by Mary Breaden
Tonya first noticed the sandwich shop on her bike ride to West Eugene High School in the fall of her junior year. Every day, she rode her bike down Green Hill Road to a smooth, newly paved road that wound through a housing development, past the under-construction sandwich shop, another half-mile past topless bars sealed up from outside light, and finally past an unpaved street of roadside motels you could rent by the hour. Years before, sheep had grazed these meadows.
When Tonya was 14, her mom took off for her Mission in China and soon after Ray offered his daughter the opportunity to attend their district’s public high school. Tonya knew that, unlike her mom, her dad had never been entirely sold on the idea of controlling what she learned through homeschool, but the conditions of WEHS presented a hard choice to a man who already worked sixty hours a week at the paint factory. What could he do? The town’s new developments demanded more and more paint.
Once, the city’s western corner had been populated with farmland, but in 2000, the city changed again. Transplants from Southern California moved north and took advantage of the cheaper property values to buy large lots which would be almost entirely taken up by over-sized houses that were divided from each other by a few feet and a tall wooden fence.
The hosts of new housing developments and the improved neighborhood eateries of chain restaurants included the Highway 99 sandwich shop that caught Tonya’s eye. The more conservative residents of western Eugene often spoke of annexing their lands from the workings of the radically liberal charged city. A new state-of-the-art library had been built downtown and, as a result, residents everywhere saw their taxes rise. “What does our town need a new library for?” western Eugenians asked in some wonder and mostly in outrage. “Old one’s just fine.” Workers from the factories off of the highway liked the sandwich place for its reasonibly priced foot-longs and combo meals, though the new structure seemed out of place across from the Highway’s remaining derelict motels and abandoned, burned-out cars beside the railroad tracks.
The high school’s state of disrepair mimicked the highway’s hourly motels. Water leaked from the ceilings during the winter. Weeds threaded through the sidewalk leading around the school’s perimeter. The track had chunks missing from it. Water fountains spewed yellow water. The hallways bulged with the bellies of teen mothers.
“You can graduate early if you push yourself, sweetheart,” Ray told her.
The sandwich shop seemed to be clean, well-lit, watertight and, Tonya deemed, filled with promise. It was a fine enough place for her to spend a few hours in after school as she saved up for college.
Ray, Tonya’s father, disagreed. “I don’t like you working out there late at night.”
“It closes at 10:00, Dad. I’ll stick around the library for like an hour after class and then go to my shift.”
“Well, you’re not going to ride your bike home at that hour.”
“I’ll pick you up.”
“No, let me. . .” Tonya said. Her voice faltered with need and then faded out. Ray looked back to the fire he was constructing in their wood stove. September in the Willamette Valley: Of course the nights were cold. Remmie, the Husky that Tonya and Ray rescued around the time Tonya’s mother left, panted and stared into the lifeless fireplace with his startingly blue eyes.
With her mother off in China for the past two years, Tonya’s dad had grown stubborn about his daughter’s habits outside of their house on Green Hill Road. Tonya herself saw the presence of topless bars and gun shops and methadone clinics as something out of a crime show, or a novel; that sad, broken world would never crash into hers.
“I’ll pick you up after work,” Ray told her again. Tonya sighed. Ray grinned and looked up at her. “This is just something that you’ll have to put up with until you’re on your own, kiddo.”
Only two triangular slices of cheese were permitted per half-foot, four per foot-long, along with a butt-load of cheese on the six-footer (in her manager Mandy’s words). “Ha. Ha. But actually, it’s twenty-four. Just think: Four slices per foot, times six. You’ll get the hang of it.”
“I know,” Tonya said. “I’m good at math.”
“Oh, here, let me show you the till.” Mandy pushed her way over to the cash register next to the assembly line sandwich prep area. Each button on the cash register was covered with a color-coordinated label of a sandwich. Everything on the order board behind them was assigned a button on the register. The organization and simplicity of the machine reminded Tonya of a cash register she played with as a child.
“I’ll stand next to you for the first day,” Mandy told her. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
“I’ll probably learn it really fast. I always do.” Tonya felt her face growing warm and she wasn’t sure why. Mandy watched Tonya blush, which thereby increased the speed with which the heat spread. Once Tonya was certain that the blush had painted the back of her neck, Mandy commented: “You’re so funny.”
When Tonya told people she had been in homeschool until her freshmen year of high school at West Eugene, the conversation generally came to a halt. “How was that?” was the cautious follow-up question. “You seem to have turned out pretty normal,” a teacher that year told Chelsea, Tonya’s best friend who was also homeschooled. The two girls squawked over this together at lunch. Chelsea had gone through West Eugene Middle School for seventh and eighth grade, making her “pretty normal,” Tonya supposed. “I’d hate to get his opinion of how I turned out,” Tonya said.
“They associate homeschooling with cults, you know,” Chelsea said. “Yeah, seriously! They think we didn’t have electricity and we never left the compound and we get married when we were 15.”
“If we got married when we were 15, we’d be like two-deep in babies by now,” Tonya snapped, not at Chelsea, but at ‘them,’ those non-believers who so misunderstood the girls and their path to Jesus.
Chelsea cut up laughing when Tonya said this and had to crouch for a moment in the hallway while she gasped for breath.
Tonya looked around at the swarm of teenage bodies and the dusting of chip crumbs and wrappers that coated the hallway floor like a pine tree’s needles and cones. She knew that she was less-than-normal in the terms of their high school. Their classmates shuffled through the hallways and slammed lockers, leaped on each other’s backs as a way of announcing themselves. Girls at their school were always squealing and clapping their hands, Tonya thought; groups of girls formed large cells in the hallways which she had to squeeze her way around in order to get to class. As if no one could stand to be alone, and they took up more space than they needed, she thought — hugging, embracing, locking arms as if they were marching to victory. Normal meant that people could touch you, and more. Tonya looked at the pregnant girls in the hallway as if they were explorers who had returned from circling the world.
At school, Tonya was mostly silent — “pathologically silent,” if you asked Crystal, another friend of Chelsea and Tonya’s, though Crystal was on the periphery of their bond. Crystal was an electron to their nucleus and she would have been the one to use that analogy, too. Something in the way that Tonya and Chelsea sat together, pretending to not look at the popular kids, drew her toward the pair. Crystal walked up with a soft purple lunch cooler on a black strap. “Can I sit here?” she interrupted and before they could say anything, she was among them.
The uniform that Mandy presented Tonya with consisted of navy blue slacks and a tight yellow cotton polo shirt with short sleeves. Tonya was to wear a black visor with the sandwich shop’s logo embroidered on it. The high-waist slacks cut into the skin of Tonya’s stomach while the fabric ballooned out from her hips to her ankles, where the slacks tapered in again. It was a costume she felt acutely ashamed to wear, especially on her first afternoon at the shop when Chelsea walked in and immediately burst out laughing. Over at the drive-through window, Mandy looked up from her cell phone and her eyes drifted over to Tonya in a casual searching before returning to the screen. A man in overalls walked into the shop and looked over Chelsea’s shoulder at Tonya. Very definitively, he examined Tonya. He announced: “Six-inch meat lover footlong.” Mandy sighed and slapped her phone shut before coming over to help. “I can do it,” Tonya said, but Mandy was already wearing her gloves and reaching for the cheese. Chelsea stared at Tonya and the man in the overalls chuckled before a coughing fit interrupted him.
What did they see?
In the bathroom mirror in her home on Green Hill Road, Tonya looked just as she had always looked: freckled, full-mouthed, her eyes scrunched with worry. At school, she looked like sleep had been hard to come by for a while. In the bathroom mirror at school, she only saw her speckled paleness under the target of florescent light. But in the sandwich place’s bathroom, where Tonya gazed at herself while she washed her hands, as per the recommendations of the EMPLOYEES WASH HANDS sign, she looked older, mature. On her forehead was a thin layer of oil and bumps. Too often, her cheeks would be flushed to real crimson. Too often, she was embarrassed by the way that men looked at her and her cheeks showed it. A few of the men moved with an ease and strength that Tonya thought might be more visible under their clothes, though she forbid herself to think about it until she was in her bed and the thoughts were too much for her weak, sinful flesh.
There, in darkness, she recreated their interactions and matched their confidence with her own. In darkness, she placed her frigid hands on her stomach and thought in flashes and in half-second scenes of where His Light would someday touch her.
On her second day, a filthy man walked into the restaurant and holed himself up in the bathroom. Tonya was making a turkey foot-long for an older customer with a contractor’s utility belt when the disheveled man walked in there. “Mandy,” Tonya said loudly enough for her boss to hear from the back room. The customer was silently looking at the bathroom door. “I can’t believe anyone could smell that bad,” he said. The smell was both musty and sharp—the accumulation of a body unwashed. The smell hung in the dining area and even overpowered the scent of the freshly baked sandwich rolls.
Mandy marched out and banged on the bathroom door. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to either buy something or leave,” she said to the door. Mandy rolled her eyes over at Tonya. The man emerged from the bathroom blinking and averting his eyes, swinging back and forth like the floor was the deck of a ship far out from land on a stormy sea. On the floor in the bathroom, crumpled up in a corner behind the toilet, was a handkerchief stained with spots of blood. Two initials were embroidered in a corner of the handkerchief, by hand, Tonya judged; she recalled embroidering hankies like that for Ray on his birthday or on Father’s Day. Maybe his daughter or wife had embroidered it, Tonya thought, picking up the handkerchief with her gloved hands and dropping it into the garbage. Lord Jesus, have mercy on him, she prayed.
“You have to keep an eye on that kind of thing,” Mandy told Tonya. Tonya nodded and said that she would be more vigilant in the future. But it was so difficult to know when a customer would erupt. West Eugene was crawling with jittery bodies; up and down the highway, to and from the Dairy Mart. Even Mandy was want to take her phone and cigarettes out into the parking lot on her break and scream at her husband in verses Tonya had never found in Scripture. In Tonya’s second week at the sandwich shop, Mandy revealed that she had done time in Salem for assault. Just a drunken thing with a woman who had stepped, Mandy told Tonya. “Can’t be making those goddamn mistakes nowadays,” Mandy added while Tonya flinched at the defamation of her Lord. “Got to think about my babies,” Mandy said.
That year at Christmas, Ray and Tonya were surprised to receive a small box of presents from China from her mother: a hardcover book by Edward Said rotting away with mold, which it must have acquired in transit, Tonya thought. Or why would her mother have sent it? A package of unknown Chinese candies was included as well, which interested Tonya even less than the book. She and her father were on their way to Christmas Eve service at the Life Center on West 18th when they passed the sandwich shop and Tonya asked her father to let her run in with a present for Mandy. She had only put together a plate with a few gingerbread cookies Chelsea had given them and some of the Chinese candies covered in a tent of green cellophane. Mandy’s eyes filled when Tonya handed her the plate.
“I had to work tonight,” Mandy told her. “I wasn’t scheduled, but I took the shift off Kendra’s hands because I need the money.”
“My kids won’t know the difference.” Mandy shrugged and squinted down at the plate of goodies as if it was an artifact from a different civilization.
“I couldn’t let any of you young things work night shifts on Christmas,” Mandy said. “Something about the holidays brings out the wackos. José has to litter pick the parking lot every morning for the weird shit that turns up here at night.”
“Who would hang out in our parking lot?”
Mandy snorted and didn’t bother answering the question. Tonya felt heat, like the Devil’s caress, stealing up her skin from her chest.
“Look at him out there, all worried about you,” Mandy said.
Tonya looked out. Her father was squinting through the moist car window to locate his daughter. She turned back to Mandy. She wanted to know what exactly was found in the parking lot every morning. Mandy tilted her head to the side and said: “Pray for me, hon. Will you?”
One misty morning, Tonya rode her bike so rapidly through the unending January misery and she arrived at school early. The light-filled library was the only room with its doors open. Tonya stepped into the warm space as she might have entered the alternate temple to Life Center; indistinct crackles suggested that the old library’s heating system was at work. She wandered the aisles until she found a book with a title that stopped her, for it looked like the name of her town. Eugene Onegin, Eugene OR—just that way, without the comma separating itself into east and west, north and south, white trash and white liberal. The town she imagined was a single unit, autonomous, like the character of this novel, Tonya gathered from its book flap. This man was wholly formed and charming. Eugene OR was a place where good things united.
As it related to her experience at the sandwich shop on January 23, 2001, Tonya would never be able to find that anything out of the ordinary had led up to the incident because everything that happened at the sandwich shop was out of her ordinary: Mandy, screaming into the phone and then holing herself up in the back office and emerging half an hour later with puffy red eyes. Tonya was barely more than a child, but she knew what heartbreak could do to a woman’s face. Mandy, staring into space behind the cash register and not responding to Tonya’s questions until Tonya came close enough to gently tap on her shoulder. Mandy, slamming the drive-through window late at night after two rednecks pulled up in a truck with a riffle balanced on the lap of the passenger. Tonya, taking out the bathroom’s trash and seeing a wad of bloody cloths at the bottom of the clear plastic bag, ashes scattered into the toilet, and a small piece of what looked like tar. Tonya disposed of the trash and flushed the toilet and thought nothing more of it.
The start of the semester was a blur: early morning prayers; a shower and speeding bike ride to school; classes in which Tonya lost herself to fantasies of God and of the green places, colleges, where she would find a pure love. Then, a bike ride to the sandwich place and a ride home in her father’s truck with her bike thrown into the truck-bed alongside Remmie. On weekends, she ran and prayed and didn’t work at the sandwich shop; the working mothers took those longer shifts in addition to the other ones they worked at factories on Franklin Boulevard.
But Tonya wanted more hours too. With her wages from the shop, she had started to save up for college (she didn’t want Ray to pretend like he could pay for it when she knew he couldn’t).
“I can be a substitute for people who want a night off,” Tonya suggested to Mandy whenever Tonya saw her puzzling over the shop’s schedule in the back room. “I don’t mind the extra work.”
Mandy lifted her head. “Thought you didn’t need the money,” she said.
“No, I do,” Tonya said. “I have to save up for college.”
In response to this, Mandy narrowed her eyes and looked away. For the first time, Tonya noticed a blush creeping up from the fleshy hollow at the base of Mandy’s throat. Tonya searched her brain for the words—clear and truthful words—that would explain why she wanted to pay her own way.
Mandy looked back and said with a toneless voice: “If no one wants to work on a weekend night, you can take it. They’re shittier shifts, anyway. Busy as fuck for dinner and then dead until closing.”
When Tonya grew older, she began to understand that what happened on the night of January 23, 2001 was the fusion of the incredible and the most common of all occurences: a man who used violence to get what he couldn’t receive through free will.
During lunch at the high school, students banged their chairs and threw paper bags at each other across the lunchroom. Tonya turned from her silent cafeteria table to see if a fight was about to break out. Tonya looked across at a tall, skinny kid sitting with his mouth pressed to a girl’s, her even-skinnier legs inserted between his. Even in the second that Tonya watched them, she could feel the couple’s tension. More than anyone else in the room, that couple was praying for release.
“Seems like everyone’s spoiling for a fight these days,” Crystal said, more to her French fries than to either Chelsea or Tonya.
“‘The center cannot hold,’” Crystal stated.
“What?” Chelsea pulled out her headphones and locked eyes with Tonya.
“I just think it’s tacky to quote something we just read last week in World Lit,” Tonya said.
“Let her do what she wants,” Chelsea said. “You don’t get to tell everyone what to do.”
The lump in Tonya’s throat returned. She swallowed hard and opened her mouth to speak, but the words would not reveal themselves.
Once Tonya had peddled back out to Green Hill Road, she was in a rural country among oaks that each fusion of lichen and moss displayed in shapes that seemed acrobatically impossible. Three miles closer, the city was filled with strangers.
Highway 99 was a human wilderness and, every once in a while, it destroyed itself.
Tonya hadn’t ever in her life heard a scream until she heard Mandy’s. After that January night, Tonya would forever compare the sound of a woman’s scream—on television or in movies—to Mandy’s.
Mandy’s boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend, Tonya wasn’t sure) had walked up to the open window of the drive-through and started firing at her. With the first hit, Mandy went down, but he was able to get in a few more shots before Tonya pressed the emergency button and the window closed. Tonya could smell the booze on him and he must have been too drunk to throw his hand out and stop the weak little window from sealing the girl and woman inside. But still, one of the bullets found its way into Tonya’s side. Like a tiny hammer, the pain tore into Tonya’s flesh.
“Tonya, Tonya. Help. Tonya.”
The woman had cried out to Tonya for salvation; she screamed the girl’s name for that minute before Tonya crawled over to press the window closed. Tonya couldn’t really see; the world had turned to black and she was shaking so severly she almost couldn’t press the buttons to call for help. She couldn’t think of anything except for the pain: Nothing else existed except for it: the Devil was trying to pull her down into Hell and the hole in her side was where his hook had grabbed onto her. “No, no, no, no I will not,” she told him.
Mandy was silent now. She had been dead before Tonya even connected to 9-11 and she was long dead before help found them.
Tonya felt a surge of anger watching the paramedics hoist the dead woman onto the stretcher: How could Mandy be so stupid? Did she imagine that Tonya would somehow be able to save her? End her own life for this one waste of a woman? Tonya was barely more than a child.
Every day and night in the years following Mandy’s murder, Tonya relived the resonance of the woman’s voice. She had died with Tonya’s name on her lips.
The help Tonya had called for had been only to save herself.
Ten days later on a sunny Groundhog’s Day, Tonya sat on the back porch of the house while Remmie rooted around in the woods at the edge of the property. In Eugene, winter left as early as February and the damp ground gave way to the emerald green spears of crocuses stabbing their way into daylight. A spruce tree hung in musty fragrance above the deck. No fire could threaten these woods so soon after the height of flooding season. Up in their wilderness at the edge of Eugene, Tonya could see the brown water of the reservoir, and black and white cows seemed motionless in the hollows of a field below. Highway 99 was just a nightmare away.
Tonya’s father had kept his daughter home from the high school after the murder and said that he would set her up with a correspondence course where she could complete her high school work and still get a GED. Tonya protested for a while—who in their right mind would accept her into college now, she wondered—before her father told her, “I’d have to be crazy to let you go back there, girlie.” Tonya had yet to complete an assignment. Ray made her comfortable and brought her cartons of ice cream or packages of Oreos every night on his way home. Tonya ate and ate and watched daytime television all day long unless the twenty-year-old Panasonic set started to lose its signal. At first, Crystal called once a week and Chelsea once a day, but Tonya was monosyllabic over the phone. “I’ll keep calling you, T, but you’ve got to try to talk,” Chelsea had said the previous night in frustration. “I want to be left alone,” Tonya told her. She wasn’t what she meant by that, but she did know that nightmares followed their phone calls.
She heard the sound of the front door slamming and then there was a woman stepping carefully out onto the soggy deck. The woman was dressed in faded jeans and in a forest green wool sweater. Her hair was long and unbrushed. She was too thin—Tonya felt repulsed by the woman’s bony frame and she thought of how Mandy took up so much more space than this woman. This woman, old enough to be Tonya’s mother, walked with a calm resignation that reminded Tonya of the way people floated through the Life Center after confessing their sins. She looked up at Tonya. “I wanted to bring flowers,” the woman said. Her hands were empty.
“Would you like a glass of water or some tea?” Tonya politely asked the woman. Tonya pushed herself up and started to limp inside, but before she could reach the door, the woman grabbed her and clutched her so hard Tonya couldn’t breath or speak.
The pain in Tonya’s side was singular and overwhelmed all other senses.
“Beautiful. Come inside and warm up,” the strange woman said.
In the days and nights that the woman was with them, Tonya grew used to her appearing over Tonya when nightmares started Tonya from sleep. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us trespasses. . . the woman murmured the prayer until Tonya’s muscles loosened and she fell back asleep. Though Mandy was probably at the door of her room, the praying woman would at least keep the bullet-torn ghost of the woman from clawing out Tonya’s throat.
The woman would leave on the first day of spring. Tonya woke up one morning and went to the bathroom for water and passed by the woman in the living room. The woman hoisted a large backpack onto her shoulders.
“Don’t do it,” Tonya said.
The woman made a scolding sound. “This world is wild,” the woman told Tonya. “Wild with the sins of man. Don’t you want to do your part?”
Tonya shuddered. She wanted no more of man’s wildness. She asked, “How am I going to sleep without you here?”
The woman’s hand was on the front door. She sighed, paused, and turned back.
“The Lord does not concern himself with the pettiness of man, Tonya,” the woman said. “Pettiness leads to vengeance, to violence, to sin. The good leads you to God’s light.”
Tonya blinked water from her eyes: she did not even know this distant woman and she would not let a stranger see Tonya cry.
The smell of burning wood slipped in the house as the woman slipped out. Ray was out in the front yard destroying a pile of brush with the touch of a match.
The woman was gone, the door closed. In the silence, a voice was speaking. A man, but not her father. The man was speaking as clearly as if he were in the room; how had Tonya not heard it before? Her heart began to race.
Listen. It was His voice, so clear and wanting and inside of her as she had yearned to hear for so long. Tonya nodded, ready, though He needed no reply.
Mary Breaden is an Oregonian native living in Brooklyn. By early morning light, she writes, and during business hours, she works for a social services nonprofit. She and Andrea Janda founded an experimental literary journal in 2016 (www.visitantlit.com). Mary’s work has been published in Joyland Magazine, the Fanzine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Persistent Visions, The Mondegreen, Education Week, the Portland State Vanguard, Portland Book Review. She was selected as an Emerging Writer in the Lamprophonic Reading Series and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015.
Image original: Lauram12345 via Creative Commons