tricia

In the near-empty parking lot of the Ideal gas station, a muscle-bound 45-year-old man woke up with a snort in the driver’s seat of his black SUV as his phone lit up red and blue. Donnie Boudreaux fished it out of the crevice between the seat and the center console and looked at the screen. No deets. He sighed and swiped right to accept the assignment. Turn down too many assignments and you could lose a star. Lose a star and your FICO score went down, and he was barely a 600 as it was. Couldn’t really turn down the money, either — for all the work he was doing, through all the different apps, he was still eating ramen by the end of the month.

He read the dossier. Simple eviction, single tenant, 2300 block of Banks. Decent bounty for not much work, if it didn’t get ugly. Big if these days. They’d lost a couple high–rated men in the last big tenants’ revolt. He changed into his regulation Punisher t-shirt, opened another energy drink, and grabbed his sidearm from the center console. Back to work, he thought as Linkin Park came in on the classic rock station.

***

Jessica Mason had chosen her name like she’d chosen most of her life, out of convenience and a desire for privacy, she thought to herself as she looked through her mail under the streetlight. Supermarket flyer, health insurance statement, past due notice. Other folks she’d met had gotten a little more creative with it: Rhiannon, Trelsbeth, Hannelore. They hadn’t just gone with the top girl name in their birth year. But whatever, she was just… practical. If Jess was a good enough name for six girls in her high school class, it was good enough for her, and it was something about her life that didn’t immediately mark her as different. When she saw a credit card application addressed to a name that had once been hers, she breathed in sharply, gritted her teeth, and threw it in the trash. All this other stuff they know about me and still they can’t get my name right, she thought, stuffing the rest of the mail in her bag and rolling her steel-frame single-speed bike inside.

She grabbed a High Life from the crisper drawer of her near-empty fridge and looked at the calendar, still lying on the kitchen counter. She hadn’t gotten around to hanging it up since moving in a month ago. Between that ordeal and pulling 50-60 hour weeks at the restaurant in the hotel downtown, there were a lot of things she hadn’t gotten around to yet. It was a while past midnight on the first of the month, which meant a lot of things but mainly that rent was due and it was time to inject.

She was still depressing the plunger on the needle, slowly, meditatively, as she heard the loud businesslike knock on her door. She scowled and kept at it, thankful to her new landlord for installing heavy, burglar-proof doors on her illegal mother-in-law studio. “Open up! Police!” they yelled. “Get a warrant!” she called back flatly.

***

Boudreaux held his phone up to the e-lock and the warrant, communicated over NFC, told the door to open. It swung open with a heavy grinding sound to reveal a woman in long cutoff jean shorts and a tank-top sitting up on a bare mattress on the floor, next to a duffel bag lying open with clothes spilling out and not much else. He realized she was injecting something into her thigh and cursed as he searched his pockets for his taser and Narcan.

“Calm down, chief, it ain’t junk,” she said and tossed him the vial of estradiol valerate. She finished up and withdrew the IM needle slowly with a wince. “So what’s up?” she said after an awkward silence. “Are you just selling encyclopedias or what?”

Boudreaux read haltingly in his nasal, non-rhotic, Brooklynesque Metairie drawl. “You are hereby notified that you are in violation of your lease and terms of service for failure to promptly submit payment via Homepay app. Got to get out of here now, kid.”

She took a moment to size him up. All coptractors were bastards, she thought, but this wasn’t a fight she was bound to win. He had the high ground, a hundred pounds, and a gun on her. “This is some hot bullshit,” she said, holding up her phone. “App wouldn’t install. I was gonna get a money order first thing.”

“Shoulda read the release notes. App requires the newer model. Frankly, it’s a little irresponsible, not keeping your shit up to date, don’t you think?” He looked at her sympathetically as she stewed. She looked a little like his daughter. “How you supposed to catch gigs without a phone?”

“I got that thing six months ago, works fine,” she mumbled as she packed her few belongings into her duffel bag and waxed-canvas panniers. He reached out to pick up her bag — at least I can be chivalrous about this, he thought — but she snatched it away.

“Is there anyone you can call? Somewhere you can go? I could call a social worker-”

She scowled over her suitcase at him as she struggled with the weathered, fraying bungee cords that would precariously hold it on her cargo rack. “You did the job, cap. Go get your brownie points and fuck off.” She looked him defiantly in the eyes as she reached into her shorts to tuck everything into place.

Boudreaux sniffed sharply. Ordinarily behavior like this was enough to murk her, resisting arrest, feared for my life, no charges. If he wanted. But he wasn’t one of those bad apples, he thought to himself, he was a good cop. He pulled on his amphetamine vaporizer, watched her ride off through the gathering fog and his own vape cloud and shook his head as he marked the gig completed.

***

Once she was out of range of the ratfucking classtraitor cop, Jess dismounted and started pushing the bike down Banks towards Angela Davis Parkway. She didn’t like the way the weight on the rack was making the back wheel judder. As she walked, she went through her mental Rolodex wondering who might have the couch and patience to spare to host her tonight. It was far too late at night to get into the shelters, she knew that much. There were always flophouses, but they kept getting busted and reopened somewhere else like whack-a-mole. Couldn’t keep track of them, you had to know someone. Most of the folks from work would still be out at the bars; one of them might be able to help. She didn’t want to owe any of them anything, though. She was tolerated at work, but she didn’t feel like she was close enough to any of them to ask a favor like this.

She didn’t have a lot of friends left in the city who had their own place. The ones who’d gone straight, gone to college, got jobs as secretaries, vet techs, coders, they all moved out to the outer ring burbs in Mississippi or Abita Springs to afford the rent. Everyone else like her, the line cooks, bartenders, e-cab drivers, they’d been kicked out of progressively smaller and rattier houses and apartments and moved into cramped shared warehouses or dark, dirty squats.

Meanwhile, the houses got used as vacation rentals, Amazon logistics substations, film sets, automatic e-bodegas, pieds–à–terre for traveling millionaires who visited twice a year for conferences, or, mostly, sat empty and slowly rotted as they were traded on 24–hour commodities exchanges as part of more and more complex derivatives, such that literally nobody knew who owned any one house at any given time or who to complain to when a pipe burst and flooded the house or the security alarm went off all day and all night long. Literally anything but a home.

Jess felt under the seat. Her toolkit was still stowed there, lockpicks included. If she broke into one of the commodity houses, she’d at least have somewhere reasonably secure to stay till morning. Then again, there’d be no power, no water, and definitely no wifi. Never knew who might be staying there already. There was a chance the security system still worked, and she didn’t need to get on the cops’ radar again tonight.

She hoisted the duffel onto her back and hopped back on the bike as she turned onto the bike path towards the Lafitte Greenway. The name was ironic now, the beautiful parkway lawns next to the bike path having returned to brown wiregrass and sedge from neglect since privatization and frequent flooding.

The corporation formed to purchase the city’s main grade–separated bike paths had promised improvements, extensions, better maintenance, rest areas, more rental city–bikes, but after the company’s board of directors was indicted en masse for embezzlement, all that remained of their efforts were a few haggard bike–repair stations and randomly spaced tire-shredding spike strips that were meant to retract automatically if you had a pass on your bike that showed you’d pre–paid the toll. A few people knew how to flash their passes to show a balance of $65,536, enough for years of riding, but she didn’t have the gear for that and anyway some of the strips had rusted open. Wasn’t so bad if you knew where they were, you just got in the other lane and rolled over the ones aimed the other way. It became muscle memory, like dodging the ever-growing potholes.

Where the path she was on met the Greenway in a bike path roundabout, she stopped and sat on one of the benches to reckon. She could just see Bayou St. John from there. The water level was high today, worrying since it hadn’t rained for a couple weeks and a big cold front was on the way. After sitting for a minute, the full weight of the night hit her and her whole body suddenly felt very heavy. Her hand drifted, out of habit, to the knife on her hip as her head started to bob and jerk to the rhythms of her fleeting consciousness. She tried to focus and enumerate the things she needed to do. Thing one, find a place to crash for a couple days. Failing that, find a safe place to stow her duffel and repack the barest essentials into her panniers. Then go to work early, change in the bathroom, clean up at the sink, have a quick bump to get up to speed after this hell of a night. Then start breaking down hogs for the day, checking in the seafood delivery, scaling and cleaning the fish. Sort the rabbits into the right cages for the red queen. Try to get a line on somewhere to live. Call up Steven Colbert and find out if his mother liked sugar in her tea. Study for the calculus exam in French.

***

Shit. That didn’t make sense. She’d fallen asleep in public again. Not a wise move ever, especially for someone like her, especially at this time of night and in her state. She willed her resentful body into wakefulness, starting with her breathing, then her toes and fingers, then finally her head, just as she began to understand that someone was speaking to her.

“What’s a little lady like you doing here at this time of night?”

Jess drew her knife and quickly stood, revealing her full height of six foot two, something that had always bothered her but did come in handy sometimes. She had a full two heads over her interlocutor, who wore a flannel bathrobe, pajama pants and fuzzy slippers. They had a shaved head and gauged earlobes and they carried a coffee mug in their hand.

“Fuck’s it to ya?” she said in the deeper ranges of her voice, ranges that creaked from disuse. It sucked doing that, set off a whirl of dark thoughts at the back of her mind she’d pay for later, but she’d let herself get caught unawares and wanted every advantage she could muster.

“Easy, tiger, just didn’t think you meant to fall asleep there. Figured I might try and wake you before something went sideways.”

Jess relaxed her shoulders but kept her knife drawn.

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Hm. Aw right.”

The person in the bathrobe looked Jess up and down, then her bike. Not knowing what was expected of her now, and sincerely hoping to wind up the conversation and get on the road, Jess quietly cleared her throat. To her surprise, they sat down on the bench next to her, pulled a bag of voodoo-flavored chips out of their bag, and patted the bench next to them.

“You’re having a rough night. Have some chips. Powerful magic in these.”

She was too hungry to argue, so she and her guest on the bench shared the chips in a loud, crunching silence. After a while, she cleared her throat again and started, “What are you-”

“Eat, eat,” they replied charismatically, and Jess was too bemused to argue. When the chips were finished, they made the sign for “telephone” with their hands. Jess pulled her phone out of her pocket, and the stranger wrapped the phone in a tile of soundproofing foam and stuffed it in the chip bag.

“Faraday cage. Never leave home without one.”

“Is that the powerful magic? That’s just electromagnetism.”

“Close enough. I’m Drood,” they said, offering their hand.

“Jess.”

“Just evicted?”

“How-”

“That’s a big bag for that cargo rack. Girl like you knows your way around a bike. Saddlebags, scarring and premature hyperpigmentation on your shins, chain grease stains on your socks. Bag’s too heavy for that rack and you know it. You left in a hurry.”

Jess sighed. “I just had that place for a month, too.”

“Hmm. It’s going around. Least you got a steady job, most people out here gigging anymore.”

Jess looked at Drood, one eyebrow raised in a world-weary expression that belied her renewed confusion.

“You work in kitchens — knife roll’s sticking out of your bag. And that dent on your left arm. Repeated low-grade burns from doing the same damn thing over and over. I’d say leaning on the flashing in front of a grill. The same grill. Steady job.”

“All right, Sherlock, what’s the winning lottery number?”

“I’m not a wizard,” they said, with a smirk that strongly implied they might be a wizard. “Look, you can crash at my spot for a minute, I’m just in the old hospital over there. But the phone stays in the chip bag while you’re with me. I’m not trying to be on anyone’s grid, you heard me?”

“Gotcha,” Jess said, wary but thankful to have anywhere to crash out.

“You do this a lot? Pick up down and out strange girls and bring them home?” she asked when they’d been walking for a while. “What’s your angle?”

“Now and then, if I can,” Drood said. They fixed her with a meaningful look and said “I just figure folks like us, ain’t quite like other folks, got to stick together, you know? Solidarity kind of thing.”

***

The first light of day glowed in the doorway and a stovetop percolator burbled somewhere as Jess woke up in a four-poster bed, surrounded by gauzy curtains, in the center of a large, tiled operating theater. On one wall, salvaged pharmaceuticals sat next to jars of herbs and tinctures, next to spices and oils and a whole pantry of dry goods. On another were rows of different-sized bookshelves, filled with yellowing volumes on any number of subjects, law, botany, psychology, self-help.

“Do you eat eggs?”

“Mmmm,” Jess said, blinking.

“Come now. We’re not stewing in self-pity today, there’s too much to do.” She swung her legs over the bed and was surprised to see Drood cooking breakfast at a household Amana stove, in the middle of the hospital. A tangle of pipes and wires and hoses came out from behind the stove, stretching into the hallway to who knows where, and she willed herself not to pay that detail too much attention.

“How do you have-”

“Oh, you know, I’m a bit of a scavenger. You’d be amazed what you can find just out by the side of the road, or sitting there in an empty house with the front door barely locked at all.”

Not wanting to be a bad houseguest, she let that go without comment and gestured to the book shelf.

“You read all these?”

“Lots of them, yeah. Some of those are just for reference — I don’t have the Louisiana Revised Statutes for bedside reading. Not much of a plot there.”

“So what do you do that you have all these?”

“I get by. Some of the stuff I find, I fix it up and trade it away, for eggs, or books, or even that very comfortable mattress you’re still sitting your lazy ass on. Come and wash some of these dishes so we can eat. You’ve got to get ready for work.”

***

Boudreaux handed over a plastic bag full of styrofoam containers and thanked the customer effusively, waiting just long enough to accept a tip if they cared to give him one but not so long that it seemed like he was implying that he wanted it. No dice. Cheap fucks, he thought to himself. But he liked food delivery, it was more pleasant than cop work and didn’t come with the same questions as chauffeuring. His fares usually got skeevish when they saw his tac gear lying around the passenger seat.

He was debating an assignment putting together a bookshelf for a yuppie downtown versus catching a quick forty in his cruiser when the phone jangled with a notification from the iCop app. Weird, he’d clocked out of that one. Special assignment, red ball. Theoretically optional, but he could lose his commission if he turned it down and the Algorithm de-rated him. He groaned and opened it to find a mugshot of the girl from last night.

“Wanted for non-payment of eviction fees and for overdraft. Penalty $600 fine and payment of fees due. Capture alive,” it read.

Boudreaux hit the elevator button and took a deep pull off his amfeta-vape. Long day. About to get longer.

***

From her position at the grill in the open kitchen, Jess had an expansive view of the dining room with its exposed ductwork, high ceilings, Edison-bulb chandeliers made of old mule-cart wheels, and triptych of blue dog paintings. Good ole boys in their polo shirts, laughing together as they mocked the servers behind their backs. Grand Uptown dames, in hats and pearls. Conference-goers with their lanyards still around their necks, nervously asking the servers if the crawfish étouffée could be made vegan. The host at the front talking to a ‘roided-out dude in a tight black t-shirt. A Punisher t-shirt. “Shit,” she said under her breath, just as he turned to peer toward the kitchen.

“Off line! Bathroom!” she called to the expeditor, and ducked into the back hallway before they had a chance to object. She tossed her apron and chef’s coat aside, grabbed her bag from her locker, and took off running out of the back door. Shooing the bussers smoking on milk crates away from her bike, she tied her bandanna over her face to hide it from police cameras’ facial recognition software and took off down the back alley.

Horns honked and a streetcar rang its bell at her as she pulled onto St. Charles, narrowly missing several collisions. She bobbed and weaved through traffic until she could juke right onto the Lafayette Avenue pedestrian mall, across from the square. No sign of that cop yet but he had to be looking for her and so did the police-intel neural net plugged into the traffic cameras, cop dashcams, and surveillance drones throughout the city.

Masking was illegal this far from Carnival and she knew she looked suspicious in her bandana and chef pants. Had to find a place to hide long enough to change. She pedaled harder, crossed Loyola between the office-worker lunchtime traffic, and headed for a giant hotel parking garage. On the second floor, she crouched down between electric cars at their charging stations, took off her bandana, and started to strip off her chef pants.

“Hey! You can’t pee here!” said a security guard, and she jumped to her feet.

“I wasn’t-“ she started.

The security guard considered her full frame, her angular shoulders and jaw, and blushed. “I—hey, sorry, listen, I know a spot you can pee. I know it’s hard, being—um—being you, and all. Look, I got a friend who’s a—”

Over his shoulder, Jess saw a police camera drone hover up outside the garage, then another, then another. How’d they find her? Her attention fixed on the backup camera of the car across the aisle. Of course it was networked. Shit.

“Don’t worry, I won’t pee in your pool, buddy,” she said, as she grabbed her bike and hurried to the stairwell.

In the stairwell, she changed into her jean shorts and hurriedly used eyeliner, concealer and lipstick to improvise a dazzle camouflage that would hopefully confuse the facial recognition of the cop net and buy her some time while still looking like she was just a geek going to some kind of con. To add to the effect, she pulled out a keychain lanyard from her bag and clipped her Winn-Dixie card to it.

She thought back fondly to her high school girlfriend, who’d gone with her to the drugstore and taught her how to shoplift makeup. Of course, she didn’t shoplift these days. Couldn’t afford the risk anymore. The trick had been to look like you were shopping in earnest, walk with confidence, act like you belonged as you performed the sleight-of-hand. Basic tradecraft stuff. Taught her how to blend in when you didn’t fit in.

***

A thunderclap outside brought Jess sharply back to the present and the surprise of the noise knocked her down. She fell, awake, crumpled like a ragdoll in the corner. Cataplexy, her doctor called it. She was like a fainting goat, conscious but too weak to move, something like a waking sleep paralysis. “Fucking junkies,” a hotel guest in a suit muttered as they stepped over her. She strained to groan a slow “fffuck offff” in response, but he was already gone.

Deep breaths. This’ll pass. She took roll call of her body. Eyes, unfocused but open. Blinking? Check. Arms present but immobile. Legs same. She tentatively wiggled her toes. Ok, toes online. Fuck shit fuck she didn’t have time for this, that guard’s gonna hear from the cop net and come back looking for me, she thought before realizing she could lose it again if she worked her self up. All right, om or whatever. She moved her right thumb in a circle over her fingers in the “world’s tiniest violin” gesture until she could move her whole arm, flopping it limply against her thigh, harder and harder until she got her legs back too. She stretched and stood up, pulling on the handrail with all her concentration, then took a few wobbling steps to her bike. Lifting it on her shoulders, she took a few deep breaths and started down the steps.

On her bike was where she felt safest, most powerful. She’d never yet fallen out on her bike, for one. She gunned it down Loyola in the diamond lane, swerving around the Sunday-driver bike tours and lumbering RTA buses. Being on the move was always better than hiding and waiting, she thought, even if she was more exposed. She knew she was riding recklessly, that if she got doored like this, no helmet, going top speed, it was curtains. But she was in more control than anywhere else, the bike responding to subtle shifts in her weight like an intuitive partner. Drivers here never used their turn signals so she’d developed a sixth sense for when a car was about to dart out across the lane and make a turn they hadn’t planned ahead for.

The rising wind whipped the sailcloth shades over the bus stop by Common as Jess felt the first tentative drops of rain on her face. Thunder rumbled in the distance, low and long. Cold front was coming. Better head back to Drood’s to get dry and plan the next move.

***

Steam curled up from their mug of tea as Drood considered Jess’s story.

“Well. It seems you’re a full-on outlaw now,” they said with a smile.

“It’s not funny!” she said, slapping the table. “What am I going to do?”

Drood leaned over the hot tea and breathed in deeply. “Well, you’re in good company. Or did you think I keep the habits I do because I’m eccentric?”

Jess knew better than to answer that.

“When you’re like us, the system finds ways to make you illegal. They didn’t have to ban us outright. They just had to make it next to impossible to live on the straight and narrow if you’re neither of those things. So we find ways to live as outlaws.”

“Okay but-“

Drood was already rummaging through this drawer and that, packing their backpack with seemingly random supplies.

“Which means that we have community. I know people that can help you. There’s a code witch down the way who can help you see what the cops are seeing about you. We’ve got safe houses where you can stay.”

“I don’t really have any money right now-”

“Community. Means we take care of each other, such as we can. Plus you can cook and you’re good with bikes. You’ll find ways to pay your way eventually.”

Jess frowned. “Okay. First, I better go to the bathroom. Tea’s going right through me.”

Drood gestured toward the bathroom door with a slight bow.

This is too easy, she thought, looking in the mirror. No way this person wants to do all this for nothing. Plus they said they’re some kind of criminal? But they won’t say what kind. She fished her phone out of her bag and searched for “drood new orleans,” “drood criminal record,” “drood serial killer.” No promising results. Who were they? Then the phone shook, sounded a blaring weather alert tone, and said in a computery voice: NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TORNADO WATCH ISSUED FOR ORLEANS PARISH. She shushed the phone frantically, wrapped it back in the foam, and stuffed it in her bag. When she opened the bathroom door, Drood was standing right in front of it.

“Jessica Mason, what is the one thing I asked of you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Never take that thing out of that bag around me! You come to my door with heat on your tail, fine, okay. You got no resources, no plan, okay, I got friends, I got favors I can call in. But you give the System a bright red blinking arrow pointing at my front door? You gotta go, kid, and you gotta go now.”

The entirety of what she was missing out on hit Jess like a bucket of cold water and, despite herself, she started to cry. “What am I supposed to... where am I gonna go?”

Drood sighed heavily and their face warmed for a moment. “Look, that’s got to be something you figure out now. That’s the deal you made. I’m no help to nobody if I’m up at the Farm. Now please, get out of here before I have to start insisting.” As they said that last, they patted the revolver on their hip.

***

Way to go, Jess, she thought to herself as she pulled out onto Bienville. Kicked out of two places in two days. A new personal best. The rain was coming down stronger now and she pulled her hood tight to keep it out of her eyes. At least the camera drones won’t be flying in the rain. Down the street, towards Carrollton, she saw a black SUV turn on its flashing red light and siren. Time to book it.

She swung left on the Angela Davis trail towards the roundabout. The bayou was swollen with the rain and looked a sickly grey-green from the dim reflected sky. Behind her, the SUV had pulled up onto the path and was screaming toward her. She made to turn left at the roundabout, then suddenly braked and leaned hard to the right to pass between three metal statues in the island at the center. The cop car passed the statues on the left and spun out in the muddy grass as she headed toward Broad on the Greenway.

Pumping her legs as hard as she probably ever had, she ducked around the familiar potholes and spike strips as the black SUV rolled up onto the path behind her. The thunder was getting louder and more constant, and her phone blared the weather service warning tone again in her pocket. She could hear the engine’s throaty revving as the cop caught up to her, but she didn’t dare look back. The wind was finally behind her and she felt a strange euphoria as it pushed her forward, no plan, no anxiety only fear only now only surviving.

“Police!” came a voice over the loudspeaker. “Stop the bicycle and surrender!” Jess made the OK sign with her left hand, then held it down by her thigh in an immature gesture.

Over the now howling wind, she heard pops that sounded like gunshots as the SUV’s tires finally gave out from the damage incurred by the spike strips and the cruiser skidded over the pavement. As she turned to look with a superior grin, her front wheel dipped into a new pothole and threw her from the bike. The SUV ground to a stop and the cop was standing over her, gun drawn and aimed straight at her forehead, by the time she gathered her wits. “You are under arrest by order of the Orleans Parish Sheriff and the Policing Corporation of America,” he shouted.

Time seemed to slow down as Jess took in the situation – she had to find some way out, no way would she go up to the Farm. She noticed that, even in the pouring rain, the cop’s hair was standing straight up as if by magic.

No, not magic.

Electromagnetism.

She braced her arms and kicked the pistol out of his hand, then followed with a sharp right elbow to his crotch as she sprang up into the driver’s seat of the cruiser. She slammed the door shut behind her, locking it as her pursuer started banging on the window with the butt of his gun. She nervously fingered the chip bag in her coat pocket as he shouted at her to open up or be charged with resisting.

A loud crackling surrounded the car, then there was light everywhere and a bang so loud Jess went limp in the seat from surprise. Then the smell of sulfur was all around, and her ears hurt from the sound, and something like a punch happened to her face. She struggled to focus her eyes until she realized that the cruiser’s airbag had explosively inflated in the lightning strike. Moving her hand around the giant cloth balloon, she grabbed her knife from her hip and gently pierced it to release herself.

She felt like shit, but when she saw the cop, she could tell he was worse off. He groaned weakly through the embers of his face and she smelled something like frying meat that turned her stomach. She took his cell phone out of the car, considering for a moment calling for help for him. Someone else would come along eventually. She opened the iCop app and pressed the button labeled “assignment complete.”

***

The sun was down and the rain had slowed to a soft drizzle by the time Jess made it to Hank’s Grocery in the Bywater. Her jacket and bags were soaked through, and she took a second to drip dry a little under the eaves and play with a pit bull on a rope leash tied to the rack. She talked to its owner, a lanky punk who’d just got in town on the Union Pacific, and sold them the bike for more than she expected. She went inside and got a sack of dark meat chicken for a couple bucks, came out, and found a jitneybus driver hanging out in the parking lot that was headed for Bay St. Louis. She knew some folks out there, and as long as she had her knife roll, she could find work. After a circuitous conversation in which neither of them seemed to be particularly trying to bring up money, she talked him down to a fare of twenty bucks if she rode steerage. While she waited, she organized her panniers, now all the possessions she had in the world. She dug out the old gum wrappers, expired condoms, and one empty voodoo-flavor chip bag and dumped them in the trash.

“All aboard, y’all!” he hollered as he shut the doors on the rusting former food truck, packed to the gills with her fellow escapees from the city. Jess surveyed the other riders suspiciously and, satisfied, she put her hand on her knife and let her head drop, lulled by the rocking of the truck. Made it through one more day, she thought. Can’t trust anyone. Just got to live by your wits.

Wake up.

Go on Twitter and see a post from L. She’s in Buenos Aires right now, getting ready for a surgery. She has to fast before the surgery, but she made her mom a Western omelet and posted a picture. She posts pictures of omelets a lot, little one-egg omelets that she makes with a special tiny pan and a tiny whisk. The Internet loves the tiny whisk.

L’s the one who cracked your egg. That’s what they call it online, cracking your egg. You don’t know her, really, but she’s the one who answered your questions and told you that people who aren’t trans don’t usually have those questions, and basically gave you the permission you were looking for to start thinking of yourself as trans. Because you always thought that was for other people, that you didn’t count. There was always an excuse.

You should eat something. It’s been a while since you’ve cooked at home. It’s been a while since you’ve eaten a real meal. The informed-consent clinic doubled your dose of hormones yesterday and if you don’t eat something before you take them they make you feel sick to your stomach. You hate throwing up after you take the pills, it seems like such a waste. They’re not that expensive, but a lot of people go through a lot more than you did to get them.

Think about omelets. You’ve never been much of a cook, but you’ve been on a French omelet kick lately. It’s not that you’re all that good at it yet, but there’s some finesse to it that you’re starting to get the hang of, and you’re pretty proud of it. A plain French omelet is one of the simple joys in this world – two or three eggs, butter, salt. Lots of butter. Crepe thin, not in a half-moon shape but a delicate little roll that you have to tease out of the tilted pan onto the plate just so. And it doesn’t take many ingredients to make.

Which is good, because you don’t have many. You’ve got two eggs in the fridge, plenty of butter, some onions you can sauté. Take the egg carton out of the fridge and check the expiration date. Try to remember today’s date without looking it up. Whatever, it sounds right. Leave the eggs on the counter for a while. You read somewhere—Lucky Peach?—that it’s better to let eggs get to room temperature before you cook them. You used to read a lot about cooking, even if you didn’t do it a lot. You used to read. What do you even do with your time anymore? Where does it go?

Chop up half a small white onion into small little square guys. Diced? You don’t exactly know the words.

Realize your house is a mess. You’ve been drinking more again lately. Stumbling home drunk after hours at the bar next to work, staying at the bar long after the conversation stopped being interesting, eating chicharrones and fried pies from the gas station. Gather up the clothes off the floor and throw a load in the wash. The last time you had anybody over, she said your house was, like, obsessively clean. The last time you had anybody over was a long time ago.

(The last time you had anybody over, you still thought you were a boy.)

(Man.)

Throw the last of the olive oil into the nonstick pan you bought at Walgreens last winter, back when you had a better job and twenty bucks for an as-seen-on-TV nonstick pan was an impulse buy that wouldn’t have you kicking yourself for a week. The pan’s one of those “red copper” nonsticks. It works differently than the other nonstick pans with the circle in the middle that glows red, the ones you finally talked your ex into throwing out because the nonstick layer was peeling up and you were sure you could taste it in the food. It’s actually well designed for such a cheap piece of shit, with a handle that looks like an Italian skillet and a lip that’s perfectly shaped for sautéing.

Add a little canola oil to stretch the olive oil out. Tell yourself it’s to raise the smoke point. Since leaving home, you’ve never lived somewhere with a real vent fan in the kitchen, just those shitty hoods that recirculate the air in the kitchen, so every time you cook you’re afraid it’s going to set off the smoke detector. One apartment you lived in had a smoke detector that automatically called the fire department one time. You ate a lot of cereal and take-out in that apartment.

Turn on the gas stove, to somewhere around medium. This stove runs hot on three out of the four burners. Or eyes, as the guys in the kitchen at work call them. The fourth one is piddly and unfortunately it’s on the front left, which for some reason is the corner you always try first. Move the pan to the front right, turn the burner on for real this time. Wait for the oil to heat up. While you wait, wash some of the dishes that have been sitting around the house, waiting for you to have the energy to wash them.

You can tell the oil’s ready to go when the surface just starts to shimmer, or when you can wet your fingers with water, flick them at the pan like a witch dispersing a magical powder, and watch the water skip over the surface and sizzle away. There’s probably a little too much oil in the pan. Oh well. Tilt the cutting board and scrape the onions into the pan with the edge of the knife. Shake the pan a little to get the onions to spread out. Turn the heat down just a touch.

Remember you should get the eggs ready. Get your mixing bowl and your whisk. Open the egg carton and realize the only two eggs left are both cracked. Toss them out, after debating for longer than you’d like to admit whether you ought to give them a shot anyway.

Shit.

Shake the pan again to loosen the onions up. Here’s the part you love, the only flashy cooking skill you ever picked up. The word sauté is French for “to jump,” and you’ve finally got the three-part motion down: tilt the pan forward and down, to send the ingredients coursing toward the lip of the pan, then when the wave is just about to crest the lip, abruptly tip the pan up and back, to send the swarm of onions in a graceful arc back toward you, then center the pan under the mass and gently bring it down to soften the landing, like the motion of a catcher’s mitt. Think about the sous chef at your last job who took the time to explain it to you, who told you to practice flipping just a single slice of bread, then uncooked beans, before moving on to real food. He used to hang out with you guys, drinking beer after you’d shut the place down, smoking cigarettes and talking about his days as a young punk in Atlanta in the 90s. Wonder what he’s up to these days, after the hotel restaurant he left that job to run folded.

If you had fresh garlic, you’d add that to the pan, too, but you don’t, so add a couple dashes of garlic powder. Because it’s powdered, and it won’t really mix well with the onions and the oil, and the comparatively large surface area of the powder grains means it’ll burn faster, you’ll add it a lot later than if you had fresh garlic. Toss in some herbes de Provence, why not? You read somewhere that in Provençal cooking, they don’t really use lavender, that’s a gauche American addition. Feel ashamed for a second, then smell the jar again and feel bad for anyone who cares so much about authenticity that they wouldn’t use this jar if it was in front of them. Lavender’s cool. Shake the pan again and lower the heat to buy yourself a little time to think.

Look in the fridge. Got some condiments, some butter and the other half of the onion. In the pantry there’s some rice, some spaghetti, and some oatmeal. You were really in the mood for breakfast. Well, hell with it, savory oatmeal’s a thing, right? Get the oatmeal out and set your kettle to boil. It’s the copper kettle with the gooseneck spout that you bought at the little used kitchenware store that used to be in your neighborhood before it moved uptown last year, over next to the wine shop the size of a supermarket.

A lot of the stuff in your kitchen is from there. A lot of it was left behind by old roommates and ex-girlfriends. You’re 31 and never married, so none of it is from the Macy’s housewares department. None of it is from Williams-Sonoma. You remember cutting your last classes on Fridays your senior year of high school, taking the city bus with your friends to the fancy downtown mall with the Barnes & Noble in the basement and the movie theater on top and a Williams-Sonoma in the middle. You spent a lot of time trying free samples and admiring the copper pans and dreaming about having the kitchen in the pictures of their catalog.

Of course, as an adult, you’re more practical. You’d rather have your cast-iron skillet, your cheap Walgreens nonstick, and one good chef’s knife, than all the gimmicky fancy stuff. But you still know that you’ll probably never get anything from Williams-Sonoma, never be given a Margaritaville blender by a rich spendthrift uncle on your wedding day. Your family will have died or abandoned you by the time you find someone who could love you for who you are now.

Pour the hot water over the oatmeal. Leave it covered for about five minutes.

You’re going to be cooking for one for a long time.

Add the onions. Stir. Give it a taste.

This is all right, you guess.