Things I don’t like about Ina:
1. She’s old.
2. She smiles too much.
3. She always tries to use coupons that have expired.
4. She wears cheap, ugly clothes.
5. She calls me “dearie.”
Things I like about Ina:
1. She’s a sugar thief.
Paige closed out her register, clocked out, and made her way to Antonio’s car in the supermarket parking lot. Of the five cars in the lot, three had been abandoned; her car was near Antonio’s ancient Mustang. He called his ride a classic. She called it a disaster on four wheels. Not that hers was any better. A fifteen-year-old Toyota Corolla that spent as much time on the side of the road as traveling on it didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in her personal transportation.
His car was warm inside, and the familiar haze of marijuana welcomed her. Antonio passed the blunt to Paige, and she took two deep drags before passing it back to him. Antonio took a hit, gesturing to the bus stop. The only other person on the property was waiting for a bus that wouldn’t come.
“Ina,” Antonio said in a guttural voice before releasing the heavy smoke in his lungs. He repressed a cough, but the action caused his eyes to water.
Paige gazed at the old woman sitting on the bus bench. Her coat was thin and old and terribly out of style. Cheap shoes. No scarf or gloves. But she sat there with a smile on her face. For some reason, this angered Paige.
“Dumbass bitch probably doesn’t even know the last bus left.”
“She isn’t so bad. Funny old bird, though,” Antonio said. He cranked up the heater in his car, for the night was colder than usual. An Arctic blast had swept through the region, dropping temperatures into single digits.
“She bought four things tonight and tried to use four coupons. Only one was valid.”
“Let me guess. The two dollars off for that horrid fruitcake,” Antonio said.
“Yep. Irritating as hell, having to scan the coupons and hear that Godawful beep. Then I have to tell her that the coupons are expired and watch her face get all sad. A second later, she’s wearing that shit-eating grin of hers again.”
“She steals sugar packets from the coffee bar.”
“That’s the only thing I like about her,” Paige said.
Five minutes later, Paige left Antonio to get in her own car. She watched Ina as her car warmed up, wondering how a person got to be like her. Paige vowed that she would kill herself before she got as old and stupid as Ina.
Things I don’t like about Antonio:
1. He thinks his car is great. It isn’t.
2. He doesn’t dislike anyone.
3. He’s always giving me dating advice. Not needed, thank you.
4. He has better tats than me.
Things I like about Antonio:
1. He’s gay, so he never hits on me.
2. He shares his weed with me.
3. He’s from Brazil. Exotic.
Paige drank straight from the whiskey bottle when she got home. She took the bottle with her to the shower, sipping on it as the hot water cascaded down her back. She took it with her to bed, hoping to get gloriously drunk before midnight. Instead, she threw up before she could get to the toilet.
Cursing under her breath, Paige cleaned up her vomit and bemoaned the waste of whiskey. She also cursed Ina. The old woman wouldn’t let her sleep. As much as Paige didn’t care about anyone, she felt a twinge of guilt for leaving the old woman out in the cold.
Uttering more curses, Paige grabbed her car keys and went back to the supermarket where she worked, hoping that Ina was gone. She was. And then a curious thing happened. Paige drove around, looking for her.
Why she was doing this, she couldn’t say. She wondered about it herself., hypothesizing that the whiskey did a better job of making her crazy than usual. It was a ridiculous thing to do; the old lady could be anywhere.
Paige spotted her ten minutes later, trotting along the side of the road. She recognized Ina instantly; no one else would wear a coat that ugly. Paige pulled her car over and jumped out, half angry and half relieved. The crazy old woman didn’t seem the worse for wear.
“Get in,” Paige said. She opened the passenger door and waved Ina in impatiently. Ina grinned at Paige and got in. More curses under her breath.
“Where do you live?”
Paige skipped the niceties of conversation, mainly because she didn’t have it in her to be nice. Ina, for her part, continued grinning as she blew on her red, raw hands.
“Not a night fit for man nor beast, dearie,” Ina cackled.
“I reckon I missed the last bus, dearie. I don’t remember things like I used to, you see. My mamma used to be the – “
“Yes, yes. I’m sure the long nights flew by in your household. Just tell me where you live.”
After a few torturous minutes, Paige got Ina’s address out of her. She had a headache now, and Ina’s steadfast cheerfulness was causing the headache to worsen. Fortunately, Ina’s apartment was only four miles away, and there was no traffic. Paige sped through red lights and stop signs to get there. Ina didn’t seem to notice any of these infractions.
Just when Paige thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. She dropped Ina off at her doorstep, waiting for Ina to get inside so she could go back home and attempt some more whiskey therapy. Ina, however, couldn’t get her key in the lock, her hands too cold and stiff to perform this simple task.
Paige let out some more curses and rushed to the door, opening it and ushering Ina inside. Ina chattered away as she entered before turning on the light in the front room. Paige looked around and gasped.
It was cold. Terribly cold. And bare.
There was almost nothing in Ina’s small apartment. A rickety kitchen table. No refrigerator. No television. Two hardbacked chairs and a bookcase full of tattered paperbacks populated the living area. Paige sneaked into the bedroom, finding it just as barren. A cheap bed with a thin blanket adorning it. A small table served as her vanity. It had a hand mirror, generic lotion, and a brush on it. Her closet was almost bare, as was her restroom. Paige had been inside less than five minutes and she already wanted to stab herself in the eye with a blunt stick.
Ina had made some coffee and cut a slice of fruitcake for them. The coffee was more like hot brown water, but it did have sugar in it. Packets from the supermarket.
The fruitcake was inedible, but Ina seemed pleased with it. Paige stuffed her piece into her pocket. She gave it to some stray cats on her way out. The cats ate it, thereby impressing Paige with their digestive fortitude.
Paige drove home after this episode, thinking furiously about what she just witnessed. Ina, she was sure, would freeze to death in that dingy apartment. She had no food, no clothes, no entertainment save cheap paperbacks. The blanket on her bed was too thin to offer much warmth, and the bed itself seemed like it was ready to stop being a bed and start being firewood and trash.
Paige went to bed, still thinking about Ina. The whiskey bottle had no solutions for her.
Things I hate about my job:
Things I like about my job:
1. Quitting time.
2. Antonio, when he has weed.
“What!” Antonio’s voice rose to a strident pitch with one word.
“Yeah, but don’t tell anyone. People might start to think I’m nice.”
Antonio stared at Paige through the smoke in his car. He cracked a window to let some of the fug out. The winter had passed, reluctantly, and the spring night, though chilly, wasn’t freezing.
“Three months? Really?”
“Well…yeah. Her place was horrible, Tone. Just horrible,” Paige said.
“Your place isn’t the Taj Mahal, dear.”
“Better than hers. Anyway, it works out. She pays me rent and she won’t freeze to death waiting for a bus that never comes.”
Antonio passed the joint to Paige and stared straight ahead. This was a lot of information to take in. Paige, being nice. Paige, smiling. Paige, not doing cocaine any longer. And now, Paige the sugar thief.
“I saw you taking a whole case of sugar packets.”
Paige nodded not daring to speak. She didn’t want to release the beautiful smoke in her lungs yet.
“You put them in your trunk. A whole damn case!”
“Yeah,” Paige said, exhaling at the same time, “I did.”
“What the fuck, Paige.”
Paige handed the joint back to Antonio, who proceeded to decimate what was left. He toyed with the idea of sparking another blunt up but decided against it. He had a date, and it wouldn’t do to be too high before meeting his new boyfriend tonight. That would come later, along with the nose candy.
“For Ina. She has a thing about sugar packets. I set out a few on the table and she hides ‘em away in her purse. Then, when she makes tea or coffee, she digs ‘em out. I think it’s great fun for her.”
“Man, she must have had a fucked up past to be the way she is.”
“Dude! You don’t know the half of it. She eats crackers with margarine for her lunch, and then a slice of fruitcake for dinner. At least, she used to. I make sure she eats better now.”
“You aren’t making your famous mushroom soup, are you?”
“Not so famous, sweetie. You open a big can of that generic mushroom soup and add a few mushrooms to it.”
“And bread,” Paige said.
“Oh yeah. Toasted white bread cut into triangles. Classy.”
“She likes it.”
“Better than crackers and margarine, I suppose.”
“I taught her how to use the Keurig. Now we have decent coffee with that shit fruitcake she insists on eating.”
“I don’t get that. I’ve tasted it before, when old man Hawkins put it out in the break room as a ‘gift’ to us for all our hard work. Tastes like sweetened cardboard.”
“Something in her past, I think.”
Paige agreed, but not for the reason Antonio purported.
“The fruitcake is from the good part of her past. Something else happened, but she won’t talk about it.”
“Ah. You’ve been snooping.”
“Not really. Just trying to get her to open up about it a little. She clams up, gets all sad, then I hear her crying in bed at night. I don’t ask her anymore.”
“Must have been bad if the fruitcake is a good memory,” Antonio said.
“You shut up.”
Paige did shut up, by leaving and slamming the car door. Antonio showed his displeasure with this by peeling out and spraying gravel over the vicinity. Both would be fine the next day, though. Friendship for these two needed a little friction to survive.
Fruitcake and coffee awaited Paige. She shuddered, but looked forward to it, a strange switch in her lifestyle, outlook, and philosophy on everything. The brave new world she found herself inhabiting came with lots of sugar packets, though.
By summer, life for Ina and Paige had settled into a quiet, predictable routine. Not that Paige minded her new domesticity. She had grown ever fonder of Ina and her ways, but it still bothered her that Ina was the way she was. The woman simply persisted on seeing the sweetness in life and grabbing on to it, despite evidence that life had repeatedly kicked her in the teeth.
Paige was surprised at her own transformation. She still smoked weed, but only once or twice a week, with Antonio and his boyfriend. She rarely drank whiskey now, and her body thanked her profusely for it. Like Ina, she was learning not to let the past dictate her future.
Ina had learned to make sandwiches. It had been a struggle, teaching her the fine art of putting bread, cheese, lettuce, and tomato together between two pieces of toasted bread slathered with mashed avocado. Ina’s idea of a sandwich had fallen woefully short of the mark, but what could one expect from a woman who had regularly eaten crackers and margarine for lunch.
“These are some mighty fine sandwiches, dearie. Lordy! It’s a feast.”
Ina munched happily on half a sandwich, which was all she would ever eat, smiling that peculiar smile she had, the one that used to drive Paige crazy. She looked around the park, smiling at the children playing, the mothers ignoring the playing children, and the young couples ignoring everyone but themselves.
“Just a sandwich, Ina. Nothing special,” Paige said. She knew better, though. Anything substantial to eat was special to Ina. The old woman was putting on weight, slowly, and she had some color to her cheeks.
“You forgot the fruitcake, dearie. Oh my. I could run back – “
“No!” Paige said instantly and forcefully. “What I mean is, I brought some peach pie. It reminds me of home.”
Home for Paige had been something she never talked about, another thing she had in common with Ina. It hurt too much to think about, let alone voice to another person. She had left home at a young age, and she had dealt with her pain by making lists of things she didn’t like. And drugs. Lots of drugs.
She still couldn’t muster a continual smile as Ina did. Whatever inner strength allowed Ina to do so was missing in her. Paige marveled that someone as ill used in life as Ina had that sort of iron in their soul. And Ina liked her mushroom soup, so that was a bonus.
“That’s some good peach pie, dearie. I ain’t never had anything like it before.”
Paige gazed at Ina, feeling good about giving her something she never had, simultaneously feeling terribly sad that she was giving her something she never had. Ina was eating her pie and doing something that Paige found difficult to do: enjoying the moment. She was learning, though.
“Let’s go home,” Paige said.
Home. A new way to think of that word, for both women. Home is hope. Home is what you have if you’re lucky. Paige, for the first time in her life, felt lucky. Even when Ina forced her to have a slice of fruitcake when they got back to their apartment, Paige felt fortunate.
She ate her slice of fruitcake and smiled at Ina. It was that kind of day.
Things I hate about life:
1. The people you love don’t stay long enough.
2. The people you hate always remain far too long.
Things I like about life:
1. Crazy old ladies who steal sugar.
Winter arrived again, and just like the prior one, it roared in with a deadly fervor. Temperatures plummeted overnight, and swirls of snow portended what was to come.
“You gotta stop crying, dear. Bad for the complexion,” Antonio said. He handed a joint to Paige. She took it and puffed gently; her greediness for weed had abated greatly the past year. Most of her bad and destructive habits had faded away, thanks to a woman who had briefly graced her life.
“I miss her.”
Antonio nodded. He wasn’t without feeling in the matter. The few times he had met her, he felt like he was in the presence of a person who acted like a child but understood everything. Her glee with the humblest of things was enchanting, and it made Antonio feel like he should re-examine his life. He missed what Ina got.
“As do I, dear. The moving finger writes and all that. I think we have to move on. Funny, though. I feel different. After meeting her, I mean. Like maybe I don’t have it so bad.”
“She was happy with the cheapest, ugliest stuff. Everything was a gift to her. And she goes and dies on her birthday.”
“Hey, we had a great time. Fruitcake all around, super sweet tea with all those sugar packets.”
Paige nodded. She handed the joint back to Antonio. Two puffs was her limit now. She was becoming satisfied with less. Just like Ina.
“She asked me to sit with her a little while, in her bed. She talked and talked and talked, finally drifting off to sleep. That smile of hers was still on her face when she fell asleep. It was there in the morning too, when I found her. Cold and stiff and smiling.”
“I can’t imagine, dear. That’s rough.”
“I still have all those sugar packets I stole from work. I can’t bring myself to use them. Is that weird?”
“Oh yeah. But I get it. They belong to her.”
Paige smiled a wan smile and slipped out of Antonio’s car, making her way to her own decrepit vehicle. She didn’t tell Antonio that she was going home to have a piece of fruitcake and to read one of Ina’s cheap paperbacks.
She paused at the bus stop. No one was there, no one waiting for a bus that wouldn’t come. Paige got out of her car and sat on the bench, crying fully for the first time since the funeral. Fat, wet tears splashed on the pavement, turning to ice in a few minutes. She yelled at whatever forces allowed a sweet old woman who never had anything to die, just when she found a little happiness.
No one was around to hear her. Snow, falling like sugar crystals from the sky, kept her company.