Saturday
Aug152015

French Lesson

I was face to face with Monsieur Robert’s mistress

Memoir by Louise Turan, Summer 2015

*

Waiting in a line, I stood in close proximity to a woman with unwashed hair. A musty odor, like dirty wool kept too long in a trunk, it grabbed me, seeking attention. Suddenly I was back in Annecy, France, my freshman year of college, living with the Roberts. I was in Madame Robert’s tiny kitchen; skiing on steep slopes with her unhappy daughters; and face to face with Monsieur Robert’s mistress. I found myself back in painful and all too familiar terrain.

By the time I was eighteen, I had already lived in Massachusetts, New York, Texas, California, and Pennsylvania and had spent eight years in Europe, four in Italy and four in Germany. I had attended eight different schools and lived in eight different houses. There were many advantages of this lifestyle: we enjoyed great food; summer vacations in Spain, Turkey, Greece; and winter ski trips to the Italian and French Alps. But there were also as many disadvantages. I made lots of friends and lost just as many each time we had to leave. The picking up and putting down every four years was hard but hardest on my mother. Each time she had to start out with a new house and help my sister and me get adjusted while my father – the colonel, the surgeon, the hospital CEO - carried on in his determined military way. When we returned to the States in 1971, we all thought happily that this time it would be for good. My parents bought a beautiful farm house in Pennsylvania near the hospital where my father worked. Like before, my mother set herself in motion to make it hers. My sister enrolled in a private school. And I went off to college in Pittsburgh.

I eagerly anticipated the January semester in France. My mother had sworn that we would never move again. Over her dead body, she said. So I wanted very much to go since it might be a long time before I got a chance to return.

Annecy is as picturesque as any town I remembered and loved from my travels. Sitting at the foot of the sparkling white Alps, the town has medieval buildings, charming canals, and cobblestone streets. But it is close quarters with the Roberts: Madame, Monsieur, and their three children, Sophie, age 16; Nicole, 14; and Christophe, 13, who reside in a very small apartment. The good news is that the lycée, where I will be taking classes, is within walking distance, and the Roberts have a condo in Courcheval, one of the largest ski resorts in Europe. It is an hour-and-a-half drive from town, and we will all go there on weekends.

I arrive at the Mont Blanc airport on a Friday morning. Monsieur Robert is there waiting for me with a woman I assume is Madame Robert, but I am introduced instead to a Madame X. Putting my skis and luggage in his Peugeot, he says we are going to stop for lunch before joining the family at the ski house for le weekend. In the restaurant, Monsieur Robert and Madame X sit close to one another and I sense, my neck getting hot, there is some activity involving hands and feet going on beneath the tablecloth. The conversation is awkwardly polite; there is no explanation who this woman is or why we are having lunch together. We hurry through the meal, hop back in the car. Monsieur Robert explains we have to drive Madame X back to her apartment.

He tells me to wait in the car, that he’ll be back tout suite. A good twenty minutes later, he returns as if all is normale, as if I have no idea what must have just transpired. Off we go to the mountains. Monsieur Robert talks most of the way and I listen, nodding my head, smiling, but with a deep sense of foreboding.

At the chalet the family’s greeting is reserved, but they are solicitous of my well-being, offering me wine and dinner. I’m actually relieved to mask my discomfort in the guise of being jet-lagged. They seem curious to learn about me not so much because I am American, but more trying to gauge how smart I am. It doesn’t take long for Madame and the girls to figure out that I know that they know that I know. Christophe seems clueless, or pretends to be. That night, with the girls and me sleeping nearby, I hear Christophe jerking off without restraint. And I think he must take after his father.

The following week we go through the motions of getting me settled, however, it is beginning to feel more like a bad comédie. I’m staying in Christophe’s room, which gives me total privacy except when he knocks on my door and asks if he can visit. He tells me he misses his room and then says, Dieu, comme je suis dur. I give him a blank stare, as if I don’t understand he’s telling me he’s got a hard-on. I say I really need to get back to my studies. He skulks away, rubbing his you-know-what. I am pretty disgusted. I feel very alone, like I am one kind of animal and the Roberts are another and we are being forced to cohabitate for no good reason at all.

My classes at the lycée are more challenging than I expected. The teachers and students speak at a rapid-fire pace and I have a hard time keeping up at first, but then it gets easier. The students look at me skeptically, as if it might not be possible for an American to understand the complexities of classical literature and philosophy, compulsory subjects for the Classe de Terminale, the equivalent to our high school seniors. Most of them are getting ready for their baccalauréat, a prerequisite for college admittance, and are very serious about their studies. The teachers seem impressed that my French is pretty good and even more surprised that I have read Camus, Dumas, Hugo, and Voltaire, as well as Sartre and Hume, philosophers and writers included in their curriculum. My guess is that they do not hold any education other than the French in very high esteem. It is a long day, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but we have a nearly two-hour lunch period every day and Wednesday afternoons free. Vive la France.

After two weeks, it is business as usual: Sophie, Nicole, Christophe, and I go to school, Monsieur Robert goes to work, and Madame Robert goes food shopping. We come home, have dinner, and go to our rooms to study. Monsieur Robert’s presence sucks the air out of the room. A big man with reddish hair, he issues commands to anyone nearby to bring him this and that. There is TV watching in the evenings, but it is usually just Monsieur Robert, alone, occupying a large space on the sofa, as if the boss had come into the room and all the workers have cleared out. He’s on the phone a lot and largely uncommunicative with his family unless there is something funny on and he invites us all to come share a laugh. We never do.

Sophie and Nicole are not as good actors as their mother, but for the most part when it is just the three of us, we forget about their father’s behavior with chitchat and laughs. Sophie has a round face and dark, curly hair. She is mostly serious; I can’t tell if that is her personality or if the situation weighs her down. She doesn’t say but looks like she’s about to cry most of the time. The younger Nicole has bright eyes and a ready smile and giggles a lot. Neither seems to be particularly interested in fashion but want to know what life is like in America. The one thing we do shop for together is makeup. They love that I use French cosmetics. After school the girls and I have fun walking through the wintry streets, arm in arm, looking in brightly lit shop windows still decorated for Christmas. I am always ready to get back to the apartment, though, and spend time with Madame Robert. It feels like she is my only real friend.

Madame is fair-complexioned, with auburn hair styled teased on top and falling to her shoulders in a soft flip. Her movements are quick and efficient, a required skill in such a small abode, but she is particularly deft in the charming, matchbox-sized kitchen. Every inch of space is used: the cooking equipment is neatly organized on shelves, a table functions for eating and as a work space, and there is a big window with a large sill where she keeps little pots of herbs. After school I find myself there, offering to help. Out of everyone, she is the most sincere and kind. It is as if she made herself a safe haven here, amid the pots and pans, in a space that is hers alone, a place to breathe. My heart aches for her. She is like a princess locked in a tower by a terrible ogre, a fate she seems to accept with calm resignation. It is what is expected of me, Louise, her eyes say in response to the look of woe I do my best to hide. This was the second time I felt the prickling at the back of my neck, my face getting hot. As the daughter of a military man, I understood all too well about expectations.

Madame is an excellent cook, no haute cuisine, just simply prepared vegetables and meats. My favorite dish is a vinaigrette—mustard, ground pepper, olive oil, and lemon—emulsified into a creamy dressing and then drizzled over cold, sliced Belgian endives. I eat kilos of them; I can’t get enough, which makes her laugh and smile, which makes me want to eat even more. She wears some combination of a four-piece, camel-colored wool suit every day. It is expensive-looking. She alternates between the pants and skirt but always the cream-colored silk blouse and pearls, always the same brown leather pumps, stockings, and soft brown leather bag. She seldom washes her hair, a European practice that is not unfamiliar to me. But the sour smell, accentuated by our proximity in the tiny kitchen, is both comforting and disturbing. The staleness exaggerates our confinement: things don’t change, pain doesn’t easily wash away; but at the same time, it is just who she is—no deception. There is no pretending in the kitchen; there is no place to hide. What started out as a comédie is now beginning to feel more like a tragédie. I no longer feel like an outsider watching this drama unfold. I have become one of the players.

At the end of my stay, we all go to Courcheval for one last ski. Sophie and Nicole confront me in the gondola going up the mountain. They sit on the bench facing me, our knees touching in the tiny lift. I am looking up at the slopes, averting their eyes. Our breath frosts the windows. Sophie speaks. We are ashamed, about what happened. Was it Madame X who met you at the airport with our father? Yes, I answer. And you went to lunch? Yes, I repeat. And did he take her home and you waited in the car? I shook my head yes, giving them the same look of woe I had given Madame. I wanted to close my eyes and make everything go away. I wanted to rewrite the past for them and for me.

At the top we get off the gondola. It is like the end of the world, all snow and mountain peaks unfolding as far as the eye can see. The sky is blue and endless over our heads. The girls tap their poles together and tell me to follow them; we are going off-piste, on unmarked trails. Allez, allez, Louise, they yell. I watch the two figures pitch forward and zig-zag down the slope. They zoom ahead of me, undaunted, unafraid, like they have done it a million times before. The run is terrifyingly steep, covered with ice, sharp as a razor’s edge. I am scared to death and have to side-step most of the way, but I make it down. If my suitcase had been there, I would have gladly skied all the back to Pennsylvania and that would have been the end of the story but it wasn’t.

The next summer my father announced we were moving back to Europe. My mother cried and cried. My sister shrugged her shoulders because she didn’t care anymore and I knew that we had no choice. Just like going down the mountain. That is what resurfaced that day in line, beneath the smell of unwashed hair. Like Sophie and Nicole, no matter how steep and dangerous, no matter how much it hurts, you have to make it safely to the bottom and keep going. It was a lesson they had learned, and so had I. 

*

Louise Turan’s creative nonfiction and fiction has appeared in Superstition ReviewForgeDiverse Voices Quarterly and Existere. She currently lives in Philadelphia and Maine and is working on her first novel. 

Image: Marty Portier.

Saturday
Aug152015

Building a Basement

Then there was the time that she put a hamburger in the dryer thinking it was the fridge.

Memoir by Michele Whitney, Summer 2015

*

Once, I nearly built my grandmother a basement.

I must have been twelve years old when Grandma came to live with us. At that age I’m not sure if I understood the reasons for her stay, but I heard the adults talk of her “being senile” and forgetting things. The final decision was made, I heard, after Grandma had locked herself out of her own house and couldn’t figure out how to get back in.

I didn’t really care about the reason she was coming to stay; I just knew that I couldn’t wait for her to get there and spend time with me. My preteens were a dark cloud of loneliness, and I knew that my grandma would be the sunshine that broke through that cloud. Grandma gave me the love and attention that I craved. With her, I could relax and be my nerdy, awkward, chubby self, and she would love me more for it. She gave me a special kind of love that encouraged my authenticity. She thought I was beautiful. Amazing. And I felt the same way about her. Everything about her was wonderful and eccentric. She was frail but strong, sharp and witty, intelligent and sexy, and just overall beautiful.

And her laugh. We were kindred laughing spirits. If she found something funny, she would burst into the most contagious laugh…just like me.

However…

The grandma who was coming to live with us when I was twelve years old was not the grandma I knew.

Grandma had a few humorous difficulties as she settled in with us. She wanted to be useful, but was getting more and more confused. Once she picked up a stack of photos and began intently shuffling through them. I asked her what she was doing. She said she was counting her money.

Then there was the time that she put a hamburger in the dryer thinking it was the fridge.

And speaking of food, there was the time she completely destroyed dinner. Grandma had always been a great cook, and in her “mind” helping meant cooking from time to time. But I realized that her cooking days were over when she used two whole bottles of salt to season only a few pieces of fish.

Caring for this new grandma was obviously difficult for the adults, and as a child, I couldn’t fully grasp what I saw. The once witty, sharp grandma I knew began to fade away. There were a few glimmers of her vibrancy. Her laugh. But even that began to dull over time. And as her laugh faded, I experienced an unexplainable sadness that left a grandma-size hole in my heart.

And to make things worse, my grandmother turned on me.

One evening my grandma and I sat in the kitchen calmly watching television, when suddenly she jumped up and said, “I have to get something out of the basement.”

I replied, “Grandma, what are you talking about? We don’t have a basement.”

“Yes, we do. I saw it last night,” my grandmother said sternly.

“Grandma, this is a one-story house. It doesn’t have an upstairs or a downstairs.”

“Yes, it does.”

I was getting frustrated and so was she. I decided to try and “reason” with her.

“Grandma, if you saw a basement, show it to me.”

My grandmother quickly walked through the kitchen to the dining room in the back of the house. I followed her as if I were going to a new place in a house I had lived in for most of my life. Was she joking with me? No. We finally got to the location of the so-called basement. Standing sideways, my grandmother’s small, frail body rocked back and forth. She placed one foot in front of the other, with her arms swinging to each side. She looked like she was dancing. I imagined she might have been carving out her own space as to where the basement should be. She looked confused as she said, “I know the basement was…right…here…” as she sharply pointed downward.

I looked at my grandma. I looked for my grandma. Who was this woman? She looked as if she had been defeated. I slowly got closer to her and put my hand on her back. I pointed to the floor and said to her gently, “Grandma, see. There is no basement here.”

She didn’t budge. She continued to look downward for the basement. Tears fell from my eyes and dropped to the place where the basement should have been. Didn’t she understand? Why wasn’t she listening to me?

“Grandma!” I screamed. “We don’t have a basement!”

My beloved grandmother finally raised her head, with anger in her eyes, cursed at me, and walked away.

I stood there alone. Each stage of grief filled my heart. Did my grandma just curse at me? Did the woman who was so filled with love and laughter just look at me as if I were dirt?

The little I knew about the disease was that it made you forget. But could the disease also make you add new rooms to your own house? As I stood there in my grief, I desperately wanted to find a shovel or a bulldozer to create this basement my grandma was so adamant about seeing.

Then I could go to my grandma and say, Yes, Grandma, you were right. I was wrong. Here’s the basement right here.

For the rest of her days at our home, Grandma and I never again talked about the basement. Perhaps she gave up the illusion. I often wondered if I could see through my grandma’s eyes, get in her tangled mind, or sit within her heart, what I would see in her basement. Was it a safe haven or a place where she could belong? Maybe there in that basement, she could ultimately recapture her memories and her beautiful life.

*

Michele Whitney is a writer, college professor, and musician from Chicago. She holds a BS in Marketing, an MBA, and a MS in Human Services from Capella University. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, The Griffin, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, r.kv.r.yand Diverse Voices Quarterly. You can read more of her work at www.michelewhitney.net 

Saturday
Aug152015

Knowing

 

Despite her fat, Eve had hard muscles.

Fiction by D Ferrara, Summer 2015

*

Shimmer snapped off the radio, sighed, and headed for the lobby, sorry, “greeting room.” Hoity-toity bullshit in Shimmer’s opinion, which she kept to herself. She needed the job, and her other one, just to get by. It was “the economy, stupid” time, as that guy said in his campaign ads, and Shimmer, who had never voted in her thirty-five years, heartily agreed. Not even the burst of mild patriotism she had felt over the recent golf war (which she thought had been about oil, not golf, but what did she know?) could change things. Mouthing off too much would get her fired. Shimmer knew the score.

In any case, there was a customer and she needed the money. The Sensual Arts Massage Spa did not pay her if she did not work, and little enough if she did. Checking her hair, makeup, and teeth in the mirror, giving her peach-colored uniform a last tug, Shimmer applied her professional smile and opened the door.

Immediately, Shimmer wanted to turn around. The only person there was a fat broad in a plain blue skirt suit that looked vaguely like a uniform. Shimmer hated fat broads. Every inch was extra work. But her smile never wavered. She held out her hand, ready for the usual small talk—Yes, Shimmer is my real name. Ever had a massage? Everything, even the panties. It didn’t come. Instead, the woman, very short, with oddly blue eyes, simply nodded, followed Shimmer’s directions to Room 6, and closed the door, almost in Shimmer’s face.

Leaning against the wall, Shimmer hoped that this one would tip better than her last fat broad. Shimmer glanced at the work slip for the customer name: Eve. No help. Women named Candy or Tiffany tipped better, she thought. Fancy names, fancy ways. She wished she could smoke.

It was time to tap on the door, and Eve said something that wasn’t “Go away,” so Shimmer came in. Eve was on her stomach, covered by a sheet to her shoulders. Her clothes were neatly folded—skirt, blouse, underwear, panty hose—on the only chair. Her jewelry, including a knock-your-eyes-out sapphire ring, was in her right shoe, under the chair. How did I miss that rock? Shimmer thought. Eve’s purse was on the hook, and Shimmer thought a smart woman would have put the jewels in her bag, but maybe it was a fake. She hoped so, because if it was real, then Eve was rich and rich women were crappy tippers. Shimmer knew that for sure too.

Eve’s skin looked paler in this dim light than in the greeting room, with a satiny sheen. No sun. Probably sits on her fat ass all day, playing cards. Shimmer’s patter rolled out on its own: What kind of oil? Any allergies? Is the light okay? Let me know if it hurts. She supposed she heard the answers. Shimmer always started at the head with a back-of-the-neck floating fingertip ripple, her signature move. The other students at massage therapy school had envied that move. At least two had stolen it. Eve did not make the usual murmur of appreciation, however. A little ticked off, Shimmer moved on.

Massage school had been a triumphant time for Shimmer. In her entire life, she had never done as well at anything as the ins and outs of muscles, ligaments, joints, and bones. To her astonishment, even the cadavers had not freaked her out. Instead, she had wished they had been alive, well, a little, so she could see the lactic acid actually squirt, to witness how muscle pain actually happened, instead of just reading about it.

For a time, it seemed she might graduate first in the class. She, Shimmer Sue Ellen Rudzianski, who had never been first in anything in her life! She had made the mistake of mentioning this to her loser boyfriend, Greg, who insisted on being called Gears. He decided to make sure she was first by hacking into the newly computerized grading system of the school to change her grades. Of course, he screwed it up, erasing all the records, so no one was first and all their licenses were delayed for six months.

But Greg—excuse me, “Gears”—was a man, a steady man, and nowadays a gal over thirty was lucky to have one, so Shimmer’s mom and sisters all said. He always meant well, even if it didn’t always turn out well. You had to take that into account.

Eve made a little squeak. Thinking of Gears had made Shimmer press too hard on Eve’s lower back. Shimmer pretended this was what she had intended and that Eve was giving the right signal. In fact, she had sensed something particularly odd here as she made the first passes.

Shimmer moved across Eve’s back, visualizing the bands of muscles, feeling the width, the thickness, the texture of each. She thought of her fingers as little cameras, finding knots—which were places where the muscles had pulled together tightly—coaxing them loose. Her sense of tension location was amazing, she knew. Eve had lots.

Despite her fat, Eve had hard muscles. Shimmer frowned. These were not aerobic-studio or dance-class muscles. Eve’s back had tough bands that had supported heavy loads. (Shimmer wasn’t sure how she knew the difference. She simply did.) The shoulders, wrapped to her spine with a harness of flesh and blood, had hauled more than dainty shopping bags. Shimmer’s fingers, alert as always, sent confused signals as they traveled down Eve’s strong arms to small hands, which were edged by both polished nails and unmistakable calluses.

Returning to the spot where Eve had squeaked, Shimmer moved carefully. Her left hand, the more sensitive, cupped Eve’s left side as if it were a baby’s butt. Eve tensed briefly, relaxed, tensed again—not as much—then relaxed completely as Shimmer found the muscle contractions and made them release. In her head, Shimmer saw the stringy bands of flesh obey her, the blood flow more freely. At the same instant, she and Eve breathed a tiny “Ah-h-h.”

The right side was more difficult, although Shimmer didn’t know why. Both hands were telling her not to go there, but she forced herself to rub around the right side of Eve’s waist. Tension flooded Eve, pouring up Shimmer’s fingers in a shock wave. It was all she could do to keep from throwing up her hands. Slowly, she rubbed a gentle fingertip circle on Eve’s back, then moved down her right thigh. Eve relaxed.

Eve’s thighs were hard, strong, without any fat. It was difficult to work on such muscles, taking all Shimmer’s concentration. Both calves were ropy, tapering to small feet and ankles. The feet, like Eve’s hands, were clean, polished, and callused.

To Shimmer’s sensitive touch, the left ankle gave up secrets. The bones had been pinned together. Shimmer felt one, two, three metal screws beneath lumpy, barely healed scars. Eve made a small sound, something like pleasure, as her battered feet were rubbed gently.

When it was time for Eve to turn over, Shimmer held the sheet up. Normally, she’d make a big show of turning away, giving the customer privacy—as if she’d never looked at a naked body. This time, she couldn’t help it: she looked at Eve as she turned. She almost gasped, then turned her head quickly.

Just below and to the right of Eve’s navel was another wrinkled hole, larger, ugly, and crisscrossed with scars. Shimmer’s brothers and uncles were hunters. She knew a bullet hole when she saw one. Holy shit.

Eve settled down under the sheet. Flustered, Shimmer found a gauzy square, applied a drop of fragrant oil, and laid it carefully over Eve’s face. “Lavender oil,” she said, hoping Eve wouldn’t say she puked at the smell. Eve smiled and Shimmer continued, relieved she did not have to risk being seen by those deep blue eyes.

The session continued in a blur, running a little long. Not that it mattered—not many people showed up on weekday mornings. By the end—the ritual of stepping out while Eve dressed, fetching her a glass of water, telling her “rehydrate and relax,” walking her to the front—Shimmer had regained her composure. Eve detoured to the ladies’ room, and Shimmer heard a man’s voice talking to Jeannie, the receptionist. She couldn’t catch every word, just bits and pieces like:

“…ran back in at least three times…”

“…there was shooting all around…”

“…saved those kids…”

Eve came out, shook Shimmer’s hand, and said, “Thank you, Shimmer,” and “Good-bye,” in a soft voice. The man, dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform, smiled at Eve in a funny way, sort of proud and happy and respectful, like Eve was his favorite teacher and the President of the United States at the same time. He held the door for Eve, winked at Jeannie and Shimmer, then raced to a shiny car to get that door too.

Shimmer thought that he didn’t look much like a chauffeur, or Eve like a woman who had one, or the car like one a chauffeur would drive. Then again, maybe she didn’t know as much as she thought about such things. Maybe she didn’t know a lot about anything.

Jeannie babbled something about Eve and an orphanage in Africa, and how she was visiting the Shriners hospital in Watertown, and Eve being on television, and look, her chauffeur left your tip envelope.

As Jeannie continued to chatter, Shimmer took the envelope. She was thinking about how she would finally tell Gear they should do something about their relationship—break it off or get serious. Tonight they would begin that discussion. No tears, no yelling. She needed to get it resolved. Tomorrow, maybe she could look into volunteer work at that Shriners hospital, or at the VA—there were returning veterans, she had heard, in a lot of pain.

She could help them. Her fingers could help them. There were classes she could take too. Get out of this into something more serious. Somehow, it was time to Do Things.

She hardly heard Jeannie’s yelp as she folded the hundred-dollar tip into her pocket.

*

D Ferrara is a professional writer, editor and collaborator, with a passion for short fiction fed by journals such as Broadkilll Review, Greenprints, Penmen Review, Crack the Spine, Amarillo Bay, Adana and others. She is also an award winning playwright and a screenwriter. While her web site is resting, she posts current news at https://www.facebook.com/Dferrarawriting “Knowing” can also be found in Adana

Image by B Carroll.

Saturday
Aug152015

The Good Part

Poetry by Will Walker, Summer 2015

*

I’d like a Sunday

like a Mary Oliver

poem, with a few

 

perfect words and

lots of white space,

and paper with

 

a high rag content

and maybe some

righteous soy-based ink.

 

It would be a leaf

in one of her spare

little collections, with

 

a fine old lithograph

from the public domain

on the cover,

 

one that recalled the idyllic

Transcendentalist woods

of Thoreau and Emerson

 

and John Muir.

I’d like to stare

at the few

 

perfect words

close up with

my glasses off

 

and appreciate the clean

edges of the fine

big print and feel


like I’m in church,

the good part, when

the church is empty

 

and there’s only

silence and the sound

of my own breath.

*

Will Walker lives in San Francisco with his wife, Valerie, and their dog. He is a former editor of the Haight Ashbury Journal. You can read more at http://www.erickentwines.com/pages/category.jsp?catid=212 

"The Good Part" was originally published in Burningword 72. www.burningword.com

Saturday
Aug152015

Sometime After Breakfast

Poetry by Will Walker, Summer 2015

*

Some days what’s best said is nothing. Do the dishes.

Let the water rushing from the kitchen tap

and spattering in your fifty-year-old white porcelain sink

be your soundtrack, tuneless music, an aqueous rat-a-tat

little snare drum of busy bubbling strict time running

 

on and on, telling you all about its full life, born

aboard a turbulent cumulus, accrued in the Sierra Nevada

in a hard, white winter attended by the tough mugs

of massive boulders and the ministrations of a forest

of firs, whole monkish colonies bearing witness

to snowmelt and trickle, a white field dissolving

 

into sedge and grass and wild orchids, a sea

of Indian paintbrush, phalanxes of forget-me-nots.

Then the deep absorbent meditation of earth,

and the engineered fugue of dam and pipes and valves,

followed by the burst of daylight and this happy exit down

a copper pipe, headed on a journey to begin again.

*

Will Walker lives in San Francisco with his wife, Valerie, and their dog. He is a former editor of the Haight Ashbury Journal. You can read more at http://www.erickentwines.com/pages/category.jsp?catid=212 

Saturday
Aug152015

Migration

Coming to New York City had proven to be nothing like she’d hoped. 

Fiction by Matt Perron, Summer 2015

*

Laura lay on the futon with her fist pressed against her mouth, staring at the cardboard box she used as a nightstand, and listening to the incessant cooing of the pigeons outside. She felt a depressing kinship to the anonymous gaggle, bobbing their grey heads and treading over excrement-pasted sills. Fired. That was supposed to be something that happened to other people.  But what did she care?  She hadn’t graduated honors with a bachelor’s in chemistry just to answer phones and perform data entry.  Still, it felt like failure.  Coming to New York City had proven to be nothing like she’d hoped. Visits to the theater, exotic restaurants, art gallery openings, and exclusive rooftop bars took money, not that she still wished for such things. Now she simply wanted a job that required her to think. And after a two-year struggle, she feared that was asking too much.

She heard Troy’s keys jingle as he opened the door, his footfalls thudding across the other room, and then the television.

They’d met after she answered his ad for a sublet, and she moved into what amounted to a converted closet. Eventually, the forced intimacy of little things like a common toothbrush holder and bar of soap evolved into shared groceries and meals. When the fridge was empty, they went out to eat. Finally, they’d kissed in the corner of a crowded bar and had nowhere to go but home together. He wouldn’t be pleased when he heard she’d lost her job.

She took a deep breath and opened the door.

He sat in the corner of the couch. A flannel shirt stretched across his broad shoulders, and his size-12 feet were crossed on the coffee table. Dark-framed glasses perched on his nose, and a thick black beard covered his chin. A graphite pencil wedged between his fingers scratched against the graph pad in his lap as he scribbled yet another of the blueprints he never felt like explaining to her. He was watching baseball again.

She sagged close to him on the couch and kissed his prickly cheek. “You won’t believe what happened.”

He put down the pencil and pad and wrapped an arm around her waist. “What’s that?”

“I got canned at the bank.”

His arm slowly left her side. An intake of air passed between his teeth as he stroked his whiskers.

“This managing director said I lost his Knicks tickets.”

“Did you?”

“No. I left them on his desk.”

“They fired you for that?”

“He claimed I was rude on the phone too.”

“Rude?”

“That’s what he said.”

“Seems kind of flimsy.”

She shrugged.

“Don’t tell me he was trying to get you in the sack.”

“Oh, please.” Laura had always been blessed with striking green eyes and an alluringly petite figure, but she hadn’t sensed sexual tension from the wimpy director. “I was beneath his contempt. And maybe that gave me a little attitude. Answering phones and making copies was getting to me. Especially when I was never thanked.”

“That really sucks.”

“Would you rather that he had attempted to molest me?”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

“I didn’t quit. This time I got fired. There’s a difference.”

He picked up the pencil and spun it absentmindedly between his fingers.

She suspected anger smoldering beneath that goddamn New England stoicism. Better to have it out now. “That’s it?  That’s all you have to say?”

He shrugged and returned the pencil to the coffee table. “What do you want me to say? It was a temp job. You’ll get something better. It’s probably an opportunity.” He paused. “Want a drink?”

This was beyond stoicism: he actually seemed truly calm. The realization disconcerted her. “Yeah, I could use one.”

“Whiskey or beer?”

“Better make it whiskey.”

He crossed the room to the cramped strip of linoleum lining the wall between the stove and the fridge, got a bottle of Canadian Club and two glasses from the cupboards, and poured two doubles over ice. “We need to talk,” he handed her one.

She braced herself. “About what?”

He grabbed the remote and turned off the television.  “Got a new job.”

“That’s just great. In two years I barely get an interview, and you land another job just like that. Did you even send out résumés?” She raised her glass. “I suppose we should drink to at least one of us getting somewhere.”

“It’s not really a new job. It’s more of a promotion.”

She knew she should be happy for him, but it seemed so unfair. “A promotion?” she lowered her drink.

“In Boston.”

“Boston?”

“Right.”

She imagined his new office, probably in Cambridge with a view of the Charles River. He’d be part of a team with complex issues to solve; maybe he’d even be the boss of that team. He’d work on problems whose solutions, after much deliberation, would probably occur to him seemingly suddenly, maybe in the shower or riding in the back of a cab. He’d be praised for his creativity, validated in concrete ways. Perhaps he’d receive further promotions. Maybe someone like her would bring him coffee. “I see.”

He sat beside her and put his arm around her waist.

She jerked from his touch.

He gave her more space on the couch.  “You know this could be a blessing for you.”

“Really? How so?”

“Maybe you should go back to Wantagh.”

“That doesn’t sound like an invitation.”

“You wouldn’t have any more luck getting a real job, and it’d be even harder up there just to get a paycheck. You’d be miserable.”

“More importantly, you think I’d make you miserable.”

He turned from her, sipped his drink. “It is contagious, isn’t it?”

“Don’t worry, Troy. I don’t want to go with you.”

“But you’ll visit.”

“I don’t know. Will you have a new roommate?”

He finished his whiskey.  “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

The reality that they’d be parting began to set in for Laura. If she was honest with herself, this was inevitable from the moment they’d first kissed. They hadn’t fallen in love, so much as fallen into the habit of each other.  Still, her failures were mounting.  She bit back a sob.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said. “Nobody can find a job. It’ll probably be like a high school reunion for you out there. Might even be fun.”

She could only stare.

He rested his glass on the coffee table, and showed her his palms. “You have to look on the bright side.”

“I’d have to live with my mother at Tony’s.”

“And?”

“You know I can’t stand it there.”

Troy said nothing.

“Come on. You’ve seen him. The motor oil under his nails, those ridiculous sports team shirts with someone else’s name on the back, the constant f-bombs. He’s embarrassing.”

“Honey, you’ve been sleeping with a Maine lobsterman.”

“It’s not the same. You write software. You’ve come a long way from that fishing island. How far has he ever gone?”

“For one, he owns his own garage. You’re lucky to have somewhere to go.  Just what do you have against him anyway?”

A complicated question, because as soon as she left for college, her mom moved in with Tony, and she was told to cancel her student loans. The University of California wasn’t cheap, but she’d never asked for that kind of sacrifice. She shuddered at the thought of the debt she’d have faced without his assistance. “For all I know, he’s never even read a book.”

“You’re being judgmental.”

“Who the hell are you to say?”

Troy swirled his glass and watched the cubes ring against the side. “Long Island’s not far. You’re not as trapped as you think.”

Laura raised her whiskey and gave him a wry grin. “To the future.”  She gulped down the rest.

“Where’re you going?”

“To call him to come get me.”

“You’ve got a funny way of showing your condescension.”

She slammed the door closed behind her and punched the number.

Tony answered.

She imagined the gold bracelet dangling from his hairy wrist and the cell phone clamped to his belt. “Hey.”

“What a pleasant surprise. What’s up? You sound a little down.”

“It’s complicated.”

“Everything all right?”

“Not really.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Is my mom there?”

“Yeah. She’s out back in the garden. Want me to get her?”

She pictured her mother, knees in the soil, trimming the tomato plants growing along the edge of the foundation. It was August, so there’d be a wire bowl filled with tomatoes and peppers on the kitchen counter by the spice rack. “No,” she said. “You’re the one with the truck.”

“You need me to come get you?”

“Would you?”

“I’d do anything to help your mother and you. When?”

“Soon as you can.”

“Give me a couple hours.”

“Tony…”

“What is it, honey?  Is it that guy your with?”

“No.”

“You sure?  Because your mother and I never liked that arrangement.”

“It’s not him, it’s just….”

“Go ahead, honey.”

“You’ve been generous, way more than I deserve.” 

“Because I wanted to be.”

“And I’ve done nothing with it.”

“Sweetie, this ain’t a race. Get your things together, and I’ll come get you.  We can talk more in the truck, if you want.”

A quiet moment passed.

“Stay with us for as long as you need to, probably won’t be as long as you think.”

“I really appreciate your help.”

“I know you do. On my way.”

She hung up.

Troy looked up from his blueprint and saw her pulling her suitcase down from the top shelf of the living room closet. “So he’s coming, just like that?”

“Got two hours to get ready.”

“Need any help?”

“Wouldn’t want you to miss your game.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Forget it. There’s barely anything to pack anyway.”

It took her fifteen minutes. Now that she knew she was leaving, she wanted to be gone. She couldn’t simply sit and wait.  “I’m going for a last walk around the neighborhood.”

Troy turned off the TV. “Just let me put on my shoes.”

“I’d rather go by myself.”

“You sure?”

She nodded.

He watched her walk out the door.

She saw them almost as soon as she got outside, bright and incongruous against the pale bricks of the building across the street. The parrots, at least ten of them, clung squawking to the fire escape. She’d heard of them, of the shipping accident that brought them here, and the warm bank of lights at Brooklyn College that allowed them to survive so far from where they belonged. The birds, seeming to sense her attention, exploded greenly off the railing, and wheeled in the empty sky.

*

Matt Perron lives in Brooklyn with his wife.  His work has appeared Cadillac Cicatrix, Compass Rose, Blue Lake Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Gemini Magazine, Sanskrit, The Dos Passos Review, Riversedge and G.W. Review.  He also won the 2014 Table 4 writer's contest for his story, "Rent Control."

Image Source: Stefano Corso