What happened the Friday before Labor Day?
Okay, let me tell you . . .
“We have a problem in the basement.” This from Kai, second only to Maya herself on the shift, and now having returned from the downstairs freezer bearing two great bags of shredded iceberg lettuce—bags he held, one under each arm, like trapped dirigibles, dirigibles of lettuce.
“No, no problems,” said Maya. Not today. She did not want them, could not handle them. No.
“There is someone sleeping in the basement. A homeless person. You will have to see for yourself,” said Kai, wearily. Working around Maya’s legs, he stuffed the lettuce dirigibles into freezer units under the sandwich counter. Maya had just cellophaned the steel tubs, still full of veggies, and stowed them. She had wiped down the counters and scrubbed the sneeze guards. All was done, all should be well, but now a problem in the basement.
Kai stood and waited. He demonstrated little agency now. Not until Maya acted. She considered her choice of armaments.
The vegetables, the meats, the cheeses, all came in pre-sliced. Bread was baked—or rather the bread loaves were browned—on site, and the store boasted a full complement of long serrated bread knives, but that was about it.
No, there was one other thing—a flat, thin square of metal with a plastic handle on one end. The tool for scraping scraps off the sandwich-making counter after the sandwich artist completes an order.
It rested in its slot at the end of the counter. Maya put four fingers through the hole in the handle and withdrew the tool.
She did what?
She pulled the scraper-thingy out of the counter slot. Basically like young Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Pretty much the same thing, except that, unlike the sword, the scraper was only for defense, as Maya explained to a confused and doubtful Kai:
“This is a totem, a symbol of power, not a weapon. Why do I need it? A knight does not go into battle empty-handed. Consider that part of your training.”
Maya held her hand out. Kai fished into his apron pocket and brought up the keys.
Maya took them and nodded reassuringly.
She advanced on the basement door.
What is going on here?
This is a good point to give you some context. The owner of this particular sandwich location was not the worst of owners. And this sandwich chain was not the worst of sandwich chains.
The Friday before Labor Day, the day this story takes place, fast food strikes were planned in many major cities. This establishment’s not-too-terrible owner had agreed to let Maya close early—right after the lunch rush—so that she (and any other interested employee) could attend the protest downtown, as long as she made sure to stow and clean everything per normal end-of-night procedures. The others, all except Maya and Kai, had already left. Maya did not want to go, but the others had, probably some of them just wanted to get out in the sunshine. No, Maya did not want to go, she was tired and in a low moment. She did not see the point. But the others looked to her, so she had gone to the owner about it for them. Who else would?
The main demand of the strike was for a living wage. Maya made $9.19 an hour (the highest minimum wage in the nation at that time). The strikers were asking for $15.00, comparable to the minimum wage is other western democracies. It could be said that making a deal with your boss to only strike after the lunch rush, to only strike between the hours of 2pm and 4pm when this location scarcely drew traffic anyway, was an uneven compromise.
However, Maya had $26,000 in student loans and paid $600 a month for her third of an apartment within walking distance to her job. Walking distance was essential because public transit cost five dollars a day, even with a discount pass.
When Maya had been much younger, she imagined a fantasy world, a world she had made up herself and called (more than a trifle narcissistically) Mayastray the Land Beyond Dreams. At night she would often comfort herself with the notion that one morning she would wake up there, a Golden Knight, and ride toward the eternal dawn and having adventures.
However, Maya was twenty-five now. Old enough to appreciate the difference between holding the short end of a stick and getting beaten with one. Hence the compromise on striking hours.
Kai, merely nineteen, knew little of these things yet. Sweet innocent child.
Now back to the story.
Maya crept down the stairs to the blackened basement. The wooden steps, polished slick with wear, creaked beneath her footfalls: the only sound except Maya’s own breathing. The basement smelled of overworked refrigerator, and of the fecund wood.
Hold on. Why doesn’t Maya just call the cops, if there is a homeless person in the basement. Or the owner?
Excellent question. She does not call the owner because she is in charge. The owner has several locations spread over the city. He could be anywhere at this moment in the story, and he would surely tell Maya she has to stay on site until he could get there, which might take hours.
She does not call the police, because she has seen many online videos of choke holds, of gloved fists, of Tasers, of shots fired—many videos of the myriad ways things get out of hand when the police charge in. Also, at this precise moment most of the city’s police were on alert, garbed in riot gear: visors down, flack jackets zipped up tight, pepper spray primed, and truncheons lovingly oiled in case of any trouble downtown. So, fuck them.
Maya crept down the stairs to the blackened . . .
Normally, it’s true, sandwich artists and basements have little to do with each other. But this location was in an ancient area, where square footage went for a premium. The store’s big freezer lived there and its shelves of plastic tanks of non-perishable condiments lived there, beneath ground-level, within the bowels of the heaving metropolis.
The unseasonably humid day had caused the walls—uneven, blobbing walls of thick old yellow-white plaster—to heave and sweat.
In a far back corner of the basement, upon a chair padded in maroon (once red, perhaps, but now maroon) leather-like material—high-backed, with wings outlined in pseudo-brass studs, a chair with thick round armrests, a chair the owner had brought in for some reason and abandoned—there sat a sleeping woman, her thin body half-covered by a disused tetrahedron of cut carpet. She leaned to one side, head and gray hair bun against one wing of the chair.
Maya did not expect a woman.
Kai had said “person”, and why not? The description was accurate, though lacking specificity in gender while still making the assumption that the person was homeless, though she might not be. Maya had made the assumption the person in the basement was male; Kai had made the assumption the person in the basement was homeless. Her assumption had been false—while his was still to be determined.
Maya laid her shield, the scraper thingy, down, approached the sleeping woman, and lightly touched one tiny shoulder.
The woman did not stir.
The woman was slightly cool, and for a moment Maya feared the worst, or at least what people mean when they say they fear the worse, which is death. Though if death, which comes to all, is the worst, then everything is bad in the end.
The woman wore a loose blouse, a blouse of almost indefinable cut and material, whitish-bright, and with an open collar and an open top button. A vein in the woman’s long neck pulsed evenly the count of heartbeats.
Maya touched the same shoulder again, a little more forcefully, whispering, “Ma’am?”
The woman did not stir.
Maya kneeled. No air moved in the basement. In thought, she moved her lower lip over her upper, which tasted salty.
The woman’s hair bun was somewhat coming loose and the escaping wisps appeared golden-like, not grayish: strands of a yet-stubborn youth. Maya carefully gripped one of the woman’s fragile and atrophied biceps, and squeezed.
The woman’s hand, the hand left uncovered by the long carpet section, opened and something rolled out of it, a tiny scroll fastened with an orangish ribbon, landing before Maya’s knees.
Maya picked up the scroll, seeing writing on its outside. The writing was small and of a narrow, fine-lined script. I would not have been able to make it out at all in the light of that basement, possibly you would not have been able to either. Even Maya, with her strong, young eyes had some trouble, though perhaps her trouble came more from the words themselves—because those words seemed incredible.
In the sense of lacking credibility, or the sense of being awesome?
“Deliver to the hand of Maya the Good,” read the scroll.
Maya, reserving judgment, tugged one end of the orangish ribbon, pulling the knot through. The scroll opened, its texture so sturdy that the crinkle it made unrolling sounded almost like a snap.
“Greetings to Maya the Good, Golden Knight of the Dawn, the Long-Awaited One, from We, The Waking Ones of Mayastray, Land Beyond Dreams.”
Though ample space remained on the scroll, that was all that was written.
“Waking Ones,” thought Maya, though this one is asleep.
With a scratching sound, new words began to appear in the open space on the scroll. Maya read them, and as she finished the words disappeared:
“This messenger, who sleeps in your world, awakes in Mayastray.”
Maya laughed, in surprise, but not entirely in disbelief. Something like belief had always remained with her, under her skin, half appeased and half forgotten.
“Well, greetings to you then,” said Maya.
The scroll scratched again: “Kindly take our messenger by both hands. Fly to Mayastray, where your battles are all one. Fly and be with us, Knight of the Dawn.”
“One,” not “won”? Maya thought as the words faded.
The scroll scratched a sort of clarification: “All your battles are one battle, and in Mayastray you prevail, you have always prevailed. You will always prevail,” the words appeared and then faded away.
Before Maya consciously understood her own next thought, the scroll seemed to undertake an answer:
“Unlike the world you now toil in.”
She should definitely go for it. It’s a no-brainer.
On with the story.
“Take our messenger’s two hands in your two hands, and soon you will be home,” came the next words, and faded.
Maya squeezed the woman’s open hand, the one that had held the scroll. For the first time, the woman reacted, stirring slightly and smiling faintly.
“It’s a one-way trip, I imagine,” said Maya, aloud.
The scroll: “Yes. Here, we await you with accolades, with glory, all that you deserve, you will never desire to leave.”
“The opposite of this shitty world,” said Maya.
The scroll did not answer, and Maya supposed that was because the answer was too obvious.
“Right,” she said. “Well.”
Maya moved the long carpet scrap covering part of the woman, letting fall away, revealing her other arm.
Maya had already observed that the woman’s body was thin and frail, but that did not prepare her for the shock of seeing the withered arm that had lain hidden and which looked more like a mummy’s than an aged but evidently still-living woman.
The mummied hand itself was brittle and of an amber-like color. The fingers, laden with bejeweled rings, curled and twisted like parched saplings.
The scroll scratched, and Maya read: “Your world ages and decays all things. Even us, when we enter it. Even you. Look closely at the face of the messenger. Is she not like you? Will you not wither and die like her? Leave now, while you are still full of life.”
Maya did look closely at the woman’s face. It resembled hers. It could be that of a distant aunt or unknown grandparent . . .or herself? Everything the scroll said was true. She, Maya, was nothing in this world. She, Maya, was going to die one day.
“She cannot return without you,” scratched the scroll.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” said Maya.
“She risked everything to carry our message to you, Maya the Good. No other way exists.”
“You’re really putting the pressure on,” said Maya.
The scroll: “Do not be afraid.”
“I am afraid.”
“Face your fear. You will see it fall away.”
“I doubt it.”
“Set aside your doubts. You are a hero. You have already won. We sing your praises. Never fear, never die. Ever glory. Ever.”
Maya let the scroll roll up and set it aside, it rolled under the chair, making the sound of furious further scratching.
Maya did not take the woman’s withered hands, though she could have done, and ended it all. Instead, she put her hands to the woman’s face and turned it slightly, so her head no longer leaned against the wing of the chair. The woman’s slight smile had faded.
“Listen to me,” said Maya. “I don’t want to talk to some scroll, magical and persistent as it is; I want to talk to you. Can you wake up? Can you please try to wake up? If only for a moment?”
The woman, the messenger from Mayastray, frowned.
“You call me Maya the Good. You call me a hero.”
The slight smile returned to the woman’s face.
“I’m not those things. That’s just a dream world, a dream I had when I was a girl.”
The scroll, still banished under the chair, scratched more furiously. Maya ignored it. The woman’s brow furrowed; her lips bent into a frown.
“Listen,” said Maya. “Listen, listen, listen. The scroll is right. I am afraid. But it’s this world I fear. To be something like the things you pretend that I am, I have to stay in the real world.”
The old woman’s lips parted. She did not speak, but Maya sensed the question the woman burned to ask:
What is real?
“We both know the answer to that,” said Maya.
The old woman’s face softened. A tear appeared at the corner of one eye and moved down, following the well-worn crevasses of her cheek.
“I am sorry to disappoint you, I truly am,” said Maya. “Your perfect world is a child’s creation, but I am not that child now. I must stay here and face whatever comes.”
The scroll, which had fallen silent, now scratched again, but with a different cadence, slow and sad.
Maya did not open it.
Come on, what did it say?
It said, “Then, you may yet become a champion.”
Maya looked at the woman’s face, now showing something like an expression of wistful understanding. “I’m sorry for your sacrifice,” Maya told her. “I hope you had a good life. Did you, I wonder?”
The sleeping woman smiled.
“And you really cannot go back?”
The sleeping woman smiled.
“Will you stay here and help me then, for as long as you have left? We’ll help each other, maybe?”
The sleeping woman smiled.
Kai, whom Maya had all but forgotten, caused her to jump when he called down to the basement from atop the landing, saying “Come on! We’re going to be late.”
“We’ll make it,” said Maya. A chance anyway.
Maya lifted the woman’s arms—the death arm and the still living one—arranging them so that they encircled her neck. Then, holding the woman behind the legs with one arm and across the back with the other, Maya lifted, finding the burden somewhat more than expected.
Nevertheless, Maya turned, carrying the woman. She found the stairs difficult. Each one creaked under the weight of the persistent, living being climbing them. But that persistent, living being kept climbing, carefully, up toward the open door and the light.
Then what happened?
So many things. A lifetime of them. You can just imagine.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 Michael Canfield