“My father died when he went into the steam room and his fentanyl patch released the entire month’s dose at once.” She told us this standing in a hipster knitting store in Ojai. We were in search of good coffee and a morning away from the broken garage door and the nest of six velvet rats in the compost barrel.

On a quest from the Midwest; Kansas, prairie, dust, cutting prescription pills into heroin for kicks. She was “searching for somewhere.” Tired of her old life. Her sweater said, “Keep what you need.” I think she was stalking us. We were sitting in a corner, eating sun scones with blueberries, when she entered, Birkenstocks and bible in her hand. I bet she lived in a house with ill-fitting windows, a clapboard disaster paint-peeled by the prairie winds.

“Come to the hot springs,” she said, and gave my wife her number. We told her about Tassajara and the Sulphur baths, the Zen meditations, the icy-cold creek water, and the kleptomaniac blue jays. “I could do that. Before I find a husband and have children,” she said, looking at our small daughter playing with the store owner’s little girl; the two hiding under wide-mesh knitted blankets.

“I’m meeting a young girl here in a little while. I’m mentoring her. I don’t think she knows it. She’s sixteen and lives with her boyfriend in their van.” She swayed from foot-to-foot, admiring the giant, dried palm fronds hanging from the ceiling. No make-up, fingernails painted sparkly mauve, unvarnished toes, her need for acceptance so powerful I had to cross my arms to survive its blast.

“She could be my friend,” my wife said, as we walked to the car. “It’s a pity she doesn’t live near us.” The plea in her voice cracked me inside. Having a child alters friendships, shifts priorities, magnifies the problems between two people. And maybe it can cement the differences, too, I thought, as the engine came to life and we drove out of the lot, past the Kansan woman and the aura of need hovering over her head.

James Claffey

James Claffey

James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in Flash Fiction International, and Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was a finalist in the Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. His novel, The Heart Crossways, will be published in 2018 by Thrice Publishing.
James Claffey

Latest posts by James Claffey (see all)

  • Steam - October 13, 2017