Errata Literary Magazine

What We Say When We Don't Know What To Do
by Linda C. Wisniewski

he was hard to look at but I couldn't stop staring. The fingers on both hands curved into her palms like the claws of a small bird. A white bandage wrapped her left foot above the strap of her pale brown sandal. The flesh stretched tight across her jaw on one side of her face. Her small head and short neck made her shoulders look like they got stuck in the middle of a shrug. She was a small woman with wispy blonde hair. I spotted her dragging a chair to our table.

"May I join you?" She smiled and stood right beside me. Amy and I had been talking. Other people were having their own two-person conversations like us. We were upstairs at the comedy club. The lighting was kind of dim. My guess is only a few of us had been there before. That night, we had all shown up for an AIDS benefit.

Now don't think we are HIV or anything. It's just that Amy's mother died of it, AIDS. And she wasn't gay. She got it from a blood transfusion. So Amy is in touch with these places that give money for it. She asked me if I would go to this thing. Her husband refused to come, and mine - don't make me laugh. One of his macho friends might see him in the same room with a gay guy. To be honest with you, sometimes I think that men are not worth the aggravation.

Anyway, there weren't many couples that night. I had scoped the place out pretty good when we got in, after we climbed the stairs and opened the door. About fifty women or so, in twos like Amy and me. Maybe twenty or thirty guys, standing around holding bottles of beer. Maybe gay, maybe not. Like I cared.

So it was no big surprise to see a woman alone, about our age, looking for a place to sit down. We acted like it was no big deal. We tried not to stare at her. I mean, here we were in a comedy club, and this woman looked like a very bad joke.

"May I join you?" She smiled at me and Amy.

"Of course," I said.

"Sure," said Amy. Both of us spoke up at once. We moved our chairs over a little to make room. We didn't need to. The woman was already sitting down. We said our names to each other. A waitress came over with her pad and pencil.

"Rum and coke," the woman said, peppy like she was glad to be here.

"Gin and tonic." I smiled. My lips felt tight.

"Coors Lite," said Amy. She sounded a little tense, if you ask me.

"So. Have you seen her before?" the woman asked. She patted her hair with one hand and nodded toward the stage where the standup comic would perform. It was empty except for a short, stocky guy. He pushed a microphone stand a few feet to one side. Dressed all in black, he made me think of a big spider. He scuttled around the stage plugging and unplugging cords and moving stuff around. Then he stood up straight and walked off.

"Nope, not me."

"Not me." I shifted in my chair. "How about you?"

"Nope. I hear she's good, though." Her left hand reached across the table. She opened it in front of me. A small gold earring lay in her little palm. "Would you do me a favor?"

"Sure." Too quick, I know, but I couldn't take it back. She looked so frail. It wouldn't be fair. And other people might hear. I didn't want to help her. I didn't want to touch her. But I felt sorry for her and people might notice that I wasn't being nice.

"I couldn't get this in my ear," she said. I took the tiny gold ball from her hand. I tried not to look nervous. I did this by making my face very still. I made myself not move in my chair.

Like I said before, the room was kind of dark. I tried to get the wire into her earlobe but I couldn't find the hole. My face was pretty close to hers. Too close for some woman I just met. Somebody I didn't even know. But she was so ugly and she had been hurt. Car accident, fire, disease? I didn't know if I should ask. My shoulders felt tight, the way hers looked. I casually pushed them down as far away from my ears as I could manage.

"I can't get it in the hole. I don't want to hurt you," I said.

"Hurt me, hurt me!" She laughed. A leer like she just said something dirty twisted her thin lips. It was quite a surprise. It's not like she was one of us, for Christ's sake.

I looked back at the door. "Maybe we should go out in the hall where it's lighter." I didn't make a move, though. "You know, you look fine with just one earring. Kind of trendy."

"Okay, trendy..." Her bird chest moved up with a big long breath. She took the earring from me and let it drop into the purse on her lap. Then she took a sip of her drink. "I dropped my keys down the front seat of my car." Her voice came out dry and raspy. "I couldn't get them out, so I left it unlocked. Do you think somebody might steal it?"

"Probably not," I said. I knew, right away, I had said it too fast and too loud.

Amy chimed in. "The street is pretty well-lighted."

The woman's voice was thin now, pleading. "I wonder if I should go out and try again. To get the keys out of the seat." I wanted so bad for the comedy act to start.

"It's probably okay," I told her. "If you can't get the keys out, how can anybody steal it?" I had no idea if this was true or not. I just wanted her to shut up. But I didn't want to be mean.

Amy was like my echo. "It's probably okay," she said right away, while I was still thinking.

Amy is my friend from church. Both of us are married to guys with not so good jobs, so we have to work, but not as hard as we used to. Amy is a hostess at Roman Pizza and she's kind of nice looking, about forty-five. I'm a cashier at CVP Drugs, part-time. I'm fifty-three and not bad, either. But I used to be really pretty. I have pictures to prove it. If a person stared at me, it was because I was looking really good. Or I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe. Hah!

Anyway, I thought it must be pretty bad, what this woman had to deal with. Trying to act normal and knowing you're not. Knowing other people can see it, right away, as soon as they look at you. Watching them steal second looks when they think you won't see, because you are ugly and they don't want to make eye contact.

The woman settled back in her chair, took a swig of her rum and Coke. Taped music blasted through the speakers. The lights got even dimmer. A big, overweight brunette in a slinky black dress walked up to the microphone. She took it off the stand and walked around, talking about herself. If she saw the woman at our table, she didn't let on.

This heavyweight comic told about an hour's worth of funny stories. Some of them were hysterical, like how some men put their hands on a woman's breasts as if they are turning the knobs on a radio, both at once. I still have to laugh when I think of it. Amy, the woman and I turned to each other and yucked it up like we all knew some guy like that. Some of the other jokes embarrassed me, though. I don't hear that kind of talk in my real life. I was glad the room was dark so nobody could see my face get red. I smiled pretty hard, anyway, in case they thought I didn't get the jokes, because I did.

At the end, people clapped and stamped their feet. A few even stood up and whistled. Then somebody turned up the lights. People went up on the stage to talk to the star of the show.

"Well," the woman said, "that was fun."

"Yeah! What a great show! Wasn't she great?" said Amy.

"Yeah. It was nice meeting you," I said to the woman. I stood up. "Maybe we'll see you again somewhere."

She smiled and said it was nice meeting us, too. Then she took her purse in her good hand and left. Amy and I followed her outside and across the parking lot. She limped to the car in front of mine, opened the door and got in. It was dark by now. We couldn't see her anymore, inside the car.

"Should we try to help her, " I asked Amy. "If she can't get her keys out, how's she going to drive home?"

"I don't know," Amy said. We got into my car and fastened our seatbelts in kind of a slow motion because we were both thinking.

"What some people have to do to get out of the house..." Amy's voice was real quiet. "She could have stayed home. Makes my problems seem silly compared to what she must go through."

We sat in my car, trying to decide if we should help her and what we should do. Both of us had forgotten her name. To this day, I don't know why I'm telling you this or why that night is still in my head.

The headlights of the woman's car came on. It moved out onto the street, so slow, its taillights smaller and smaller until we couldn't see them anymore.

"Well, I guess she's okay. Thanks for coming with me," Amy said.

"I'm glad you asked me," I told her. I hope she thought I meant it. I wasn't so sure, myself. We didn't say anything else until we were in Amy's neighborhood. It's an older development with mostly bi-levels. Half the driveways have boats on trailers in them, including Amy's. I wondered if the woman lived in a place like that. Probably not. Amy got out of my car in front of her garage.

"Good night," I said. "See you Sunday."

"Good night. Thanks again." I drove away. It was real quiet but I forgot to turn on the radio.