“Who’s there?” the voice on the other side of the door demanded more loudly to know.
The silent fingers of the four women remain crabbed over the keyboards. They look at each other and, as if by arrangement, at the clock on the wall. 7:30 p.m. The glass lintel up near the plastered concrete ceiling frames an indigo oblong sky. Tonight, as every other night, they’re on a roll. Perhaps later, when they’re nearly finished, they’ll talk. But even then, though they’re alone, in whispers. The air on either side of the door waits . . . still . . . nothing happens. Footsteps near. The door handle rattles. The women on the inside watch the brief wrestle with the brass knob. Under the ceiling lights it sparkles with a golden glaze, but the door doesn’t budge . . . and they knew it wouldn’t. They’d pushed in the safety lock and taken the key from the rack on the outside wall. Footsteps walk away, then abruptly stop. They knew that would happen too. They’re still in freeze frame. Twice more toc-toc heels start and stop. Three of the women look at each other, roll eyes, smile, their hearts still racing. Not Mavis, though. Her head is rocking back and forth, her eyes are closed, her lips are moving fast.
Miss Cox knew she should have gone a long time ago. Everyone had left at 5:00 p.m. or shortly after. I don’t want to have to deal with this tomorrow—just half an hour more, she’d said. And when next she’d raised her head, just like that, it was 7.15. She’d looked out the window to the parking lot. Her car stood alone, creepy, tall pole lights challenging but not seeping through the dusky shroud enough to silver the chrome around the hood. The door handles, though, mirrored a dazzle of inlaid chiaroscuro.
Was someone really in the computer lounge? She could call Security. Better not. She already had “bitch” and “butch” tacked to her back, to add “batty” would be a bit much. Tomorrow she would mention her suspicions . . . casually . . . if nothing was missing. In any case, whoever was in could not get out without drawing attention to himself or herself, since the alarm would go off. For now, she should just get out before full darkness descended.
Although footsteps could no longer be heard, the four women freeze-framed in the computer lounge still did not move, a precaution long established among them. They were waiting for their agreed-on signal.
At 5:00 p.m., the official closing time, when the buzzer sounded, they’d slung their bags over their shoulders like everyone else and trekked after the weak-bladder-ed to the washroom to pee. But each lingered over the hand washing and the paper-towel-drying and the hair fixing, as if she was preparing for some important engagement.
And when the mass exodus was over, first Virgie went out.
The corridors were all clear. Without stopping to look right or left, she walked straight to a wall, unhung the key, unlocked the computer lounge door, and entered. Not taking off her bag, she stood on the inside, watching the brass knob, her hand on it, anticipating the turn. As it began to spin, she completed the rotation and let Mavis in. Two more, Eutrice and Ida, and then they were all in.
Now, Mavis’s temples thrummed. The sentence she’d been holding in her head for the past five minutes was disintegrating. Still, she didn’t dare lift a pencil, nothing to chance a chair creak, nothing. Hurry up and go away!
She was losing words by the minute, the edges of the thought she’d been working on: “The Lacanian image of Xuela slowly revealed is not the mirror image . . .” No . . . image repeated twice . . . “The Lacanian image of Xuela is an illusion . . . of . . . the fracture Lucy and Annie experience . . .”
Hurry up and get out!
Then, far away, the grating of a heavy door—the front door opening. A pause and then it slammed shut. At last!
Mavis struck the keyboard in wild need. “The Lacanian image of Zuela slowly revealed is not the mirror image . . . the fracture Lucy and Annie experience is an illusion . . . of . . .”
For now she would just continue typing, free-typing, and perhaps the sentence would come back.
Virgie’s, Eutrice’s, and Ida’s slumped shoulders straightened. Bra straps pulled up like harnesses once more, and from the two booths nearest the door of the twelve-computer suite a soft giggling trickled.
Shut up! Mavis whispered. You’re distracting my brain! Frantically, she was typing any words that came. She would piece the threads together later. Maybe when she read it over, the exact words of the original thought would come again.
Whatever the outcome, it was all good. They were now locked in for the night; it was warm; they had the couch and, of course, the vending machine on the opposite side of the room, just in case, although the snack packs gleaming behind the plexiglass did not usually tempt them. The only time they would emerge from the room would be in pairs later, much later, to go to the washroom. At least one of them would always remain in the lounge, though.
They didn’t ever take the key with them, either. Better not chance being caught with it and if anything happened, risk selling out the others and bringing an end to this pact that they so depended on for word-processing their countless assignments. Even if something happened, there would be enough warning, since at night footsteps echoed from far away in the stillness of the building. Plus, there were countless places they could hide. The real pity would be the amount of work they could have put in during the time wasted being silent and hiding.
Delayed flights, airport hassle, long bus rides had trained them for any- and everything. Nothing like “have-to-go-now.” Their washroom break was around 10:00 p.m., just before their couch shifts. When they went, they peed in loud long jets, like horses. They laughed about that, but what a relief it was when they eventually went.
Maybe feeding her brain might work. Mavis peeled back the lids of two 10-percent milk cups and took two sugars from her fast-food stash. She uncapped her thermos and poured the sugar and the trickles of milk in. She squeezed a ketchup pack, then a mustard, and then a mayonnaise over her rye bread and chicken. The Seven-Eleven had shifted to bottles of late, but she still had a stash of these self-serve packets, never mind they were stale dated. How stingy and stupid all these places were becoming! You didn’t want a whole bottle, just a dab to soften and flavor the bread so it could go down the gullet. It wasn’t like you were stealing or anything. You only had to take a look at the garbage can in the Seven-Eleven to see how much was being thrown out, anyway.
The varicose veins at back of Mavis’s knees were pulsing from her long morning of stocking coolers with Snapple and hanging out the new shipment of sweatshirts at the concession stand on 7th Avenue before she’d come in for her afternoon lecture.
Her mind was getting erratic. Her eyes were also hurting. Perhaps she should take the first couch shift.
“Virgie, is it OK if I take my shut-eye first?”
“Go ahead,” Virgie said without turning or even slowing the pace of her typing.
“That woman broke my concentration,” Mavis mumbled.
“You might be able to get my shift too,” Eutrice tittered, raking her thumb across the bottom edge of a flipped-back notepad. “I can’t think about sleep until I finish this group report, and I still have six more pages to go.”
“Shut up!” Ida whispered. “It is still early. You all are making too much noise!”
Slouching over to the leather couch, Mavis curled up on her side, rested her head on the armrest, toed off her sneakers, and brought both her legs up off the floor. She wished she could dim the fluorescent light over their makeshift bed, but some rooms were fully lit all day and all night. The computer lounge was one. To adjust the lights would draw attention from the guard hut at the front of the building. Right now, all that really mattered was that she could keep her assignment deadlines for the week without having to wait her turn for a computer in the student complex at Campus Services.
When she used to go down there, even if someone got off a computer early, she still did not have enough time to finish her assignments. And there was also the dreaded walk home past the dam at midnight when Campus Services closed . . . although she would speed up just before she reached that long silvery slice of black. If anyone was lurking there, they would surely have had a hard time outrunning her. Recently, as an off-shoot of the whispering about a student’s nervous breakdown, a night escort service had been instituted, but until a couple of months ago, all night walkers had to fend for themselves.
Mavis had been lucky. She had come across no one in the months that she was doing the dash along the dam, but just the thought of a morning-after feature—not of her but of someone she knew whose luck had run out—made her shiver: The cluster of police and campus security guards (suddenly present!) in this out-of-the-way spot, their crisp blue-and-white starched shirts knife-edging the desolation; the humped black body bag almost a patted mound already on the ground; curious students on their way to midmorning classes, like clones in fall-grey hoodies, hands warming in the pocket just under the midriff, the college name blazoned in an arc over their fronts and backs; the implacable sheet of water lying backgrounded, ghoulishly uninvolved, refusing to give up any secrets of what had occurred.
She could see too the yellow DO NOT CROSS streamers slightly thrumming in the chill air. And then her mind cut away to the ten-second television lead story for the night: “An international female student and mother of four was . . .” Mavis could not complete the sentence. Inside her head she felt a stream of blood trickling down her temples. In the news anchor’s mispronunciation, she almost did not recognize herself. “Oliver,” the made-up doll was saying. “Mavis Olliv-ie-rie . . . . Not Oliver,” she found herself correcting.
And indeed it was and was not her, that ID-card photo she saw in a daze, the one on the ID card she took out of her wallet only on official request but did not look at as she passed it to whoever demanded it. That photo with big hair and lopsided features now blown up until bloated against the television screen, showing her melasma that had never faded since she had given birth to Terrence, who was now thirteen.
She wished she could change that photo, but she doubted it would make a difference. In the lineup at Student Services, it was just a senior with a Polaroid camera standing six feet away from a pillar draped with a leaf-green cloth. You stood with your back almost touching the backdrop. “Look straight into the camera,” he says, “No smiling.” And then he clicked, a flash went off, and he bawled out NEXT. You couldn’t linger. You then went over to another line to wait until someone called your name and you received a freshly minted laminated card that pressed warmly against your palm. It contained your rank, file, and serial number. It was only on your way out of Student Services that you allowed yourself to take a furtive glance at the mug shot purporting to be you, and you slid the card into your wallet at the back of the stack.
Mavis made the sign of the cross, adjusted the sides of her head-wrap over the grey peeping at her temples and tucked her feet closer. Her eyes remained open, watching the others. They were reading and typing, reading and typing. Sometimes the four of them talked, but not often. Time was too precious. All the same, some nights one started it, another added her two cents and before you knew it, they were in a round robin, sharing private details of that other life—their men, their children, even sharing advice.
Yes, the children—some growing, some eighteen already and out in the world. The women sometimes laughed, and at other times they beamed, boasting of the achievements of this or that son, but they were also hesitant and thoughtful; to tell the truth always scared like hell about what lay waiting in the world for them and their significant others. Perhaps that was their motivation, what drove the four of them—the anticipation of a celebration somewhat like the ecstasy of racing up a pois doux incline, holding on to the Panama hat that as girls each had pressed to her head so it would not fly off in the wind. See them advancing, chuckling, holding on to the brims, the jolly streamers that anchored the crowns, sawing into their necks like a noose under the chin.
This was not the time for distractions so near the end of the semester, when she needed every ounce of concentration to stay the course, to hold her own alongside so many students half her age, to sustain the will to grab and take back a piece of herself that only she knew—a piece of herself that said that she was more than just good enough to cook, clean, and pay the bills.
By the time the security guards were making their first rounds in the morning, the four of them would have everything undisturbed and back in place. When they emerged from the washroom at 7.15 a.m., they would merely be among the first students, going in different directions, mingling. She, Mavis, would head out to her job at the concession stand and then, later in the day, straight to class.
She was now wide awake. She stretched and pulled toward her the pen and paper she had rested on the coffee table in front of the couch. Ok, let’s try this again,” her mind said. The image of Xuela slowly revealed chapter by chapter is a reflection of the developing fractured Lucy and Annie figures in earlier . . . Her head was clearer now. She sat up and moved to the computer. The idea was coming back. She would rework and finish the sentence. The quicks of her fingernails were tingling.
Cynthia James is a Trinidadian Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, and recent winner of the Caribbean Writer’s Canute A. Brodhurst Prize. Her publications include the self-published Watermarked: A Poetry Collection (2014), The Maroon Narrative: Caribbean Literature across Boundaries, Ethnicities, and Centuries (Heinemann, 2002), Sapodilla Terrace (Upfront, 2006), Bluejean: A Novel (GreenTree, 2000), La Vega and Other Poems (Ferguson, 1995), Vigil: A Long Poem (Ferguson, 1995), Iere, My Love (Ferguson, 1990), and Soothe Me, Music, Soothe Me (Ferguson, 1990). She has also been published in peer-reviewed journals and on peer-reviewed websites such as Callaloo, Jouvert, the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse, the Caribbean Writer, Sisters of Caliban, World Literature Today, Wasifiri, Postcolonial Text, the Massachusetts Review, and 100 Poems from Trinidad and Tobago.