EXCERPT FROM ‘IN THE NOTHING’:
It was already hot when Trinity awoke. The sun was streaming into the room, between the white bed sheets she and Chanelle hung in the window as makeshift curtains, and across her exposed legs. She must have thrown off her covers in the middle of the night, frustrated by the weak breeze from the window air-conditioning unit. She sat up in bed and listened for signs of life in the apartment. Hearing none, she lowered her feet to the floor and stretched. She would be able to make coffee and watch a little television uninterrupted while she thought about what to do with her day. As if there was any doubt. She had to find a job. It had been one month since graduation, and she could already feel her aunt’s patience beginning to wear thin.
Even Chanelle was starting to hint that it would be great to have the room just for her and Jamal. Jamal was Chanelle’s seven-month old. Right now, he slept in a bassinet that was fast proving too small for him. Chanelle claimed that Jamal’s grandmother – her boyfriend’s mother – was planning to buy him a crib “just as soon as I got someplace to put it.” That “someplace” was where Trinity’s bed currently was, of course. Putting aside for the moment that Jamal’s grandmother probably couldn’t afford a crib, Trinity was just as eager to be gone as Chanelle was to have her gone.
But first things first. Find a job. Something that would make it possible for her to move out of the George Washington Carver Apartments and into a real neighborhood; a place where she didn’t have to look over her shoulder every block and a half when she walked at night. A place where an eighteen-year-old with no kids didn’t get treated like a pariah.
The kitchen was a mess. There were paper cups and a couple of empty forty-ounce beer bottles on the table, alongside one of Jamal’s few stuffed toys that had apparently been used as a sponge to sop up a spill. Trinity almost tossed it into the trash until she thought of Chanelle, and the likely rage this would set off. It didn’t take much.
Thankfully, there was coffee, and even a splash of creamer remaining, so she made herself a cup and sat in front of the small television set, barely paying attention to the local news. After showering, she would go downstairs and see whether she could find a copy of the City Paper. There were always interesting listings for jobs in the Upper Northwest part of the city. More than interesting; intriguing, offering windows into a different world that Trinity could scarcely believe existed. ‘Wanted. Dog walker for temperamental boxer puppy; afternoons and evenings.’ Or ‘Fiction writer seeking personal assistant to work weekday afternoons. Some evenings and weekends. Errands, light housekeeping and occasional proofreading. Good sense of humor essential.’ There were people who paid for services such as these. It seemed incredible, but it was true. And even the regular jobs sounded wonderful. Bookstore clerk. Spa receptionist. Au pair. They reminded Trinity of the jobs that characters in her novels had. No one seemed to work at the post office, seemed to be a garbage collector, a security guard, or a beauty supply store cashier. Those were the kinds of jobs people in this neighborhood had. If they had jobs at all.
Outside, she could hear the street noise beginning to ebb. The morning rush hour was almost over, and the stream of cars from Maryland, heading downtown via H Street had begun to thin. Chanelle had left early, hoping to get a good place in line as she waited with Jamal to visit her boyfriend Marcus in the DC jail. Marcus. Possibly the dumbest drug dealer in the history of drug dealers. Each arrest seemed only to strengthen his resolve to commit crime. This time though, he was looking at time in an adult prison. Trinity marveled at how matter-of-fact everyone was about that – and wondered for not the first time, that her aunt and cousin could be so different from her and her mother. When she could stand to think about her mother, she would compare her to Aunt Sheryl, and feel a mild sense of disbelief that they had come from the same womb. Her mother was seldom mentioned here and then only with bitterness.
That’s Sheila’s girl, Aunt Sheryl would tell visitors who happened to catch sight of Trinity. And then for good measure, don’t know if her daddy’s white or what. It was when Sheila was on that shit.
Thanks to her aunt, by now everyone within a five-mile radius probably knew that Trinity was conceived while her mother was on heroin, and that her father was of unknown racial heritage. Unknown, in general. They suspected he was white because of Trinity’s mass of unruly wavy, curly hair. She looked vaguely Latina, and was tormented for it all through the last two years when her mother passed away and she’d had to change schools to finish up at Ballou. She hadn’t been in school three days before some of the other girls started calling her nasty names and accusing her of thinking she was better than them. She practiced expressions that were blandly pleasant, hoping to placate them, trying not to look haughty or stuck up. It didn’t work.
In that last year, when her mother had finally gotten clean once and for all, things had been pretty close to what Trinity thought of as a “normal life.” Her mother was home every night. They cooked and ate dinner together, went to the movies, laughed and talked and did each other’s hair like girlfriends. The suspicion and anger Trinity felt, and that she’d held onto for so long begin to dissipate. Then came the increasingly frequent trips to the doctor; the diagnosis; the staggering cocktail of medications and a slow but steady deterioration. That she should finally have a mother, a real, functioning and loving mother and then have her taken away seemed astonishingly cruel. The only god Trinity believed in was a reckless and random being, who either didn’t see, or didn’t care about the consequences of that turn of events. Even now, three years later, she turned her mind abruptly in another direction rather than think too long or too hard about her mother and the blind hopefulness that she’d had when she’d kicked her fifteen-year habit. Who knew? she’d said to Trinity one day as they sat on the steps of their building sunning themselves. Who knew there were this many possibilities in a day? That was the way she’d talked in that last year. Like someone who had literally been reborn and was learning again just how amazing the world could be.
The water was tepid, so Trinity showered quickly, and dressed without drying her hair, mindful of the time. Her aunt might come back at any moment. She worked three blocks away at a take-out place that had its busiest time in the morning, a lull just after ten a.m. and then another rush at lunchtime. During her breaks, Aunt Sheryl often came home just to check in, or to smoke a quick joint. Sometimes she brought her boyfriend, Cyrus with her. Lately he lingered a little too long when Trinity was in the room, and tried a little too hard to make conversation. It was only a matter of time before her aunt noticed and took it out on her instead of the offending party.
Cyrus was an ex-con who had scored a job as a driver for a waste management company. He worked in the pre-dawn hours and was usually done by eleven a.m. He was considered a catch around the way because not only was he reasonably good-looking and beefy from prison yard workouts but he made a decent living and had his own row house. Apparently it had been left to him by his grandmother who had succumbed a year or two after he was released. Cyrus’ row house had two levels and a finished basement, and three decent-sized bedrooms according to Chanelle. Aunt Sheryl practically salivated when she talked about going over to visit him. Just the way the words “Cyrus’ house” rolled off her tongue made it clear she coveted it. But Cyrus, like most of the men around here, didn’t strike Trinity as the family type and if Aunt Sheryl was harboring a fantasy about Cyrus moving her in, she was seriously out of her mind.
Once dressed, Trinity grabbed her backpack and headed out the door, locking it behind her. She only had to walk a half-block before she found the City Paper. In Union Station, she would sit in Au Bon Pain and look through the classifieds. The café was far more expensive than she could afford, but occasionally, she splurged on a chocolate croissant and latté. She would get the pastry now and leave the latté for later, in case she went uptown. In her pocket was a check for two hundred dollars, and forty dollars in cash. Both were graduation gifts she had gotten from the DC CASA organization. When her mother died and she was briefly put into the foster system, she’d been given a court-appointed special advocate who visited and was kind of a mentor. Her name was Lisette Martin and she was a pretty, petite Georgetown law student. She took Trinity to movies and the Smithsonian museums and loaned her books by authors like Virginia Woolf and Nadine Gordimer.
Lisette was from Utah and a Mormon, and Trinity could tell at times that she was barely resisting the urge to proselytize. But Trinity had read somewhere that Mormons actually hadn’t even allowed Black people in their church until very recently, so there was no way Lisette would have been able to convince her to become a part of that particular religion. Just about everything else about Lisette was something Trinity would have been happy to emulate – the way she walked, as though she was gliding a fraction of an inch above ground; the way she carelessly tossed her auburn hair out of her face and the way she pronounced every single word in a sentence with perfect clarity and precision. It was a girl-crush Trinity nurtured for almost eighteen months until Lisette graduated and moved back to Utah to take the bar exam. She had written about a dozen times since leaving. Snail-mail, because Trinity didn’t have regular access to a computer. Trinity wrote back the first few times but thereafter ignored the letters – what was the point in continuing? Their long-distance interaction was more frustrating than satisfying and ultimately, Lisette was gone, and was never coming back and that was all there was to it.
Union Station was still somewhat crowded with commuters when she got there, but Au Bon Pain had lots of vacant tables. Trinity found herself caught up in the mood of theplace – hurried and harried men and women in suits ordering from the overpriced menu by rote – and decided to get both the latté and croissant after all. The chocolate croissant was her favorite thing in the world to eat – soft and buttery and chocolaty and creamy all at once. She wondered whether Chanelle had ever had one and briefly considered buying an extra to take home to her. But Trinity already knew how the unexpected gift would be greeted – with suspicion – so decided against it. Besides, she didn’t want to carry it around all day.
Across from the café was a bookstore that advertised bargain books as low as $5.99. Trinity yearned to go in and select a few but she couldn’t spare the money, not when she had much bigger things in her sights. Along with the check and cash in her pocket, she had $1,156.29 in a checking account that neither her aunt nor cousin knew about. It had been saved dollar by painstaking dollar from a part-time job she’d gotten at an after-care program for toddlers. It had only been ten hours a week but she sometimes subbed for other caregivers and managed to build up what seemed like a minor fortune.
“Anyone sitting here?”
Trinity looked up and into the eyes of a young man wearing a grey suit and white shirt. His tie was green with yellow pinstripes. He looked like he was close to her age, maybe early twenties. There were still lots of empty tables so there was no need for him to share one with her but she shook her head anyway and he sat opposite her, setting his own coffee and pastry between them.
“I hate rush hour, don’t you?”
Trinity looked at him evenly and sipped her coffee.
“Just making conversation,” he said with a smile. “Sorry.”
Men did that often. Tried to ‘just make conversation’ with her. Old men, young men. Men on trains and on the street. Men who yelled out of their car windows and tried to give her rides. When she was fifteen, she’d gone home with one just to see what would happen. He took her to an apartment in Northeast with a mattress on the bedroom floor. He barely spoke to her before he raised her skirt and pulled aside her underwear. When he pushed into her, she felt as though she was being torn in half, the pain was so sharp. But she didn’t scream, or make any sound at all. He labored over her for a few minutes and then grunted, collapsing on her with the full force of his weight. He lay there and she lay beneath him as though dead. When he got up, it was to get a wash rag which he threw to her, telling her to clean herself with it. He dropped her off at the same corner where he’d picked her up. Today, she couldn’t even remember what he’d looked like. That was the first time. Now, she used condoms – she had learned enough to do that at least.
Trinity bit her croissant and looked at the young man across the table. He was smooth-faced and handsome. His eyes were hazel and fringed by long lashes. He was almost pretty. His fingernails were evenly trimmed and square. And clean. Everything about him – clean.
“Are you going on an interview?” she asked.
“Is it that obvious?” He looked pleasantly surprised that she’d spoken.
“No. But your briefcase. It looks light, that’s all. So I guessed . . .”
“And you’re not in a hurry, so you’re probably not on your way to work.”
“Very perceptive.” He reached across the table and extended his hand, telling her his name.
Trinity shook his hand but didn’t tell him her name. He looked at her expectantly for a moment then seemed to get the hint – she was not inclined to share it.
“What are you interviewing for?”
“A research associate position at Brookings,” he said. There was pride in his voice.
“I bet you get it,” she said.
He smiled. “Why would you say that?”
“Because you look like the kind of person who gets things.”
The smile on his face slipped just a little, but he looked at her differently, intrigued now.
“My appointment’s at ten,” he said. “I’d like to take you to lunch after.”
“No,” she said, taking another sip of her coffee. “I’m busy today.”
“Oh,” he sounded disappointed.
“But you could give me your number and I might call you later,” she said.
“And when you call, will you tell me your name then?” He was already reaching for a pen.
Trinity stood. “I didn’t say I would call.” She slung her backpack over her shoulder and gathered the remains of her croissant. “I said I might call.”
She took his number and stuffed it into the back pocket of her jeans, walking away without looking back.
While waiting on the Metro platform, she circled three possibilities in Tenleytown and another in Woodley Park. She would take the train uptown and call from there. And in the meantime she would walk the neighborhood and see whether any stores were hiring. If she was going to work in a store, it would be one of those nice ones near the University and the National Zoo. Not a ghetto store where you never knew if you were going to get paid.
In the train, she checked her face and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. She was wearing her best jeans – the ones that Chanelle kept trying to hide from her – and a simple white button-down that she’d bought at The Gap on Connecticut Avenue. In her opinion, it was more expensive than a white shirt had any business being, but she’d read in a magazine that some things were essentials in any wardrobe and that a well-cut plain white shirt was one of them. Her sandals were another of her “smart buys” – that was what the magazine had called these essentials – black and medium-high, not too casual and not too dressy. Just enough of both those characteristics to be appropriate with either a pair of jeans or nicely-tailored slacks. Her toenails were unpainted, because she didn’t believe in such things. She’d always marveled at the pains Chanelle and Aunt Sheryl took with their toenails – the colors and patterns and appliqués – to produce such a garish result.
The first thing she did when she got out of the Metro was look for a branch of her bank. They were the most popular bank in the city, so she gambled that there would be one within a few blocks and she was right. Inside, she deposited the check and did something she had never dared do before – she requested a Visa check card. It hadn’t seemed like a good idea before this. It was too risky. Aunt Sheryl might find it, or Chanelle might spot it when she went on one of her periodic search missions through Trinity’s stuff. But now, she was on the verge of independence – that’s what they called it in foster care when you aged out of the system – and she would need a card. She would need a cell phone, she would need lots of things for her new life and the card was just the first step.
“So we’ll send it out in seven to ten days to your home address,” the customer service representative said pleasantly. “And a few days after that, your pin should arrive.”
“Send it?” Trinity asked. “To my house?”
“Yes.” The rep looked up. “We have to send it to the address on the account. I see here that you have a P.O. box here for your statements but we actually can’t send the card to a box. For security reasons it has to go to a physical address.”
“That won’t work,” Trinity said almost to herself.
“Well,” the rep thought for a moment. “We could have it sent here.”
“Good. That’s what I want,” Trinity said. “Have them send it here.”
“And you’ll just need to have your proper id when you pick it up, and you’ll be good to go. In fact, if you do it that way, you’ll be able to select your pin right away.”
“So that works out,” Trinity smiled because it seemed to be expected of her.
Upper Northwest DC was as different from Trinity’s neighborhood as one place could be from another. Even the air seemed lighter and cleaner. People walked differently and seemed truly present in their surroundings instead of just moving through them. A sense of ease pervaded, and there were strollers. Not baby strollers, but people who strolled, rather than strode with only their destination in mind. Mothers pointed things out in windows to their toddlers, and kneeled down to their level, talking to them in soothing, coaxing voices and kissing them for no particular reason.
Trinity walked by an electronics store that advertised pre-paid cell phones and stopped. She needed one, but only had about thirty-three dollars in cash. She went in anyway and found one for twenty-five that came with fifteen dollars worth of free minutes. As she mulled it over, a clerk approached her. He looked like a high school kid, maybe sixteen years old, working a summer job.
“That’s our best deal on pre-paids,” he said encouragingly. “But sometimes those can wind up more expensive than a contract. Have you thought about opening a conventional account?”
“What would that involve?”
“A one- two- or three-year commitment. The longer the commitment the better the terms. You want to come check it out?” He nodded in the direction of the customer service desk.
She left the store with a brand new cell phone that was free with a three-year contract at $29.99 a month. Something about carrying the bag made her suddenly feel like she belonged in the neighborhood like everyone else. It was probably what made her confident enough to walk right into the health food store when she saw the sign in the window.
The girl at the cash register had a colorful scarf tied like a headband and hanging down in a fringe in the back. Her blouse was a sheer yellow cotton blowsy thing that fell off one shoulder, exposing flawless brown skin the color of rich chocolate. She raised her head when Trinity entered and her six-inch high natural, unkempt afro seemed like a kind of halo. When she smiled, Trinity thought she had never seen anyone so beautiful in her life.
“Hi,” she said. “How are you today?”
“Good,” Trinity’s voice croaked a little as she spoke. “I was wondering about the sign in your window?”
The girl perked up. “You want to apply?”
Trinity jumped at the unexpected yell as the cashier called out toward the rear of the store.
“Jesus Christ, Skylar. How many times have I told you . . ?” A tall dark-haired guy emerged from the back. He was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, cargo shorts and thong sandals. “Oh. Hello. How may I help you?”
“She wants to apply for the associate position,” Skylar said at normal volume.
“Oh!” Brad looked surprised. “Really?”
“Wow. Great selling job there, Brad.”
Brad laughed and touched Trinity’s shoulder. “Don’t listen to her. It’s just that we’ve had a little trouble keeping this position filled. We get lots of people who’re in school but they change class schedules, drop out, that kind of thing.”
Brad led her to the back of the store and indicated two wooden crates near a storage room.
“Welcome to my office,” he said with a flourish.
Trinity sat on one crate and he sat on the other, crossing one leg over the other.
“So are you in school right now?” Brad asked.
“No. This would be long-term for me if I got it.”
“Okay, so have you ever worked retail before?”
“Yes,” Trinity said.
“What kind of retail?”
“Shoppers Food Warehouse. And once at a dollar store.”
“Hmm.” Brad looked thoughtful. “This would be nothing like either of those.”
“Oh.” Trinity’s heart sank.
“No, that’s fine. What I mean is, it’s a lot less busy here than either of those places probably were,” Brad explained. “We’re never crowded except on occasional weekends when something’s happening at the zoo or at the university, or on a holiday weekend. But the customers that do come in tend to be regulars and they spend a lot. A lot.”
“So you like them to get a lot of attention,” Trinity said.
“No,” Brad said. “Actually not. So here’s the thing; these are people who think they know everything about health food and what’s good for them? They read a lot, work out, they go online and find out about products and then they come here and get them. Very occasionally they’ll ask for something specific, or even more rarely for a recommendation. But mostly we leave them alone and they make their selections and go to the register to pay for them.”
“So . . . you need the associate to . . .”
“Be present and vigilant, but not pushy or overbearing. There’s a lot of stocktaking, some work on the register, some lifting and pushing and pulling. Do you have any physical limitations that would make that a challenge for you?”
“Well,” Brad shrugged. “You’re a pretty girl. I’m sure people like you on sight. How about a 90-day trial period?”
Trinity tried not to show her surprise. It could not possibly have been this simple. She hadn’t even called the other leads she’d found in the City Paper. And she’d been uptown for less than half a day and she was being offered a job?
“How much does it . . ?”
“Pay?” Brad said. “Well, not too much I’m afraid. It’s minimum wage to start. But you’ll get lots of hours if you want. We’re open seven days a week from eight a.m. to ten p.m.”
“I’ll take it,” Trinity said.
Brad laughed. “Well, that’s a relief. One less thing on my list of things to do,” he made as though checking something off on a piece of paper.
Trinity smiled. “When can I start?”
“How’s tomorrow?” Brad stood and reached out to help her up from the crate.
“Tomorrow would be great.”
“Skylar,” Brad sang as he walked toward the front of the store. “We tricked her into it.”
Skylar was filing her nails and looked up, bored.
“Yeah . . .” Brad looked at Trinity with a sudden realization. “I haven’t even asked your name.”
“Trinity. Trinity Renfrew.”
Skylar looked up again, but this time with interest. “That’s an interesting name. More interesting than mine, even.”
“Yes,” Brad said, deadpan. “There are – out there – people more interesting than you, Skylar.”
“Oh fuck off, Brad,” Skylar said.
Trinity tried to hide her surprise that Skylar could speak to her employer that way. Skylar seemed to read her mind.
“Brad’s not the manager,” she said. “He’s just standing in for him. Rick is the owner and manager. He’s in Colorado on his annual hiking trip and – rather foolishly – left Brad in charge for three weeks. So he’s power-tripping.”
Brad laughed. “Oh my God,” he said. “Are you kidding me? I don’t want any power. With power comes responsibility.”
“Brad totally sexually harassed the last associate we had – this cute guy who goes to American – so he quit,” Skylar said, sticking out her tongue at Brad. “So he was in a pickle – he had to hire someone before Rick gets back next week.”
Trinity didn’t care why she was hired, or whether they asked her name right away. She cared that she’d gotten a job – a real job, and that it was in Northwest in a beautiful neighborhood, far away from the crime and the noise and the gritty Northeast life.
“So there’s paperwork or something to fill out, right Skylar?” Brad prompted, trying to sound like all business again.
“Yup.” Skylar whipped a few sheets of paper out from under the desk and handed them to Trinity. “And you’ll need a copy of her driver’s license and social security card. We can’t have any illegals working here.”
Everything she said was with such unrelenting sarcasm that it was difficult to know when she was serious. Trinity took the paperwork and a pen Skylar handed her, filling out the application forms and then handing Brad her id which he disappeared with to the back of the store.
“How old are you?” Skylar asked, tilting her head to one side and surveying Trinity.
“Oh wow. I’m nineteen. This is my year off,” and then because Trinity looked confused. “Before college. My parents let me take a year. I’m actually only trying to figure out a way I can avoid going altogether. How about you?”
It took Trinity a moment to understand what she was asking. “Oh, I’m not going to college,” she said.
“Really? You’re lucky. In my family it’s kind of expected.”
“In mine, it’s not expected at all,” Trinity said before she could stop herself.
Skylar grinned. “We should have drinks or something. Since we’re going to be co-workers and all.”
Brad returned from the back and handed Trinity her identification. “Glad to have you on board,” he shook her hand.
“Thank you,” Trinity said.
“Her hours?” Skylar prompted.
Brad laughed. “Yes, that’s right. Your hours. So I told you we’re open from eight in the morning till ten at night. And we like to have three people here at all times. We have a couple of teenagers who come in from five to closing, so you’re free to take the eight to five schedule five days a week. And on two of those days, we’ll need you to open. That means getting here by probably six-thirty a.m. or so.”
“That’ll be no problem,” Trinity nodded.
“Rick doesn’t like new people to open,” Skylar said.
“Shit, that’s right,” Brad said.
“I’ll keep doing it,” Skylar said, sounding exasperated. “But you owe me big-time.”
“I can come in with you if you want,” Trinity offered. “So I can learn how to do it.”
“Sounds good to me,” Brad said. “You two work it out between you. I’m back to stock-taking. So we’ll see you tomorrow, Trinity?”
“Yes. At eight. I’ll be here.”
When Brad was gone, Trinity turned to Skylar again, but she was now wholly occupied by her fingernails, so Trinity turned to head out of the store.
“I’m opening tomorrow,” Skylar said to her back just as she opened the door to leave. “So get here at six-fifteen.”
“Okay. See you then,” Trinity said.
Skylar did not look up from her nails or give any sign she’d heard her at all.