Level Up


Pack one blender: Half a banana, slice of orange, strawberry syrup, ice. Then, ʼcause it’s ninety-eight degrees at the zoo today and the line is ten deep, pack a second and third. Shift your hips, releasing the uniform polo from your lower back.

The Great American Smoothie cart, your minimum-wage job on wheels. Next-to-nothing dollars an hour and all the blender leftovers you can stomach. “Mixed fruit” smoothie—only kind the cart sells. Half a banana, slice of orange, strawberry syrup, ice. They call it a recipe, but that seems too grand a word. You could teach one of the flame-colored tamarin monkeys down the Rainforest Path to make one in five seconds, and even then, its flat black monkey eyes would say, That’s it?

Flick on the three blenders, which you’ve come to think of as Larry, Moe, and Curly. Larry and Curly run slow sometimes, though today they’re keeping up. Moe’s the old reliable—your go-to. You used to watch the Stooges when, as a teen, your mom and stepdad would be at work and you’d babysit your little brother, Jase. After, you’d kneel beside him so he could reach your head and bonk it.

Feel the power as the blades scream through the ice, a sound stretching from the giraffe enclosure to the toucan cage. You’re a one-woman heavy metal band. When the blender contents turn Dubble Bubble pink, grab cups and pour. The work’s so mindless, you can chew over any issue as you do it, like how the first day of classes will go tomorrow, and whether you even remember how to study. Ten years ago, you ran out of money and quit junior college. You started working at a grocery store, an okay job for years—until the chain went out of business and the recession hit. And here you are, twenty-eight years old, in the only job you could find. As gamer Jase might have put it, time to level up and get that bachelor’s.

At eight, when the zoo train makes its final circuit, unplug the cart and wheel it into the storage area. Count out the cash box, peeling apart the stuck-together bills. Give the Three Stooges a wipe. All through Jase’s funeral three months back, sitting among the good-for-nothing meth-head stooges he’d fallen in with, you kept hearing nyuk nyuk nyuk, which made things both more and less awful. His new friends were scabby, just like he’d become toward the end, age eighteen.

Run a soapy cloth down the cart, then follow with a second. Fingerprints are all over the metal, as they are throughout the zoo, where kids have spent the day running from exhibit to exhibit, touching bars and fences.

Drop off the deposit bag. Arrive at the bus stop for the 22. Ignore the guy in the Orioles tank who’s announcing what he’d like to do to you tonight. There’s a whistle in your backpack. You’ve got brass knuckles too, a half-joke from Jase, years earlier. Even if he was ten years younger, Jase looked out for you.

Cross the street, walk to the stop for the 46, and claim one corner of the Plexiglas enclosure. Check that the guy hasn’t followed. Put in your ear buds, turn up the Violent Femmes—you’re old school—and watch for the bus.

When the 46 rolls up, show your pass to the driver. Suck in the air conditioning, be glad the bus is empty. Unzip your backpack, check out the school supplies you bought at lunch. Uncap a Sharpie and write your name on the cover of a notebook. If it weren’t for Jase dying, you probably wouldn’t have registered for classes. He’d been the smart one, the one your mom and stepdad imagined would be first in the family to graduate from a four-year college. All those hours with Grand Theft Auto were just what he did when he wasn’t at the books. He’d be a doctor or lawyer or something else that made people go ahhhh.

Pray the classes go well. Really do it—pray for a second. Tomorrow, you have Marketing Communications and an accounting class. You’re thinking you’ll study business, same as when you were at junior college, but who knows. At the moment, and until you find a better job, you’re still the Great American Smoothie girl.

Look out the window. Think, This is the sunset on the day before I went back to school. This is the sunset on the day before my new life started. The sunset is pink flecked with orange, just like the smoothies. The resemblance is either poetry or a plain old joke. Tomorrow, you’ll start to find out.

Elisabeth Dahl is a Baltimore-based writer. Her shorter pieces for adults have been published by NPR.org, Post Road, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, and other outlets and journals, and she has received a grant in fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her first book, an illustrated novel for children entitled Genie Wishes, was published by Abrams Books in 2013. She has a bachelor’s in English from Johns Hopkins and a master’s in English from Georgetown.