LaRose had trouble finding herself in crowds. That was another thing that was hard to explain to people. Of course she knew that she was always herself; the person whose eyes she could see through, whose ears picked up sounds and whose nose picked up smells. But the beingness of herself got away from her. Not the soul shapes of personalities, which she could choose to see, or the physical sensations that the “feeling” part of emotions, which she would feel by direct contact. It was the other thing. The awareness in everybody that made them think, “yes, I am a person. There is such a thing as a ‘me.’” LaRose had her own being, and she was aware of it. The problem was that she was no less aware of everybody else’s. There was no on or off switch for this.
Alone, this was no problem. In small groups of familiar people she could keep track of which dots of awareness belonged to who. If she got confused at all, she could see the souls, and they would be a bridge between the bodies and the invisible dots of awareness. But in a market, a terminal, a shopping mall, a street full of people… these were not good places to choose to see dozens, if not hundreds, of things that nobody else could see, especially when there was no guarantee that the sight would be pleasant.
So she would forget herself. She would start looking down at her own small brown hands with the same disinterested detachment that she looked at some stranger’s five o’clock shadow. Sometimes she would not shake out of that state until it was time to leave, and Momma was shouting at her with that scared-angry tone to listen and come on. Sometimes Momma would give up, grab the wheelchair from the back and just push her to the car, or the bus, or the trailer or however else they were getting around, and LaRose would recall herself when they were alone. Coming back was like waking up from a nap that had gone on too long, and discovering you had the sniffly nose and tickly throat that warned a sick day was coming. She would feel miserable for hours afterwards.
Another reassurance that she had offered Momma, over and over again, was that Uncle Taylor’s business was too small to create this problem. There were only a handful of customers at any one time, and they were regulars. She would get to know them, so she would know herself. When the most important thing had been to calm Momma, this argument had felt convincing. Now that she had to deal with the reality, it was not so straightforward.
For one thing, while the crowds were small, they were also nearly constant. Uncle Taylor did not have official hours. When the last customer of the night left, he locked up and went to bed. When he woke up, he had breakfast, did chores and caught up on paperwork until someone knocked on his locked door. If he was not feeling unusually grumpy, he let them in, and he was open for business. Sometimes this first customer would come as early as ten or eleven in the morning. Sometimes the last one would not leave until nearly dawn. Even if she stayed inside her room, LaRose could feel their presence, bleeding in through the door. She could focus on a book, work on organizing, or play with Science and Philosophy, but there was still a background noise that she could not fully shut out.
For another, while LaRose could get used to the regulars who came early and stayed late, the ebb and flow of the peak hours was much harder to keep track of. By most standards, it was still a small crowd. But it was the constant entering and leaving of new minds, and the way each one subtly shifted the mood of the bar as a whole. It was a small town, after all, so people had grudges and crushes and gossip and histories that all got dredged up and turned over and reburied, over and over, every single day.
After two weeks of this, LaRose decided to start a garden. It would be in the back, and fenced off. She would grow things that would be useful for Uncle Taylor, like tomatoes and onions for his burgers, and things that she could make into tea, like chamomile and peppermint, and it would also be a garden friendly for birds and butterflies and other pollinators. She could tend to it during those abominably busy hours, and if she ran out of work she would sit and read, until the crowd trickled down to three or four people.
Every few weeks, Uncle Taylor locked up the bar and went into town for supplies. As much as he could, he avoided it. When she first asked to go with him, his first thought was to ask her if she wanted to use the pool. After that first day, he had avoided bringing up the subject of taking her swimming, and although she knew he would take her if she ask, she avoided asking. She told herself that when she was more settled, she would. It was not as though she hadn’t gone weeks without it before. Not every one of Momma’s projects put them somewhere convenient to a pool.
He was embarrassed at not having pushed to find time to take her, which made her feel embarrassed at not having pestered to be taken, and for a moment she was tempted to agree to go swimming just to end the awkwardness. But she pushed it aside, and explained her idea for the garden. He approved, not just in the sense that he was not bothered, but for several moments, something about it made him deeply pleased.
As with all his emotions, that sensation settled quickly back into a stoic equilibrium.
LaRose brought a book, of course. On top of all the other reasons why books were wonderful, in a pinch they were a useful shield. It was like putting on headphones in a crowded bus station. The background noise was still there, but something of your own choosing was closer and louder, and easier to focus on. She would still lose herself, but instead of getting lost in a maze of strangers’ minds she would get lost in the thoughts of an author; the world they created. There was order and symmetry and a knowledge of what came next. It would make things bearable if they ran into crowds.
What surprised LaRose was that they didn’t. As they left the mountain roads and entered the clustered townhouses and single family homes, there were hardly any people outside. It was a Sunday afternoon. No school, no work for most people. The day was a little chilly, but sunny, and up in the mountain there were wildflowers and a few trees still hanging onto blossoms. But the lawns and yards were empty.
LaRose thought about the dusty, un-feeling she had gotten when she had first arrived. Like it was a place that people did not really live. But of course they did. These houses were not abandoned. The lawns were mowed. There were cars in the driveways. Lights were visible through some of the windows. But there was no sign of the marks of living. No sense that the houses were places where people laughed or cried or argued or dreamed.
“Um, Uncle Taylor,” she said.
“Is there something wrong here?”
“What do you mean?”
She was quiet for a while, because she didn’t know what she meant, and she wasn’t sure he would want to know what was bothering her. But even as he drove in silence, he was curious. So she did her best to describe the deadened, un-feeling of the town.
“Weird,” he said. “Far as I can tell, it’s just a small town. Not much happens. That’s probably all it is.”
“Maybe,” LaRose said. But she didn’t think that was right. When people said, ‘not much happens,’ they meant that the only things that happened were things like having children, finding a job, losing a job, getting married, getting divorced, getting remarried, having more children, juggling work with getting the children to school on time, finding the funds for a school trip or a vacation, saving up for college, saying goodbye, waiting for your children to come back for the holidays, hoping they would bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend, worrying because you didn’t approve of them, hearing that your father or mother was getting sick, hearing they were getting worse, having to plan a funeral for them, hearing in the middle of the funeral that one of your children was pregnant and being so mad that they weren’t married yet but so happy that there was going to be another baby in the house… Ordinary life had enough color to paint the Sistine Chapel.