Playing the Straight Man

Last weekend I spent a bunch of time playing with silence when opening a scene. The thought was that if I’m patient with the entrance, rather than jumping straight into dialogue, it gives me time to observe my scene partner(s) and discover an idea that really fits with what we’re already doing, so there’s almost no work at all to embody that fact. We’re already there.

Also, suspense is fun.

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi (of TJ & Dave) inspired me to try it. I’ve probably watched this video a dozen times at this point.

During the YAP workshop we did a fun exercise: Start a scene with the absolute worst opening line you can think of. These are the kinds of lines that give your scene partner nothing to work with. They’re not awful because they make you feel uncomfortable, they’re awful because they make you feel nothing. They’re boring, and they don’t contribute to a story.

One scene partner gave me a perfectly terrible opener:

Him: What did you say?

The only thing there is that we had been talking. There’s no relationship, no setting, no activity, nothing. He might as well have said “no, you open the scene.”

I didn’t say anything right away, and stared at him. Giving myself a second before I jumped in let me find something in his face that suggested that this wasn’t a happy conversation. I think the rest of the class picked up on it too, because they laughed. There I discovered that the silence was actually my character staring at him in outraged disbelief.

Me, shouting: Are you deaf? Did I stutter? I said get the fuck out!

And then we yelled at each other for 30 seconds in front of a bunch of strangers. It was great fun, and I highly recommend it if you find the opportunity.

When it was my turn to open, I went with this:

Me: Looks like it’s gonna rain.

Great. Let’s talk about mildly inclement weather. That will be interesting to watch.

Him, deeply concerned: Yeah… I see you out here a lot. Do you have a place to stay?

Oof. I didn’t think I was homeless when I stepped out, but I sure was after he said that. Now we have a scene worth watching. It ended up being a really sweet moment between a lonely homeless guy who just wants a break, and a genuinely caring person who’s “trying to be a better Christian” offering him the guest bed for a while.

A lot of improvisers had a lot of great scenes during that exercise, and they all highlighted that you don’t always need to start at the most interesting place. I suppose you should probably be ending at the most interesting place and building to it along the way. A bad opening doesn’t mean the scene is dead, and a slow one doesn’t mean it’s boring. It’s just one thing that gets followed by everything after it.


This week I want to continue the same idea throughout the rest of the scene. Silence, patience, and letting it move forward at whatever honest pace it feels like it should move. If I’m flustered and yelling, that’s fun to watch, but if I have nothing to say, that’s really ok too, because my character doesn’t really have to have anything to say either. I don’t have to force it. Let the audience wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next while we take whatever time it takes to discover it.

It’s hard to come up with clever ideas. Some people are really good at it, and can push scenes into some really funny places. I’m not that much of a big loud goofball, but I love people who are. I have a bias toward things that are practical. I tend to look for truth first, and jokes if I get around to it. I think I can contribute more to a scene by embracing that, and playing a better straight man.

At some point that will be something to work on, because I think it’ll help me a lot with short-form improv. But for now, this is good, if I own it.

…And Scene.

Life and Improv

At some point last summer I was reading an article somewhere out in the depths of the internet that put an idea into my head. The article was about social anxiety, and was written by somebody who, like me, does stuff in an office for money sometimes. The idea that really stuck with me went something like this:

No matter what happens at work, nothing in the office can approach the weirdness of the stuff I do in improv class.

I’ve had my own share of social anxiety in the past, and will probably have more to some degree in the future. It usually goes something like this:

  • Everybody else in this Chipotle just noticed that I dropped a wad of guacamole out of my burrito like a neanderthal.
  • I’ll just pick it up with my fingers.
  • I regret doing that.
  • Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh…!

Well the thought of trying improv stuck, and after some encouragement from a close friend, I signed up for Improv 101 at ImprovBoston. I didn’t know anything at all about the school or the people there, and had never been to a comedy show in my life. The only thing I knew about improv was watching Who’s Line is it Anyway? and a single (terrible) scene I did once at a college party with the same friend who encouraged me to try this in the first place. (I played a nonspecifically disturbed guy buying weird porn. Yeah.)

So I walked into the first class with no idea what to expect.


I probably looked something like this.
Or maybe that’s just how I think I looked.
Or maybe aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh…!

The first class went well, and the environment was a very welcoming introduction to improv. At the end of each level, ImprovBoston runs a student showcase performance, and I enjoyed that enough to sign up for the second level.

Improv 201 was a very encouraging next step, and I felt more and more comfortable each time I practiced or performed. But it was the second student show that hooked me hard.

Really hard.

Nonspecifically disturbed guy buying weird porn hard.

Sorry.


Cut to a month later. I showed up for my first Improv 301 class in the morning, and hung out between the theater and reading at Starbucks for the rest of the day. I’d picked up Improvisation at the Speed of Life the night before, and I think something about the first couple chapters flipped some switch in part of my brain, because playing scenes felt completely different. My scenes all day felt strong and important and worth watching. Not every single one, but it was a lot better than the crapshoot I felt on stage previously. And furthermore, I found those ideas carrying over to the chitchat with other people in the theater. (They’re all incredibly friendly and supportive, by the way, so that helped too.)

Respect and support your scene partner. Listen actively. Be in the moment. Trust your instincts. All things I’ve heard in my previous classes and as vague life advice in the past, but that day I felt like I finally had a handle on what that actually means in practical terms, and what happens when you do it, both on stage and off. It’s a small step, but it still feels like a deeply meaningful one in the right direction.

That’s why I’m starting this blog. My name is Sean Edwards, and I’m really excited to be learning improvisational comedy and applying it to life outside the theater, and I’ll do my best to share with you the things I’m doing along on the way.

If you’re interested in this (or not), please leave a comment and tell me why. If you have questions, I’m happy to answer them if I can, or I’ll try to find out myself if I can’t. And if you’re an improvisor or otherwise living person yourself, I welcome any advice or experiences you might feel compelled to share. Otherwise, I hope you’ll still find something good in this as I document my ongoing process of getting better at making it up as I go along.

…And Scene.

Your New Engineer is Working Too Many Hours

Here’s a scenario: You’re an engineering manager, and you’ve just hired a new junior developer or three, fresh out of college.
They aren’t producing much yet, but you know that’s ok.
They’re right out of college, after all.
It takes some time for new graduates to be productive the way you expect other engineers to be productive.

They don’t know that yet.

Consider the possibility that they aren’t working late because they’re ruthless and dedicated workers who only need exposure to your wisdom and experience to become a smashing success.
They’re working late because they’re worried that they’re not meeting expectations.
They know what everyone around them is producing, and they know they aren’t keeping up with that pace.
They’re trying to compensate with time.

You could let them do that until they burn out. But you could also tell them it’s almost 6:00 and they should go home.

Remission and Relapse

In my hometown there was a sickly oak tree that stood over the freight rail. Climbing the boards nailed to the trunk, past the limbs dismembered to make way for trains, a branch hung over the tracks. Sitting on this branch, directly over the passing trains, is where Ozzy, Lenny and I spent much of our time, our bare feet dangling what seemed like just inches above speeding steel. These were our peaceful times.

Ozzy was the bastard child of an unemployed receptionist and a taxi driver. He was a dangerous sort of kid, the kind who would come up with ideas that put pits in your stomach. The kind of kid you’d get in trouble for spending time with if your parents knew the sort of ideas he had, like torturing animals and playing chicken with trains. He grew up beside the railroad tracks, across the street from me in a house that bordered on uninhabitable, and he lived there as long as I knew him. His life wasn’t great, but he stayed fed and mostly out of trouble.

Ozzy spent about as much time at my house as I did at his. I think he liked the order of it. My mom would stand us shoulder to shoulder and tell us the rules of the house, like a drill sergeant to fresh recruits. No swearing. No fighting. Don’t go on the neighbor’s property.

“If you get hurt I’ll break your legs.”

I think she knew Ozzy didn’t have many friends. I think she wanted to see me help him. She liked it when Ozzy came over, because it meant she could supervise us. It meant I wouldn’t get roped up in one of Ozzy’s bad ideas.

It was the early hours of a damp August morning, the morning he returned from a weekend with his father that he came banging on my window shouting “Miles! Wake up!” Bleary and confused, I cracked the window. He asked me if I’d ever hopped a train before.

I hadn’t.

“Well, let’s go,” he said.

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“It’s fine. Don’t be a wimp. Let’s bring Lenny, it’ll be funny.”

Lenny was the only child of a decent family. His mother was a social worker, and his dad an engineer of some sort. He was a lanky kid, taller than me with a disorderly heap of dirty blonde hair which gave the impression that his face had stranger proportions than it really did. He had a learning disability, and a stutter that got him categorized by his peers as a dumb kid. Lenny was the kid on the playground who would get pushed around by big kids. He’d hit his head on something hard and cry about it. He’d make a big scene and get the big kids in trouble, but they thought it was hilarious so they’d just keep doing it.

I was a friend to him because nobody else was. We were eleven and he still wet his bed, but that didn’t bother me. Ozzy tolerated him, but he didn’t know about the bed thing.

Ozzy knocked on Lenny’s front door. His mother opened it.

“You boys are up early,” she said.

“Is Lenny here?” Ozzy asked.

“He is,” she said, and retreated into the house. “Come on in.” We stepped into the living room and she left to fetch her son.

The house smelled like coffee and pancakes and organic maple syrup and some kind of all-natural disinfecting cleaning agent. Ozzy seemed out of place there, standing in his ratty white t-shirt and his ripped and grass-stained jeans. His busted shoes were tracking something onto the recently vacuumed carpet. He was fidgeting. He kept looking and prodding at items around the room – an antique analog clock; a stack of bills and private letters left on the coffee table; a picture on the end table of Lenny at Space Camp with a big toothy grin across his face; a shelf full of self-help books and calculus texts.

“Hi guys,” Lenny said from the doorway.

“Let’s go,” Ozzy said.

“Where are we g-going?”

“Don’t ask so many questions,” Ozzy scolded. “We’re gonna miss the train.”

“What train?”

“The train. We’re hopping it. We’re leaving.”

“I don’t want to h-hop a train,” he said. “That’s d-dangerous.”

“What, am I friends with a bunch of pussies? Hurry up or we’re gonna miss it.”

“I’m not going.”

“Bullshit. You’re going.”

“I’m n-not going.”

Ozzy sneered. He looked to me, and then back to Lenny.

“Fine, whatever.” He knocked the space camp picture onto its face and then stormed out of the house. I said nothing and followed him.

Shortly thereafter we were standing on the gravel embankment watching the morning freight pass, the smell of diesel exhaust hanging in the air.

We ran. The train was too fast to keep up with, but Ozzy said you only needed to run fast enough that the ladder on the boxcar doesn’t get torn from your grip and throw you on your face.

My hand touched iron, but I hesitated and missed. I watched Ozzy try for the same ladder. He caught hold, and it pulled him off his feet. With great effort he hoisted himself onto the train.

“Get the next one!” he shouted. Diesel exhaust was burning in my lungs, but I kept running because if I stopped I didn’t know what Ozzy would do. I grabbed the next ladder and managed to hold on, pulling myself up onto the boxcar as well.

“Where are we going?” I shouted.

“What does it matter to you? We’re running away.”

“Why?”

“Ask me that again and I’ll kill you.”

I clung white-knuckled to the boxcar. Every bump was a shove, every sway an attempt to throw me onto the tracks below.

We rode the train for what felt like ages. We jumped off miles from home by a small pond in the middle of the woods. Diesel and oil and runoff from the white tank cars gave the water a rainbow film, beautiful in a way, but not natural. This was where frogs had five legs and snakes had three. This was where even milfoil couldn’t take over.

Without any warning, just like that, Ozzy jumped in. This kid in his jeans and t-shirt. This kid who, in third grade, ate an apple and left the core in his desk for weeks, until it rotted and stank up the whole room. This kid who, that same year, wasn’t allowed into the classroom because his shirt was too filthy. This kid, up to his neck in water and freight runoff, was saying “Jump in, it’s warm.”

“It looks gross,” I told him.

“It’s just water.”

The last of the train thundered past. Then it was just me, Ozzy and the mutant wildlife.

We spent the day there. We talked about the kids at school who wanted to start a gang. We talked about some movie with vampires. We talked about ketchup and book reports.

We walked the tracks and picked up old iron pieces of trains and rails, things you’d think were important: ties and bolts and clips and spikes and old fishplates, the things that hold two rails together.

We talked about the frogs.

“Freaks,” Ozzy said. He threw a fishplate at one.

We put rocks on the tracks, a surprise for a train some time later that evening. I’d never seen it, but Ozzy said when a train hits a rock on the tracks, the rock explodes into a cloud of flying bits. If you got lucky, he said you could get the rock to shoot out from under the wheel like a bullet. He said you could shoot through a tree doing that. He said you could kill someone.

We talked about his father.

“He spoils me,” Ozzy told me. “When I go visit dad, he gives me anything I ask for. This morning I had ice cream and ketchup for breakfast. He bought me a skateboard and we saw an R-rated movie with Alicia Silverstone in it. I’m going to marry her. Next time, he says he’s gonna buy me an air rifle.”

He hurled a rock at one of the mutant frogs.

“Have you ever shot a woodchuck with an air rifle? The way they toss and squirm around. It’s crazy.”

He got like that when he visited his father – violent and frightening. Vengeful. He showed me a large bruise on his shoulder, and told me he got it falling off a new bike his father bought him. He said he rode it off a jump he built out of an old piece of plywood and a cinder block, and landed on a curb. A curb with five fingers and a drinking problem, I guess.

We started walking back home at lunchtime, when we got hungry and it became clear that we hadn’t really thought through the running away from home thing. We talked about Kristen, the girl from school who we both insisted we didn’t like. Kristen with her curly red hair and the mole on her cheek and her markers of one color and caps of another. Kristen, with.her friends who made fun of us for hanging out with Lenny.

Then we talked about Lenny. We talked about the face he made when he was thinking hard about something, with his tongue stuck out and his brow all crumpled up like a page with a bad idea on it. How when he made his thinking face he looked like he was about to shit his pants. How, when he talked to Kristen he said stupid things like “your hair looks pretty” and “can I borrow your green marker?” And how when she’d hand him green, he’d get confused by the yellow cap.

We talked about that morning.

“I can’t believe he wouldn’t come with us,” Ozzy said. “What a traitor.”

“He was scared, that’s all,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. He betrayed us. And don’t defend him.”

When we finally arrived back at Ozzy’s house, Ozzy stopped walking. An orange taxi cab was sitting in the driveway behind his mom’s stationwagon.

“I can’t go home yet,” Ozzy said.

“Why not?”

“Ask me that again and I’ll kill you.”

We walked to Lenny’s house, because Ozzy decided we would. Both cars were gone, but Ozzy knocked anyway, and Lenny opened the door and mumbled, “H-hi guys.”

“Come outside,” Ozzy ordered.

“Ok.”

Lenny stepped outside, and the moment the door closed, Ozzy grabbed him by his collar and pulled him off the steps. Lenny stumbled to the ground and regained his footing. Ozzy shoved him again.

“Ozzy, what are you doing? Stop it,” I said.

“S-stop it,” Lenny echoed.

Ozzy shoved him again. He kicked at Lenny’s knees, and Lenny fell. He kicked dirt into Lenny’s face and spat on him.

“Ozzy! Stop it,” I shouted. “Oz!”

Ozzy stopped, turning his toxic gaze to me. “You’re sticking up for this retard after he bailed on us?” he shouted. His clenched fists trembled at his sides. “After he abandoned us?”

I said nothing.

“Is that the kind of friend you are? You’d betray me for this idiot who wouldn’t run away with us? After all that stuff we talked about today? After I trusted you? You’re gonna betray me too? Pathetic.”

I shut my mouth and just watched Ozzy stare me down. I watched every twitch of his face – the sneer in the corner of his mouth, the squint of his eyes. His fists opened and closed like he was deciding what to do with them, like he was convincing himself not to turn his anger on me as well.

Ozzy is ten thousand tons of diesel-powered inertia. I am his stone bullet.

Ozzy’s attention returned to Lenny, who had stood up again and was now crying. Tears drew lines through the dirt on his face. His chin trembled and his brow furrowed in rage. His lip quivered and his spidery hands clenched into spidery fists.

Something snapped in Lenny. He transformed. He wasn’t a lanky kid with a speech impediment and a learning disability who wet the bed and cried on the playground anymore. Now he was an animal, wounded and prodded one time too many. He charged at Ozzy, fists everywhere, screaming, his words an incomprehensible jumble of stuttered syllables and emotions.

Ozzy faltered, then Lenny was on top of him wailing on his head and shoulders hard enough to be surprising. When he was done, he shouted in Ozzy’s face, “Don’t do that to me!” He shouted, “You can’t b-beat up on me anymore.” He shouted, “Go home.”

When we returned to Ozzy’s house, the taxi cab was gone and his mother was standing outside the front door with a cigarette between her lips.

“Where’ve you been?” she asked him.

“Around,” he said. There were no more questions. We went inside.

The inside of Ozzy’s house was not a clean place. Crumbs of food and short stacks of paper and bills occupied the area around his mother’s chair in the living room. The room was lined with miscellany. An old fan, a coffee maker, a few stuffed animals and clothes, an old broken water pistol, all collected at the edges of the room like they were kicked there years ago and forgotten. The TV cabinet was accessible through a path between a hill of VHS tapes and a mountain of CDs. We ate lunch and watched TV to kill a few hours.

Lenny knocked on the door later that afternoon, and Ozzy opened it.

“Hi Lenny,” he said.

“Is Miles here?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you guys want to c-come outside?”

“Sure.”

Outside we rode old bikes and practiced locking the brakes and sliding through the dirt. We built jumps and approximated our air time. We put rocks on the tracks and looked for old iron train parts to add to the heap we’d been building each summer. We threw things at squirrels and said nothing of the fight that afternoon, a memory of different people from another time.

We climbed the tree and hovered over the tracks, waiting for the evening freight to pass. We sat on the branch of that sickly oak tree, our bare feet dangling over the rails. Together, Ozzy, Lenny and I watched the looming dusk. Together, we saw that moment become the next.

He is a Simple Man

It is brisk outside. He pulls his old coat over his narrow shoulders. He thinks about class today. It was difficult. He doesn’t understand the assignment. He is scolded by the young man who edited his paper for having no thesis, and for having a body with no substance. There is no conclusion.

He walks on the sidewalk, and passes the young man in his car waiting to enter traffic. He waves; the young man waves back. He is glad to be noticed.

The young man drives away. He waves again. The young man doesn’t wave back this time.

He walks home. His apartment is small and smells like him. He warms his dinner and eats it, and then he sleeps.

Baby Toys

The doors to the Wal-Mart open for her. The card is burning a hole in her purse, and the baby needs food tonight.

“Hello, welcome to Wal-Mart.”

She knows it’s wrong, but it’s just for the baby. Formula and diapers. Maybe spaghetti for dinner. Sauce too, and broccoli and steak and potatoes for tomorrow. A bottle of wine and a Twix bar to help with guilt.

The cart is getting full, and each item is easier than the last: shampoo, a new sweatshirt, a romantic movie for tonight, a toy for the baby.

Another toy for the baby. It’s been a long time since she bought it anything new.

She looks again and the cart is full and that pit in her stomach is back. She looks at each item: soda, bottled water, toys, plates, but the card in her purse tells her to keep them all, like if she doesn’t it’ll go away and never come back and she’ll have lost her chance. It’s probably right.

Everyone in the checkout line is looking at her funny, she’s sure of it, but she’s definitely not fat, and she’s pretty sure she doesn’t have anything but guilt on her face. Guilt and justification, and you can’t really see those. They’re not like the eczema outbreaks, they’re just thoughts and feelings, and all of those stay on the inside where nobody can judge you for them.

“Did you find everything you were looking for today?” the cashier asks her. The cashier is a young man, tall, and not very handsome. His hair resembles a mop, and his posture is that of someone who spent high school stuffed in a locker. She nods to him, but he’s already tossing her things across the scanner. Each beep makes the hole in her stomach a little deeper, a little wider, and a little more inviting. She’s watching the price, and it’s telling her “Go ahead, jump. It won’t be so bad. Besides, it’s insured.”

The beeping stops and the cashier dork is staring at her now. She reaches into her purse and pulls out the card. It’s green, and it has the Visa logo and a man’s name on it. She doesn’t know him, but when the cashier gives her a funny look she tells him it belongs to her husband. He swipes it, and that’s it. $163.52 for free.

She leaves the store, and the doors close behind her.

The bags in the cart are lighter now, and she feels like she can breathe again. There are good things in there: a new sponge, some dish soap, dinner. She bought toilet paper and a movie for her mental health. There are toys for the baby, who needs to be picked up from daycare in a few hours, giving her some time for a few more errands.

Her minivan is old. There’s a belt squeaking when she starts it, and the tread on the tires has been gone for months and she’s two thousand miles overdue for an oil change. The gas tank is almost empty, but she thinks it’ll last until tomorrow. She doubts she could get away with buying a whole new car on the card, but maybe she could at least get an oil change.

Across the street is the Macy’s. She’s in the right turn lane, but she gets the idea that they might be hiring. She could really use a job, and working in cosmetics or women’s clothing wouldn’t be so bad.

She changes lanes poorly. Someone honks at her, and she flips him off. He shouts something, but she can’t hear it over the belt screaming like an injured animal. It’s giving her a headache now, and she doesn’t care what the driver she just cut off had to say about her character or her shitty van or her mother anyway. He was probably calling her trailer trash.

She finds a parking spot. It’s tight, but she makes it without hitting anything. She’s glad as she squeezes out of the driver’s seat that she’s not a fat-ass, and that she lost her baby weight so well.

The Macy’s reeks of class. Everyone is beautiful and smiling like if you buy their products you could be just like them. She decides not to believe them, but she wanders toward the women’s clothing section anyway.

She won’t get much here, she decides. A pair of nice pants, maybe some boots and a blouse or two. They’re nice clothes for a job interview, except for the cute red one, which is for Friday night if she can find a babysitter.

Cosmetics are on the way to the checkout counter, and when she’s done there she has another $206.71 that she didn’t have to pay. She’s about to ask for a job application, but she decides against it because asking for a job application after spending $206.71 on a card that is obviously not in your name is probably too suspicious, and the snotty cashier girl already looks like she’s having a bad enough day to start something, so she resolves to come back tomorrow.

The van’s door creaks when she opens it, and the belt is a banshee fighting to escape the hot mass of industry in the front of her vehicle. It screams louder when she steps on the gas.

She’s in the left turn lane now. The light turns green and she hits the gas and throws on her blinker for a second. She’ll pick up the baby now, she decides. She’ll get it from daycare and put it in its little seat and give it its new toys so it won’t cry.

She wishes the van would warm up already, because usually that fixes the belt thing, but the thermostat says it’s already warm and it’s taking longer this time. She wonders if the belt might be getting worse, but the big blue Old Navy sign just appeared and now she wonders if they’re hiring.

She shifts lanes and throws on her turn signal halfway through the turn and parks the van in the first empty spot she sees. The car beside her is nicer than hers, so she opens her door too fast and bumps it. There’s a small mark that the owner won’t notice for weeks, if ever.

She’s not quite satisfied about the car thing, but she leaves it for later and walks toward the building. The door opens for her, and there’s a blast from the air conditioning and then she’s inside.

The Old Navy is different than the Macy’s, because it’s not trying to best itself. It’s just trying to best her. The floors are concrete and the racks are steel painted flat colors, and the ceiling has exposed supports in some chic contemporary warehouse sort of fashion that she doesn’t quite understand. All the big ads are surrounded by a thousand flashing bulbs, all fighting for your attention and getting lost beside each other.

The women’s section is different here. Old Navy is for fun and peppy girls, and even though she has a kid she can still be one of those if she wants. She can wear those tops with the frilly bellies and the shorts that barely count, and so what if her legs have some wrinkles?

She gets a hat too, one of those cute tan summer ones with the big brim, and some flip-flops for the beach; the nice ones, much better than the trashy ones from the dollar store. She takes some of those big fashionable sunglasses too from the rack on her way to the baby section.

There are some shirts there, and some cute pants and shorts that she takes too, and a hat because babies look just adorable in hats, and some little sandals because it can’t walk well enough for flip-flops yet, even though the straps irritate the back of its feet.

She’s never been able to get it to wear sunglasses before, but she gets a pair for it anyway, because maybe it’ll like these ones better, and after one more pair of nice sneakers for herself she’s only spent $172.39 this time. She feels better about that because it’s not as much as she spent at Macy’s.

When she leaves, and after she’s put the bags in the back of her van with the other clothes and groceries and trash on the floor, the car she parked next to is still there. There doesn’t seem to be anyone nearby who cares about it, so she opens her door much harder this time. It leaves a big mark that the owner will probably see right away.

She backs her old van with the screaming belt and the worn tires and the old oil out of its spot, and she feels only a little better about the other car.

The daycare is about fifteen minutes down the road if there’s no traffic, across from a strip-mall with a Walgreens pharmacy and a Blockbuster that’s going out of business. She usually picks up the baby early, before the daycare closes, but she still has a few more hours before then.

She hits a red light at every intersection she comes to, except for the one she speeds through a moment too late. It takes only a second for the blue lights to appear behind her. She curses and hits the steering wheel and curses again, because this is an expense she can’t put on the card.

She throws on her blinker and pulls over. Her tire bumps the curb just a little bit, and then the vehicle stops.

“License, registration and proof of insurance,” the cop demands. She has the first two, but she’s been driving uninsured for almost four months now.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asks, and she does, and she recounts her offense and makes up an excuse about being late for a pediatrician’s appointment that she has to pick the baby up for. He says something at her about excuses and the safety of other drivers, and then retreats to his cruiser to do whatever he needs to do. His moustache is overwhelming.

The belt is still screaming and it’s driving her insane so she kills the engine, and now the only sound is of the other drivers on the road – the ones that haven’t been pulled over. She imagines an accident in front of her. Some impatient jackass flies past her shitty van and slams into another vehicle, which is pulling into traffic while its driver talks on one of those fancy Blackberry phones that she’d like to have, but can’t afford on her sporadic child support checks. The accident might distract the cop enough to let her go this time, and for a moment she even considers ways to cause the accident herself.

On the right side of the road is a salon that’s still open for a few hours and doesn’t look very busy. She’s never had a manicure before, but she likes having her hands held. She imagines a manicure would be nice. There would be another woman about her age to care for her and to talk about hair and clothes and their babies; none of this serious talk that she’s had far too much of lately of bills and payments and responsibilities and all the other things that are worse than the cries of her car and her baby.

The cop and his moustache are back now. He gives her a ticket that she will have to pay with $220.00 of her own money. He tells her she has five business days to obtain at minimum an automobile accident liability insurance plan with her own money. He asks if she has any questions. She doesn’t, and he tells her to have a nice day and to drive safe and to get that squeaking belt looked at.

She pulls into the first available parking spot at the salon, next to an old Ford Escort from the nineties, back when they were all boxy and looked terrible. She’s careful not to hit it with her door.

It’s cool and feminine inside. The atmosphere is relaxed, and everyone’s smiling for a change. She spends the next half hour talking to a woman who has three kids. One of them is attending community college for music education, and the other two are still in high school. All three of them are boys with testosterone and smelly laundry that she only has to do when it gets out of control.

They talk about the weather a little bit, and how nice it’s been out lately, but how sometimes it gets too humid and uncomfortable. They both agree they should get outside more on nice days because they might not be getting enough vitamin D which they agree comes from sunlight. They talk about nails too, and the other woman is surprised she’s never had a manicure before because she has very nice hands. She says it must be from the baby’s diaper lotion. They agree on that too.

The total bill is $64.15, and she’s glad she didn’t tell the other woman her baby’s father’s name, because it means she can use the husband excuse again. She leaves feeling better than when she walked in, and decides she’ll go back again if she has the opportunity.

She gets two green lights out of the six more intersections she passes through before finally arriving at the daycare. It’s a little brick building, too small for the number of kids they have, and an adjoining playground surrounded by a chain-link fence.

Inside it’s quiet, except for the three or four kids who managed to bribe their way out of nap time. She sees the baby asleep in its car seat in the corner next to one of the women who works there.

Someone asks her if she’s there to pick up her baby and she says she is, and that she’ll pay with credit today. She hands the card over and the person swipes it, and gives the machine an odd look and swipes it again.

“I’m sorry, your card isn’t going through,” the person tells her.

Suddenly she’s swimming. Her debts are an ocean and her life raft was never really hers, but she hoped it would last at least a day or two. Maybe the card’s credit limit was reached, or maybe the card issuer thought her spending was suspicious and shut it off, or maybe the real owner reported the theft to his bank before phoning the police.

She takes the card back. The lump in her throat won’t let her speak. She rummages through her purse, but she knows it has nothing to offer her but used lipstick and receipts of money already spent.

It wasn’t going to last forever, but it could have at least let her pay the daycare for taking care of the baby, and buy gas tomorrow, and maybe get her van fixed.

She apologizes, and the daycare agrees to hold the charge on her account and she can pay them next time she comes in. She thanks them and leaves with another $84.18 that she doesn’t have to pay yet.

The shopping bags are still scattered across the floor of her van as she loads the car seat and buckles it in. She’s notices that she’s shaking. The baby is still asleep, but she puts one of the new toys on it so that hopefully when it wakes up it won’t join the chorus of her screaming problems.

She puts the new hat on the baby too, and it stirs, but doesn’t quite wake up yet. The Twix bar she bought at Wal-Mart is still in one of the bags. She’s not hungry at all, but she opens it and takes a bite anyway. It might taste better if she was hungrier, but she decides she needs it now.

The stuff she bought is nice, but there’s only dinner for tonight and tomorrow. She can’t return the clothes because they’ll just put the money back on the stolen credit card, and then she’ll have nothing but a Twix wrapper and her shitty van and her apartment, which is already three months overdue for rent.

When she starts the van, the belt squeals and the baby wakes up startled and crying. It doesn’t recognize the toy, and it throws it on the floor. She lets it cry.