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“River Date” by Erica Korer

River Date

Erica Korer

Since all the the events that happened two years ago, Cory had become fearful. Suddenly all sorts of things she’d never given a second thought to–flying, skiing, passing strange dogs on the sidewalk–sent her into a terror spiral, suffocating in a flood of worst-case scenarios.

Or maybe, she thought, this was bound to happen regardless when she reached a certain age. She thought of her mother’s many anxieties, they way she clutched the steering wheel as she drove, always five miles below the speed limit, braking for nothing at all. “Be very, very, very careful,” she always said and still said when she talked to Cory on the phone.

But I’m just going to the supermarket, Cory used to think. Now, though, she wondered if her mother had a point. The world, if you really thought about it, was a terrifying place, a death trap around every corner.

When Miles suggested a kayaking date then, it took Cory a few moments, but she sighed and mustered some enthusiasm. After all, she had kayaked several times years ago and enjoyed it. And besides, she’d grown tired of sitting at bars and talking talking talking.

Miles was a good match for Cory, 90 percent if the algorithm was to be believed, and Cory felt you had to have faith in something. Like her he was tall and did environmental work, and they were both ex vegetarians. “Was bacon your gateway drug?” she wrote. “That was mine.”

“Bear, actually,” he wrote back. “My gateway drug was bear.”

She went to TJ Maxx to pick up some things she didn’t have and thought she might need–a towel that wasn’t clearly a bath towel, cheap athletic sandals, a sun hat. Cory’s family had a minor legend that took place in one of those stores. She was three and out shopping with her mother and father around the holidays. In a rare impulse, Cory’s father decided to scoop his daughter up and put her on his shoulders. The girl he lifted from behind, though, was not Cory but another small child who howled until Cory’s father realized what was happening and was completely mortified.

Cory had only shadowy recollections of the actual incident but was there for numerous retellings over the next few years, giddily standing by awaiting the twist. It was the wrong kid. The thing was, Cory couldn’t ever remember her father actually lifting her onto his shoulders, so with each re-telling of the story she felt the heartache of a missed opportunity. If only she’d been standing closer, she thought. TJ Maxx had become to her the spot where anything was possible, and so the few times she found herself back there with him, she stood in front of him and sent him telepathic messages. Now. Do it now. But he never did, and soon she was too big anyway.

They met at the harbor. Miles had his own kayak, but Cory had to rent one from the shop. She left her ID at the desk, put on a PFD, and sat down to sign their liability waiver. Risk of injury, including the potential for permanent paralysis and death. Across from her, Miles was saying something about his truck and his nephew, asking if she had any nieces or nephews, polite getting-to-know-you questions, but she was distracted. “Um, no, yeah, give me one second.”

His expression when she finally signed the paper was quizzical, but he said nothing.

“What a nice day we picked,” Cory said, getting back on track, and it was–windless and sunny, the water smooth as glass. Miles brought a six pack and suggested she take a few in her boat, but she declined, believing those few cans might throw her completely off balance, maybe throw the entire planet off its axis. It wasn’t impossible. She led the way out of the harbor, paddling side to side, pleased by her ability maneuver around the other small crafts. When she reached the open river, though, a vertigo descended. Which direction? She could go anywhere. Before she had a chance to decide, the current seemed to be choosing for her. She felt wildly untethered, like a released balloon that won’t ever make it back to Earth. She was relieved then when Miles pulled up next to her, and she allowed him to overtake her a bit before paddling again.

Cory began to take a good look at him. He had broad shoulders and bronzed arms that rippled as he paddled, which with his beard added up to a general rugged handsomeness. For the first time since leaving her apartment that morning, Cory was conscious of her own appearance. She smoothed her hair and tried to look friendly as she caught up.

“So you must do this a lot, huh?”

“Not too much,” he said.

“Well, I think I would if I had my own boat.” Was that true? She owned a lot of things she didn’t use, a dvd player, snowshoes, a food processor.

“Well, it’s not exactly my boat.” He cracked open a beer and held it out to her.

She was aware of their fingers touching as she took it from him. “Thanks.” She took a sip and thought about where she was going to put the can. There wasn’t a great spot for it, so she set it down between her legs. But that was a mistake, because they were suddenly passed on the right by a speed boat and caught in a field of its wake. Cory’s boat spun, and the beer tipped into her lap.

“Turn into it,” Miles shouted, and she did, focusing on keeping her bow above the ripples, ignoring the cold wet feeling until the water was still again. Then she picked up the can and chugged what was left.

“Look out. Another one’s coming.” This time it was a bigger boat.

She laughed, hoping it appeared she was having a good time, but she really just felt dread. Rationally, she knew that the worst thing to happen may be capsizing and getting wet, but she had her wallet and cell phone in a dry bag strapped to the kayak. What if that came loose and was lost. What if someone unknowingly steered a boat into her bobbing head. What if she was carried out to the ocean, the riverbanks already impossibly far away, spreading further and further apart, birthing her into a great lonely void. Or something.

Their two kayaks bobbed together and then, after a moment, stilled. Miles said he knew of a slough coming up. “Want to paddle over there where it’s less busy?”

“Yeah, okay.”

They didn’t go far, but it felt like another world entirely, the channel more narrow and shaded by canopy of trees. Instead of boat motors, they heard birds.

“Oh, hi!” Cory said

“Oh hi.”

“I’ll take another beer if that’s all right.”

“Yeah, definitely.” He handed her another can.

The water here was even more still, the trees mirrored on its surface. It made Cory think of one of the first art lessons she had in school, drawing a horizon line with stick figure trees, then turning the paper upside down and drawing them again, a neat trick she’d repeated all year on paper placemats and birthday cards.

“So, I have to ask,” she said, “what does bear meat taste like.”

Miles laughed. “I made that up,” he said.

“Oh.”

An eagle flapped its wings overhead.

“Sorry. Are you mad?”

“No.”

They drifted further east, paddling just enough to circumvent large rocks and tree branches. Each paddle stroke just a lazy scoop and drizzle of water.

Miles laid his paddle across the boat. “Hey, stop. Listen,” he said, and Cory did, motionless as a mountain. “It’s totally quiet. You can’t hear anyone.”

It was true. Cory locked eyes with Miles, who was grinning. A chill shot up her spine. “I think we should go,” she said and did a quick about-face before paddling hard the way they had come.

“Cory, wait,” Miles said, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Cory said, but didn’t let up speed, “I just think we should get back.”

Miles stopped paddling. “Okay. Clearly I said something that you took the wrong way. And even though I don’t think it’s reasonable at all, I’m going to stop here and let you paddle ahead.”

Since they hadn’t actually gone very far, she was back out in the main channel quickly and suddenly, in the bright sunshine surrounded by waterskiers, she felt foolish. “Hey,” she called back behind her. “Hey, I’m sorry. Miles, are you there?”

He glided out slowly, with his hands in the air. “Are we cool?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Cory said. “Sorry again. I guess I just freaked out for a second when you were talking about how quiet it was. I had this sudden thought like, and nobody can hear you scream. She laughed but knew it wasn’t funny.

“Jesus,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

Across the river was a large karaoke bar. On the second story was a balcony where people leaned over the rail and watched the boats. Cory felt like they were on display.

“If it helps, I’m really not even interested in you.”

This time she laughed for real. There was a lesson to be learned from all of this, but she didn’t know yet what it was. “Come on,” she said, “let’s go back.”

© 2015 Erica Korer

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“Smart Pups Support” by Erica Korer

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Smart Pups Support

By Erica Korer

Whenever a call pops into my queue, the first thing I say is “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew.” That isn’t my real name, though, and where I am it isn’t morning; but none of that is important. “How may I help you?” I say.

My first customer today is Suzanne Thomas from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. I know this place. I look at my American map beside my monitor and place my finger there. Steelers, I think. Super Bowl champions 2009. Suzanne Thomas has a complaint. Her Smart Pup is having problems with his navigation capabilities, she says. “I was in New York last weekend and told my dog to lead me to Madame Tussaud’s, but we ended up in the Lincoln Tunnel! I thought that couldn’t be right, but I trusted my Smart Pup. I was nearly flattened by a commuter bus before I figured we’d better turn around.”

I ask her to read me the numbers on her Smart Pup’s e-collar, and she does. “Hold down the reset button,” I say. I tell her to repeat loudly after me: “Madame Tussaud’s New York,” I say. “234 West 42nd Street.” When she’s finished repeating, I tell her to release the button and to give her Smart Pup an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat. “Tell him ‘good boy’”, I say. I ask her if there’s anything else I can help her with, and she says no. “Well then,” I say, “have a good day.” Remembering my Entertainment Culture training, I add, “and please do enjoy the News Room’s wax figures of award winning journalists Anderson Cooper and Barbara Walters.”

“Well I’m actually home now…,” she begins, but I’ve already ended the call. I realize my mistake and sit for a minute with my face in my hands. These calls are recorded for quality purposes, and if Mr. Khan listens later I’m going to get a note in my Employee File if not a stern talking-to about Professionalism and Conscientiousness as well as a reminder of all the people outside who would kill to have my position; and this isn’t an exaggeration. Last September a young, quiet agent who used the name Jason was found tied up and floating face down in the river, and before the body was even identified a cousin had showed up to take his place.

For the rest of the night I guzzle tea and answer calls, determined to deliver customer service beyond reproach. I resolve all of my customers’ issues without having to escalate them to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor. I make all the right jokes and laugh at the right moments. I even manage to sell five Upgrade Packages (for just 4 extra dollars per month), which is well above the average of two Upgrade Packages per day. At 6 a.m. my shift officially ends, and I can finally clock out. I shut down my station and start to leave, but before I reach the door I’m intercepted by the mustached head of Mr. Khan, sticking out of his office, calling my name. “Come in here for a moment,” he says.

I take a deep breath and do as he says. I’m going to act cheerful and innocent. I’m going to pretend not to know what he wants to talk about. “Hello, Mr. K!” I say. “How’s it going? How is the family?” There’s a picture on his desk of his sons, two fat boys in their school uniforms. “Ah,” I say. “Are their studies going well?”

“Huh?” Mr. Khan says, distractedly putting papers in his briefcase. “Oh. Yes, yes.” To my surprise, he pulls a crystal goblet out from his desk along with two brandy snifters. “Please,” he says, “have a drink with me.” My confusion is obvious, and before I have the chance to respond, he says “Fine, fine. You don’t drink. That’s okay. Here.” He pushes a flimsy box across his desk. “At least have a doughnut.”

“Oh,” I say. “Okay, thank you.” The doughnut, though, is hardly a special treat. The boxes have long been a fixture in the employee break room. It’s part of our Culture Training, they told us. Americans eat doughnuts, so we should also eat doughnuts, and then we can develop a rapport with our customers over doughnuts. I don’t particularly care for these doughnuts. However, I dutifully select one with black and white icing and sink my teeth in. “Mmm,” I say, suppressing a shudder.

“So I wanted to bring you in here,” Mr Khan begins, and the bite of doughnut sits like a lump on my tongue, “to make sure you know you’re invited to come out with us guys after work.” I manage to swallow. It’s not what I expected him to say. “You’re so quiet. Man!” he says, “You should get out more and socialize. That is, of course, unless you don’t like us. We aren’t going to force you to spend time with us and be a team player if you don’t like us.”

I assure him that I like him, them, very much. Today, though, I tell him, I have dinner plans with my girlfriend, Meena, and her parents, so I really must go rest up beforehand. Tomorrow, I promise, I’ll go out and be social. I tell him I can’t wait and thank him. And then I make a beeline for the door.

My workday normally ends just before the sun has a chance to rise, and the walk to the edge of the Smart Pups campus is usually quiet, save for the singing of birds and the last hoots of a few owls. The guard opens the gate for me, and I’m spit out into the city. Outside the gate there are five regular beggars in various states of dismemberment. One man is missing a leg. Another’s missing both legs. A woman has somehow lost half of her face. They immediately swoop in with their hands out. They tell me they’re starving, that their children are starving, that anything will help. As usual I keep walking, feeling humiliated, feeling unreasonably angry. “What do you think I owe you?” I think but don’t say.

The gated community where I live, where a lot of the Smart Pups employees live, isn’t far away. I scan my key card at the gate and then at the door of my building and take the elevator up to my apartment on the 16th floor. I shut the blinds to block the rays that have just begun peeking through. In a few hours, the city will be roasting, but fortunately I have an air conditioner. I flip it on and collapse onto my bed without taking off my clothes.

I wake some time later to my shirt being unbuttoned. Despite the closed blinds, it’s bright in the room. I squint and see Meena naked next to me. “What time is it?” I ask. I hazily remember we have plans with her parents at some point, but I’m disoriented.

Meena kisses my chest. “It’s noon,” she says. “This is my lunch break. We have an hour.” I’m quite groggy, but I rise to the occasion, and afterward we lie breathless underneath the AC unit. “Our new lab assistant started today,” she says. “I don’t think he’s going to last a week.”

“Shhh,” I say into her hair and pull her in close. Since I started at Smart Pups on an American schedule, it hasn’t been easy for Meena and me. We’ve made many sacrifices, but on the plus side, we realized, we can make love in the middle of the day and sleep together in my bed, something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible, with her living in her parents’ house. I’m already drifting back to sleep, but I can tell Meena’s restless. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m just not very tired.” I tell her it’s okay, that I should get up and try do get some things done before dinner. She dresses, and we kiss goodbye. I then begin my weekly process of transferring funds- some for my parents, some for my younger siblings’ educations. Some for my older siblings and their children’s educations. Some for the nurse who looks after my grandmother.  Some for my sisters’ weddings.

By the time I arrive at Meena’s parents’ house for dinner, which is really my breakfast, I’m tired again and a bit cranky. “Hello Mrs. P. Hello Dr  P, I say, and then we sit down to eat an admittedly delicious meal. Though we used to see each other often, that hasn’t been the case lately.  They want to know if I’m still at “that place.” They want to know if I’ve had any promotions. When I say no, they look at each other and ask if I think I might have a promotion soon. I quickly lose my appetite and push food around my plate. Meena fills the silence. She talks about the latest political news, she talks about fashions, she talks about the incompetent lab assistant she started speaking of earlier. “I swear. I really don’t think he’ll last a week.”

Back at work, I throw back several cups of tea and for an extra sugar buzz even eat a doughnut. “Good morning. Thank you for calling Smart Pups. My name is Matthew. How may I help you?”

“Yes, hello, Matthew” an older man says on the other end of the line. “This is Arnold Franks.” I recognize the caller. We’ve talked before. I pull up his record in my system. The last couple weeks, it appears that his Smart Pup has been standing in his house, barking at absolutely nothing. I ask if it’s the same issue, and he says yes. I tell him we’re going to try something new.

“Press the control button on her e-collar” I say, “and when the tracking beams appear in her eyes, let me know.” When he does, I ask where the beams land. They’re landing on the bookshelf this time, he tells me, but her gaze is weird, he says. She doesn’t really seem to be looking at the bookshelf.

“Okay,” I say. “I want you to press the blue and green buttons on her e-collar simultaneously and then go and lightly touch the part of the bookshelf where she’s looking.” He tells me Okay, that he’ll be right back. It seems he’s calling from a landline rather than a cell phone. I wait. When he’s back on the phone I tell him to press the green and yellow buttons now and then go back to the bookshelf and call her. In the background I can hear him calling his Smart Pup. He calls her “Lucy.” “Here Lucy,” he says. In a moment he’s back on the line. “Did she come when you called her?” I ask. She did. “Feed her an organic chicken flavored Smart Treat,” I say. “Tell her good girl.” I ask him to please call back if he has any other questions or concerns. I give him his case number. I tell him to have a good day.”

The rest of the night drags. I have to escalate two cases to a Smart Pups Customer Support Supervisor, I sell zero Upgrade Packages, and I have a lady tell me she can’t understand my accent and insist on being transferred to someone else. This is something that hasn’t happened in months. I had been relieved and had begun to assume it wouldn’t happen again, so I’m disheartened now.  When 6 a.m. rolls around, I just want to go home and crash, but in a flash Mr. Khan appears beside my desk and asks if I’m ready to go. I say yes and force a smile, and we walk together out of the building.

Outside an auto rickshaw is waiting. Two other Smart Pups Agents, Raj and Haroon, are in the vehicle. We all say hello and I shyly take a seat across from them. “Curry Club,” Mr. Khan tells the driver. I’ve never heard of this place, but nobody else asks any questions so I don’t either. We drive to the campus gate, and when it opens we speed past the beggars and rip through the city streets. The wind makes it too noisy to talk, which I don’t mind at all. Mr. Khan passes a flask around. What the hell, I think, and I take a sip.

We pull up to Curry Club as the sun starts coming up. From the outside it looks like a foreigner bar, and I quickly realize I’m right. However, since it’s now morning there are only a few straggling ,wrecked -looking foreigners, and the place is mostly empty. Mr. Khan says he assumes I’ve never been here. I nod, and he tells me not to worry. It may be quiet now, but in a while it will be Smart Pups Central, he says. That’s why they stay open all the time. They make their money off the night owls, and then they make money off the day owls. He laughs at his own non-joke.

Three very young foreign girls are sitting at the bar. Haroon orders a round of six drinks, three whiskeys and three cocktails with fruit and umbrellas, and motions for Raj and me to follow as he carries the drinks to the girls. I dumbly trail behind, and when the girls see us they look at each other and laugh. Haroon sets the drink tray down. “Hello Ladies,” he says, and again they laugh. The blonde asks if the drinks are for them, and when it’s confirmed, she says thank you and lifts one of the cocktails to her mouth. “Wait! Don’t drink that!” one of the other girls, a short brunette, says, and her friend nearly drops the glass on the floor.

You’re not supposed to accept drinks from strange men, the girl instructs all of us. It could be roofied. If a guy wants to buy you a drink, she says, the bartender should make it and then hand it right to you. Her friend pouts and picks the fruit garnish out of her glass. “Don’t eat that!” the same friend yells, and this time everyone laughs.

The tall brunette tells us, fine, they’ll come have drinks with us if they drink the whiskey and we drink the fruity drinks. “Yeah, okay,” Raj and Haroon say, and we join Mr. Khan at a large table.

Mr. Khan says he has a surprise for us and winks. He walks across the room, grabs a microphone from its stand, and music begins to play. Club Curry, after all, is a karaoke bar. The song is an old one by The Carpenters. I vaguely recognize it. “What the world needs now,” Mr. Khan sings, “is love, sweet love.” It’s bad, and he’s making things awkward by gesturing at our table.

“Where are you from?” Raj asks the girls. They look at each other and smirk. They appear to be having a very hard time drinking their whiskey. “Chicago,” they say. Chicago Bulls, I think. Lake Michigan. Windy City.

 

Lord we don’t need another mountain. There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.

The Chicago girls have set their drinks down and are exchanging glances. They’re trying to communicate, I would guess, that they should make an excuse to leave. Haroon elbows me. “Say something,” he whispers loudly.

Lord we don’t need another meadow. There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.

It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m in a karaoke bar, nursing a tropical drink. I just want to go home. I look at Haroon and Raj and shrug, lost for words, and then I think of something: “Do you eat a lot of doughnuts?”

For a moment, everyone looks at me in shock. Haroon guffaws while Raj covers his face with his hands, and the girls collectively get up and storm out, but not before the blonde picks up her whiskey and dumps it in my lap.

There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen lord, if you want to know. What the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now. Is love, sweet love. No not just for some, oh but just for every every everyone.

© 2013 Erica Korer