The Scumbag's Guide To Getting By In A Cruel World / Nicolle Elizabeth

My friend Faith is a mini con artist. She's not actually my friend. If we were friends I wouldn't be telling you this. She's trying to one-up the universe. She's a deviant. It's unpleasant to think about. I'd heard varying stories. I'd heard she'd pawned her own family's jewelry. I'd heard she owed almost everybody some kind of money. One time a guy I know got her a place to stay with his friends, and those friends went away for a weekend, and when they got back, everything you can think of was cleaned out of that apartment. She took potholders. A month later and they saw her walking out of a bar wearing one of their missing coats. They pulled over and made her take it off and give it back right there. Like they were in the Scarlet Letter. I have no idea what my friend did after that, coatless in the middle of town.

She is beautiful, there is no denying this. She's as thin as a rail, tall, has ambiguous blonde pixie hair that always looks like she's been wearing a ski-cap. Purposefully tousled, you might say. She has one of those voices that sounds like whispering. I'd heard she'd been working as a bartender and dating the owner of the establishment, who was the ex-husband of Sandra Bullock or somebody. I'd heard that that the guy had fired her. It was probably for the best because he was a bad guy anyways and eventually bad guys always act bad. She emailed me, she said she was coming to town and wanted to meet up.

When she came for brunch the following Sunday at a restaurant she had suggested, which she had prefaced by saying, "I will pay next time," I was amused at all the drama of it, and maybe this slightly makes me a terrible person.

She rolls her suitcase behind her at 10 am down Bedford Ave, "Me and John got back together," she says. "It's our one year abortion anniversary."

This was upsetting to me for many reasons. First of all, she'd originally told me that John, her man, was dead. She did this because I was a widow. My husband Clay had died in Afghanistan when we were 24. He went into the army because that is what you do when you are from where we are from.  Faith had bonded us with commiseration. We were both that girl with the gone man. Now this slip, this John re-introduction, was careless, forgetful, heartbreaking.

"You flew in?" I look at her luggage tags.

We're sitting in this café ordering mimosas, on me, and Faith is talking to me about getting back together with John. I think it was she came up to me at a party and literally just started talking about it out of nowhere. I wonder now who had leaked my Clay information to her in the first place. How she'd known. She sipped mimosa.

"Is that weird that his name is John too?" I flat out asked her.

Back from the dead, I thought.

This is when I realized she'd probably stolen something from John, if there was a John.

She told me about seeing John, she told me about Santa Cruz, where he lives, alive and well. "What do you need, Faith?" I asked her, shifting in my chair, knowing the answer. "You need a place to stay?"

"Yeah," she said to me. 

My apartment is full of ghosts. I sometimes wish they would talk louder. A cabinet closing on its own, the hot water running out, all things I wish were signs from my ghosts.

I pulled out a set of sheets and put a blanket, folded, on the couch, wondering if Faith would wake up tomorrow a better person.

My roommate Georgia is kind of a legend and I think I may basically be in love with her even though I'm still in love with my husband Clay, and maybe that makes me a terrible person for cheating on him in my heart. She's a bluegrass singer who went to prison for protesting at The School of the Americas at that marine base down in North Carolina. Every year, a hundred protestors march shouting all kinds of disagreements with varying States related foreign policies. At trial, Georgia had 88 co-defendants, all of which were charged with trespassing on federally protected land. All of which were given three month sentences. She came out of prison with a neck tattoo that says her name, Georgia. She was an undergraduate student studying sociology at an Ivy at the time, and now we live in Brooklyn. Our other roommate, Boomerang, Georgia's best friend was also sent to the men's prison as one of her co-defendants. He didn't come out as unscathed as she did. He says he works as a "specialist" now but I've never seen him go to work.

Georgia and Boomerang come charging into our apartment, carrying their tandem bicycle into its parking spot in the kitchen. Faith and I are sharing my newspaper and sitting on the couch, it's all I can do while I try to mentally go over where our valuables are and how I will keep them safe from her.

"Hello dudes," Georgia booms into the living room.

It has been six hours of eating house things, sitting on house things, doing house things and I have noticed that Faith hasn't received one text message, not one phone call. Actually, I have yet to see any sort of phone device within her proximity at all.

"Do you need to call anyone and tell them your plane landed from Santa Cruz to New York safely?"

"It's fine," she says in that voice that sounds like whispering.

When Clay first died, I had all these dreams he hadn't actually. A phone would ring and I would answer it and there would be static on the other end. Through the static he would say to me, "I'm okay," and I would be able to see him, talking on the other end of the line. He would explain to me that we might not see each other again. He told me that it was okay. The line went static. I had this corny phone call for years. For five years. And when the phone call stopped, I tried to think it back. 

I put his watch in a shoebox at the bottom of my closet, I cup his wedding band I wear on a necklace around my neck.

In the living room, Georgia and Faith and Boomerang are playing hearts and drinking mint tea.

"In Buenos Aires," says Faith, "They dance for 24 hours at a time. The rumor about New York being the city that never sleeps? New York sleeps. It's Buenos Aires that doesn't sleep. The entire city is a dream."

Boomerang's eyes are hazy in that overtired something hurts, everything hurts kind of way. I fidget. This is bad, this Faith and Georgia and Boomerang situation. She's already sizing them up, winning them over, starting to go in for the kill through sweet talk. I think about our useful things. I think about Boomerang's card collection, I think about Georgia's violin.

"Let's get take-in for dinner," I say to them.

When your favorite person to eat with dies, cooking dinner gets really weird. It's like when you're working in an office and somebody quits and then you have all this awkward extra work to do. Except also that you're sad and miserable and alone and not hungry and it's too quiet. 

We're sitting on the couch watching "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and I'm thinking about those siren women, bathing in the water singing. George Clooney's face dumbfounded, all these men, these people, going toward women singing about the devil. Walking right up ankle deep in a lake.

"Faith," I swallow. "You gonna look for a job?"

The woman doesn't flinch, doesn't lower her chopsticks, chews, "Tomorrow." Women like this, I think, they are the siren and the lake. She can stay the week, I promise my blood pressure.

In the morning, I leave for class at the expensive graduate school I am paying for in loans. I skateboard to the subway. I look up at the ceiling astrology in Grand Central and listen for the hallway echoes. I sit with a paper cup of coffee on the upper level steps, waiting to get on the train where women will carry expensive handbags and men will sneak booze into their morning coffee.

It's a Monday. Georgia will be heading to the garden. One of the first things she did after getting out of prison was to start a community garden. There was an empty lot behind a chain-link fence, overrun with weeds, crabgrass, dandelion root. The elevated subway platform runs right over it, basically. So she got a lot of people to volunteer by stapling up fliers everywhere and a community was formed. She got dozens of people to start freezing their vegetable waste in plastic bags and then to bring it over to the garden for composting in giant bins. The Times interviewed her about it for the Metro section but she left out the prison part. I picture Faith wearing a red bandana working in the garden with Boomerang, sweet talking him, telling him about soy farmers de-foresting the rainforest. I pictured her putting round peppers in her purse pocket without anybody knowing. I carry my skateboard off the train, go to class and tell everybody that I think Madame Bovary's intro speech was a piece of shit even though I loved that chapter.

When I get back to my apartment, Georgia is frying seitan in an iron skillet we didn't used to own.

"I got you guys this kitchen stuff," Faith says, smiling.

On the counter are jam jars filled with things, with sugar, with sea salt crystals.

"I got a job," she says to me. "Bartending in Alphabet City."

At night, the view from high up in Brooklyn is really something else. An entire city lit up, two million watts. I walk past Faith sleeping in my sheets on the couch in our living room, pretty sure she has one eye open. I knock on Georgia's bedroom door and she answers it, wearing nothing but a t-shirt. She takes me into her hands. She lets me in. 

We hold one another, staring up to the window, at the electricity painting the dark, the energy painting the night. I push my bare foot slightly against the glass on the windowpane, drawing over those illuminated dots.

"Can't you see that she's evil?" I kiss Georgia's head.

She answers, "You're the one who brought her in here."

I look out the window at the lights, "She didn't have anywhere to go."

She looks up at me, and squints her face in the watt dot speckles, asks, "And why is that?"

In the morning, there is a note on my door: 2nd & Ave C bring Boomerang.

I dig through the closet, I sit on my knees, and I find Clay's watch. Boomerang isn't in his room, his bed is made, he hasn't been home all night.

I spend the day reading in the garden. I think in the strawberries. Where is the ghost phone call? Cold stiffening, I ride my bike back to our apartment. Brooklyn at sunset in slow motion is a marketplace of scents. Bakery doors open and car exhaust, incense from street vendors on the sidewalk, thick. Raegetton even has a scent, the scent is serious. Everything in Brooklyn, even the partying, is serious. I lift everything up the stairs to our clean well-lit place. Someone is in the shower. I sit on our couch, and I wait for Faith to emerge smelling like my lavender bodywash. Boomerang comes out of the bathroom wearing a towel, his cheeks are flushed.

"You'd have an easier time if you gave yourself an easier time," I say to him.

He tightens his towel around his waist.

"All you ever do is tell people what to do," he walks past me, to his room, and closes the door.

The bar Faith is working in, which she wants to show me, I think, as proof, maybe proof that she knows I'm onto her, has lights like a chain restaurant and is a complete dive. They have brunch on Sundays, a sign says.

"Hey," she flags down my bike helmet from behind the bar. "Drinks are on me. Just pass over one dollar so it'll look like you paid," she says.

"I'll take a water," I answer her. "How's the first day going?"

She points to a man on a stool at the end of the bar. He looks like the creepy old guy from the Metallica Unforgiven music video. It's Alphabet City, he probably is that guy. He looks up at me, winks. Someone once told me that if people wink at you, it means they're lying.

"I'll take a Guinness," I say to her. Why the hell not.

There is a television, and me and Faith and her one regular old guy sit together and watch it.

She holds the pint glasses angled too far to the right, I know about this because I was a bartender in high school, but I've never told her that. What I did was, as soon as I turned 18 I walked into all the bars in Worcester, Massachusetts and demanded a job. I did this because I was bored and brave and I wanted the money. I was an amazing bartender. Before Clay, I started seeing one of the bar bouncers. I think he wanted to marry me because this one time when we were moving around in the boiler room naked together after closing, he had this look in his eyes, it was fear.

Faith holds the pint glass up to the tap like she's pulling alchemy from it. But give it a rest already, I think.

A big woman in a baseball hat comes barreling on in. Like a steam engine, this one. She storms into the swinging kitchen door at the back of the room, her coat half off. We watch more television, Faith swirls around more foam.

Twenty minutes later the steam engine appears in a filthy button up coat like she's a chef. The thing's stained in yellows and ketchups, lime green. She shakes my hand like the damn fall of Rome. She walks toward the jukebox, which I've only just now realized exists, and isn't on, and she takes quarters out of her own pocket, turns on some kind of pop song about being an independent woman, snaps her fingers at her sides, says to us, "Real music."

"It's my song," says Faith in that whisper voice, wiping down the counter. "I'm the independent woman."

I watch under the bar to look for where she's already got the five dollar bills stashed in the dishrags.


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