portion of the artwork for Jen Michalski's short story

The Company of Strangers
Jen Michalski

Your brother, Clay, is your only living relative in the world, the only one who’s watching out for you, who would take a bullet for you, who let you stay here at his place in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for the summer, and you thank him by almost sleeping with his girlfriend.

Of course, it’s not that simple. To you, anyway. But it seems pretty simple to him when he comes home early from Albuquerque, where he’d gone up to sell some of his custom-made leather holsters, and finds you two in his bed, in various stages of undress.

“Nothing to talk about,” he says, packing your clothes in handfuls, soft denims, modest white bras, and limp cotton tees, into a black trash bag. His fingers carry the scent of leather oil, and the thought of never smelling them again is what makes you tear up, not your impending homelessness, your immorality, the fact he may never speak to you again.

You want to tell him that Ginny is the only person who’s ever looked at you this way—in any way, actually. You’ve never considered yourself attractive, and at 20 the fact you’ve never had a boyfriend—or girlfriend—is more than confirmation bias. Your basketball scholarship from Arizona State pays your tuition but doesn’t confer any special status. In fact, there is so little glamour in the Pac-12: shooting drills, overnight bus rides that you spend listening to Martina McBride on iTunes, staring at cacti and mountains and an interchangeable string of Chevron stations. Wrapping your shoulder with K tape, your fingers with surgical tape, packing your ankle in ice. The miasma of leather, rubber, and sweat.

You watch your brother underhand both trash bags—one with your clothes, the other with your shoes and toiletries (you had the good sense to grab your laptop and phone charger before he could pack them) from the door onto the broken flagstones in front of the house, about 20 feet from your silver Ford Escort. When Ginny joins him in the doorway, in a half-buttoned Western shirt and jeans, she wears a frown and folded arms.

“Casey doesn’t have no place to go,” she argues. “I’ll go stay with Veronica.”

“You’re running away to Veronica’s after trying to sleep with my sister—that’s what you’re going to do?” The muscles under your brother’s shaved temples ripple and push his Bailey upward almost off his head. He stares into the middle distance, as if trying to comprehend what has just happened—his girlfriend’s infidelity, his girlfriend’s infidelity with his little sister, his little sister who was his little sister but who now must seem like a stranger in his company after all these years.

“You stay.” You hold up your palm to Ginny, as if you have any say in the matter. “I’m going.”

There are motels just outside of town, on either end of I-25, but they’re small and mildewy and methy and filled with dudes who are ex-cons on their way to becoming cons again. No place for you, your white pancake of a face, your freckled arms and chest that look like your parents sprinkled cinnamon on them.

You pack the trunk of the Escort with your trash bags and head over to Roman’s, the pizza place where you have been waiting tables and making pies for delivery when it’s slow. The owner is Betty, not Roman, and as far as she can remember, there have never been any Romans as owners or employees. But, as you have found in the weeks you’ve been working here, histories are like clouds, moving and morphing and oftentimes just disappearing altogether.

“You’re early.” She stands behind the counter.

“Our wi-fi’s out,” you lie, opening your laptop on a table in the back, one of six tables (and only two ever filled at the same time). You don’t know what you’re doing, just trying to look busy, buying yourself time to think, to let your brother cool off. Not that you think he’ll cool off by tonight, or tomorrow, or even this summer. And you can’t text Ginny, not right now, and what would you say, really?

You think of the time, three years ago, that Clay brought Ginny home to your parent’s house in Wyoming for Thanksgiving. You were a senior in high school, shy and unsophisticated (still are), but that didn’t stop you from staring at her from the sofa, across the table, in the side mirror of Clay’s crew cab while he drove to the store. Even though Ginny was from Texas, her languidity and ease in her own skin, unlike you in yours, made her exotic, intoxicating. Her eyes, so blue and heavy lidded, settled on you with a weight of knowing, her laugh airy but cracked, as if everything you said was interesting and funny. She knew a lot about gemstones and horoscopes and Tarot cards, things that are forbidden by your church, but she brought you some lepidolite she’d gotten from a mine in San Diego and polished smooth. It’s calming. She pressed the stone into your palm and closed your fingers over it. It’ll help you sleep at night. You looked up at Clay to see if he was rolling his eyes, but his lips were taut, his hand rubbing the back of his neck, and he looked like he’d found a new religion.

One night during their stay, you awoke to Ginny sitting on the edge of your bed in the dark, the pungent and sharp smell of whiskey causing you to hold your breath. She held an unlit cigarette in one hand and stroked your bare calf with the other. Under the sheets you gripped the lepidolite like it was your own heart, heavy and detached. You lay motionless until she sighed, got up, and left. You told yourself she wasn’t that way, and you weren’t either. That she loved Clay, that she wasn’t a cheater.

Your dad was, though—a cheater. When your parents died in a car accident a few months before you graduated high school, Clay and Ginny came back to help out. There had been no money from the sale of your parents’ house—your father’s feed store carried debts, and there were other unexplained expenses relating to hotel rooms, restaurants, jewelry, and women’s clothing. You weren’t sure whether you were mad at God for taking your parents or exposing your father’s sins or both, but you accepted a basketball scholarship from Arizona State and never looked back, majored in business in the hopes, since you were a sturdy but unspectacular power forward, you could become an accountant, a position in which no one could keep any more secrets from you.

Still, Clay told you his home was always your home. And this spring, before your junior year at Arizona ended, you called him and asked whether you could stay over summer break. Next summer, you would be moving away, more likely than not, for grad school. You were so close to really being on your own, no longer having a coach or faculty advisor or resident assistant, that you wanted to feel like you belonged to something still, even if your family tree now looked like a horizontal two by four. You knew you would see Ginny again, Ginny who you thought of when you cradled the lepidolite at night, reached for it during the day in your pocket. You’d loved Clay so hard throughout your life it made your fist clench, it made you grimace, and you were happy for him but you were curious, curious what Ginny saw when she looked at you, stroked your calf, and you didn’t know what would happen, but you certainly invited it, driving out here to Truth or Consequences.

“Two large pepperoni!” Betty calls over to you as she hangs up the wall phone. You tuck your laptop in the safe and pull on a pair of latex gloves, deciding that maybe you can sleep in your car, just for tonight, in the parking lot of Roman’s. You need to open the restaurant tomorrow, anyway, so it won’t look suspicious if your car is in the lot before Betty’s. You’ll just have to move it sometime tonight, maybe near the dumpsters but maybe not, since there are some real homeless in town, and they have been known to try to open up the dumpsters, dig out leftover pizza and mozzarella sticks. You wish you’d been thinking more clearly and grabbed one of Clay’s Derringers. (As if you’d been thinking clearly at all that day.) You know how use and clean them; in Wyoming, every kid, girl or boy, has held and shot a firearm, no different than learning to drive a car. But you’re also glad you didn’t give Clay another reason to be pissed at you.

You roll the dough front and back, side to side. You roll it so thin you have to start all over again, and you hurry up so Betty doesn’t fire you. The money you make for the month you’ll be here isn’t much; it’ll feed you and with any luck will buy you a new pair of Nikes before training camp starts in August. But you can’t live in your car until then. And Betty, while competent enough to own a small business, is, like most small business owners, full of loose screws. She’s retired, almost as wide as she is tall, and has a preference for pink sweatpants with words like “Sassy” emblazoned across the bottom. She owns more firearms than Clay and shoots a round from her Remington every night into the sky in her yard before she goes to bed. Her Chihuahua Pappy disappeared a few months ago, and she’s convinced that a Mexican gray wolf got her. But you don’t understand what discharging live ammunition every night will solve, except possibly hitting you when it comes back down. Still, her other Chihuahua, Loco, hasn’t gone missing, but that dog’s as crazy as Betty, and everyone gives it a wide berth, probably even the wolves.

“Can you take those out to the hostel?” Betty orders you more than asks as you slide the large wooden spatula under one of the pizzas 20 minutes later to ease it out of the oven. “Hop called in sick; more like he got the drinky-drinky from his disability check, lazy son of a bitch.”

You’ve never done delivery, but the hostel is harmless. It’s on the east side of T or C, a bunch of trailers and mineral baths anchored on a stretch of the Rio Grande that attracts hippie-dippy types from everywhere. As if to prove its own point, when you pull onto the small gravel lot by the river, a bearded man wearing a straw hat and a tie dye with a wizard on it waves to you.

“How’s it goin’?” He digs in his wallet and hands you a twenty. “These pies are about to hit the right spot.”

“I put extra pepperoni on these.” You don’t know why you did, but you did (probably some universal atonement), and you don’t know why you tell him you did. The way the wizard on his shirt stretches over his belly tells you he’s probably had a fair share of deli meats in his life. He’s maybe in his 40s, but the way he rocks on his bare feet, his white, hairless legs poking out of his cargo shorts, makes him look younger.

“Well, I thank you kindly.” As he relieves you of the pie boxes, he leans inward as if to let you in on a secret. “Wanna burn?”

“I gotta get back to work.” You shove the money in your pocket. You also get drug tested before the season starts. Not that you’ve ever smoked marijuana. Heck, your family, except for Clay, who likes his whiskey neat now and then, were purer than the Mormons. But you’re not exactly in a place to judge right now.

“That’s cool.” He rubs his biker’s beard. “You gotta make a living.”

“I could come back after my shift,” you offer. You don’t want to be alone with your thoughts. Pizza man, despite his blue, buggy eyes, seems safe enough. You don’t have Clay’s Derringer, but you have a pocket knife in the glove compartment of your car.

“Well, all right.” He nods as if in contemplation. “When you come back, ask for Walter.”

* * *

The hostel is lit up at night like you imagined, with paper lanterns, a couple of tiki torches lining the flagstone walkway that connects all the trailers and leads to the mineral baths that overlook the river. Geckos are painted on the sides of trailers, are set in stones in mosaics. Incense and marijuana alternately greet your nostrils you as you wander along.

“You bring a bathing suit?” Walter is standing in front of trailer 9, wearing a pair of bright-yellow board shorts that rope somewhere underneath his massive belly. He holds out a bottle of Bud Lite and you take it, studying the fire pit in the center of the complex, the girl who’s about your age strumming a guitar, a long strand of hair clinging to her bottom lip, partially opened. You are an alien here but, without Clay, without a place to call your own, you’re strangely free now to move about, enjoy the company of strangers.

Another man steps out of trailer 9, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He’s taller and heavier than Walter but moves with more deliberation, almost a delicacy. He cocks his head at you in curiosity.

“Casey.” You wave with your beer, realizing you haven’t introduced yourself to Walter, either. “Casey Hailey.”

“How unusual—your first and last name are androgynous.” He pulls a snack pack of peanuts out of his front pocket and shakes a few into his mouth. “I go by my initials—TJ—Theodore James. Are we heading down to the baths?”

You follow a few paces behind Walter and TJ. You’re not sure what to make of them and not sure if TJ is complimenting you or not. But now that you’ve almost kissed Ginny, kissed a girl, kissed someone, period, you’re not even sure what to make of yourself, either.

What did you come here for? Before you can answer yourself, the baths appear before you, overlooking the Rio Grande.

“We come out here every right, right after dinner.” Walter sits on the edge of the stone bath, the heat from the water rising in clouds around him, before sliding in. He ropes his arms around the lip of the bath, holding a bottle of Bud Lite and a pipe bowl in the other. “Best view in the southwestern United States.”

It is pretty. Out across from the Rio Grande looms Turtle Mountain, which got its nickname from a rock formation on the top that looks like a turtle lying on its stomach. Inner tubes tied to the dock a little way down from the baths bob in the current. You dangle a foot in the mineral water, taking a sip of the beer, watching TJ step out of his rubber sandals and unbutton his shirt. His hair is curly, white-blond, and thinning, a neat mustache anchoring the bottom of his face. His thighs are soft and wobbly as he presses his hands on the edge of the bath and slowly swings his leg, straight, like it’s a construction girder, over the tub wall. He’s older than Walter, both of them so much older than you. But they’ve seen something in you, the same way Ginny did, and you’d like to know what it is.

“We travel three times a year,” Walter explains. “We’ve been to 48 states. But I think we’re gonna keep coming back to T or C. You’ve got a nice little town.”

“I’m not from here, either.” You’ve rolled your jeans up and let the water lick your smooth, bare calves. It’s unbearable, the heat, for a second, but then your muscles spread and relax like batter in pan. “Right now, I’m not from anywhere.”

“Well, my friend.” Walter lifts his arms, embracing the air, and laughs. “Wherever you go, there you are. Wherever you’re from is where you left last.”

“Are you trying to say Casey is from the pizza shop?” TJ says this dryly, as if he’s engaged in this round of logic with Walter before. He tosses more peanuts into his mouth.

Walter looks at you and wriggles his eyebrows. He holds another beer out to you, even though you’re only a third of the way through your first. You wonder if he wants to get you drunk, get you back to trailer 9.

“Did I take my Crestor?” TJ asks Walter.

“Yes, you took it at 4 o’clock,” Walter answers. “Two hours before the pizza.”

“I don’t remember that.” TJ sips his Bud Lite.

“You took it when we were in Silver City, remember?”

“Oh, right.” TJ looks at you. “Did you know the government designed Silver City without accounting for storm water? They tried to fix it by raising the sidewalks, but a flood swept through anyway and destroyed everything. You know what they say—we’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”

“Mind you,” Walter interrupts, “he can’t even remember taking his Crestor on those very high sidewalks. Do you know who has to check his pillbox every night?”

You smile. Not only at the story, but because it’s obvious that Walter and TJ are a couple, and you are in the clear. You hold out your hand for that second beer, even though you haven’t finished the first.

* * *

You visit Walter and TJ at the hostel for the next two nights, sleeping in the parking lot of the hostel, sharing leftover mozzarella sticks and fries as they highlight their travels to White Sands, Elephant Butte, and, of course, Roswell.

“It was a nuclear test surveillance balloon from Project Mogul.” Walter pulls a joint out from behind his ear. “Had nothing to do with aliens.”

“That’s what the government wants you to believe.” TJ cracks open a pistachio and throws the shell out toward the river. It disappears in the stones along the shore before making it to the water.

On the third night, you tell them about Clay walking in on you and Ginny.

“He’s the only family you have,” TJ says. “You have to try to make amends.”

“Sometimes your family isn’t blood,” Walter says. He looks out over the river, quiet for the rest of the night.

Your brother thought he knew you. And you thought he knew you, too.

“Casey plays basketball at Arizona State,” he’d tell Judy, the waitress at the Main Street diner. Or Lorena at the post office, where you helped him mail holsters to customers: “Casey’s the first in our family to go to college.” Your life was a promise on his lips, as feathery and impermanent as a cloud.

Like clouds, what is known is always changing. New variables are added. New information is discovered. And maybe you don’t change per se but become more of who you will be. Either way, you hadn’t planned to hurt Clay. You weren’t even thinking about him, which of course is hurting him, too, but you were thinking about Ginny. Maybe not even her—you were thinking about yourself. How alone you are. How you wanted to feel something, someone. When she left your room that Thanksgiving at your parents’ house, you cried. You knew what Ginny felt but couldn’t act on. You’ve spent your whole life trapped by things you never did, words you never said. You’ve spent your whole life feeling the ache of longing, confusing it for being alive.

The weeks you’d been at Clay’s, there had been something. Electricity. The way Ginny looked at you when you she thought you wouldn’t notice, the way she brushed her hips against yours in the cramped kitchen and played with your hair as you watched television at night, waiting for Clay to finish up in the garage, where he cut and oiled and sewed leather holsters for .45 calibers, Glocks, Berettas, long barrels. He didn’t have much—a 1000-square-foot rancher, a girlfriend who read tarot at the crystal shop on Main Street, where the tourists browsed antiques and cowboy hats and dried wreaths made of chili peppers, his holsters, his crew cab—but he had everything. All you had was him.

She’d been lying in bed, sipping coffee, when you came out of the shower after your five-mile run. As you hurried between the bathroom and the open doorway of their bedroom, wrapped in a bath towel, toward your own, she’d whistled at you from the bed.

“Hey sexy,” she said, and you’d stopped in your tracks, feeling goosebumps all over.

“Hey sexy yourself.” It was only three words, but it was your most impressive feat so far—more than your one-handed basket at the buzzer, your game-tying free throws, your 3.8 grade point average. You sounded assured. Desirable. Changed.

“Come and talk to me.” She patted Clay’s side of the bed. As you slid in the sheets, you left the cocoon of your damp bath towel crumpled on the floor, pressed your Dove bodywash-smelling skin against her.

* * *

When Clay shows up at Roman’s, three days after he threw you out, you’re surprised.

“I don’t know what to say.” Clay shakes his head, stirring his straw in his soda as you lean over a table in the back. “I mean, what were you doing?”

“I don’t know.” You shake your head, too. “Ginny’s been so nice to me—I guess I took it the wrong way.”

“Ginny said as much.” Clay nods, looking up at you. “I knew you weren’t like that.”

You roll a straw wrapper very tightly into a curl, not looking at him. You’re not mad at Ginny for lying. You’re not mad at Clay, either, for believing her. People who have things, especially if it’s not many of them, spend all their time trying to not to lose them. They may want other things, but not at the expense of what they already have.

“I’m so sorry,” you say after a minute. You’re mad at yourself for wanting other people’s things. But maybe you don’t want what Clay has, anyway. There are so many ways to make families. You think of Walter and TJ, who are at the Very Large Array right now, the home of 27 radio antennas. You know the human race is wired to make contact with other planets and galaxies, other people.

“Ginny and I, we’re willing to forget it,” Clay says. Today, the muscles in his temples are slack, and his Bailey perfectly cradles his head. It looks good on him. “I don’t know where you been staying the past week—Ginny got pretty upset when Veronica mentioned you hadn’t been by—so if you want to …”

“No.” You don’t want to forget who you are now. Or might be. And you’re not sure you want to go back to Clay’s. To school. To what you’ve known. Maybe you’ve always known that you and Clay were strangers. You think about, when you were little, the way Clay pulled you around on a sled on Christmas mornings in Wyoming. When you got to the hills behind your house, he’d carry the Radio Flyer with red metal runners over his head. At the top, you grabbed the steering bar tight as he pushed you and you started down the hill. Halfway down, you wanted to turn and look at him, wave, but you’d gained so much speed, and all you could do was hold on, see it through.

The doorbell jingles at the front of Roman’s, and you jump up, as if you’ve been caught cheating again. It’s just Javi, one of the guys who’s been digging up the water main on Date Street. It’s surprised you how long it’d taken for that water leak to collect below the surface, to cave in the intersection, to crumble asphalt and rock. You wonder if it can be fixed, and, if not, whether Clay and Ginny and everyone else here will stay until the bitter end, anyway.

“Where are you stayin’?” Clay grabs your forearm. You let him hold you for a second. What was once strong and comforting feels so constricting, heavy.

“It’s OK—I got a place,” you answer.

When Walter and TJ drive out to Las Cruces tomorrow, they’ll continue onto El Paso, where they’ll fly home to Portland, Oregon. But not before they put in a good word for you with Bob, the owner of the hostel. In exchange for housekeeping and covering the front desk phone when Bob run errands, he’ll let you sleep in one of the bunks in the dormitory.

You break away and hurry behind the counter, grabbing the order pad, even though Javi’s order is the always the same—two slices everything, a large Coke, large onion rings.

Out of the corner of your eye you watch Clay linger at the door. There’s so much more that can be said, but nothing that will change your mind now. With your back turned, while you wrap Javi’s slices on a plate, scoop up onion rings out of the fryer, you know Clay will go. You take your time with the onion rings, afraid to turn to face the counter, see it’s only just you and Javi. And then just you, when Javi heads back up to Date Street, taking a long drink of his Coke.

* * *

“We’ll send you a postcard,” Walter says. He and TJ are standing in front of their rental Hyundai. A plastic tub of pretzels rests in the back seat like a baby. “And if you’re ever in Oregon, you always have a place.”

“We’ll look for you on television.” TJ folds his body into the front seat and slides on his aviator sunglasses. “Although what I know about basketball you can fit on my big toenail.”

You wind up making a lot of friends at the hostel that last month in T or C—George and Helen from Montana, Jerri and Bobbi from Maryland. In the fall, postcards from them are forwarded to you from your old P.O. box at school to where you are now—postcards with pictures of the Chesapeake Bay, of Big Sky Country. Close to Christmas break, you get a letter from Walter, inviting you to spend a few days for the holidays. TJ prefers the Pittock Mansion, but if you’re like me, you’ll dig the holiday ship parade.

You send him a card back with your new address. And then you decide to call Clay, to let him know where you are, too. Because although there will be another Walter, another Ginny, maybe someone even better than Ginny, you will never have another brother. This information will never change.

While you wait for him to pick up, you stare in the mirror. You’ve never liked looking at yourself—there’s so much to find fault with—but the wide, clearness of your eyes, the shape of your lips, surprises you. It’s intoxicating, almost, seeing yourself from the vantage point of someone else. When Clay picks up, you say hello, but it’s not really him you’re greeting.

Jen Michalski’s Comments

I clearly remember when I wrote the first draft of this story—it was a Sunday in December, and I was about to go to the bar to watch the football game when I sat down at my laptop and banged it all out. I don’t really remember, however, why I started writing it. I had the voice, the rhythm of the story in my head, and I was sort of following along with the cadence of words I was typing, but I didn’t know exactly what would happen, except that it would start in the aftermath of a rotten situation—which turned out to be the protagonist, Casey, getting caught cheating with her brother’s girlfriend. I was interested in the idea of a moral-less story, where everything is kind of messed up with no clear resolution, and yet the narrator finds unexpected grace anyway.

In the first draft, I didn’t identify Casey’s gender, because I wanted to explore the expectations or prejudices a reader might have if they didn’t know the sex of the narrator, especially when adultery comes into play. (Interestingly, the readers who critiqued the early drafts of the story were split in whether they assumed they were reading from the perspective of a male or female narrator.) However, in subsequent revisions with Ellen, I came to see the need to pick a side and really focus instead on Casey’s desire to belong, to find a home somewhere (and ultimately in herself). So, the story is very much about identity and how we develop our sense of it. For the longest time, Casey’s sense of self is tied up into being an orphan, having only her brother, Clay, and his girlfriend, Ginny, but when she’s literally homeless, it’s freeing for her—she’s allowed to become whoever she wants to be and finds out who she really is.

TJ and Walter were a surprise wildcard for me. They appeared to me as I was writing the story, and are loosely based on a couple of guys I’ve known. Their little vagabond life, the fact that they have found family in their relationship together, and not in their blood relations, is a revelation to Casey regarding all the directions in life she can take. They also seemed like the kind of guys who would appear in a Denis Johnson story, and I really liked that.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 55 | Spring/Summer 2020