Bounced Check
By Margaret Hundley Parker

On the way to the restaurant, she ducked into the bank. She signed forms, ignored indignant looks, and watched the woman at the desk count out $17,000 in twenty dollar bills. The balance of her account shot across the desk like a thick green tongue. She plunged the stack of bills into her jacket pocket and walked down Montgomery Street. It surprised her slightly -- to have taken all her money out. But she decided to think instead about how the winter air seemed to flood her lungs with light. She approached and passed the restaurant, but did not slow her gait. She did not look into the window for the familiar face and no person called out after her. If he was in the restaurant he did not see or stop her. He was probably there, slouched at a table in the back. His tan trench coat was probably draped over the plush leather seat he saved for her. Most likely ordering his second Kettle One martini with two olives, after all she was fifteen minutes late. If she had gone in, she would have leaned down and kissed the sandpaper cheek, and breathed in the citrus-y aftershave tinted with vodka. A man smell. She would have insisted, again, that it wasn’t really a martini if it wasn’t with gin, he would have disagreed mildly, and grabbed her hand with the same zest that he picked up his glass or scratched his nose with. She would have sat back and heard about another day on the 30th Floor of Bane and Co. She would have talked about her day at RCM, perhaps relayed some mundane anecdote. She would want to tell him that in the middle of the day she felt her heart hanging out, that sometimes she felt suffocated by all this air, or that she cried in the middle of a meeting. But she wouldn't say these things to him because it was way too sunny. Instead she would tell him about how her secretary left for a three-hour lunch. This sort of thing had become important, vital. Her life was stuck on one floor in one gray building. Then they would have talked about the wedding or what brand of cookware they should register for at William Sonoma. They would have gone on and on about the house in Sausalito. Hardwood floors. Skylights carved in like wounds. Spacious kitchen. They were going to close on it tonight.

With her hand in her jacket pocket, she flicked the bills with her thumb and index finger making a quiet hum, like the shuffling of worn out cards. The money certainly didn't feel important. In fact, it didn't feel any different from the sugarless gum wrapper or the wadded up Kleenex it sat beside in her pocket.



She walked away from downtown, towards a hill that overlooked the city. She had applied Clinique Desert Rose lipstick before leaving work, when she thought she would meet him. Her new pink mouth accentuated her sallow skin, the pocked shadows of her cheeks. Now she was clean and almost healthy, on the verge of marrying the kind of man she was supposed to -- bland like a stone, something solid to smash up against. He had a one syllable name: Ed. Like an anchor. Ed. Like a simple, pure thought, a clean kitchen, Ed. Ed reminded her of yellow, of soft pajamas, of making cookies, of getting chubby and complacent. Happy? She was of a mind to go through with it, had already written the check for the down payment on the house. But her legs walked right by the restaurant where her future husband sat waiting. Her legs insisted that she hike up the muddy hill. Forty year old legs, now used to walking in place on the Stairmaster like a mouse on a wheel.

When she got to the top, her black flats covered in mud, and her hose torn in places from the tall weeds, she took a Parliament out of her bag. She lit a match and brought it up to the cigarette balancing on her bottom lip. For a moment, she held the match up like a tiny Olympic torch. A smile crept around the lipstick stained filter. She reached into her pocket and took out the twenty dollar bills. She placed the tip of the flame to a soiled corner of the bottom twenty. The fire spread eagerly through the paper. Convinced the stack burned steadily, she dropped the match onto the wet ground. The check was merely an autograph now, a signature representing no money. No house would be moved into. No car would be parked in the neat garage. She had not known that she ached for the days when all of her belongings fit in one bag, the days when she could walk towards one place and arrive at another. The days when the clothes on her back were the only ones she had and therefore did not need to be cleaned and pressed and laid out on the bed in the early morning. She thought she could love this cardboard Ed, would marry him and move into the big house and have a baby. Here in San Francisco she had fallen in with a man who never knew how ugly things could get, whose idea of cutting loose was a few martinis after work.

Was this all there was on the other side? Getting old and struggling though conversations about chiropractors and drooling babies? That's what her new friends talked about. She always looked at her friends' babies' websites (and they ALWAYS had them). She tried to be interested. She was old enough, almost too old, to have an alien grow inside her belly, making her hot and fat and too tired to move. Tied like an empty balloon around a screaming child's finger.



She never wanted a cage before and she didn't want one now. She watched the money burn in her hand as she smoked her cigarette. Orange and yellow reflected off her glasses. Ash, like wounded carbon butterflies, floated away. Any hint of doubt or regret was easily overshadowed by the great pleasure she took in watching the flames lick up into the sky.

The sun dove behind the hill; and the lights of the city began to sparkle in the crisp air. Slowly the stars, tiny holes in the sky, began to blink. She felt so free for a moment she thought she could go there. Roam around stars for a year.

When her hand got too hot, but not wishing to hear the small sad sizzle of the fire hitting the ground, she dropped the money into the open bag by her feet.

The flames spread quickly. They became luscious greens and blues as her synthetic bag melted in homage to the burning money. She thought of the look on her boyfriend's face if he could see her now, on top of this hill, like a backwards Prometheus, or a tired goddess from Olympus. He would never understand and this made her laugh so hard she bent over and clutched her belly.



She threw the gum wrapper and the soiled Kleenex into the fire. In went the receipt from the bank, her business cards, and the check stub. She peeled off her torn stockings that, now empty, looked even more defeated, and tossed them into the shrinking fire. She looked down at the small tattoo on her ankle, an intricately detailed red rose that only she knew covered up a name. She wanted to scrub it all off.

The stockings fell onto the pyre like python skin and refused to burn. Smile lines arched around her mouth like scars. The bag and all of its contents smoldered on top of the hill. Only a faint line of smoke and a few carbon butterflies remained.

She dropped her shoes into the smoldering fire and started down the hill. Cold mud oozed between her toes. She walked on tender feet, feeling light and free. She began to run down the hill, picking up speed, half expecting to fly. With each new step she forgot where the old step was -- she did not know yet where she was running to but she would know when she got there. No one would be waiting and she was glad.



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