BAS Fiction – Inroads Up Hills
INROADS UP HILLS
by John Christopher Nelson
The rises and falls distort Celia’s sense of place. Tonight is too cold for May, and the cartilage in her knees stiffens as she navigates the familiar, unsafe path to her apartment. Hosting at a bar means getting stuck at work until the drunks clear out for home. Some of them driving, some walking, others Uber, others other. More others Lyft, lately. Even then, her work isn’t finished. The remains of the night need tidying, putting away. Spilt drinks to unspill.
Celia’s uniform includes a clip-on bow tie, meant to project some level of elegance, a buffer between an authentic Celia—the thinking, feeling woman—and the patrons who are no better, who are often worse. The difference she observes between Tinder meets and OkCupid dates is thick, obvious as the nightly vomit left behind in the men’s stalls, the women’s stalls, the gender-neutral stalls too, their walls and doors all barnacled with the same hardships, experienced for different reasons at varying volumes through innumerable lenses.
The extent of Celia’s loneliness overlaps the shifts at the bar, envelops whatever sleep she can manage, eclipses her attempts at life. But she’s held out on joining either app. She feels above the people she watches enter the bar as strangers, leaving as maybe less. If she feels challenged by someone pressing her for specifics about avoiding such an obvious fix, Celia cites her age. She’s too old for those apps, she missed the window by a couple of years. That’s only half a lie, as if one’s mid-thirties were too old for anything.
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Celia wakes up sometimes to see the bow tie beside her bedside lamp. She pretends it belongs to someone upstairs making her breakfast. She checks her phone and accepts that nobody would make breakfast at three-fifty, unless they were just the right amount of drunk. But Celia already drank all the beers and she’s not the right amount of drunk. Around five, she pretends to sleep, and eventually the pretend becomes real.
The nights, though, are too quiet and with too many hills. Up or down one, she’s bundled in a collop of fog. The city is not undeniably alive. One must search and Celia has tried, only to discover meager tips & cigarettes, crossing paths with habitués whose worn Styrofoam cups hunger for both. As far as what she hungers for, she’s forgotten or never knew. Kerry, her roommate, makes all of it seem so easy. Kerry does not search the city, the city searches for her. Kerry has a Tinder. “Get a Tinder,” she tells Celia. Celia just considers getting rid of her iPhone in favor of something less modern, something cheaper. But when she walks by the Verizon store, she never feels confident enough to stand up to the sales staff, all of whom have always appeared to be high school age, accessorized with lanyards in perpetuity, no matter the year. “Why would you want a flip phone?” they’d ask, chewing gum, scrolling down their own iPhone screens. “Just get a Tinder.”
It must be nearly three and Celia still has a handful of blocks to travel when a man appears from the haze. He’s looking directly at her by the time he’s bloomed into fully defined features. Veins empurple his cheeks, their skin raw from the city’s salted winds. She avoids his eyes as the distance between them narrows, but the moment they’re parallel, just before she passes him, he asks, “Change?”
Instead of acknowledging the man or denying his request, Celia moves ahead and thinks about algal shores, water too cold for bathing, the mildewed underwear sloughed on her hamper’s lip. No change, she thinks, but doesn’t speak it.
She assumes that’s it and is about to return to her thoughts when the sound of her footsteps is interrupted by the man calling to her back, “Hey!”
She turns to hear the rest of what he has to tell her. But the man just glares, says nothing. The two of them stand that way, frown at each other. Eventually, Celia rules his thoughts ineffable and continues on her walk home. Celia doesn’t have a pocketknife or pepper spray. She has indifference.
When she glances back, the man is motionless, still watching her. Three more steps away blend him into the darkness of his surroundings.
Finally home, Celia climbs the steps to her building. When she gets inside the apartment, she will have to descend another set of steps into her room. She unlocks the door with one hand and unclips her tie with the other. Before she can step through the doorway, the kitten—a new acquisition, unnamed—slides toward her in the dark, skidding to a halt at her feet. A set of miniature eyes luminesces from the floor, incurious with Celia, who she is, what she wants, where she’s been.
Celia bends to pet the kitten and it bolts out of reach.
John Christopher Nelson’s youth was split between ninety-four acres of chaparral in East County San Diego and a defunct mining town in the Nevada high desert. He is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing, where he has served a variety of roles on the Stonecoast Review and is currently the creative nonfiction editor. He earned his BA in American Literature from UCLA, where he was executive editor of Westwind. His work is forthcoming in The New Guard and has appeared in Chiron Review, Able Muse, Indicia, Stone House: A Literary Anthology, The Matador Review, and Paper Tape Magazine. He currently lives in West Seattle.