Not For Nothing–Excerpt by STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

EDITORIAL NOTE:
The following piece is an excerpt from Jones’ novel Not For Nothing, which is set to be published in 2014 by Dzanc Books.

EDITORIAL NOTE:
The following piece is an excerpt from Jones’ novel Not For Nothing, which is set to be published in 2014 by Dzanc Books.* * *

She’ll be waiting for you when you walk back from the water station next door. Because she’s so—because she doesn’t fit, not anywhere in your life, of course you’ll have your thumb in your mouth, will only realize it after you’ve stopped walking, when you’re standing there like some animated character trying to blow his flattened hand back up. All that’s left to do then is smile around your thumb, waggle your fingers before your face in hello, your eyes kind of squinted. Not so much against the glare coming off the storage units both of you are standing in here, but in apology. For being who you are.

It’s an apology you make more than you’d care to admit.

Instead of smiling with you, making this easy, she’ll just stare at you through her alligator print sunglasses. As if trying to classify you, place you in her country club world. When you obviously don’t fit, she’ll shrug, re-cross her legs maybe, one slingback heel riding down the sole of her foot an inch or two, so she has to lower her hand, guide the shoe back up. It’s a movement so natural to her that it’s almost a gesture, pulls her eyes away from you just long enough for you to drop your hand from your face, hide it behind your neck. Or what you think’s long enough.

But be honest with yourself here, if you can. Your mouth’s still half-open, you’re wearing the same clothes you have been for a few days now—easy to lose track—and, really, there’s no delicate way to explain what you were doing when you rounded the corner: using the ridge of your lower teeth to dislodge the barbecue sauce outlining your thumbnail. You’re not even sure if it’s from just now—chopped beef at the water station—or from your lunch there yesterday.
In your other hand is a gimme calendar from the John Deere house. You raise it against the sun to see this woman better, tease her apart from the shadows, and for a moment your throat catches with recognition, some rush of nostalgia you can’t quite follow all the way back to a memory. It has to do with the way she’s sitting, her hands at her bare knees. Or, the knees themselves.

You know her, probably should already have said her name.

“Your secretary let me in,” she says.

This is a joke. The edge of the bench seat she’s sitting on is one you’ve liberated from one of the storage units it’s your job to guard. 4B, to be specific. Your vague plan is to use it as a couch. It’s from an International truck, you’re pretty sure, like the one up on blocks at the closed-down Exxon up the street. About the secretary though, not only do you not have one, but, unless you count the wooden spool you’ve been carving lines into for six weeks now, you don’t even have a desk. What the woman you can almost remember is trying to call your office is just an empty storage unit, a one-car garage, pretty much: a single bare light bulb, exactly at forehead level, unpainted cinderblock on the three sides, and a door you left rolled up all morning, because the bench seat hasn’t been smelling too good.

You’re thinking about giving it back to 4B, really.

You have to say something to her now, though.

Luckily you’ve been drinking all morning.

“Surprised she found the time,” you tell her, about the nonexistent secretary. “All I can do to get her to answer the phone, most days.”
The woman who should really have a name by now doesn’t laugh about this. This makes you feel better about not remembering her.
“Ringing off the hook, is it?” she says.

You give her pleasant smile then shrug your way in out of the sun, looking both ways first.

“I know you, don’t I?” you say.

This is funny to her.

In the stillness of the storage unit, her lipstick, bending up into a smile, is still wet enough to make a sound. Meaning she just put it on. For you. Before you’re even all the way aware of it, you’re wiping your mouth on the back of your forearm, for any pecan pie crumbs you might have missed. This is the first time in weeks your appearance has come close to mattering. Now, though. That she’s even sitting on that bench seat has you interested in her. And the amount of leg she’s showing. The amount of leg she knows she’s showing. That she catches you climbing.

Instead of admitting she’s caught you here, you stumble ahead, say the obvious: “So that’d be your Town Car out there, yeah?”
Smooth.

She shrugs, her shoulders bored, as if to suggest that this is common knowledge. And maybe it is: you’ve only been back in town for a couple of months. Less if you don’t count all the nights you already don’t remember.

“Don’t worry,” she adds, tilting her head at the idea of the water station. “I didn’t park on Sherry’s precious parking lot, officer.”
The cool thing to do now would be to recite her license plate back to her. Say something about the air pressure in that back tire. How you already have the maroon-black paint, chrome spokes, and tinted back glass of her Lincoln filed away. Just like a cop.

Except of course you don’t even know enough about the plates to be sure the car’s local.

“Mind?” she says, threading a Winston 100 up from her purse, and this is something you can work with.

“Careful,” you tell her. It’s the opening of a line you heard a lawyer use once.

“Careful?” she says back, setting you up for the punchline.

You stall a bit to be sure you have it right then deliver it at just the right speed: “You can get addicted to that, I mean. To asking permission.”

She shakes her head, rolls the wheel back on her lighter, and you pretend not to watch her lips take the cigarette. Study the featureless cinderblock walls instead, for a nail you already know isn’t going to be there. The one you were going to hang your calendar on, so you could keep up with the days.

The idea she’s supposed to get from this is that you have other things to do, here. But you are who you are, too: when you come back to her face with what you were gambling was going to be an innocent, accidental snapshot of a glance, she’s already watching you, has been holding her smoke in just so you can get caught up in her exhale.
You swallow, the saliva loud in your ears.

How long has it been since you’ve been this close to a woman? One who was even remotely interested in you?

The answer comes before you want it to: two months. Except that woman was a judge.

She was very interested.

The exhaled smoke rises to the top of the storage unit, goes all paisley around the yellow bulb, and it’s then that the woman you know you should know says your name. The one nobody’s called you since grammar school.

You track back down to her, suddenly unsure if you’ve had four beers or fourteen, and then, hours before you’re ready, minutes too late, she pulls her sunglasses off eye by eye, lowering her face to do it, and looks up at you all at once, from twenty years ago.

Gwen Tracy.

You rub the loud skin around your mouth, try not to let her see all the muscles in your face, wanting to smile.

As apology, maybe, or in sympathy, she offers you the 100, and you take it as casually as you can, breathe the cherry deep red. When the nicotine hits the capillaries of your brain, you almost laugh in your throat and say it again, about her Town Car, if it’s hers, but catch yourself just in time. Hold the 100 back out to her.

Instead of taking it, she slaps you hard across the face.

It’s Gwen all right.

“That why you came by?” you ask, rubbing the heat of her hand deeper into your cheek.

Her answer is to pinch the 100 away from you, flick it out the wide door. The orange sparks are frantic in the caliche dust.

You’re smiling now.

“Can’t believe you’re back,” she says.

You shrug, are kind of surprised at how it’s all turned out as well.
“Instead of jail, I mean,” she tacks on.

Can’t argue with that.

“Guess they thought this was bad enough,” you say, meaning Stanton, Texas, in July.

She just stares at you about this.

What she gave you once, what for a long time you said ruined you, was the picture in your mind of the delicate print her hair left in the passenger side window of her father’s single-cab Ford. Because there hadn’t been enough room on the driver’s, with the steering wheel. It had been January, so the windows were fogged with urgency.

That’s twenty years gone, though. Twenty years and who knows how many women ago (twelve and a half). You should have forgotten about her already, Gwen Tracy. Erased her, replaced her.

But you’re kind of sentimental, too.

And she’s not here for what you’re thinking she’s here for anyway. What you’re wanting her to be here for. It’s probably just the bench seat she’s still sitting on that’s making you think that. You look away from it, shrug, then, rubbing a spot on your forehead so she won’t be able to see your face, say in your best, fake voice, “Five dollars off a month on the large units. If you pay a year in advance.”

It’s like you’re sixteen again—awkward, embarrassed, a little bit guilty. Still trying to hide behind lame jokes.

She shakes her head in disappointment. Stands, the bench seat rocking behind her.

“You used to be a cop,” she says. Not quite a question, but close enough that you feel you have to answer.

“You could say that,” you tell her, your voice not so fake anymore.
Again, she’s just staring at you, like she’s trying to say things with her eyes, maybe. When you don’t get it, she finally just comes out with it: “I’m not here for a storage unit, Nicholas.”

You tell her that’s not your name anymore. Set the calendar down on the wooden spool, careful not to let it slap.

“St. Nick,” she corrects.

It’s because, in elementary, you were fat.

“Gwen Tracy,” you say back, in answer to her St. Nick. It’s the best you have, all you can come up with.

She cocks her head, turns half away from you, amused. Says, “You have been gone a long time, haven’t you?”

You nod. Still aren’t quite following her here.

She stares at you for longer than you want her to, and, just when you’re about to touch a spot on your cheek—anything to look away—she says it again, that she’s not here for a storage unit.

“Then what?” you say, lifting a beer from the cooler, offering it. Taking it yourself when she won’t. The plan all along, really.

“This was a mistake,” she says, reappraising you it seems, her eyes narrow with the effort. “I mean, if you’re what I want, then you should know why I’m here.”

You drink a third of the beer in one long mouthful, let it settle. Are about to say something clever about how she must have wanted a psychic, but then it hits you: she wants the next best thing.

You tell her again that you’re not a cop anymore.

What she says back is “Good,” then turns all at once to the open garage door, as if she half-expects somebody to be standing there. Nobody is. Nobody ever is. She watches it for a breath longer anyway, then turns back to you, pinning you with her eyes the same way she used to during pep-rallies, when she was leading all the cheers. That way she had of making it feel like she was looking just at you. She still has it. And more, the whole package, and—

That’s it.

You smile one side of you face: the whole package, the whole cheerleaderpackage. What you recognized right off, from twenty feet away, through the glare of the sun, the aftertaste of water-station barbecue, were her knees. How, a crowd of people stacked up before her, she used to sit with her knees tight together like that, her pom-poms framing them.

“What?” she says.

“Why ‘good?’” you say, a lucky save. “Tell me why it’s good for you that I’m not a cop anymore.”

“Because the cops can’t do anything,” she says, shrugging, saying the next part quieter, like a suggestion: “But a private investigator . . . could.”

You laugh through your nose, a practiced gesture. Say, “You think that’s how it works? That, when you stop being a detective they just issue you a P.I. license?”

“Isn’t that what you were doing already, though?” she says.

You keep smiling like this doesn’t hurt you. It’s why you’ve been keeping a low profile, though: when your career in Homicide had gone into a public tailspin—no murders closed for twenty months, a department record—you’d started moonlighting. It had made sense at the time, odd-jobbing in your off-hours, taking pictures, finding dogs, knocking on doors, whatever. Always the shield to hide behind. It had felt like something, anyway. Maybe not like solving a real, official homicide, but close enough for you and the girls you went with.

Until the judge.

But don’t think about her.

“Let me explain something to you,” you say, picking the calendar up just to keep your hands busy, your eyes safe. “What I do here is provide live-in security for Aardvark Custom Economy Storage. Free room, free board, so long as nobody complains about me taking liberties with their stuff. And, know what?” To show her who you’re about to talk about, you tilt your head next door, to the water station. “I let Sherilita’s kid’s band practice in one of the empty units after dark, and she gives me four chopped beef sandwiches a day. With Fritos. And sweet tea. Pie, if they’ve got any left over.”

When you’re done, she’s just staring at you.

“Sherilita goes to my church,” she says. “Real devout. What do you do on Sundays?”

“Liquid diet,” you tell her, your face so straight it’s slack.

“Guess you’ve really got it made then,” she says after a few beats, shaking her head with disgust, digging in her purse for her keys. “Don’t need to hear about anybody else’s—listen, don’t worry about it, Nick. Nice seeing you again. You’re a great guy. Real gem. Look you up in twenty more years.”

Like every other woman you’ve ever known, then, she turns, starts to leave, and, like every woman before—all twelve of them—you nod about it, already telling yourself that it’s for the best. That she was trouble, not worth it. Probably would have wanted you to clean your act up anyway.

But then, on the way out, she says, “Get your mail here too?”
You nod, ask it before you can stop yourself, even though you know it’s a set-up: “Why?”

“I’ll have my mother drop you the program from my funeral. She still remembers you.”

Instead of leaving, she just stands there, her eyes welling up.
None of this is anything like what you wanted. If she wasn’t in the only exit, you might already be gone, even. Mentally if not physically.

Except that she came to you for help.

After all these years.

She came to you for help when, to everyone who reads the papers, you’re a leper, a criminal, a pervert.

“Open or closed casket?” you say.

“Closed,” she says, and you nod, say it, that one word like a gate, opening up onto another world: “What?”

Gwen steps through it with you, her arms crossed high on her chest.
“You don’t—” she says, her voice soft, as if reconsidering. “I’m a teacher, Nick. English.”

“What grade?” you ask, ready to file her answer away with the Town Car. You might even need a little flip-notebook soon, like a real detective. But then, instead of giving you a classification to write down, she says, “Remember how you had that crush on Miss White, in geometry?”

You nod, remember. Still think about her every time you see a protractor in the right light.

Gwen closes her eyes, as if making herself say the next part: “Well, I’m Miss White now, I guess. Except the—the student. He’s a lot more . . . it’s not as innocent, I mean.”

“You have that effect,” you tell her.

“Nick,” she says back. In her teacher voice.

Not bad.

“Then tell the principal,” you say, over-pronouncing the word so she’ll be sure to hear that you know how to spell it, “call his parents in for a conference. Fail his narrow ass, Miss Gwen.”

She just looks at you.

You breathe out through your nose, chew the inside of your cheek, say it low: “You want me to talk to him, right?”

She shakes her head no too fast, like she doesn’t even have to think about it.

“He’s our age,” she says, in explanation.

You look to the concrete floor for a way to make this fit. But it doesn’t. “What grade do you teach?” you say.

“Tenth,” she says. “But this was a special class. In Big Spring.”
“Howard College?” It’s the only one there, last you checked.
She flashes her eyes up to you, shakes her head no.

“The prison,” she says.

Now you look to the open door. How wide it is. What all could rush through it if it wanted. Who.

“And you told the cops?” you say.

“They say he hasn’t done anything,” she says. “Untouchable, as long as he doesn’t break his parole, or probation, whatever it is.”

You nod, already knew all of that.

“Just to be clear,” you say, in case she’s wired or something even stupider, “part of not being a private eye is not being a hit man either, cool?”

She smiles, shakes her head no. “That’s not what I want,” she says, touching your arm now, the underside of her long nails cool, almost, a place to hide. “You said you—that you provide security for this place.” You nod once. She picks it up, keeps nodding, adds, “That’s what I want too, Nick. Security.”

You exhale like it’s your lungs that are smoky, not your head.
“If you’re interested,” you say, quieter now, “I can turn you onto some gentlemen I still know over in Midland, who can, y’know, help your secret admirer break the terms of his parole—”

She stops you with a finger across your lips, the nail just brushing the underside of your nose. It’s intimate, almost. Behind it, she shakes her head no, her eyes locked on yours the whole time. “You,” she says, standing on her toes, so her mouth can brush against yours, her lipstick dry now, a red taste you want to catalogue too.

“Gwen,” you either say or think, it’s hard to tell, but don’t back away, just get lost in it instead, what’s happening, your eyes closed, your hand groping out for the wall behind her, so the two of you don’t fall over. But then, at the last possible moment, the bench seat already an important part of what you’re fast-forwarding to, wondering if you’re still athletic enough for, she shakes her head no, pushes away, forcing the sunglasses back over her eyes.

“What?” you say.

“I—” she starts, then opens her purse instead, pulling out an alligator wallet that matches her sunglasses. It makes you linger over what she might be wearing under her dress. But then there’s the wallet, the sheaf of bills pressing up from it that, for the first time in your life, makes you thinkbank notes. Two separate, distinct words.

“Ten dollars off if paid in full, right?” she says, laying three hundred dollar bills down on your wooden spool that still isn’t a desk, and, in a trance of some kind, like you’ve just been paid for something you would have done for free, you nod, remember an interview you saw on late-night once. It’s some past-his-considerable-prime porn king, and he’s talking about how, just after Deep Throat came out, all the up-and-comers—the girls at the post-production parties—would walk up to him and say they could do it, deep throat. Did he want to see? No names or hellos or anything, even.

In the interview, this is where the guy just kind of shrugs, helpless, and says it perfectly, the way you’re feeling now: that he’s a pig, what can he say?

“So?” Gwen says, still holding the money across.

You’re not a good person.

The bills are folded into your wallet before she even makes it back to her Town Car.

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