Dry Bucket

Kristina Mottla

Endings, beginnings, nights, mornings, they circled about my head, nipping each other’s tails. Family left messages. Friends texted. Neighbors dubbed me Scary-Gal-in-Number-9.

The loss of my job, this time to the boss’s niece, had turned me into a desert in bleak heat, anger sizzling along my skin, all mirages squashed. How many entry-level LA marketing positions were left for me to crack? The question kept my eyes drier than tinder; my cheeks sandpaper wracked by wind.

As an elderly woman in the supermarket line once said in my youth, tears are for people without strong bones.

Savings accounts ultimately dwindle for the unemployed, and so they did for me. Soon, the sliver of light beneath my door morphed from a flatline into a reprimand. I headed to the mall food court in response. There, years before, behind the counter of the family-owned Smoothieville, I had made my first paycheck, dumped my first boyfriend, lost my first job.

The mall food court ceiling dangled its cement-headed rays across my table. Around me, other groups-of-one settled in similarly, shoulders over their food or paperwork, eyes on their forks or smartphones, each of us baking in our own pans, each of us not thinking of ourselves as hot oil on the edge of popping out. I spent the next five minutes digging into my chicken teriyaki bowl, avoiding eye contact with Smoothieville and planning consecutive mall lunches, from tomorrow’s veggie sub to next week’s cobb salad, ready to map out the year, when an oddball woman plopped down across from me as if I’d been expecting her. Her dark brown, red-streaked hair burst from her head in tattered braids.

I took a bite of rice, eyeing her but not.

“You, Lyla, need a bridge,” she said, leaning forward. Her wrinkles cut trenches beneath her eyes. “I knew it trying on shoes three floors down ten minutes ago.”

Behind me a door opened to the mall patio and the smell of burgers and pasta and curry swirled about the food court on a new lease of wind, making a fragrant oddity (curry-burger-pasta?). And how did she know my name? “I’d like to eat my lunch alone, lady.”

“Of course you would!” she hollered. A few patrons glared my way. She reached over and grabbed my hands, shaking the fork from my fingers. “Let me see them.”

My hands in hers turned my sight into a desert. Suddenly our fleshy digits were miles and miles of bland sand, never-ending and never-beginning sand, heat blurring on the drab khaki tarp, change never on the horizon . . .

“Tut, tut, Lyla. You have misfortune roosting and you need me to spook it out.” She said spook with a forward jerk of her shoulders, so I got hooked in her eyes. They sank deep as wells and pulled me down like a dry bucket in need of filling. Then her voice came soft and twinkly. “You will pay me, and I will save you for my own good.”

I nodded, feeling cool inside those deep well eyes, cool as spring water, cool enough to feel a shock of pain coursing through her veins. The words fell out before I could catch them: “I will pay you, and you will save me for your own good.”

The woman dropped my hands. “Well done,” she said, passing me a paper slip. “Here’s my address. Bring two hundred dollars tomorrow at noon.”

As she left, her bare swollen feet padded across the tiled crumby food court floor, her knee giving way every five steps or so and prompting the nearest patron to lift her back to standing. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to bring the woman money to help, plus extra for shoes and a cane. Already I felt better than the months before.

Tears in my youth I mostly remember as streamlets down my cheeks, or disappearing pools in my palms, nothing that risked my vigor, my growing older. But after my mother shredded her business suits and said crying was for less than babies, after the supermarket woman told me about the tears and the bones, then I put the tears away for good.

This isn’t a pity tale. Overall I’d been fed, sheltered, clothed my life’s entirety. I knew I had it better than many, no matter I grew up latchkey, no matter teens called me Loose Lyla in high school, no matter I’d never been the prettiest, my nose a sliver too long and my eyes a degree too wide; no matter the world seemed to shove as hard as I shoved back.

The Hollywood Hills dipped and climbed as I drove through them, bushy foliage padding the front yards of bungalows, Tudors, modern mansions. The mall woman’s cottage was especially hidden on its woodsy bend, although any passerby could see through the trees how its frame leaned as if with a bad back. The door knocker, a thick silver loop, boomed.

The woman from the mall opened the door and appeared behind the threshold. I must have looked puzzled, since she reached and patted my arm. “It’s me, dear. Gadnes.” Then she gestured to a woman beside her, a near twin. “My sister Borna.” The sisters crossed to the front stoop, huddling next to me. Gadnes gestured to the side gate. “To the backyard, Lyla.”

Borna clapped her hands together as I turned.

Spiny shrubs, willow trees, abundant grasses, wildflowers, the smell of them filled me like an unexpected but welcome visitor. A quaint garden bridge, its slats and ropes withering, spanned a barren ditch in the back corner.

“Stand in the middle of the bridge,” Gadnes said.

Borna pointed and clapped at the request, and I didn’t want to disappoint, not Borna especially, not the sister who’d lost her voice box in the trees and seemed to fancy me. (“An occupational hazard,” Gadnes later said.) And so I stood in the center, peering at the dry ditch the size of a koi pond beneath, wondering whether the sisters would fill it, maybe even with a rock garden. That’s when two slats and the ditch beneath them suddenly broke free and sent me falling until I caught myself. A mile of air now separated me and the ground; my hands gripped the bridge’s ropy edge.

Far below, on land, a smattering of greenish creatures snapped at the air. From somewhere in the bushes, Gadnes shrieked, “Why!?” Then she came close and shook the bridge until one of my hands let go. “Why? Why?”

I shook my head, shifting my grip and bringing the free hand back to the rope. “What?” Words, like the clouds above curling in waves, crashing.

Gadnes whooped, “Wrong!” and threw her head back and laughed and laughed, until her mouth foamed and I thought she or I might vomit.

It was then my tear ducts felt as though they would bust open and let everything tumble out, my veins and heart valves, my job losses, my dry eyes, my parents and friends, my intestines, my nights, the issue of this woman Gadnes making a horror scene of me and not caring if I died. Then sweat streaked down like tears, down my temples, down my nose, down my cheeks like invisible roads, and what of my situation now?

“There, there,” Gadnes said, coming close and pushing a strand of wet hair from my eye, “now don’t you feel better?”

And Gadnes pulled me up, and Borna pulled me into her arms, and there I wept and wept until the koi ditch filled and the yard filled and Gadnes and Borna took my money and we were swimming together and diving like whales.

KRISTINA MOTTLA writes fiction and poetry. She has a BA and an MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such places as Barnstorm, Hartskill Review, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Raintown Review, and Potomac Review.