The bank clock read 102 degrees. Of course, it always read that particular figure, from May on.
Julie Rosales wiped the back of her hand across her forehead and wondered why she wasn't really sweating. Then she sat down on the curb and unbuckled her sandals. Ladies perspired, they didn't sweat. Grandmother's maxim #1. They also didn't sit on curbs on a glaring Texas day and wait for buses, as she was.
But Julie had finally gotten there--that great getting-off point, that moment in time when even the most dignified lady says, "oh, hell!" Any less dignified, and the words would have been stronger. She'd seen some of the things she wanted to tell the world written on the restroom walls at the mall. In two languages. Bilingual profanity, for a universally profane world.
A blue and white cruiser drew near and stopped; an officer leaned out.
"Something wrong, lady?"
"No, I'm just waiting for the bus."
"Can't wait here--no loitering allowed. The bus stops across from the hospital, three blocks up. There's a bench."
"Officer, if I could walk three blocks more, I wouldn't be sitting here in a patch of sand burrs."
A motorist screeched to a halt just before rear-ending the patrol car, and honked furiously. The cruiser pulled nonchalantly to the curb.
"Idiot!" the driver shouted. "Pick up girls on your own time!"
"Remember the good old days when people respected cops?" Julie asked, as the officer walked towards her. Then she winced. The one thing left from twenty years of her mother's boot camp approach to life was that you never called a cop a cop. Not to his face. "I meant "officers," Officer."
"It didn't matter; the policeman was staring at her in complete bewilderment. The way the world did.
"Listen," he ventured, finally, "you're not supposed to be here."
"I know that. But I missed the three o'clock bus, and that means I have to wait out here in the sun for forty-five minutes. And it's one hundred and seven degrees, and I've walked all over town, and I just can't take any more!"
"You don't have a car?" he asked, accusingly.
"Not one that works."
"Or a husband?"
Julie glowered at him. "A husband? What good's a husband? I need transportation, not--"
"To drive you around, I meant."
"Yes and no. I do have a husband, but he can't drive me around. You see, he works. Only the car doesn't."
"Well, you can't wait here for the bus. Doesn't look good. It's only three more blocks--" he looked up at the bank clock. "And besides, it's only one hundred and two degrees."
"Off five degrees. Like me." Julie stood up without using her hands. It was a show of agility that had been considered an art when she was this kid's age, but the cop wasn't impressed. He just continued regarding her morosely.
Resigned, she picked up her sandals and padded through the sand toward the far-off mirage of a bench. Heat undulated up from the ground in waves, swaying around her, flitting across her face with wispy veils of fire. She brushed at them with a limp, wet hand and walked on.
"Hey, mamacita, where ya goin?" A truckload of drunks weaved past; someone threw a cowboy hat out the window, and someone else whistled.
The crude flattery was a slap in the face. Drunks didn't know. Or care. Couldn't they tell she was old? And tired? And married? A mother, too, damn it! Partying was before her time, beer disgusted her, her idea of fun was to sit somewhere and stare at a rock, or a flower, without moving? Did they know that, or care? Did they know that she was a leaden butterfly, trying to conquer fragile spring breezes? That she was crazy? A crazy lady, just wanting the world to recognize her insanity, to accept it.
Insanity was a funny thing. She knew she was crazy, but when she broached the subject, everyone chuckled. Or giggled. It was the office joke, her insanity. Almost every day, it came up.
"Does anybody know a really good, cheap psychiatrist?" she would ask. "No, really--I need help!"
"Sure you do, Julie. Poor, decrepit Julie--already thirty-something and crazy!"
Everyone laughed, even Julie.
But the knot in her stomach and the fear in her mind kept shrieking, "I mean it! For god's sake, why won't anyone believe me?"
It had all started so long ago. The marriage had soured, frayed around the edges. Not enough to leave, but enough that the gladness was gone.
She wanted to be happy, to care again. There were the twins, blond and blue-eyed, with their angel smiles. Sammy and Sue. And she loved Sue so much, saw her face in every passing moment away from home--but she had to try to love Sammy. They were both four, both adorable, intelligent, obedient children. But she was going off the deep end, and identical or not, they were not equal.
Discussing the situation with Jaime had only added to the frustration she felt.
"All parents have favorites," he scoffed. "You feel closer to Sue because she's a girl--it's natural. As long as you threat them fairly, it doesn't matter. No one knows how you feel."
But she knew, and it was wrong. . .so wrong. Knew why, too, could tell the shrinks a thing or two about guilt feelings and worthlessness and being raped by someone you trusted when you were ten. But that would be rationalizing, self-excusing, and big girls got over it. All of it.
Besides, it wasn't just the feeling of helpless terror when Sammy hugged her so ardently, innocently pressing himself into her.
There were physical signs of mental impairment, like her complete inability to say anything at all correctly. The simplest phrases tripped out awkwardly, the words stumbling stupidly over each other. Like when she answered the phone, "Telephone," instead of "May I help you?" at the office. It had been the owner of the business, a jovial, balding man, and he'd laughed it off without thinking about it. But there were hundreds of instances a day, thousands of times a week, and Julie knew they were just added indications of an impending breakdown, that soon the men it the white jackets would be dragging her away to some institution for the world weary.
After all, this was just the beginning. Her head would ache for hours, and none of the miracles she saw advertised nightly would kill the pain. At night, getting on the bus, she'd lead her head against the window and think of limousines. . .chauffer-driven Lincolns, even dusty old pickups. Anything that could spirit her away, get her out of this world.
Here, they all stared. Especially the time the bag broke and the chicken fell on the lady's head.
Normal people didn't drop leaky packages of chicken in other people's hair.
"You crazy idiot! You'll kill someone some day!" the irate woman shrieked. Julie had gingerly plucked up the Barrel of Best Chickn--3 Breasts--and apologized profusely. The woman said some rather unkind words--in Spanish and English, and with her hands--and had gotten off the bus, three blocks short of her usual stop. Julie's feeling of desperation had grown.
And now it was one hundred and two--well, really, it was one hundred and seven degrees--and the leaden weight in stomach and mind was worse than ever.
The gravel cut her feet, and she remembered the loan officer's pebbled hand waving her application. His pudgy hands, mottled in shades of brown and white, had intrigued her.
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. Rosales. You simply can't take on the additional amount at this time."
"We've almost paid off Jaime's car."
"That's true . But two of the payments were late. And you owe the hospital a great deal. Besides, you're only working part time."
"With the car I could get a second job. I have an offer with the paper as a night proofreader, but I can't there by bus, and since Jaime needs the car--"
"I'm sorry. We can't loan you the money."
She had left the bank, gone back into the sun. Feeling like--like killing herself. Seriously. It was always something. There never really was an out. Not even a little lull. Two weeks ago, Sue had been in intensive care, a victim of dehydration and heat. Jaime had blamed her for not being home more, but when she was home. . .
How did you explain a woman with two lovely kids, a husband who would probably succeed in the end, a part-time career in real-estate--who still wasn't happy? Crazy, right?
Tears were stinging her eyes by the time she reached the bench. She sat down to put her shoes back on.
'I could kill myself,' she thought. 'Really, I could. Jaime would be happier, I wouldn't risk messing up the kids' minds the way I'm probably doing--everyone would be fine.' The pain in her stomach was there again, a hard, unyielding, burning knot. She'd been going to see a doctor, but the money had gone to the hospital. 'Besides, my mind's the real problem. Why doesn't anyone understand that? Why won't anyone help me? I am not a normal person!'
"May I sit down?"
'Silly question,' she thought irritably, 'it's a public bench.' But she smiled up to say yes and had to suppress a gasp of horror.
He had one of the deforamtive diseases that cripple and twist people into tormented shapes, and his pallid skin had ugly purple blotches, some of them open and running.
"Yes, go ahead," she answered, caught as always in a dilemna--whether to look away, and make him think she was repulsed, or not look away, and make him think she was staring.
"The bus should be by in a minute. It doesn't come very often, but at least it's usually on time." He sat down matter-of-factly, found change with his stumpy fingers.
'I should thank God for my children's health,' Julie thought, anguished. But as always, the effort to force appreciation failed. She should have known. Crazy people never could get their perspective.
"You're crazy! I'll have you put in an institution for this!" her father had raged. Her father had always been right; everyone said that the was a genius. He was holding a letter to Dear Abby that he had found in her jeans, crumpled and unsent. It had been a very literate letter for someone of twelve, but then, she had stopped being a child long ago.
"If you ever--ever--tell anyone--a preacher, or Dear Abyy, or the police--" he had gone on and on, but the gist was that she was insane. That only his kindness and pity were keeping her from being locked up for life, and that if Julie were locked up, her mother would be, too. It hadn't made sense, then or now, but he had always been right.
"You wanted it from the time you were six months old," he shouted. "I still remember the way you used to cuddle up to me--"
"No! That's crazy! Babies don't--"
The man next to her was looking at her strangely, as if she, not himself, were deformed. And he was right, after all. . .mental deformities were the only real handicaps. The only real ugliness.
"I'm sorry. . .I. . I just talk to myself sometimes," she explained, needing to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and he nodded and went back to staring toward the freeway.
The bus came, there were signs with numbers for people needing help. She didn't need help anymore, was beyond help. All she wanted was a little time. A little quiet. And a car, damn it, she thought, stepping down out of the bus onto the sidewalk. From here it was eight blocks to the next bus.
She shielded her eyes as she headed west. She looked like any normal person as she crossed Lincoln Street, waited patiently for the light on Main to change.
They were building an expressway right through the middle of town. She paused on the catwalk, looked down. The asphalt was empty, the clay banks sloped up like embracing arms.
They'd been building a freeway back when she was a kid, too--another town, another lifetime ago. She could remember the sense of magic, playing on the great, lifeless expanse, making herself the Bridgekeeper, ruler of a mystic, growing world of road.
She stared down. It was a long way. When had she lost her fear of heights? She stepped out through a gap in the guard rail. So intriguing, the way a road lay benignly, unused, waiting to be finished before the world tore it apart. Young, in a way, like she'd always wanted to be. And protected, by those great strong arms surrounding it.
Julie closed her eyes. It would be so easy. Just a step down. Peace for all time. No more guilt. No worry of messing up minds that deserved a chance. No more self-pity, no more self-hate. Cleansing for all time, of all wrong. Whose fault it had been, whose mind had warped, the eternal pain would all be obliterated.
The wind swayed her, and ever so slowly, the pendulum swung back. Away from cuckoo, the broken bird disappeared into its gaily painted tree house. Normal people didn't kill themselves. Of course, she wasn't normal. But Sammy and Sue. . .their little faces, blue eyes all seeing. Could they cope? Go through life haunted by that selfish step down? Or would they, too, wind up on bridges staring down?
No, normal people didn't kill themselves. Normal people didn't abuse frightened children, either. Normal people went home to their families and pretended everything was okay. Maybe, just maybe, she could claw her way back. Maybe someone would come along who could see, who would help. If she hurried, she could just make the next bus.
Leslie P. Garcia