“You’ve been diagnosed terminal...”
“Whoa! Wait! Did you hear that shit?” Crowe said, turning up the radio. He was listening to NPR again.
“What shit?” Sophie asked.
“That fucking seven second pause!”
“Quit shouting. And quit cussing.”
“Sorry. It’s just bullshit,” Crowe said. His left hand was on the wheel, his right gesturing at the radio. “This chick is loosing her life, and Ashbrook throws in a fucking pause. Like her terminality just isn’t heavy enough for his show.”
‘This chick’ was a blues singer, of all things: Jessie Stephens, a white girl out of Missouri. Jessie Stephens was talented, not mind blowing, not average, just good. She'd put out four CD’s, all on her own tab, before they found the tumor in her liver. They gave her six months with treatment, three without.
“Is terminality even a word?” Sophie asked.
“I don’t know. But you got to admit it’s sickening. I mean, the pause is so fucking obvious…”
“At least the F word Crowe. Please.”
Crowe didn’t acknowledge Sophie’s request. He was on a roll.
Tom asked Jessie how she was coping.
Tom asked Jessie how she was coping.
“What Ashbrook?" Crowe shouted at the radio. "You got to cruise hospices for your human interest stories now? Diagnosed terminal? Which one of you clowns coined that one? Because that’s some arrogant shit there. I’m tellin’ ya. We've all been diagnosed terminal, dumbass. You immortal now, too, Tom? You pompous prick.”
Crowe flipped the radio the bird.
“Why do you even listen to the radio, Crowe?” Sophie asked.
Sophie didn’t know what it was that had turned Crowe so militant. Lately, he could find something wrong with everything, and it always pissed him off. He used to be all about opening eyes to empathy and honesty. He was quite, peaceful. Now it was like he’d got religion or something: Onward Christian soldiers. It was always 'them' and 'us'. Though Sophie wasn't exactly sure who 'us' was. There was Crowe and there was her, and that didn't seem like an 'us' to Sophie. She wondered how long it would be before Crowe ran out of histrionic pauses to bitch about, and turned to her for fuel. She was suddenly glad they had kept it friends.
“I don’t know Sophie,” Crowe said, looking out the side window at Salem’s old-town. “I mean, most of the time I think Ashbrook is one of the best. He is. But the pause... that’s just so fucking Grub Street, you know … cheap. I bet right now he’s praying to the gods of journalism that this chick starts bawling her eyes out.”
“Jessie. Her name is Jessie, Crowe.”
Jessie Stephens did start crying. When she composed herself, she apologized. ‘I’m sorry,’ Jessie said. ‘It’s just hard sometimes, you know. I still have things I want to do.’
“God damn!” Crowe said. “I bet Ashbrook just came.”
Sophie shook her head. She wanted a cigarette. Not that she smoked or anything. It just seemed like the time and place to light one up and stare out of the window apathetically with thin white wisps curling around the rear-view. She looked over at Crowe, at his long face, his beard. She was really tired of the whole beard thing—Crowe’s, everybody’s. The world needed a good, close shave.
The music was coming up. Jessie Stephens was a wrap.
That’s crazy, Sophie thought. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t imagine herself dying. She knew she would, she just couldn’t imagine it. She wondered if Jessie Stephens could imagine dying now, with that big red X right there on the calendar. A cigarette.
“Hey. Pull over here, please Crowe, just for a second.”
“Just pull over. I want a cigarette.”
Sophie looked at the radio, looked at Crowe. “Yeah.” She got out of the car.
“I’ll wait here,” Crowe said as she shut the door.
Sophie didn’t have any money, no cash, no cards. She hadn’t carried any in a month now. It was an experiment. Not in manipulation. She called it intuitive generosity.
Elements of Style was a used book store, whose sandwich board claimed they served hot coffee and poetry on weekends now. Sophie pulled the door open. Crowe drew the car up close to the curb and twirled his finger, to say he'd be circling the block. For a moment, looking at him, his beard and sock hat, Sophie couldn’t recall Crowe’s name. She smiled and stepped into Elements.
There was a guy behind the counter who appeared to be Sophie’s age: twenty-six, twenty-seven. Arms crossed. No beard. No look. Attractive, but not pushing anything that Sophie could see. Not even a hint of agenda. The store was empty otherwise.
Sophie approached the counter. She opened her mouth to speak.
Smiling, the guy held up his forefinger to stop her. He moved the finger to his lips, studied Sophie a minute, then bent beneath the counter. Sophie could hear him rummaging.
He came up with a folded, near-empty pack of Marlboro 100’s.
Sophie cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, both amused and impressed.
“Three left,” the guy said. “They’ve been here since I bought the shop, five years ago, so their freshness date might have expired.”
“Thanks,” Sophie said, “but I don’t really smoke.”
“I though not. You strike me as more of an ice cream kind of gal.”
The guy popped the register and removed a twenty. He was coming around the counter and asked, “Join me?”
He pointed at the front window. Across the street there was a parlor: Mike’s Hand-Made Ice Cream & Soda Fountain. Sophie saw Crowe drive by, adjusting the radio.
It was an experiment, she thought, an experiment.