by Samantha Eliot Stier
Q buys things, and then sells them. He spends all day scouring Craigslist and then at night he picks me up in his old BMW and we drive, always somewhere new, me in the passenger seat that’s stuck in permanent recline, bare feet on the dash, soft jazz coming out of the one good speaker as I switch between navigation and texting our whereabouts and negotiations to unfamiliar numbers.
Q doesn’t like to talk in the car. He keeps his shades on till the last possible minute, till it’s really too dark to see anything. The sun has dipped beneath the ledge of my window, and we speed down the highway in a silvery dusk. His eyes never move from the road. All I can see is the dark gray sky through the windshield. I feel almost luxurious in the reclined seat, even though I really have no choice.
Somehow he makes a living like this, buying and selling things off Craigslist. I’ve learned not to get too attached to anything. When we first met, he bought puppies, five of them, and sold them all.
Sometimes he buys more than he sells, sometimes the opposite.
He never tells me where we’re going, but I can usually figure out our destination from the text stream once he hands me the phone: an address, the name of an apartment complex, a coffee shop on such and such intersection. We’ve been all over Los Angeles. I’ve walked along the docks of Marina Del Rey carrying over ten thousand dollars in my purse, jumping every time the water slapped against the rotted wood panels, as I waited for Q to park the car so we could buy a boat.
We’ve driven to East Los Angeles, where Q found a good deal on a pricy lens, and I watched him disappear into an apartment building with metal bars on the bottom-floor windows. I waited for over an hour on the sidewalk, doing jumping jacks to keep warm. As it grew dark, people began to stare. I convinced myself he’d been murdered. I was minutes away from calling the police when he finally emerged.
Once, when things were really bad, I found him standing at my closet, looking through my clothes for anything he could sell. I helped him, finding a Chanel suit my grandmother had gotten for me years ago, tags still on, and a beautiful Anthropologie scarf. It was almost fun, like reverse-shopping. I’d already given him my television set and an old-school video camera. I couldn’t seem to stop myself back then. I got excited when he talked about Craigslist, like it was this beautiful exotic land where he could buy—or sell— anything.
I don’t feel that way so much anymore.
Today I’ve figured out we’re going to Riverside— someone’s house. It’s a long drive, and it’s already close to eight.
The silence is never uncomfortable, but today I’m itching, wondering, curious. Scared, too. Q never passes up a good deal, even if it’s in Compton and the guy wants to meet at eleven at night. I don’t know anything about Riverside. I don’t know how much cash Q has on him, or whether he has something in the trunk he’s going to sell.
Before Q got this car, he had a repossessed red Corvette for a few months. We drove it out to Orange County once and met up with this guy who was clearly splitting up with his girlfriend. Through the windows of their apartment, we could see the place was a mess of boxes, rolled up carpets, spilled cat litter. They were fighting when we got there, but when the guy spotted us he came outside, slamming the door. He was carrying a tray of oysters. Fresh from the farmer’s market, he said. His eyes were red. The three of us ate the oysters off the back of the Corvette in the blazing Orange County sun while the girlfriend dumped a mattress off the porch. I kept waiting for the item— whatever it was—to be produced so we could go. Finally, Q handed over the keys to the Corvette and the guy doled out a stack of hundred dollar bills.
Then Q and I walked three miles to the train station.
We park on a residential street in Riverside and I put my shoes back on. We go up to the front door and knock. It takes forever for someone to answer, and I’m nearly peeing my pants. It’s almost eleven.
Finally a woman appears, wearing a heavy-looking wool robe. I can’t imagine she’s been the one texting us; she doesn’t look like someone who knows how to text, much less someone who’s been awake in the past hour and a half. For a moment, I think we must have the wrong house.
“Yes?” she inquires politely, a good sport for a woman who’s just been woken up by a late night visit from two strangers. I note the crucifix hanging in the archway of the hall; a spindly, impaled Jesus gazes forlornly over his shoulder. Two books that look very much like Bibles sit side by side on the dining table behind her, each with a green satin bookmark. There’s something creepy about this place, something that makes me think of Carrie White’s momma.
Q steps forward and turns on the charm, explaining in a low, silky voice why we’re here. Soon she’s opening up the door, murmuring that her husband’s been the one texting us, he’s selling the guitar, of course, of course, come on in.
We walk in, Q with full confidence, me with tentative steps. I don’t want to ask to use the bathroom, but my bladder is straining against the waist of my jeans. I decide to hold out as long as I can.
The woman turns on a lamp so dim it hardly makes a difference. She walks past the dining table with its towering, unlit candles into the kitchen. “Do you want some milk?” she asks. She looks frazzled in her robe, in the tiny kitchen.
I think how strange it is to be offered milk. I can’t remember the last time I was offered milk. If Q doesn’t end up buying the guitar, which happens all the time, then later I’ll say, Remember that time we drove all the way to Riverside for a glass of milk.
I shake my head politely.
A boy emerges from the shadows of the hallway beyond her.
The woman seems frightened of him. “Elijah,” she whispers. “These people are here for Abe’s guitar.”
The boy stares at us. His dark hair is long and thick, hanging in front of his eyes. I’m guessing he’s thirteen or fourteen years old. He wears pajama pants with ducks on them. They collect in folds at his feet. “No,” he says finally.
“Elijah. Go get your father.”
The boy looks at her for a long moment. I think I see hatred in his eyes. Then he slips back into the shadows. I hear the electronic pitch of a television set and muted voices coming from a room back there.
Q accepts his glass of milk and sits at the dining table. He asks how long they’ve lived here, what they do. He’s good with strangers. I like seeing him like this, the difference between this social Craigslist Q and the silent Q I’m used to.
The woman can’t seem to come up with answers to any of his questions. She seems very lost. Finally she says, to the refrigerator, “We’ve recently…had something quite traumatic happen.” In the dim light, the shadows beneath her eyes are dark and cavernous. “I’m sorry.”
I wonder why she says she’s sorry, like the traumatic thing happened to us also.
Q absently fingers the spine of one of the Bibles.
“Please don’t,” the woman says. She sounds on the verge of tears. Q pulls his hand away from the leathery cover.
I’m thinking I probably won’t ask to use their bathroom. Maybe we can get out of here soon, find a coffee shop or a gas station.
The boy Elijah comes back, holding a beautiful guitar. I don’t know anything about guitars, but I can tell this one’s special. It’s so smooth, a deep, rich mahogany color, and the strings look so tight. I know Q will buy it. I always try to guess whether he’ll buy the thing or not.
“Where’s Dad?” the woman asks.
“He doesn’t want to come.”
The woman purses her lips. “I’ll be right back.”
After she disappears into that dark hallway that seems to swallow people whole, Elijah brings the guitar over to Q.
Q admires it, turning it over in his palms. “Nice. Really nice. You play guitar, buddy?”
Elijah keeps his head down. “No.”
Q doesn’t push it, just keeps looking at the guitar. He plucks a few strings and they twang melancholically in the silent room.
The twangs are still bouncing around, growing fainter, when Elijah finally looks up. “My brother’s,” he says.
Q just nods, but as I watch Elijah’s face, I feel a sudden ache, not just in my bladder now. It’s my stomach, my arms, the backs of my knees. I feel like I’m on fire. I stand up suddenly. Q and Elijah stare at me.
“Sorry,” I say. “I—I have to pee.” I wonder if it’s against their religion to say “pee.”
Elijah points into the hallway. I don’t want to go in there. I don’t want to get swallowed up in the darkness.
But I leave Q and Elijah and the guitar and go, into the shadows.
I find the bathroom. It’s surprisingly normal. I don’t know what I expected. More crosses? Scripture as light reading? A crucifix showerhead?
There’s a plastic bag hanging on the doorknob, and I suppose it’s meant to be for trash. I look inside. I can’t help it; there’s something off about these people, this house. I’m curious.
I find three bottles of acne face wash. One still has the plastic seal on the top. I pick it out and slip it into my purse. I figure I can package it with some other toiletry freebies and Q can sell it on CL.
I finish washing my hands and tiptoe back to the dining room. I feel like I can’t make too much noise in this house, like I might disturb God, resting in one of the shadowed rooms.
The woman is back now, and standing beside her is a very small man. The man is so small he is shorter than his thirteen-year-old son. He looks like he is about thirty years younger than the woman. He has a mustache and little round glasses. I imagine that he is a psychiatrist. I bet he works in an office and writes notes about the crazies on a big yellow legal pad. I bet he pads his chair so he looks taller.
He glares at me as I come into the room.
Q is paying them for the guitar. I try to count the hundreds as he throws them down, but lose track after $2,000. It’s an expensive guitar, I gather.
“I’ve never sold anything on Craigslist before,” the woman says.
“She was scared,” the man mutters, but not in a comforting way, more in a way that makes me think he might have been scared, too. “We hear stories on the news.”
“Well, I’m glad you made an exception,” Q responds.
We start toward the door. Q is holding the guitar. I look back at the three of them. The woman has her hand on Elijah’s neck, and she is crying. I didn’t notice before. The man stands back a bit. Elijah stares at the floor. The three of them look so odd standing there under that crucifix.
“Wait,” the woman calls suddenly. Her voice is full of anguish and it rips into my chest.
She comes after us, her robe billowing behind her, and I figure she’s changed her mind, they’re not going to sell the guitar after all. Oh well. This happens all the time.
But instead she pulls a CD from a cardboard box by the door. I can see the box is full of CDs.
“This is our son Abe’s band,” the woman says. “Please take it. He sings and plays guitar.”
She presses it into my hand. She looks so earnest. This is important to her. I shift my purse so she can’t see the stolen face wash.
I can’t seem to find my voice, so Q says Thanks, and out we go. Back in the car. Back on the road.
Lying down in the passenger seat, I peel the plastic wrapper off the CD. I love new things. I love peeling off labels and shrink-wrap, love ripping price tags. I feel the smooth plastic in my hands as I study the cover.
It’s a picture of a boy’s face—Abe’s, I assume. He looks maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. His hair is thick and dark like Elijah’s, but brushed back and long, leaving his face open. He is bathed in an angelic, though clearly artificial, light. His eyes are closed. He holds the guitar against his chest. “Lord, Fill My Heart,” is written in a faux-scripture-like font across the top, the letters glowing gold.
I open the case and pull out the CD, pop it into the player. Q only likes jazz in the car, but I figure he owes me after all that. I turn up the volume.
We listen to Abe sing. He sings about Jesus, about sin, about forgiveness. He doesn’t have a good voice, but he plays well. I twist around to see the guitar in the back seat. I try to picture Abe playing it.
“What do you think happened to him?” I ask Q, propping myself up on my elbows.
Q shrugs. “Drank a few bottles of bleach. Stabbed himself with a statue of Jesus. Dad beat him to death with a Bible.”
I lie back, stunned at his callousness. “That’s not funny.”
Sometimes I wonder if Q might try to sell me on Craigslist.
We drive home, listening to Abe’s CD. We listen to the whole thing. Then it starts over. Q sings along with the chorus this time, and I join in.
Soon we are laughing, hysterical. I clutch my stomach. It’s so ridiculous, but we don’t stop. We keep singing along, our voices more and more boisterous as we praise the Lord through song. The CD loops and loops. I stare at Abe’s face on the cover of the CD, the white light bouncing off his forehead. I think about his family back there in Riverside, and in my mind they are all still standing in a row under the crucifix, just as we left them, the father glaring after the guitar, a wad of cash in his tiny hand, Elijah staring at the folds of his duck pajamas, his mother’s hand protectively curled around his neck as tears run down her face. That box of Abe’s CDs, doled out like party favors to Craigslist strangers. I think about the guy with the oysters in OC, wonder whether he’s met someone else, if he’s driving her around in his red Corvette. I wonder whether that mattress is still lying in the street. I think about all the things that Q has bought and sold, and imagine that all those unfamiliar places we’ve been haven’t changed at all, were always exactly that way, that the people we’ve met through Craigslist are simply frozen in time, just as we left them.
The CD starts again, but neither of us is singing now.
Samantha Eliot Stier’s short stories have appeared online at The Faircloth Review and INfective INk. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in sunny Venice Beach, California. Website: SamanthaStier.com.