Near the end of Thursday lunch, Jonathan asks Kat for a follow on two lobster rolls and iced teas, something he’d do only when he’s slammed and there was no one else. Everyone is slammed today; it’s the first day of the flower show at the convention center and the restaurant is filled with ladies and their chatter. Here and there are tables of drinkers, gin and tonics and Tom Collins, a few martinis, but most of them drink iced tea and ask endlessly for refills. The new manager has forbidden them to serve premixed iced tea, which would have been easy: fill a glass with ice and tea and prop a lemon on the side. But he insists that each tea be brewed hot and poured into a glass of ice. Two glasses have already shattered in Kat’s hands because she’s pouring too fast. Slow and steady, Jonathan says, and shows her how to trickle the hot brew down a spoon’s handle.  

The women at Jonathan’s table look expensive and put together, down to their manicured hands and the diamond rings they twist while he recites the dessert specials. Jonathan has a Jersey accent but tries to sound French when he’s waiting on customers, especially the rich older women from the Main Line who come down annually for the flower show. He laughs a lot and even his laugh sounds French. One of the iced teas goes to a woman who looks like Mrs. Mayhew, the same dark hair that’s silvered along the hairline and twisted into a French knot, the same high gloss. This woman is laughing, however. She’s happy. 

Kat punches out and takes the long way home to avoid walking past the bank. She waves to the homeless men sitting backs against the wall of the Wawa sharing a bagged bottle of something. When they ask her for money, the way they always do, she shrugs and shows them her empty palms. Today it’s for a birthday card, for a mother they haven’t seen in years. Sorry, she says. The tips in her purse ride heavy as guilt: a hundred and some from lunch today, not counting the change. She’ll tuck the bills under her mattress, toss the change on her dresser. Sometimes she’ll wake up early, just as the sun hits that spot on the dresser and sees fire. At some point, she’ll dump the quarters and dimes into a pillowcase and take the whole heavy mess to the coin bank, maybe pay a few bills. Then again, if a thief breaks in and points a gun at her, she has something to hand over to him when he demands it. She refuses to get killed for nothing.

At Annie’s funeral, Mrs. Mayhew had stood with her husband and Annie’s two older brothers in the foyer of the church and greeted each of the guests the way you would at a wedding. Kat had gone with Willie and Edwina from their writing workshop, and they’d sat at the back and listened while the minister ticked off Annie’s good qualities, the usual generics of patience and tolerance and virtue. A classmate from Princeton, a blonde in a black headband, dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief and said no one was as much fun as Anne was—Anne, she called her—and no one would ever be as much fun. The week before they graduated, they’d actually flipped a coin—tails they went to Vegas and work the craps table and heads, they’d go to graduate school, because that’s what you were supposed to do, wasn’t it? Flipped a coin, she said and shook her head like it was the most daring thing in the world, to leave your future in the air like that, leave it to happenstance. Later the blonde Princeton friend had hugged Mrs. Mayhew who sagged into her for the tiniest second before straightening up—as if starched, as if jolted—and extending her hand to the next person as if she were at a party.  

Kat had bypassed the receiving line. What would she have said anyway? That it should have been her? 

Sometimes if the weather is okay and Kat’s not working a double, she’ll sit in the tiny backyard of her rowhouse and drink wine from whatever bottle Michael, the manager, has tossed that day. He goes through the white wine inventory religiously, tasting this bottle and that one, tossing half-filled bottles if he thinks they’ve gotten too vinegary. He puts the bad bottles in boxes and sets them by the dumpster out back and Kat helps herself to whatever. So what if it’s a little vinegary? It’s good wine, a few sips and the world goes soft again. Sometimes the stray will show up, the orange cat with the torn ear and the lopsided jaw and she’ll shake a little dry food into his dish, the cheap stuff that looks like sugary breakfast cereal, and watch while he grunts it down. Sometimes she talks to him, tells him about the table of assholes that day who asked for more of everything and left her with a pile of change they must have scrounged from their pockets, how she’s pretty sure the fuzz is lint, and that she would write about them if she still were writing. 

The nice people she doesn’t remember. Who does? 

Annie was nice. It wasn’t her fault she was privileged and rich and said clueless things. Like the time they were out at the bar where they went and drank after night class, a dirty hole of a joint that sold shakers of margaritas for a few bucks and never cut anyone off. Each shaker came with a greasy basket of chips and salsa that tasted suspiciously like ketchup mixed with a little chili powder, terrible but free. The margaritas were usually terrible, too, watered down or else fiery with tequila, but you got what you paid for, right? The first night that Annie went with them, they were watery and she said that they really should have gone to  X, a bar that was in a plush row of restaurants patronized by women in real fur coats and celebrities when they came to town, not a place for grad students who paid for booze with singles and the change they scrounged up among them. Never mind a tip, which is probably why the bartender hated them and made their drinks watery. Kat remembers how everyone stopped talking to look at Annie and someone, Edwina probably, started laughing and said Sure, let’s go there next week. I’ll wear my ball gown and get my hair done, and that Annie didn’t say anything else, but when the check came, she put in a twenty though she didn’t have anything but water to drink. She was nice that way. 

Kat is not nice. She’s like the orange stray who bucks and hisses when people get too close. Annie tried to do that with her on walks they took after their horrid Irony and the Novel class in which the elderly professor kept a running dialogue with the male students and looked impatient, even angry, when the women raised their hands. It was walk or drink, and they walked first and drank afterward at whatever restaurant had the best happy hour—Taco Tuesdays or Two-for-One Thursday all day. Annie ordered and paid, and Kat let her, because Annie was rich. Also, she figured it was a quid pro quo for listening to Annie’s stories about her father (never home) or her mother (usually tipsy from whatever charity luncheon she’d attended) and the variety of nannies who raised her, with names like Bubby, Bridget, Millicent and Bovine, spelled like a cow but pronounced bo-VEEN. Imagine going through life like that, though it hadn’t hurt Bovine at all, who ended up being the longest-serving nanny. She’d had a habit of staring over the head of whoever was issuing orders and then ignoring the orders or plumb forgetting, which was her usual excuse when Annie’s mother sighed and fretted. Bovine sneaked packs of gum and boxes of candy to Annie and later, cigarettes, though Bovine said that ladies shouldn’t smoke in public, something Annie’s mother would agree with, though she was a two-pack a day smoker herself, behind the closed doors of her enormous bedroom. She always smelled of Chanel No. 5 and smoke, not unpleasant but sickening as lilies at a funeral.   

Kat is not nice because she’s expected to reciprocate, to open up about her own life and her own mother and spill the dirt, as Annie says, because there’s always dirt. But Kat’s life has been remarkably dirt free and boringly so—no money, but two parents, a much-older brother whose friends ignored her and a high school boyfriend who set a state record in the 200-yard butterfly and 50-yard freestyle, who later came out in his senior year in Harvard to no one’s surprise, least of all Kat. 

Kat would have said her life was a train that ran on a smooth, flat patch of prairie, nothing to see out the window and always on time. And then the bank and everything went off the tracks.

Bruce the owner hired Kat, despite her resume: School and school and more school, years of study interrupted by summer jobs lifeguarding at the country club pool. Hardly any restaurant experience save for the few months working breakfast and lunch shifts at that diner her senior year in college. The cooks chittered at her in Greek and the owner’s husband complained how his wife no longer had sex with him. “Abandoned their marital bed,” is how he put it. He sat all day in a corner booth drinking espresso while his wife bossed the waitresses. Kat later made him a character in a short story she handed out for workshop. Everyone agreed that character was ridiculously unbelievable: what man would sit there while his wife worked her ass off? What wife would allow it? The professor facilitating the workshop wondered if the reality mitigated the banality. Kat nodded and took notes and later got falling-down, throw-up drunk on shots. It was Annie who found her in the bathroom and held her hair while she puked.

Sometimes she waits on the dean of the school. He comes in on Wednesday and stares at her chest when she takes his order, which is always meatloaf that features a tunnel of spinach and whatever cheese the chef feels like throwing in. She recognizes the dean from the picture hanging in the classroom building where she shared an office with three other graduate students who, like her, taught two sections of comp classes to freshmen. There’d been an orientation at the beginning of the school year, a week of classroom training where other, older teaching assistants advised them how to write a syllabus and rubric, which was a necessary evil if you wanted to avoid hassles at the end of the semester in the form of student emails complaining about getting a B or a C instead of an A. They didn’t tell you what to do when a freshmen girl cried in your office after being assaulted at a frat party the previous weekend or how to grade a student who was clearly trying but apparently couldn’t read or write a sentence. What to do when a student fell asleep in class because his roommate partied until 3 a.m. Kat’s hands shook whenever she handed back papers and if a student complained, even a little bit, she bumped up their grade by a point or two and didn’t see the harm in that. But word got around and everyone started complaining

Annie had started with the poets and transferred midway through the semester to the fiction workshop that Kat was in. Kat had had to submit a personal statement and a work sample, a short story that she’d struggled over for months, and it still wasn’t enough for a fellowship. She’d taken the assistantship and spent far too much time grading student papers and meeting with students outside of the classroom for special help, a tedious process that involved going through each paper sentence by sentence. Annie, meanwhile, who’d never written a word of fiction breezed into the workshop and took a seat at the head of the table as if she were the facilitator. The professor allowed it, even laughed about it. The professor hated anything that wasn’t postmodern and/or fabulist, but he gushed about Annie’s spare little stories and ignored the comments from the other workshoppers on how they lacked conflict or even the barest of narrative arcs. He spent an inordinate amount of time talking about what he thought were especially effective images. He called her stories “celebratory,” even the one about a car crash that killed a dog and a family of five and it was then they realized that he probably wasn’t reading a word of their stories, not one damn word. 

The dean drinks martinis straight up with three onions, one before lunch and one after his plate is cleared. He eats the onions first, one at a time off the little sword that Kat props against the side of the glass. The glasses are top heavy, like thick-bodied horses tapering to stick legs, and the lunch bartender, Micky, always overfills the glass so that booze spills over the side. Jonathan tells Kat not to look at the drinks while she’s carrying them and she’s tried, but she can’t, not yet. Jonathan can carry a tray of five martinis over his head and never spill a drop. Jonathan says the trick is not thinking, which is Kat’s problem. She’s always thinking. Before she falls asleep at night, she plays back the day in her head and thinks of all the things she might have done better or at least differently. Carrying martinis is always on the list and she vows to get to work an hour early so she can practice. It’s better than thinking about the bank.

Sometimes when she’s too tired to walk, she takes the bus home. The bus goes right by the bank. Kat tries not to look, but the bank is like an accident on the highway. There are always people leaving and entering, a man holding the door open for a woman pushing a stroller and a teenager on crutches. The windows have been replaced and already filmed over with city dirt. The sidewalk is rusty with the faded spray paint of a long-ago tagger or else blood. It don’t wash away, the cop told her. It’s always there. I see it.

Kat is not nice, especially when she’s hungover, and she was so hungover that day at the bank. She was also pissed that she had to subway up to school and stand in a line to pick up her check and subway back to Center City, some kind of glitch with direct deposit yet again. She bitched and bitched until Annie-being-Annie grabbed the check and told Kat to wait outside, she’d take care of it.  

Which is where Kat was, sitting in a patch of sunshine, sipping a can of Coke when the polite kid in the black windbreaker and slacks, nice face, said hello to her before he walked into the bank and shot up the place, shooting and shooting and shooting until nothing moved.

Sometimes Kat thinks of telling the dean who she is, that she used to be a student at the school where he’s a big wig, a noted scholar who was wooed from an Ivy League to give credibility to a city university. She would tell him that freshmen deserved better than to be taught by ignorant graduate students like herself and that they had far worse problems than not being able to write a cogent thesis statement. That someday they would go out into a world where terrible things happened and that they’d live through them terribly and go on living, and by the way, martinis were far better with blue-cheese olives, how the brine of the cheese mixing with gin was a kind of heaven, especially when you let them get fat with gin and save them for last.  

She would tell him that writing well won’t change a damn thing in this happenstance world, even when you tweak the thesis, even when you switch things around and try to rewrite the ending.

Photo by Dan Mall on Unsplash.

Sarah Freligh

Sarah Freligh is the author of five books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis; Wepublished by Harbor Editions in early 2021, and A Brief Natural History of Women, forthcoming in April 2023. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Wigleaf50, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018), Best Microfiction (2019-22), and Best Small Fiction 2022. Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.