Elissa Cahn

One Small Thing


Thousands of miles from any ocean, the Seaside Manor, once a brothel, still sagged with the despair of an old hooker on her knees. To get away from the crumbling plaster and crush of paperwork, the ding and hiss of the radiator that made the place a sweatbox well in advance of winter, to get away from the constant overhead drone of the loudspeaker—BEEP! Today’s Recreation Therapy activity is Family Feud. BEEP! Hygiene Club is meeting in Room 347-B—and the stink of cigarette ash ground into the carpet, Jocelyn Becker, in her second month as a case manager, took her residents to the zoo.

The first demand came from Edie White, a wheezing, elephantine woman in her thirteenth year as a Seaside tenant. Her neighbor, that bastard, had stolen her radio signal. At first, Jocelyn thought the woman’s radio was missing—but no.

“Take me to the judge,” Edie huffed. “I’ll sue.”

Jocelynn, twenty-two years old and still wearing her sorority pin, smiled gamely. “Maybe after we come home.” By then, Edie would hopefully have forgotten about her imaginary lawsuit and moved on to her eternal quest for cigarettes.

They took the bus, though the zoo was only a few blocks away. To Jocelyn, a trip on the #22 was a lurching, queasy affair, where she was squeezed shoulder to shoulder with people who smelled of grease and body odor and the occasional public masturbator. But the residents, who rarely left the building despite their city-issued public transit passes, brightened the moment they stepped aboard, as if they’d lolled in their beds for hours upon hours, storing up energy for this moment, the moment the bus pulled away from the curb. Yolanda, who rarely spoke, sat fully upright and stared straight ahead, hands folded in her lap. Kira, Jocelyn’s age and muttering to herself, pressed her face to the glass. Jocelyn thought of the germs and was about to pull Kira from the window, then thought: Let her have this vision of the city, this one small thing.

The four of them got off at Armitage and lumbered toward the front gate. Even Kira was slow, though none were as slow as Edie. In the first week of October the sun was still hot, and Jocelyn sweated into her Seaside Manor-issued lab coat. She was reluctant to remove it, though her boss would have been none the wiser. The coat explained to the world that she was in charge of this motley crew, lest anyone believe she was their peer. It shouldn’t have mattered, especially when it came to strangers, but Jocelyn kept the coat on and pushed down a twinge of shame.

Just past the entrance was the souvenir shop, where a little girl clung to the head of a blue stuffed snake coiled around her neck. Immediately, Kira grabbed Jocelyn’s wrist.

“I want one of those.” She pointed to the snake. “Can you lend me money?”

Of course, lend meant give. Last week, Jocelyn had given Kira change for a packet of Cheez-Its, but a stuffed animal from the souvenir shop had to be at least twenty bucks.

“I can’t. I’m sorry,” Jocelyn said.

“But you gave her money, and she’s a bitch.” Kira pointed to Yolanda, who said nothing.

Jocelyn had never given Yolanda money.

“You’re rich. You know that?” Kira said.

Jocelyn was about to protest, but to someone like Kira, she (at $27K plus dental) was rich. Kira’s hair was ratty; sometimes she went through the garbage. Distasteful as she was, all that separated her from Kira was luck, plus genetics. Jocelyn simply apologized again.

“I’m scared of snakes,” Edie said. Her voice was garbled and her eyes, normally at half-mast, threatened to close.

Jocelyn forced herself to smile. “Let’s see some animals. The monkey house is right there.”

Edie opened her eyes a bit and shuffled in the direction of the monkey house. Inside was a rainforest display. Immediately, the humidity was suffocating. Some of the residents loved heat; it settled over them like weighted blankets that quelled and lulled them to sleep until they woke again, hot. Jocelyn had no choice but to remove her lab coat. A tiny monkey chirped from the top of a long-trunked tree. Kira leaned halfway over a railing to examine a pond full of tropical fish, and Jocelyn pictured her falling over the railing and into the pond. These were the sorts of fantasies she did not describe to her supervisor, who would have used terms like countertransference.

Jocelyn felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to find Yolanda, who clasped her hands behind her back and turned her face upward, as if toward the sun.

“Kira owes me two cigarettes. Can you make her give them to me?”

“That’s between you two,” Jocelyn said.

“You should be fired,” Yolanda said and wandered off to look at a terrarium containing poisonous frogs.

There is so little I can give you, Jocelyn thought. Sometimes she felt like her job was to tell residents that she could not help them. No, she could not stop radio signals from being stolen. No, she could not lend them money. No, she could not force an exchange of cigarettes. No, no, no.

Jocelyn reached the end of the exhibit and waited by the door for the group to catch up. When everyone was assembled, she held the door open until Edie, at the back, shuffled through. Outside was a circus cart that served popcorn in giant buckets and frozen treats. Alert, Edie quickened her pace.

“I want a Sno Cone,” she said. “A red one.”

At Fifty-four years old, she sounded like a child. There was something honest in her statement though; Jocelyn, too, wanted a Sno Cone. The residents had brought five dollars apiece to the zoo, and they got in line. Kira wanted a Bomb Pop. Yolanda, who wanted so little, wanted an ice cream sandwich. The line advanced. Money, popcorn. Money, lemonade. Money, Popsicle.

When it was Edie’s turn, she announced her order louder than was appropriate. The woman behind the counter smiled, indulgent, and lifted a yellow paper cone from the stack. She flicked the machine on, and filled the cone higher and higher until a perfect dome of ice rose well above the rim. Edie waited, patient, while the woman topped the cone with cherry syrup from a squeeze bottle. Then the woman leaned across the counter to hand her the Sno Cone, cold and dripping, and Edie reached out to take it, and Jocelyn marveled at how easy it was.


If There’s Anything You Need


The casserole man was just following orders. Stella knew that. He was a well-intentioned man, trying to do the right thing. But her freezer was overflowing. She wedged a chair against the door to keep it shut. On Tuesdays, the man delivered tuna casseroles. On Wednesdays, shepherd’s pie. This time, when the man came to her door balancing pans beneath his chin, she was ready.

“Listen, Casserole Man. I don’t need any lasagna, or whatever that is.” Stella tried to be firm, but kind. She liked the little rose on his shirt pocket. Maybe he would continue to visit, even if he had no deliveries.

“Sign here.” He handed her a clipboard.

There was nothing to be done. He had other deliveries to make, and he was waiting for her to sign. The pans were cold and swathed in aluminum. She peeked under the foil: soggy breadcrumbs. She hated breadcrumbs, French fried onions, and potato chip crumbles. All toppings. Mayonnaise, sour cream, Velveeta. Anything gelatinous. Especially if it also involved frozen peas.

She shut the front door with her hip and set the casserole on the coffee table with the others. The note attached to this one read: Let the Lord’s love sustain you, along with this moussaka. Very sincerely, The Johnsons.

The next morning, she sat by her bedroom window with a cup of coffee. She’d had to move the percolator into the bedroom to accommodate all the pans. Her husband, Nate, had been a chef. The steaks and late-night scotch and long hours might have done him in, but he never would’ve stood for tater tot casserole. She pictured Nate hand-grating potatoes, heating the deep fryer. Nobody had visited since the funeral.

When the casserole man came, she only opened the door a crack. She still wanted to see him. This time, there was no rose on his shirt pocket, and one of the buttons had come loose. He set a pan of cornbread on her stoop. She took it inside and shoved it underneath the television, where the magazines and DVDs used to be. She called all the local soup kitchens, but none of them accepted homemade items. There was a dumpster out back, but she couldn’t bear to waste food, even though everything would spoil sooner or later, and then she’d have to throw it away.

The next day, so many casseroles arrived that the man had to use a dolly.

“Please,” she said. “No more. Nate hates Miracle Whip.” The last part, she hadn’t meant to say out loud, and not in the present tense.

In response, the man dripped a bead of sweat into a pot of stew whose lid was ajar.

She put the day’s load in the bathtub. Condensation had formed on the aluminum, but it could’ve been the man’s sweat. When she thought about it, that didn’t seem so bad. By the following week, pot pies clogged her fireplace; stroganoff replaced the pillows on her bed; winter hats in the coat closet held goulash. She started sleeping on an old lounge chair in the garage. It was more comfortable than sleeping in her car.

“We need to talk, Casserole Man,” she said, next time he came to the door. “I can’t live like this.” She opened the front door to show him how she couldn’t climb the stairs anymore. She expected him to come inside, if only to remove his wares.

“Do you think I want to do this?” he asked.

“You’re under orders. I know. But—“

“You people think it’s simple. It’s not that simple. The office gets an order form. Right away, they make copies. The boss fills out a form, gives it to his boss. A driver gets put on the case. By that time, there’s a whole file. I don’t make a delivery, I don’t get paid. Then they got a form on me.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“You don’t even know the half of it.” Just talking about it, the man’s lip twitched.

She thought about sending a note to friends: Thank you—I have dinners to last until I die. There was no graceful way to say, “Enough.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” he asked.

Stella didn’t know whether he was just trying to be polite. She looked out at his van idling in the driveway, 1-800-CAS-ROLE in red script along the side. A ladder was attached to the roof. Stella imagined him delivering blintz soufflé to a starving princess in a tower, then imagined the ladder extended to her, Stella. She would cross it like a bridge between her front door and the nice man’s van.

“You could take me for a ride,” she said.

“Got someplace to go? An errand?”

Stella shook her head. The man shrugged. “Get in, I guess.”

She stepped onto her porch. Outside, the sky was the kind of gray that hurt her eyes. Her legs felt wobbly. The man took her elbow and led her to the passenger door. The cushion gave beneath her weight, the nubby fabric soft and worn. On the radio, a newscaster reported on a local home and garden show. She hadn’t pegged him for the sort of man who listened to news.

“Where’s your next delivery?” she asked, when they were on the road.

“Out by Baker’s Point. Stopping at 7-11 first, though. Missed breakfast.”

She turned to him. “But you have so much food in this truck.”

“It’s for folks. Grieving people.”

Stella picked up the Tupperware by her feet and set it on her lap. She glanced at the card, then lifted the lid.

“Nina Peters will not miss this ham salad. Trust me.”

“I really shouldn’t.”

“Go ahead, Casserole Man.”

“My name’s Thomas Wilkins.”

She was surprised he used his full name. Showed how much she knew about men like him. She held the container out to him. Bits of ham glistened pink. Thomas turned onto a side street and pulled over.

“I don’t have a fork,” he said.

“It’s all right.” More than anything, she wanted to see him eat until his belly was full. She dug into the cool, creamy salad. Slices of celery and chopped walnuts were mixed in; she pulled up an errant grape. She held out the quivering perfect mess that threatened to drip through her fingers, held it to his lips.

“Open up.”


Come August


Lizzie bags groceries Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. We’ve had a lot of baggers over the years, but Lizzie’s the best. She knows to fill the corners first. Her bags never rip. She doesn’t check her phone or talk too much, not like that other girl, Gina, the one with the blue fingernails. Lizzie is yearbook photography editor. She’s on student council. She’s vigilant for abandoned shopping carts.

Lizzie is applying for college.

Marion, who’s worked here so long she’s memorized all the produce codes, keeps asking if she’s been accepted. “I won’t know until March,” Lizzie says every time, but it doesn’t stop Marion from asking.

Marion has to be the first to know everything.

In the break room, over a bowl of stale tortilla chips, she told us how Jill got promoted to Prepared Foods Supervisor, even though she’s been here for less time than Tessa. The same day Jill got promoted Tessa went home sick, which Marion says was no coincidence, and Tessa should be afraid for her job. Supervisors make a buck fifty more an hour, which doesn’t sound like much, but adds up. We may not have gone to college, but we’re good with numbers.

Marion, who’s so good with numbers she helps the grocery department with quarterly inventory, also keeps tabs on the news. She says there’s a downward trend in the stock market, and we should pull our money now, not that we have any to invest.

She hides the paper at her register to read when there are no customers. That’s how she knows about all the shootings. Another one, this time a block from the high school. One boy dead, another in critical condition. A gunman could walk into the store, right up to the register, Marion says. It’s just a matter of time. We heard she asked the boss if she could keep a gun under her counter, and he just laughed. No one dares ask Marion whether the rumor is true.

Marion says Lizzie thinks she’s better than us, and we all nod, even though we don’t believe this. When Marion isn’t around, our favorite question to ask Lizzie is what she’s going to be. Sometimes she wants to move to Paris and learn to make eclairs. Other times she wants to become a trekking guide in the Himalayas. We love how frequently her answer changes, because she could be any of these things, all of these things. A professor, a dancer, an architect. She’s going to make it. She’s going to leave this store, this town; we know it. We know this like we know the dairy truck arrives on Thursdays. Come August, her nametag will disappear from the hook beside the time clock. And we will miss her, but the day she leaves we will not read the headline about the man who shot his wife. We will not read about guns in our streets, guns in our homes, guns in our churches. Our televisions will sit mute and we will go to work and Lizzie will be gone and we will barely glance up from our crossword while Marion eats a day-old cinnamon roll in the break room, hawkish and wondering.

  return to fiction

Elissa Cahn earned her MFA from Western Michigan University, where she served as the nonfiction editor for Third Coast. Her work has appeared in: Sou'wester, Witness, Harpur Palate, Smokelong Quarter, PANK, and others. She writes and works at her local food co-op (which is nothing like the grocery store in "Come August"-- for one thing, there are lot more hippies) in Iowa City.