The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Agnes at the edge

Rachael Conlin Levy

Agnes didn’t venture far into the park. She wheeled the shopping cart to an empty bench near its grassy edge, dropped her backpack, and sat down. Seconds later she jumped up, to pace. Then stopped. Sat down again. Up once more, but this time she reached into an inside pocket of a wool coat she wore to find two photographs. A boy and a girl. She held the pictures at their edges to avoid dirtying or scratching their small faces with her rough fingers and ragged nails. The photos were creased from time spent in a pocket and damaged by water and sun. The little girl’s smile revealed a missing tooth, and she wore her hair in two ponytails tied with ribbons. The boy looked to be a few years older. Once water had fused the children’s images together, and when Agnes peeled them apart, a portion of the boy’s shirt ripped away to expose fuzzed paper but left his smiling face undamaged. His grin was set to burst into laughter prompted by a joke from an unseen cameraman. Now Agnes returned the boy’s smile, and settled on the bench. She tucked the pictures back into her coat pocket, and looked around.

Here was one of humanity’s watering holes. When afternoon sun bakes asphalt and apartments, people seek the park’s cool grass, small fountain, and shade cast by old poplars whose cottonwood seeds float on air only to settle in feathery drifts in park corners. Here eyes admired one another: lithe boys on skateboards that ricocheted off concrete, muscled and shirtless men who tossed a frisbee, the swell and curve of teen-age girls as they sunbathed, the stately portage of the old man walking his dog, and children, in varying degrees of undress, who squealed and splashed as mothers chatted.

Here came a strong woman pulling a wagon filled with buckets and towels and two pint-size boys who tumbled to the pavement, where they kicked off shoes and peeled away clothes. The first boy danced away from the woman’s hands, and ran, naked, to the fountain. He skipped at the water’s edge. The second boy waited for swim trunks to be pulled to his waist before he chased after the first. Together they joined the others who ran and squealed around the fountain.

Many an eye was drawn to the small boy’s dimpled bottom and round belly because his naked joy was a delight to behold. Pleasure flitted through the onlookers who watched him crouch and leap, his body slicked with water. Now he spread his arms to the sky, tiny penis dangled and he hooted as a friend poured a cup of water on his knees. Heads shook, amused. The children had discovered a nearby spigot, and ran to fill pails and cups, then return to the fountain to add their water to the pool.

Agnes took a plastic milk jug from her backpack and walked to the spigot where a dog drank from a communal bowl as its owner waited. Agnes’ approach drew the attention of the mothers, who checked for their children, who in turn stopped their racing and pouring to watch Agnes fill her own container. Also to watch the dog lap water.

“Where’s the dog’s food, Mommy?”

“It’s at her home, dear,” said the strong mother, who exchanged a smile with its owner, also watching Agnes approach.

“Mommy, her hands are dirty.”

“Shush, we don’t talk about people.”

“She has a big bottle, Mommy. Can I bring a bottle next time? Look at the dog’s tongue, Mommy. It’s funny! Funny tongue! Fun tongue!”

“Next time, sure.”

“Snacks, too, Mommy? I’m hungry. Can we bring snacks for the dog and for the lady, too?”

“If you’re hungry, let’s get our snacks out of the wagon.”

“I had a dog, once,” Agnes told nobody in particular.

The mother, her naked boy and the dog owner looked at her.

“Mommy, I wanna dog.”

“Got my dog at a shelter.” Agnes said. “Let me have her ’cause I had a friend who’d be my dog’s daddy if it got too hard to take care of her.”

“When you’re older, son,” said the mother to the child, who longingly looked after the dog walking away.

“Sure loved that mutt,” Agnes said. “Good to have a dog when you’re driftin.’ Makes ya safer like my Trixie did, though it’s hard havin’ a dog ’cause ya gotta walk everywhere. Can’t take a dog on a bus. And you gotta do somethin’ with the dog when you need to use the bathroom. Just got too hard and I hadda give her up. Took her to her daddy and left her, like when I left my kids with their daddy.”

The mother frowned at the boy who hopped at her feet, hollering that he was hungry.

“My girl and boy weren’t much older than yours when I hadda let’um go,” said Agnes, who side-glanced at the naked child whose hands were tugging and jiggling at his crotch.

“Look at that lil’ pecker,” Agnes cackled and the mother took a step back. “Tiniest, cutest little thingy.”

The mother picked up her son.

“Why you lettin’ him run naked? Prob’ly there’s a perv watchin’ and whackin’ off right now.”

They walked away.

Agnes wasn’t bothered by the mother’s abrupt departure because departures by now were routine, having been on both the receiving and giving ends of rejection for years. Agnes’ crassness, her preference for bar stools instead of bars of soap, her disinterest in her children’s bathing and eating habits, and, eventually, her own, banished her to the outskirts of mothers’ gatherings. She barely was tolerated from there. Other women endured Agnes, suffered through her coarseness, and heaved bosomy, perfumed sighs at her departure.

She’d been as young and strong as this mother when she’d run out of the house and away from a dead marriage, the other women’s judgment, and her children’s suffocating needs. Will you come back? her oldest had cried. Yes, but you need to let me go so I can come back, she’d told him. Her youngest whimpered from a fear felt but unable to understand. Her husband, numb to the familiar tableau, did not respond to her goodbye.

Agnes had gotten as far as the neighborhood grocery store before indecision slowed her and she pulled the minivan into the parking lot. Out of habit, this younger Agnes brought up a mental image of the fridge and opened it: They were out of milk, and she considered going in to buy more, then cursed her own dutifulness in thinking to replenish her family’s staples as she ran away.

She laid her head on the steering wheel and listened to rain hit windshield glass. Outside, the parking lot was empty and dark but for the neon reflected in puddles, and now her minivan under a street lamp. Here in the car, dingy street light lent inexplicable meaning to a crumpled paper airplane, and shadows lapped at a water bottle. The desperation that had propelled Agnes out the door evaporated, and she was tired. She climbed into the back and settled into a rear seat. A shopping cart jingled across the parking lot. Men’s voices grew clearer, then faded. Agnes sat up and checked that the doors were locked. She laid down again and imagined life without a husband, without children, without a home. Her cell phone rang, then registered a text message, both from her husband, both ignored. Hours later she woke, noted fading night, a stiff neck, the thump of her own heart in the solitude. On a slack line, she drifted. What now? she asked. The responding silence was heavy with possibility. She chose the morning without milk.

She drove that minivan out of town and into the years and through the work of surviving. At first she kept seeing the same people no matter what the city, though she knew that wasn’t possible, that the wires between her brain and her eyes were shorting out, confusing the sameness in strangers with being the same strangers.

She drifted, first east, away from the ocean, then south, out of the forest and into the desert where the minivan’s engine seized. She left it for dead along a remote stretch of Interstate 80, and hitched her way to a truck stop on the outskirts of Reno, then followed the Truckee River into town. Her lack of family, community and home, the hole it created in her life, became the essence of who she was, a harsh, beautiful emptiness mirrored in the barren land and pitchy nights. The place she loved was not the place she lived. The foreign had become familiar.

Contrary to popular opinion, absence does not grow a fond heart, but turns the tender organ calloused. Thick ropes of muscle pumped blood, but not the possibility of return, through her veins. Accepting her absence as anonymity, she moved to erase herself around the edges. Here was the part of the world that lies around and between things, a world defined by the pause, the gap, by what it is not — not home, not family, not security, not love. Dirt and dirty-mindedness only made it easier to reside in this borderland, populated by the missing and overlooked, the outcasts. From here, Agnes now talked to nobody in particular.

“Had my dog for three years. Leavin’ her jus’ tore out my joy, took it clean away.”

She carried the old milk jug to the bench, and shifted her attention away from the mother and to a small group gathered, like her, at the edge.

4 responses to “Agnes at the edge”

  1. Holly says:

    Very poignant– j felt myself holding my breath to her pain. Amazing Rachael.

  2. Denise says:

    I am left thinking about Agnes before she had children, before she was married, all the way back to when she was a child herself. I’m so often wondering about the backgrounds of people with traits similar to those Agnes exhibited in the park. I imagine there are as many background stories as there are people.

  3. Thank you, Aunt Holly.

  4. Yes, I watch and wonder, too, Denise. This segment of a short story is part of my work at the online writing workshop Power of the Pen: Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction, hosted by the University of Iowa. This is the second one I’ve participated in, and I cannot recommend it enough. The connections, critiques and support I’ve made and received have been invaluable.

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