Spring 2008, Volume 4

Fiction by Susan Pepper Robbins

I Know You

“I know you. That’s the way I am. Always had the gift. I know people by their faces, and I can look at you and see that we are deep. Into each other, I mean. Excuse my shit, I mean, French, but I can see you, not through you, but see the you that you really are. You know what I’m saying. Friends. True Friends. That’s us. Somewhere we have been best friends. It may be hard for you to take in right now. Somehow, I don’t know how, but I do have this power or maybe it’s a talent, but the fact is, I do know you. Somehow. Some Place. You think we are strangers but we are not. For damn sure. My family is from around here, not from right here in Charlottesville, but out in the country, so maybe somehow, I have seen you, and I know you in the regular way, I mean at a store in the mall, but I’m talking about knowing you in another way. Even though I grew up in New York.

“Yes, I see you thinking that I was one of those black children sent back down South to live with a relative, only I was sent up north, not back down here like the regular black babies were when their mamas brought them or sent them back home to their grandmothers. That’s what you’re thinking. Because you are a white person who grew up around here and never got sent nowhere, we might say. I can tell that from overhearing you talk a few minutes ago. And I would know anyway from other little signs, not that I mean to insult you. If I meant to, I would. I know you never lived in New York, not that that matters. But make no mistake, I know you.

“You are a beautiful person who feels what the other person is feeling, even a person who seems to be a stranger like me. A person you think you have never seen. And you can go the extra mile and what is even better, you want to. There aren’t many people like that in this world, this terrible old world, I don’t have to tell you. I can tell who you are, I mean who you really are in your soul.”

As the black woman talked to her, Sharon had been handed a green bean and walnut salad—the beans were raw and the walnuts had been soaking in oil for too long. Then the woman sat down too close to her in the gas station/cafe. Sharon and the woman were both swirling glasses of wine, “a nice summer wine,” expertly poured by the young man behind the counter. He had offered both women a tray of little blocks of soft cheeses for them to spear on the toothpicks he gestured toward on the counter. The black woman swished the wine around in her mouth expertly, unlike Sharon who drank hers down as if she were at home drinking the cheap grocery store wine she and Eric bought. He had started drinking it too at night with her. Not a good sign. Sharon knew it was dangerous to move from one thing to another. A gateway to worse things. From watching television, even good programs like “The Wire” or “Bleak House” they were moving to drinking wine and falling asleep half-way through the story.

Sharon was not a beautiful person, and it was great to be told that she was. She often went the extra mile but wanted extra credit for doing it, so it wasn’t really the extra mile. Because she knew many bad things about herself, it was very nice to hear this crazy black woman say nice things and with an authority, even a demented one. At last, here in this upscale gas station that had a lunch counter and wine tasting, Sharon had been understood and appreciated. This was one of the small miracles she had heard about. She was smelling the roses for once.

Internet gambling could be replaced with other addictive behaviors—credit card debt, for instance--Eric’s doctor had warned them. There were many, many ways to commit suicide. The three of them had smiled knowingly in the doctor’s office during one of their three-way sessions. Eric’s doctor, like this crazy woman, knew Eric though they had just met him three months ago.

Sharon and Eric had just been to a writers’ festival in Charlottesville that afternoon, the short story session. There were only a few people there, older women except for Eric and two other men. Maybe twenty people, tops. The one younger woman there, about forty, looked embarrassed and she left early. The writers, three men who read their stories, were in their fifties, and successful in their tenured posts at colleges. Most of the festival crowd had gone to the sessions with stars like Earl Hamner or the policeman-turned-writer, George Pelacanos, on how to write what the media would buy. That was the other session Sharon and Eric had gone to, where they had learned what Eric already knew—that it was all hopeless--that there was no way to write what the media wanted because what the media really wanted the writer to know was how to package the writing into hits, know how to approach the networks and sell the product.

It was clear that no one wanted short stories except, funny enough, other writers of stories, the short story panelists said, “a mystery, how they—they meant just themselves and the few there who had come to the panel--were addicted to them.” They were editors for little magazines, famous ones, and said they got five to seven thousand submissions a year, but published only twelve stories a year, and of those twelve, some were each others’ stories. At least they were honest about the impossibilities. This was the first writing conference that Sharon had ever been to when the brutal facts were talked about so plainly. The panelists were the haves talking to the have nots, as Sharon’s long ago seventh grade teacher had explained the world. This explanation of the great divide in humanity made things clear. It never failed to clarify things for Sharon in its bitter wisdom.

On the way home as they drove by the banks of bright yellow forsythia not quite hiding the trash thrown from cars, Eric had seen the gas station that advertised a wine tasting in its Café. Typical of the twenty-first century Charlottesville--a pale gray building, discreet gas pumps and an area for wine, cheese, and “light fare.” They had lived in this neighborhood as graduate students thirty years ago. Shocking the way time had flown, but there in the gas station, time hovered, as if it had nothing better to do than hang out with them, mixing up the past and present. Back then during the early seventies, they had frantic lives of being in love, of studying, and finally, failing to make impressions on the famous professors. Where they had lived, this area across town from the university had been called Cow Pasture. Now it went by a new name, Belview, gentrified with boutiques and places like this café/gas station managed by a kid who was an expert in wines. He probably spoke Farsi and was writing a dissertation on Coleridge. Some things never changed in Charlottesville.

Gas was three dollars and ten cents a gallon, but to soften that, there were taped signs on the pumps saying “Sorry, We Are Out of Gas Temporarily, But Come in for Our Wine Tasting.” The green bean salad was four dollars (there were eleven beans and eight halves of English walnuts) and Eric’s fried chicken (baked in the wrong, too sweet cornmeal) was five ninety-five.

Sharon and Eric now thought about the money they spent, not that their thinking saved any of it for them, but at least they thought about their bad habits, like this one of buying supper in a gas station tarted up as a café when they were almost at home and could fix something better from the huge supplies of vegetables and meats they bought at Sam’s every two weeks in excursions to the city, combining their shopping with seeing Eric’s doctor. Often the broccoli which could last five weeks, went bad, slimy, but the big bag of carrots lasted forever, and always tasted the same, hard and orange, like cardboard soaked in orangeade.

The black woman was now launching into her story of widowhood at twenty-one after five years of marriage. She was explaining her New York accent, her career as a waitress that had made her so good at knowing, “we might call it her reading” people. She directed her remarks to the empty tables around Sharon, as if she had an overflow crowd. It was like the short story session in small. She stood up to walk the few steps over to the wine counter off to the side of Sharon, for her second plastic cup of the wine. This time she said she would like one a little sweeter, but before she took a step, she carefully put the metal cap back on the quart-sized beer she had in a paper bag.

The young manager politely told her that state law would not permit him to give her another taste of the wine, that she had had several tastes already, and that he was very sorry, and was happy that she had enjoyed the summer wines, the drier ones. She politely told the young man that he had a very nice way with different kinds of people and that she could tell he had a beautiful soul, and that he would go far in his life, that she could tell, that she knew him, that she had this gift for knowing people from their faces. She had always been able to spot good people. Here, she looked kindly at Sharon and Eric who had been losing their hold on themselves as good people for some time.

Sharon could see the back of the woman’s jeans were damp, darker than the pale denim of the legs when she flicked back her plastic raincoat. There was the urine smell of the nursing home in the small area of the café made sharper by the dry weather. It hadn’t rained for weeks.

The woman sat back down and began making gargling noises, clearing her throat and staring at Sharon who was avoiding by instinct any eye contact, but then the woman addressed her directly from two feet away, “I am speaking to you and would appreciate your acknowledging me. I am a human being too, you know. I have been to the god damned writing festival myself, which is where I can tell you have been.

“Would you have a twenty that I could borrow. I need twenty to finish up my rent, and I am a little short. I am a writer, like you are yourself, and so I know that you know what a twenty coming out of the blue means to a person. I will go home now after seeing the people I know, like you and your man, and write down what I saw. I’m no Mark Twain, but I do love him. I love you too. But Earl Hamner was great today. I didn’t see you there at his session, but I went up to talk to him, and I can tell you, he was great. If I missed you there, if you really were there, you know that what I’m saying to you now is the truth. Earl Hamner who wrote all that jive about white hill people being so good hearted is a good man. I am here to tell you.”

At this point, the woman stood up, bent, her long hair hanging from under a baseball cap, her rain coat glistening as if she had been in a nice rain. She adjusted her shoulders elegantly. She was saying again to the air around Sharon and Eric’s table that she guessed she would go home now, and ask her landlord to stand by her for another day when she would get a check, she was expecting one on Tuesday or certainly on Wednesday. She would write about them—she had heard Eric call Sharon from the cash register to ask if she had ninety-seven cents to finish up their bill—yes, she would write about Sharon, the beautiful person she was talking to now, put her in her journal along with all of the good people she knew. Not all of them could help her, as Sharon could, but those who could, did help her. Some day, people would know how much she had been helped by strangers, not that she thought of them as strangers now after she had had wine together in the cafe after the writers’ festival.

Sharon felt herself slip the twenty dollar bill, the one she always kept zipped in the side pocket of her purse into the woman’s hand. She felt that she was in a trance of some kind though she often felt like she and Eric were living in another dimension. It would have made more sense to her then and later if the woman had had a knife or a gun or at least pretended to have one in the paper bag with the beer. But all the woman, homeless looking, had done was talk kindly to her, maybe the way Eric’s doctor talked to him.

Then the woman left the café. She did not acknowledge the money from Sharon.

“It’s so sad,” Sharon said to the young wine pourer, giving him permission to say back to her, “It is so sad.” She needed to cover up what she had done with some words about the general condition of humanity. The young man was familiar with this need in customers. He shook his head sadly over the world with Sharon, probably saying a few lines of ancient Persian poetry to himself.

She turned to look at Eric and asked if he had paid for the bottle of wine that she had told the young man they would buy when he had given his description of the kinds of evenings it was perfect for. Eric said that he had already paid for it. Had he stepped out and put it in the car when Sharon had gone to the bathroom? No, he hadn’t, he said, and then he added in his witty way, “Not that I recall. Did you put it in the car?” No, she shook her head.

“Do you have the receipt?” Sharon said this to keep the young manager from having to ask Eric if he had it. No, Eric didn’t have it, but the young woman at the cash register would know, would remember that Eric had paid for the bottle of wine, just a few minutes ago, maybe ten, and when Eric looked across the small café, the cashier smiled her confirmation: yes, he had paid for the bottle of wine. Definitely.

Then the young man began turning one hand over and shrugging with one shoulder, knowing before Eric and Sharon did, what must have happened. Then he shrugged both shoulders, coordinating the move with now two turned-over hands.

“Maybe it isn’t sad,” he said. “For her, anyway. It’s a little sad for me because I’ll have to make it up in the inventory and add a bottle from the wine shop on the mall, but I have to give it to her, she got me this time.” It was clear that he admired the wine stealer. Sharon found herself agreeing.

Eric offered, insisted, on paying for the bottle of wine again, but the young man waved the offer away, saying “Forget it, not a problem. I’m cool. My company expects this to happen and expects me to cover it. They say they know a good man when they hire one. All in a day’s work.”

BIO:  Susan Pepper Robbins teaches creative writing at a small liberal arts college. She has published a novel ("One Way Home," Random House, Inc.) and most recently was a finalist in the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. She is currently working on a series of connected stories.