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Listless
a story by Carolyn Hiler

I used to have these ideas that Carmen said were crazy, and she would spin her finger around her temple and look up into the air the way people do, to clearly distinguish those crazy people from the normal you and me.

“People who spin their finger around like that are the really crazy ones,” I said back to her through a mouthful of curly fries. Everyone knew that you could tell things about people by the gestures they made, by some of their word choices, like people who use the word “cuckoo” or the word “splendid” or “hari-kari.”

“Oh really?” she said. We were discussing why along some areas of the thruway the grass was vibrant and well-cared for, and in other areas, there was simply dirt, and I had explained that I thought secret parties were held there, in the nice parts. Carmen slurped her root beer. “Well then, who are these people hosting the parties?”

“You know, the people who go out all the time. The people who are always looking for the newest thing.”

I don't know why I told Carmen my ideas at all when she always responded the same way these days, as if I was some musical monkey dancing around and tipping my festive red hat to every passing stranger. She used to respect the genius involved in coming up with new ideas, the fact that thinking outside the box was the only thing that moved civilization forward from one century of wars to another. But she didn't seem to understand thinking outside the box anymore. Lately, she'd been eating lunch a lot with the girls from Pants Place Plus, on the second floor.

“Well, Angela, let me know if you can get an invitation to one of these thruway parties,” she said, “I gotta go back to work, it's almost one.”

The Fairmont Mall was bleak and empty, having been overshadowed by the Upper Grand Plaza on Route 43 in Bremmerton, with its indoor Ferris wheel and 14 multiplex stadium-seating movie theater, but Carmen’s boss at Tic Time was uptight about punctuality anyway. Gotta prepare for that unexpected afternoon rush of customers clamoring for watch batteries.

“Okay. See you on break.” I stayed a little longer at Burger King to finish my fries, and then I ordered a chicken sandwich, to take home for dinner later.

Carmen was my only friend in the mall. I'd been working at the Cookie Den ever since I dropped out of the jewelry-making program at Westburg Community College in the '80s, which I guess is a while ago now. In the early '90s, I hung around with Ozzie, from Crown Books, or Peter, from the organ store, but then Ozzie got chronic fatigue and had to quit, and then the organ store went out of business. The mall had gone through a lot of changes, and now it felt lonely and unstable, with crummier and crummier stores coming in and then dropping like flies. It was hard to maintain friendships. But then Carmen came by the Cookie Den wearing a Tic Time name tag and ordered a chocolate brownie.

“Is that a new store in the mall?” I asked, pointing at her name tag.

“Yeah, we're right around the corner, where the Sneaker Barn used to be. We sell watches and watch batteries.”

“Oh,” I said, “Well, welcome to the mall! Here's your brownie.”

I didn't want to be too nice at first, since I had to protect myself. But Carmen started coming by every day at 3:30, and she said that business was pretty good at her store. She wore black most of the time, like me, and her hair was cut short, like mine, and she was chatty and friendly and didn't seem to mind how the giant cookies slowly built up her already large waistline.

“White chocolate macadamia nut!” she cried. “My mother used to make those all the time!”

“Are you serious?” I asked. “Because there are some people at the Cookie Den who think those cookies were invented here.” I looked over at my co-worker, Jill.

“The Cookie Den did invent that particular recipe,” Jill said, pulling a batch of oatmeal raisin out of the oven and glaring at me. “It is an original recipe.”

That day, Carmen and I went to Burger King for lunch and talked for the whole 45 minutes straight, all about our favorite cat breeds and film noir and the Anne Rice books we used to read when in our teens. Even though she was eleven years younger than me, we had so much in common it was scary. Eventually, we were eating lunch together every day, sometimes at Burger King, sometimes pizza, sometimes the yogurt shop when we were feeling healthy. I'm not a homosexual, though I've thought about it, but sometimes I think you can fall in love with a friend. That's what started happening with Carmen.

“Angela, which tattoo should I get, Felix the Cat or Felix Unger?”

“How about Felix Washington?” Felix Washington worked at CVS and had a crush on Carmen. He looked like he was in the eighth grade. "Then we could get some free stuff, like, free gum."

"Yeah, but then I'd have to marry him. Which is probably against the law."

It had been a long time since I felt close to someone. My mother, who lived in Massapequa and listened to radio psychologists, thought I had some kind of disorder -- antisocial, something about not making friends. Was it my fault the mall turnover was so high, or that so few interesting people came along?

“Just because I'm not like Louise,” I'd say, but of course she'd say that had nothing to do with it. Louise was my sister, eighteen years younger, Mom and Dad’s post-vasectomy surprise.

“It's a miracle!” said my dad when they found out, while my mom sat quietly, and then got up and made green beans.

Louise was gregarious now at fifteen, going to parties, having parties, constantly working on her party skills. Lately she'd been staying out all night, which my mother saw as evidence of her outstanding sociability.

“Your mom has some strange ideas about child rearing,” said Carmen when I told her all this, back at Corelli’s Pizza one day.

“Yeah, but only recently,” I said. “They were fine with me.”

But lately things were strained with Carmen, and it made me nervous. Besides hanging around with the girls on the second floor, she was wearing different makeup and ordering chef salads. The other day she told me she thought it was weird that I made my lists -- things that are terribly sad, things to forget about before too long, things that are definitely not my fault. Things to tuck inside your pocket and tell no one that you have.

“But everyone makes lists,” I told her, “some people are just more deliberate than others. You have your lists inside, just like everyone else -- things you would never do even for eight million dollars, things you've drastically changed your mind about, things that simultaneously attract and repel you. It's just that some people write their lists down.”

“Angela,” she said. She dipped her fork into the little plastic container of Light Italian dressing and speared a piece of lettuce.

“What? You think the girls up at Pants Place don't make lists, inside their minds? I would say go ahead, ask them, but they wouldn't have a clue.”

“I don't know why you have to criticize them all the time. You don't even know them.”

I knew about the girls at Pants Place. They came and went fast in the mall, not cut out for friendships. They were only cut out for pedicures and People magazine and push-up bras. Not cut out for the Cookie Den.

“Angela, why don't you come out with us on Friday? Cherie’s boyfriend’s band is playing at Haley’s Comet.”

“You have got to be kidding me.” Haley’s Comet was an 18-and-older club in Ridgeview. “Carmen, we used to make fun of people who went there.”

“Well, Angela, I don't know what to tell you. I'm really having fun, for like
the first time in my life. Why don't you come with us? What else are you
going to do, stay at home and watch The Big Sleep for the twelfth time?”

“Actually, I'm going to my parents' house anyway. It's my uncle’s birthday.”

I couldn't go to Haley’s Comet. Not in a million years. It was on one of my lists.

“Angela, welcome home!” said my dad, like I'd been away at war. “What's cookin’, cookie?”

“What kind did you bring us?” asked my mother from the kitchen. The tiny house smelled like meat loaf.

“Oatmeal fudge and butterscotch.” My parents thought I bought the cookies for them, but they were day-old, or two.

“Lord have mercy!” said my dad. “Thank God you work in that cookie store!”

I sat down on the couch, sliding a little on the plastic cover. My dad hardly ever got out of his chair these days.

“Oh, I thought maybe you'd be bringing your friend tonight,” said my mother,
coming in from the kitchen. “How is your friend, what's her name...”

“Carmen?”

“Oh, yes, yes, Carmen. She's such a sweet girl. And a good eater.”

“She's fine.”

My dad was watching that millionaire show. “This poor guy got all the way up to sixty four thousand,” he said, pointing at a sheepish looking man on screen who'd lost all his sparkle.

“I was thinking about your friend Carmen the other day when I heard a radio program on Yugoslavia,” said my mom. “Isn't she from Yugoslavia?”

“No. Carmen’s from Milwaukee. And there is no more Yugoslavia, Mom.”

“Oh, I must have been thinking of one of Louise’s friends. Samuel, what's that friend of Louise’s name, the one from Yugoslavia?” She tapped his shoulder.

“The one with the red hair?”

“No, no, that's Ellen. The other one. Oh, he doesn't know. Well anyway,” she went on. “She has a very interesting story, this Yugoslavian girl.”

“Where is Louise? Is she here?” I asked. My father grunted.

“No, no, you know her. Out and about.” My mother touched her hair and went back to the kitchen.

Back in my old bedroom, which was now Louise’s bedroom, I looked through some CDs strewn on the unmade bed. I found one by a group called "The Troughs" and put it on. “Nobody telling me what to do. Nobody telling me where to go. Nobody telling me who is who. Nobody telling me noooooo.”

I left Louise a note, stuck to the CD: “Louise this is very unoriginal. I hope you left this at home for a reason. Please call me when you get a chance. Love, Angela.”

When I got back to Fairmont late that night, I called Carmen. I figured she'd have to be home from Haley’s Comet by 11:30, but her machine picked up, so I left her a message. “Hey it's me. My uncle’s party was soooo exciting. You wouldn't believe it. How was Haley’s Vomit? Call me later, okay?”

But Carmen didn't call that night, or the next day either. I spent Saturday sorting through the mail and ordering things from catalogs, like an adjustable spice rack for the cupboard and a draft guard, one of those long bean bags that you put by the door to keep the heat from slipping out. My mother had given me one for Christmas last year, but it was decorated like a leprechaun, and it scared me, so I gave it to the Salvation Army. But then later I was lying in bed, and I couldn't sleep, feeling guilty for giving it away and thinking about how much fun my mother must have had picking it out with me in mind, so when I found the same exact one in a catalog, I jumped on it and ordered it, just to be safe.

Sundays, Carmen didn't work at the mall, but I did sometimes. Her schedule was much more regular than mine, since her boss was so uptight.

“What do you expect from someone whose whole life is watches?” Carmen would say. Luckily, she was a fairly punctual person, so she never got in trouble. She said she learned it from her mom, a librarian.

Punctuality was never one of my specialties. “I make jewelry,” I used to say in my defense, “I'm an artist.” But I hadn't made jewelry in a long time, so now I blamed it on cable TV. “What do you expect?” I would tell my co-worker, Jill, on Sunday mornings. “I was busy.”

But this Sunday Jill called in sick, and since I couldn't reach Eric, the boss, or Anthony to sub, I had to get in early and run the shop all by myself, which was extremely hectic. I kept burning the M&M cookies, since they were a little more delicate, and the whole Cookie Den smelled bad -- like skunk, somehow.

“What reeks?” Carmen stood behind the counter in line.

“Hey what are you doing here?” I shoveled a few cookies into a bag for the little girl in front of Carmen. “Three-forty please.”

“Just shopping. You know, for my trip.”

“Oh yeah, Florida.”

“I only have three dollars,” said the little girl, matter-of-factly. Her two banana barrettes held her hair unevenly.

“Well they cost three-forty,” I said.

“Here, here's forty cents,” Carmen said, opening her purse, and the little girl turned and left quickly, the soles of her sneakers blinking with lights.

“She always does that, that kid. You fell for it,” I told Carmen.

“No, you fell for it. You gave her the cookies before you got her money.” She handed me the change. “I'll take one butterscotch and one rum raisin, while you're at it.”

I opened another package of Cookie Den bags, since we were running low. “So, how come you didn't call me back?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Well, I figured I'd see you. Plus, I've been busy, getting ready for my trip.” Carmen was going to Florida to see her grandparents. I met them once last year, when we all went golfing together at Springton Country Club. Carmen’s grandmother ordered a Ceasar salad with real anchovies, which I thought was disgusting.

“Well let me know if you want to borrow my travel pillow. It really helps.”

Carmen reached over the counter to pay for the cookies, and I noticed she'd had her nails done: big, fake, acrylic arcs. “I don't think I'll need it, but thanks. I can never sleep on planes.”

“Yeah, well …me neither. Oh, these are on me,” I said, and waved her hand away. “I'll get it.”

My mother called. “Angela, your father is nervous. Louise -- well, she hasn't been home, for a few days.” She sounded funny, like she'd been getting yelled at.

“Don't worry, Mom. I'll come down.” As if there was something I could do.

What could I do -- zero in on Louise like a honing pigeon? Will her with all my might to come home? I'd tried this before -- this intensely focused willing -- when my rabbit died, and I was very tardy to school one day and wished for the clock to go backwards, but it didn't work.

Besides, Louise had done this before. It wasn't anything to worry about. She and her friends, they liked to party, it's what they did. And sometimes parties lasted for days at a time, or so I'd heard. I thought of this as I drove down that night, the radio turned off, the lights arched over the road like lonely cranes. Things that other people worry about. Things to just ignore, ignore, ignore.

It was only nine o'clock, so I couldn't expect to see her, but I knew my father shouldn't be concerned. I was sure that if it was later, like one in the morning, and I drove as silently as I could, perhaps with my headlights turned off, I'd see Louise and a bunch of her friends partying like crazy -- a big sound system, tiki torches and tents, people dancing endlessly, throwing their heads back and laughing -- right next to the thruway on one of those beautiful, well-kept patches of grass.

"Listless" Copyright ©2004 by Carolyn Hiler.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology
should send inquiries by email to the author.
Inquiries by mail may be sent to: Carolyn Hiler, c/o collectedstories.com,
Columbia U. Station, P.O. Box 250626, New York, NY 10025.
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