He left me with three pieces of mail and a grin that was supposed to be optimistic. Three pieces, all looking like junk. Jim Jeffreys used to hand me bulging shoe boxes full of mail, most of them letters with checks inside. I'd sign the check over to him, and then the donor would receive a form letter in my blocky handwriting. "Thank you for your donation. It is people like you who let me look forward to a brighter future. Your truly, Libby Day." It really did say "your" truly, a misspelling that Jim Jeffreys thought people would find poignant.
But the shoe boxes of donations were gone, and I was left with a mere three letters and the rest of the night to kill. I headed back home, several cars blinking their headlights at me until I realized I was driving dark. Kansas City's skyline glimmered to the east, a modest, mid-rise Monopoly scatter, radio towers spiking here and there. I tried to picture things I could do for money. Things that grown-ups did. I imagined myself in a nurse's cap, holding a thermometer; then in a snug blue cop's uniform, escorting a child across the street; then wearing pearls and a floral apron, getting dinner ready for my hubby. That's how screwed up you are, I thought. Your idea of adulthood still comes from picturebooks. And even as I was thinking it, I saw myself writing ABCs on a chalkboard in front of bright-eyed first graders.
I tried to come up with realistic occupations-something with computers. Data entry, wasn't that some sort of job? Customer service, maybe? I'd seen a movie once where a woman walked dogs for a living, dressed in overalls and sweater sets and always holding flowers, the dogs slobbery and loving. I didn't like dogs, though, they scared me. I finally thought, of course, about farming. Our family had been farmers for a century, right down to my mom, until Ben killed her off. Then the farm got sold.
I wouldn't know how to farm anyway. I have memories of the place: Ben mucking through the cold spring mud, swatting calves out of his way; my mom's rough hands digging into the cherry-colored pellets that would blossom into milo; the squeals of Michelle and Debby jumping on haybales in the barn. "It itches!" Debby would always complain, and then jump in again. I can never dwell in these thoughts. I've labeled the memories as if they were a particularly dangerous region: Darkplace. Linger too long in an image of my mom trying to jury-rig the blasted coffeemaker again or of Michelle dancing around in her jersey nightgown, tube socks pulled up to her knees, and my mind would jerk into Darkplace. Maniacal smears of bright red sound in the night. That inevitable, rhythmic axe, moving as mechanically as if it were chopping wood. Shotgun blasts in a small hallway. The panicked, jaybird cries of my mother, still trying to save her kids with half her head gone.
What does an administrative assistant do? I wondered.
I pulled up to my house, stepped onto a slab of sidewalk where someone had scraped "Jimmy Loves Tina" in the concrete decades ago. Sometimes I had flashes of how the couple turned out: He was a minor-league baseball player/she was a housewife in Pittsburgh, battling cancer. He was a divorced fireman/she was a lawyer who drowned off the Gulf Coast last year. She was a teacher/he dropped dead of an aneurysm at twenty. It was a good, if gruesome, mind game. I had a habit of killing off at least one of them.
I looked up at my rented house,wondered if the roof was lopsided. If the whole thing crashed in, I wouldn't lose much. I owned nothing of value but a very old cat named Buck who tolerated me. As I hit the soggy, bowed steps, his resentful mews reached me from inside the house and I realized I hadn't fed him today. I opened the door and the ancient cat moved toward me, slow and crimped, like a jalopy with a busted wheel. I didn't have any cat food left-that had been on the to-do list for a week-so I went to the fridge, pulled out some slices of hardened Swiss cheese, and gave those to him. Then I sat down to open my three envelopes, my fingers smelling like sour milk.
I never made it past the first letter.
Dear Ms. Day,
I hope this letter reaches you, as you seem to have no website.
I have read about you and followed your story closely over
the years, and am very interested to hear how you are doing
and what you are up to these days. Do you ever do appearances?
I belong to a group that would pay you $500 just to
show up. Please contact me and I will happily give you more
PS This is a legitimate business offer.
Stripping? Porn? Back when the book came out, with its section of Baby Day Grows Up photos, the most notable was me at seventeen, my wobbly, woman-breasts barely held in by a white-trash halter top. I'd received several propositions from fringe nudie mags as a result, none of them offering enough money to make me think hard. Even now five hundred wouldn't quite do it, if these guys did want me to get naked. But maybe - think positive, Baby Day! - maybe it really was a legit offer, another of those mourners' groups, needing me to show up so they had a reason to talk about themselves. Five hundred for a few hours of sympathy was a doable exchange.
The letter was typed, except for a phone number that had been inked at the bottom in assertive script. I dialed the number, hoping for voicemail. Instead, a cavernous pause came on the line, a phone picked up, but not spoken into. I felt awkward, as if I'd called someone in the middle of a party I wasn't supposed to know about.
Three seconds, then a male voice: "Hello?"
"Hi. Is this Lyle Wirth?" Buck was nosing around my legs, anxious for more food.
"Who's this?" Still in the background: a big loud nothing. Like he was at the bottom of a pit.
"This is Libby Day. You wrote me."
"Ohhhhh holy cow. Really? Libby Day. Uh, where are you? Are you in town?"
The man-or boy, he sounded young-yelled something at someone back behind him that included the phrase, "I already did them," and then groaned into my ear.
"You in Kansas City? You live in Kansas City, right? Libby?"
I was about to hang up, but the guy started yelling hel-ooo-o? hel-ooo-o? into the line, like I was some dazed kid not paying attention in class, so I told him I did live in Kansas City and what did he want. He gave one of those heheheh laughs, those you-won't-believe-this-but laughs.
"Well, like I said, I wanted to talk to you about an appearance. Maybe."
"Well, I'm in a special club . . . there's a special club meeting here next week, and . . ."
"What kind of club?"
"Well, it's kind of different. It's sort of an underground thing . . ."
I said nothing, let him twist. After the initial bravura, I could feel him get uneasy. Good.
"Oh crap, it's impossible to explain over the phone. Can I, uh, buy you a coffee?"
"It's too late for coffee," I said, and then realized he probably didn't even mean tonight, probably meant sometime this week, and then I wondered again how I'd kill the next four or five hours.
"A beer? Wine?" he asked.