Hamilton Stone Review #19
...So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing. How does one start at the beginning, if things happen before they actually happen? If before the pre-history there already existed apocalyptic monsters? If this history does not exist, it will come to exist. To think is to act. To feel is a fact—-it is me who is writing what I am writing. God is the world. The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate, and impossible to define..."
—-THE HOUR OF THE STAR, by Clarice Lispector
"If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?"
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (1860-1935)
Inside the locked ward on Payne Whitney’s fifth floor, Lilly stepped onto a steel platform. The examination room was harshly lit, the bulbs behind plastic squares on the ceiling— fluorescent and burning. The metal examining table sparked from too many electric darts and moonbeams.
It was an April evening, in 1974. The city’s night lights streaming in from the window would have been enough to illuminate the room, Lilly thought. The arrows of moon pierced her blue-jeaned legs.
"You’re a dark girl." The nurse said. "You look a little like Patty Hearst. Lillian, is that your name?"
Lilly nodded, staring up at the large woman who confused her. The nurse fisted her hands, big as a serviceman’s, glossy nailpolish shining on her nails, reddish-brown like her long hair. The nurse was sturdy and strong, her copious breasts bulging under a tight blue tank top.
Lilly was a mess of unbrushed hair and pale features, the odor of imported Italian sardines in olive oil on her stained Tee-shirt. I want to rest now, she wished. She turned to stare out into the darkened evening. A spring rain was slanting on the pane behind the metal bars.
"We're going to keep you here in the hospital with us a little while," The nurse said. "I'm going to examine you, Lillian. My name is Beverly."
"It's just routine. Nothing elaborate."
"That's not possible."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I can't be examined."
"Dear, all of us can be examined."
A sheet of thin white paper was pulled all the way down to the metal stirrups, attached to the base of the examining table.
"Lie down on your back now, Lilly."
Out the window, a soft indigo veiled the sky; the wind swirling, incessant. Lilly eased herself down, flat on her back. The cool air was a wet cloth slapped on Lilly's forehead. But, her breathing was short, panicked.
"I need you to squish yourself down further on the table here, Lillian." Beverly said.
"Did I frighten him?" Lilly asked her.
"Who do you mean, Lilly?"
"The doctor who spoke with me in the interviewing room."
"Oh, heavens. It would take a lot to frighten Dr. Burkert."
"But is that why I'm here?"
"Howard Burkert's one of our best third-year residents. No, no. You didn't scare him. Dr. Burkert thinks you're really feeling some discomfort in your pelvic area. We need to know whether you have a physical problem, or if it's something else."
Stretched out on the examination table, Lilly wondered again if there were an abnormality in her sex, a cyst there, a tumor—. Maybe she was pregnant.
Her boyfriend, Mitchell, was gone.
Lilly read about body delusions. She learned, too, after her father had come home from the hospital three years ago from his long coma, the extent in which a mind could reinvent its former world, house a whole alternate universe of worlds.
Maybe Beverly and Dr. Burkert didn’t know yet about her father’s two cerebral strokes, his coma, his altered mind. Or his brain-damaged condition.
Five hours ago, it was freezing inside the emergency triage cubicle at New York Hospital. The winter heater must have shut down too early for April. When they took Lilly into the procedure room, they gave her a furry wool blanket and she had stopped shivering.
Let the tears in my eyes tell them a story, she thought. She practiced her story: Her father got sick; her family are strangers. Her boyfriend Mitchell left her. She would leave out the practice of alchemy which was obsessing her. The alchemical symbols of trees and phalluses which were populating her imagination with images of fire from old Hebrew texts in the basement of her parent’s house. She feared the hospital staff would discover she was hallucinating the unnatural bulb between her thighs, that she was really delusional, if she mentioned alchemy. It would make them put her away. And she wanted to stay a few days in the hospital to rest. Because the building is nice. This hospital is for the people recovering from unrequited love affairs, she thought. But the delusional cases, where were they put? She wondered. She didn’t want to find out.
Lilly remembered lying supine on the trolley in the emergency room a few hours ago, and the apparatus, like a gas mask strapped onto her nose and mouth, delivered the fumes which forced her into cloudiness. It was all she remembered about her stomach pumped, besides the brackish brown, sweet syrup the emergency physician handed her to drink. It made her convulse, and vomit. She remembered taking the Librium pills and drinking the pint of Johnnie Walker Red. Two hours earlier, before her roommate, Jane, brought her to the ER.
Like a sleepwalker guided by a seeing-eye dog; she let Jane take her arm. And then, Lilly plunged forward into a taxi, accepting Jane’s warm body against her. The whiskey felt good coursing through her system with the relief that she hadn’t consummated the suicide. She had a love disease of flammability; love was dangerous or yearning. Intimacy made her feel as though her bowels were crying out. Everything inside her was as fragile as the web a spider spins on a tree branch in the midst of a forest-fire. This is why she tried to die. She was burning up.
"Wait a minute. " The nurse was looking down at her now, shaking her head. "I need to get another pair of latex gloves for this. It’s going to be fine, Lillian. Please stay on the table. There’s a hospital aide right outside the door. I won’t be a minute."
When Lilly was alone, she looked around the sterile room. Then she put her hands on herself. The strange bulb was still there, nested beneath the zipper of her jeans.
First, Lilly imagined she had transformed. When she first discovered the bulb, it was like a dream, but she was awake when she found it. This was a few months ago.
Late fall. Her boyfriend Mitchell was still in her life. He was making her dinner that evening. The steam from the boiling beef cubes was rank as old bologna. In the bedroom, she heard Mitchell swearing at the frying pan where the cream and butter and beer were crackling. She donned Mitchell’s bathrobe, and passed her roommate’s, Jane, bowl of unshelled peanuts on the dining alcove table wishing Jane was there instead of Mitchell. But Jane was out, at school.
"We’ll eat later," Mitchell said, when he saw her appear. He turned off the stove and walked closer to her and opened the bathrobe, running his hands lightly over her breasts.
"Dig it," he whispered. Then he took her hand and she let him pull her into the bedroom. He sat down on the wood-framed bed which the Italian couple before them had left behind. The bedposts were painted a gaudy gold like the cheap bureau. Lilly could not see the moon from her room, as she could now lying on the examining table—heavy drapes had hung from bent tin curtain poles precariously strewn across the upper window frame. Mitchell pulled her across his knees on her back. She was lying startled, face up staring into his moustache, and then she felt his hands on her sex and by then she was edging off him, and onto her back on the bed.
He unzipped his white sailor pants, started undoing his belt.
His fingers were beautiful, like marble stones tipped with mica, but then they raked at her sides as he gently positioned himself on top of her; each of his hands clasped onto her ribs. He was a small; soft-muscled man and she felt too fierce under him. She pushed at his chest. He slunk off her. She could sense Mitchell’s letdown, an attractive man like Mitchell could get any woman, Lilly thought, her own face was always so tense, it burned. She was lumpy and inadequate.
Lilly lay still now beside him under the sheets, naked except for her panties. Mitchell didn’t ask her to remove them. He tried once more to caress her, but it hurt when he pressed her breasts. When Mitchell’s body pressed on her; it made her breasts feel like a toothache.
"I’m sorry," she said as he stopped touching her.
"Lilly," His eyes were spacey; an emptiness in his voice. "This situation is getting very intense," h e said.
She wished to be warm and oblivious, taken into a delirium such as a protected child feels on a winter’s night, when someone very large and enveloping is responsible for her well-being. Responsible, too, for her life and death, and the molecules inside her which might explode from her desire to be loved so overwhelmingly. Her wish was a kind of lust, hungrier than any other she felt. She might settle for being cared for and chastised, her body’s yearnings had become primitive, insatiable.
Lilly shuttered her eyes closed and listened to sounds of the cold slum night outside as Mitchell slept. The street noises below them were muffled by the half-shut window, but she heard a drunken bum stranded outside the locked door of The Salvation Army Shelter, wheezing and wailing.
Mitchell reached for her again after an hour. Maybe aroused, she had thought, by his own dreams. He pulled at her hair, she knew he was trying to caress it, but his pull only hurt her again. Still, she would have let him have her that night as he tried again in his half-sleep, rolling on top of her. But, he read her body like a traffic sign even barely awake and drove off, redirected back into whatever he was dreaming, desiring before he moved to her.
He rolled onto his right side, his back to her.
Lilly looked away, to the window. The bum was still crying somewhere down the street, and his plaintive noise made her feel, somehow, that she wasn’t all alone. Then her own fatigue overtook her and she finally fell into a restless sleep.
Mitchell got up before Lilly the next morning. He dressed quietly, quickly, and left the apartment very early. The sun was already risen, the milkman was delivering bottles to the Salvation Army Shelter across the street, cars were gunning their motors to unfreeze the long, cold night’s hold on their engines.
When Lilly rose, she set her alarm clock to time her writing, she had to look for work in the neighborhood before her afternoon classes started at Sarah Lawrence College. But, all of a sudden, Lilly thought she needed to urinate urgently. She pulled down her panties when she got inside the tiny bathroom. The rounded bulb was nestled between her thighs. She thought, first, it was not a part of her but when she put her finger to touch it, it was her own labia swelling into the shape of a large teardrop.
The sensations and the bulb filled her along with the salty bathroom air; the tiles and salmon-pink walls, all bringing her into a wild confusion; a sense of being in and out of reality. And then, she felt too paralyzed in fear to ever remove herself from the bathroom.
Lilly looked back at this as the morning her world changed, the morning she fell apart, and her being, shifting in and out of reality, became so insensible, it ached.
"All right, Lillian," Beverly walked back into the examination room. She clutched a pair of latex gloves inside a packet in her hand. "We need to get on with the examination."
While Beverly opened drawers to the pearl-white cabinets by the door, tossing around some of the instruments inside them, Lilly positioned her head under the ceiling light a little better. She roused up just a tiny bit, so she could make out her own face’s shape and form in a reflection the window threw. The structure of her face looked the same as when she’d checked it yesterday: she had her father’s sallow complexion and dark brown hair, but unlike him, her brown eyes were almond-shaped, her nose neither small, nor large for her face, but ambiguously sized, as if it weren’t fully grown yet. She had her father’s slender build, too. She seemed, to herself, camouflaged inside a well-proportioned but androgynous body—- nothing on her was very large, or matured, or developed.
Beverly lay the gloves inside their packet on a countertop. Then Beverly walked to the sink, turned the faucet on and she made an icing of soap bubbles, cleansing her hands, her wrists, and arms.
When she stopped squirting soap on them from the dispenser on the sink’s rim she rinsed them in a clear stream, flapped her fingers out in the air. Drops of whitish water sprinkled the floor, the sides of the medicine bins and cabinets. She took the gloves out of their torn packet and peeled the rubber gloves onto her clean fingers.
Beverly steeled herself a little before she went to Lilly, a small blue towel in one of her gloved hands.
"What’s going to happen to me?" Lilly asked her. "Can I go home?"
"Are you confused again, Lillian?" Beverly said. "You’re in a psychiatric hospital. You took an overdose of Librium. You’ve been admitted as a voluntary patient. Dr. Burkert saw you for your initial interview, do you remember? You showed signs of extreme pelvic discomfort. He has ordered me to exam you."
"He told me no one would touch me," Lilly said. "Dr. Burkert promised me there wouldn’t be any examination."
"Oh, I doubt that. Perhaps you were mishearing him." Beverly pointed three fingers to the thick leather of Lilly’s belt. "Can you please take your pants down, panties off." She said. Then, more softly, she whispered: "Try, Lilly. Lie back and take the rest of your clothes off now. You can put this towel over you. You’ll feel better. No one’s going to hurt you."
Between Lilly’s legs, the strange inflation--the bulb--undulated. She didn’t trust that it was nothing but she started to pull at her jeans.
"Good, Lilly. Now, take them off."
Lilly undid her blue jean’s leather belt. She would never be able to describe what she felt, but it was absolute now. The bulb between her legs was not of this world, so she was crazy. All indications were that she belonged here, in this hospital, on this mental ward.
Slowly, Lilly pressed her forehead against her knees and forced herself to unbuckle her belt. She was afraid, but she rejected her tears, pulling down on her blue jeans and then lifting up her buttocks, and thrusting the jeans finally off her.
She had to cooperate now, or it could be worse for her, she thought. She grabbed at the thin towel Beverly was dangling, and it scraped across her naked knees as she tried to cover her exposed thighs. Then she saw Beverly had turned her back on her.
The room was suddenly colder—with its awful sterile tools and medical implements—so that when Lilly pulled down her white cotton panties at last, shivering, the air that hit her was like a wind kicking at her skin.
She lay back down on her back, letting her panties drop off the edge of the examination table to the ceramic tiled floor. She lay flat on her back on the metal table and closed her eyes.
The loud shuffling of the nurse frightened her. There were harsh sounds, more drawers opening and shutting. Lilly didn’t understand why the room was darkening until she opened her eyes again and saw Beverly had pulled down the metal shutters of the window. The moonlight and city lights had vanished behind them.
It seemed like seconds passed before Beverly spun around again, to her. "Well, are we ready now?" Beverly glanced at the puddle of Lilly’s clothes on the floor. "Okay, I guess we are, then," she said. "Does anything hurt?" Beverly was asking Lilly now. Beverly’s gloved hand pushing down on Lilly’s abdomen. "We’re exploring externally first," she explained.
From Lilly’s thigh to her navel, the nurse’s right hand repeated its mechanical actions, pressed and released with its heel. "Does this hurt?" Beverly kept asking each time her hand bounced off a spot. "How about here? Do you feel pain anywhere in the back area?"
The room’s light now came from an overhead swing lamp that Lilly hadn’t seen Beverly flick on, its beam lanced Lilly’s groin.
The room was lit, but strange and dark and coffin-like, as in a movie theater
"When you were admitted there were notes about your discomfort," Beverly was saying. "Dr. Burkert just wanted to be sure. Of course, if your pain is hysterical you must use the hospital to explore the reasons why."
The motion of Beverly’s hands stopped and for a long minute she stared straight into Lilly’s eyes.
Suddenly, Lilly couldn’t bear this cold woman in her perfection. Beverly’s voice came to her now in half-sounds.
The mysterious bulb inside Lilly rose, swelling. The same apparition she had seen that day in the bathroom in her Little Italy apartment. Suffocating her in its waves of distress and unwanted heat. Lilly felt herself on the verge of fire.
"Do you know why Dr. Burkert wanted this exam?" Beverly was saying, still talking at her. Then after the silence, Beverly shuffled to the cabinets and counter once again. She started checking the different probing utensils: black electric instruments connected to one long holder fastened to the white wall, the plugs of their coiling black cords pressed into one central outlet. Each of the three instruments resembled a telephone receiver; switched on they served as flashlights.
"I’m going to ask you to slide down more." Beverly gestured with her right forefinger, signaling Lilly to position herself as she came back to the table, flexing her fingers in the gloves.
When Lilly slid her back against the table, she heard the paper tear and she struggled to sit up, but the nurse abruptly grabbed a hold of Lilly’s feet, clasped her ankles, and tugged at her. Pulling out the stirrups, she forced Lilly’s feet into them, leaving a wide spread between Lilly’s thighs and her naked genitals.
Lilly weakly fought to sit up again, but her feet were imprisoned in the stirrups. "I’m not going to argue with you," Beverly said. "I don’t argue with patients. I’m staff, you know." Beverly’s hand was doing what it did before, pressing first on Lilly’s lower abdomen. Beverly had flicked one of the black instruments on, and a red light beeped from its nozzle. "I’m not trying to hurt you, Lillian." She said.
The fingers were somewhere and Lilly helplessly lay her hands, palms up, along her sides. She stiffened, tightening against an unbearable onrushing, a heated current inside her.
There was another silence before Beverly, taking no notice of the reflexive reactions erupting now in the body she was probing, said: "I have to finish this, please stop squirming, for heaven’s sake."
When the darkness came, cloaking and then wrapping Lilly into mute stillness, the tips of Beverly’s rubber-gloved fingers were cold, like winter leaves. But, Lilly’s mind was already crashing behind her. If she could not die she could become a person who had fallen into a certain kind of death, she thought.
She started driving there with her jerks and swallows. Her physical body was hurling torn shreds and pieces of the examination table paper in a tantrum. But, then— she was past her body, as if a space had blown out, taking everything with it into a great expansive nothing, an in-rushing of gas and matter and darkness.
She felt the gloved fingers of the nurse. They were warm now, and brought her into a feeling that some better power was over her, unfolding Lilly into a safe night of protectors and caretakers. Fracture and genesis were happening both at once inside her. First, falling in pieces, she was now coming back into the reality of the room, of her mental breakdown. And then, within seconds, she could feel her body again, as if after a long disemboweling.
Lilly looked up into the eyes of the nurse. Beverly was no longer Lilly’s tormentor. She would help her, Lilly thought, and Lilly would not have to go back, into the outside world. Not for a long while.
My father tries to grab my hand but I shove it in my pocket. It’s my first time walking on a real pier and I want to explore. There are ten different piers at Sheepshead Bay, and all kinds of boats that have funny names printed in ribbon-writing on the sides – Tootsie, Queen Mary-Time, Betsy Bob. Everywhere I turn I see men, with ratty beards, big bellies and slimy rubber boots.
"Are these your friends, Daddy? Where’re the other kids?" Corinne demands.
"How many times do I have to tell you?" Dad yanks my sister’s arm. "This is a grown-up sport."
We walk faster.
We’re going hunting for blue fish. The competition sounds serious. A whole bunch of fishermen get on the same boat, which means it’s a charter boat, and there’s a contest: whoever catches the most fish wins five hundred dollars. Corinne asked Dad if we can go to Disneyworld if he wins, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t want to bring us fishing, but Mom said he had to. We haven’t seen Dad in over three months, and he promised a long time ago to take us this weekend because Mom’s friend is getting married in Pennsylvania and she wouldn’t miss that for the world. I heard her on the phone. She told Dad if he didn’t take us this weekend, she would call the lawyer.
I don’t think we need a lawyer. Probably all we need to do is behave, so Dad remembers how much fun we are. I promised Mom I would keep an eye on Corinne, because she’s only five and sometimes she talks too much and that can be really annoying, especially to Dad. Mom says Dad has a short fuse.
There’s a long line by the Brooklyn VI, and we stand behind two men with really big fishing poles. It figures we’re going to ride a boat with a boring name. But it has two decks, and the name is painted in my favorite color – dark plum.
"Can I hold the purse?" Corinne asks.
Mom let me borrow a gold purse with rainbow rhinestones on the front in exchange for me promising to wear the dumb rubber galoshes Grandma got me for Christmas. They have daisies on them, and I hate flowers. But Mom packed the purse with lots of cool stuff, like gum, granola bars, and watermelon chapstick.
"No." I shake my head hard and make my braid swing. "Mom said I’m in charge of the purse."
"Give it." Corinne grabs at the bag.
"Don’t start," Dad says in a mad voice.
"You’re too little for a purse," I explain, but Corinne doesn’t listen and keeps jumping up to try and snatch it.
"Give your sister the purse, Ellen," Dad snaps. I look down and glare as I surrender the bag.
Corinne smirks when she slips the strap over her shoulder. "Hello, James. Hello, Ellen," she says in a squeaky voice.
I roll my eyes. "That’s not the way women talk. You sound like a mouse."
"Is too," Corinne says.
Dad shakes his head and I put my finger over my lips to remind Corinne to be a good girl and impress our father. But she’s too young to really understand these things. Corinne was only a baby when Dad moved out. She doesn’t remember how mad he used to get at me and Mom for saying stupid things, or forgetting to shut the lights when it was time to go to bed.
The line starts to move and we get to walk across a metal boarding plank with wiggly chains along the sides. I can see the ocean through the metal grates, making little waves below us. Walking the plank feels dangerous, like crossing a drawbridge in the jungle.
"I’m a pirate. Ahoy! Ahoy!" Corinne hops up and down to make it shake.
"Stop bouncing," I scold. "You’re making me sea sick already."
I look at my father. He doesn’t smile, but he nods at me. Dad likes me best when I act grown up. Sometimes, when Corinne falls asleep early, he lets me stay up late and we talk about books. We’re both big readers. I sit on his lap and hold his beer while I explain my opinion on important books, like The Secret Garden and Little Women. But last night, I felt funny. I was wearing a nightgown, and I didn’t want my father to notice that I’ve started shaving my legs.
He hadn’t been in the mood to talk, anyway. Dad ate dinner at his computer, messaging with other fishermen in a fishing chat room. His back was turned, so me and Corinne got to watch whatever we wanted on television. He didn’t even notice us squealing when we found the channel with the naked ladies.
"Daddy? Are bluefish really blue?" Corinne asks when we get in line for our bait bucket. "Like one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish!"
"Black fish, blue fish…" Our father pauses; he wants Corinne to finish.
"Old fish, new fish!" she cries, and pumps her arm in the air.
Dad and I clap, and then he winks at me, because we both know that Dr. Seuss books are baby books.
We’re just starting to have fun, but then our father won’t let us rent poles and we already know we’re not allowed to touch his, so Corinne starts to cry.
"I want to do my own fish," she whines, rubbing her eyes with her fists.
A sweaty man with fingers like salamis squats down in front of Corinne and presses the tip of her nose like it’s a button. "Don’t cry, pumpkin. You can be Daddy’s little helper. Don’t you want to help your Daddy win the big prize?"
"I want to catch my own fish," Corinne says and stamps her foot. "I want to bring it for show and tell."
I laugh so hard I snort. "We don’t get to keep them as pets, stupid. We’re going to rip all their guts out and fry them and make fish sticks and gobble them up." I hope this will make Dad laugh, but it only makes Corinne cry harder.
"Jesus Christ, Ellen," Dad says. He bends over and wipes Corinne’s tears across her cheeks with a crumpled napkin from his pocket.
I look away, and notice Salami Fingers is still standing around. "You been fishing before?" he asks me.
"Of course." I went fishing once, on a camping trip with my cousins. All I caught was stringy green algae, but I don’t say this. I don’t want Dad to think I’m a wimpy little girl, so I say something tough that I heard in a rated-R movie. "I’m no pussy."
Dad’s hand is over my mouth before I have time to shut it. He clamps down so hard the side of his palm presses my lips open wider and rubs against my tongue. His skin is salty and rough.
"You think you’re cute, Ellen?" Dad presses tighter, and it’s hard to breathe, like being under water. "We’ll see how tough you are later, when you kill a fish for me." I stumble when he lets me go.
Corinne holds my hand. She isn’t crying anymore. "No killing allowed," she says, and Dad and Salami Fingers laugh.
Then Salami Fingers offers us a lollipop that has lint from the inside of his pocket stuck to the wrapper. Neither of us take it.
Once Dad gets his bucket, we walk around the deck hunting for a lucky spot. Me and Corinne want to choose, but Dad doesn’t listen and walks fast like he forgot we’re right behind him. I give him the middle finger, but really low, so only me and Corinne can see. I like making my sister laugh.
The Brooklyn VI is filthy – the ground is slippery with pools of water and blood. Dad warned us about this. He said that blue fish are big suckers. Some are as big as baby sharks, and they bleed and ooze a lot. But still, the boat seems pretty cool. It’s like a big roller-skating rink, except even better because it has a cabin in the center and a roof deck. It’s speedy, too. We’re skidding so fast over the waves that water sprays my face, and I open my mouth to try and catch some salty drops. Corinne likes the boat, too. She hops up onto a long plastic bench, just like the benches on the subway, and balances with her arms straight out at her sides. I slow down and walk close to her in case she falls. Our father is far ahead of us.
Dad finally plants his gear in a spot with extra bench space so we can sit, and then we go in the cabin for breakfast.
"Are we going to eat weird fisherman food? Like scrambled fish brains and seaweed syrup?" I ask.
"Ew. Daddy, I don’t like brains." Corinne stops walking and squishes up her face.
"Don’t be stupid, Ellen. It will be regular breakfast food," he assures Corinne.
"I was just joking," I say.
"Well nobody thinks you’re funny." Dad marches faster and I skip to keep up with him, willing my cheeks to stop burning.
Inside, there’s a cook behind a small, steaming counter frying eggs and bacon and stubby little breakfast sausages on a portable stove. It doesn’t smell very good, like grease and sweat and fish. Me and Corinne want the saran-wrapped doughnuts with chocolate icing and sprinkles that are stacked on the counter, but our father won’t let us get them. He orders us scrambled eggs and ketchup on toast, and chocolate milks.
I feel like I’m in the school cafeteria as we weave around benches and tables with initials scratched into the surfaces. We have to ask a group of men with veiny noses if we can sit at their table. I imagine what would happen if I offered them some watermelon chapstick for their faces. Probably Dad would get pissed.
Corinne’s the youngest, so she gets to sit in the middle, between me and Dad, and I have to sit next to one of the fishermen. He has a rotted black fingernail that looks like amphibian skin. I don’t like my periwinkle sweater rubbing up against his crusty sleeve.
My eggs are runny and dribble when I bite them. I push my food aside.
"Eat your eggs, Ellen," my father says, like a robot. He’s having beer and a sausage sandwich, and a shiny morsel of meat is caught in his beard.
"I’m not hungry," I mutter.
"You better eat. You’re going to need your strength to kill that fish."
Sometimes my father thinks it’s funny to scare me, like when he smacks his hands hard and fast next to my face but doesn’t really hit me; other time he means it. No matter what, I try to wear my brave face. I hold my breath and take a big bite, and wipe my mouth, hard, with my sleeve.
When the boat anchors, the captain toots a loud horn and all the men get up and brush the crumbs off their stomachs. We stand too, but it doesn’t feel like the boat has stopped moving. Me and Corinne trip a lot, and our father holds our hands to keep us steady. The skin on his knuckles is thick and gray like the elephants we rode at the Bronx Zoo last summer.
When we get to our fishing station Dad preps his rod, and me and Corinne look out at the water. It’s green like a swamp, and Corinne points and laughs at an empty beer can bobbing by. It’s a little scary to be this far out in the middle of the ocean. I squint and look really hard, but I can’t see any land.
"Dad, how come if the sun is so big that it lights up half the world at once, it only shines on that much of the water?" I point at the one pretty strip of sunlight, where the water sparkles like emeralds. "I don’t know, Ellen," my father says. He doesn’t look up. He is busy hooking a chunk of raw fish onto his rod with his bare hands.
"Ew," I say. "That’s so gross." Everyone has a big white bucket next to them, filled with chopped-up fish. That’s what they use as bait. I thought people used a worm. Worms, even live ones, are a lot less disgusting than this.
Corinne peeks inside the bucket and shouts, "Gross!"
"Girls, will you stop?" Our father is frustrated. All the fishermen around us are already casting lines, laughing and passing cans of beer around, but Dad can’t get his hook through his bait. "It’s just fish."
"It’s fish, and it stinks. P.U. It stinks." Corinne plugs her nose shut and stomps around in circles, wobbling every time the boat sways.
"Yeah, I don’t want to stay down here. Can we go hang out on the top deck?" I ask. I would feel very grown up walking around the boat, without Dad, clutching the rhinestone purse. I notice the group next to us – three boys with shaggy hair and black eyebrows. They look like they’re in high school, or maybe even college. I wonder how old they think I am. I’m sure if I walk by with the purse, I’ll look much older than eleven and a quarter.
My father smiles. "You’re not going anywhere. You have a job to do, Ellen."
"Please?" The boat is tilting and the sun is glaring so it’s hard to focus my eyes. My father’s black nylon jacket blurs into his salt-and-pepper beard and everything becomes one big mass of gray.
"I said no." My father grunts and turns back to the ocean.
I sit down on the bench even though it’s damp, and hug Corinne between my legs as I fix her lopsided ponytail. Her hair is still soft like when she was a baby, and it won’t stay tucked behind her ears. Even when Mom puts in barrettes, they just slide down and dangle from the ends.
I watch as my father pushes his hook through the slick pink meat. His shoulders hunch up when he takes his first cast and he leans back on his heels as he reels in his line. There’s nothing on it for me to kill. I’m secretly relieved.
"Daddy, I’m going to be your cheerleader," Corinne says, wriggling free from the grip of my thighs as our father pulls in his second fishless line. "Go Daddy, go Daddy! Go Jim, go Jim-bo!" Corinne starts doing jumping jacks, but she slips on the floor, and lands laughing on her butt. I drag her back to me. Dad will explode at us later if she keeps acting wild.
"Don’t worry," I say to my father. "No one else has caught any fish yet, either. So you’re not losing."
He stares at me and says nothing. This is how it feels to be invisible.
Then an old man sitting two benches down from us, with long white hairs growing out of his cheeks like the whiskers of a catfish, gets a bite. His bony elbows poke out through the worn flannel of his jacket.
"Come on, you son-of-a-bitch," Fish Whiskers shouts with his head flung back, like he’s yelling up at God instead of at the fish.
All the men around him rush over to help, except for my father. Dad just stands there fishing like he’s the only person on the boat. A man wearing a captain hat runs over carrying a big spear.
"Ellie, why does the sailor have a sword?" Corinne asks, sitting up on her knees.
"Shut up. I want to watch." I have to see how this is done, just in case my father really makes me kill one.
The fish is so big, like a giant metallic blue tongue, flopping around and licking the deck. The fin against the floor sounds like a slap in the face.
"Don’t kill it," Corinne yells, but no one listens.
It’s still attached to the hook when Captain Hat raises his spear. His wrinkles stretch out like he’s been ironed as he plunges and breaks the fish’s shimmery skin.
"Shit," I say, softly, but my father hears.
Everyone is roaring, "Yeah, kill him" and "Get the bastard," as Dad jams his pole in the slot and grabs my wrist, twisting and squeezing it hard.
"Are you ever going to learn to keep your mouth shut, young lady?"
"Mmhmm," I nod.
"Well I hope you paid attention," he says and lets go of my arm so hard that it swings in the other direction.
The fish is dead when I turn back around. There’s blood running down Captain Hat’s hands, into his sleeves. He doesn’t seem to mind, though. He’s shouting with the rest of the group, guessing how much the fish weighs as Fish Whiskers shoves it into a big canvas sack.
"Ellen, go around to the back of the boat, by the bathrooms, and get me a bucket of tuna," my father says, not looking at me as he reels in another empty line. It sounds like pedaling a bicycle backwards.
"Why?" I don’t want to take a walk anymore. This boat is disgusting. I’ll ruin the purse.
"Because I said so."
"Now, Ellen," he says in his warning tone. The shouting and cheering are spreading across the deck as more men start catching fish.
"Can I bring Corinne?" I ask.
"Can Ellie bring me? Can she carry me?" Corinne’s voice is high and hopeful as she wraps her legs around my waist like a monkey.
"I don’t want you taking your sister around the decks. This isn’t a game, Ellen." Our father puts down his pole and crouches, patting an overturned bucket like it’s a cushion. "Corinne, come sit here. Sit on the bucket and you can help Daddy." Sometimes, when Dad talks to Corinne, his voice gets real soft and it reminds me of when he used to tuck me in and read me nursery rhymes.
Corinne wrinkles up her face and shakes her head no, clutching me tighter.
"She’s afraid," I say and rub circles on her back like Mom does when we have gas, or can’t fall asleep.
"Just get the tuna, Ellen. And bring your sister here." Our father sits spread-legged on the bucket and my stomach sinks as I surrender Corinne into his lap.
"Fine." I make sure the purse is secure on the bench, then I put my hands on my hips and walk away.
"And drop the attitude," he barks at my back.
I walk to the front of the boat, where no one is fishing but a few men are standing around smoking, and climb up onto the lowest rung of the railing. I hang over the side, hoping my braid will skim the waves. The water lapping against the boat looks like the inside of a mouth. I wish I could see down to the bottom and watch the fish, or that my father would take us somewhere cool, like the aquarium. I reach down lower, trying to wet my fingers, but someone grabs me around the ribs and I shriek.
"Shh," a man with a black mustache hisses, and his tongue flicks out over his lips. "Little girls like you shouldn’t be hanging over the edge that way. That water’s so cold you’d freeze up into a pretty little popsicle if you fell over."
"I was just looking." My voice is trembling. I can still feel the spots on my side where his hands gripped me. They throb like little heart beats.
He lights a pipe that looks just like my father’s. "Who do you belong to?"
"I’m here with my father. Jim," I say. It’s strange to say my father’s first name, like he’s a person, and not just my dad.
"I have a daughter your age. She’d never come out on the boats with me, though. Won’t eat the fish I catch neither. A real piece of work," he says, pulling on the hairs of his mustache so hard that he plucks one out and I watch it flutter down the front of his jacket. "Now. I bet your daddy wouldn’t like you dangling yourself over the rails that way. So you skedaddle back to where you belong, princess. You know which way you’re going?"
I nod and he watches me walk the rest of the way to the tuna counter. It’s funny to think of that man having a daughter. I try to picture him dropping her off at school in the morning, what it would feel like to kiss his cheek with all those funny little scars that look like potholes in his skin. I imagine the daughter with a long, black ponytail that reaches to the backs of her knees. She probably wears lip gloss and lo-rise jeans, and is already developed. I wish my boobs would start to grow. I’ll bet if I had them, my father wouldn’t make me do dumb things like fetch tuna and kill fish; he’d take me shopping or out to lunch instead.
I close my eyes when I get on the tuna line and wish that I could fast forward time to tomorrow, to after I already killed the stinking fish. I imagine me and Corinne back home with Mom, camping out in the living room in our sleeping bags, watching movies and eating chocolate chip cookies hot and mushy from fifteen seconds in the microwave. I cross my fingers and my toes while I make my wish, but I’m still on line behind a man whose back pockets are both torn off his jeans.
When it’s my turn, I step up to the tuna counter, which is just a folding table with shaky legs, and imitate the man who went before me. "One, please."
The guy handing out the buckets has a gap in his teeth that whistles when he breathes. "Here you go, sugar." He lifts the bucket over the table and waits for me to take it.
The bucket is a lot heavier than it looks. There’s an ice cream scooper attached to the side with a string, but no lid. I try to breathe through my mouth as I lug the bucket along. This tuna fish looks nothing like the tuna fish that comes in a can. It’s gray and clumpy, like dog food. Only it smells even worse. Some slops over the edge onto my boot.
When I get back, Corinne is playing with a small dead fish, wrapping it in a plastic bag and cooing at it.
"Corinne, what are you doing? Don’t touch that," I shout. "It has eyes!"
"Shh. Can’t you see the baby is sleeping?" she says, rocking her arms back and forth like a cradle. She lifts the fish to her face and kisses it.
"That’s a dead fish! Where did you get it?" I put down the tuna and rush over to my sister, but I’m too grossed out to try and pry it from her arms.
"It’s not dead. It’s just sleeping. Daddy said I could hold it," she says, sticking her chin up in the air and fluttering her eyes. "Daddy caught a big fish. And he says if I hold this baby fish and take care of it and behave, I can get ice cream after." Corinne’s eyes are shining; she’ll do anything for an ice cream sundae with hot fudge and Maraschino cherries.
"Dad." I stomp over to my father as he reels in another empty line. "Why did you tell Corinne the fish is asleep if it’s really dead? That’s lying."
"Don’t start Ellen."
"I hope you’re ready, because you’re up next. I catch, you kill. Like a team." I hate it when Dad says nice things in a nasty voice. It’s meaner than yelling.
"Yeah, right," I mutter, and start rummaging around in the purse. I gloss my lips with the watermelon chapstick and pretend I don’t care.
When Corinne gets bored with her fish baby, our father lets her dip the ice cream scooper into the tuna bucket and holds her up high. He counts to three and helps her flick her wrist and toss the scoop out across the water.
"How come a tuna is different from a piano?" Corinne turns around and shouts to me. Her cheeks are rosy and her nose is running from the wind. She keeps licking her tongue over her lip to wipe away the snot. Mom would go mental if she saw her doing that. "Because you can’t tune a fish!" The ball of tuna bursts midair.
"It’s raining tuna. Hallelujah!" Corinne sings as our father sets her down. He lets her keep the scooper. "Look, Ellie," she calls. "We can play ice cream parlor. Vanilla or chocolate? Whipped cream? Sprinkles?" She plops tuna into the fish bits bucket, onto the floor, and into the plastic bag with the little dead fish inside, pretending that she’s feeding her baby. My father doesn’t notice that she’s making a mess. He gets a bite.
"Ellen, come over here."
I freeze, and feel like I’m about to pee my pants.
"Move it." My father is calm. He never gets loud until the last minute. "Grab the gaff."
He points with his head to the big spear, just like the one Captain Hat used to help Fish Whiskers. Corinne is staring at us with distrustful eyes. I shove the purse into her hands and close her grubby fingers over the strap. "It’s your turn," I whisper before I slink over to the spear. It’s as long as my legs, and the handle is cold and sticky.
"Dad, it’s too heavy," I say. "I can’t do it."
"I ask you to do one thing for me, Ellen." My father is shouting and panting as he reels in his line. "You’re telling me you can’t do one thing?"
My father can barely pull the fish over the railing, and when he does, he whacks it so hard against the deck Corinne screams and drops the purse. Salty water from its bucking body sprays across my face.
"Come on, Ellen. Make your Dad proud. For once."
"No, Ellie. Ellie don’t!" Corinne is howling, her small fists covered in tuna and blood. "Don’t kill it, Ellie, don’t."
I am frozen. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend I’m someone else when I have to do things I’m afraid of, but it’s not working this time. I touch the tip of the hook with my finger. It pinches a little and feels good a little, making my toes tingle.
"I’m going to count to five." My father sounds like he’s shouting from the bottom of a tunnel. I can’t stop staring at the fish. "One…"
Its eyes are round and open; they look like they are going to roll away.
"Please no, Ellie. Pretty please no. With ice cream and cherries on top."
Men are coming over to watch. They stand close to me and I can feel the heat off their bodies.
The fish slams itself against the deck. It is strong and angry. A big rubber boot stomps down on its fin to hold it in place.
"Come on, princess. Show us what you got!" The man with the black mustache has come to watch, too.
The fish is dying. Blood is dribbling out of its gills. Thin blood, like water. I lift the gaff high over my head. My arms burn. "I’m sorry," I tell the fish with my eyes. I hope that it can see me.
The fish rips.
Everyone is shouting in deep voices, like an earthquake shaking the world apart.
"You did it!"
"Good job, princess!"
"I hate you, Ellie. I hate you."
"That’s my girl. Good, good girl."
My father’s hands make thunder when they clap.
A Man Is Fishing
A man (Jake) is fishing on the bank of a river. He has a simple pole, string, worm. He lets it rest in the river as if he has forgotten he cast it in. He has come to the bank to forget that his wife is leaving him. The fishing is secondary to his meditation on loss. When the line tugs Jake half-heartedly brings the fish successfully to shore. He lays the fish next to him on the bank. He’s brought nothing with him to carry the fish home in. The fish flails about as if angry at the world, dying slowly. The sun is suddenly so hot that Jake considers going back home.
Jake is fishing (a sport he used to love as a child but one he has lost the knack of over the years) on the bank of a river (the Wolf or one of its tributaries). He has a simple pole (bamboo), string, worm. He lets it rest in the river because he has forgotten he cast it in. He has come to the Wolf to forget that his wife (June) is leaving him. The fishing is secondary to his meditation on loss. When the line (which looks like a tiny shaft of light bisecting the day) tugs Jake half-heartedly (but with a sense memory of forgotten joy) brings the fish successfully to shore. He lays the fish next to him on the bank because he’s brought nothing with him to carry the fish home in. The fish is angry at the world. He knows he is dying slowly. The sun is suddenly so hot that Jake considers going back home.
Jake is fishing (a sport he used to love as a child but one he has lost the knack of over the years) on the bank (a grassy knoll where there seems to be a million insects but that is comfortable anyway, soft and sleep-inducing) of the River Wolf (sometimes called The Ooze by the folks who live nearby). He has a simple bamboo pole, string, worm (which Jake relished hooking, taking a sinister pleasure in putting the barb through its [slimy little] heart). Jake lets his line rest in the river, having forgotten he cast it there. He has come to the Wolf today to forget that June is leaving him (it’s another man, though she denies it, and Jake suspects the young guy at the automobile lot where they bought her car, the one with the strong chin and one diamond earring; Jake didn’t like the way she flirted with him [Ron]). The fishing is secondary to Jake’s meditation on loss (tertiary also to Jake’s feeling of slight queasiness, which might be hunger though the thought of food [at home there is leftover ham] nauseates him). When the line, a tiny shaft of light bisecting the day, tugs, Jake, with a sense memory of forgotten joy, brings the fish successfully to shore. Jake lays the fish (a muskellunge, a somewhat uncommon member of the pike family, flat-headed, light silvery brown, with barely discernible stripes) next to him in the grass (soft, yellowy-green) on the (declivitous) bank. He’s brought nothing with him (bucket, creel, cooler) in which to carry the fish. The fish flails about (as if it were angry at the world.) The muskellunge is angry at the world. The sun, almost straight overhead, is suddenly so hot that Jake feels faint and considers going back home (though now calling it home disturbs him and he feels a strain in his chest, perhaps the first stirrings of tears in his eyes). Jake sighs and looks at his fish (unexpectedly his fish) The muskellunge looks back and, right before Jake begins to stand, the fish speaks to Jake in the secret language of dream and privation, the language that Jake will adopt now in the next phase (chapter, stage, division) of his life.
She heard a bang, a clap, a spank—something—from outside in the hall. Her eyes opened and she rose from where she was, reclining on the couch. Then Lee opened the door.
The doorman was there, the new one, the young one, the one all the girls made excuses to hang around. He was delivering the mail in the old-fashioned way it was still done in her pre-war building, by dropping it before each door.
He looked at her, a pile of mail held in his arms, cradled, with seeming kindness. Yet he had just dropped a big piece of it—a magazine? a catalogue? something heavy enough to make a sound—so he was capable of being callous, too, was a combination of both, was soft and sadistic: she’d heard that that was sexy, imagined it would be, like, what was his name, Martin Brando in the old movies, though this kid could have been Brando’s baby brother, in truth, didn’t look like Brando at all, but maybe he would be better than Brando, who had ended up so fat.
"Did I scare you?" he asked.
"You woke me up," she said.
The exchange was insinuating, suggestive, and—despite their being in a Northern city—Southern-seeming, as in "The Streetcar Driver," or whatever the movie with Brando was called: each knew what the other slyly meant, neither was in the dark—though the boy actually stood in the dim, beneath a blown-out ceiling bulb that had been unattended for too long; Lee would have to speak to the super about that; it made the hall look shabby, even seedy—and she stopped and forced herself to focus on the doorman, the doorboy, who was younger than anyone she’d ever been attracted to; but aging altered your interests, right? turned your "type" into someone else (into anyone available?), loneliness made you indiscriminate, the door was closing for her, that’s what they said, your opportunities for impregnation were dwindling, and so you—grabbed at!—anyone in sight; even demure women who always waited, who sat by the phone on Saturday night, who seldom took the first step, now—grabbed at!—stripped and straddled!—the first plausible partner before the door closed, a door she imagined was like an electronic garage door that could cut you in half if you didn’t roll out from under it, not a front door, an apartment door, like the one that stood open at her side, as she looked at the doorman, boy, she was aware was waiting for her to say something else, something after,
"You woke me up,"
which she had said spontaneously, for it was true, and which had sounded sexy and clever but had really been unintentional—and she begged herself to focus, and tried to, but she had been sedated and was so thrown, made so nervous by him that the most she could manage was to take her mail and give him a little nondescript smile before she quickly shut the door.
In truth, Lee was not menopausal or even middle-aged; but her anxieties made her feel older than her (thirty-three) years, made her identify with those whom age had slowed down, made demented or otherwise kept from normal social intercourse. The fact that she was even home today, at noon, was a measure of how much agoraphobia had reduced her normal way into the world, (and pills and talking therapy and hypnosis had done little to ease it), how much it had thrown roadblocks, so to speak, onto entrances to heavily traversed highways and away from her own lonely road.
And it was travel that had finally waylaid Lee and forced her behind closed doors—and not even long distance travel but local travel on mass transit and even between floors in her building. It was a final ordeal a few months back inside a subway car, one not even crowded but stuck between stations, that had sent her gasping for air above ground and to the nearest bus which, moving at a snail’s pace, seemed again suffocating and shot her out onto the street where she walked for thirty blocks in a pitiless rainstorm toward her home. Even there, the elevator kept threatening to stop—it was going so slow—and she had suddenly pressed the button for "10," surprising the one woman with whom she rode (and she had waited for an elevator nearly empty before getting on as she had let even moderately filled subways pass before taking one, turning a typically thirty minute commute into a ninety-minute marathon) and then went on foot, wet and panting, the twelve remaining flights to reach her flat.
The experience had ended Lee’s ability to work every day and she was now on unemployment (and maybe soon on disability). In fact, she hoped a check from the agency was among the pieces of mail the young doorman had just handed her, his eyebrows raising a little as he looked into her eyes, an intimacy she had very much enjoyed but allowed only briefly.
Indeed the letter was there—but apparently it had been somewhere else first. Lee saw that the envelope had been torn open and taped shut, the words "Sorry—opened by accident" a jagged surgery scar on its white paper belly. She felt furious but more was mortified that someone had seen—knew about—her condition: how she had been stranded alone in her apartment (a rental she had once shared with and inherited from her parents) or at best in the lobby or nearby neighborhood, someone knew what woman her troubled mind had made her be, and had been both cavalier about knowing and too cowardly to put a name to the confession.
Since the envelope had been in the doorman’s bundle—his package, his pile; after she saw him everything had become an innuendo (like bang, clap, spank, she realized), everything was naughty or nasty, she noted with amusement—she had been alone a long time—everything was something else—he was the one she decided to confront. Luckily, she would have to go no farther than the lobby.
"What’s up with this?" she asked, holding the envelope, realizing she had meant to say, "What’s the meaning of this?" but (her identification with those older suddenly irksome and unwanted) she had replaced it unconsciously with a younger, hipper person’s expression.
"What do you mean?" He was alone at the front desk; she had waited unseen around the corner near the elevator until he was alone, until a UPS man had left after what seemed interminable obscene male banter between the two.
"This. This. Who opened my letter?"
He looked at the envelope (she had already taken out the check) with utter incomprehension. As he strained to think, he squished together his face, forced his forehead forward, altered his—perfectly pleasing and symmetrical—features, gave himself a sort of simian cast, which since it wasn’t permanent and his face immediately returned to normal, since it was just a split-second shift, like the skull superimposed on Anthony Pearlman’s face at the end of Hitchcock’s—what was it called? her pills had made off with her memory—it was kind of exciting, cruelty and kindness again combining in him, and wasn’t that what you wanted?—well, as long as there was occasionally kindness—Lee was so inexperienced, well, not entirely, but almost, and—she stared at the doorman, tried to discipline her disobedient thoughts again—the ripped envelope, remember?—and did he take her stare as interest? She couldn’t tell.
"I mis-delivered it the other day," he said, defensively. "One of your neighbors gave it back to me. I’m sorry."
He seemed concerned that she might blame him, report him, even try to have him dismissed. But then he sighed, as if to say—she was almost sure—listen to me; why am I so weak?; what the hell am I so worried about? His eyes closed and reopened and to her his long lashes seemed like stage curtains which ended one scene and then began another with a new character, which was strange, since he then said,
"Look, I’m not really a doorman. I’m an actor."
Lee was interested; it made sense, his being so young, good-looking and incompetent. Yet she didn’t want to lose the upper hand or her authority or whatever it was she might have gained by grilling him; so she asked, as if only politely or even condescendingly inquiring,
"And might I have seen you in anything?"
"I wouldn’t think so," he said, honestly. "I’m just starting out. So I’m acting all the time in real life. Right now, I’m playing the part of a doorman, if you know what I mean. And not too well, apparently."
She only allowed herself to smile and just for a second, though she was legitimately and mightily amused. Why was he telling her this? Because he was so stupid—or so indifferent to his job—that he didn’t care about the consequences? Could he tell she was crazy and homebound (she hadn’t combed her hair or put on any makeup) and so no one would ever believe what she said (as if he’d opened up for laughs to a lunatic screaming curse words in the street)? Or was he so sensitive, being an actor and all, that he could see that they were kindred spirits, both made to play parts they did not want, for which they had not auditioned and from which they longed to be released? She wanted to believe the latter.
"I know what you mean," she said. Then—to young it up—"I hear you."
"Good. So, again, I’m sorry. I’ll try to, you know, do the delivery bit better next time."
He said "bit," as if, yes, it was just part of a performance, one for which he had (somewhat unfairly, he thought) been criticized and which he would begrudgingly and half-heartedly work to improve.
He looked into her eyes, held the look longer this time—or maybe she just let him linger—and, unless she was crazy (which she knew she kind of was), she thought he meant to do more than just deliver her mail: he would, by knowing her, free them both.
The next day Lee learned he was on mail duty again (she had called down to the desk on a pretext, heard his voice in the background as he coarsely kibitzed this time with a house painter). She listened for the sound of the mail landing before her neighbor’s doors, the placement of the letters today tender and not tough, as gentle as a touch to someone’s cheek or to a forehead to take a temperature. When she heard the feathery brush of a—bill, probably—down near her welcome mat, Lee whipped her door open, grandly, as if indeed making an entrance on that stage the doorman said he always stood upon, whether employed as an actor or not.
"Yes?" he said.
Weirdly, he didn’t seem to recognize her, was only being courteous—and confused, for his eyes glanced at the number on her door, to confirm that it was hers.
Should she be hurt, she wondered? She’d make sure this time that her hair was settled, her pale skin covered by foundation; did she look that different, had she looked that much worse the other day?
"Hi," he said, pleasant and impersonal. "How’s it going?"
Then Lee’s eyes moved, as well, to a mirror on the wall in her vestibule. She saw the cause of his perplexity and felt the start and swift growth of her own.
In the glass, there was another woman, one a few years older, pretty, freckled, heavy, not in an unattractive way, her hair bright red, dressed in a provocative manner, her shiny blouse cut low, her spangled jeans tight. She was very different from the woman Lee had seen reflected earlier, who had been slight, pretty if you paid attention (her mother’s words), her hair dirty blonde or mousy brown (if you were trying to be nice or not), her clothes a shapeless T- shirt she’d kept since college over sweatpants: herself, in other words.
Yet this was her, too, now: she certainly saw out from this new woman as she might from a Halloween mask, the way she sometimes viewed the world from her usual self when she was feeling most distant and detached, when she felt like a floating consciousness contained in somebody but connected to nothing. This feeling today was less hopeless, especially since she saw how the doorman reacted, purely physically checking her out, as the saying went, as he never had before.
"I’m—" She thought she ought to introduce herself, since that’s what he obviously wanted. Her voice was whispery in that Marilyn Monroe way—she remembered the actress’ name, her memory had improved, was more vibrant, like her hair—a contrast to Lee’s usual low, downbeat, almost miserable-teenage-boy sounding tones. "I’m Lee’s sister…Veronique."
The name just came to her: it sounded like a model or an actress, or a—it sounded like a perfume, that’s what, and no wonder: Lee could smell her own strong scent, different from the, okay, the nothing that she usually wore.
"Well," he said, meaning, well, well, well, who do we have here? and "Hello," this word a welcome for a new and wonderful opportunity.
She asked him in—this was what Veronique would do—and he accepted, after a surreptitious glance down the hall and then down at the letters still in his hand, which he a moment later had placed not very carefully on her front hall bookcase as she shut the door, some poor person’s postcard dropping and sliding forever beneath her standing lamp.
"Are you from out of town?" he asked.
She made up something: yes, from Chicago, a city that seemed as hearty and instinctive as Veronique. They engaged in other small talk, much smaller than anything she as Lee and he had made. The doorman seemed particularly suave and adept at this ("Chicago—now there’s a city") and Lee realized that he, too, was playing a new part now, was no longer a doorman or even an aspiring actor, but a dapper, lupine lover who thought nothing of interrupting his afternoon in such a way with such a woman, Veronique being his distaff edition, his partner in crime, or better yet, his co-star.
"Want some wine?" she improvised and he, of course, said, "Yes."
The small talk and the drinking continued until at a certain point she stopped them both. Suddenly, his mouth looked to her like a beautiful red and white sea shell: would she hear the ocean if she put her ear to it? She wished to find out.
Lee as Veronique knew exactly what to do, for she had done it many times before: the way to wetly probe his tongue with hers, then push it until it pushed back—or didn’t (his did); how to intertwine their tongues, as if her initial action had been intended to inspire comradery (the way one playfully smacks someone else’s shoulder until the smackee either gets enraged or becomes aware that it’s a joke, an aggressive greeting to mask genuine affection, and wraps his arm around the other); then to bite lightly at his tongue, as if to say, don’t trust me entirely, I’m no softie, no matter how soft I may have seemed a second earlier.
That led again without any awkwardness—expertly—to the rest of it, her undoing his uniform and everything else, even her—for she was more experienced than he, imagine that—touching and kissing, picking up and placing his parts (his hand and his penis) onto and inside her; it came as easily as other things, doing the dishes, driving—not to make it sound casual or inconsiderate, but they were all things she had learned to do when younger and now needed no more help to do, had been okay doing by herself for years.
When he had opened her clothes—or she had opened them for him or had helped him open them—there was so much more of her to see now. He had the reaction she hoped he would—"So much, so gorgeous"—he didn’t stay silent in a way that meant he wasn’t pleased by her appearance and was too polite to demur and too prideful to lie. In fact, he seemed pleasantly—excitedly—surprised, and she understood, for she was surprised to see herself, too.
In bed, she controlled him, sent signals from beneath him, supervised him in a sense with her hips, hands, and sex—once more with confidence (Lee remembered an article she’d read once that women always really make the first move—not men—by the way they sit or look or speak to someone; it gave her a new way to understand aggression—and now she knew that this power went beyond just inviting someone’s attentions all the way to controlling the actual event once things moved along—though she soon learned the limits of her new power as, shaking and shouting out once, he finished immediately, no matter how much she tried to impose order. She accepted this with her new worldliness: it was their first time together and he was young, after all).
He fell beside her ("Thank God," he whispered, weirdly; she didn’t want to know why), and she watched him now as she had the whole time: partly from outside her new self, her older sister (why had she said that, for God’s sake; she was an only child) and partly from within the experience.
"You’re a woman," he said, appreciatively, meaning, she guessed, a real one, and what a one.
"I am," she said, and imitated—even out-did—his grateful tone.
"That’s a gift. That’s rare."
"Thanks. I’m—I had nothing to do with it," and this was true, it wasn’t a joke, though that’s how he took it.
"Right," he said and laughed. "Right."
(She wondered: should she be upset at how quickly he had commingled with her sister after showing a slightly more nuanced interest in her? Then she remembered: she was, if anything, cheating on herself with him.)
"I better go," he said, kissing her—seriously freckled: look at all of them—shoulder.
Lee didn’t join him at the door, just lay undressed above the covers in bed, heard him fumbling with the mail again and opening the door.
"Bye," she called, quietly, affectionately, and thought she heard him answer. Then she fell into a sleep from which she eventually awoke as Lee, her body lighter, an hour and a half late for her afternoon pill, secretly celebrating the freeing of themselves from their stale and painful characters, the expanding of their repertoires.
The next time she saw the doorman was two days later, after being awakened by the sound of a package being propped up and then crashing onto the floor in the hall, followed by a whispered but still audible curse. Lee cracked open her door and peeked out: she saw another door had opened across the way and a female neighbor was catching the doorman red-handed, carefully placing the (perhaps destroyed) package against the wall.
"Sorry," Lee heard him say.
She was afraid he would go into his explanation—his only acting the part of doorman—a confidence she hoped had been reserved for her—and was relieved that he did not.
Still, he stayed at the door, 22F, for longer than an apology, speaking in low enough tones to be inaudible by Lee. (Was he playing the lover part again, an even worse infraction?) When Lee saw him leave, he did so with a smile and a discernible—what was the expression?—spring in his step.
Lee stood at her own open door long after her neighbor’s had been closed. She knew who this tenant was: an attractive young woman in her twenties who had recently moved in, seemingly anti-social or simply spoiled, who (obsessed with her ipod or speaking into a cellphone) never said hello or even smiled when Lee passed her, taking out the trash; who upon moving in had left her empty boxes in the hall for someone else to toss instead of walking the few steps to reach the garbage; and whose parties had been loud, crowded, and filled with blaring music made by famous bands the names of which, to her frustration, her synapses blurred, Lee couldn’t recall.
Lee had resented the girl but now she hated her—not just for her youth which of course accented her own retreat to an earlier generation (she was super-aware of her real age now, had pulled definitively away from identifying with those older) and not just because the doorman had flirted with the girl after probably breaking what she’d had delivered, but for a reason that had only just occurred to Lee right now, a crime of which she realized 22F was guilty.
In a second Lee found that she was walking on weirdly clomping feet across the hall. She didn’t stop banging on the other door until it opened.
"Yes?" Her neighbor already seemed impatient, though no words had been addressed to her (and were her tank top and short-shorts the outfit she’d worn to greet the doorman? No wonder he’d gone away skipping).
"What’s the meaning of this?" Lee had no compunction about using the older person’s expression now, as she revealed her damaged pay envelope, and the sound of her own voice, the deep and crackly aspect of it, stunned her.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about." The girl shifted uneasily onto one hip.
"Oh, I think you do, honey."
Now F seemed a little rattled. "Look, sir—what’s the—please, who are you, anyway?"
Lee was made silent by the strange form of address. She glanced down at her own frame, caught sight of a paunchy male gut that guttered out in wide-fit jeans over feet wearing flip-flops. Trying to seem casual, she ran fingers through her hair—and found what little was left pushed forward, Caesar-style, to hide her baldness.
"I’m—" Lee became more aware of her voice, which cigarettes had turned raspy, though she’d only ever tried half of a friend’s Pall Mall in high school and only ever smoked dope twice. Swiftly, she spoke lines. "I’m…Roddy, the brother-in-law of Lee, down the hall." She tapped, contemptuously, on the envelope’s address, half-hidden by the words "by accident." "Though I bet you don’t even know her name, your own neighbor, do you, sweetheart?"
"Well—" The girl now seemed even younger, unprotected. "So what if I don’t? And so what if I opened that?" With a shaking hand, she gestured at the letter. "I gave it to the doorman and wrote that I was sorry, didn’t I?"
Lee had to admit it was true and so had no retort. She saw the girl back slightly away, to escape breath Lee smelled on herself was dipped in beer. She plunged ahead with the bellicosity that was apparently the stock in trade of Veronique’s blustery (and, she now knew, constantly cuckolded) husband, whom Lee had impulsively named after a wrestler she heard of once on TV.
"Well—just be more careful next time, okay?"
Deeply frightened, the girl closed the door. Lee stomped back down the hall to her home.
When she was safely locked inside, she glanced in the mirror—and saw her old female self, which looked if possible even less prepossessing than usual, in a purple sweatshirt painted with a puffin that she’d bought a decade earlier for ten dollars in Maine.
Eased by meds, Lee slept for much of the afternoon, exhausted by the thrill of changing shape, feeling the fatigue some patients experience after surgery to impose or remove things from inside them. Hours (or minutes or days) later, she was revived by a buzzer or a bell, which in her groggy state she imagined was from an oven to declare her dinner done. Soon she realized it was her door.
After stumbling toward it, Lee paused to understand who might be calling. If it was the doorman, she was now only herself and not her sister—she smelled and didn’t even need to see it—and would that be a problem?
"Did I scare you?"
"You woke me up."
Would they say those words again and—like "sim salla bim"—what would it start now?
It wasn’t him. It was her super, Martin Raveech. He was lean, middle-aged, and strangely hysterical, unlike others in his field Lee had known who were tough and even physically threatening.
"Look," he said, as always glass-half-empty, "we’ve got a problem."
Lee didn’t let him in, just let him continue, realizing that her pills had made her mouth too dry for her to do much more than lick his lips.
"You know the rules," he said.
He referred to Lee’s long history in the building, in which she’d been raised—indeed she’d seen many supers come and go before Raveech. Her mouth still parched, she only shrugged, remaining noncommittal before knowing what he meant.
"I mean," he said, "your sister and brother-in-law. You know they can’t be living here without being on the lease."
Lee now nodded—not just because she was aware of the rules of apartment habitation, but because she knew that Raveech had been tipped off and intimidated by her girl neighbor and then had quizzed the young doorman who had admitted what he knew, endearingly innocent of (or indifferent to) the results.
"Hold on," Lee rasped and let the door half-close.
When, after a long moment, it opened completely again, Raveech had to look down at the person who was—with an effort—still holding onto the knob.
"Hey," he said and couldn’t help but smile, "who do we have here?"
"I’m Aunt Lee’s niece." And now Raveech saw the six-year-old pause as if—adorably—trying to remember her own name. "Glinda."
(Indeed with her hair full of red curly hair, she very much resembled her mother, Veronique.)
"Well, Glinda," he said, imitating her childish voice, "and where’s your Aunt?"
"She’s not feeling well." Glinda put on a frowny face, which made the super squint and chuckle, cloyingly.
"I’m sorry to hear that. Tell me—" and here Raveech revealed he was not above trying to pressure and mislead a less capable companion, even seemed glad to have the opportunity, "are you and your Mommy and Daddy living here? We’d love to welcome you to our great big building."
"No. We’re just visiting."
"Really? Was that something a grown-up told you to say?"
"Oh. Well, that’s a relief. Tell me—do you know what a super does?"
"I’m not allowed to talk to strangers. Goodbye."
With her tiny hands, the newest member of Lee’s family pushed the door definitively shut. The little girl waited until she had stopped shaking, unnerved by having faced down and defied an adult. Then slowly she realized that the doorknob was no longer at eye level, was in fact at her waist, and the spyhole—which had been completely out of reach—could be accessed with just a brief lean forward. (Raveech was gone.)
"Wow," Lee said, and heard her own deep timbre return. She didn’t even bother with the nearby mirror, knew that she was once again herself, now that another self had done what needed doing, and that, like TV shows about law firms or crime units or hospitals, she employed a whole ensemble.
The next day, Lee didn’t need to keep an ear out for the mail. Dozing without pills and so only really resting like a dead fish on the watery surface of sleep, she was caught and jerked into consciousness by the sound of paper sliding. She rose stiffly and saw that a note had been pushed beneath the door. It had no stamp or envelope, had just been torn out of a memo pad and folded. She stooped to pick it up.
"Meet me—" it said, asked, for it ended in a question mark—"at"—a popular bar, twenty blocks uptown—"at eight"—on that night, and then there was a name she should have known but had never even asked to know—"Bobby"—who was she assumed, hoped (it had to be! who else?) the doorman.
The prospect of leaving her apartment suddenly didn’t frighten or upset her. Today it seemed both a wonderful challenge and a relief. Lee took the elevator—she could have used the stairs—and was untroubled by the slow pace of the car and the proximity of two other riders. She looked nice but not nicer than she had ever looked, hadn’t done more than comb (and pin, all right, and pin) her hair.
Outside, she approached the subway entrance without her usual racing heart or the slow start of sweat upon her back. She took if not the first then the second car that came, which was full enough that she felt the touch of someone’s sleeve against her arm and didn’t panic. The knowledge that she could—whip out!—another woman, man, or child was now her concealed weapon; it had replaced the pills in her pocket that had been her usual—ineffective—reassurance.
And then she was there—in half an hour, a straight shot, traveling like anyone else—at Tadley’s, the after-work bar that Bobby chose. (Because it was closer to his own home, which was farther uptown? She had never considered where he went after work—she’d been too tied up in her own troubles like the rest of the not-well—well, not any more!) And then there he was, at a table, out of uniform.
It was a startling sight—not like seeing him nude—she already had—it was like catching him in costume, and one from a cheap and second-rate show: a checked shirt with both sleeves buttoned, self-protectively, jeans not so distressed as to be stylish, and red-rimmed glasses, someone’s odd idea of "edgy." His hair, which she had felt as thick and boyishly unruly when she stuck—when Veronique had stuck—her fingers in it was now combed conventionally, parted politely, and thinning prematurely. Or was it doing it on time? In her building, Bobby had looked twenty-five; in the bar, he was thirty-two or thirty-three, his face a little fallen, his eyes hammocked by dark rings.
"I’m glad you came," he said, and sounded genuinely relieved, it wasn’t a formality.
"Me, too," she said, more quietly.
"How do you like the place?"
"It’s—" She looked at the raised TV, the paper placemats and framed pennants."—you know, it’s fine." The drink seemed watered; but what did she know? Her medications had made her a teetotaler too long.
"Yep—my brother’s got me washing dishes for now, but he says there’s plenty of room for advancement."
"Wait a minute—" She leaned forward, and the overhanging light exposed her own brow wrinkles and light facial down. "You work here?"
"Yeah. Didn’t I tell you? Raveech couldn’t stand me screwing up so much, so I got canned. I haven’t been there since Monday. I left you that note on my way out."
"Oh." In fact—this was Wednesday—she now realized she hadn’t seen him in days but hadn’t thought much of it, had taken him for granted, been complacent—or unconscious?
"There was always a standing offer here," he said, "so I took it. It’s nights for now, but that can change."
"And it leaves you time for auditions."
"Well—maybe. But that’s not my focus now. I mean, who was I fooling with that, anyway? I wasn’t making headway. Who was I, Heath Ledger? And look what happened to him. No, that’s not for me. There’s a realistic future here. That’s what my brother says, and I believe him."
With that, he looked more openly at her, and lights from the mirrored bar opposite made his eyes shine with hopefulness.
"I’m also, you know…" he said, "the doc has put me on anti-depressants."
Bobby continued to stare, awaiting if not her approval, her understanding. She understood: this was why he had asked to see her here, on his new turf: to link the man he felt he was with the woman he thought her to be—someone mentally damaged and of limited potential—to end for them, in other words, all other options. She felt hot and pushed away her drink, pretending it had been the cause, despite the little alcohol it contained.
"Excuse me," she said. "I’m not used to--"
Lee walked unsteadily to the ladies’ room, where she punched her face with water, her eyes closed. She didn’t prepare a thing to say, kept her mind clear, hoped irrationally he would be gone when she returned. When she came out, she hadn’t noticed that a stray red hair had fallen in the sink.
Her journey back to Bobby was slow and halting, for she walked on higher heels. The look on the face of the doorman—no, the dishwasher, and maybe one day the waiter—told her what had happened.
"Jeez," Bobby said, standing, stunned. "I didn’t know you’d be here."
"I like to look after my little sister," Lee said—or whispered, in the Veronique way.
They took their seats, and she immediately leaned forward, her breasts book-marked, and picked up and threw back the Vodka Lee hadn’t finished. Bobby made to order her another. When he brought his hand down, she took it between her own and rubbed it, determinedly.
"It’s warm," she said.
Maybe she moved her fingers too swiftly on his skin, implied too obviously that she wished to cast a spell, as if he were Aladdin’s lamp, so that he’d change shape as she had done. For whatever reason, having to make an effort, he pried his hand out of her grip.
"Where is she?" he asked, impatiently. "Where’s Lee?"
The use of her normal name jarred her; she had never told it to him, had kept that line blank, waiting to be filled in. Silly, she thought: he had read it on her mail and known it all along.
"I’ll see what’s keeping her," she said, defeated.
Veronique rose, knowing he missed the seriousness—the sickness—of her sister and was in no mood for her, not bothering to hide that she was hurt. She fought through the pre-commuting crowd, which was young, loud, and jungle deep.
As she did, she suddenly felt weary, being squeezed from all sides, and utterly out of place. The others looked at her with a mix of snobbery and amusement.
"What’s up with him?" one asked.
"Is he here to fix the toilet?"
"Be careful. He might be with the Mafia."
"Get the hell out of my way, jerk," Lee found herself saying—growling, then coughing with a smoker’s choke. her ruddy, red, and hairy fist at her own mouth.
Ruddy and Roddy—well, that made sense, she thought—for here he was, a silver cross she had not even known he wore around his neck being accidentally yanked by the customers in his effort to get out, a working stiff out of water, or whatever the expression was, just as his wife—looking for love, apart from him, as usual—had been misplaced, unwelcomed, and wronged.
Roddy managed to push his way to the door and then the street, snotty asides showered on him like beer at a ball game. Outside, his legs spread, and he swung his arms like an ape—on purpose, as a warning, to regain some power. Then he reached and descended the subway stairs.
But once the train came—and it was even nearly empty—he went back to being weak, became even weaker. Again he was lost—and unconscionably, criminally, it was illegal to be there by himself; the incredulous stares of other riders told him so. He held onto the center pole with both hands, feeling abandoned, trying not to cry.
"What’s happened, honey?" one solicitous old lady—maybe twenty-five—asked, half-kneeling near her, her hand clasped, as well, upon the pole. "Where’s your Mommy or Daddy?"
Glinda couldn’t answer—she was too scared—this was not the warmth of her aunt’s apartment, with her folks somewhere around. This was a wilderness, one shaking and swiftly moving like a spaceship toward—what, another world? Who knew?
"I—I—I don’t know!" she cried, the sound covered by the subway brakes—which was to her a witch’s scream—as the train came to a stop.
The little girl ran out, followed by expressions of dismay from the good Samaritans and busybodies left behind. It was not her station—she had many left to go—but she ran by instinct in the direction of her Aunt Lee’s house.
The second she set foot in the safety of the lobby, not even looking at the new—older—doorman, and sprinted toward the stairs, there was no more little girl, and she was Lee.
Lee slammed her door behind her. Then she was shocked to see that she had company.
In fact, her apartment—which was always silent except for electronic voices from images on TV, which even the super had only ever truly entered once or twice to free a drain or fix a phone jack, was packed.A merry party was taking place—gossip was being spread, canned music played, and old-fashioned appetizers (pigs in blankets, shrimp toast) gobbled up. There were so many guests that Lee could hardly get beyond the vestibule to enter.
Once the visitors became aware that she was home, they slowly stopped their celebration—then found new cause for it in her arrival.
"There she is!"
"We’ve been waiting for you!"
Lee’s back was patted, her cheek pinched. She was pushed farther in and nearly passed around like a new hors d’oeuvre fresh out of the oven.
"Don’t be shy!"
"Don’t be a stranger!"
"Come on in!"
As if by magic, the group began to grow. She realized that it was made up of her family: cousins, uncles, even one old granddad who wasn’t dead. They had come to surprise her—no, it hadn’t been their choice, they had been summoned, like people in old movies in which a mysterious letter leads a group of strangers to a house and they find out—by telling tales—that they are linked. No, that wasn’t it, either: they’d never met each other; she’d never met them, either; but being related, how could that be?
Lee was growing dizzy, being traded from each embrace. Then she was airborne, lifted, as in a raucous rock concert—a mess kit, a mesh pit, a mosh!—her memory was being shredded as she dropped and, hugged and crushed, her clothes were being torn.
She knew now she had released them—her "relatives" had gotten loose from inside her and couldn’t ever be re-integrated. There were suddenly more and more of them—of her—some old, one infant, one ugly, another violent—they were multiplying like mice or like cancer cells that kill off the original host. Soon, as she screamed, they closed upon her, engulfed and erased her—none of them remained—and no one would be there to do the dishes or turn off the lights or set the alarm for the morning.
Lee heard a bang, a clap, a spank. This time, awakening, she kept her eyes closed. Was she all right, insane, or dead? Had the noise been made by a doorman, a paramedic or an angel (was it true? would they really exist?). Had it all already happened or was it ready to begin? Would she and someone say,
"Did I scare you?"
"You woke me up."?
All she had to do was open her eyes. But suddenly she was aware she wouldn’t know the answers even if she did.
"I hope I don’t see Macmé Popo coming through these trees," he muttered to his companion in the Volvo’s back seat. In the front, the old people, intently searching for the turnoff, could be counted on not to hear despite their expensive hearing aids.
More than fifty years before, Macmé Popo had been the name by which the children of his home village knew a taciturn, pipe-smoking crone from whom they kept a respectful distance. The fact that she was probably a distant relative of his did nothing to make her less imposing. (There were stories of people who fly through the air, people who sip other people’s blood.) Once when he was walking back from Kendeace, having finished his stint of caring for his grandfather’s animals, just as he was passing near the old well, he noticed Macmé Popo beside the dirt track. When he glanced away for a moment, then looked back at the spot, he couldn’t see her anymore.
Arriving home, he mentioned the incident. Over his head, the grownups exchanged significant looks.
Shortly thereafter, Macmé Popo had died.
Now it was the next millennium and he was riding up an unpaved, sharply pitched road on an island in Puget Sound. The old man behind the wheel was his companion’s father. The four of them—he, his partner, and her parents—were going to spend the night in a borrowed house. The owners had gone to Portland for Thanksgiving. His partner’s sister was hospitable enough, but lived in a cottage too small to house her off-island visitors.
Even in daylight, the woods had been gloomy, with innumerable slender trunks of trees pressing close around the car. His companion had happily recited their names—Douglas fir, cedar, Pacific madrone—and pointed out how the bright red-orange madrone berries, emblem of fall, flamed through the fog. This though when she’d visited his home island with him, she’d more than once remarked his total lack of interest in even the trees and plants of his native soil.
Now the creeping headlights exposed the mise-en-scène of a low-budget horror movie.
"Winston," came a voice from the front seat, "if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to hear some more about that case—the one we spoke about at lunch. You were going to explain the—sorry, can’t remember the term—the issue involving black people being excluded from a jury." Before obtaining his degree in forestry at the University of Minnesota, the father had attended a quarter or two of law school, and enjoyed quizzing his unofficial son-in-law about the ins and outs of criminal appeals.
"Batson. A Batson issue. Batson comes up in a case where a pattern of facts suggests that peremptory challenges have been used to get rid of prospective jurors on the basis of a characteristic like race or gender. In this case, the burden of proof—"
"Vic, those big rocks are so close to the road," the mother intervened. "It makes me uneasy."
"I guess we can nail down Batson in the morning."
Perched on a rocky incline with large windows on three sides, the brand new house made her think of an old-fashioned fire lookout, the kind that Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels had long ago suggested to her as a model of the perfect writer’s retreat, although by the time the Beats discovered them in the 50’s, those primitive wooden perches were already being replaced by aerial surveillance of tinderbox forest tracts. The ground floor was mostly one high-ceilinged room, with polished concrete underfoot. Despite the many custom-designed features, the roof was galvanized steel, almost as if the builders had run low on funds--"Like something you’d see in the Third World," her father piped up.
She glared in her mind, while her partner observed, "Yes, you see a lot of galvanize being used for roofs in Carriacou." It had still not occurred to her father that "the Third World" was slightly closer to his own daily round than the moon, or the planet Pluto.
Emancipated from family in all the ways that counted, she could still be irked by small things, like the sleeping arrangements. Her parents, of course, must have the real bed, upstairs in the only bedroom, while the middle-aged youngsters would take the bloated couch, which converted into a two-tiered sleeping apparatus, adrift in the middle of the cavernous common space downstairs. Already infantilized by several aspects of this trip—most obviously the lack of a car, which meant that unlike the real American adults, she and her significant other couldn’t come and go at will, but must wait to be ferried; more subtly by her disproportionate loathing of everything that signifies the real America, the country that sets in the minute you leave New York –she might as well take the trundle bed. It fit in nicely with the image she had of the two of them, herself and Winston, perched, tiny, on a huge car seat, their dangling legs too short to reach the floor.
Her two sisters, even shorter than she, had both married enormous husbands.
" I hate tall people," she liked to say—though not when giants were present.
After the old parents had retired upstairs, she wheedled her partner into paying a visit to her low, narrow bed. Once they were arranged satisfactorily, her head on his shoulder, he chided her, as he was wont to do, for being too hard on her people. ("You people," he would say, lending the phrase a caustic edge, meaning white people—but only in relation to people who didn’t count. When it came to her relatives, he was remarkably forgiving.)
"But what was that about mixing you up with a peahen!"
In the afternoon, they’d been cooking black beans in her sister’s small, warm kitchen. Some of her sister’s in-laws had come in from a hike. "Where’s Winston?" one woman demanded.
"Winston’s right here."
It turned out she was thinking of Wilson, the resident peahen. Wilson, like a peasant bound to the land, had come along with the cottage; in winter, she never strayed far from the eaves of the tool shed, where a bowl of cracked corn, replenished daily by the sister, offered some consolation for a cold, lonely roost.
"Yeah, that was weird," he conceded.
They spoke no further of it.
The large open room and makeshift bed, carrying with them a hint of the illicit and, however remote, a risk of discovery, reminded them of sexual youth. "Open la la, down dey," he sang softly in her ear. Remembering and forgetting the disappointments of their aging bodies, they pressed together in the dark, careful to mute the endeavor, despite the very high probability that the parents would have removed their hearing aids.
When she woke before sunrise, avid for a few quiet minutes to herself, she observed once again what she’d noticed before bed: how this house in the middle of nowhere was never completely dark, thanks to the ghostly glow from its many electronic appliances and gadgets. As she stood waiting for the kettle to boil, she confronted three different versions of the time: 5:20 in green said the answering machine; 5:21 in red said the Mr. Coffee; 5:19 in blue-green said the oven.
Switching on a desk lamp, she spied the word "Meditate" printed on a Post-It stuck next to the cordless phone. She remembered her sister saying that one of the house’s owners was writing a book about the psychological effects of multiple sclerosis. The writer had an early stage of the disease.
She saw through the window-wall behind the living room area that yesterday’s fog had lifted. Through the interrupting treetops, out across Haro Strait, she faced a string of lights too numerous for ships’ lights: Victoria, B.C.
When her partner rose, should she greet him with a joke about flight to Canada?
The old man blamed his bifocals for the fall. Starting with his absurd, flatly rejected offer to carry his daughter’s bag to the airport parking garage, he’d been making it clear he intend to cling, with every bit of strength, to his settled habits of control. Now, as he neared the bottom of the stairs with his own heavy luggage, he stumbled, pitched forward. It was frightening to watch his ravaged body go down under the big, blue, hard-sided suitcase.
He sat up almost immediately, his dignity impaired but all else intact, his nose and cheek showing fading lacerations from a spill the previous week. "I do this all the time," he quipped now.
"Well, don’t," his daughter snapped, glossing her cruelty—once the four of them were safely in the car—with a homily on the need to make adjustments. There was nothing wrong with taking it easy, letting others help out! "Medicare has just spent a lot of money on you. You’ve got an obligation to protect their investment," she added, alluding to a pet conceit of his—that the sums squandered on oldsters like himself should go for the care of younger people. When he said this, his daughter argued with him, pointing out that the richest country on the planet could surely afford universal healthcare. The discussion had once been mostly theoretical, but earlier that fall he’d been critically ill in the way of modern geriatrics: months of gradual, under-diagnosed decline, supervised by many distracted specialists, no two of whom ever bothered to put their heads together in a coordinated look at his troubled body parts then, as he was crashing in the ICU following a biopsy of enlarged lymph nodes, a belated team effort ending in a dramatic save.
During the biopsy, they’d removed his swollen spleen—that organ once quaintly thought of as the seat of the emotions. The hematologist suspected lymphoma, but the tests came back clear.
The splenectomy had cured his chronic anemia. Now, with the edema somewhat under control, in a shaky way, he was feeling his oats.
"I’ll live another 20 years," he boasted on the phone, "although," he had to add, "I may be doctoring right along."
By the time he met her plane, he’d upped the projection to 30 years.
On the drive from Sea-Tac to the ferry at Anacortes, he’d tried to cut short what he called his "organ recital." "Let’s talk about ideas!" he’d proposed, switching to an account of Sandburg’s life of Lincoln, which he’d tackled in a hefty abridged edition. Still, when his belt buckle broke he enjoyed demonstrating that his wife’s short leather belt would do perfectly well to cinch the excess fabric of his trousers in deep pleats around his waist.
Today was the foundational feast, the one that memorialized the theft of a continent in a ritual implying that the transfer had been peaceful. And his daughter had become someone who could forbear to point this out, contenting herself with a teasing allusion to an article Winston had found on some dissident blog, calling for a day of national atonement in place of habitual excess.
After half a day of cooking at the home of the second daughter, the one who fed the peahen, a couple of vehicles loaded with steaming pans and dishes caravanned to the home of the peahen-feeder’s sister-in-law, whose convivial parents, famed for family patriotism, stood beamingly by to welcome their son and lesser relatives by marriage. In the case of both old couples, the minority of their offspring who had managed—whether through greater vigor or lesser imagination—to play their part in replenishing the species had opted to celebrate elsewhere, with their own kids. The youngest people around this holiday board would be pushing 50 .
Come to think of it, Winston’s family was similarly top-heavy, the zest for reproduction having markedly diminished with successive generations. His own father, some years gone, had been the eldest of eight siblings. Out of the five sons and daughters this patriarch had seeded on three far-flung islands—Carriacou, Aruba, and Long—only one had produced grandchildren. "What will I do in my old age?" Winston liked to say. "I’ll have to go back to Mt. Pleasant, build my little two-by-four, and clap my backside down. I haven’t got any brats to take care of me." His partner always thought, "I will take care of you," but never pronounced the words. Nor did she point out how muddled things had been when his own father was dying back in Mt. Pleasant, Carriacou, in the care of hired attendants.
Over appetizers, Winston and the evening’s host—a tart, stout goat-herd, with a polished-looking face and a thick graying braid down the middle of her back—made much of their shared appreciation of goat meat. "It’s not just the Hispanics that like it," she maintained. "It’s pretty much everyone, except northern Europeans. And I’m working on them!" The goat girl’s family were a garrulous Scandinavian bunch, both parents with their ruddy cheeks and slow-moving bodies full of tall tales about Anchorage in the old days. They’d moved there after the war for the contracting work, plentiful during the military building boom of the early Cold War years.
Like the typical Northwesterners they were, the assembled crew displayed unstinting interest in practical affairs—how to waterproof a deck, how to track a wounded deer, how to ship a car by rail from Seattle to Palm Desert. One of the goat-herd’s towering brothers, an affable engineer, spoke up now and then to tout the no-bid contracts preferred by his employer, CH2MHILL, for their reconstruction projects. In between the how-to conversations there were the frostbite stories, the scary bear stories, the rattlesnake stories, the scary bush pilot stories, the funny bush pilot stories, the fables of commercial aviation on the last frontier. "The plane hits the runway and this huge wave of water comes right through the gap where they’d jury-rigged that door. Completely drenches the guy next to me, who’s wearing a suit and tie. I’m sitting there in my waterproof and waders. ‘Welcome to Cordova,’ I said."
On the margin of a cruel and dissolute empire, everyone joined hands while the goat girl spoke aloud, addressing God and Jesus, her gratitude for the blessings of family.
Clasped in the stringent playpen of old age, the parents smacked their lips over the excellent goat cheese—served with winter pears grown on the property—and reminded one another to save room for four kinds of pie.
The Real Estate
The little girl and littler boy plopped down the top step.
Slide. Bump. Slide. Bump. Slide. Bump.
They paused and smiled and bared tooth-fairy teeth all the way down to the landing.
I stepped back as their dungareed rumps thudded at our feet and pictured my own little girl bounding down these steps, except she’d have stuck out her tongue at least a dozen times on the descent.
"Obviously, these stairs are great for that sort of thing, on your butt, your belly, your back … face first or feet first," the other, polite girl began, standing up, her brother a millisecond behind. "Because of the speed though, you need to watch out for rug burns." She displayed the underside of her forearm as if a scar remained. "They’re also good for Slinkies and Downhill SkiBunny Barbie—"
"—and flying robot attacks," said the boy, leaping back up the stairs. "I’ll go get Zargon the Mutilator so I can toss him—"
"—That’s okay," said their mother, a tall, pale, expressionless woman who stood on the other side of my real estate lady and craned a long arm forward to turn her son back around. "I’m sure they want to see the rest of the house."
Thus began the showing of 46 Sandpiper, described by my real estate lady over the phone as a three-bedroom contemporary on a landscaped half-acre with a great room and fireplace, central air, built-in pool, and in-ground sprinklers.
It’d sounded as overwhelmingly charming as all the others Marie and I’d been looking at for the past six months. She was supposed to be joining me for this one too but was late dropping off our daughter at a birthday bowling party. I didn’t feel like walking around this house alone. I didn’t feel like getting a new house at all. I didn’t feel like moving all our stuff to the side of the county where the schools were smarter and the neighbors were cleaner.
"Kids, why don’t you go outside," the mother said. "I’ll go into the kitchen and make some hot dogs. Let’s let these two look around."
"But Mom, we want to help again. Can’t we? Please?"
"No, go outside and pl—"
"—Oh, it’s okay…Really," I said, thinking: anything to make this tour different.
The mother trudged walked off into the kitchen to the left like a sleepwalker. "I’ll be in here. If they bother you, let me know."
The girl flipped back her butternut brown, pretzel-twist pigtails and charged off in front saying, "Well, if you want something done right …" She stopped abruptly at the entrance to the great room, her brother directly behind her and looking back over his shoulder as if to admonish: get in line, pay attention and be prepared to take notes. The real estate lady fell in too, ready to flee at my signal, but I mouthed why not? and away the conga line went, snaking around the room several times, bypassing a stone fireplace, entertainment center, leather recliner, loveseat, sofa, antique coffee table, small potted tree, and two already-half-packed-away bookshelves, the open cardboard boxes on the floor the only indicators of untidiness anywhere.
"Now this truly is a great room, " the little girl said. "Don’t you agree?"
"Why, yes it is," said the real estate lady, fumbling with her important leather folder, unsure of whether to add any of her own snippets of salesmanship.
"Yes, um, great," I said. "very great … almost a super room."
We wound our way around the rest of the house, and the kids began to hit their stride, providing the little-known but indispensable facts that make tours interesting. Over here was the best cabinet for the Cap’n Crunch; over there, in the hallway connecting the three upstairs bedrooms, the slickest floor for sock sliding. The coat closet in the hall off the mudroom had the best acoustics for singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the boy’s bedroom closet, the premier spot for harboring strays ("most of the baby raccoon pee smell is gone—you probably can’t even tell").
By the time we’d reached the master bedroom, I’d begun to relish my role. "Biggest bounce for sure," I said, gazing at the ceiling long after the boy’s still-sneakered feet had settled back down on the satiny bedspread. "Impressive height and angle," I said, nodding, my chin properly sandwiched between my thumb and forefinger as I took the girl’s advice and peered out the best window for dropping water balloons.
And while I understood the game, its necessity confused me. What more could these kids want from a home: their own big bedrooms, a playroom with ping-pong, a backyard with swimming pool and trampoline? Was it part of a sales act: mom, disinterested; they, over-the-top? I began to think thatthey must’ve been promised something special—a golden retriever, a Disney timeshare—because if I were in their little sneakers there’d have to be torture involved to get me to leave. I’d be sabotaging everyprospective sale, dangling white sheets from the attic crawlspace ("single greatest hide and seek spot for when the friends come over") and moaning, ‘Get Out or I’ll Kill You!’
I kept playing along though. "Interesting design," I remarked later, in the basement, when the girl opened up a trap door, cradled a pile of fireplace ashes in her palm, and blew them like dandelion remains towards her brother. "Coolest feature," she said.
"Yes, both cool and interesting," I said, before indicating I had to go to the bathroom.
"Oh, there’s one down here," said the little girl as we left the boiler room and crossed a field of beanbag chairs plopped in front of a cinema-sized movie screen. I was about to head in the open door to the bathroom when the kids realized the room hadn’t been properly introduced and walked in before me, leaving the real estate lady by the beanbags. The boy began to screech and tickle his armpits and the girl said: "As you can plainly see, a jungle motif … minus a monkey soap dispenser Dad chucked at Mom’s head one night." She stared at the sink as if the dispenser might reappear and then the two kids left the bathroom. "We’ll be right outside," they said as I closed the door.
Back on the main floor, the girl walked into the great room and up to the sliding glass door to the backyard. She hesitated while the real estate lady pulled the chain that sent the vertical blinds scampering. The afternoon sun bathed the kids and the little girl squinted and grabbed the handle to the door, but then stopped, dropping her once-scarred arm back at her side.
"Why don’t I just take over from here," said the real estate lady, pushing her way through and opening the door.
The kids looked unsure of what to do so I said, "We’ll be with you in a sec. I want to have a private word with my real estate professional." I thanked them for their expertise so far, let the real estate lady out and slid the door closed.
"You’ve seen enough. Right?" asked the real estate lady as we stood on the back edge of a dull brown, fake-wood deck next to a tropical patio set and its giant umbrella. "You’ve had enough?"
I looked back into the great room. The kids’ faces were shmushed onto the sliding glass, fleshy pink lips and noses smearing the giant aquarium.
"No, I’m okay. This is the best house so far. Let’s give them a few more minutes if they want, but you can take over." (In my mind I could hear the girl’s overly inflected sale’s voice: finest surface for pretending to be a barnacle.) "If they say anything, play along," I added, glancing back over to the glass. The little sea creatures had slipped away from the tank, only their slime remained.
We’d walked over to the edge of the brick-rimmed pool when the kids rejoined us, now flanking my wife, who apologized for her tardiness and smiled awkwardly at her two ushers. The real estate lady opened her folder and began to say something about the age of the pool, when the boy looked at his now–silent sister and spoke for the first time:
"Okay, so not everything’s perfect. If you’re in the pool playin’ volleyball and you hit it too hard cause you want to splash your sister and her friends with a giant wave and the ball goes out of the pool and bounces over the fence into the Hoover’s, it’s a pain cause they got a little mutt who might bite you and they never throw the ball back anyway. You have to walk all the way ‘round the block, knock on their front door and practically beg." The boy had been marking the route with his little pointer finger when he realized the error of his negativity and whipped it back from the Hoover’s directly into the deep end: "But it’s the best pool, by far the best pool in the whole neighborhood."
"Kids, come in for lunch!" the mother yelled from somewhere inside.
"One sec, mom, we’re almost done!" the boy yelled back.
"There’s one more thing," the real estate lady said, folder open. She tightroped the edge of the pool towards the pool filter and what appeared to be a shed, a shed without a roof. "It’s not the best anything, just something you should see." We bypassed the filter and approached the shed. "My favorite feature, an outdoor shower." She flung open the door. "This is great for rinsing the chlor—"
"—for hiding in after your dad touches you," said the little girl.
"Ahh, the best hiding …" I started, constructing my clever game line before hearing the words. My wife gasped and I grabbed her hand tightly and reached for the little girl with my other hand but her arms clung together behind her back, a strength not revealed in her blank face—not serious saleslady, not scared little kid, not anything.
"Okay, time for lunch," the real estate lady said, racing back toward the glass doors.
I raced after, pushed by a ghost from the shower.
"Hold on a minute," I said, stopping right outside the door. My wife was behind me and the two kids were right behind her. I turned to look at them. "We’ll buy the house."
"—We’ll buy the house."
"Mr. Linker, are you—"
"—We’ll buy the house."
Two little faces.
"You’re the best tour guides ever—experts, and that’s why I’m—we’re—going to buy this house and send you on your merry way to whatever fantastic place is next."
They stood there, two silent little pale faces, two more ghosts.
"You know you get a percentage—right?" I pulled out my wallet and gave them each a five-dollar bill.
"I’ll go get the mother," said the real estate lady, already in the great room.
I walked across the deck to the patio set, my wife and the kids following. We sat under the umbrella and the boy, waving the five-dollar bill like a flag of surrender, said, "Best place when it rains."
"Yeah, I think you’re right about everything," I said, cranking the umbrella down, then up, then down.
I peeked past the umbrella up through the sun and into the master bedroom window. An invisible hand dropped a bright red water balloon. Water splashed everywhere as it exploded below.
Room of Words
Lo mismo da que pienses o no pienses, todo es irreal, anónimo y fortuito.
They threw me in it. I don't remember coming. I don't remember an entrance, a pathway to return. In this room with two windows and no doors, my body curls up on the floor, like a hair detached from a head, it changes position at the air's will. If I sleep letters of unknown alphabets crawl up my legs trying to reach my brain. Awake, definitions pour out of my eyes and ears. With each block to make a sentence, the tip of my tongue splits in endless cuts and I spit lights, sparks of colors that last a second. I create an invitation, expand my confinement.
In the beginning, it was hard for me to move. I breathed fear, ancestral, full with blood and resentment. It petrified me until my sight found the windows. I imagined life beyond them: anthropomorphic figures with snakes, jaguars and coyotes, women with dying instincts and creative violence, men with cartons of ambition and batteries of self expression; a majestic museum of secrets, transgression and fortitude.
Then I moved my feet. The echo of my steps resounded in shallow notes like foil trapped in a cylinder. My brain registered the accommodation from top to bottom. Trepidation and curiosity guided me closer to the windows. One step forward made the frames smaller, one backwards bigger. I kept walking until they looked like eyebrows, a nose distance apart. A minimum movement could cause complete extinction but I had to look. I leaned forward and opened my eyes, one in each.
To see through both windows at the same time, to go deep into both cities and watch over their colonies, I slowly learned to pause understanding and move away from my ideas, from an I, me or mine. I approached their sights and signals, until I learned to abandon myself and disappear.
When you enter Arbalap, the reflections of flat buildings extend to the horizon. Its cardinal points get confused with the shadows and shapes that simulate calmness but move around like a lava fountain. If you start walking, the ground takes possession of your feet, your toes run into the kind of mud that shapes the depths of quiet lakes, and your shadow expands in rococo patterns. You are able to smell the icy fire of a smokeless flame that devours things in silence. You inhale a powder of colors and every exhalation regresses into an outbreak of blindness. If you touch the constructions, they disappear. The only things left are walls interrupted by cracked doors, landslides and elevations. In darkness, the city becomes a big turtle. The sky acts as a shell divided in green, orange and black compartments. It mutates to a hard entity, radiates a force that makes your cells hear light or its absence. All of a sudden, you are the night.
From spaces with rounded edges, and gigantic squares, rises a chirp. The echo of accents and words lengthen, delay, and magnify. The sounds bounce between the Bs and the Ys.
The inhabitants of Arbalap are small and stout. They line up in long blocks but don't touch each other. Their backs -bent by invisible loads- make their arms lengthen and their torsos shorten. Their round eyes seem like an extra detail added to their marked faces. Their beauty is voluminous.
The masculine follows a call to multiply and leaves traces with the shape of an O. The feminine takes care of enumerations and details, and its recognize by an A. Genders never mix and everything happens in the calm of a stream, perpetuates in shapeless days or nights.
Astonished by the city's spectacle, you won't notice your own head being displaced from your neck until copious bleeding gives itself away. When you unglue your eyes from the show and try to find your reflection, your observant body is numbed and solidified. Your tiny and reduced head makes room for the thick neck. Muscular and sensitive, it lengthens, stretches forward and then retracts to lead your head inside the shell of your body.
Drow is surrounded by water and is water, but most of its vegetation is made out of stone. Stone flowers, stone trees and stone leaves that shed in the fall like tears of pain. Under a certain light, the city gives off green shades, but its true color is a transparent blue. Most of the time, the eyes err while attempting to distinguish sky from earth. The sunlight, dull and tepid, settles into a corner, but doesn't heat. It disappears in a crack between the horizon and the choking sea. White and static clouds, like snow that never falls, make up contraptions and sentences that are used as guides. They are not winds from the mountains or the rain. They are the flatulence of a gigantic God, a magnifying verb that inhabits the deep waters of Drow and rules with apostrophes and shortcuts, in a spurious but constant presence. If you lie down on the floor and look at it horizontally, Drow is seductive and prickly like a W, regular and rounded like a D, parallel and visionary like an L.
Formations with human faces stretch during the daylight with synchronized movements and mimetic qualities. Their subtle presence is soundless. Their only violence is the involuntary alteration of the landscape caused by their displacements. These colonizing masses encrust themselves in any space available and modify the shapes of walls and windows. They sneak inside doors surrounded by spines, burst into the light that flirts from inside the houses and lean their wavy protrusions in soft stones.
Every cracked door frames the limits of a private painting, a family portrait. Those inside the houses don't feel trapped, outsiders do. Never invited, acknowledged or able to come in, the colonizing masses are left out with inconclusive traces and clues in the endless puddle of imagination. They look forward to the closed intimacy, and dream about uncovering the ancestral secrets of walls and accents thicker than their shadows.
Inevitably, you will feel the desire to get into this inquisitive and twinkled caves. You will hear a mandate to follow the barriers of its recalcitrant doors, to penetrate and conquer window's bars meant to expel passersby. If you look towards the ground, you will discover that the floor beneath them is not stone but a universal concrete, a reinforced cement plunged into ashes of dead dialects, indigenous feathers and putrefied skins. And sometimes, it'll show you your reflection. You won't be an equal but you won't be different. There won't be a sign of dust, mud, rain or dryness, your whole figure will be intact excepting your shoes. Tiny arms, legs and tails will emerged from your worn out soles and heels. Long nails will scratch the floor, toes will twirl desperately grabbing into your ankles, tails will entangle with the surroundings and, unable to take them off, you'll loose your balance and collapse into coldness.
When you pronounce your first word, you will vanish.
You might wonder about this tale. How it got into your hands if I am still in the room, if, in fact, there are two windows. I am the accomplice and the thief of Lady Language. I carry out her wishes and serve my sentence.
Once I snuck up behind her and took something that wasn't mine. I stared at her naked back, her full body coming out of the floor, and her hair hanging long by her sides. Robust, blue, feathery wings came out from her right shoulder -the wings of wishes and the raw material of imagination-. But I was curious about the almost imperceptible moth-looking wings that rested on the left shoulder, right beside the heart. They were made of a net of eyelashes moving slow like an eyelid on an empty eye. I dug in my nails, felt them spike and cutting, took them off, divided in two and planted them on my hands.
The first time I used the winds, I went on a trip with the primary elements of language: the velocity and luminescent impact of fire to transmit; the tranquility, irregularity and permeability of water, its power to penetrate; the combustion and transparency of air, its potent invisibility, its transformations; the receptivity of earth, its regeneration, its autonomy, its silences. Lady followed me, encapsulated me.
I became the word that bounces off its reflection, the willingness to narrate along with its confinements, the gray matter to translate and wait, to visit and lie, the wish to portray in words a bilingual experience.
Three Flash Fictions
ERICA, ANNA & NILS
Erica allows herself a small smile. She felt inwardly amused by certain sentences she'd formed on her computer, even more so by her decision not to send them to her lover, Nils, separated from her now working on yurt installations in the wilds of Colorado.
This is what Erica would have sent to Nils if she’d decided to share her thoughts: "Would it help in our hateful struggle if I told you that in my dream last night I was happy stroking one of your size 12 formal shoes, just sort of singing along to myself, eyes closed, humming along there happy and stroking, yah, the black patent leather ones, 12B, right? From the Good Will?"
Later that day she reported to her friend Anna how she’d refused to share her stroking dream with Nils. "I'm not really ever angry at him, I only like the way people treat me when they think I'm angry. But I don't get this male-nature business. What’s going on there? And dishonesty. Dishonesty always catches me up. Does everyone think I'm a stone-fox bitch? Tell the truth, honey, I depend on you."
Anna, distracted, was corn-rolling Erica’s difficult hair.
“Girl, where’d you get this crop?”
“Just lucky, I guess,” said Erica, Nils still on her mind and the curious fact that she’d refused him access to her really sweet shoe-stroking dream.
“Damn him,” she said, and “Ow, honey!” to Anna, who’d impatiently tugged
“Give up on that Nils,” said Anna, “he don’t know what he got in you, man grabs the dirt throws away the gold dust, idiot.”
“Honey," Erica declared, "I will not stop being human just because I'm a loving female."
Nils, the only male in this story, has not been given a chance to offer a single word. In an earlier century his role might have been played by some mope pulling at a cavendish pipe or fussing with his cufflinks. This guy would sense that his lady felt angry. Distant, anyway. That she kept tight-lipped silence was always the clue. It certainly seemed as if she were angry. What had he done recently? Or not done? Should he feel abashed? Perhaps so.
Danny Giandifatori is a dutiful Italian son whose wife had left him years ago. He cares for his three daughters and one grown son and also for his self-indulgent Dad who will live forever, though Danny himself has learned that he himself has only six or so more months to go and he's never really LIVED!
But he meets a girl at a bookstore on a Friday evening -- a time and place where by tradition men sometimes go to meet girls -- and this girl will be much too young and a bit too tall for him, but she does think he's funny and she has this "father thing," only he keeps their "dates" secret while continuing with his fatherly and sonly devotions and gradually he and the girl grow in their connection to the point of Danny's introducing her to his family (who take to her quite a bit) and when he dies the girl reveals the posthumous plans he'd confided in her, which they all agree to carry out, namely to sprinkle his ashes in his favorite places, Fonzo's Pizzeria, the Solano Clothes Consignment Bin, the Willamette Bijou -- an old school small scale movie palace dedicated to the masters of the art -- but especially in the bookstore where he and the girl had met, their laughter on that Friday evening getting them kicked out because of a distracting excess of glee, gleeful blurts that proved distracting to other readers and students with their laptops and mocha sippers and those who entirely faked their interest in browsing books by Celine or Borges, really only there in hopes of meeting girls of a literary bent, the sort whose wire-rimmed glasses made them look even more entirely beautiful.
HE LET YOU DOWN
"I hate it about the suicide," he told her, not for the first time.
"I know, what a terrible thing."
"Well just listen how I talk. The way I talk? He just about ruined my life."
"What's wrong with how you talk? I mean, what's so special about the way you talk? You talk true and good."
She thought that last would at least bring a smile, but he failed to note the allusion.
Isn’t it Christ obvious? You can't really mean you don't hear the way I talk like him? Like the way he writes, then. Plus it's all fake. Cute. It's a rhythm, really, they mostly loved it in his time. Nobody else did it well but many tried. So then it was like a disease, like something going around you'd catch, something in the air. I know you hate it when I go on and on, only I got started reading him again last week, in the big collected, they have these hunks of novels in there that he never finished but they publish them out as if they were stories, that's how they present them, stories, which they could have been, of course, if that was what he'd wanted."
"I understand," she said. "You loved him and he kind of let you down. It was all this sort of preening of his, that's what did him in, like you explained, like he cast himself in a role in a one-man play and then he couldn't remember his lines."
"That's good. That's a way of putting it."
"Don't feel bad," she said. "Lot's of people suicide, there’re probably lots of good reasons."
"Many must have it," he told her, intending a lilt of the old bastard’s music. She would miss the reference, he felt sure. Or maybe not.
He didn't like the way she looked at him then. Suddenly he felt like a crushed cat in the roadway. Her cat, sure, and she'd weep as if she'd been the one to crush it, but what was that to him? Or to the cat?
"Don’t look at me that way."
"I won't look at you at all," she said. "I'll shut my eyes. I'll commit suicide."
"So much of it, you know, it's just terrible stuff, it's juvenile writing," he told her. "But I can't get the sound of it out of my head. It's like a damned stupid song you're stuck with."
She tried not to answer, but finally that became too hard, the air in the room felt thick and she found it difficult to breathe.
"I understand," she told him. But he was off somewhere in his mind, she could tell he hadn't heard her at all.