five words that don't mean anything
by bj


Between Torrance and Fresno, Ainsley has to pee.

Her mama pulls over. "Hurry up, little girl," she drawls with a patient smile.

Ainsley undoes her corduroys behind a shrub and squats, keeping her feet as far apart as she can so her new pink sneakers don't get wet and smelly.

She listens to her mama softly singing along with Alabama in the car.

"Song, song of the south, sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth. Gone, gone with the wind, ain't nobody looking back again."

Ainsley knows she was born in South Carolina, and so was her mama, but she doesn't know where that is. She likes her mama's smooth, slow voice, though. She wishes more people talked like her mama.

Hopping, she zips up and runs back to the car. Her mama runs her fingers through Ainsley's hair, brushing it back from her face, then turns back onto the highway.

The song on the radio changes and Ainsley's mama stops singing. She hums during the chorus, it's slow and sad.

Ainsley thinks her daddy didn't like country music much. Ainsley doesn't really remember him, only the smell of warm beer, the sound of slamming screen doors. The taste of lemonade and how sticky-hot their house was in the summertime.

California isn't sticky, only hot, and it smells like nothing, sounds like worn wheels over asphalt. The desert is hottest, but Ainsley thinks her mama likes it best even so. Ainsley likes being beside the ocean, watching the sailboats and seagulls, the nice salty breeze coming up from the water.

Her mama's jewellery jangles against the steering wheel as she taps her fingers on the dashboard.

"Working nine to five," she sings, grinning, her voice cracking on the high note, and Ainsley sings too. "What a way to make a living."

They're driving north, and Ainsley sticks her arm out the open window, feeling the warm, dry sunshine.



Ainsley walks out of the gym, pencil case in her right hand. Her left hand is shaking and she stuffs it in her pocket. She blinks rapidly, trying not to cry.

At the bus stop she sits with a shallow sigh. She puts a stick of gum in her mouth and sucks the wintergreen out. A few other students, some she recognises, some she doesn't, circle around the bench.

Uniform is to Measure as Forget is to.

She clutches her case, leaning into her backpack. Something jabs her spine and she appreciates the discomfort.

The adjudicator's sallow face, blank under fluorescent lights, his glasses mirroring the gym ceiling. The quick way he shuffled her answer sheets in with everyone else's. Smudges of graphite on her fingertips, a streak of red pen on his cuff.


Gantry. Gentry. Gant. Got.

Two buses reach the stop: the 798 and the 710. She stands up.

Smudges of graphite on her answer sheet. The squeak of her eraser, echoing. Bouncing from cement block wall to cement block wall.

All the other students looking at her. Looking, watching her erase and re-answer and rub the eraser of her pencil up and down the desktop.

Her father dropping her off, "Good luck, Lee."

In his voice, the unspoken not that you'll need it. Crossing and re- crossing her feet, trying to silently scuff the soles of her sneakers on the hardwood floor. Clutching at the cool cool metal rack under the desk, the leg of the desk. Wishing for water. Who needs luck she needs water.

A third bus stops before her. 809. It will take her away from her house.

Which does not belong?

"I don't think I studied enough," she tells her mother over cornbread muffins before the test.

"Don't worry about that, sugar," her mother says. "You'll be fine. You've never failed anything before."

Dark circle light square triangle (half dark half light) what comes next.

"Have you got your bus fare?" her father says a block from the gym.

"Yeah," she says. She tries to smile. Smiling widely.

She hands in her test with clenched teeth. The adjudicator's blank face, invisible eyes as he shuffles her in with everybody else.

She crumples the bills in her pocket. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth, the gum a cold soap-flavoured lump behind her teeth.

"You getting' on?" a bus driver asks her.

She nods. She grabs the handrail and pulls herself into the bus.



Ainsley stands at the colour photocopier. The library is quiet, but full of people, their breath and the smell of old paper, knowledge.

The copier room door opens and a non-descript man walks in. He sets his backpack on the floor at the next machine and opens the lid. She feels him glance at her several times. She glances over as he puts an astronomy reference text on the glass plate.

She opens the lid of her machine and sets a thick book inside, pressing the button. Light flashing back, then forth. And out slips a shiny perfect copy of "The Bleeding Roses".

A blond woman clutching the pillar at her back, nude, head turned, throat exposed. Her hair is ropy and looks unbearably soft, fluid, everywhere: her head, under her arms, between her legs. It is blown to one side in the wind, blown towards the sliver of seascape at left. Startling detail in her breasts, the gentle shading of the aureolae, the shadow in the curves. Golden light everywhere but her stomach--four blushing red and pink roses in full glory bleed down her thighs, down in thick slow drips. And on the right, a fleeting observation, the last thing the viewer thinks to see. Grey stone wall, slightly darker grey shadow coming close to the woman's peach- white elbow.

Ainsley inspects the copy, blows on it gently to make sure it's dry. She sees no runs or spots or fuzzy lines. She slides the thick paper into a plastic sheath before snapping it into her art history binder.

She takes the book out of the copier and turns the page. Center the cover, close the lid, press the--

A hand on her left shoulder. She looks up, in that direction, but there's only a wide hand, curled over the pink of her sweater. She turns her head quickly.

The man from the next copier leans around her right side, pressing gently--gently, she thinks wildly--and peering seriously at the binder open across the machine's control panel.

Ainsley doesn't say anything. Her heart rises in her throat; his hand tightens and starts kneading. Firmly. He presses closer, and she just stares at his intent profile. His eyes squinting, his mouth in a sombre straight line. His chest against her back isn't gentle anymore. Not rough, not quick, but not gentle. No, not that.

Her hips connect with the front of the copier, and his touch her lower back. She closes her eyes and swallows. Surely someone will see, surely someone will notice this isn't just a couple in the copier room, taking a moment over one of Dali's more blatantly violent works.

She opens her eyes. Nobody opens the door or taps on the glass wall. The library suddenly looks deserted, though she sees the slight rise of heads above carol sides. Ainsley tries to breathe, feels panic rising in her chest as his right hand closes like a binder ring over her right wrist, where it grips the side of the machine, thumb hovering over the start button. He doesn't look at her.

Her heart is enormous and shuddering, opening and closing frantically.

It occurs to her: she could drive her elbow into his stomach. She could stomp down on one of his feet. Didn't they tell her that at the Women's Health & Safety seminar she attended during frosh?

She could. The saliva that had threatened to drown her a moment ago evaporates in an instant. She could scream.

His hands tighten on her further.

She opens her mouth and breathes harsh, deep, shivering. Her whole body feels tight, too solid, and also only a thin figment of fear, grounded from flight only by his steady, insistent grip.

Pressure on her bones. She feels like crumpling, just letting him crush her. Or stretching, bending her arms and legs in the sunshine.

His thumb brushes over her thumb. He knocks his hips into her, grinding her pelvis bone on the plastic machine casing. She closes her eyes and swallows, then looks at his hand on hers again.

His thumb settles over her thumbnail and presses down. Hard. Hard. Presses the button with her thumb.

The whine of the machine, the snicker of paper through rollers, the pulsing flash of light, the half-life of her own pulse. Sear against her retina.

"Group of Women Imitating the Gestures of a Schooner."

Jaundiced as he moves against her again, their bodies scribbled and vague with despair. Cloth rent like ancient sails, as if they could sail away from their faceless fate.

One last hard thrust, Ainsley chokes out a tiny painful gasp, her hips and pelvis grate on the corner of the machine on his upward slant.

His bag whispers over his shoulder and he is gone. Her nails bend on the control panel, she wants to push and push down until they break.

But she picks up the copy with trembling fingers.

She wonders how these women got so desperate, and where they are trying to sail with only their bodies and their veils.

She knows why they are torn.



"In that case," Leo McGarry says.

"Yes, sir," Ainsley says.

"Thank you for your time," he says.

"You're welcome."

He makes a nebulous gesture, leaning away from her, his weight on the arm of his desk chair. "Good luck at House Oversight."

"I appreciate it." She inclines her head, smiling politely. She picks up her attaché and stands. "Thank you for asking me in."

"Not a problem," he says, standing as well.

He buttons his suit jacket as he comes around the desk. He holds his office door open, ushering her out with his hand two inches from her back. His secretary looks up at Ainsley with wide eyes, expression part deer in the headlights, part junkyard Rottweiler.

"You can see yourself out?" he asks at the outer door.

"Of course," she says, still smiling.

They shake hands in the hallway.

"Thanks again, Ms. Hayes."

"Thank you, Mr. McGarry."

His rueful, disappointed smile disappears behind the door.

Ainsley walks towards the stairs, head up. As she turns to descend into the outer world she has chosen over this inner one, she sees Sam leaning against the wall in a corridor, talking to CJ Cregg and Toby Ziegler.

Cregg and Ziegler catch sight of her first. Sam follows their eyes. They look her up and down, he gives her a more than professional smile. He nods at her.

Ainsley smiles a little more than politely, and cocks her head as she goes down the stairs. She feels her hair shift against her collar. She lets her step spring a little more than normal.

She hands in her visitor's pass. She swings her bag almost jauntily.

At the end of the hall, she pushes open the door and she goes outside.



At the supermarket, Ainsley buys two large bags of cat food and a jug of milk. She drives past the State House slowly, mindful of the crowd outside. The truck is hot, even in October--busted heater coil, and fifty dollars for cat food, she thinks. She rolls her window down.

She cranes her neck, trying to see around the van in front of her. Maybe the police are holding people back, maybe--

She hears: "God. Hates. Fags. Shame. Shame. Shame. God. Hates--"

Her hands clench on the steering wheel of the ancient Jeep, and she stares ahead, not really seeing anything. She hates it, but she won't close her window. She can't help hearing. She won't listen. Her teeth are gritted painfully tight until she clears the congestion.

She lugs one bag of cat food up to the house.

Sam greets her on the porch. "Hey, baby," Ainsley says. She drops the food beside the door. She rubs her fingers between his squinting eyes. He twines around her feet, rubbing his face up the leg of her jeans.

She hangs her keys on her key hook, and her coat on the coat tree. She leaves her boots on; she's going to turn over the compost this afternoon. Al trots up the hallway, tilting his grey head curiously.

"Where's your mom?" she asks, picking him up. Sam butts his head into her shoe jealously. "Don't be a sour puss," she says to him.

She wanders down the hall, checking the living room and the pantry for Mary. The kitchen is also empty. On the table Mary Baker Eddy: Woman of God is arched over a half-eaten white chocolate macadamia nut cookie.

"Mare?" she calls into the small backyard.

From behind the compost bin, "Yes?"

Ainsley laughs when Mary stands up, covered in dirt, wielding her square-bucket shovel. A potato peel is clinging to her frizzy hair. "Um--sweetie?" Ainsley says.

"I'm dirty, I know," Mary says. She flicks the peel away with a heavily-gloved hand. "What did you need?"

"Al's food's in the truck," Ainsley says, focusing on the black smear smudged down Mary's right cheek, around the corner of her square jaw.

"And?" Mary says. She leans on the shovel, raises her eyebrows coolly.

Ainsley rolls her eyes. "Could you bring it in when you're done, baby? Please? For your sweet peach?" With her prettiest, sparkliest homecoming queen smile.

Mary smiles back. "Of course."

"I love you," Ainsley says, just because she can.

Mary squints curiously, then answers, "Love you too."

She ducks back down. After a second Ainsley hears her cursing worms and sow bugs to hell. Ainsley leans on the doorframe, smiling, and closes her eyes, and listens.


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