It does not take long for the Vicodin to take effect. Alice notices this, calmly, but with a dulled sense of pleasant surprise. Usually the relief slides into her body, gently and automatically—as routine and thoughtless as the drive home from work. She steers instinctively, unthinking. And then she is home, on the couch, sitting in the quiet dark. It is seamless. There is no drive, only the calm. But not today. Today she feels the shift. She likes that it is noticeable this time. It fills her with a sense of unexpectedness—of possibility.
Her shoulders relax as she wraps a woven purple scarf around her neck. The stitches are large and sloppy—they will do little to protect against the icy Ohio January. The scarf has been woven by the wrinkled, arthritic hands of her grandmother, who sits in the living room and watches Bob Barker give away dishwashers and expensive lawnmowers. Before she leaves, Alice places a lunch tray next to her grandmother’s chair. The elderly woman’s eyes do not move from the television but she softens, almost imperceptibly, as the thin threads of her own handiwork brush against her neck when Alice leans over to kiss her goodbye.
Alice works in a long, rectangular building in downtown Elyria. It is a one story, horizontal mass of cement and grey stucco. It reminds her of a tipped-over hospital. A tall, sterile structure that decided to lay down, exhausted by its height.
Alice realized this one day, as she took her cigarette break early. Sitting on the hood of her 1981 Honda, she tilted her head to the side and squinted. She pulled her cigarette to her mouth and inhaled, blowing smoke into the chestnut bangs which hung low over her eyes. She nodded. Between the strands of hair and breath of smoke, it was clear. A fallen hospital. The weary caregiver, in need of sleep.
Inside the building, Alice works in Office Seven; the Telecommunications and Customer Service Center for Pure Protein Muscle Milk Inc (PPMI). What this means is that Alice spends Monday through Friday, nine to six (with a forty-five minute lunch break and a whenever possible cigarette break) answering calls from dissatisfied, muscular men and women who have chosen to call the number imprinted on the package of all PPMMI products which prompts, “Questions? Comments? Call us at 1-800-MUS-CLES.”
The people who call 1-800-MUS-CLES, Alice learned quickly, are usually angry. Occasionally she will get a call about an expired package (she will send a replacement), or a question about the dairy content (suitable for the lactose intolerant) and once she got a call from a teenager who sounded stoned and called to tell her that his protein shake was “like really fucking amazing.” Generally, however, the callers are irate customers who yell about body mass and insufficient muscle growth.
Alice is very good at calming these customers down. She sits quietly in her cubicle and picks at the skin around her nails while men holler about false advertising in her ears. Alice thinks about her cigarette break and how many chicken pot pies are left in the freezer and sometimes makes paperclip statues on her desk. Alice waits for the yelling to subside and then says, “Yes, I understand. Thank you for calling.” She then pushes her thin, pink forefinger down on the “End” button on the phone and waits for the next call.
As she hangs up on caller number fourteen (at fifteen she allows herself a cigarette break), Alice realizes that today is Thursday. Thursday is grocery day. It’s not that she minds shopping, exactly. Her grandmother’s needs are simple—turkey pot pies and Sarah Lee custard for dessert. In the three years Alice has been caring for her grandmother, Alice finds that her palate has transformed—her twenty-two year old appetite now echoes that of an eighty-seven year old woman. Well, except for dessert. Alice cannot stomach the milky, gelatinous custard that slides out of the plastic Sarah Lee mold. It plops onto a plate, resonating a disturbingly wet sound that reminds Alice of a dead toad falling from a tree. Alice replaces her dessert with a double gin and tonic, but that happens later, when the lights are lowered, after she has tucked the covers around her grandmother’s bony shoulders—delicate and sharp.
Outside, sitting on the hood of her car and gazing absentmindedly at the tired grey structure, Alice runs through a list in her head. She cannot remember how much is left of what. Alice shrugs to herself and lets a thin stream of smoke escape from her lips. Her grandmother has clipped coupons. Alice’s grandmother has always been meticulous about coupons. Something about the Depression, her mother would say, rolling her eyes dramatically. That was before she went to Florida to live in a mobile home community with “Belly Bob,” the trucker from Atlanta. Introduced as “Billy Bob,” one could not help but focus on the round, protruding flesh which escaped the bottom of his Hawaiian shirt. The first time Alice called him Belly Bob, her grandmother laughed so hard it started her in a coughing frenzy. Alice’s mother rolled her eyes and sighed with the drama of a frustrated teenager, “Really, Mom” she looked at Alice’s grandmother, “must you be so childish?” She continued, stalking out of the room. Alice’s grandmother lifted her thin shoulders and grinned, revealing small, beige teeth. “I must” she said, doubling over in a new fit of laughter. Alice smiled widely and poured her grandmother a glass of water.
Alice remembers how her grandmother looked at her, after taking a sip of water. She smiled softly and raised an eyebrow.
“Alright kiddo. I think we’re going to have a pretty okay time.”
And they had, Alice thought, rifling through her purse, double checking that she had, in fact, taken the coupons. Years had passed, sure. But they had a pretty okay time.
Alice pulls the coupons out of her purse. She stubs her Parliament out on the hood of her car, she takes a deep breath. Thursdays.
At 5:30, the Shop 4 Less is bustling with harried, post-work shoppers. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, Alice knows she is one of them—part of the post-work, pre-family monotony. Like the men in suits and the women in tweed skirts, Alice counts the items in her basket, hoping to make it through the express line.
Alice counts the items in her basket. Nine. She has coupons for eight of the items: four for Swanson pot pies and four for Sarah Lee caramel custards. The only item for which Alice does not have a coupon is the plastic handle of Gordon’s Dry Gin, which she has placed carefully in the small basket of her shopping cart. The woman in font of her has an almost identical cart—chicken pot pies and ice cream sandwiches. Only where Alice carries her plastic container of gin, there is a baby, drooling on a bib sporting elephants and ducks. The baby reaches out a chubby, round arm and a pyramid of bubble gum goes tumbling to the floor. Pink circles spill over Alice’s polished black shoes. The mother does not seem to notice, she is pulling items from the cart and piling them up against the register. For a moment Alice wonders if she is going to put the baby up there, too—line him up with the dish soap and instant rice.
Alice’s head snaps up. She has been making faces at the baby—well she has been looking at the baby, imagining the faces she would make if she wasn’t so wary of becoming the kind of person who makes faces at babies in grocery stores.
Alice looks over both shoulders, confused. The guy behind the register laughs and waves a hand at her. He has brown, shaggy hair, a sort of youthful awkwardness in his sloping posture and half smile.
“Oh shit,” Alice says after a moment, flustered. The mother with the baby glares at Alice as she places plastic bags in her cart. Alice rolls her eyes and steps forward, kicking aside the tiny gumballs that line the floor.
“Nick, Jesus, Nick Johnson, hi,” Alice says, stepping around her cart.
He grinned. “How ya doin’?”
It’s amazing she didn’t recognize him before, Alice thinks. He looks exactly the same as he did in high school. They used to smoke cigarettes together, Alice remembers. Fourth period, behind the bleachers. Alice is both proud and disturbed at how well she remembers this.
“Nick, hi.” Alice shakes her head, trying to think of something else to say. “How are you?”
Nick smiles and his shoulders lift carelessly under his green Shop 4 Less apron.
“I’m ok, how are you?” He says, as he slides her items across the red scanner, making each item bleep before he places them in a bag.
“Good, good,” Alice says. “How long have you worked here? I mean, I haven’t seen you here before. Have I?”
Nick laughs and slides the handle of gin across the counter.
“Just a week. Finished at State and came back here for awhile.” He holds up the handle and wiggles his eyebrows, “I guess I don’t need to ask you for your ID,” he says.
Alice forces a laugh and mutters something about her grandmother and a birthday party. Nick smiles and places the gin in a bag.
“So what about you?” He asks.
Alice shakes her head quickly. The express line is backing up and she can hear the people behind her start to mutter impatiently. Nick does not seem to notice or care.
“Oh you know,” Alice says. “Work.” She reaches into her pocket and hands Nick her credit card.
“Right,” Nick says, taking the card obediently. “That’s $35.89.”
Alice nods and searches through her purse to find a pen, although there is one sitting on the counter. Nick runs the card and Alice signs quickly. She smiles at him apologetically, “I really have to run. My grandmother’s birthday. You know.”
Nick’s green visor bobs. “Sure.”
It is not until she is sitting in her car, keys in the ignition that Alice remembers the coupons. She didn’t use the coupons. She wonders what it would have been like, handing Nick coupons for chicken pot pies that her grandmother had so neatly clipped from the newspaper. She wonders what she would think, if she had known in high school, as she smoked Camel Lights with Nick Johnson under the bleachers that she would run into him six years later, with a cart full of Sarah Lee custard and cheap gin. Alice does not think she would be very surprised—it doesn’t really feel so far away. This thought makes her hot and short of breath, so she rolls down the window and turns on the car, steering it quickly through the parking lot.
She hears her grandmother as she opens the front door and slips inside–cheeks red and chapped from the piercing Ohio wind.
“For the love of Christ! It’s 575 dollars!”
Alice stands in the hallway and her grandmother’s deep, rattling voice swells through the living room, pounding with irritation and condescension. Alice smiles, unwrapping the the purple scarf from around her neck.
What it would be like to care, she wonders. To have Sally X and her poor judgment about washing machines make a true impact on the day. Alice carries the grocery bags into the kitchen, leaving two pot pies and one Sarah Lee custard on the sink. She slides the gin into the freezer. The coupons stay in her purse. For next time. Alice sighs and tears off the Swanson packaging. Grabbing a fork, Alice stabs the plastic pie cover too hard, thick chicken vegetable juice spills out the top and onto the counter. She puts the two dinners in the microwave and, licking the cold sauce off of her fingers, goes to her grandmother.
“I could have won that washing machine.” Alice’s grandmother seems to grow when she speaks, as though the harsh opinionated voice penetrates throughout her body, giving her a youthful swell of strength. Standing behind her, Alice smiles.
“Oh yeah?” Alice asks.
Alice’s grandmother looks at her granddaughter. “That woman was an idiot. Who the Christ spends $1200 on a washing machine?” She shakes her head and closes her eyes, leaning back against the chair. “Give me twenty minutes on that show and I’ll have this whole house redone.”
Alice nods. “Dinner in fifteen?”
She groans, pulling herself up from the chair.
“Sure. I just have to run to the john.” On her way out the door, her grandmother yells, “Did you have a good day, dear?”
The microwave beeps.
Alice sits on the couch with the lights off. She switches on the T.V, turning down the volume—an unnecessary gesture given that her grandmother, asleep upstairs, is partially deaf in both ears.
Taking a sip of the glass in her hand, Alice flips the channel and waits for the highly anticipated fusion of Vicodin and gin to converge in her brain.
Technically, the pills belong to her grandmother, although Alice doesn’t feel guilty for taking them.
“They make me all wonky and fuzzy,” her grandmother had complained. “I’m not going to spend my last months on this earth in some goddamn stupor.”
Alice feels very comfortable being both wonky and fuzzy; as the chalky residue of a pill slides down her throat, she thinks—everybody wins.
Alice watches infomercials. There is something fascinating about them—the women with orange skin and iridescent teeth. The way they can sell anything—juicers, rock-polishers, nose hair trimmers and rejuvenating foot cream. They all have these smiles and when people call in; the women answer questions and really seem to believe what they are saying.
That, Alice thinks, that is how I should be. She wonders what would happen if she had orange skin and non-smokers teeth. Would she answer the phone at PPMMI and tell the caller, her voice earnest and understanding, that if they would only be patient, the Pro-Choco-Vita Shake really does work miracles—you should hear the calls they get. Just a few more shakes, she would say and maybe giggle flirtatiously, just a few more and WOWZA, watch those muscles appear!
A lazy smile appears on Alice’s face and she laughs. The Vicodin. She wonders what she would look like with orange skin and laughs again, lighting a cigarette. The clock reads 11:45. Her thin fingers lift the cigarette to her lips. The gin rests patiently on the table in front of her. The Home Shopping Network runs 24 hours. Alice lets her head rest against a needlepoint pillow. The women on T.V. have sold all of the juicers. They have moved on to rock-polishers. The night is just beginning.
“You’re late,” hisses Cheryl, from the cubicle next to Alice’s. Alice nods.
Cheryl has been with PPMMI for six years, as she proudly announces to any newcomer in the office. She is also a dedicated supporter of PPMMI products, most of which she consumes at her desk throughout the workday. Although she weighs at least twice the amount Alice does, Cheryl does a far better job of convincing callers of the effectiveness of PPMMI products.
Cheryl peers her head around the grey divider. “This is not a good day to be late,” Cheryl says, her penciled eyebrows leaping to the base of her hairline. “Tom Waters is coming into the office today.”
Alice takes a sip of coffee. “Who?” She asks, wishing Cheryl’s voice wasn’t quite so sharp.
Cheryl shakes her head, exasperated. “Tom Waters. The Midwest Chairman slash partial owner of Pure Protein Muscle Milk Incorporated!”
Cheryl has a habit of verbalizing punctuation in her sentences. Everything is slash, quote or, Alice’s favorite, double exclamation point.
“Oh,” Alice nods. “Right.” She looks at her watch. “So is he here now?”
“No,” Cheryl hisses, annoyed. “But he is coming today.” Cheryl’s head disappears into her cubicle.
Cheryl’s phone rings. “Pure Protein Muscle Milk Incorporated,” she chirps, “How can I assist you today?”
Tom Waters arrives after caller thirteen—two calls away from Alice’s cigarette break. He strolls through the office, weaving in and out of cubicles, nodding approvingly. Alice stares at her computer screen and listens to him say things like, “hey there” and “working hard or hardly working?” and then laughing boisterously. Next door, Cheryl has begun spritzing something that smells like licorice and banana.
Alice thinks about the cigarettes in her purse and wonders if she can slip out unnoticed. She reaches for her purse and Cheryl stands up.
“Mr. Waters,” she calls, waving a hand in the air.
Alice falls back in her seat.
Tom Waters appears; Cheryl reaches out and shakes his hand.
“Cheryl Crane, we’ve met before, at the company picnic four years ago. Not that I expect you to remember me, that was only my second year with PPMMI—now I’ve been here six of course, but what am I saying? Anyway it is a pleasure seeing you again.” She smiles and laughs nervously, still clutching his hand.
“Cheryl, of course, of course,” Tom says. He is shorter than Alice expected, maybe in his mid-forties but she is bad with that kind of thing. He reminds her a little of a pit bull, one of those dogs that are small and look strong and scary but are maybe just fat and ugly.
“And who do we have here,” he asks detaching himself from Cheryl’s hand. He steps into Alice’s cubicle.
“That’s Alice,” says Cheryl, following him in. “She’s been with the company for just a year. But she’s got me right next door, so she’s been learning quickly, you bet she has.”
Alice stands up and waves awkwardly, thinking that Cheryl’s handshake was probably good enough for the both of them.
“Alice,” Tom says and nods encouragingly. “Great, yeah that’s great.”
“I guess my parents thought so.”
Tom’s thick shoulders bounce as he lets out a hearty chuckle.
“She’s witty, this one,” Tom says to the manager, who has walked up behind him.
The manager bobs his head enthusiastically, “Oh yes, we just love her.” He puts his hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
Tom shakes his head, keeping his eyes on Alice.
“So tell me, Al, what’s your favorite PPMMI product? What is your favorite part of the company? I like to stay in touch with the workers, you know. Get as much feedback as possible. I like to maintain a friendly atmosphere, you know. Having a friendly work environment is one part of having a healthy lifestyle—and that’s what we’re after, right?”
Alice stares at him for a moment, desperately wanting to be outside with her pack of Parliaments. She has never tasted anything with the acronym PPMMI on the label.
Cheryl’s eyes appear over the top of the divider. They peer accusingly at Alice, jealous of Alice’s extended conversation with, it seems, the man who is Cheryl’s version of the Pope.
Infomercials, Alice thinks. Orange skin.
Alice smiles brightly, “well in answer to your first question,” she says in a voice that is many octaves above her own, “it’s a toughie, but I’d have to say the Super-Slim-Protein-Packed-Magic-Muscle Shake.” Alice is only partially sure that such a product exists, but Tom’s head bobs excitedly. Over the divider, Cheryl’s eyes narrow.
“The best part of my job, however,” Alice says, grinning wide, pretending her teeth are the eerie white of the orange skinned ladies. “Would have to be knowing, as I go home everyday, I’ve improved someone’s quality of life.” Alice feels like she’s on the question and answer portion of the Miss America pageant. It’s not bad really.
“I can sleep every night, knowing that someone, somewhere in the world is living their life just a little bit better with every PPMMI product they buy.” Alice takes a deep breath and closes her eyes dramatically. “It’s, well it’s moving, really.”
Cheryl has disappeared, presumably fainting from shock. Tom nods his head slowly, thoughtfully.
“Wow,” he says. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. It is so reassuring to know that there are employees who really understand the mission of this company. Well done. Listen,” he leans forward, “I have to make the rounds, but I’ll be back.”
Alice purses her lips to keep from laughing and nods. Once he disappears, Alice grabs the cigarettes from her purse and slips out the back exit.
Certain that Tom Waters will make good on his “I’ll be back,” promise, Alice lingers in the parking lot longer than usual, sitting behind a delivery truck. Taking a deep drag on her cigarette, Alive marvels at how easy that was. Hell, she could be one fake tan away from a full-time gig on the home shopping network. Helping people live healthier, more productive lives through electric hair removal systems and a re-sealable food storage kits.
Finishing her second cigarette, Alice stands up. She crushes the butt of the Parliament under her toe, and walks back inside.
“Quite a long break we took, now didn’t we?” Cheryl says from her side of the divider.
Ignoring her, Alice sits down. On her desk there is a business card. Tom Waters, CEO of Pure Protein Muscle Milk Inc; Midwest Division. Under his work phone, a cell phone number has been written along with a note that reads “Thanks for the enlightening discussion. Perhaps we can further it over dinner? I look forward to your call.” The note was signed, Tom Waters, CEO; PPMMI; Midwest. Alice takes a pen and writes TWCEOPPMMIM in parenthesis before sliding the card off the desk and into the trash.
There is a brown UPS box on Alice’s porch when she gets home. Confused, she picks it up and looks at the return address. She laughs. She had forgotten. Unlocking the door, she steps into the house, setting down the package in the hall.
“You have a message!” Alice’s grandmother calls, over the sound of a perky weatherman.
Alice stops, hoping that TWCEOPPMMIM hasn’t found a way to get her home number. Taking off her scarf and placing it on the coat rack, Alice walks through the living room to the answering machine. Pushing play, she reaches a hand into her purse, wondering how many cigarettes she has left.
“Alice hi.” A deep voice comes across the speaker, “I hope this is the right number. It’s Nick, you know from Shop 4 Less, well also Lincoln High.” He laughs. “Anyway, me and some buddies from LH are getting together. Ross and Eddie, you remember those kids? Anyway, we’re going to The Matchbox, it’s this little bar on 41st if you want to come. See you there, maybe. Oh, and sorry to whoever if this is the wrong Hannigan household.”
“Well?” Alice’s grandmother calls from the living room. “Who the hell was that? You got some young stud you’ve been keeping from me?”
Alice walks into the kitchen and pulls out two pot pies and one Sarah Lee custard.
“Very funny,” Alice says. “It was just someone from work. About some promotional thing.”
“Damn,” the grandmother hollers from the living room, “I was hoping you had a Romeo—throw a little spice in our lives.”
Alice places the pies in the microwave. “Nope,” she says. “Just us chickens.”
After her grandmother has gone to bed, Alice moves the package from the hallway into the living room. She sets it on the floor, in front of the T.V. Without opening the box, Alice walks into the hallway and out the front door. Tiny snowflakes land on Alice’s arm, slowly dampening her thin blouse. Stepping off the porch, Alice kneels down in the grass. Ice crystals cling to the blades, not quite ready to thaw. Alice spreads her fingers wide and runs them through the frigid stalks, ignoring the throbbing cold in her fingertips. She claws at the ground gently, with a quiet determination. Once she has enough, Alice stands up and walks inside, hands balled at her sides.
She stands above the living room table and opens her hands. Pebbles clatter against the glass bouncing and spinning before settling. In the kitchen, Alice makes a gin and tonic; the glass is warm against her still frozen hands. Moving into the living room, Alice sets her drink on the table and sits down in front of the cardboard box. She picks up a pair of scissors and runs a blade slowly across the top. She reaches in and pulls out the round, silver machine. She plugs the machine into the wall. Slowly, Alice reaches across the table and scoops up the slick, muddy pebbles. One by one, she drops them into the top of the machine, listening as they click against the plastic inside. Once the table is empty, Alice closes the lid and pushes the button. The rock polisher whirs to life. Alice raises the drink to her lips and waits for the pebbles to come out the bottom—clean, bright and very different from before.