Fiction: Body at the Stairwell to the Waves

by Juan Carlos Reyes


I wish I could say my shift had ended with a cough, but my boss told me to go outside and shake my throat congestion off with a cigarette after I removed my apron. I told him, staring at him in the mirror, that I haven’t lit a match in over a year and that he’d have to call someone in to replace me. But he leaned over the bar top and nodded back to the waiting lounge past the hostess desk and told me his conditions were final. It’s the rush hour dinner hour and he wouldn’t be asking again. And I could cough over the entrées if it was really that bad. He managed to say, If you really can’t help yourself, with a toothpick in his mouth. He even added that as long as I coughed on the food in the kitchen before I walked out holding a plate in each hand, he didn’t care how much phlegm I expelled. He actually used the word. Expelled.

And then he took the barkeep’s surface towel to wipe the ends of his lips.

I know you’re not asking about him, but I should warn you that when a woman hates her boss, she screws him with a keen observation of the worst. And after you catch whoever did the body at the bottom of the stairs, you should ring him up for sanitation violations. Any of them. All of them. I’m sure he’s good for them.

In any case, the deck was empty. We don’t seat anyone back there during the winter, and high tide had soaked the wood. It’s refreshing. The breeze. The surf. The wet glaze under my shoe. It’s almost good enough to slip on, but the chips are enough to scrape the bottom of anyone’s heel, whether or not it’s flat, and keep you fixed upright.

The point is I was relaxed, so much so that I almost pulled the cigarette he’d given me from behind my ear. I know it’s pretentious, but sometimes I carry one there for the look of it. For the unearned coolness of it. To remind me I don’t have to pull anything at all if I don’t want to. That I’m stronger than I lead on. I run now. I haven’t run since high school.

And, no, I haven’t quit completely. I just don’t light my own match when I do smoke. I have others for that. It relieves the guilt, and I don’t use the word lightly. Any addict tenders the world their shame the moment they step outside, and I sometimes can’t tell the difference between sins of omission and sins of addition and sins on paper versus sins in theory. I’m no priest, but I’m pretty sure God sees all of them. I don’t read the bible, but I’m sure all the sins get listed there as clearly as you or I can measure the widths of our eyes.

In any case, maybe my boss’s wife had gone onto the deck for a smoke herself. Maybe you should be asking him about her vices. The woman wears heels just to sit hours in the office. She handles the finances behind a computer screen, two, in fact, and she wears perfume doing it. She doesn’t come every day, and I almost didn’t notice the foam washing onto her ankles at the bottom of the stairs until I did. Jeremy’s the one that should be here. His belt rattles when he walks, like he’s all too prepared to remove it, and he’s constantly wiping his mouth and chin with the back of his sleeve, and he’s the one who told me to go out there. He’s the one who kept tending to his hands all day. Massaging them. Washing them.

There’s barely traffic on the boardwalk to crowd it. You’ve seen it. There’s the hundred feet that cross behind the shops and then the staircase that winds down to the water. It’s an attraction. Stairwell to the waves, Steps to the crests, or whatever the hell they’re calling it now. And, yes, it’s slippery, but not like you think. I’d wanted to go home before my shift was even up, and traction from even the uneven screws and nails keep you upright. Even uptight a little. You’re afraid to fall. You’re careful. The beams rock, though nothing feels spongy. I’m telling you, the office window was open when I looked up, and I didn’t mean to remove her shoe when I got to her, but her eyes were stiff and her ankle had purpled, and I wanted to check for a break or a sprain. I know what stiff eyes mean, but I’m human, too. A body has to count for all its parts. And I was curious.

Jeremy had cornered me earlier that afternoon because I’d buttoned my blouse to my neck. I walked off staring at him, but I also didn’t just leave my shirt alone. I undid the top button, even the one below that. And I tucked in my shirt, and I did my fly again when I noticed it undone. And I’m not pregnant, just in case you were thinking it. We use protection. And I don’t love him. He doesn’t love anyone. We use the bathroom when we can and only the office after closing. Sleeping with him feels a little dirty, yes. I don’t like him like that. I certainly don’t love him. I don’t think he’s that attractive, and he cuts his hair too short. I can cling to muscles on his back when I need to. I usually just look into his mouth when he’s pushing into me.

I tried lifting her head and I tried rolling her body up a step. Her head wilted and I was afraid it’d snap off, so I was careful to lead with it, at least as best as I could do. Her shirt had been undone, and I buttoned her up. The breeze nudged the open office window shut, and the hinge, man. The hinge whined like a hungry witch.

I managed to pull Linda as high as the landing, and that’s where the first person snapped a picture. A tourist, I think. It couldn’t have been anyone from town. There are too few of us, and we see each other too often to forget each other’s faces. The town runs the narrowest width of the island, but you know that. They teach it to you in first grade and repeat it for three more years. Like they don’t want you to forget the landscape that forges paths into your memory and lingers there until you’re stuck with them and stuck right in place.

I’ve been going to community college. I take the ferry to the mainland twice a week, and Jeremy didn’t have to be paying for it, but he insisted. And that’s not my fault. I said yes because who would say no. I liked Linda. I didn’t like her like that, and Jeremy never invited me to know their bed like that. But she kept to herself, and you have to talk to Jeremy again, no matter what he’s said. He spent all that day messing with the bottom fold of his pant legs and dusting his shoes. In the winter, we don’t seat anyone on the back deck, and there’s no need to go to the boardwalk unless you need to cigarette. And I don’t smoke anymore. At least not like that, like all the time, like much at all, really. Jeremy spent that whole morning rinsing the towels in the kitchen and wringing them dry, even after Linda had laundered them. She’s the only one who does, and they’d been folded in the laundry basket in the office when I checked into work that afternoon.

When I pulled Linda into the store, the hostess shot me a look like I’d brought death itself into the restaurant, and I had, of course, but that’s not the point. A commotion rang, exactly like you’d expect when a waitress pulls a dead body to the menus. The waiting lounge emptied, fast, and Jeremy ran to the menu stand, probably because he’d heard the rumbling and the handful of screams. But he didn’t stop at me or Linda. He walked over us, carefully. You can tiptoe, I guess, with a semblance of respect, but then he left the place and walked down the sidewalk and started assuring everyone to wait put, right in place, until the police could empty the foyer. At least that’s what I’d been able to make out before the door closed.

And then he just—he just stayed outside.

He pulled a cigarette from his back pocket. He pulled a lighter from his breast pocket. He looked at me through the glass in the front door as he lit the tar end, and then he exhaled. He narrowed his eyes, and if I was a gambler, I’d say he inhaled his own secondhand smoke. It was impossible not to notice his mouth. He slipped the cigarette to the side of his lips and knelt to fix his pant leg crease.

When he stood up again, he adjusted the bulge in his groin. And then I turned away because blood from the back of Linda’s head was on my hand.


Juan Carlos Reyes teaches creative writing at Seattle University. He’s published A Summer’s Lynching (Quarterly West) and Elements of a Bystander (Arcadia Press). His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Florida Review, Waccamaw Journal, and Hawai’i Review, among others. He is the chief editor of Big Fiction Magazine, and you can find him online at www.jcreyes.net.

📸 Featured Image: Composite image illustration created by Emerald staff based on photos by Joshua Fuller and Vladislav Muslakov used under the Unsplash license.

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