A big thank you to Suzanne Craig-Whytock for publishing my latest flash fiction, Touch/Either/And/Or Adoration at her brand new literary magazine, DarkWinter at darkwinterlit.com. Please pay a visit and check out the other works (fiction and poetry), and feel free to add something to this growing publication. Suzanne is an award-winning Canadian author, and she’s extremely talented and funny. Also check out her must-read hilarious blog, mydangblog. Thanks for reading.
Those were the last brilliant and bitter days, leaves still filthy from drought, unadorned by color or definition, and even the dampest of mosses had become brittle sashes weaved into the bark. We woke each morning to an odorless breeze that seemed to chant to the trees with a hollow catch in its throat.
This used to be our Advent season, more self-serving than celebratory, when we drank Burgundy from heavy goblets and you fed me artful pastries. You once knew a chef from Paris, you claimed, perhaps a former lover, you hinted, whom you called Nina, but I think your truest recollection was of Gowan from the Gondola Restaurant on West Lebanon Street. I remember the way he looked at you then, like a shaggy boy who discovered you in a forest, a halo of sunlight adorning your crown. You were always kittenish that way, telling tales of lovemaking in your younger years, narrating with such startling clarity in your Ocracoke brogue, shattering me like old pottery, reassembling me with new poetry. I was such a boy, wasn’t I, feeding from a banquet that starved me?
The fragrant oils you drizzled on my arms, lavender and frankincense, bore weight on my skin. You washed me with a soft cloth soaking in clean hot water, steam still rising from the bowl, and you kissed me directly on the mouth. I shall always remember that kiss. You lathered my meager beard with scentless shaving soap and gently stropped the blade so I would notice the cleverness of your fingers. It felt curious, this luxury you bestowed upon me, but I did not move. I could not. You did not linger, and you whispered words into my ear a song I did not recognize.
“How does one bury a boy?” you asked, and I, of course, could not answer. The question had not been directed to me.
i have forgotten the names of the people
i dream about but still
hear the faraway tin-tack rain
on the hoods of those big boat chryslers
from that picked-over lot on elliot street
the drops splashing down
from plastic pennants
sliding down antennas washing
over old chrome
into cataract headlights
we followed the map
you drew on the takeout menu
to watch the churlish evening light evaporate
around the water tower in
some small town’s lower union street
i dreamed that the night peeled
white paint from each bungalow
as we (always we though there has been no you
for 46 years) drove past a row
of old men in old undershirts
drinking pabsts, their motions choreographed
like a busby berkeley musical,
conjoined by their respective stoops
tapping cigarette ashes into old peach cans
their zippo lighters communicating like fireflies
it was like mourning
someone whose name you can’t remember
in some town you never been to before
we were the last two ghosts you and i
i guess and no one was frightened or even a little worried
when we arrived if
they noticed us at all
i recognized some faces and you recognized
some others but their names were
lost to us otherwise
as we were lost to them
as another day evaporated as somewhat
of a surprise
How narrow a life
how thin this ink and gouache morning seems
as we watch the slow decay of lamplight
with soul-spilling grief
do you recall a more bitter time
to still believe in morning
And this is where you will find me:
beside a good dog
who can sniff out the scent of bullfrogs hunched
between the soaked knees of Cypress trees;
where an old woman in her kitchen
can hear the soft swoop
of a cherrywood paddle before it slices
through tangles of swamp,
and where I am almost always
six years old,
she says tonight my father is most likely crouched
in the break-down lane on US-11,
Watertown and Pamelia
fixing a flat for a forsaken mother
with a cream soda stain
on her last good blouse
and a shaving scar on her shin,
far from her house.
rising like ashes, we are fallen like rain
we cross the water, circumspect
of the crosses we etch
on wet Cypress trees
The lowly roads of grit and stone brought Actress home. She surrendered her Jeep near the highway, parked it beside a dense imbroglio of pokeweed and gutted cardboard. Daybreak percolated below a broad swath of Kwanzan cherry trees, scattering immaculate light across Cornelius Lancaster’s tobacco field.
She left this place wearing river-soaked Nike knockoffs forty years earlier, and so it seemed proper that she return in the same manner: the clothes on her back, with an over-sized purse for the necessaries. Instead of the lick-and-stick tattoos she once adored, she now wore the real things, intricate etchings she collected from downtown parlors and off-ramp strip malls.
Her mother: You have no common sense, girl. You’re confusing chickens with horses again.
– I wish I hadn’t mentioned Ellie to you. I wish you never met her.
She did all right for herself. You can ask her, she’s right here.
– No, Ma. That was a long time ago. I knew there were stories, and I closed my ears to them.
Stories? Ask her, she’ll tell you. She’s tired of waiting, tired of wanting. You had her phone number in your change purse for twenty-three years, long enough for the ink to bleed into the lining. That scrap of paper smelled like old pennies when you were done with it. An anthropologist couldn’t have read those words.
– There were no words, Ma, just her number.
Of course, there were words. I bet you still have that piece of paper squirreled away somewhere, maybe folded in the back of an old copy of Mademoiselle, or between those fancy garter belts you used to hide, scuppered under a layer of cotton panties. I knew about those, you know. I wasn’t snooping, but Lord Jesus Christ, girl. You kept that scrap because of what she wrote. I’m guessing there were just a few words. I don’t know what they were, but they were probably the heaviest things you ever carried. Sure, you memorized them, of course you did, recited them in front of a hundred sleazy bathroom mirrors, maybe had them tattooed on your hip, the one that gives you so much trouble. What does it matter now, they were only the words of a young girl. So go ahead and ask her, little Actress. Ask your girl Eloise how the years have been since you left. I’m sure she has more than a few words straining to get out.
– Ma, talking to you is like staring into five loaded chambers. I’m tired.
Well, come on, then. I’ll be waiting.
The road was more compact than Actress remembered; it was diminished, really. The gravel was shallow and meager, randomly scraped down to the gray dirt. Rhododendron shrubs pushed against the road from both sides, drooping from humidity, pale lavender flowers in states of decay and disarray, scentless, ridiculously excessive. A thin daylight moon hung overhead, a scimitar blade ready to carve out old wounds.
– Old wounds, indeed.
Hello, Missus. Good morning to you.
Actress saw Preacher Eli standing in the doorway of the Embury Methodist Church. He was an old man back then, surely in his sixties, and she could still remember his blue-veined Old Testament hands. He stood in profile, but she saw his hair had turned from nicotine yellow to Just For Men brown. It was unkempt and drifted below the ratty collar of a t-shirt commemorating The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls Tour. He was sweeping carpenter ants off the concrete walkway.
Have you yet been saved, dear?
– Hello, Preacher. Yes, I have, but I’m not sure for what. Amusement, probably.
Bless you, girl, but I can’t hear. Can you come closer? Are you new? Do I know you?
– No, you don’t know me, but I’m not new. I’m Actress.
Is this a joke? What kind of name is that?
– A real one, given to me by my mother.
I once knew someone… long ago. Or perhaps it was a dream, a foretelling of God’s Plan. Your mother must have been very confused to give you such a name.
– Yes. Or she had low expectations of me ever becoming a real person.
I’m sorry, please come closer. My ears are not so good. Do you have family nearby?
– Yes. Just down the road. My mother.
And does she have the love of Jesus running through her veins? The rich, dark blood of his sacrifice, and not the puerile, watery piss of unbelievers. Does she?
– You’d have to ask her, I guess.
Would you kneel with me, child? You see, I have swept all the ants away. They keep coming back, and I shall sweep them away every time. Will you kneel with me in prayer?
– If you used a magnifying glass, you could burn them away. They wouldn’t come back.
Do I know you, girl? There’s something about you.
– I have quite a ways to go yet, Preacher, and the day is warming up.
It is warming up for all of us, child. One day, only a few of us will be plucked from the furnace. I hope that you’ll be one of them.
– Goodbye, Preacher Eli.
And you know my name? Praise God!
Will you kneel with me? Acknowledge your sins to Him? And to me?
– Goodbye, Preacher. Remember that I never did you any harm. Remember that, should anyone ever ask. Just say, ‘Actress never hurt a soul, but I still condemned her when she was 17 years old and had nowhere else to go.’ I don’t hold a grudge, but if you could say that to someone sometime, it would mean a lot. I don’t expect you to oblige, but I’m glad I had the chance to mention it.
What are you talking about? I don’t know–
– Just somewhere down the road, that would be fine.
Damn you, girl. Get thee behind me, Adversary.
– Yes, you’ve said those words to me before.
The churchyard cemetery seemed unchanged, its gravestones thinly illuminated by lemony morning light; it was a conspicuous luminance, one she thought she could very nearly peel from the granite like paint. The flatness of the yard, impeccably groomed, seemed contrived, like an embroidered wall-hanging. It was something Margaret Kempenaar would frame in her sunroom, above tempera-painted milk cans or surrounded by sprigs of fresh lilac.
There was wine, you know, and you know I don’t like the taste, Actress, especially the purple kind, the strong Old World kind. I made a face and I told her so, and that was when she brought out the good gin, the Old Tom gin, from a tiny cupboard above the stove. It was like a secret compartment. And I told her that. ‘Margaret,’ I said, ‘ that is so clever, having a secret compartment in the one place your husband would never think to look, right there above the stove.’ She grinned that big toothy grin of hers, lipstick on her teeth — the exact color that a whore would wear, by the way — and she said, ‘Welcome to the Mom’s Club, sweetie.’
– Ma, you know I don’t care about Mrs. Kempenaar. She’s running a divorcees’ daycare over there.
She’s my good friend, Actress. We talk about all kinds of things.
– Custody battles, alimony payments, sordid tales of late-night waitress-boinking.
Don’t be crude. We talk about… the arts… current events….
– Name that Gin?
You’ve got a mouth on you, girl. Did you finish your studies?
– Yes. You finish yours? How to make the perfect Gin Rickey?
How do you know about these things? Do you drink now?
– I know a boy who likes me and I’m practically legal.
It figures. Some 21-year-old ponytail who still lives at home?
– Ma, I’m seventeen. You can’t tell me who I can accept liquor from.
What happened to that girl of yours? I thought she was more your type. I thought that was what you preferred, that what’s-her-name, Eloise? Ellie? What happened to her?
– I don’t want to talk about her.
Would you feel better talking to Margaret? She likes older boys, too. She might understand.
– We just can’t have a conversation anymore, can we, Ma?
This was the peripheral road, long since succumbed to weeds. Actress hoped to hear the tintinnabulation of a Private Property sign bumping against chain links, but there was only a queasy silence. The old fence post was rotted cartilage now, and the sign had disappeared, likely somewhere beneath layers of dirt. The kudzu had flourished, green had ransacked green, and the stink of mangled growth was heavy with fertile heat.
Manny, the Proprietor: Hey, Actress, you know these Mexican kids ain’t old enough, right? Their ID’s ain’t shit. These kids won’t be shaving for another five-six years, you lose your brains? I know it’s only Budweiser, but use some common sense, huh?
The road — really, just a pair of tractor tire ruts worn into the grass — led to Aquila’s Depot, a fancy name for a tin and tarpaper shack that sold sundry items to the locals, specializing in cold beer and filtered cigarettes. If you stood still for longer than a minute, you could hear the Sequatchie River talk behind your back.
Girl, take the broom to these kids, would ya? Look at that kid, does he look like Marlon Brando to you? No? Never mind, ask your mother. Goddamn Army brats, kids are hawking the ID’s from their big brothers’ wallets. Get ‘em outta here before anyone sees.
She worked at Aquila’s in her sixteenth summer, a couple of hours every afternoon, and was paid with a pack of Benson & Hedges 100’s and a twenty-dollar bill every Friday. It wasn’t much, but it wasn’t really work. She got to yell at kids and smoke cigarettes behind the shed. She might see six or seven people all day, mostly boys who tried to distract her from the beer cooler.
— That was where I met you. You came to buy cigarettes for your stepfather. I wanted to brush your hair, read you Jane Eyre or something, walk with you to the river, teach you the lyrics to “Come To The Sunshine”: ‘Now comes the morning / Wet with the kiss of midnight’. I’d know right away if you liked Joni Mitchell. That would tell me everything. I wanted to know everything. God, I was so young, so foolish. So young.
Her mother: You’re spending a lot of time with that girl, aren’t you? You know, people will start to–
— Never mind, you don’t know her. You don’t know me.
Look at you, almost 17 and you’re suddenly a mystery. How could I be so ignorant?
— Never mind.
Bring her by for supper. If you’re such pals, she won’t care.
— Maybe I should, just to confuse you.
You should, but honey, you ain’t confusing anyone.
It was only a creased wooden fence post, its decay swathed in morning glory vines. Her sixteen-year-old hands touched it almost every night when she would unhook the heavy chain that extended across the path. She would drop its bulk into a spill of weeds, and she and Ellie would walk the quarter-mile to Aquila’s in the dark.
— No, Ma, the heaviest thing I ever carried was that chain back to its post when Ellie ran off. But you wouldn’t know about that, would you?
She stood barefoot in the hallway, blouse and jeans soaking wet, hair a spiral veil dripping down her back, eyes dark and blurred. Ma stood in the kitchen, staring back.
I didn’t think it was raining that hard.
— I have to leave here tonight, Ma. I have to.
She ran away from you, huh? Did you expect any different? No, you stay here the night. I can see you’re in no mood to talk. Sleep on it. You’re not as frail as you think.
Ma was barefoot too, wearing an uncomfortably short nightgown, veins in her legs plainly visible, hair done up in spiky curlers, a smoldering cigarette between her fingers, studying Actress, watching her try to form words in her mouth. Actress could see a small spill — toe-sized, of watered-down gin, probably — on the kitchen floor by her mother’s foot.
— I just tried to drown myself, Ma, but the river wasn’t deep enough.
Come on in here and get out of your wet things. You want a drink? No harm in it now, I guess. The towels in the bathroom are fresh enough.
— I have to leave here tonight.
You need to settle down, girl, no need for theatrics.
— Ma, do you even know me?
Oh, grow up, Actress. You’re just not that special, you’re only seventeen. Tried to drown yourself, did you? Lord Jesus Christ, you really are an actress, aren’t you? Guess I named you right.
— The preacher. He yelled at me, too. Turned his back on me, same as you’re doing now. But you’re my mother. You should know me. All this time, you should know me better!
Towels are clean, Actress. Dry off, get to bed. We’ll talk about this in the morning.
— No, I think I—
— I have never tried harder to be someone, Ellie.
What, Actress? Oh, hey, it’s starting to rain.
A mist of rain and a gleam of moon cast a fine emulsion between them, separating them like a curtain. Actress wanted to be near her, to talk to her in the rain, just wanted to be near her for another minute.
Can we leave now? We’re getting soaked. I don’t see the point.
— I thought we could…. Do you know how much? I love you, Ellie. How much I want to be with you? Before you say anything, please just listen—
Oh, Actress, no….
The old place was just down the road, half a mile, maybe, but her memory was treacherous. The road didn’t look very different, other than how small it was. Diminished, really. What if her mother was gone, the house was gone, all of it was gone? What if Ma was just a ghost? Forty years was a long time. What if she was the ghost?
“Andrea, you’ve finally come home,” she heard a voice cry from down the road. “I knew you would. I knew you would come back eventually.”
do you remember me at all?
I was the boy who claimed ownership of the puddles on your front lawn in seventh grade. We both lived on Saharasan Road. When I heard that a man named Sirhan Sirhan had assassinated Robert Kennedy, I misheard and became convinced he lived on our street. I wore my almost-best Sunday shoes when I went to tell you. I stomped a muddy oration on your front porch to announce my arrival. You were not wonderstruck, your father called my father, arrangements were made to stop my ‘bullshit nonsense’. Yet I continued. I told you I couldn’t help myself, I was in mourning. I don’t think I knew what that meant, but it got your attention.
you were the girl who wondered if our footsteps would become fossils one day and the aliens would discover that humanity had paws shaped like size-7 Dollar Tree sneakers. We discussed this in February, just before that big ice storm hit. The raw cloth of winter wrapped around us, our snot-clotted coat sleeves bore testament to our locomotion. Why were we in such a hurry to create fossils? The alien part was cool, though.
you remember this, don’t you:
Sergio Mendes and “Água de Beber”? A piece of warm vinyl from back when we still lived inside the half-life of innocence. When it was cool for me to wear an Illya Kuryakin turtleneck under a sports jacket (cute as hell, you said, and I still question the veracity of your fashion sense). Herb Alpert was good, Dionne Warwick was better, but Sergio was your thing, a compulsive soft-suede rhythm we confused with desire.
you: baggy cardigans on the beach to cover your midriff during our vodka era. You wanted to disappear into the sand, I wanted to find something in it. We took Polaroids of the fat Quebecois tourists and invented Beach Boy haikus:
So this is the life:
peeling the skinny dead girls
off our old surfboards
The antacids at the bottom of your handbag were plentiful and we ate them like Sweet Tarts.
do you suppose our old fossils are ready yet? Please tell me yes.
I see you, Birdie, pressed into your favorite gold brocade dress, somewhat shrouded in a turquoise Navajo throw. You were always a July blonde / September strawberry, but today your hair is transcendent, luminescent, loosely tied with a loop of jute twine you picked up at the side of Burnett Road. You walk ahead of me at that final curve before the smell of water hits us, you draw me closer with the shimmer in your hair, the shimmy in your hips, the sweet in your voice. A song is sung, “At dawn my lover comes t’ me / an’ tells me of her dreams,” a rat-sized chihuahua tramps along beside you, pauses at the dandelion stalks, the river birch trunks, pisses on the things it wants you to love.
In real life, Beatrice, you tend the bar at the Pinewood House in the West Saugerties. You gripe about the Club members who line up for their Tom Collins sacrament every Wednesday afternoon: ex-cops, mostly; tough guys who don’t know what to do with their hands.
“You think we’ll see him, baby?”
You turn to me, your hair a spray of candied sunlight. “Don’t you ever listen to his words? Dylan, silly. Do you think we’ll see him there?”
“Maybe. Probably not. But so what? Maybe he’ll see us. Do you think he ever wonders about us?”
“He should. Because we’re fabulous. He will receive us.”
“We’re just going for a swim, Birdie. We won’t see him.”
You decide I’m being mean, we walk on. You continue to sing “Gates of Eden” to your rat-dog: “The foreign sun, it squints upon/ A bed that is never mine.” Your shimmer and your shimmy and your sweet all compel me to walk further down the road with you.
We caught the seven o’clock show at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night, watched The Dirty Dozen for the third time.
“We should go swimming tomorrow,” you announced. “Lily and Jack said they’re going.”
“You know I hate that place.”
“Why would you hate Daley’s? It’s where we always go.”
“Because it’s where we always go.”
“So you’ve decided to hate it?”
“And you don’t? Honest to God, Birdie, we’re always running the same conversations: who’s going back in the fall, who’s up for an internship, who’s moving to New York, who’s screwing who and–”
“Sorry, whom. You can practically measure the beats with a spoon. And do we even bother to swim there anymore?”
“You make it sound so awful.”
“Isn’t it? I mean, can we at least stop pretending it’s fun?”
“Well, you’re in a mood. I’m not sure I want to go with you now.”
“We could do something different for a change. Just us. We could drive up to Canada, leave early, make a day of it.”
You frowned. “You want to go to Canada? Tomorrow? I don’t know, Harry. The car will be hot, the roads will be touristy.”
“We can visit Gananoque. You said you liked it there.”
“Seems like such a big deal just to avoid such a small deal. Timothy and Louise will probably bring wine.”
“Tim’s a fool.”
“Oh, he is not. You’re in a mood.”
“He pulls the wings off his ex-girlfriends and buries them in his backyard.”
“Oh, he does not. You’re just jealous.”
“Caroline says we’d make good breeding stock.”
“You and Tim?”
“Well, we are beautiful, don’t you think?”
“I– Jesus, Birdie, why do you do that?”
“Say those things?”
“You used to have a sense of humor, Harry. Did you pull off its wings and bury it in your mother’s backyard?”
“I — what?”
I sat for you at the kitchen table, my arms still steady, yes, but not what they were even a week ago. I stared at those turquoise vinyl curtains you set above the sink. They filtered out the natural light, turned it into something aquatic, not quite deep enough to drown in. Outside the window was the small shadowed path that divided us from the Ellises, a walkway that led to our respective backyards. There was barely enough space for even a small patch of grass to sprout between the houses. Every day I watched Tommy Ellis’s siding slide into a more anemic shade of beige.
Then there was the jar of blue Barbicide you kept on the table, where you soaked your combs, your scissors, the straight razor. Every Sunday afternoon you trimmed the hair around my ears, clipped the playfulness from my eyebrows, harvested the bristles that circumnavigated my neck. We listened to the radio, 950-AM, “The Summer Sounds of the Sixties.” We had been housebound for months, so there was little need for talk. We knew everything that needed to be known.
So why did we keep listening to the same goddamn crinkled static every Sunday afternoon?
“Jesus,” you said.
You seemed near tears, I almost felt the same. That song was like a freshly bloodied scar.
“Must be fifteen years since I heard this,” you said.
“At least,” I said, and straightened my back against the chair. “It’s an old one, alright.”
“You know I don’t like to go back there, Harry.”
“I know that, Birdie.”
Your breath hitched, you rubbed an eyelid with your thumb. “You haven’t called me that in a long time,” you said. You set down your comb, leaned your back into the counter.
“I thought you didn’t like me to call you that anymore,” I said.
“It reminds me of those days, same as this song,” you said, and we listened a little longer. “But we’re still here, aren’t we?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“We’re still here,” you said. “Look at us. You sit there in the same chair every Sunday morning. I still barber your hair every Sunday afternoon. Have you ever noticed that the Barbicide is the only real color left in the room? I don’t wear bright things anymore, just these gray and beige knits.”
“There hasn’t been a lot of color anywhere, Beatrice.”
“Leftover chicken tonight,” you said. “Maybe pot roast next weekend if I clip the right coupons. I’ll peel potatoes, you’ll heat a can of peas or corn, or maybe slice up those old carrots from the back of the crisper. Or maybe we’ll just finish that butternut squash from the other night, I don’t know, it’s all busywork, Harry. We take our trip on the radio every Sunday for the sake of the old songs. Sometimes we’ll mumble the words because we forget them.”
“Some of them, sure. But not all.”
“No. Not all. ‘Galveston’ was on the radio the first time we kissed, at that car wash on Arsenal Street, remember? All those fat suds sloshing down the windshield, it felt like we were floating on some strange river. ‘River Man’… I wore that short skirt you liked, kind of peachy with beige accents, a little tight around my hips? I had to sneak out of the house that night. I almost made myself sick, wondering if I looked too eager. I almost changed my mind.”
“And so you only wore it that one time. Yes, I remember it. You were so nervous. You kept shifting in the restaurant booth.”
“Yes. And I only told you the color of my underwear, I never showed you.”
“A very prudent blue, I recall. I had dreams that night.”
“Yes, that sounds like me. Prudent blue. Oh, Harry, all the music, all the songs. ‘Let Yourself Go Another Time’ still reminds me of the smell of candles at Mama’s funeral. Stevie Wonder singing ‘Superstition’, and I’m back pouring bourbon shots in Dixie cups at Doreen and Phil’s wedding reception. Your dad kept a cardboard box of Old Number 8’s in the back of his station wagon.”
“I remember. We were still kids.”
“Of course we were. Kids.”
“And we went swimming with our friends, we drank their shitty wine. We didn’t know a thing.”
“We knew enough. We stopped swimming there, remember?”
“Yes. Of course I remember,” you said flatly
and we were drowning again
under the light of our kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Harry,” you said, “but I don’t mean to dislike you so much.”
Dylan’s voice retreated back to a place where we could not follow
in a low-minded darkness, we swim across the Big Pool, our limbs fan the water with austere strokes. Only Timothy and Louise have stayed behind, pie-eyed on homemade jug wine, giggling over the dregs from Tim’s extinguished joint. That single ember is all that distinguishes land from water. The last of our childhood feels conspicuous, lost somewhere in the plumes we leave behind.
“Hey, are you two behaving?” yells Louise. Her voice is high, unintentionally shrill.
“Bobby Dylan and me, baby, we are just friends,” I shout. I hear your bubbled laughter as you dip below the surface. Then you rise like a great fish, water streams down your face, your breath atomizes the air, fills your silhouette with diamonds.
“Lay lady lay, baby. Yeah!”
You reach for me, hands blind to the dark. You whisper, “Do you s’pose they can see us from shore?”
“I don’t care if you don’t.”
“Well… if they can, we’ll pretend like we’re drowning.”
“No one to save us but ourselves,” is the last thing I say, and the light separates itself from the murk.
The world lays still for a little while, and the water is both quiet and big.
You are not the man you projected, Nicolas Waltz; you are not the man I protected for so long. I thought I knew you from the stale air gathered between us, your affected ease with a Goethe quote — Oh, why do you draw me, irresistibly, Into all this magnificence? — written in soap on our front window.
Was there ever happiness here, or has it already passed, I asked, and searched for an answer in the notebooks in your cabinetry, in the bottom drawer of your library desk where you hid your gin, your vermouth, beneath a cluster of love letters.
I yield a cluttered picture of you, Nicolas: pushing an oily lawnmower, wearing cheap canvas shoes with muddy white laces, black trousers, and a Patti Smith t-shirt. Your hair was long then. It landed on your shoulders and looked comically abundant when accessorized with your Billy Dee Williams mustache. You cut the grass of our pre-paid burial plots every Friday morning, 10 a.m., before, you claimed, the weekend crowd arrived.
February 12/1968 — Do you prefer Pepsi Generation teenyboppers or Age of Aquarius girls over little sweet me, Nicolas? Don’t answer. I can’t bear to be last on your wishlist. I am more modest than either, but I will last longer than both. I haven’t received your latest letter yet, and I wonder if you meant the things you said to me after Christmas. Nicolas, I’m not sure I’ll be in Chicago this summer. Do you remember my brother Emanuel with the crooked teeth who tried to follow us with his new Polaroid? He kept teasing you about your long hair, but he’s a sweet boy. I think he’s too young and naïve to go to Vietnam. Mama said it might be better for us if we moved out of here and found a small place in the country, maybe in Indiana. We need to get away from the protests and unrest. Please write back soon, Nicolas. I miss you. I know summer is only a few months away, but Holy Jesus, the snow is smashing us right now, blowing straight in off the top of Lake Michigan. I want you to know what’s going on when/if we move. I think it’s more ‘when’ because Mama’s determined to get the ‘F’ out of here before it gets too rough. Please write to me, honey. You know how much I love you (especially since that night at Lake Missaukee).
Love you, my beautiful man.
I’m sure you found cold pleasure in those few calculated feet you tidied: standing vertical, cutting horizontal. You plucked the dandelions and scoured the weeds with an exhaustive oomph as I sat on the tailgate and watched the road beyond the churchyard. Here I will lay when I become calm, you said. And tonight, Aubrey, I will tell you my stories again, and you winked a tired eye and wiped your hands on the sides of your trousers, and we loaded the mower back onto the truck. I was already, frankly, quite tired of those games you incited, which gave neither of us any pleasure.
You preferred to bathe before dinner those evenings, scrub the wear from your arms, sink your neck below the steam. Here I will lay, you said from behind the locked door, boiled alive again.
April 7/1970 — Said Mama: Have you come home again? / No, Mama. I’m here to pick up some clothes. / You stay for supper? / Not this time. Nicolas is expecting me. / Again? / Yes. Again, like yesterday and the day before. / You know, I do not trust him. He will break your heart. / I know, Mama, where’s my blue skirt? The wraparound? / At the laundry. I told you this yesterday. / No, I would have picked it up if you told me. / Maybe you were busy not listening to me. All I hear is Nicolas-this and Nicolas-that. I do not trust him. Emanuel did not like him, did I tell you that? Your own brother. / I know, Mama. What about the denim skirt with the embroidered — oops, never mind, here it is.
An intricate blend of fennel/onions/olive oil rises from her kitchen.
You call me if there is any trouble? / Yes, Mama. What about that beige blouse? Did you iron it for me? / Can you not yell? You know I’m in the kitchen.
Mama, dead now, two years, do you believe in time, Nicolas, because too much of it has passed without your courtesies. I became so urgent to see you after we lost Emanuel. Everything was frantic; all of me was hungry. You laughed, you seduced, you led me to your bed, and my appetite was not close to being satiated. You presumed this to mean I only wanted sex. I did not emerge from a chrysalis, Nicolas, to flourish for your benefit. and I am not unmindful of the desires of men. You have not been shy with your passions but remain ignorant of mine. Unhappily, I predicted this silence of yours, and I feel more naked than unmoored.
2/ Mawry Street
The neighborhood changed, you see. The moon, certainly crowded, does not have the room to be lobbed between rooftops anymore. Girls jump rope in the middle of Mawry Street, singing I’m H-A-P-P-Y, Yes, I’m H-A-P-P-Y. They’re all nine or ten years old, double-dutching, hop-skip-jumping from broken homes, fractured bones, cheating fathers, beaten mothers, but it was always this way since the beginning. Time has no interest in what people desire. I grew up here, you see, before I understood gloom and the ways people doom themselves by wanting things and watching things disappear. Now, the moon is the size and shape of my thumbprint, and all the wonder has passed.
And this is where you found me, Nicolas.
Here is where you found me, seated beside a cracked terracotta pot, bamboo stalks jammed into the soil like pieces of a picket fence, just another cheap porch-ornament my mother discovered at the Salvation Army rummage sale.
November 20/1973 — Remember last spring, Nicolas, when we strolled alongside those row houses of South Langley like young marrieds? You promised me we’d make a home there one day, someday, a place graced with old bricks and stone steps. We heard the lively syncopation of each other’s shoe steps on the sidewalk, and it was that kind of off-rhythm, that peculiar melancholic tempo, you divine when you can’t find your way back home. You bought us Coca-Colas and pizza slices from a place on East 75th just as the sun struck the big plate-glass window of the laundromat. The women inside were all dressed like my mother, in jumper dresses and shirtwaist dresses, and everything worn was in jewel tones, as if they were competing to be Audrey Hepburn. The sun cleaned the tired out of their eyes, and it smoothed the smudges from their dark raspberry lipstick. Those women would never be that lovely again, and that made me see it was just a big mirror revealing different versions of myself in twelve/twenty/thirty years, and Nicolas, you were not a part of any of them. There would be no row house in my future, just another walk-up apartment two blocks away from the nearest washing machine.
Why do I get so sad this time of year, I wonder? I know you’ve been busy, but it seems like we never talk, and Christmas is coming up fast.
Sundays had not changed, you see. The wind still trembled tin can tremolo through the eaves, and the silver maples were stripped raw of their gristle. A frozen lamb’s leg thawed in the sink; pan-fried saganaki lay arranged on the kitchen counter. Trays of Castelvetrano olives were on display in the dining room, graviera cheese in the breezeway between the garage and the living room. It was always the same.
Standing beside the workbench, Uncle Abe and my father argued about Nixon and railroad unions and football. They brushed cigarette ash from the fronts of their sweaters as they talked. Aunt Stephanie deplaned in the kitchen and fussily quadrisected blood oranges for the big salad. Then, irritated, she rearranged the pickle-and-Ritz cracker platter. It was always the same, right down to the argument about the silverware placement.
We had all become sour, hadn’t we, practically distilled to the point of evaporation.
May 19/1974 — Nicolas, if you still, curiously, read my letters:
It was just past nine o’clock, do you remember? I wore my favorite old blouse (the Ahimsa silk, you called it, though it was plainly Naum Brothers Department Store, ragged to the very last button) and those paint-splattered jeans you were so quick to tease me about. I was barefoot and three/parts sex and one/part Christmas gift soap. I stood there and waited for your exposition of us, and you stared at me, naked, preferring silence. I waited for you to etch a demarcation of us on the steamed glass of the bathroom mirror, or my collarbone with a bitter nail if you liked, or in the taste of your vodka pressed upon my mouth if you’d rather, but you did not say. Your silence has revealed you again, Nicolas, as I knew it one day would. And now, you see, I can never again trust anyone I love.
You left, of course, before I could turn away.
You called me, Nicolas, after days of silence, you called me.
“Can I come over?” you asked.
“Where are you?”
[Look, three of the unions have already ratified, and I think Winpisinger needs to….]
“What do you mean? I’m at home.”
“You shouldn’t have called today, Nicolas. You know how my parents are.”
“And how are they?”
[He said the strike against the Union Pacific was illegal, you know….]
“Loud and busy. Today is our family day. Religiously enforced. You know that.”
“Oh. I just thought you’d like to see me.”
“Where have you been all week?”
[Cripes, Abe, that must make you the mayor of, uh, Shinola…]
“What do you mean?”
“I mean: Where have you been all week? You know I still live on Mawry Street? It’s right on your way to the rest of the world.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“Not with me, you haven’t.”
You sighed. “Can I come over or not?”
“No. Not today. Family only, that’s the rule.”
“Your parents are tyrants, you know.”
[Aubrey, are you still on the goddamn phone? Hang up already.]
“Yes, they are. So are you okay?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. You?”
“Irritated. Bored. See you tomorrow?”
“Hey, you want to get married?”
“Married. Like in a church. The priest, the vows, the husband-and-wife thing. Does any of this sound good?”
[He called it bad-faith bargaining. What part of that don’t you understand, Jorge?]
“Think about it for a while, okay? I’m serious.”
“Yeah, probably. Call me when family time is over.”
“Nicolas Waltz, you are crazy. I’ll call you tonight. Okay?”
“Sounds good. Aubrey, I love you, you know.”
[Aubrey, are you still talking on the phone? What did I tell you?]
I whispered: “I love you, too, Nicolas.”
Only eighteen and already half-way decided on an inevitable course.
September 18/1975 — Nicolas, once more, I am tired:
We preserved ourselves in salt after Emanuel died in An Lộc. I saw the weight of his death in your eyes. In our bed, you rested your hand on my abdomen, near my great scar. I think you were as afraid of that scar as you were of my postponed grief.
Long before morning reached me, you were gone. I thought we would be indelible, but you’re erasing things again. I see the patterns of our lives stretched out on cloth, markings unremarkable, colors washed, edges lost. Did we become two blots of ink that blight the sheets? Are we just a matter of needle and thread, stitched together by a shared loathing of loneliness, regret? There used to be a time when I could explain these things in fiercest shades of red, but, as I said, I am tired, and you have left.
You expect, I think, your body to fail you; it will. It seems you should know this by now. It is the coarse-featured consequence of youth. Some things will invariably sag, and most will presumably fade. Winter will always drag us down and hurt us. We are in open winter now, Nicolas, and the storms do not shrug.
We remained together with only a few regrets and many apologies: hand-delivered I’m-sorry’s, bourbon-and-bitters surrenders, and most of our plaintive words, probably, sincerely remitted.
But you are not the man you projected, Nicolas Waltz; you are not the man I protected for so long.
We, who are wounded, stare outward, not toward any particular object or view, but to things familiar and sound, the un-toppled structures of same: a bowed chain-link fence, perhaps the winter necropolis of a vegetable garden. (My sunflowers persevere, depleted; empty-headed carapaces now, they nod to each other all day — these are what you have left me to love, Nicolas.)
Mourning is for stone-ground grits and warm pita bread, with carob syrup, poured over both. Grief defies the well-lit kitchen and floral curtains and shots of caffè doppio. Nothing can camouflage the ruins; light does not tidy up the smudges.
“I would have told you,” he says.
“Of course. But tell me this: How would that bit of conversation even begin?”
“Not easily, I’m sure.”
“Nicolas, that doesn’t even begin to endear you to me right now.”
“I’m sorry, Aubrey. I don’t know what to say.”
“Of course not, why would you? You’re dead.” The tissue comes away smeared with traces of overnight mascara. “You could have burned those damned letters, you know.”
“I haven’t thought about them for years,” he says.
I was barefoot and three/parts sex and one/part Christmas gift soap.
“Who was she, Nicolas?”
I see the patterns of our lives stretched out on cloth, markings unremarkable.
“She was the past.”
“Some of those letters came after we were married. Well married, I thought.”
“I was trying to pull my heart up a mountain, you know. The weight was too much.”
You know how much I love you (especially since that night at Lake Missaukee). Love you, my beautiful man.
“Nicolas, I don’t know what that means. Did you leave her, or were you going to leave me?”
“Winter is a hard season.”
“You have no idea, pal. All those conversations ago, all those stale, inert discussions, and not a single clue you were climbing a goddamn mountain with her.”
“I should have burned those letters.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I should have.”
June 11/1979 — There are times, Nicolas, when you cause me to think you are like the painter Caravaggio; your violent currents belie the quiet surface. There is darkness known only by your closest. Not that you paint, of course, but you brood and seclude each thought; you do not include me in your grief, but live in the contrasts of chiaroscuro.
Of course, your mood deepens near the anniversary of Emanuel’s death. I may never know why you suffer for him. You never knew him, you never met him, and I doubt I ever painted him in realistic textures. (There it is again, the darkness and light motif that you adore.) Emanuel was full of light, and you are his very contrast. Perhaps this is why you feel the compulsion to leave me.
We will survive this, won’t we, Nicolas? I understand you as much as I can appreciate anyone with such a disposition.
I remain faithful, as always.
She pads across the kitchen linoleum dressed in Adidas sweatpants and his old Patti Smith T-shirt. The image on the shirt has faded to a forty-year wash, but it is still comfortable and soundly made.
The funeral frippery, the Earl Grey and sympathy roses, the stink of peace lilies, and well-wishers’ leftovers, all of it removed by noon. She scrubs the soaped handwriting from the front door window. The Goethe quote — Oh, why do you draw me, irresistibly, Into all this magnificence? — was ridiculous in hindsight. A bit of baked penne casserole for lunch, a spot of Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, and she’ll be ready to rid the walls of Nicolas’ cluttered portraits.“Oh my dears,” she says to her sunflowers. “Was there ever happiness here, or has it already passed?” She sets aside her wine and puts away her dishes. It’s been an odd day, all told, but she feels she should write Nicolas a letter, something to help her decide if he should stay. You are not the man you projected, she writes and then considers all she has left to say.
Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile. Unaware, her left hand rests on his calf, ring finger prominent for her half of the photograph. She wears an apricot dress, freshly pressed for Mass, and pineapple decorative ruffle sandals, flat on the floor, hair gathered in a complex construct of barrettes and pins. You look wifely, he says, mid-level lovely, he says, whatever he thinks that means.
Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to her unborn child; sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done. Smile for the camera, sit next to your father; this is who we are, this is what we do: we smile unremarkable smiles and we are celebrated for our self-regard.
Photographer Samuel — a Gen X artiste who wears a Nevermind tattoo on one bicep, and keeps his belly as flat as a frozen hamburger disc– shifts his lighting umbrella a degree, mostly to impress them, and something to distract himself from thoughts of his aggravated assault charge, his public intoxication record, the delayed shame of fucking the undocumented waitress on top of flattened bed-in-a-box cartons behind the Light of Kings Korean restaurant. Or maybe he’s just a blue-collar guy, a mensch, someone who calls his mother twice a week, dates a Presbyterian girl he met at Bingo, teaches photography part-time at the community college. She considers his prison shoulders, those narrow meat-grinder hips, and it doesn’t really matter who he is. He could take her right here, right in front of the Winter Wonderland backdrop, without so much as a pre-game analysis. She is, after all, mid-level lovely.
And now, melancholy, she turns to her husband. There is a daub of shaving cream smeared beneath his ear, a washed-ashore otter sort of gray. I will not mention this, she decides. I was trapped in my body at such a young age. Where were you when I was frail, hiding from life, biding my time for my time to arrive? I was never further away from you than I am now. What do you think of Samuel? Should he take me here inside the filtered lighting? Should we smoke Chesterfield Kings after the flash bulbs pop? What do you think? What would you say?
“Your hubby says you’re expecting,” says Photographer Samuel, and nods with approval. She despises the word ‘hubby’. It indicates a lateral kind of masculine arrogance, as her mother would say. A word you would present in bold type for a late-morning Saturday cartoon: Hubby and Wifely, Crime-Fighters. Or something. Did it really matter? “It shows,” he says, and then stammers a disclaimer. “I mean that in a good way, of course. I mean the glow.”
“You know. The expectant-mother glow. Congratulations, is all I mean.”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you. I am glowing, I suppose.” She examines the words in her mouth, tastes them carefully, then swallows. Hubby and glow. What’s next? With child? I am with child with my hubby, and I currently glow. How nice. Those words need to be put to death, of course. She smiles an unremarkable smile. She will save the good smile for later, when it matters, in that fractured disconnect between say cheese and atta girl, you got it right!. Samuel, who is, after all, just a young guy wearing a gray Hanes T-shirt spotted with pizza grease, and retro-60’s mustard-yellow bell bottoms, cannot stop himself:
“I don’t mean ‘glow’ in the traditional sense, in a cliché kinda way, you know? I mean far-out glowing, the way Jackie Kennedy glowed, post-assassination, pre-Onassis, you know?” He grins at the logic of his cleverness.
“She gets it, Sam,” says hubby, finally irritated. “We’re not paying you by the hour, are we? Because all this glowing has got to fucking stop.”
“Oh. Sorry,” says not-so-clever Samuel. He folds his soft arms together and scratches them. “Just making convo.”
Hubby sighs loudly, then waves his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Bobbi booked this without telling me about it until last night, so my day’s already shot. Don’t take it too seriously.”
“Hey, no problem.”
“That your Mercedes parked out front? The red one?”
“Yeah, man, that’s the’65. A 230 SL, used to be my dad’s.”
“Sweet looking ride.”
“Oh yeah, it is. Only thirty-four thousand original miles, and”
The fabric of the day has changed, she decides. The boys tore it up and altered it into something else, something not dependent upon a woman’s presence. Sorry, Samuel, I have decided not to fuck you now. It’s not your fault, we were doomed from the start. I have too many original miles on me.
Bobbi drifts into the soft babble that surrounds her.
“Babe?” he says in a pretend whisper.
“You have a smudge. Your lips?”
“I have a smudge?”
“I guess. It looks off. The color, I mean.”
He means it’s not perfect. He can wear his hair uncombed and eyebrows untrimmed, and leave a brick of shaving cream below his ear, but the photo will be ruined, completely Armageddonly awful, if her lipstick is presumed to be a microbe “off”.
“Maybe you should pee, while you’re at it,” he whispers. “You’re squirming.”
“Maybe I should pee and de-smudge,” she says. “Yes.” What did he not understand about women? Does he think those things are done simultaneously?
“Hey, no problem,” she says, and Samuel points to the hallway.
“Second door on the left,” he says. “Knock first, I share it with the dentist’s office next door.”
Shoulders squared, she recalls. You must wear a calm, unremarkable smile as you press your key sharply against the doors and hood of a Mercedes-Benz. Remember always to sign the damage prominently in your hubby’s name.
Lamentation does not counter your sins, she says to no one as she walks around to the passenger side. Sadness does not excuse all the bad things we’ve done.