Jean surveys sewers for a living. Down, down, down she goes, beneath the basements of the shops and the houses and the churches and the abandoned psychiatric hospital. She wears black boots. She wears blue coveralls. She wears a mask. She overlays the present with the future, imagining some anthropologist or alien tip-toeing behind her, lovingly collecting the chemical remains of her sole rubber, her skin flakes.
She trips over a cracked pipe and nearly falls on her face.
“Jean? You okay?”
Mike and Bob and Terry try to help her, but she shakes them away.
“I’m the island’s gastroenterologist! I’m a living, breathing colonoscopy! You think a little bit of shit would hurt me?”
The men spend the rest of the day arguing about ancient Roman drainage systems and the worship rituals surrounding the goddess of toilets. Jean stays a few feet behind, breaking brown stalactites from the ceiling.
• • •
After work she drives to the beach and attempts an exercise routine in the parking lot. Lunges, suicide sprints, jumping jacks—she weaves in and out of the crowds of surfers like a seagull scavenging for scraps. They glance as she passes and move aside, but other than that they don’t seem fazed; they’re too busy peeling off their wetsuits and blasting music from Bluetooth speakers and shoving their boards into the backs of their jeeps. Jean breaks into grapevines. She picks up speed, slipping around surfers until a scraggly couple blocks her way.
They’re baring their sun-freckled backs. They’re holding hands and swinging their salty arms and singing badly to each other.
“Excuse me,” Jeans says. Then she hurtles right into them.
The boy yelps. The girl shoots Jean a glare.
“Sue me!” Jean says in her head, but out loud she says nothing and just runs away.
• • •
She can’t think about getting ready for bed, so she takes off her pants and crashes on the couch instead. She flips through the TV channels. Cooking shows, home renovation shows, game shows. She’s about to give up when she lands on the weather.
Something bad is happening. She sees traffic lights snapping from their cables. She sees roofs ripping from their houses. And then, when the screen flashes to a meteorological map of the Midwest, she sees the name of the city Jenna’s moved away to.
Jean mutes the TV. She picks up her phone. She types, deletes, types, deletes, until the sentence is short enough to send:
“Are you in a tornado?”
She paces around the apartment. She puts popcorn in the microwave, lets it stay too long, burns her fingers on the bag and chucks her phone at the couch. She plucks an old tabloid from the napkin holder and leans with it against the kitchen counter. She reads the opening line of a celebrity sighting story. She reads it again. She throws the magazine in the trash, and gets her phone from the couch. She scrolls through their old conversations for a while. Then she drags herself to bed.
In the morning there’s a new message: “If I were in a tornado how would I even answer you?”
• • •
Jean calls her mother.
“Jenna wasn’t in a tornado,” she says.
“I was in a tornado, though.”
“A big one. I died.” Jean laughs.
“Do you need help?”
“Do you?” Jean says.
“Sometimes,” her mother replies.
• • •
Jean spends her off-day above ground. She walks around Belmont Lake. She watches the ducks huddle up in the shallows and the paddle boats churn through the gravy-thick algae. “I’m lucky,” she says to herself. “I’m lucky.” A man walking a husky overhears her and looks puzzled. She crouches down next to the dog and says, “Are you Lucky, too?”
It barks and shows Jean its tail-end.
“That’s nothing compared to what I have to sniff every day.”
The man laughs nervously and drags the dog away. Jean sits back on a bench and closes her eyes for a moment. Then she takes her phone from her pocket. She types “You’re stupid.” She types “I’m stupid.”
A man pushing a food cart passes by.
“Who wants a hotdog!” he says.
“Me!” she says in her head, but out loud she just says nothing again.
She feels like she’s held her breath through the deepest of shit and come up with her heart beating hard in her throat. She wants to not want things.
She buys the hotdog. She buys a soda, and some ice cream. She eats it all, and then, still hungry, starts browsing the internet for used fax machines. She thinks that the obnoxious transmission tones might negate the sentimentality of her messages, so that she won’t feel so ashamed when she says what she means.
She types “Come home, please.”
Alyse Wexler earned her MFA from NYU’s Writers Workshop in Paris, where she also ate bread and said “Ça va?” to dogs on the street. Though she has authored a number of paranoia-inducing WebMD-esque articles, this is her first fiction publication.