A SHORT STORY BY REBEKAH BERGER © 2014
The windshield sparkled darkly, spattered with water. Arching and screeching across the spangled glass, the wipers obscured Estrella’s already hampered view of the forest choked road. On her way home from work at the pizza dough factory, she leaned forward, concentrating all of her energy and focus onto the road ahead. Muttering a half prayer to ward away deer from her headlights and all creatures not as great or large, she edged the vehicle onward into the angled sheet of rainwater.
Her mindfulness incomplete, a zen master’s work in progress, Estrella nonetheless always made an effort to refresh her vision, keep herself from distraction. No cellular phones, i-pods, blue tooth, texting or tweeting. Inside her car, inside her own head – two entirely different places. She shook her straight black fringed locks to manage herself back into the present. Took a deep breath of the musty interior of her ancient Datsun. Rubbed her sweaty palms against the silky worn thighs of her narrow jean-covered legs. Drummed her fingers, nails clad in chipped black enamel, on the frayed leather steering wheel. Her mind now humming and hollow, Estrella’s eyes locked on the median. Yellow-gold, parallel lines soothing her, yet framing her alertness.
A heavy, sodden splot pierced through the rhythmic whine of the wipers. Smearing a trajectory across the speckled screen, Estrella tracked the object, which suddenly disappeared as rapidly as it first materialized in her field of vision. Her right foot automatically gripped the brake, calf muscles clenching, skidding the vehicle to a messy stop. Her breath ragged, Estrella rubbed her palms against her black and yellow jacquard sweater, rhythmically calming her jagged nerves and breathing. She geared herself up to exit the safe haven of the cabin, overhead light recharging her self-confidence.
Grasping her keys and threadbare khaki army surplus knapsack that served as a purse, Estrella tentatively stepped out onto the obsidian pavement. Looking back over her shoulder to scout for vehicles, creatures, who knew- flying saucers, extinct species – best to be cautious. She peered into the gulley lining the narrow road, scanning the sodden leaves, organic matter for something, anything foreign. A red-checked cloth napkin, too clean to have resided long in this rain-soaked night beckoned to her one empty hand. Estrella bent, a slender reversed ‘v’, reaching into the culvert. Her pale hand reflected the moon’s light as her fingers wrapped themselves around the damp package.
Carefully folded, the napkin was not as ordinary as it had first appeared. Not Hardees or somebody’s grandma’s. The cloth was fine, silky, felt expensive, and the pattern appeared somehow exotic. A beautiful metallic pin set with dark jewels of an unusual cut held the folded packed together. Cradling the treasure in both hands now, Estrella shifted the weight of her bag over her scapula, locking the strap around the protruding bone. She nudged the car door open with her knee, deposited her bag onto the passenger seat. Sat down and admired the mystery of the package on her lap. Caressed the damp fabric gently, enjoying the anticipation of the unfolding.
Estrella decided to keep driving, to prolong the mystery as well as to better examine the manner in which the object was wrapped in better light, at home. She opened her car door once again, stepped out, and examined her surroundings. Absolutely no one, nothing in 360 degree view. Quiet broken only by randomly chanting insects and dripping branches. She tucked herself back into the driver seat, slipped the key into the Datsun’s familiar ignition. The engine roared back to life, erasing the eerie quiet. Estrella felt something shift inside of her abdomen. Her body accustomed to anxiety somehow had made room for a new emotion for which she did not yet have descriptive words.
As she drove, words overheard from a conversation at work rose up to the surface of Estrella’s mind. Assembly line work was mindless in most ways, but the work required attentiveness. The dough was poured into cardboard cans, sealed, stamped, inspected for flaws. The yeasty aroma filled her lungs with damp, cave-like air. Co-workers often gossiped, talked about the mundane – anxieties about illness, relationships, criticisms of co-workers masking insecurities, low self-esteem. A supervisor was overhead. Magnification of a common fear: we may be out of work, temporary maybe longer. ‘Delverris discovered a wide crack in the foundation of the factory floor. They are calling in a team to examine the viability of the concrete. We may need to move some of the machines.’
Estrella had noticed that when people are fearful, their bodies expand with the extra information like the pressure packed pizza dough. The pressure is hard to contain. Makes the recipients seek release. Transfer that extra yeasty shadow that crawls inside the gut, taking grip, not letting go. Make somebody else carry it for a while. Even better, carry it away, far away. Estrella started observing her co-workers, wondering who would be the scape-goat. Making sure to avoid eye contact with the others, she applied herself to the repetitive work, keeping the focus away from her own self as potential harbor for the fear that was thickening the yeasty air.
Now sucking in the clear night air, Estrella’s lungs cleared her mind. The pizza dough factory was not her life, but she did not yet have other plans. In spite of her lack of formal education or any type of intention for her life, something was beginning to unfold inside of Estrella. Fate? Character? An acorn-daimon? The young woman knew nothing of such philosophical inquiries on the nature of being human. The significance of being human usually manifested in Estrella’s life in the form of wonder. Despite her 27 years, she remained childlike in her ability to sense magic and grace in the world. Cruelty and injustice observed, but not sufficient to disillusion her.
Always a quiet child, Estrella made good use of her five regular senses, and even better use of her invisible sixth. Prudent as a foster child, she shared only what was asked of her, inventing when necessary a story that would fit what her interrogators wished to hear. Her native genius lay in her intuitive comprehension of other people’s need to be right. A lot of peace and acceptance came to her through that clever path. Truth is, Estrella was an extremely honest girl. But humans, other humans cannot understand that every person is a vehicle and container for their own truth. Society is always fake. It holds everything together, because everyone agrees on the lie. Can only be your personal truth if you know how to say and go along with the group lie. Life insurance.
Estrella knew that she would not be the scape-goat. She was a Source. The special packet that fell out of the sky tonight contained a message. She was certain of it now. Her confidence grew as she drove, even as the downpour increased in intensity, causing her to hunch her narrow shoulders and squint her eyelids. She eased the car around curves, hugging the shoulder, spraying the shimmering greenery with silver.
The next morning was Tuesday morning. A yellow police caution tape stretched between the chain-link barrier at the entrance of the factory parking lot. A Caterpillar bull-dozer and a blue and orange Komatsu fork lift well-behaved, parked by a closed garage gate. No one around; no humans. Jarrod, warehouse supervisor, was late to work. He had overslept, well, he had slept as long as he needed to finish a dream. Visiting a place that looked like a cryogenic preservation center. Rows and rows of human bodies, preserved in cylindrical tubes, upright in fluorescent luminous freezer cases. A peaceful humming throughout the center, Jarrod had walked up and down the rows of twilight sleeping bodies, wringing his hands. He remembered that in the dream, he was the director of the center, and that at the right moment, he had to sing a particular song, in a particular key, in order to reawaken the bodies, bring the humans back to life. Outside the center, a huge cloud of ash covered the sky. A meteorite the size of a high-speed train had impacted the town, cratering the civilization, deafening with sonic boom. Shattering the glass, killing the people. Yet the beings that Jarrod supervised were spared. Sleeping through the disaster, they were not disturbed by the hurling cosmic body. They were not jarred by the boom. The glass freezers, deep under the ground, barely shifted with the shock. So strange, that only the “dead” survived the apocalyptic visitation. Only the dead, besides the Jarrod in the white coat, in the dream.
The lyrics to the song went: Tell me all your secrets, share with me your fears; You can trust me, you can trust me. My body is all yours. My spirit wakes with yours, woman to your man. Wake me up, wake me up, Share my life with yours. The tune was dream-like, moody blues, effervescent.
Jittering from the dream, Jarrod did not know what to make of the quiet, of the police tape. Where were the police officers? Where were his co-workers? The stillness of the scene was inhabitual and disturbing. He punched in the security code after unlocking the sliding doors to the main factory floor. In-took his breath, like a gasp. Gaping like a jagged mouth after a punch has landed there, the floor snaggle-snarled a welcome. A huge hole, twenty feet deep, gaped. Machines were in there. A sink-hole, Jarrod’s mind reasoned. He shifted himself away from the the crater, assessing the potential of the weight of his own body to enlarge the already impressive gap. The scent of lilacs wafted through his nostrils, like a memory of his grandmother’s back-yard twenty four years ago.
Jarrod reached for his hip, peeled a cellphone from a padded holster. Dialed his supervisor, Daniella Jacaranda. The call rolled into voicemail, robot voice directing him to leave a message after the required beep. Re-dialed, same result. Called the police – no answer. Jarrod, now unnerved, breathed calm back into his thought process. Climbed into his pickup, opened his lap-top, and pulled up the staff directory from the corporate web-site. Mechanically self-soothing, Jarrod’s fingers dialed the list, starting at the top: office managers, floor managers, shift wardens, line workers – one by one. All slipped into voicemail or a terminal bing. Jarrod shook his body, pinched his own arm – stereotypically needing to awaken from an atypical day that was beginning to frighten him. Then he remembered Estrella.
Estrella was a temp. Filling in for pregnant Molly Johansen at first, then for Molly Johansen, new mom reluctant to return to work. The only temp at the factory, it was easy to forget Estrella. Where did she live? Who would have her phone number? Jarrod decided to start the pickup, drive around town, look for signs of life. Streets were quiet, peaceful. No traffic. Traffic lights flashing yellow or red. Jarrod’s intestines tightened, rumbled, threatening to steal his dignity. Though no one would see it if it happened. The town appeared to be deserted.
On Endover Street, Jarrod turned left. Mechanically, he flicked his turn signal, remembering too late there was or appeared to be no one requiring fore-warning. Still, polite driving etiquette was a comfort, as all habits and rituals are in times of uncertainty or strife. Peered over either shoulder at the railroad tracks as the vehicle rumbled over the rails. Jarrod did a double take. Colorful bungalows, shabby but well-tended lined the street. On each porch, a wooden rocking chair carved with intricate designs enthroned a majestic dark-skinned woman. As Jarrod drove slowly up the street, his jaw slack, he uneasily gazed at the still, silent elderly women. They all met his gaze, nodding only very slightly in his direction, acknowledging his presence. No hostility in their eyes, great pride and self-respect in their bearing. The women were impressive. Jarrod felt something settle in his gut. The rotten, yeasty air accumulated since visiting the ruined factory floor erupted, making room in his body for something new, not yet experienced.
Jarrod decided suddenly that he needed to get out of his pick-up. He needed to walk, feel the sidewalk rise up and hit the soles of his boots. Quickly, he slid up to the rough-hewn wood curb, leaving the keys in the ignition, allowing the door to click softly into closure. Tall, wide-armed oaks reached across Endover, somehow nurturing. Renewal, thought Jarrod. It’s going to be ok. No one greeted him verbally, but Jarrod knew he was safe, that he was welcome in this place. Funny, he thought, I don’t remember this street, but it looks as if it has been here for a very long time. He turned right onto a side street, Einhorn Avenue.
Blinked. There was Estrella’s beat up Datsun. No mistaking it. Teal metallic finish, bumper sticker “Save the Unicorns”, cracked tail-light on passenger side. Heart skipping one and a half beats, Jarrod touched the car with his index finger, caressing the hood, verifying its physicality as much as his own. Lifting his head, he ran his hand through his tangled chesnut curls, the dry skin on the sides of his palm tugging and locking against the scales of his hair. Air exhaled whoosh from his surprised lungs. Jarrod faced the house matching Estrella’s car. Like every other bungalow in the neighborhood, this one had a covered porch, vaulted with stained glass panels hanging between basket ferns. Estrella’s house was covered with asphalt shingles, painted a faded aquamarine blue. As Jarrod approached the low stone wall and gate that surrounded the front of the property, he reached out to turn the chipped porcelain knob on the iron gate. Senses heightened, he noticed an effigy of the Greek goddess Daphne was painted onto the surface of the tiny latch. How did I know that?, he wondered. Jarrod knew nothing of Greek mythology, yet somehow the knowledge rose to the surface of his awareness as soon as his skin made contact with the china.
There was a damp, earthy odor emanating from the soil behind the gate, greeting Jarrod. He immediately understood when his body found itself on the other side of the forged iron portiere. Mushrooms, toadstools, fungi of all shapes and colors sprang from the ground in a dense carpet. Roots rippled between the spore-laden treasures, like veins on a muscular arm. Jarrod glimpsed the glint of a jewel-like beetle, iridescent, against the orange flesh of an orange peel fungus – Aleuria aurantia . Again, Jarrod had “knowing” about the fungus. It felt good and normal to have this knowing, and he embraced it. Walked up the granite free stone steps to the wooden porch, drawn towards the Lady.
Her bearing energetic for someone appearing so old, the woman’s posture was remarkable. Her rich skin-tone was cinnamon ebony, her eyes gleaming chocolate covered almonds. Focused and non-seeing at the same time. ‘Excuse me.’ No answer. The woman could not hear or see. She nodded at Jarrod. Gesturing towards the front door. Jarrod saw a door plate screwed to the shingles next to the screen door. Finely engraved on a copper panel, the image of a unicorn led by a nude woman to a clear stream. Jarrod reached out his index to press the doorbell, but before he could make contact, the wooden door shifted in its frame. Estrella?, he called. Estrella? Do you know what happened at the factory last night?
No answer. Then, ‘You can speak without words here.’ Estrella’s voice said that. Jarrod knew he was not dreaming, and he liked where he was. Drawn into this world like a sailor drawn to mermaids. Hoped no crashing on rocks, no fatal collisions from siren’s song… He slipped past the front door, allowed himself to be absorbed into the sweet darkness of the foyer. A faint floral aroma accompanied him. Lilacs?, he guessed. Estrella’s face smiled at Jarrod’s. She said nothing, but he knew she meant him to sit in the hand-carved slipper chair, covered with silver damask fabric. Seated in the chair, he scanned the room. Very feminine in some ways, but grounded, aged, solid – balanced. A fireplace contained a well-built fire, the marble mantle covered with a display of minerals, feathers, moss, and shells. Bookshelves filled with well-thumbed volumes, some paperbacks, some hardcover, some leather-bound gilt edged collector’s editions. Framed photographs of women from every ethnicity, tastefully framed in white, each of the frames a different style. Persian rugs, Native American carpets, African tapestries layered on the floors, the entire room exuded warmth and culture. Jarrod knew that he was in a very special place.
Estrella sat in the chair opposite Jarrod. Not dressed the way Jarrod vaguely remembered. No shredded jeans, no loose sweater or Doc Martens. This Estrella was elegant, and somehow older than the young woman he remembered. Wearing an off the shoulder shift, 1920’s chic, with flat sandals, her hair bobbed, Estrella gazed at Jarrod, her dark eyes knowing, sealing her knowledge of her own unfolding potential. She reached out her hand to Jarrod. His eyes met Estrella’s. He felt slightly, just very slightly, dizzy, as his fingers stretched into her slender palm.
Darkness carved a void into Jarrod’s skull, slithering like a velvet puppy paw. Spiraling downward, his nose permeated by the strong pungent odor of rotting mushrooms, mulch, and earthworm feces, Jarrod discovered his own version of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. A ferret grinned as his body fell past, snakes looping around his legs to cushion the chute. Giant purple arachnids wove silken webs, trampolining his thighs, caressing his skin. A film of light, shimmering colors, his heart burst into bloom, a Buddhist lotus, edible and welcoming. Suddenly, face after face smiled at him. All of the faces were female faces, and all were loving him. Some of the faces were scarred and bleeding, yet all smiled at him, forgiving, transgressions against their beings and bodies left behind all while reclaiming a new future. It was as if every girl or woman who had ever lived needed to show her love for Jarrod, and also needed to forgive him for not being there for her, for not being attracted to her beauty, for not knowing her when she was always there…from the beginning – for him. Sadness enveloped him as the faces disappeared, his body a ghostly film of gray. Scattered into thousands of pearls without the benefit of knotted silk, his body and bones dissipated into the tunnel, absorbed into the rock.
When Jarrod woke, his head ached, and he rubbed his eyes, sandy and dry. His alarm clock was pounding his awareness with groundless buzzing. Still dressed, but in his own bed. Jarrod looked outside; his pickup truck was parked in the white gravel driveway. A white tow truck drove by, and a group of kids waited on the corner for a school bus. I guess everything is ok, he thought. Get in the shower and get to work, check out the factory floor – make sure that sink hole has been repaired. Check list in his brain, he grabbed chinos, a blue work shirt, and grey jersey boxers, heading into his bathroom. Needles of hot water wrapped his naked body in a welcome rain, each drop containing a tiny hand that pinched his skin and awakened his cellular memory. Yes! Invigorated, Jarrod quickly dressed, grabbed toast and drank milk from the carton. Grabbed his keys, and jumped into his familiar red pickup.
At the pizza dough factory, no sign of the Caterpillar or forklift. No police tape. Parking lot full, but no beat up Datsun in sight. Jarrod walked into the main office, asked “Sink hole resolved?” “What sink hole?”, responded Daniella, moving the beige phone receiver away from her cheek. “Um, never mind,” mumbled Jarrod. “Going to check the floor.” The factory hummed along at its usual pace. “Everything in order?”, he verified with the head floor manager, Gerry DeLuca. “Yeah, status quo normal”. “Ok.” “Just checking in.”
Jarrod, puzzled, took the stairs to the second level, walked down the worn brown linoleum corridor to his office. As he fumbled for his keys, he saw on his office door an image in the wood veneer: a creature whose head was a church, spires reaching skyward, atop two legs, stooping, as if hands on knees. No eyes, a feminine mouth. Beautiful he thought. How many times have I looked at this door and I never once saw it. “Your heart is open now”. The thought flashed through his mind in a woman’s voice. Jarrod went inside the small, impersonal room. A grey metal sixties desk, cracked upholstered office chair repaired with duct tape, a squirrels of North America calendar from 1986, brown and cream marbled worn linoleum tiles on the floor…and on the desk, a manila inter-office envelope. Jarrod reached for the envelope, unwound the red string from the red paper disk connecting the flap to the body of the envelope. The faint aroma of lilacs and mushrooms wafted out of the packet. Jarrod reached inside, and pulled out a piece of silken fabric, crimson and white checkered, interwoven with iridescent threads so fine as to be almost invisible – into which an unusual pin set with strange dark metallic stones was attached. Jarrod turned over the fabric – no message. Nothing else inside the envelope.
Before lunch, Jarrod left his office, stopping into the reception area before picking up something to eat. “Will Estrella be here today?”, he queried. “Estrella, our temp?” Jenny replied, “No one named Estrella works here. We’ve never had a temp at this factory. Union rules don’t allow us to hire temps.”