No customers were in the Wawa food mart when the thunderclap hit and the lights went out. At one a.m. there were just the three of us—me in the stockroom tagging cans, Bonchie on the register, and Phillip behind the hoagie counter. I felt my way out of the stockroom and looked around the store. The emergency lights had come on and were casting long, weird shadows. And while normally the place is filled with buzzing and humming from the refrigeration unit, the cash register, the air-conditioning—now, nothing. Just the rain hitting the roof overhead and the pavement outside. Bonchie and Phillip were looking at me for advice or maybe reassurance. I wasn’t used to being looked at for those things. I wasn’t even their boss. But after the manager and the assistant manager, I was next in the chain of command. So I told them, “Maybe it’ll come back on real quick.”
It didn’t. We listened to the rain and waited. The rain got heavier, then heavier still. A few people went by on the sidewalk, hunched into themselves underneath their raincoats and umbrellas. Usually this time of night our customers were quiet, middle-aged guys like myself looking for milk and TV dinners. Or they’re teenagers with the munchies. Business was slow even on clear nights, let alone a stormy one. I told Bonchie and Phillip that they could go home if they wanted. It was summer in New Jersey, and without the air-conditioning the store was already getting stuffy. Customers weren’t going to come in here with all the lights off, and the register wouldn’t work even if they did. Phillip said thanks, but no thanks. He’d punched in already and needed the money. Standing around like this was easy work.
“You feel the same way, Bonchie?” I asked.
She sniffled. “I could use the money.”“You crying?” I asked. She’d been very quiet since she got here. I mean she’d always been quiet, but tonight she was being extra quiet.
She sniffled again. “No, Joe, I’m all right.” But I went to aisle three and got a box of tissues anyway.
“You should tell us what’s the matter,” Phillip said. “Tell us all about it.” He came over and sat on Bonchie’s counter, on the conveyer belt that had stopped moving. I punched my thumb through the top of the tissue box to open it and handed it to Bonchie. She pulled out a few tissues, set the box next to her at the register, and dried her eyes as one of the emergency lights back by the fruit flickered a few times and went out.
“So go ahead,” Phillip said. “Spill your guts.” Phillip studied communications at the community college, and customers seemed to like talking with him while he made their hoagies. He was very outgoing for a guy with so many pimples on his face. Bonchie, on the other hand, kept to herself, rarely saying more to the customers than Enjoy your day, or more to Phillip than Good morning or Is there cheese on this hoagie? So Phillip must have been hoping that with the lights off and him sitting so close, Bonchie might open up a little.
“I received a letter today,” she said. “My grandmother fell and broke her hip.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” I said. “She an old lady, your grandmother?”
“That’s too bad for her—when you break your hip at that age, isn’t much chance you’re going to walk again.” I wasn’t saying it to be mean, just stating a fact of life.
“How’d she fall?” Phillip asked. “Stairs?”
“She fell off a tightrope,” Bonchie said. Phillip looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say to that.
Bonchie came out from behind the register and opened up a beach chair with porpoises on it that we sold for $9.99. She set the box of tissues on the floor next to her and sighed. “When you drive to my hometown, there’s a sign at the border saying Population 204.” Phillip was looking at her skeptically. So was I. I’d never heard of a town that small. “This is in Missouri,” she said. “A pretty little town in the Ozark Mountains.”
So here was her life story, I thought. Unlike Phillip, I wasn’t so interested in getting quiet people to start talking. I figured that not talking was their right. I felt like not talking myself sometimes, and while Phillip wasn’t a bad kid, I had no special urge to communicate with him. Sure, I was lonely, I could have told him. Hadn’t seen a naked woman outside of a magazine for four years, not since Lilah’s speech got muddy and her memories went haywire and the population of my apartment decreased by one. I could have told him about that. But I wasn’t going to.
Bonchie must have felt different from me, though, because here came her life story, just for the asking—even if the part about her grandmother walking a tightrope at eighty-three made no sense at all. And when she went on to say that everybody in her little town in the Ozarks was training to be circus performers, I knew she was pulling our leg. What I didn’t know was why. I sat on the floor near the two of them, put my arms around my knees, and listened to Bonchie talk about the town’s children learning to guess people’s weight and juggle flaming torches and ride unicycles and paint their faces in all sorts of cheerful and grotesque ways. “And my best friend growing up,” she said, “was a lion named Grouchy.”
That old lion was a regular piece of work from the sound of it, rolling around on its back so that you’d scratch its belly and always on the lookout for apple butter. But that wasn’t all. This town of hers had a tightrope—the one that led to her grandmother’s busted hip—tied between an old sugar maple tree and the schoolhouse. Every day at lunchtime the children in town had to walk the length of the rope before heading home to eat their sandwiches.
“Sounds pretty difficult,” I said.
“It wasn’t so hard,” she said. “Though some days we’d be blindfolded. Other days, we’d have to walk backwards. Anyone fell and the whole class had to start again.” And each spring, she explained, the town put on a festival for all the neighboring towns, showing off all of the children’s new skills.
I wasn’t too comfortable sitting on the ground, but I wasn’t about to move. This was by far the most I’d heard out of Bonchie since she’d applied for the job two years earlier.
“The problem,” she said, “was that the town’s population was 204. Like the sign said. You’ve seen signs like that, haven’t you? When you drive into a town?”
“I’ve seen it,” I said. “Never a town that small, though.”
“Well, in Missouri, towns can get even smaller than that. But my town had 204, like the sign said. Whenever someone died, somebody new was needed in town so that the population would stay at 204. After a funeral, there’d be festive celebrations in the days that followed, so that people would go home and make love, and soon enough there would be a new child—”
When I laughed, Bonchie narrowed her eyes as if I’d done something I shouldn’t have, and I felt ashamed. Then her eyes widened again. “But sometimes a child would be born without someone having passed away first. Those times, people didn’t like so much. It meant someone had to die.”
“So that the population would stay at 204,” I said soberly.
Men coming into the Wawa were always fascinated by Bonchie. They’d linger at the register and say things too goofy to say in front of their girlfriends or wives. She wasn’t pretty in the usual way—her teeth were crooked, for one, and her arms were thick, and her neck had moles on it—but she had grayish blue eyes that watched you more closely than most eyes did. I would sometimes get to thinking about Bonchie when I was at home alone. I didn’t run into many women in the course of a day. And of the three women who worked at this Wawa, Bonchie was the prettiest. I hadn’t ever taken much of a liking to her personally. Not that I didn’t like her. I just never felt one way or the other. But that was before I knew she would sit here with the power out and spin tales like this one, touching her throat absently with the bony fingers of her left hand, and clenching her jaw a little when recalling a detail like the brassy oom-pah of her mother’s tuba-playing.
“Guess my weight,” I said to her. “Guess it right now.” Not that I even knew my own weight. Probably 230, maybe more. I’d been eating junk for a long time.
“That isn’t my skill,” she said. “And anyway, I’m telling a story. I’m just about to get to the important part.”
But her story got interrupted by two boys, high-school age, knocking on the glass door of the Wawa. They both wore baseball caps and smirks. They looked exactly like every boy I’d ever seen in my entire life. One of them leaned his head in. “You open or what?” Water dripped from the brim of his cap onto the floor.
“Look like we’re open?” I didn’t get up.
“We’re dying for some Wa-dogs, man. Come on, we’re starving.”
Stoned, too. At night, kids coming in here were always drunk or stoned. I knew they didn’t mean it as a personal insult, but I couldn’t help thinking of it that way. As if we were people you couldn’t come and visit sober.
“We’re closed,” I said.
After the kids had left, I said to Bonchie and Phillip that we ought to eat some hotdogs. Over by the hoagie counter was a machine that rotated the dogs and kept them warm. But with the power off, they were just going to get cold. “What do you say?”
“Lay one on me, big guy,” Phillip said. “Bonchie?”
“I’m a little hungry,” she said.
“Go on with your story,” I said, but Bonchie waited until I had gone behind the hoagie counter and gotten our dogs. I put mustard and kraut on them and carried them back. Then I went to the refrigerated section and got us each a soda. Bonchie handed Phillip and me each a few tissues for napkins.
When I sat down again, we each took a bite of our hotdogs. I liked the idea of this, us all eating together. It felt like something we ought to be doing. Bonchie chewed politely and then swallowed. She wiped her mouth with a tissue and explained that whenever there was a birth, one of the town’s elders usually would volunteer to keep the town’s population steady, but not always. “It could get thorny,” she said. One day when the town needed someone to step forward and nobody would, her favorite schoolteacher did. This teacher wasn’t old; the only gray in her hair came from worrying about her students.
In a state of despair, early the next morning—and without telling anyone—Bonchie did something nobody in her town had ever done: she went away, vowing never to return. All of her money bought her a used car that she drove east, farther and farther, until there were no more states to cross, no more towns. Just a studio apartment and a job as a cashier. She cut her hair short, and colored it brown, and changed her name, because she didn’t want any reminders of the life she had left behind.
And after a few years, sometimes entire days went by without her thinking about life back in the Ozarks.
“But now your grandmother is ill,” I said.
“Not just ill,” she said. “Old and ill. And I just keep thinking about that sign . . . ”
“That’s right,” she said. “So if I’m ever going to see her again—”
“Now wait just a minute,” Phillip said. “How’d you find out about your grandmother’s injury if nobody knows where you are?”
“My mother knows where I am,” she said.
Phillip was missing the point, though, and I wanted to set him right. So what if Bonchie was pulling our leg? Who cared, for that matter, why she was doing it? She was taking herself seriously, and so should we.
“Well, I sure am sorry about your situation,” I said, and gave Phillip the hard look I gave him whenever he left the deli station a mess. “You must love your grandmother a lot.”
Phillip sighed. “Do you think . . . you’ll go back there, to your circus town?” He glanced at me, and I nodded.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m thinking I might.”
Bonchie took a long draw from her soda. Phillip had already finished his soda and asked Bonchie for a sip of hers. I felt like I should say something vague and uplifting. But how could I know what to say when I didn’t know if her grandmother really was ill, or what sort of town she was raised in, or even if she’d ever been to Missouri? She didn’t have a trace of an accent. I didn’t even know if her real name was Bonchie or not. I didn’t know what to believe, or if Bonchie knew for herself. But I’d have been grateful if the Wawa’s lights never came on again. Later, when the sun rose and I was home again, I knew that I’d lie in bed and think about the three of us sitting together in the dark with our hotdogs and sodas. I could almost believe that we were beside a campfire, old friends telling stories from deep inside our hearts.
“I think that’d be the right thing, Bonchie,” I told her. “It’s important to be with your family when they’re sick.” And before I could stop myself, I was telling them about Lilah. I didn’t get emotional. I didn’t need to borrow any of Bonchie’s tissues. But I told them things. How Lilah was exactly my height but wore heels so she’d look taller. How after she lost her sense of smell, she always overdid the perfume. I talked about headaches and seizures. I told the story of how, on one of the last good days, our car had skidded on black ice and nearly gone off a drawbridge, and how for the couple of seconds we were sliding toward the edge I had felt relieved because at least we’d go out together. And when the car had come to a stop up against the guardrail, and we knew we were alive and safe for the moment, I had felt a different sort of relief—a lot like what I was feeling right now, here in the Wawa. With the two of them. Which was probably more than I needed to say. Bonchie touched her throat, and Phillip nodded, then wiped his sweaty forehead with his palm. It was getting very warm.
The rain was still hitting the roof, the sky still rumbling, and I had no reason to think the lights were coming on anytime soon. I coughed into my closed fist and suggested that we put all the fruit into shopping carts and wheel them back to the storeroom where there was a refrigerator that even without power would keep things cold for several hours.
“Right, chief,” Phillip said, and hopped off the conveyer belt. He extended a hand to Bonchie, helping her out of the chair.
The three of us went to the rear aisle, where the fruit was. Bonchie started picking over the apples in the dark, lifting one, turning it over in her hand, setting it back down. But before long she had four small apples in her right hand and three in her left.
She threw them high in the air.