Vignettes from the Alley - Mila Beliso

I. A Door Closes




Closed. This is what Maryanne mouthed against double-doors lined in steel, her lips nearly kissing the bulletproof fiberglass. She held the doors in place by lifting their handles, using the weight of her body to test whether every mechanism had been properly secured. She typed a code. 1982, 1982. The electronic pad flashed a neon red and so she loosened her grip on the handles and let the doors click into place.


“I said, we’re closed. It’s Thursday!”


These people, she thought, Beverly Hills. She took a can of Perrier from the mini-fridge under the reception desk before making her final exit through the creaky, back corridor. The two mirroring cameras that were angled above the backdoor, craned their necks to follow her. Perrier never tasted decent after a few minutes of opening one. Her chapstick, Paradise Cocktail from the display case next to the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny dish at the liquor store, had fully absorbed into her lips. Her mouth was dry, and bubbles didn’t help. She watched as a beetle scampered across a scrape of loose gravel. Its green-black shape glimmered just enough to make it visible in the stagnant alley fog. She turned a corner.


Her car, a badly dented Ford Fiesta, was parked near Robertson Blvd. The tires were nestled in a pile of loose, wet cherry blossoms. Every time she looked at it, in the morning before a shift or at night at closing, she remembered the letter she had received several months prior. Fiestas had been recalled indefinitely, which angered her each time she was forced to transfer the $200 monthly payment out of her account.


An elderly Hasidic Jewish couple pretended not to see Maryanne as they crossed the street diagonally. They jogged ahead of her in sync - it wasn’t malicious, they just preferred not to see her. Maryanne took a final inhale and dropped her cigarette butt into a puddle of oil that had leaked from her car. She caught her own reflection in its shine, and a cracked mirror-image of the crescent moon above her.


The first thing she did when getting into her driver’s seat, like any woman, was to pull down the mirror in front of her and look at the space beneath her eyes. Her mother had told her to treat the under eyes like tissue paper. Fold yourself neatly. Stop crumbling all the time.


It was then that her phone rang, the familiar photo of a friend made Maryanne forget the Hasidic Jewish couple and the puddle of fluid and the space beneath her eyes.


At first, there was a pause between them so long that Maryanne thought the call had been dropped. But she heard something like consistent breathing on the other end.


“I told her about the cancer, and I accept.”


“You accept?”


“I accept that she’s a disorder.”


“Well, you had to know.”


“I really did.”


“You did, and now you know.”


“I know.”


A desperate laughter spilled from the receiver like the sudden slam of loose change against a countertop. There was a sniffle and an eventual sigh. Maryanne’s stare remained fixed on a crack in her windshield. Almost undetectable, but she could see it.


“It’s a late night for you, isn’t it?”


“Yeah, well, I guess it is,” Maryanne replied.


“I thought you were going to tell Jim you can’t stay past midnight on the weekdays. When are you going to see Ruby if he keeps working you like this?”


“I tried. Fuck-up-Frank is giving me a hard time. He told the mediator that I’m not all there. That I can’t remember things. Her appointments. When she gets off school, things like that. He said I had her in the wrong kind of car seat.”


Maryanne looked at the backseat as if there were a smiling baby. She checked to make sure she hadn’t forgotten her check, that it was still at the bottom of her backpack. It was. She fingered a pack of cigarettes; pulled out a tiny bag of coke from underneath a layer of cellophane.


“Listen, I gotta go,” she said.


“Okay, I’ll call you next week.”


“Okay.”


It was dark enough; she railed a line.


Republicans are always mad about something, she thought, switching through the AM radio channels, sniffing deeply. A lively host talked about parents who don’t vaccinate their kids, who have drum circles in their driveways, who live out in the boonies. Attachment parenting. She listened and returned texts between drags, more carefully this time. She thought about her dented headlight and hoped there wouldn’t be any more electrical issues because those were the hardest to diagnose.


She made sure to hope and not pray. The act of praying, thought Maryanne, could inadvertently reveal her location.


If she could help it, she did not want God knowing where she was.




II. Another Opens, In Looping Water




In the parking lot of the Palms Vista Money Mart, Maryanne waved eagerly at an employee named Esme.


She swung her backpack over the side of her body, which still ached from the collarbone up. Esme sat gingerly behind a long, red counter, and responded with the widening of her eyes and the lifting of her eyebrows. Maryanne jogged a little, only to show her excitement, and pulled the door handle open. Bells clanked against each other when her foot crossed the welcome mat. She shivered inside her khaki pants and collared shirt, holding each of her forearms as if she wanted to broadcast the sensation.


The veins in her wrists, translucent like salmon bones, were exposed under the green lights of the Money Mart sign. A construction worker shot up from his plastic chair, as if programmed to be chivalrous.


“No coat?”


“Afraid not,” Maryanne smiled.


Maryanne always wondered what it would be like to make love with whomever was in front of her, especially if the man in question seemed lowly. She imagined he was gentle, a little embarrassed when he walked to the bathroom naked, buttocks fully exposed for the first time after the deed. Strong knees and damp eyes. A comb-over underneath his hardhat. Something unexpected like that.


Two caterpillar-green, plastic plants sat inside mismatched clay plots. The carpet was thin and navy blue, with discarded gum plastered throughout its bristles. There was an ashtray shaped like a surfboard on a transparent coffee table with no trace of ash in it. Televisions were placed at each corner of the room. Maryanne silently noted that no one really smoked inside anymore.


The water inside the television screensaver moved in repeated patterns, and a woman who wore a fruit hat was sitting on the hood of an old El Camino, winking. It occurred to Maryanne that the woman and her El Camino were parked right on the beach. She wondered what had led her to drive so close to the ocean and whether she felt trapped in the endless looping of digital water.


Esme, bent over a filing cabinet, looked toward Maryanne.


“I thought you were going to tell Jimmy you can’t work late anymore. You got a kid to take care of. He oughta understand.”


Maryanne did not respond, and instead bit into a Hershey’s Kiss.


“Well, he oughta listen to you.”


“He says his business is his baby, that he knew a girl just like me who robbed him.”


“Now, that’s interesting.”


“And get this...that I remind him of a tweaker.”


“That’s a joke. He knows he can’t trust anyone else with all of that. Who else remembers all those security codes? I’m telling you, if you give him an ultimatum...”


“It’s bad enough Fuck-Up-Frank’s lawyer called the other day asking about how much he pays me. You know Jimmy blamed me for that? It’s standard practice in any divorce.”


“Like Jimmy’s ever been married.”


“Right, right. That’s what I said!”


Their laughter faded into faint sighs and Maryanne gulped back the last bite of her Hershey's Kiss, tossing the wrapper into one of the clay pots.


“So, is it payday?” Esme asked, with a timely pop of her gum.


There was a sign, Ask About our Title Loans. Surrounding it were many clocks, each showing the time in a different country. It was 11:00 AM in India, 9:30 AM in Ireland. She suddenly thought about whether she had double-locked the backdoor from the outside at work, whether she had turned off all the lights, including the one in the supply closet.


A woman whose cheeks were tie-dyed with rosacea, much of it peeling and red, shook her wrist. Because her hair was also red, the woman seemed to glow under the fluorescence, and not in a bad way. Maryanne thought the clocks ticking and the buzzing noise that emanated from the neon tubing sounded a little like a lullaby.


It was 9:30 AM in Ireland.


“Let me get your check, hun.”


Maryanne tapped at her phone, which had not charged in the car.


Electrical problems.


“You know what. Take your time, nena. I’m going to handle Jose.”


The chivalrous construction worker nodded and stood up and walked to the counter. She handed him a lengthy contract and told him to look through it overnight. He put it into the front pocket of his jumpsuit, folding it first. He waved on his way out. Maryanne turned to face him as he left, wanting to see if he took off his hardhat before getting into his truck.


“I felt guilty giving him that title loan. That truck is all he has.”


“Who?” Maryanne asked, eyes shifting toward the cameras above.


Esme nodded at the construction worker, whose arm was hanging out of his driver’s side window, a cigarette between tar-black fingernails.


“How much would I get for my car?”


“Depends how much it’s worth.”


“That’s what I’m asking you.”


“That black car out there?” Esme asked.


Maryanne pointed across the parking lot.


“I don’t know, I’m not a car salesman,” Esme shrugged.


There was a pause.


“You still making payments on it?”


“Yeah.”


“Can’t give you a title loan, then. You don’t own the title.”


“So, that’s that.”


“That’s that,” Esme said, “I mean, there’s ways around it, but they would further complicate your life. I’m going to make a copy of this contract for Jose real quick and lock up. I’ll meet you out back.”


Handle Jose, Maryanne thought.




III. On a Wooden Crate




“This is active shooter music.”


Maryanne removed a pair of headphones from her ears that Esme had loaned her, dropping them back onto her lap. Esme took a deep, sensuous inhale of her cigarette.


“I like to think there’s passive shooters out there, too.”


Esme was an older woman, who took pride in reading the Financial Times, and who listened to C.Ds from catalogues she had signed up for in 1997, which she claimed to mysteriously receive in the mail just this year. Maryanne had come to know that Esme was a very thorough person, as she often lectured that most of life’s truths were found in the fine print.


They sat in the alley behind the Money Mart, on two wooden crates next to a small dumpster in comparison to the one outside of Jimmy’s.


“You want to grab a Fat Burger?”


“Neh.”


“Thai? That place in Hollywood, where they draw Simpsons characters on the napkins? I bet it’s still open.”


“It is not.”


“You know,” Maryanne said, “I’m starting to feel like maybe Frank is right. Maybe I can’t remember things. You know, because of the… because of my problems.”


“I doubt that.”


“You do?”


“I do, I doubt it unwaveringly.”


“When I slept over at you-know-who’s, I slept with my purse wrapped around my elbow and my car keys tucked into the front of my pants.”


“And to think some woman, ugly as sin, is out there winning the heart of a king.”


“I was raised on fairy tales. Some good that did me.”


“Only to find that the fairy godmother ran a pedophile ring...”


Esme took a rail from the space between her thumb and pointer finger. She sniffed until her eyes got teary, and Maryanne offered her the bottom of her shirt as a stand-in handkerchief.


“That’s alright, hon.”


Maryanne should have known better than to direct attention to what they were doing. Neither of them liked to dwell on it, or even acknowledge it in the first place. Inevitably, they knew. They knew that after a few hours, the guilt would make its way between them. That awful, burrowing rot - the sensation that you are falling without a place to land. And just the thought of it brought on the looming emptiness they both felt coming. They felt it in the depths of their chests just then.


“Nena, you know what, I should go. Kid is graduating in a few hours.”


“Mmm...That’s right!” Maryanne knocked back a gulp of Perrier, “I can’t believe I kept you. You send her a huge kiss from me. A colossal hug. How could I forget? Cal State Long Beach, that’s phenomenal.”


“Alright, alright. Get some sleep if you can.”


They embraced.


“I will,” Maryanne said, though she knew she would not.


She watched Esme climb into the front seat of her Toyota SUV. From the hood, a long antenna erected into thin air. She wondered if that had always been there. As the car slowly careened out of the parking lot, she began to gather her belongings. A backpack, headphones, pack of cigarettes, a half-empty can of Perrier.


She watched the sky turn from black to a pillowy, morning-white.


Turning the key to start her engine, a mixture of ash and air in her breath, she thought about the best route back to Robertson. Back to work.

Mila Beliso is an English and AP literature teacher in Los Angeles, CA. Her work has been published in journals like Crack the Spine, Carnival, Cadence Collective, and LA Miscellany. Her poem 'The Feeling of Bats' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Loyola Marymount University and is currently a Masters candidate in Urban Education. Mila wrote her multi-media capstone on the nature of memory in Argentine literature, and demystifying the Argentinian-nationalist imagination.


This series of 3 vignettes takes place in a fictional Money Mart off of Robertson Blvd in Beverly Hills, sometimes referred to as a slummier Rodeo Drive. Capturing the musty, neon essence of Los Angeles past a certain hour, and touching on the limits of working-class stamina, a dangerously aloof young woman ponders her custody situation and her oppressive boss during an all-night shift. Her movements throughout town are written in a deliberately thorough tone - as if being watched on a sales floor camera.

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