glass of water. She was exhausted and completely wide-awake. Her blood was ringing in her veins. She really shouldn’t have sent those messages.
Mommy loves you sweetie. Maggie hit send.
Don’t ever forget it! Maggie hit send.
But show a little gratitude maybe. Maggie hit send.
I’m not drinking if that’s what you think. Maggie hit send.
When you reach midlife you can’t sleep any more. Maggie hit send.
A little something to look forward to! 😀 Maggie hit send.
Maggie took a photo of her fridge door, her outline reflected in the image. At least my kitchen is clean! She typed under the photo and hit send.
Because she didn’t want Lacey to worry, Maggie texted: Rocking out to Fleetwood Mac!
I guess I’m second hand news too ;-/ Maggie hit send. Hopefully that wasn’t too glum.
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow! ;^* That was better, Maggie hit send.
Say hi to Dane. Maggie hit send.
Unless Dane was a 1-nighter. Maggie hit send. Jesus, she was tired. And hungry. She grabbed six almonds from the fridge then wiped it free of fingerprints. She lay down on the couch.
Is a 1-night stand even safe? Maggie hit send.
Trust me it’s not. Maggie hit send.
I’m going to try to sleep now. Maggie hit send.
Sometimes I get the feeling you don’t even like me. Maggie hit send.
What if someone breaks in and your phone is turned off?? Maggie hit send.
You shouldn’t just assume everything is fine. Maggie hit send.
I’m talking about you, not me. Maggie hit send.
But your book thing is great! Maggie hit send.
If you need my help with anything just call. Maggie hit send.
But not as soon as you wake up. Maggie hit send.
Because I’m going to go to sleep now. 😀 For real. Maggie hit send.
So don’t call when you wake up. Maggie hit send.
She turned her face toward the back of the couch. The cat sprang from his chair and curled himself at the end of Maggie’s feet.
She sent her final text of the night: Have a sweet day :-p
Then: @>— >—
And then: I mean it. Don’t call.
And just in case Lacey would worry she was crazy, Maggie typed her final, final message on her phone’s small screen: It’s all good.
She hit send.
Nancy Jo Cullen’s short story collection, Canary, is the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. She is the fourth recipient of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers.