Jo Anne was watching a nature show, with the sound off. At first there were leggy, prancing birds—they reminded her of pimps. Then lolling seals, their heads slippery and round, like black stones with eyes—they reminded her of dogs. Now there was a telethon. She hunched over a lottery ticket scratching away with a penny. The rickety card table shook. All three televisions were on. Jo Anne's was muted. She could hear the others, Uncle Murray's baseball game, her daughter watching a game show. Combined they sounded indistinct, patter like rain.
Jo Anne took inventory of the refrigerator. Pickles, mayonnaise, rye bread, beer, sliced turkey, cottage cheese, and pharmaceuticals. She reached for the pills. A small whale-shaped hump splayed across her left trapezoid.
Jo Anne and her daughter Joanne went to the Stop & Shop to collect Jo Anne's lottery winnings, three dollars. Corky, the clerk, was reading the obituaries. Jo Anne placed her green plastic shopping basket on the counter. Corky scanned nylons, one box of toothpicks, and one Enquirer, a bottle of Pantene shampoo, a carton of Marlboro Lights, a shower curtain lining, and two pair black trouser socks for Uncle Murray. When Jo Anne and Joanne got to the parking lot, they found a cell phone on the ground behind the car. They went back in and gave the cell phone to Corky.
By the end of the workday, no one had come to claim the phone. Corky brought it home. Corky was preparing dinner when the cell phone rang. It had two short rings. She stopped slicing sausage to answer. A wheezy, male voice on the other end said, "Hey Sal. You want me to pick anything up on my way home?" Corky dropped the phone, suddenly bent with a sharp pain, her hands on the plastic cutting board. Her husband was napping on the couch. He didn't wake up. The voice on the phone said, "Hello? Sally?" Corky straightened up. She turned off the phone. Breathing deeply she pressed slices of plantain flat and cast them into a frying pan.
Corky read the obituaries habitually. She often thought about the apocalypse. If it came soon, she wouldn't have to die alone. She wasn't feeling well at all lately. Her body gave her impossible trouble. She sometimes thought about ending it. She thought about it like a criminal: how can I murder myself and make it look like an accident? It was important that she not be blamed for it. She pulled the kitchen window curtain open to a purple, dying sky while the plantains simmered.
At 2:30 the following afternoon, a giant of a man wearing a faded brown trench coat queried Gina, who worked behind the counter with Corky, about a lost cell phone. "My wife lost her cell phone, and she thinks she left it here. Has anyone turned in a phone?" Gina shrugged. The man looked at Corky. She made a prune face and shrugged. She did not want to admit she had taken the phone home and hung up on him the night before when she had the stomach cramp. The man went to the door, his shoulders sagging. "Wait!" Corky called after him. "Do you want to leave a name in case someone finds it?" The man left his name and number. His cursive was large but delicate, with subtle loops.
Corky habitually stole a certain cream from the store. The cream was supposed to get rid of stretch marks and varicose veins, but so far it hadn't worked. She had mossy blue veins twisting and arcing under her skin, like vines swirling downriver. When she got home that night Corky applied the cream.
Corky called the number the pasty man had left. Next to the number he had written his name, Arias McIntyre. "Is Mr. McIntyre there?" Corky asked. At the other end of the line, Arias said, "Yea, speaking." "Who is it Arias?" his wife Sally called from the bathroom down the hall. She was about to take pumice to her corns. "Who is this?" he asked. But there was no answer. Corky was having a stomach cramp. She dropped the phone.
Arias thumped his knuckles distractedly on the red banister of a narrow, curving stairwell. Sally was sitting on the side of the tub, tending her feet. "Who is it?" she said again.
Corky picked up the phone. "Hello?"
Arias came into the bathroom five minutes later and said, "Someone found your phone." Corky and Arias had made arrangements to meet. Corky's husband, a night courier, was asleep on the couch. He didn't stir when she left the house.
Arias stumped slowly down the red stairs leaning heavily on the banister. "I'm going to get the phone Sal." At Two Jacks, Arias ordered a whiskey and heaved into his usual booth which was upholstered in old green leather, torn in places. A fake log flickered in his view. He sipped and waited.
When she arrived, Arias didn't recognize her from the store. She looked awry.
The sounds of the bar rushed indiscriminately through Corky. She put the phone down and leaned heavily on the table, breathing. Her face was warped like a mask left in the rain.