by Sidney Thompson
Her name was Karma and everyone assumed if her parents had known that
much when they named her, theyd have tried to prevent what shed
inevitably become. Im not certain what exactly that is, but Id
like to think she was the prettiest lie the ugliest truth could tell.
I spent most of my life watching her from a distance. Everybody did. Few
got as close to her as I eventually did, but one way or another, youd
have been walking along and seen her and something about her would have
made you stop. Everyone stopped at least once. It was an unspoken truth
in our town. It could have been on the sign: Welcome to Misery Valley.
Population: 1507. Home of the ghost trains, passers through and the girl
by the name of Karma. Something about her will haunt you long after you
That something was different for everybody.
Karma worked at a small diner off the Old Loess Highway called Jenny's.
She worked there every night but Friday. Fridays she went in early
and did the books for Wanda, the older woman who owned place. Then she
did the books for everybody else in town. She was dynamite at math. That
was what Wanda and all of the other restaurant owners in town had seen.
They were always looking for a way to cut corners, or save, or find out
if a manager was stealing.
It was the second thing I had noticed when I met her.
There were only a few types of people who occupied Jenny's on any given
day. There were the truckers who would come in at different times and
sit in the same six booths that ran along the wall, their asses spilling
over the tops of their jeans and off the sides of their seats. Laughing
loudly. Talking loudly. Chewing loudly. Then there were the old men and
farmers who sat quietly at the counter, drinking coffee the color and
texture of tar, while rereading the more interesting articles from last
week's copy of The Valley Times, or talking to each other. And sometimes
there were older women who came at around noon to play Scrabble. There
were about six of them in alll and theyd drag four tables together
if the big circular one in the middle of the diner, which they usually
sat in, had been taken by some unknowing family of travelers, or by a
bus full of kids back from Living History Farm. The women were old, but
they played to win. So there was often a lot of bickering, name calling,
playfully socking in the shoulder and dictionaries politely
being pulled out to call bullshit.
But the moment Karma walked in everything became still. The understated
beauty in the silent way she walked, how she held herself, set down a
plate, or poured a cup of coffee captivated the attention of the old men
and the farmers. Shed walk to a table of truckers to take their
orders down and when they tried to hit on her or crack a joke shed
laugh like a mermaid sang. Entirely out of irony, yet never coming across
as callused or condescending. The older women were floored by the fact
she was so sweet. Occasionally, after shed made small talk with
a few of them or helped the losers cheat in a game, shed overhear
one of them say something like, I had no idea she was such a nice
girl, and she would walk over to me after they had left and say,
Jesus, they make it seem like just because youve done drugs
and gotten in trouble a couple times it makes you an asshole or something.
But nine times out of ten, Karma never heard any of this.
Different people came to Jennys for different reasons. Some came
for their paycheck, to play their games, or catch up with friends. I came
entirely by accident, but always came back for her.
Id come in one night a few years back, a blizzard pushing me through
the door. Id relapsed in a rather extravagant way, dropping twenty
pounds almost overnight. I could barely walk in a straight line, my ankles
bowed as if they were about to break and after about fifteen or twenty
minutes of trudging back home though whiteout conditions, I decided to
stop somewhere for a bit. Jennys was the closest place.
I took a seat in the booth by the window watching the snow come down,
finding it odd that up until that point, in the nineteen years Id
lived in Misery Valley, Id never once set foot in Jennys.
I dont remember having meet anyone who was there that night, or
personally knowing any of the wait-staff other than Karma. Then again,
Ive had nights where I barely recognized myself. Where I could look
in the mirror or the reflection in a dark window and only see a stranger
staring back: ashy hair with no real color, greying skin, the veins in
my arms bruised and caved in, my eyes taking on an almost iridescent gleam.
Every time I got fired from an actual job I started selling again and
every time I started selling, I started using and I became this person
in the window. And every time I saw him, it took me that much longer to
see myself again.
When I was good and convinced, somewhere underneath it all, that I was
still there, I looked past my reflection and saw her standing outside,
under the floodlights of the parking lot. The jade-green highlights in
her hair swept back and forth in the wind as she talked to a small group
of girls on break. From what Id heard about her she talked a lot
about dying, which attracted as many people as it put off. Older men whose
friends had passed and whose own lives were coming to a close, young girls
who were fascinated with being beautiful, the poetry and tragedy in dying
the only great beauty unobtainable in life and small children with hollow,
hungry eyes, too small to know what dying meant, but like the way she
talked of it, crowded around her. Everyone else, the people afraid of
dying or afraid of talking about it, listened from a safe distance. Funny
to think were all a little morbid. Some of the nice girls would
have surprised you, but Karma had everyone on her hook. I mean, as offbeat
and unnerving as it was, she had charisma. A lot of it was in her voice,
in the way she said all these sad things. It was flat and dark and even.
If you closed your eyes and listened to her talk, it was the most pleasant
nightmare you could imagine having.
Karma was skinny, but not in the way a supermodel is. She was skinny like
I was. In the last in a of a series of mug shots of a person they showed
you in health class before theyd say, We cannot stress it
enough. Never, ever do drugs.
It sounds obvious, but if you were a girl like Karma and you didnt
end up getting into heroin or cocaine, you knew somebody who did. The
kids had this sick little joke about the girls growing up, that it was
a fifty-fifty game of Russian roulette, an equal shot of becoming a heroin
addict or a homemaker.
Youd watch people continue to play, load the gun again and again
until they ODd on some bad mix of something or killed themselves
to escape lifes monotony. Occasionally youd get some overlap,
but this was seldom and ugly and always made the papers. Iowa woman,
22, charged with beating her four year old son to death in a blind and
violent rage. Police suspect drug abuse
Karma at least knew her place in this world, which was right there at
the bottom. The only kids she abused were old enough to know what they
were getting themselves into when they asked her to set her them up with
a fake ID, or with a ride to the city, or with the classic exacto knife
Your math is off.
I looked over my shoulder to see her standing behind me. She was wearing
a long-sleeve black v- neck shirt and dark denim skirt, her apron tied
loosely around her hip bones, holding her pen like she held her cigarettes,
waiting. Apparently Id been staring out the window long enough for
her to come back in from break, walk behind the counter, grab a set of
silverware and a menu, walk over to my table, and wait long enough for
her eyes to wander down in front of me and warrant a correction of math
I didnt even remember doing.
She dragged my sleeve back with the tip of her pen, past the dots and
bruises on my left arm, pointing out the numbers Id written down
earlier that day, Four thirty-five, plus five fifty-seven isnt
eight thirty its-
-Well, eight thirty is a time. The other two are addresses.
Course it is, she said, biting back a small smile. Sorry.
I just assume everyone around here sucks at math.
Oh no, I do. If that were math, it would have been wrong. Flunked
out of Algebra twice.
Third time's the charm.
We looked at each other for a moment when I realized her eyes were green.
Green in the most familiar kind of way. Like when youre walking
down a rainy street and you smell something that reminds you of something
or someone from some other time, a scent you vividly remember, but cant
place. And no matter how you try and explain it, or who you try to explain
it to them, they dont seem to remember it. Or when youre cleaning
out your basement and you find a stick magnet from a set you use to have
as a kid, stuck to a metal shelf rack. You pull it off the side and hold
it in your hands. You cant remember building anything with it, yet
as soon as you see it you think of childhood. Her eyes were green like
that. Like Id been there before and I was just now remembering it.
They were green like the Chicago River three days after the St. Patrick's
Day parade. After it had rained and the river had diluted, lost most of
its pigment and faded. Id only been to Chicago once, one of the
few vacations I remember taking as a kid. It was for a funeral of a distant
relative. One of those funerals where you dont really know anybody
all that well, including the guy who died, so you just sit and listen
until halfway through someones eulogy you realize nobody really
knew him. And after the service, as your my mother drags you from museums
to stores to the restaurants to the river still sort of dyed green knowing
its not likely youll ever make come back, you wonder for the
first time in your life, if anybody will remember you.
That was the green of her eyes. The green was what Id noticed and
I think she knew it.
She cleared her throat, flipping to a clean page in her notebook. Well,
what can I get you started off with?
It took me another moment before I said, Cup of coffee will do it.
Cream or sugar?
I shook my head.
Ill have that right out for you. she said. She cut across
the empty dining room and I watched as she slipped past chairs pulled
out in the narrow aisles and walked behind the counter, moving past another
waitress. Like everybody else who came in the doors of Jennys, I
was struck by her thing for numbers, how sweet she was and how she poured
a cup of coffee, but the thing I noticed first was how she mirrored me.
Opposite sides of the same fucked scale and yet something aboutus
worked from that first time I met her.
She brought the cup of coffee back over to my table, setting it down and
turning back to the kitchen before I could get a word in. Halfway back,
she hollered, You ever need help with math. Im here six nights
And almost every night since that one three years ago, Ive come
back. Somewhere along the way I stopped needing the math excuse to see
her. Like I said, I came for company, for conversation. For her. I knew
exactly what type of trouble I was getting myself into when I asked her
to do my books, and every time thereafter when I walked through the door
of Jenny's Diner.
My bag hit the floor like a corpse. My eyes hurt, my head ached and my
brain pulsed with memories of last night that it would ultimately fail
to retain. I slid into the side of the booth she was sitting in and sunk
back into its form, the back of the plastic bench digging into my neck.
Karma didnt so much as look up,Youre late.
Sorry, I said, trying to come up with a good excuse. Had
to bury a body.
I smiled to myself. There were two ways you could look at it. The first
was that everyone was important and the other was that no one was.
Katherine Larson, I said. A totally imaginary person, with
an utterly unremarkable name that sounded like she could exist in this
God- forsaken town.
It was quick.
Still, its damn shame.
Yeah. A mediocre human being and a subpar future mother of three,
I chuckled, turning my head to where she was. How are the books
Two cents off.
Not bad, I smiled under the lights, pretending it was sunshine,
like I was on some white sand beach in Hawaii. I was burning up. Part
of it was the high I was still riding, part of it was the down feather
winter jacket Id bought second hand from the Good Will in Blair,
part of it was probably because Id been walking around outside without
a jacket for the last two months and was finally getting sick. That or
the orange juice Jenny's was serving was from the wrong decade. It was
the only thing Id had all day, and its not like I was use
to eating anything so I figured part of it was probably that.
I opened my eyes, practically sitting nose to nose with Karma. I smiled,
but she frowned. Which seemed odd to me since she was usually so smiley.
Not like she was happy, but like she was high or like maybe shed
just gotten off the hook for murder or arson or something. Can we
talk? she asked.
I immediately picked my head up off the back of the booth, Yeah,
I cracked, still trying to wake myself up from the daze and the initial
shock of that particular question and where it usually tends to go. Yeah.
She turned back to look at the door, as if waiting for someone to come
running in and cut her off before she could finish. I um,
she said, running a hand through her hair. Shed never done that
before. Id never known her to act like this. Were good,
Sure, I said. If that was even possible. Well, I mean
I sure as hell hope so. I was trying to play off being much more
okay with whatever she was about to say than what I really was. I wasnt
freaking out or anything, but my stomach wasnt geared up to hear
that, I think we should see different people, conversation
I figured was where she was going with this. Why?
She sucked in breath of stale air between her teeth, Cause I want
to make sure youll still like me alright after I tell you this.
I fucking knew we werent two cents off. Shit like that never
No, its not that, she said. She turned herself towards
me, the thermal tights she was wearing brushing up against the holes in
my jeans. She was still looking down. I dont want to do this
kinda shit anymore.
Last person on Earth Id ever thought Id be hearing this from.
Well, not the last. But pretty high up there on the list of people Id
never thought Id hear that from. Why, I said, feeling
a bit like a three year old with too many questions that never had easy
answers. Whys the sky blue some days and grey the next? Whys
the news so sad? Why arent you going to do the books for me anymore
when you know I suck at math? Im not asking to be an asshole
or anything. If you dont want to tell me I get it.
She nodded, looking down at the half- eaten cheese omelette sitting on
the table in front of her. Standard, run of the mill, roadside diner cheese
omelette that tasted great when you were starving, but was shit for literally
anything else. It sat like a brick in your gut and it was a week or so
later till you recovered. I just want out.
Is it me?
No, its everybody.
So? What else is new?
She sniffed a laugh, one of those pained laughs people give you when you
laugh at something they think is serious. Im not dying here.
Im not dying to be a bookie for a drug dealer. I dont even
want to be a bookie for a restaurant.
Hell of an epiphany. I muttered with a small smile, pulling
the plate across the table with the tip of my finger. I didnt bother
flagging down a waitress for another fork. Theres a certain point
after knowing somebody that you decide you can use the same fork, use
the same cup, and finish off their meal, and mine was after Id slept
with someone three consecutive times. I never did it to be cute. I wouldnt
have ingested the garbage omelette just to be able to look like a cute
couple in an empty diner at ten thirty at night.
Jimmy, Im pregnant.
I paused, the fork hanging loosely in my hand. A sad piece of omelette,
smacking, wet and cold, fell back on to the plate and into a pile of unmelted,
shredded cheddar cheese.
She began sifting through the papers laid out in front of her. Some of
it was my books, which looked more like clues to a puzzle or something.
Reason being, if any cop in the town cared enough to check to see if I
had a paper trail, it really wouldnt look like it. She kept grocery
lists and recipes cut out from magazines that seemed to surpass her capabilities,
resumes with different wording to appeal to different employers and different
kinds of jobs, police records and priors she could explain to people like
an attorney. Drug possession: Well sir, Id picked up a hitchhiker
from Wisconsin, a very nice man, but when I was pulled over for a tail
light that was out, the officer of course went to go search the car and
there seemed to be some cocaine in his bag, but since I was driving the
car I was also charged
I didnt know another girl like her who had an answer to every question.
Everyone in town knew her, but sometimes I thought about her leaving to
go somewhere else. I thought about her disappearing. Shed be so
good no one would ever know where to find her. And youd see her,
if you ever got out, years later in a spin-cycle class some place in California,
swear on your life you might know her, you might even talk to her a bit.
But youd never know for sure it was her until after you left. Not
till you closed your eyes and listened to her talk when the mask wore
off and all the clothes and all the years couldnt hide her.
She pulled out a manila envelope from the back of her binder, pulling
out a static black and white picture of a tiny, almost person in an empty
I wish this was the part where I told you I pulled my head out of my ass
and called Oscar Grant from the asphalt company down the road, apologized
for egging his car when he called me a deadbeat in the ninth grade, and
begged him for a job. I wish I would have seen it and thought, Alright,
this is the part where I fall in love with something enough to start caring
about things. But it wasnt.
So. You need a ride to Omaha, for