The girl in the apartment upstairs looked at me through the window of the coffee shop and gave me a harsh “come hither” finger, so I did. She smelled like stale cigarettes. She wanted me to prop open the door so she could get through. She had a baby basket in the crook of her skinny arm with a kid in it scowling at me. She had one of those small leather backpacks on like she was in the 90s, and she moved very quickly, swinging the child-plus-basket into the walls and table.
“Can I just get like, the tiniest bit of sugar? Please?” she asked so loudly, heaving the basket, with these crinkled eyebrows. It was obnoxious, but I said sure and walked back inside to get it. I put it in a paper cup, and I used the expensive sugar, because that’s all I had. The kid started to cry.
I handed her the sugar and she said, “Thanks. He just keeps cryin’ without it,” and walked back upstairs. I went back into the shop and started to pull things out of the sink in the back, like cups and bottles and lids and little pieces of paper out from the bleach water. I set them on the rim of the sink to dry. I leaned on my elbow on the edge to watch them.
I turned to look out the window and I saw the girl outside suddenly. She picked up a butt from the ground and lit it. I lined up the bottle caps on the edge of the sink like little girls at swim practice sitting on the side of the pool, the water running off of them, smelling like chlorine. When she entered the building again, she looked at me like she’d got me right where she wanted me. She approached the counter and asked if I worked last night, when I told her no, that was Shari, she started to cry. I felt awkward and wiped down the counter, but I tried to keep looking up at her periodically, in case she wanted to talk. I didn’t want her to think I was too busy to listen, just too busy to hug her, or whatever might be expected.
“A man come over last night, he’s my friend. He brought his cousin,” she explained, “my toilet don’t work so sometimes you gotta jiggle the handle, you know?” and her eyebrows started doing that furrow thing and she planted the back of her skinny hand on her forehead. She kept crying. “The cousin used the bathroom and asked me to help him flush the toilet, and I said yeah, you know, sure. Why not?” she moved her hand in front of her to continue the story, “but then he pushed me up against the wall and started to take off my pants, and he bent me over my cot and wouldn’t let me up.” She was shaking and I couldn’t help glancing up at the door, afraid a customer would interrupt.
“Ok, ok,” I mumbled. I felt embarrassed, like I should’ve been there. I felt like less of a woman. What kind of woman would let this happen to another woman, a neighbor woman? Let her sleep up there, on a cot, alone. “Stay here for just a sec,” I said, and ran out the door to my car.
When I came back inside she was sucking on her fingernails again. I handed her the pink bottle of pepper spray. “Here,” I said. “If you ever need to use it, just make sure it isn’t pointing toward you. I mean, obviously. But look, you just twist it like this.” The bottle had been in my car for a while and for a second I considered what damage the summer heat might’ve caused to the contents under pressure. Wouldn’t it have been funny if I was trying to help, but I just blew the both of us up?
Katie Quinnelly is a climbing instructor in Shepherdstown, WV. Her work has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers Volume IX, Occulum, Moja Gear, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. She regularly reads her poetry to unwilling listeners in local bars.