Category Archives: Clowns, Coffee, Trains, and Other Miscellany
We were slow to respond to the five a.m. evacuation orders. Hotel sirens blurted and a voice ordered visitors to walk, not ride elevators, down to the first floor. I crawled out of bed and circled the hotel room—are you putting on pants? I asked Darrin and he mumbled some response. We picked up and set back down books and bits of paper and empty water bottles—as if the emergency might be hiding beneath a key card.
It was perfect really, my first hotel evacuation on this weekend trip to Portland, the alternative universe soon to be our home.
I flew first class not because I paid, but because Darrin flies a hundred thousand miles a year and gets tickets and upgrades for free. The 737 was old with yellowing vinyl and no-smoking indicator lights like hieroglyphics—had we ever smoked at this oxygen rich altitude? The seats were spacious and there was seafood bisque for lunch, but when the attendant pulled a wire gate across the front of the cabin cutting me off from the beverage carts and bathrooms, the airplane felt ominous. The attendant guard stood behind the heavy strands of wire and released the captain from the cockpit and he paced in his high-flying corral and maybe he bucked, or I imagined this—he seemed so happy to be free of his shiny-button and computer-monitor prison, cracking jokes and smiling.
Darrin picked me up and we toured the fairyland city of steel bridges where trees droop under the weight of paper lanterns and plastic animals, flappy-eared dogs in plastic goggles ride in motorcycle sidecars, and bronzed vans with electric monkeys waving in the windows parade like calliopes down the city streets—I wondered if I might need more than these fifty-three hours to get grounded.
We stopped by schools crumbling under the weight of budget cuts and learned about community gardens, Sooty the school cat, the imponderable buoyancy of juggling balls, and the academics of overcrowding. We familiarized ourselves with neighborhoods and housing prices and cupped coffee and drank espresso in Stumptown’s brick and mirrored cafes, and cocktails with local gins in dimly lit lounges with darkened wood and stuffed deer heads, all served by a new generation of tatted hipsters, those cultural canvases at the pivotal age of possibility. In Portland, plaid and black are forever the fashion, the baristas are in bands, house painters are inventers, and every surface is the perfect place for a stone mosaic or a roster. Eating it seems, is the people’s art, and we dined on delectables from the pantries of the gods—Poc Poc’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings and pomegranate drinking vinegar, Toro Bravo’s braised oxtail croquettes with yes, a flash of chocolate, and of course, some diner eggs and of course, more coffee—for this even Hera would have relinquished her sweet ambrosia.
After a weekend of indulgence, I was sluggish in an emergency, and probably too cynical to be scared, and maybe I was still sleeping. Hotel guests clattered outside our door toward the stairs and I wondered if a salesman from the herbal-life convention had gone rogue and pulled the fire alarm—maybe false alarms were a particularly herbal form of humor. I sifted through street clothes and, sure enough, the warnings changed. “Stay in your current location,” came the call as the sirens continued blaring. Relieved of taking action, I lay back down. The clatter turned to quiet and I drifted off, dreaming of neon tattoos, milk-foam monkeys, and everywhere, the clowns were harvesting espresso machines.
He layered the roast beef with thin strips of newspaper and a generous coating of paste, then set it on the counter to dry. Each coarse was a delicate and painstaking work of art. He prepared a dozen apples to set in a bowl as a centerpiece taking great care with the stems. His fingers were stiff, the joints swollen, but he was still up for the work. He was a master with the brush—years of white-face and mixing paints for props, altering jackets and hats because once Martha was gone, who else to do it?
He’d taken less care with the room, a shabby monk’s cell. A narrow bed stretched along one peeling wall and the table that was a series of tables, a broken rail line of tables, and chairs he’d borrowed from neighbors or scavenged from the streets. Odd, he thought, to end up in this dark, cold, colorless place, after a lifetime of cacophonous noise and motion and blistering lights. The silence made him nervous and even the small space seemed large and when he wasn’t preparing, he was pacing like one of the lions. And of course he wondered about the big cats, it was worse for them to be moved but to rarely move, they of motion. Maybe God was punishing him, he thought, but then, he didn’t believe in that nonsense. And the years were a dream, the screech and rattle and screams as razorbacks guided wagons and carts down the runs from trains, the roustabouts heaving up the tops, the clatter as the cook tent rose from the dirt and cooks set pans a’ fire for bacon and cakes and fields of eggs, and wagons creaking over washed-out roads loaded with canvas and rigging and poles and kiesters, and the slurp of horses hooves pulling from the mud, the swish of rope and clang of metal and the music, it was all music, and the sour, sweet and often putrid smells of the sleeper cars and shit and rotting meat because sometimes the meat for the cats was rotting, and sometimes there was no meat, and the ammonia headaches and after all that now this, the all-out leaving a vast ocean of trampled grass and scattered litter, and the emptied lot was this room stained and yellowed with a few spare dissonant notes from the creak of the bed springs when he pulled himself up in the morning and the scrap of a chair on the floor. His was the loneliness of the left-behind, his days, echoes, the vacuous wake from a passing train.
Of course he would host a party if they were coming through town before the home run, a party befitting his family, his time and position as a whiteface, priest of the show, his show—no other clown could say that—before his slide-for-life to the walkaround, throwing gags through the stalls and the gallery. Frank didn’t tend toward the philosophical, but that he’d grown a respectable circus from a dog and pony show, nineteen cars at its peak, if only for the wink of an eye—that was a straw house, a triumph if there ever was one in the funny business. And now this prison as a prize, it wasn’t right. Living cursed like a Larry. . . . and so the banquette was the final ruse, a performer’s trick for his troupe. Why a ruse he couldn’t say, but it was who he was and the unexpected was an obligation, and an encore should be illustrious. So he spent months preparing, hoping they didn’t change the date, or the route. And the preparations made him young, the splattering of flour paste, paint drippings, and the ticker tape parade of paper and color—these were a comfort redolent of clown alley.
There were moments in those months when he tried for something solid. When he ran out of flour for paste, he walked down to the corner market and the clerk watched him come through the door from behind the counter. She was fat and well past her prime but there was something vibrant and Frank watched her like a starving man as she scooped flour into his jar, her arms thick and muscular and when she turned she met his gaze and her eyes were warm pools, and he pulled a bouquet from his sleeve, a novice gag but he was nervous and storm clouds drifted across her eyes, and in those moments, all that could passed between them, a relationship born of curiosity died in disillusionment, and when he broke free from her vision he was no longer a man but something ancient, impotent, and his hand shook as he took the jar of flour and her smile was from across and ocean.
And so he made pies with utmost care, but then his fingers felt large on the delicate crusts. He threw away the loaf of bread shaped like a brick. On the day of the party, he laid a white sheet across the tables and tacked it down in the corners, and lit candles around the room though he knew this was a hazard. He put on his baggy paints and a large yellow tie with green polka-dots, and set the table with place settings he’d collected from the mess tent over the years. The apples he set in a large class bowl in the center of the table.
Robert and Lillian were the first to show.
How are you dear? Lillian kissed him on the cheek, her lavender velvet voice matching her dress. Frank took both their hats.
I like your tie, Robert said and his voice was cutting, this man who had been like a son. Frank touched his tie and smiled generously. He motioned the two into the room.
I hear you two are stars now. . . . I always knew you would be.
Because of you, Lillian said and the three stood awkwardly.
You should come back. There’s always a place for you.
Frank snorted. A walkaround. I made that show what it is.
The Ringlings made the show. You sold yours, Robert said. He glanced around the room.
Whiskey? Frank asked anticipating his need. Robert’s bitterness cut his heart, but Frank didn’t let on.
He doesn’t mean it, Lillian said, touching Frank’s hand protectively.
Yes I do, Robert said and took the glass from Frank. They held their glasses up in a toast. To you, Frank said smiling grandfatherly back at the couple.
Look, Lillian said and showed Frank the large garnet ring on her finger. Isn’t it beautiful! You haven’t even congratulated me.
Lillian’s look was earnest, and for that Frank was grateful.
Congratulations, Lilly. We all know Robert has an eye for beauty. The two men threw cold glances.
Now stop you two. Lillian had a way with her eyes, a penetrating gaze, and the two men turned from one another.
The others should be here any minute, I imagine, Frank said.
What’s cooking? Robert asked. He sniffed the air and glanced around the kitchen.
It’s a surprise.
I’m sure it is.
The bell rang and Frank rushed over to answer the door. Five more people, Slim, the auguste to Frank’s whiteface character as well as the rubberman when need be, Cooky the picture gallery, and Merlin the dwarf. Frank didn’t recognize the two aerialists but their compact bodies and cat-like grace gave them away—the other part of Lilly’s act, they had to be. Neither was as deceptfully delicate as Lilly, nor as lovely. Frank watched Lilly kiss the women on the cheeks, clasp their hands and lead them to the table, her enthusiasm childlike, and Frank felt ashamed by his attraction.
Amazing show tonight, Frank, you should have seen it, Cooky said fumbling for a glass, since Frank seemed to have abandoned his role as host. Those brothers are really something. Looks like we’ll be sending a troupe to the East Coast next season.
Frank didn’t see the show, Robert said and he poured himself more drink.
Right, Cooky said, and settle into his glass.
You have quite reputation, the aerialist who called herself Ariana said. I hear you had tea with the president.
That was my father. He campaigned for Zachary Taylor. Frank’s tone said he didn’t want to talk about his father.
Well, sit. Sit, everyone. Help yourself to some whiskey, or there’s wine. He was back as the gentlemen host. Slim struggled to pull out his chair, pulled as if it were nailed to the floor. He walked around the table and looked at the chair, touched it as if it might bite. He could feel the tension in the air and in awkward moments he defaulted into character, his most natural state. And what is a clown but a fun-house mirror, a caricature, one who travels to the dark lands with cream pies in both hands? Frank was annoyed at first—Slim’s performance wasn’t part of his plan. But Fox was a professional and so became the straight man, walked over and moved the chair and then made a spectacle as he sat in it while Slim looked crestfallen. Frank stood up and offered the chair to his partner who again struggled to adjust it. They spent several minutes on their routine and somehow the party was seated.
Thank so much for inviting us, the woman named Darling said. They were nice girls, they deserved a nice meal, but this was not the time for regrets.
The group chattered contentedly, they were all tired from the day’s double billing and grateful for a night off the lot. After a while the guests started glancing around, no doubt starving, so Frank left the room and returned through the front door rolling a cart bursting with produce. He had to admit he’d done good with the food, a cornucopia of color with bright pink watermelon, lightly browned mushrooms with delicate paper gills, lettuce with finely veined leaves flowering on a plate, cucumbers several shades of green, purple onions and the roasting pan which Frank lifted with great ceremony and placed in the center of the table, and he removed the lid and the roast swam in a sea of carrots and potatoes and thin slices of celery, and the group sucked in their breath and stared at the papery feast as if to process the site, except Slim took an apple and examined it, and turned it in his hand, and felt the weight of it, and he took several more and he juggled them, then wiped them on his shirt, because that what clowns do. And Frank set a several pies on the table, blueberries and apples bleeding through the crust, and Slim stood up to sniff them, made a motion to his face.
These are lovely, Lillian finally said, and she picked up a mushroom and examined it.
This must have taken a long time, Ariana said. She was studying the bubbles on a pie.
Merlin leaned back in his chair, his acceptance was of resignation, another day in the life with the zanies. He was a respectably short dwarf, but not a star and so his habit was to go where directed. His fantasies were of fourteen more inches and a house on a farm with chickens, he loved the chickens, and things with roots and height and place where body was something demanding respect, not prodding fingers and chuckles. He rolled a cigarette and the smoke in his lungs satisfied some hunger.
Robert was furious.
This is it, he said and his voice was dark, and this man who had been like a son was no more and he shoved his chair away from the table, and Frank smiled and gestered to the table.
There were some feeble attempts at playing the game. Arena scooped a spoonful of sliced celery to her mouth, then felt childish and was already young, and she set the spoon on her plate and wiped her mouth with a napkin.
Well you’ve wasted a perfectly good evening. These people have had a long exhausting day and I can assure you, they’re hungry. And you’re serving up tricks. We get enough of that, Frank.
Lillian put her hand on Robert’s arm and he squeezed it, then stood up.
I’ll take my coat, he said, then grabbed it off the bed and the other’s followed his example, slowly rising from their seats.
Paper mache Robert said with disgust.
It’s beautiful, Darling whispered to Frank on her way out the door. Cooky held up a loaf of bread. Do you mind? He asked. You never know when a man’s going to need some bread.
Well you got the last word, Robert said as he walked out the door. Lillian waited for the others to go. She gave Frank a hug and her smile was sad. Take care of yourself, she said.
Frank saluted and shut the door behind her. He sat at the table and stared at the food and he was tired. He picked up a loaf of bread and stared at it. He sure was hungry. All this food, he thought to himself, and nothing to eat. He could see why the others were upset. He drank his whiskey and the pies were thick, and it occurred to him he could make up a basket for the woman at the market, it all seemed so hopeless, but maybe she’d smile at him, and at the thought, his heart skipped.
I knew I was cheating, but it felt like a small transgression. And who am I hurting, I asked myself. And of course, the voice in my head answered. And mine’s not a fast-talking anxious voice, but an ancient voice born of mad Viking seafarers, vicious and cold and siphoned through a cheery Midwestern lilt, and the language my voice speaks is an archipelago in a frozen ocean of silence. And the voice said simply: you’ll know. And of course I do. And really, where to draw the line if there’s a line, but maybe it’s a spectrum, a rainbow swinging from truth to lie, from white to black, from a good action to a lapse. And can one live covered only in violet?
And the truth is, my dentist is a pusher of herbs and supplements, a fish oil evangelist. According to his sermons, human health problems start with the digestive system and most of us are plagued by a universe of bad bacteria so that even the most ardent acidophilus addicts won’t benefit from the carton of Goodbelly – there’s just no room a the intestinal inn. The dentist easily talked me into a digestive cleanse, a twenty-one day feast of dust-capsules, supplements and all the organic fruits and vegetables I could crunch. The cleanse promised to wring my kidneys and liver of all the heavy metals and hundreds of thousands of toxins I’d been eating, breathing, drinking and absorbing, and to gut the vagrants who’d made my stomach their home.
No coffee, no alcohol, no nuts or seeds or processed foods, no meat, no dairy, no grains—except of course, brown rice. The hygienists and administrators in the office were glowing when they talked about the treatment, I feel so good! They said, and I couldn’t wait to begin!
The food restrictions weren’t as difficult as I imaged though they involved a tremendous amount of chopping. And I didn’t have withdrawal headaches from coffee. But I was tired. Two days in and I thought I’d sleep at work, and the office is a coffee roaster, and there’s the smell of roasting coffee, the screech of the espresso machine, the stacks of promotional materials flashing lavishly whipped milk and steaming espressos everywhere I looked—so of course I got a latte. But only eight ounces of milk and the coffee was clean, maybe not completely organic, but Darrin’s a buyer so chances are, he’s visited the mother plants and they’re not swimming in pesticides. And the latte was amazing, the milk like velvet. And the next day, I got another, a small one, maybe four ounces of milk. And I imagined the consequences, my cleanse won’t work because my digestive system would punish me by hanging onto the metaphorical shit. And I was disappointed anyways, I’d expected an outpouring of metals, my skin like a strobe light leaking aluminum, copper, lead, nickel, tin and mercury, yet when I looked in the mirror, nothing had changed. I was supposed to feel younger, more vibrant, look twenty-years-old—I’d eaten a mountain of kale, for god’s sake! Of course I can’t see the receding river of phthalates, bisphenol A, the pesticides but I shouldn’t I feel their absence of their poisonous presence?
But my reasonable voice said it’s only a small setback, a blip, a pebble in the universe of detoxification. And for these twenty-one days, I still have to live in the world, passing by non-organic seed-covered salads so I can gorge at home on a head of cabbage. Yum!
And so there I was, guilt laden, but awake and my cell phone rang, and I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered. And it was the chipper dental assistant to talk and she had one thing to say, coffee’s ok. You can drink coffee if it’s organic.
Yeah! I didn’t say but thought and such a rush of relief. I can do this cleanse, survive on spuds with help from my helper, I can!
I held my half-gone latte and felt guilt bleed back, onto the thrill, and that old voice spoke, iceberg cold: But the milk.
They could feel the elephant behind the curtain, the mysterious Ganesh, an enormous swaying ghost. Or maybe it was because the reporters knew he was there—the elephant was, after all, their reason for congregating inside the stifling tent. Already ties had been loosened and jackets removed and tossed onto the backs of wooden foldup chairs, and the whiskey was making its rounds via the black-tied waiter. The men half-listened to Frank Fox as he gestated and ballyhooed about chasing the elephant through dank dark Indian jungles dodging pythons and headhunters, before rescuing it from the claws of Bengalese tigers that had leapt on its back as it drank from a river.
John Taylor wiped his brown and watched the pop of the curtain next to his chair. The curtain billowed and there was a low moaning behind it, and he swore he could hear the beast’s breathing. John poked his hand along the bottom of the curtain hoping his fingers might touch the ghostly god.
We paid the Sultan great fortunes, including the finest Arabian stallion and a calliope of gold, and we led the only living white elephant in the entire world today—and P.T. Barnum may claim he has a white elephant, but we all know he’s a master showman, the grand huckster of trickery! Fox paused so the reporters could absorb his point. The only living white elephant in the world is behind the curtain, you’re about to see him. We led this Sacred Beast out of the Eastern jungles and through the streets at night covered in a blanket! Frank threw his hands out as an exclamation and the waiter made a circle with his tray. John shook his head and wondered if he shouldn’t this once it was so goddamn hot. The other reporters were slouching in their chairs, nodding off and Charlie in the corner was snoring so goddamn loud he was going to wake up the dead. John tapped his pen on his notepad and underlined “white elephant.” He put a star next to the word, then circled the star. He scrawled the name, “P.T. Barnum,” and underlined it and sketched an elephant as Frank extolled.
P. T. Barnum says he got himself a white elephant, Frank yelled. But I’m telling you now, that is no real white elephant! Frank paused until all the reporters rolled their cloudy eyes toward him. Charlie careened forward and a man with a bulbous nose caught him by the shoulder and swept him back into his seat in a move so fluid and effortless it would have inspired envy in a clown. And Frank, being a clown by training, recorded and filed the motion in the place reserved for tricks in his brain, and his voice dropped to a whisper, and the journalist eventually ceased their mumbling amongst themselves and leaned and lurched forward expectantly, and Frank’s words hissed through his lips like a snake. P.T. Barnum is a Fraud! Frank swept his arm across the audience and directed the drunken writers toward the curtain. Behind this curtain is the world’s only, the most unique, most sacred, most wondrous pachyderm that has ever walked the earth. Gentlemen. Today, I will show you Pawah, the magical mystical beast of the jungle!
John, being sober and hot, was bored by the theatrics. Frank unrolled the royal scroll, proof that the elephant’s lineage dated back to the time of Buddha. The Buddha, according to the scroll legible only to Frank, had blessed the elephant’s ancestor causing it to turn white. Several of the other reporters blew out their breath and a writer from the Philadelphia Press clawed at his shirt collar as if he were choking. John’s tongue felt like a roll of cotton in his mouth, and his own shirt was heavy and wet against his skin. The rust-colored stains on the aged curtains looked like tobacco stains, and John wished for that he wasn’t Quaker, that he could sneak a pinch, or in any case, a sip of water. He pulled the watch from his pocket then put it back, considered walking into the curtain, past the strongman holding the cord and standing vigil. One look at the mammoth and then gone, into a river maybe, the cold wet sting on his skin he could feel it, a rush of water pushing against his legs, he’d have to bend over and clutch an exposed rock for balance. But no, the air felt thin in his lungs. He closed his eyes and could hear the other reporters fidgeting. It was only a mater of time before mutiny.
Well Gentlemen. Frank could read his audience and the men were ready to walk out or pass out. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! The drum roll came from behind the curtain. May I present to you the amazing, magnificent mammoth, the ponderous, prodigious pachyderm, the extraordinary sacred beast of the east, the one and only white elephant living in the world today, Pawah! Frank shouted the last words and the drum roll was thunderous and the curtain slid open and the reporters woke from their chairs and leapt to unsteady feet and the elephant stood in front of a black velvet curtain with prints from a multitude of countries and ages decorating the stall. He was smallish and he stretched his trunk toward the group lazily as if to perform an inspection, and the bullhand, who must have been in the stall during the entire introduction, guided the trunk and the elephant towards the back of the stall.
John studied the elephant, which was white in shadowy sort of way—the dim lights made color ambiguous. The eyes were dull and the skin dry and flakey, the flanks gaunt. He needs water, John thought and ran his tongue over his own parched lips—he’d been covering circuses enough to know that much about elephants. He didn’t see any water in the stall and glanced around the tent. Fox was again talking.
Take a look folks. Drink him in, you won’t find another like him in your lifetime. The world’s only living white elephant! Take a good look and go tell your papers, tell the world, and come to the show tonight. He’ll be performing with Garrett the clown under the big top. You won’t find another like him in your lifetime . . . . He looks like a gentle creature, but don’t tempt the fates, Frank said, putting his arm up as Charlie careened toward the elephant. The gentlest of the wild creatures have been known to turn.
The waiter saw John first and tried to grab his arm, but John was a big man, hot and tired, and his patience had been tried. Then Frank saw John and motioned to the strongman, but by that time the elephant had his trunk in the bucket and he was sucking up the water. The strongman tore the bucket from John’s hands and the elephant threw his trunk over his back and gave himself the cool shower the entire group had been longing for, and the water pooled on the elephant’s back and the skin began to sag and melt, like wax down the side of a candle, and patches of the elephant’s religiosity and purity dripped onto the sawdust into milky-gray puddles, and the magnificence unraveled in thick drops of lime, and the elephant searched for the bucket but the strongman had passed it to the clown and the clown had left the tent.
He may be an elephant, but he sure as hell ain’t white, John said.
The curtain closed as John spoke and the strongman grabbed him by the elbow and led him from the tent.
Well sirs, Frank was saying as the tent flap closed behind John and he stood in scorching sun, but the breeze was sweet and cool. We’ve taken too much of your time. We do appreciate you coming. Now, if you don’t mind, we need to prepare Pawah for the evenings show.
They sat entwined like lovers on the bench under the weeping willow. She leaned in and he held her arm while hers rested on his thigh. His coat was heavy for the warm fall day and he was sweating and she was hot in her t’shirt and jeans and the breeze carried the occasional leaf just breaking from the trees, and geese wandered the park nibbling on grass and shitting on the sidewalks, but neither of the two seemed to notice the leaves or the geese or the Frisbee players or the dogs chasing balls. Her eyes were glued to a row of battered gold chrysanthemums and he for all his sweating, had icy eyes and on closer inspection, there was a rigidity that made the lovers awkward, for they were lovers, or they had been. And now he clutched her arm and she held her hand on his leg for balance to keep from falling into him, and the position was uncomfortable and she pulled away because of the pain but not too hard because of barrel pressed into her side, and thus they sat.
He watched her profile, the skin along her chin loose, and when she tucked her head, he thought of an elephant and he wondered if he had ever thought she was pretty. But there’d been something, he couldn’t place it, probably her ass, and he pressed the barrel into her side until a tear dripped from her eye. He pressed harder and more tears, automatic like pushing a button or turning a switch, and the mascara under her eye was running and she wouldn’t look at him, but it was on her face, blotches of tar, tar face, he thought, stupid bitch to think she could walk.
Stupid bitch, he said and she wouldn’t turn, eyes on the chrysanthemums, and he remembered the flowers from when he’d landscaped, chrysanthemums, tulips, irises, something for every season, but mostly it was lumping rocks and she sitting at home with the baby, there’d been The Baby, complaining because he didn’t fix the dishwasher, couldn’t fix it, what did she think he was? Handy with the tools, sure, but the new appliances were all computerized and who did she think he was. . . .
He followed her gaze to the chrysanthemums, yellow, almost mustard colored, and maybe it was the sound of her breathing. He licked his lips, suddenly thirsty, and felt in his pocket and there was nothing. He thought he’d put something in his pocket and she let out a sob and he pressed into her side.
For better or worse, isn’t that what we said, you haven’t seen the worst, Karla, you think you’re so high and mighty, big office manager and now you’re too good, he jabbed her, you think you’re too good!
I’m not too good, she said and it was the first she’d spoken in an hour, and she had to pee. I just want to leave.
Got someone? He jabbed the barrel into her side and the tears were flowing but she was looking at the flowers, and she shook her head.
There’s no one, T.J. Just let me go, she said and it was a whisper and he felt in his pocket for a bottle, and pictured the cupboard next to the fridge, he could see the bottle, at least half full and was that today or yesterday, funny how memories ran together, as if someone had dropped their history in photos on the floor and picked them up in random order, The Baby, their first date, and when he saw her at the checkout in the grocery store, and he was too nervous so he went to the fast lane and watched her pony tail swing, and they’d been quite a site back in the day, good looking, yeah, they’d both been beautiful, hard to believe now, her face all sagging and tarred, and he was going to take over the hardware store, everything ahead of them. . . . he remembered her face, the way she looked at him, and their history was acid, and their ashes spilled from the same urn, and when had the flower wilted in her eyes—when he’d lost the store? And now, some weed had taken roots so when she saw him her gaze was twisted, thorny. . . .When they buried The Baby, he’d seen it, the look, as if he’d done the choking. He shoved the barrel into her side and the sob, the tears, so easy and he heard the thud of dirt on the casket and maybe the tears would wash away the thorns.
It wasn’t my fault, he said, and she stared at the dying flowers, and he pictured the gun in his pocket, a gift from her father, ironically, to protect herself, the S&W 637, pink handled, five cylindered. He stroked the trigger with his finger in his pocket, pictured the bullets in the cylinders. And this was the sum of them, on the bench, the convergence of time, and she talking of leaving, and who was she to pack the hope, split the equation, the solid thing, because one and one is always two, and two is one, and so it is the magic of mathematics, and he thought of the bottle, smacked his lips on air and the taste of vapors, and did she know that leaving meant what was solid in him would burst into a billion pieces, that he would dry up, and it all made him tired, and his tongue was a strip of leather in his mouth, and he wished he were drunk and could disappear, and he reached out as if to wipe the mascara from her cheek but she shifted again, and he put his free hand back in his pocket, and he released the grip on the gun so it sank in his pocket and she closed her eyes, and when she turned and looked at him her eyes were wide and wet and no more weeds but something blooming, and he looked away. He put his hands on his lap and clasped them and they were thick and worn and covered with liver spots and the hair on his knuckles was turning gray. He could feel her leaving, hear the weight of her feet, and he stared at his hands. And when she was gone, he sat alone on the bench under the willow tree and watched the yellow flowers.
She flicked the butterfly, but its powdery wings remained fixed to the menu. The man was impatient. He picked the menu off the table and shook the butterfly onto the sidewalk.
The vinaigrette, he said, and passed her the menu. And I’ll have some sparkling water. With a slice of lime.
We don’t have sparkling water.
Then regular water.
Irene nodded toward the glass next to his phone on the table.
Fine, the man said, taking in the water. Do you have lime?
We have lemon.
The man turned to his smartphone and Irene stood uncertainly. The butterfly fanned its wings where it had fallen, a spot of iridescent blue in the creek bed of foot traffic and she thought to pick it up.
The man looked up.
That’s fine, he said, and stared and Irene clutched the menu and glancing towards the butterfly, a surge of rage, as if the butterfly was her, and of course it was, everything a metaphor and lifting a wing on the cement, disheartened, and the man’s look impatient, Irene turned, grinding into the sidewalk as she passed through the door into the restaurant.
Bing nudged her, was asking, but the restaurant was cacophonous.
Are you ready for the audition? Irene shrugged like she couldn’t hear. She stacked plates up her arm, not wanting to explain. The clash of dishes in the kitchen clashed in her brain. Kitchen grease hung like dew in the air.
She delivered the plates, then lemon slices to the man with the smart phone, a Blackberry she realized, Blackberry Man, and the butterfly lay on the sidewalk were it had dropped.
I’m not going to go, when Bing cornered her at the busser’s station.
Jesus, Bing. I’m in the weeds. I’ve got to get drinks. . . .
What about our piece? This is a big one.
Wow. That’s it?
Bing was small, but fierce, and now she looked abandoned, a cat repairing from a bath.
You can still go. I don’t have to go. Irene turned away. I need to water my tables, she said over her shoulder, and she could feel the needles of Bing’s stare as she walked away.
Irene dropped water and menus at a new table and brought salads to a two top, iceberg lettuce in plastic bowls. She navigated the edges of the restaurant to avoid her friend, rushed the kitchen when Bing was taking orders at tables. It helped when she moved, the fluttering inside her.
She reached into her pocket and felt, and it was there, she’d forgotten, and she slipped it out and between her lips, small, chalky, white, but it would take some time. She took a deep breath, tried not to think, but the thoughts were looping and it was the cunning dreams she hoped to swallow. And what are dreams but a pushpin on a map, a fire beckoning moths, and the flames—the prelude to an apocalypse. It was a relief to slay the false gods and seal off the Elysium edge of thought, for that place is accessible only on the backs of butterflies.
All this began a year ago when she was walking to class a week after her twenty-sixth birthday and there was a doubt, at twenty-six. Ballerinas were already ballerinas at her age and she was struggling in her pointe shoes. And she thought of the bills on the counter near the sink she couldn’t pay and friends were buying condos and taking vacations. And to dance seemed stupid, so she turned and retraced her steps, but as she moved toward home her thighs screamed for plies and her hand, the barre, and she imagined the lovely stretch of a tendu, the feel of a backbend and once again, turning. And there was this, the back and forth and a kaleidoscope of headlights in the descending dusk, and still, she found herself on the sidewalk outside the studio. She took a deep breath, her hand on the door and a small thud on the sidewalk beside her. She stared at the crow, black like deep hole, a sinking in, and she pushed against it with her toe and it was heavy and limp. A sign, she thought, it must be. The Fates dropping a dead bird on her head to tell her what? To stop, or to go? The Universe spoke, but what did it say?
She climbed up the worn, wooden steps into the chipped-paint studio and the crow climbed with her and grew in her, a feathered question, stiffening, spreading, like the heat of decomposition. And she saw her reflection in class and there was a rotting and she tried to place herself in this universe of dancers, the young ribboned geometry of the company dancers and those older, shaped by gravity, thickening and tight as if the rubber-band muscles had solidified into clumps. She’d aged beyond math, or at least beyond simple, elegant equations. And wasn’t geometry a language of stars? So the bird was also doubt, a consequence of a panoramic vision.
She decided to quit, of course. Eventually. And she continued to class. It’s was the thing she did, afterall, and what else to fill that space? But where once dance classes had been the apogee of her day, now they were a weight. And who was she to defy some Raven’s curse? And then she laughed at the thought of a curse, so Poe. And then she remembered the weight of the bird on her foot, and she pulled on her leotard again, with dread. And after class, she felt hungry, but she couldn’t eat. And so, as with the betrayal of a lover, a god, she became shrunken, hollow. And even her apartment shrank, as if heat and light spilled out through cracks in and along the window, and under the door and the cracked paint had the look of dead skin. And on her way to work at the restaurant, she stopped to gaze in the window at the boutiques and longed for the black silken dress or a pair of brown leather boots, a new and different and more abundant life.
And so the pill was a sacrament and it muted the sound of flapping of wings. Communion is, afterall, a cannibalism of the gods. And ingested, power is diffused, amplified. No more, she told herself and the pill wrapped around her brain like a warm, wet towel.
Are you OK? Bing asked, her voice muted.
Irene nodded, and grasped for a cup for soda.
I take it you’re going to audition, she mumbled.
Yeah. What’s gotten into you?
I don’t know. . . . I think I need to get out of here. Do something different.
Like what? This is all you’ve ever talked about.
I’m supposed to get cut first, but you can leave if you need the time. I’ll finish up your shift, Irene said and shook her head slightly.
Some of the betrayal faded from Bing’s look. All right, she said. She turned with her beverage tray.
Bing, Irene said after her and Bing turned, reluctant.
I’m still going to come. I want to see you kick some ass.
OK, Bing shrugged, and retreated with a load of dirty cups to the kitchen.
Irene brought a bottle of beer to Blackberry Man who looked significantly more relaxed, content even.
Glass? Irene asked holding one up and Blackberry Man nodded.
So what’s you’re story. What do you do? He asked, as if the beer had ushered in a new age of friendliness.
Irene looked at him confused.
Isn’t every waitress an actor or actress or up and coming writer?
No, Irene shrugged and looked for the butterfly but it had disappeared.
Stand up comedy? Ventriloquism?
No. Nothing. . . . Would you like some more water?
Blackberry Man shook his head and picked up his phone.
Irene arrived at the studio the next morning well before the auditions. The studio was locked so she slid onto her haunches against the brick wall to wait. She glanced up towards the sky remembering the crow but the sky was clear. She took a breath of the crisp air and cupped the mug of coffee in her hands. She pictured the audition, the crowd of dancers stretching and gossiping and analyzing and she felt relief. And she wondered at the relief and the I am not was a lifting. She closed her eyes and her insides, for the first time in months, were warm and liquid. She took a drink of coffee.
A service truck with a cherry picker pulled up to the curb and two workmen stepped out. They adjusted their tool belts and one checked his cell phone. The other approached her waving his hand.
We’re going to need you to move, Miss. He looked up and nodded to some overhead wires. Loose wires or something. We need to take a look.
Irene stood and moved against a storefront and the second man floated skyward in the cherry picker.
What’s going on? Bing said and Irene jumped, at her sudden appearance.
Birds have been getting electrocuted, the first man replied.
Bing ignored the man’s comment and waited for Irene to respond.
Oh hi, Irene said. Are you ready? She glanced at Man One then up at the wires.
I’m not sure I’m ever really ready.
You’ll be awesome, Irene said. She put her arm around her friend’s shoulder and glanced again at the sky. She thought she saw a black shadow dart past the cherry picker, but she may have been mistaken.
The question was initially posed by my yoga teacher in yoga terms: Who is the yogi who loves inversions when the yogi can no longer do inversions? And the point was to push through the comfort zone, try a new pose, one that you might not be good at, camel, triangle, seal? But the question got me thinking about labels, peeling onions, identity, and philosophical core. I am a collage, a cloud of words, a mathematical equation equaling the nouns and adjectives I wear like costume jewelry. Direct objects are ribbons I tie in my hair: woman, wife, mother, writer, runner, dancer. I am tallish, middle-aged, brown-eyed. I love my family, friends, reading, walking, smelling, eating, sleeping, music, cats, elephants, bath bombs, orange roses, Cormac McCarthy, Tennessee Williams, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, John Steinbeck, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, sunsets—who doesn’t? Coffee, tea, green, politics, laughing, cocktails, sun on skin, blown glass, bird songs, a horse’s breath. And then, reduction. I strip words from skin. Beneath grunts of bone, clicks of connective tissue, nerves, and then, beyond blood, what? The shards of an ancient pot are strewn in the sand, the clay voices quiet. An eye of hunger rots in the wake of retreating tide. Beneath Stephen Hawking’s Olympian mind, fire.
I am comfortable in my yoga class, in the world of body. The bird of paradise is easy. If I don’t get my run in, I am anxious. And sure, these are healthy habits, and maybe I’m addicted to endorphins. But body is also a ring I wear on ego, one of the many names I call myself. And what am I without a name? A vacuous space? Am I fire hunger love? And what are these but words to entwine an idea, a concept, a thing? A practioner might say I am nothing, or I am love. I can’t seem to escape the words. And then, maybe I am you.
I found Limbo in the maelstrom of boxes—books, bedding, toys, kitchenware—ten years of my family overflowing cardboard, stacked along walls and inside the garage. We’d reduced and consolidated—given away boxes of pirate ships, tossed trash bags of broken toys, sold cookware and a quarter pipe, and payed to haul a truckload of broken furniture and reptile terrariums to the dump. After weeks of searching the web, we found a townhouse for our transition.
I don’t see foresee any problems, from the realtor, so I signed a lease, the sale of the house a go.
And so the packing after months of prep—glassware robed in paper, pictures between towels, the gathering of swords and someone find the cat carriers!
Tomorrow, was the beginning of moving week.
Darrin called from work. She’s out, he said and I thought he was joking.
What do you mean?
She’s not going to buy the house.
I have a slow mind. New thoughts excavate pathways through gray matter mind mush. Mountainous mind, I like to think, enormous surface area. But in truth, my thoughts are simply a slow sprouting, unfolding toward word-light. And here, Limbo, a suspension, of breath, of time. Limbo is the tip of a pin, the crest of a wave, the pause between possibilities when the brush of a feather can send one toppling in any direction. In Limbo the innocents are godless, and a hummingbird’s breath can pierce dead air to lurch ships from the doldrums.
And me, amidst boxes, I closed my flip phone. What does this mean for the boxes? Do I pack or unpack? I waited for a gotcha call, an only teasing, she’s really on board, but it didn’t come. And so this is the problem of placement—within what walls will the boys dream? Where do I drink my coffee? We’d spent the weeks since contracting with the buyer searching for a place to transition, scouring the internet, calling, driving, visiting. Can we stop the momentum? Was this all for naught? Is this house then, home? Again?
I lived in time suspended, a spider dangling from silk in the headwinds of two monthly obligations, a mortgage and a lease. The storm’s eye is silent, but soon, the beating of wings, weighing of dreams, phone calls and the elasticity of leases. How shall I imagine our future? The stack of hangers on the couch confused me.
The boys were disappointed when I told them. We’re staying? they asked and I said I don’t know. And this is how decisions are made, an edging forward and the ground falls away behind. We continued packing because we could not stop. Then the realtor sent the release for earnest money, the buyer was back. And we moved. And the buyer recanted.
And now, more space and the boys found their mountain of pitch, baby bunnies and prairie dogs, and the cats are happy. And we still have the house. Darrin and I filter phone calls and emails and interview couples with poodles and parrots. We are becoming, it seems, reluctant landlords.
How do you do this? He asked.
He was lying on his back on a skateboard, pushing off from the cement with his feet.
Well, I said. You lie on your back on a skateboard and push off from the cement with your feet.
No. He said. How do you do this?
You do exactly what you’re doing. I could tell I was missing something.
No! He touched the skateboard near his head, adjusted his position. He floated along the patio on his back.
Can you see the board? He asked.
Yes. I said.
He scooted his body upward along the board.
Like they do in the fair.
What fair? I had no idea what he was talking about.
His sigh was heavy with his five omniscient years in the perplexing shadow of those who don’t understand, the rigid rule makers.
He pushed back and forth with his feet, an erratic boy cloud.
I like Problem Child, he said, referring to the 80’s movie he’d seen in bits and pieces.
Oh, I said.
The clown says, See the giraffe? And the other guy says, Do you see the fist? And he hits the clown in the face.
Oh, I repeated. He floated back to my feet.
After a while I asked him. What are you trying to do?
And it was his big brother, I should have known.
Jakob said he could crawl on his back.
The Washington credit fiasco and downgrade have me thinking of my own number. Credit does, after all, make the world go round. Good personal credit, somewhere above 660, put preferably between 750 and the top of the range, 850 is, a badge of honor, an affirmation of integrity, both the reason for and result of a life well lived. It places you among the uber people, the accomplished, the deserving, with access to mortgages and car loans and low interest money—you are smart, responsible, deserving. You’ve done the job well, so you’re the person for the job. When human resources sees your credit score, they put your resume to the top of the applicant pile. And as it turns out, you look good in a suit. On the other end of the spectrum, are, let’s face it, the losers. The low scores are a scarlet letter, a symbol of moral corruption—you are irresponsibly, lazy, can not be trusted with money. Who of good character would allow such a dark mark on their reputation? You say you fell on hard times, you got laid off from your teaching position because of budget cuts—of course you did, it’s your nature. A 750 would not fall victim to a bad economy; they are savvy in the ways of the world. Your resume, by the way, has been shredded.
With all that’s hanging on my credit score, I want to get my number—am I an uber or a loser? If the number is high enough, I’ll consider a tattoo so there will be no mistaking. I belly up to the internet and dig around. I find my report, but, alas, no score. Maybe I can figure it out. I assume there’s a standard formula for determining scores. But it doesn’t take long to learn the formula is secret, “propriety,” according to the Equifax web site, locked up in a safe with the secret formula for Coca Cola. And it turns out, I don’t have one score, but multiples. And each with its own propriety formula. And chances are, the score that I see is not the same score a potential lender may be seeing.
Now I’m confused. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as sited on the HousingWire web site, “While some scores sold to consumers are used by lenders, others are ‘either not used by lenders at all or are used only infrequently. . . . It is important to note that many of the credit scores sold to lenders are not offered for sale to consumers.’” All right. And turns out, I can’t find a way to buy my score one time. I have to become a member of a multinational’s credit club, pay a monthly fee, and then I can watch my score rise and fall like the stock market–or as in the case of the market, just fall. And even then the score I see might not the score reflected to a lender.
So what. I’m grateful to the three multinational corporations, Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian, that provide this valuable service—collecting everyone’s financial information and spinning it into a a multitude of comprehensible numbers, all presumably, within some margin of error. These goliaths hoard all sorts of information. Trans Union brags on its web site: “We also strengthened our analytics and decisioning capabilities by acquiring one of the most powerful technologies for high-volume, individual-level decisions about customer prospecting, acquisition and management.” These collectors of information reduce school expenses, car payments, and shopping for clothes to bits and bytes, transform my life into something concrete, like a number, and presumably sell it to whomever will buy. Finally, I know what I’m worth.