Chris Dungey - "Liberty"

For the first few weeks, he knew he must look pretty silly--like a drum-major, minus the exaggerated prancing. Now Trevor Shields is becoming more skilled with the sign, the twirls and figure-8s. But he's also noticing what seems to be irritation on the faces of motorists when they realize that he's a guy. A heavy-set guy, at that. But, so, they're seeing him, at least. They aren't all on their cell-phones or mesmerized by the brake-lights ahead of them. He waves the pointer faster. He's begun to screen the bottom of his face with it when he takes a rest. Maybe it's time to lose the beard. And the ironic eye-glasses. He likes himself better in contacts, anyway. Figure out a way to afford them. It may be time for any number of changes.

A gust of probing February wind adds to the traffic turbulence, lifting the robe. His plastic Statue of Liberty laurels, also the color of corroding copper, can actually trap snow on the crown of his woolen slouch beanie. Whatever other alterations may be required, he's not losing his top-knot.

The beard and stoner persona served him well in high-school, up to and including the Senior Class Parade through downtown Lapeer last June--the shambling file of kids in shades to hide their red eyes, bathing suits under the gowns. Parents brought flowers out as the grads passed. His mother, just out of detox again, a few aunts and uncles, sat on bag chairs by the curb. Someone had worked on her hair. So what if he was a little buzzed? What was she going to say? He'd been on his own the past two years, for all intents and purposes. One of the aunts had charge of Ma's SSI check to make sure the rent got paid. She weaved cautiously out, fumbling and nearly dropping the rose as she handed it to him.

One of the aunts must have reminded her of the tradition, maybe even on the ride home from her latest month at Otter Lake Substance Dependency Retreat. No, she didn't have much wisdom to offer. Her phone was a no-frills burner so that aunts took whatever pictures there were. She went back to the curb, already at least a minute without a cigarette. He had his shit together just enough to giggle thank-you, Ma.

Sign between his knees, Trevor peels back his billowing sleeve for a look at his watch. His cell-phone is buried too deep. He's supposed to have ten minutes every two hours for a piss break and warm-up. Eight minutes in the waiting area of Huddled Masses Tax Service. It takes a minute each way to walk to the back of the strip mall off Lapeer's main drag.

Five minutes left to wait; a few more glares from the motorists; eat a little more road grit. His bladder is beginning to nag. He's not certain why Huddled Masses doesn't use electronic media like everyone else, but he suspects they're saving huge amounts on advertising. The costumes and signs seem to do the job, though. The business creates minimum wage employment for a handful of seasonal preparers plus himself, Savannah Birkenhauer, and some homeless woman, Louise. Huddled Masses is aimed at a demographic niche well below H&R or Tax Slayers. People like his mother, flopping their grocery sacks of SSI statements and Section 8 rent receipts on the battered desks--when they bother to file at all. Should have called the business wretched refuse tax preparers, Trevor thinks. Same costume theme.

When his shift is over, Trevor will drive Ma's old car to classes at Lapeer Community college while Savannah and Louise juggle the rest of the day. He doesn't know when Savannah has her classes but they must be really early or late. They've worked it out for her to watch Louise's kids after school until the Refuge Shelter admits them in the evening. Is that what you'd call a win-win? People wear out that expression and Trevor thinks it doesn't always apply. But if it's a few extra bucks for Savannah and ol' Louise comes out ahead? Would that be a symbiotic relationship? Anyway, his afternoons are free for nine credit hours--the best part of the job except that this shift is so fucking cold. Long-johns, Under Armour, two ratty Goodwill sweaters and a hoodie under the robe are not enough. And, by the time it warms up in Michigan, he'll be shuffling through the job flyers again on the Financial Aid bulletin board.

When he has wiped condensation from the cold lenses of his specs, he can see that the office isn't swamped yet--just two early-birds on folding chairs cozied up with two preparers, their forms and skimpy documentation already spread around the keyboards. The boss and franchise holder, Darryl, isn't in yet, at this hour. Darryl's personal accumulation of tattered magazines from the past year is still piled, undisturbed, on the card-table where the coffee-maker is perched. Trevor nods at one of the temps, an adjunct or maybe only a TA he recognizes from the Lapeer CC Business Department. The guy avoids eye contact. Fine.

When he's finished in the single, unisex john, he must resist another refill from the constantly replenished coffee pot meant for customers. Besides the public hostility toward facial hair on Lady Liberty, this desire for copious morning caffeine is a daily quandary of the job. Eye-opener versus discomfort. The spectacle he performs for the business is one thing; bobbing around trying not to wet himself is quite another.

Back out on Main Street, the morning rush has slowed. He rocks the arrow over his head with some boogie-woogie swagger; dances a hula behind the thing. He rolls it behind his neck managing not to snag it on the headgear, pops it into the air off his flapping bicep, makes a one-handed grab. On the next try, he batons the thing too high and bobbles the recovery. A critic just has to honk, the loud horn trailing away as Trevor brushes off some slush.

Before it's time to break again, Savannah Birkenhauer's car turns into the strip mall entrance. What the…? Has time warped somehow? He knows he has four more hours.

She pulls up, the muffler of her beater Sunbird farting steadily from its coat-hanger sling.

"Hey! You want a coffee?" Her breath plumes out the window rolled down half-way. From custom speakers, changelings worth more than all her bald tires, country music fiddles past her ski cap and fringe of dishwater blond hair.

"I better not," Trevor shouts back. "Really going through me now."

The motor threatens to die but she gives it more gas. "Any tributes?"

This is their code for objects hurled from passing vehicles like panties at a rock star. Except that the Huddled Masses barkers are on the receiving end of apple cores, dregs of McDonalds soft drinks, and smoldering tobacco products.

"Nope. Pretty sane today. They're wore out from the weekend."

"Give any honkers the finger?" Savannah calls.

"Nah. Not yet. Why are you even awake?"

Savannah shrugs. "My poly-sci was cancelled." She looks down and the music goes mute. She leans back into the open window. "Say, I needed to ask you what you're doing later? Feel like working supper hour?"

Trevor shivers. Mid-terms aren't far off and he has yet to attend his sociology study group. "Uh, not really. Why? What's up?"

Savannah eases off the accelerator and the car idles better. "Well, Social Services found Louise an apartment. She wants to move her junk out of storage and do some cleaning so she can get in there tonight. I said I'd help after my shift but that leaves drive-time open. Daryl won't give a shit as long as it's covered."

Trevor doesn't think Savannah is laying a guilt trip on him. She doesn't know him well enough. If it was any other situation, he could probably decline, come up with some improv excuse in a heartbeat. But he's seen Louise--same haggard, junkie thinness as Ma, only bouncy and upbeat, not interred on the couch with all the drapes pulled. The three kids he can only imagine. One or more of the host churches that make up Lapeer Refuge have probably got their hook into them but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe Ma needs to be homeless for awhile. How is he supposed to say no? It is four extra hours and he'd like to have his own place by summer.

 

After American History 101, Colonies to Constitution, Trevor drives back into town. The study group is meeting at Tim Horton. There are three other soc students present out of the dozen assigned to the group. The coffee shop has put a couple of the little tables together for them up next to the cold plate glass. He sits down with a view of Savannah marching back and forth just up the block.

There are three women, including a 50ish housewife-looking…well, he shouldn't assume that, should he? When has he ever been around a housewife before and almost no one fits that job description anymore, the class has learned, apropos of what?…Oh, right; family structures. There are also two not unattractive freshmen he doesn't remember seeing at Lapeer High. In fact, the taller one in very tall, calf-friendly leather boots is wearing an Imlay City Spartan hoodie.

Trevor splurges on an apple fritter to make sure he's getting enough body-building carbs and, absolutely, more coffee. Of course, they're reviewing that most basic building block of society, the family. In consideration of this, and before it's his turn to offer notes, it occurs to him to get Ma something--a coffee, at least. She likes the heavily flavored concoctions of no less than four defining ingredients. If he brings her a nutty donut, though, she'll leave a trail of crumbs everywhere in the apartment, pinching off tiny bites well into the night. He'll find its oily bag next to the last empty half-pint or cluster of shooters.

When it's his turn to contribute, he is taken aback. He notices the others rather frantically writing. Yikes. If he has the best notes, it doesn't bode well for any of their midterm prospects. The Imlay City chick asks him to repeat passages. Why is that the warmest his face has felt all day? When they've gone over everything, Trevor orders a double hazelnut mocha cappuccino and an everything bagel. Oh yeah. He adds skinny just in time. These don't tear so easily and with the cream-cheese already spread, maybe Ma will have to just take bigger bites. When he's ready to return to the apartment, her car starts for a record fifth straight time.

He parks over an ancient coolant stain in her spot beneath the carport awning. The ground floor is dark as a crypt, just the way he left it at 6 a.m. The coffee-maker is silent and cold to the touch. There is a scent of garbage upon entering that he's noticed before and will finally have to do something about. The sink is nearly full, a week's worth of his own dirty dishes. Please let there be spoons left, at least. Ah, there are two. He can have some soup then make a pot of the cheap Big Lots coffee before going back to work. Maybe wash some silverware before his nap. First, though, he wants to take a look at that grooming project he thought about earlier.

He sighs with resolve and enters the downstairs half-bath. Leaning close, he winces in the mirror, even with two of the clear, decorator bulbs burned out. Wow. How has it come to this? OK, his hair looks fine with enough product slicking it back into the bun. But no amount of shaping is going to make the beard cool again, if it ever was, or hide the extra chin he's developing under it. The motoring public has every right to…

He tugs out the top drawer of the vanity. There should be some very sharp little eye-brow scissors that he used to trim with buried in there somewhere. And, hopefully, a decent shaver. Or, maybe a few of Ma's old ones would be sufficient to the task. Does he even want to think about whether she still bothers using them? He finds the little shears, not quite breaking the skin of his palm.

"Hello."

"Geez-us!" Trevor bobbles the scissors, lets them fall. His mother has materialized in the doorway behind him while he was groping around among the old toothbrushes and squeezed out tubes of moisturizer.

"Sorry. You're sure jumpy." Brenda Shields holds a grubby fleece bathrobe closed at the neck.

"Too much coffee, not enough sleep." Trevor has salvaged three shavers--two pink ones and a man's. But whose? He can't remember ever buying four-blade disposables but it's been awhile. He turns back to the mirror, tilting his head. The nostrils will need some attention, too, when he's done. If he gets that far. "I brought you a fancy coffee," he tells his mother. "And a bagel with cream cheese. While they're both warm, OK?"

Brenda pauses for a phlegmy coughing jag.

"Ma! Christ's sake, can you hear that?"

"Thank you, Trev. I don't know. My stomach's kinda jumpy."

He can smell her fruity, gin perspiration, or maybe it's vodka, and the smoky robe. "Try to eat the damn bagel, Ma."

"OK, OK, I'll try some of it," she whispers. "I got a notice, too. From the apartments. Could you read it over for me? I don't understand all that stuff."

"What are they doing now? It's probably just another inspection." Trevor is usually in favor of the Section 8 regulations that keep Ma on her toes. Before her manic depression became mostly depression she used to vacuum and dust something every day, or in the middle of the night. Now, hardly ever, unless threatened by those inspections.. He's tried to keep the place decent. But with the job? And school? It's kept him from becoming the parent like AA warned him at the two meetings he once took her to.

"No. It's something about how old you are and being out of school. They wanta move me into a one-bedroom."

When Brenda turns back to the kitchen, Trevor sees the letter hanging in her hand. He places the little scissors on the vanity. It has taken Crimson Oaks Apartments, LLC more than seven months to realize his age and status from their records. "OK, well…I'll bet there's some kind of exemption for my college hours. Let's just not go into a panic OK? Or a funk. I'll check that out in a few."

"Yeah, I know. It goes by your credits or something. You could always just sleep on the couch, anyways. They don't know."

If you'd ever get up off it, Trevor thinks. He follows her into the kitchen where she slurps from the Tim Horton cup. She unwraps the bagel and stares at it, a small mountain to climb, nestled in the crinkled paper.

"You know, if I do have to clear out, you're gonna need to get your shit together."

Now Brenda Shields's face squinches up for a moment of silent weeping over the full sink.

"Awww, c'mon. Geez…It wouldn't be very far 'cause of school. But you've gotta pull up, just in case."

She shudders and, just like that, it's over. She blots her eyes with the bathrobe sleeve.

"Yeah. Yes." She lifts the top half of the bagel and studies the cream cheese. "Need to clean up this wreck or I'll lose my deposit."

"That'd be a good start." Trevor dumps the week-old filter and grounds from the coffee maker. "Here we go." Oh please let there be filters in the cupboard. "And we don't know yet. Let me see how many hours Crimson Oaks expects me to carry."

"Yup, OK," Brenda sniffs. She takes her first, tentative nibble at the edge of the bagel. "They have to give me time, right?"

All of the components for a fresh pot are, thankfully, present. When the water has been drawn and poured, the first trickle spilling into the dingy carafe, Trevor returns to the bathroom. Behind him he hears the sift and tumble of silverware being gathered from one sink to another, the whine of hot water. Another rescue has been effected, his mother like a sodden and shivering skater, lassoed back onto thin ice. What he really wants to hear next is that vacuum cleaner.

He holds the first lock of chin hairs between thumb and forefinger, slides the two short blades in, down near skin level. He lifts the whiskers straight out, pulling toward the mirror. Whups, hold up a sec.

There is a trash basket next to the commode. It's nearly full but hair should fit and the last thing Trevor wants to deal with is a clogged drain. He arranges the bin in the sink and lines up the first snip again. He closes his eyes and squeezes the rings together. His fingers come loose with a pinch of hair and then he looks. He takes another deep helping right away. Sewing scissors would take bigger clumps but God knows what's become of the sewing basket. He pauses. He could still quit, change his mind, maybe rock some of those old mutton-chop sideburns or something. Nope. A little pile has started on top of the wads of tissue. Snip. Cover those up before he catches a closer look. Snip. Well, Ma probably feels the same way about his disgusting stuff.

There is rinse water running in the kitchen. He hears the bagel being folded back into the waxy paper and wonders how much she ate. He's had hope before. Maybe he should go, regardless of what Crimson Oaks wants. Get to feel some different kind of hope instead of the usual delusion. With the next clip, he takes a full swatch out of the mustache.

Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker and substitute teacher living in Lapeer, MI. He rides mountain bike every day, prepares to feed two wood-stoves all summer, sings in a Presbyterian choir, camps at sports-car races, follows several minor league soccer teams in Michigan, and spends too much time in Starbucks. He has seen more than 55 stories and 140 poems find publication. So far this year, his fiction has appeared in Icarus Down, Heart and Mind Zine, Eskimo Pie, and Aethlon: A Journal of Sports Literature. More work is forthcoming in Noctua, Amaranth Review, and Ragazine.