Freda blows back into town on a Sunday. Annie is facing away from the counter when the door opens, her sleeves rolled up, elbow deep in a batch of chilled coffee mix. She’s concentrating on stirring steadily, with enough force to dissolve the sugar but not enough to take it over the edge. Annie doesn’t like making messes.
“Hey pretty lady!” Freda drops her heavy backpack with a thump and slides onto the vinyl barstool directly behind Annie. “Still doing favours for the management?”
“Freda.” Annie says it before she turns, taking a second to stifle the smile that’s spreading across her face. “You’re here.”
“I’m here.” Freda reaches into the bin of biscotti, ignoring the tongs. She pops a chunk into her mouth and grins at Annie while she chews. “Here I am.”
Annie turns and leans against the counter, arms folded, eyebrow raised. She watches Freda for a while before breaking the silence. “So?”
“So what?” Freda bites off another chunk. “So it was fun, and now I’m back. Mind if I crash for a while?”
“Of course not. Are you back for good?”
“Maybe.” Freda widens her eyes and shrugs, as if the idea is new to her. “I haven’t really thought about it. But no big questions pre-coffee, please. Make me a red eye? Double?” She smiles hopefully.
Annie rolls her eyes and turns, trying to keep her hands steady, imagining Freda’s eyes on her. She pulls a double espresso and tops it with dark roast, looking over her shoulder toward the back room before handing it to Freda. There’s no sign of the manager.
Freda follows Annie’s gaze. “Stewart still on your case?”
“I don’t know why you put up with his bullshit, Annie. You know you don’t have to. I never did.”
“It’s complicated, Freda.”
Freda takes a deep inhale and dips the tip of her tongue delicately into the hot coffee, eyes closed. “It always is, isn’t it?”
Annie looks away.
- • •
Annie remembers the old times, and what she remembers was Freda being in a league. She’d signed up to be put on the house team: a couple of men her father’s age and a leathery girlfriend or two, Freda the centre of the show.
Annie works a double shift. The coffee shop closes at eleven p.m., and she takes another forty-five minutes to finish cleaning. Mopping is the last job. She lifts chairs onto tabletops and begins at the front door, working her way to the back. The mildewed reek of the mop overpowers the cloying orange scent of the cleaning fluid. The water and the mop are the same shade of grey. Annie has turned the overhead lights off for the night and she works by the fluorescent light of the empty pastry case. She sees her reflection in the wet surface of the floor, each sweep of the mop unveiling a bright image that dulls as it dries. She works her way from the front to the back, tosses the now blackened water into the alley, then follows, locking the rear door behind her.
She sits on the back stoop, thin jacket wrapped tightly around her, remembering the nights she used to close with Freda. She imagines telling Freda how everything has changed since then. She imagines that she is smoking. She lifts a hand to her mouth and inhales deeply, blowing out through the side of her mouth. She imagines that her jeans are not digging into her waist and that she cannot smell her own armpits. She imagines that she is waiting for a lover to arrive and walk her home.
Eventually she stands and checks her phone. She has no messages. She bikes home through a series of alleys and lets herself into the basement apartment. Freda’s pack has been dumped hastily inside the front door, but there’s no sign of her. Annie puts some rice on to boil and flips through last week’s daily. She pretends she isn’t waiting for Freda to show up.
- • •
Later Annie falls asleep on the couch, still in her work clothes. She dreams she is on her bicycle, heading toward an intersection, trying to make a light. Her bike is slowing down and so she pedals faster. The pedals spin easily but the wheels don’t respond. She pedals harder and harder and the bike slowly crawls toward the yellow light. Her heart is racing and she can feel her pulse in her thighs and in the palms of her hands. The anxiety mounts until she wakes drenched with sweat.
She rises, dries her neck and face on a kitchen towel, gulps down a mouthful from a glass of water that tastes of stale whisky, and lies back down on the damp couch. She concentrates on the cold wetness of the pillow, trying to mark the moment when it reaches the same temperature as her neck.
- • •
The mid-morning rush of students has cleared up, leaving just the regulars and the dry coffee pots blackening on their burners. Annie wipes the counters, restocks the cup lids, crushes empty milk cartons, steps into the garbage can to compress its contents. Her black apron is smeared with whipped cream and dusted with fine coffee grounds. It’s humid inside and her dark hair sticks to her forehead.
“Sullivan!” The manager comes up behind her while she’s in the storeroom looking for a refill of vanilla syrup. He’s too loud and too close, still in his coat and smelling of cigarette smoke and damp skin.
“Late night, Stewart?” she asks, looking over her shoulder. It’s past eleven, and his shift started at ten. But he’s the owner’s son, and the rules are clear.
He guffaws, sweat already glistening on his forehead below the blond spiked haircut that hasn’t changed in a decade. “Wouldn’t you like to know, Sullivan.” He leans one arm against the doorway and lets his eyes trace down her body.
Annie finds the bottle she needs and turns toward the door, waiting for him to get out of the way. He doesn’t move, just watches her intently. The room is small and dark, and she feels a pea-sized knot of panic in her chest. She keeps her eyes fixed on the counter beyond him, avoiding his stare. “Stewart, there are customers waiting.”
He hardens and steps aside, lifting his arm in an exaggerated motion of courtesy. “Right, of course—your customers. Like you’d give a shit if I weren’t here watching.” They both know this is untrue.
Annie tries to slip past but Stewart stops her with a hand to the shoulder, grabbing the syrup bottle with the other.
“And what’s this?” he says, pinching the fabric of her shirt between his fingers, then dropping it in disdain.
Annie looks down at her shirt. “It’s a T-shirt. What’s the problem? I’m supposed to wear a white T-shirt. It’s white.”
“The shirt is supposed to fit, Sullivan.” He catches the hem with the top of the syrup bottle and gives the loose fabric a tug. “Show some self-respect.”
- • •
This time when Annie’s shift ends, Freda is waiting. “Bowling,” Freda had said. “Like old times. But even better because tonight’s laser bowling.”
Annie remembers the old times, and what she remembers was Freda being in a league. She’d signed up to be put on the house team: a couple of men her father’s age and a leathery girlfriend or two, Freda the centre of the show. Freda the ray of light that brightened their tobacco-greyed skin with her wide smile and her ready quips. Annie had joined her once or twice and had been largely ignored. Freda’s old times, not hers.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” she asks, eyeing Annie’s shirt.
Annie sighs. “It’s white. You said to wear white.”
“I meant something white and fun. But never mind,” Freda slips out of her purple-and white-striped cardigan and tosses it to Annie. “I like sharing,” she says. Under the sweater, Freda is wearing a hot pink T-shirt proclaiming in white cursive that “The weather’s not the only thing that’s hot in California!” She’s paired it with white leggings and an acid-wash cut-off skirt. Annie looks down at her own faded jeans, the legs not quite as narrow as they should be this year.
They make their way back out and onto their bikes. It’s mid October and the weather is beginning to cool. The nearest bowling alley is in East York, and the bike ride is a long one. They move quickly, darting in and out between the cars, up onto the pavement when they need to, disregarding traffic lights when they can.
Annie pedals along behind Freda, struggling to keep up on her rusty bike. When traffic is light, Freda swerves gracefully from side to side, around sewer covers, cracks in the pavement, imagined pylons set at even intervals. Safely anonymous in the rear, Annie follows suit, trying to imitate Freda’s movements exactly. Freda’s hips are spectacular, broad and showy. Her shirt rides up in the back to reveal a narrow strip of skin, the top of her white leggings and two small swells of flesh spilling over the sides of her skirt. When she leans from side to side, she looks like she’s dancing.
The bowling alley is half empty, but everyone seems to know Freda. They greet her with kisses and shoulder slaps and effusiveness, as if she’s a lost lamb returning to the flock. Tonight’s flock, Annie thinks. Tomorrow it will be somewhere else. She tries to keep her smile intact as she looks on. Three games and several drinks later, Annie isn’t trying anymore.
They’re too drunk to bike home, but they do it anyway. On the way back, Annie’s front tire goes flat. They turn off the main road and come to a stop at a dead-end street overlooking the valley in Riverdale.
“Let me do it.”
Annie passes the bike to Freda and sits on the guardrail, watching her. Freda hooks up her portable pump to Annie’s tire. When she’s finished pumping, she puts her ear to the tire, squeezing. “I think the leak is at the valve stem. This’ll get you home, but you’ll need to change the tube. I can show you how.”
“Really?” Annie feels warm despite the cool air. She smiles at Freda.
“Sure. It’s just a quick tube change.”
Freda wipes her hands on the sides of her skirt and sits down beside Annie. They lean back against the guardrail, watching the tangle of traffic moving up and down the off-ramps like a flowing neon sign.
Their knees are touching and Annie feels the heat spreading out from the point of contact, warm liquid beneath her skin. She turns to look at Freda, opens her mouth to speak. Freda is staring straight ahead, wide-eyed.
“It’s like fireworks in slow motion.” Her voice is full of awe.
Annie closes her mouth and nods. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
- • •
It’s the next afternoon when the woman comes in. She slips in during a rush, and Annie doesn’t notice her until later when the shop has cleared a bit. The woman is short and round, her body like a ball. She’s dressed in layers, and the long-johned legs that dangle beneath the chair are swaddled in clothes meant for other body parts: on one leg, a shirt with the neckhole positioned just below the knee, body wrapped around and tied above the ankle by the arms; on the other a silk scarf wound around and tucked into what looks like a headband. She has no drink and she makes no effort to pretend she does, or to appear busy at something. She sits tall and looks ahead of her, like she’s looking at something pleasant. If she notices Annie watching her, she doesn’t show it.
Harmless, Annie thinks. Let her rest a little.
As if on cue, Stewart appears. “What the hell is that? Christ, it’s no wonder business is tough lately, with garbage like that scaring the customers away.”
“She’s not hurting anyone, Stewart. Just let her rest a bit.” Annie focuses on the cups she’s loading into the dishwasher, trying to sound as if she has the final say.
It doesn’t work. Stewart scoffs and leans back against the counter, arms folded over his chest. “This isn’t a fucking homeless shelter, Sullivan. Get her out.”
“Okay, fine, I’ll talk to her in a sec.” Annie continues loading.
“Sullivan. Get her out. Now.” Stewart makes no move to leave. He intends to watch until the job is done.
Annie straightens and closes the door of the dishwasher. With a glare at Stewart, she walks toward the woman, stopping a few feet in front of her and leaning down slightly. “Excuse me,” Annie says.
The woman looks up at her curiously, as if surprised to see another person. Her face is broad, brown and softly wrinkled. Annie can’t place her age.
“Excuse me,” Annie repeats softly. “I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave. Seating is for customers only.”
The woman continues to look at her, but makes no move to rise. Annie looks over her shoulder. Stewart is watching, arms still folded.
Annie raises her voice to a level that will carry, and says it again. “I’m sorry, but I need you to leave.”
This time the woman appears to register her comment, her chin shifting slightly. She says nothing. She lifts her brow slightly, as if in sympathy, but her expression of openness, almost kindness, is still intact.
Annie stoops to pick up the woman’s bag, a linty cloth shopping bag packed with newspapers and clothes. “Can I help you find your way out?” she asks.
The woman seems to understand. She smiles, sliding forward and off her chair with a clunk. The soles of her shoes are hard, not rubbery. Annie returns the smile, feeling gratitude for the woman’s cooperation, for the near miss of confrontation, and walks toward the front door, one eye behind her to ensure that the woman is following. She holds the door open to allow the woman to pass through, beneath her arm, and then holds out her bag to her. The woman seems surprised at the bag, as if it’s a gift she didn’t expect. She smiles up at Annie again. Annie’s own smile is frozen by now, and she cannot make it soften. She begins to close the door gently behind the woman, edging her out. The woman’s smile wavers a bit, unsure now. She stands for a moment watching Annie through the glass, then turns and walks away, in a stride that is surprisingly spry, a lighter woman’s stride.
Back at the bar, Stewart snorts. “You should’ve seen your face, Sullivan. You looked like you were gonna burst into tears.”
Annie fills a coffee pot with water, saying nothing.
Freda stiffens. The section of tire she’s worked out slips back in, and she sits back on her heels in frustration.
- • •
That night, Annie dreams again. She dreams she is late for something important, but cannot remember what it is or how to get there. She is rushing, and she approaches a heavy wooden door with a white painted knob. She grasps the knob and turns it, but nothing happens. The knob turns easily, turns around and around, but the door doesn’t yield.
- • •
“Why’d he make you do it?” Freda asks. “It’s not your job. That stupid shit. He’s just pulling rank. Honestly, Annie, you should just quit.”
They’re in the park behind the house, working on Annie’s bike. Annie straddles the slide and watches as Freda depresses the valve to release more air from the front tire.
“I can’t just quit, Freda. I need the job.”
“Do you? Do you need it this bad?” Freda’s finished with the valve and is working to get the tire off without a lever. “I think you need your dignity more.”
Annie is silent while Freda labours over the tire. She watches a man with a grocery cart full of empties rattle past, stopping to root through a recycling bin.
“Maybe I will quit.”
“Yeah?” Freda looks up in interest.
“Yeah, maybe. I’ll quit and go with you on your next trip.”
Freda stiffens. The section of tire she’s worked out slips back in, and she sits back on her heels in frustration. “Come on, Annie. That’s not what I meant.”
“So what? It can’t happen because it wasn’t your idea?”
“Annie, I travel alone, you know that. It’s just easier that way.”
Annie looks straight at her. “You don’t want me to come.”
“It’s not that simple. You know that.” Freda stands up. “Look, I gotta go,” she says, slipping on her jacket and shrugging toward the bike. “You’ll need a lever for that tire.”
Freda slings her bag over her shoulder and walks away. Annie shifts her gaze from Freda’s retreating back and looks down at the sand in front of her, at Freda’s scattered tools and her deflated tire.
- • •
By the time Annie gets to the bike shop, it’s closed. The wind is fierce as she wheels the crippled bike home. Trees are jerking more than swaying and a plastic bag whips past her feet and flattens against a fire hydrant, pausing briefly before tugging loose and flying off on a new trajectory. The violent wind makes everything seem oddly still. The city feels asleep, as if its inhabitants haven’t yet found their fall boots and so have decided to stay inside. Annie likes the stillness and the noise of the wind, feeling protected beneath her heavy jacket. Like being in a car wash as a child, she thinks. Safe inside as the massive coloured brushes spin and crush against the windshield. And the silence at the other end, the sense of cleanness that permeates to the occupants within. She remembers.
The wind is an exfoliant that Annie needs. The wind will slough off the shell that is keeping her from the world, or will scratch through her skin to the place where the good stuff is. She feels this with certainty, doesn’t flinch at the storm of construction dust that scrapes across her cheek.
Then Annie sees her. The woman from the coffee shop. She notices her walk first, the same sturdy, rhythmic walk she witnessed earlier. Like there is a half step added into every step, almost a skip. Childlike.
She is far ahead of Annie, almost a block away. “Hey,” Annie calls out. “Hey! I’m sorry about earlier!” But her voice is lost in the wind. Or it is ignored.
Annie picks up her pace, feeling the wind as an obstacle now. She jogs a few steps then slows to a fast walk, struggling to keep the bike upright with one hand. Annie has longer legs than the strange woman, but doesn’t seem to be gaining on her. The distance between them is widening. Annie runs a few more steps, then drops the bike when she sees the woman turn into a lane. Annie knows the alley she’s heading for—it’s one with many corners—and she takes off at a run. She follows around the corner and into the lane, another twenty feet and around a second corner into the alley.
And the woman is gone. Annie turns and looks in the other direction, jogs up to another exit and again sees nothing. As Annie turns to head back to the road, the wind stops abruptly. What seemed like silence before is now truly silence, the city on pause, the city holding its breath. Above her, from the back roof of a lowrise fronting on College Street, a sound emerges like the shaking of a jar of rice. Dozens of small black birds rise out of nowhere, from unseen below a ridge, and fly eastward, perfectly spaced as if by an invisible grid. The sound of shaking rice fades to shaking salt and then to the sound of breath.
In the silence, in the intersection of the alley, alone and holding Freda’s tools, Annie drops to a crouch and begins to weep.
- • •
It’s dark when Annie emerges from the alley, and her bike is gone. She walks home slowly, breathing deeply, noticing the smell of turning leaves, of garbage, of the city. When she gets home, there’s no sign of Freda or her bags. The corner where her clothes were strewn that morning is bare.
Annie stands in silence for a moment, then pulls her phone from her pocket and dials a number.
“Stewart, it’s Annie.”
“Sullivan? Do you know what time it is?”
“Yeah, I know Stewart. It’s important. I want a raise.”
“A raise. More money.”
“Are you kidding me, Sullivan?”
“Not kidding, Stewart. I need the money. I need a new bike.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line. Annie speaks again, her voice firm.
“You need me, Stewart. I’m good. The customers like me. And who else can keep the shop running and put up with your bullshit at the same time?”
After a short silence Stewart grunts, a kind of half laugh.
“No kidding, Sullivan. It’s about time you figured that out.” He takes a deep draw on his cigarette, then exhales. “I’ll see what I can do. Be on time tomorrow.”
“I always am, Stewart.”
“Yeah, I know.”