Despite having no teeth, she was a very good kisser.
They met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where she was celebrating one year of sobriety. He was attending as a requirement of his pre-med course in mental illness and addictive disorders. It was either this or the Shit and Death Are Everywhere group, a support system for depressives who liked to wear black. When they later talked in the parking lot, he invented his addiction—Oxycontin—because he didn’t want her to feel like a lab rat under observation. She smiled large and said, “If you’d been a meth head, we could go to our dental school appointments together!” His heart came unhinged and he knew he had to see her again.
Now flip the calendar ahead one month. He is sitting in the dental school waiting area while she is being fitted for dentures. Never in his life has he felt this in love. She is a wonder: kind and gentle, smart and extremely goofy. Evenings, he helps her study for her GED exam. He still hasn’t told her he isn’t an opiate addict. She expresses amazement that he is Phi Beta Kappa w/ a millstone like that. He gives her hazy answers, says he doesn’t like to think of those days. They hold hands under the table at meetings, and he is terrified of losing her.
She knows he is lying through his (wait for it, wait for it…) teeth. It doesn’t matter; when he drapes his arm over her and pulls her close, she doesn’t jones for anything. She wants to be whatever he needs.
They make one another better. That is what love does.
We found the body just past daybreak. After a week in the water, her face looked like a plate of mud.
“Get the tarp completely under it,” Clarissa told me. “If you don’t, they can break apart. Then it’s a real mess, fishing out chunks.”
I learned later the woman’s name was Jennifer Angstrom, 37 years old. She had only been in town for six months and hadn’t taken the evacuation order seriously. And why would she? She worked full time, with overtime, and took evening classes at the community college. The hurricane would shutter both the school and the Tyson processing plant and give her an opportunity to sleep. Sleep was sensuous to her; it should have been a four letter word. She popped an Ambien and drank some wine, watching the television weather map until the power went out, then crawled into bed two hours before the storm surge.
The part about the wine and the pill I didn’t know about, of course. Not at the time. Later I heard from the Deputy Coroner she was legally smashed, enough to sleep through the end of the world. Hers was one of three bodies Clarissa and I picked up after the storm, but the only one that stayed in my mind.
“Watch that leg,” Clarissa shouted. “Aw, heck. I guess we’ll call her Eileen.”
I like to think Jennifer Angstrom went to bed that night with a buzz on and dreamed of her life beyond processing dead birds and forcing down caffeine in order to make it to accounting class. Someplace beyond her efficiency apartment a hundred yards from the levee. I like to think when she woke up she was warm and dry, with every comfort she would ever need.
Melville Snatchko was 43 minutes into the tax audit for Mr. and Mrs. Seymour Maddox of Sandusky, Ohio when a memory threw a branch between his bicycle spokes. This time it was of a young woman he had known years earlier as a sophomore in college. Their romance had been like Chinese fireworks: brief, brilliant, and defective. He had for some weeks resided surreptitiously in her dorm room, where during a discussion one drunken night she’d exclaimed, “Melville, you can’t love everyone.” At the time this baffled him. Why couldn’t he love everyone? Wasn’t that what enlightened people were shooting for? To love and hope and nurture and encourage? He was 19 years old and such a state seemed entirely feasible.
Now he was 40 years old and 15 years into a job with an accounting firm. He could take the most complex life and reduce it to a spreadsheet in a day’s time. The braces for the kids, the nursing home for grandma—everything could be found in the Excel file. Even the fear; just look under ‘insurance premiums.’ Hope went with casino losses, despair with legal fees. When he completed his report, Melville could see into a person, and a lot of his clients were rats, soulless schmucks that knew how to make money, but little else. He didn’t love them, or even like them, or Uncle Sam, or Santa Claus, even a little bit.
Who he did love was that ignorant teenager at university who still believed in ideals. That kid was as dead as a dodo, but it made him smile, for just a moment, to have known someone of such hope and merit. Then, shaking it off, he would refresh his computer and re-busy himself with his dissection of worth.
The poetry and prose of Robert L. Penick have appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, and Plainsongs. More of his work can be found at theartofmercy.net.
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