So Iíll describe her as best I can. I mean, I guess I should be able to, Iíve been watching her for almost three hours now; I have a pretty clear idea of what she looks like. I think I have an idea of what kind of person she is, too. I mean, Iím not the kind of guy who just walks around and labels people, but in my experience, these women, the attractive women who work low paying jobs - theyíre all the same. Or at least, theyíre all the same in certain ways. But anyway, let me explain.

Actually, before I explain, maybe I should introduce myself. My nameís Mitch. I work down at the front desk of Casco Ice, mostly doing inventory, working the payroll, that sort of thing. Iíve been working there since I was just a kid in high school. Itís the kind of job that you always know youíll quit, but you never do. I started out working the main floor, just loading pallets of ice onto the truck, but in a place like this, after youíve been here for awhile, itís almost inevitable that youíll get advanced into management. People are quitting here all of the time. The only man whoís still here from when I first started working is a guy named Phil, and Philís been here for about thirty years now. I used to make fun of him for working at Casco for so long, but last week I just entered my eighteenth year. I donít laugh too much about it anymore.

Anyway, I really donít get out too much. The guys down at Casco, they all know how to have a good time, and I do too, but - we just have different interests. Most of them go out to the baseball field in Elkton every weekend and get drunk on Booneís and Jack Daniels, then they either start wrestling or looking for women. Mostly the former. Iíve never been much of a drinker myself - just havenít got the stomach for it; I used to come along and watch, but that got old after awhile, so now I just save my money, stay at home with my dog Maddox, and watch Jeopardy. Iíve gotten quite good at Jeopardy.

To stay healthy, I try to make myself get out once a month. Thereís a park near the library that I like to take Maddox to. Sometimes Iíd pack some dinner and bring it along with me, sit down on the blanket, and just read, but I canít even make myself do that anymore. I get too self-conscious with all of the people walking by and me just sitting alone with my dog, reading. And Maddox is getting too old to go out anymore, and the airís been getting pretty cold this time of year, so Iíve had to find new places. For awhile there, I just went to a local restaurant, a different one every month; but even that grew old, so now I just go to the local Dairy Queen across the street. Thatís where I met Alison.

Okay, I havenít actually met her. I mean, I know who she is, and she knows who I am. At first, I only went in once a month, so she really didnít remember me; or at least I thought she didnít. One night (it was a particularly bad night at work, Phil spilled three pallets and I had to weigh the ice block by block and figure out how much weíd lost) I came in, and there she was, working at the cash register. I hadnít really noticed her before then, but now that I think back on it, I can still remember exactly how she looked. Again, thereís something about her that Iíve found in a lot of woman like her at these low paying jobs. I canít really explain it... itís just in the way she carries herself. With a certain dignity. For example, a lot of other workers there, their uniforms are covered with stains and wrinkled and faded. But she, she must wash her clothes every night, I think she even irons her pants; that red polo shirt and black pants look almost as if she had just taken them out of the plastic Dairy Queen wrapping that day. Itís just the little things, like that. Everyone else there walks around with lowered voices, always dropping their eyes and staring at their feet; but Alison walks behind that counter as though she were in her living room. Thereís almost a beautiful naÔvetť to her, though I wouldnít say sheís naÔve; I mean - I canít even explain it.

As I was saying, it had been a really rough night at work, and I was feeling pretty down. She must have noticed it, because as soon as I reached the counter she nearly knocked me over with this smile. "What, has it been a month already?"

And thatís when I realized, she loves me. Sure, it might not seem obvious to Phil or any of the other guys at Casco - I didnít even want to tell the other guys; Phil let it out - but some things you just know. Why else would she remember a nondescript guy like myself, someone who only comes by once every month, stays for only four or five hours, and then leaves? I mean, Iím not going to act like we know each other very well. Iíve already explained that we havenít been "formally" introduced to each other; most of our conversations have just involved what I want to order, or when I need to leave. (Sometimes I would lose track of time, and theyíd have to close.) But thereís definitely an undercurrent, there are just these really subtle things that prove it to me.

The way she takes my money, for one thing. She has this thing she does where, when sheís giving me change, she brushes my palm with her fingers. Itís very brief, I almost didnít notice it the first couple times that she did it, but now, itís almost as plain as day. One time, I ordered an Ultimate Burger, a small root beer and a medium fries, which comes out to exactly four dollars, and I noticed she had this look on her face. It was as if she thought that I was just ordering something she wouldnít have to give me change for, just so that she wouldnít touch me. I felt really bad, so a couple hours later I came up front and ordered a small order of fries, which costs fifty-three cents. She just dropped the change in my hand; I could tell she was still a little upset. So an hour later, I ordered another small order of fries. This time, she said, "So, I guess you really like those fries." I nodded and looked at her meaningfully; I could tell she hesitated, but she dropped the coins in my hand again. So I came up one last time, and ordered another small order of fries. "Iím sorry, but weíre closing now." She said. "Weíre going to have to ask you to leave." And this time, when she gave me the change, she brushed my hand again. Donít you see? "Iím sorry," and then she brushes my hand?

I mean, thatís just one example. There are other things she does, too. Like sometimes, sheíll come out and start mopping the floor, and sheíll be bending over right in front of me. I know sheís doing it on purpose. I think sheís beginning to get a little anxious for me to make a move, because lately sheís been going all-out to get my attention. Like, there are always these guys coming in to see her, and I think sheís trying to make me jealous. Sure, theyíre a lot younger than me, and most of them are much more attractive; but I know what women want. They want maturity, they want a man who will give them the attention they want, even if it means sitting at the table closest to the counter and staring at them their entire shift.

Things are getting a little strained between us these days. It all started with this whole jealousy thing sheís doing. I mean, Iím used to women playing these kind of games with me, but I really think sheís almost taking it too far. Last Thursday night, later in the evening, this guy comes walking in. Iím sure youíve seen the type: not very tall, wearing dress pants, glasses, a white shirt and a blue jacket. Anyway, without even pretending to order anything, he just walked right up to Alison and starts talking. I could tell that she was uncomfortable; I mean, she was laughing, and everything, but it was a nervous laugh, and she wasnít giving him the same look sheís always giving me. And the whole time, Iím just watching quietly from my seat, watching and waiting. Usually, when these guys come in, I just ignore them because I know what sheís trying to do to me; but this time I really couldnít take it.

"So," the guy says, "what are you doing tomorrow night?"

I couldnít believe it. He just asks her right in front of me, as if I wasnít even there. Now Alisonís getting really uncomfortable, and I can tell sheís making stuff up; talking about going to see a movie, or something; and now the managerís there, and I think he was getting suspicious too, because heís starting to talk to him. And then the jerk goes and orders a hot dog with cheese and a medium root beer. Everyone knows that a hot dog with cheese and a root beer costs four dollars and two cents, which is the most change you can possibly get (three quarters, two dimes, and three pennies); so itís obvious that heís just trying to get the palm-brush. So I couldnít take it. I got up out of my seat, and while he was waiting for his order, I stepped up beside him.

"Sheís mine, you little prick. Mine. You just eat your food and get the hell out of here." I whispered.

He glanced at me, and his face went pale. I could tell I had gotten through to him. Sure enough, he took his order, moved over to a table, ate, and left.

As for Alison, Iím still a little mad at her, but itís already fading. I canít stay mad at her forever. In fact, looking in her window right now, watching her change out of her uniform, I can already tell that she misses me. Weíll get together eventually. Itís just a matter of time.

There was that time, maybe it was twenty years ago, when I got her alone, I took her to the pond and we sat on the sandbank on the other side of the reeds, and that's really all we did; we just sat. We couldn't even see the sun from where we were, though we could tell it was falling; it was one of those summer evenings where you could see the moon in the still blue sky, where right before the sun fell behind the pines this sudden breeze kicked up everywhere. I remember she hugged herself tightly in the wind; she had on a white sleeveless t-shirt and tan shorts. I wanted to give her my jacket, which I still had with me, but I was too cold.

And I planned it out this way, too. Everyone was walking back to their cabins; I had had my eye on her all through dinner, and I told everyone, "I have stuff to do tonight. I'll catch up with you all later, maybe." They didn't believe me. They probably knew what was on my mind, but it was none of their business, so they just watched as I excused myself as soon as she got up from the table. I brought my tray over to the counter and left, walked quickly along the trail and met her about halfway.

I grabbed her hand. "Come here. I want to show you something." Which I thought was clever, because this was a girl I'd never even talked to before, and here I was leading her into the forest, away from everyone. And at first she kind of jumped, but then she got this funny smirk and just quietly followed. I practically dragged her down that trail. I got turned around once, when the bridge didn't appear where it was supposed to, but then I saw it in the distance, out of the corner of my eye, between some trees, so we started cutting through the field. We walked through a big patch of poison ivy. I didn't realize it until I was halfway in, and I'm sure she knew it the whole time; but she just followed me through quietly. I think that funny smirk got a little bigger.

And finally the treeline breaks, and we're by the lake. The lake, I'm sure, she had seen. Everyone had seen the lake, but no one, I thought, had seen this place, where it empties into the river and everything gets shallow and the reeds are everywhere. But what's weird, I noticed, is that at dusk, as the sun falls, there comes this moment where suddenly the sky disappears from the surface of the water, and the light hits it just so that you can see straight through, straight to the bottom. The bottom of a lake, I thought, was surreal, like another world, full of mud and drifting weeds and things crawling and swimming.

So we sat on the sandbar, where I knew no one would find us, and I waited. And she waited. She sat near me but not very near; I was facing the lake with my legs dangling in the water, and she was facing me. And then the breeze rose, and she started shivering.

"I'm getting a little cold," she finally said. It was the first thing sheíd said to me. "Did you want to show me something, or tell me something?"

And I thought that the best thing for me to do was to not try to explain to her what would happen; I wanted her to see it for herself. And judging from the sky - which was already dark on the far horizon, purple in the middle, and red at our backs - I knew that the moment was coming. I simply held a finger and smiled placidly.

She waited. I watched the surface; right before it happened, the surface would seem to waver between transparency and opaqueness, so that it would appear as though there were fish flying through the sky, or clouds in the water. And then it came; the weeds appeared, and then the bottom, and looking across, it seemed as though we stood at the edge of a deep, mysterious crater filled with life and movement and stillness. And just as quickly, it disappeared.

I turned. She was looking at me. I smiled. She smiled back, and said quietly, "Is there something you wanted to show me?"

And I realized she hadn't seen. In her expectation, she had been watching me, waiting; and now I had led this girl whom I had never even spoken to before, who was as good as a stranger, I had led her to a sandbar in a remote corner of the forest, and for no good reason. I struggled; I searched for words to explain what had happened; but it all seemed very absurd.

Suddenly the light shifted, and she faded into transparency. I sat alone at the sandbar; it all seemed very absurd.

And still the empty street, the oil slicked night street gleaming in the lights, still after a full day it was empty as it had been since morning, and still Matthew Alexander sat at the foot of the staircase and waited, turning his head furtively back and forth, waiting. "There's no sense in no one coming," he said to himself between sips of warm liquor, liquor whose heat had faded into inebriation. "There's no sense in it." Beads of oily sweat covered his forehead; his palm was covered with the dust of unswept streets so he brushed it off with the back of his hand, which was no cleaner; it left a trail of mud across his face. He didn't notice. Matthew stared at the burning lights and whispered, "There's no sense in it."

"No sense in what?" Douglas stood behind him. "No sense in sitting on my goddamned doorstep the entire day, scaring away all of my customers as if this were the doorstep of your own goddamned house."

With great labor Matthew turned his head, but the words didn't come out right. "This is goddamned good as my goddamned house, when you are getting all of your money from the very person you want to kick out. Like you didn't owe my nothin', that's what you always act like."

"I owe you the back of my hand, is what I owe you." Douglas answered. "I owe you a bloody lip, and a broken nose."

But Douglas did nothing, and Matthew simply stared blankly into the air, believing this is the night that she'll catch up and explain it all. But the liquor flooded his mind with obfuscation; words ran through each other like clouds and lost meaning, definition, until he was just staring into an even haze. He wasn't even aware that he was saying "I think tonight she is going to be wearing exactly the same dress she wore the night we fell asleep by the river, the one that was cut along the bottom where we walked by the thornbush and she did something and I tried to carry her, I think, but it got ripped. Remember, Douglas? She told me she felt like a whore wearing it and I told her that it didn't show all that much, just her leg and some of her knee, and I always said she had pretty knees?"

Douglas spat. "You damn drunkard, I ain't never met her in my life, and you know that much."

"You don't always have to look down on me, just because. Besides, if it weren't for me you'd be out of business by now. It's this empty street that makes me wait, and makes me wait right here, and if it weren't for the empty street I wouldn't even be here and you'd have no patrons at all." Matthew said. He took another sip, and coughed loudly.

"If the street weren't empty, I wouldn't need your business." Doug replied. "I'd have a lot more customers, and better customers, too. Ones that have better things to do than sit on my doorstep all day."

I have nothing better to do than wait for her. Matthew squinted, peering at Douglas like an adult stares at a child who is ignoring an obvious truth, as if Douglas had just told him that the sky would be blue forever, even though the night had come and the color was lost in a black starpunctuated fog.

"Don't look at me like that," Douglas snapped, "or I'll kick you off for good. I'm going to, anyway. Something ain't right about a man who spends his every day waiting for something that ain't never going to happen. Theresa left you, Matt, and ain't no amount of waiting going to make her come back." And Matthew just stared at him, stared as if Douglas had just told him the sky was dark and that it would never grow light again. Even if Matthew had been sober, he would have thought the same thing; for there is something about waiting that seems to justify itself, and the longer the waiting the less sense it makes to stop.

Douglas stared back, poised between pity and repulsion. Then, he spat and turned around. "I'm lockin' up for the night. If I don't see you gone by the time I get back out of here, I'm gonna see you locked up myself. Go home, Matt, and get some sleep." Douglas turned around and walked through the store. A small store, and the counters orderly and clean, not from cleaning but from lack of use. The floor was covered with an even layer of dust, interrupted only by a set of footprints that staggered from the door to the counter, where Douglas had sold liquor to Matthew Alexander for as long as he could remember. He pocketed the day's earnings, just a few dollars, turned out the lights and set out a saucer of water for the cat. A gray cat had always wandered up and down the stairs as though establishing that was her shop, and that she could go wherever she pleased.

Doug locked the door from within, and then pulled it shut behind him. Turning around, he found the porch empty. But Matthew had simply crossed the road, and was now sitting quietly in front of the inn, glancing back and forth with the determination of a man who had waited too long.

Copyright © Jacob Fawcett 2002. Title graphic: "Branches" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2002.