Late

Because she was late already, and she was deeply terrified of anything like a fuss, Mrs. Ritter took a seat on the porch and waited for the program to let out.  It was a fine afternoon in late spring, with a breeze driving in a great bank of thunderclouds from the north.  Still the sky was mostly clear yet, and the sun shimmered on leaves in the yard.

It was an undisputed fact that Dorothy Langham kept the best yard on Hawthorn Park.  The layout of the shrubbery and trees had been thoughtfully decided upon by Langham women of earlier times, but Dorothy added flashes of color to the lawn that had been lacking in the past.  An harbor of vivid orange Japanese lantern, not yet blooming, would be by June a triumphal archway to the sparkling new patio of white brick; and higher still than this pinnacle were rows of raised beds, filled with yellow lilies and purple salvia.  The latter waved at Mrs. Ritter cheerfully, perhaps even mockingly, while her eyes roamed the grounds softly.

Because the afternoon was pleasant, the French doors to Dorothy’s parlor were cast open.  Now and again a string of words listed outward, like the hem of the sheer drapery, a flirtatious glimpse of the event Mrs. Ritter was missing.  The room within was an elegant space, sparingly decorated with family oils and an antique Persian rug; a pair of white porcelain cats, rather melted-looking in the modern vein, held court upon the mantle, reminding guests that Dorothy brought panache to the Langham digs.  There would be a plate of dainty cookies next to a punch bowl of lemonade and a crystal vase overflowing with freshly-cropped peonies, dark purple and white vying for notice.  The women would each have made a commotion over the arrangement upon arriving and Dorothy, with a graceful arc of her wrist, would have reminded them that peonies arrange themselves in the right vase.  The women would nod and smile at the observation.

An affair of light and friendly gestures would be over in little time.  Mrs. Ritter couldn’t pretend she minded missing it.  She was at best a reluctant member of the club, and this particular speaker, talking as he was of the importance of art guilds in the contemporary American landscape, had only vaguely interested her when she got the program back in January.

“Another one of Candice’s picks, I should wager,” she had thought, setting the slender leaf of card stock aside.  Then she had thought nothing of it again until her husband asked her last night if her ladies’ meeting wasn’t in fact today.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she had said, trying to wrangle peas with her fork.  Her face was stern and then grimly satisfied when she speared the green herd.  Her husband, glancing up from his plate, mistook her expression for impatience at his inquiry.

“You and your ladies are very secretive at times.”

She gave a short laugh, musical and bright, like a string being plucked on a guitar. “And I can’t remember the last time you shared with me the goings on at the lodge. All very hush-hush. Do the men exchange the numbers of their mistresses?”

And because she went so absolutely far with her jape and because he thought the idea of it was so vulgar and beneath both of them, he bent closer to his supper and commenced to eat in silence.  Studying him for a moment with humor sketching a friendly map upon her moon-round face, she thought not for the first time that he was more the old woman of the house. Shrugging, she pushed aside her plate, an ostentation of peas left untouched, and glanced for a long while into the middle distance, dreaming ahead of the chocolate cake waiting for them in the cooler.

She ought to care more about art guilds, she thought now, as she eased back into Dorothy Langham’s wicker.  If the truth be told, she would have to confess that she found nothing more boring than sitting through speeches, than shaking hands with peers before and after said speeches, than walking home in a clutch of perfumed females, discussing the importance of important things.  If she could schedule her life for pleasure alone – ignoring generations of duty and discipline  –  there would be more of dessert and less of vegetable.

When the ladies at last began to pour out of the house, the sky had darkened more, the clouds growing like an inky spill, and Mrs. Ritter was for a moment struck with the impression she must make upon them, sitting out there alone like a child awaiting a punishment.  Her brows drawing momentarily closer, she launched herself from the seat swiftly, and smoothed her dress. She was smiling by the time the first of the club members approached her.

Throne Room

My favorite indoor place as a kid was the dark basement of our ranch house.  The faux wood paneling was littered with paint-by-numbers of flying ducks and macrame owls that perched on limbs of driftwood.  Above there was ceiling tile, stained rustily in places from water leaks.  The floors were institutional linoleum tiles, beige and avocado, coming up in places.  There was a huge brown sectional, decorated with a zig-zagged afghan, and a large wooden console with a convex piece of glass through which I escaped into other, far more delightful worlds.  In decorating terms, today this fairly hum-drum 80s TV room would make the most popular coffee house on any street in Brooklyn.  There may even have been a complicated Turkish coffee carafe wedged between dusty fondue pots on the top shelf of the laundry room.  Let us agree this is true because it might as well be.
tangina textThis underground level of the house, at times forgotten by my parents judging by the overflowing hampers in front of the washer and dryer, was all the inside world I needed or wanted.  As soon as I woke each morning of summer, I made myself a Tupperware bowl of cereal and headed carefully down the steps.  Ensconced on the sectional, I disappeared for hours into reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Rhoda.  The latter informed my inner strong Jewish woman, the former mystified me, as I didn’t crack the Don Knots code until I was in my thirties.  Maybe I didn’t understand how this uptight deputy wound up as the neckerchief-wearing landlord to my favorite goofball trio on Three’s Company.

My eldest sister, Moo, was strictly a reader through the long days of summer; the middle child, Bird, never settled at home for long.  She often trotted off to visit neighbor ladies who smoked mentholated cigarettes while watching The Price is Right in darkened little living rooms.  Mom thought Bird didn’t love us sufficiently; I was thankful to have no challengers for my sacred territory.

By the age of ten, I was treating the basement as a sort of apartment all of my own.  It was true that the rest of the family piled in for evening TV viewing, but during the sleepy morning and humid afternoon hours, I was blessedly alone.  Sometimes I heard a pair of feet thumping overhead, then the door at the top of the steps would whine open about a foot.

“Paul, you down there?”

“Yes, mother.”

“Are you going to go outside and get some fresh air today or just lay around in your underwear again?”

“The latter, mother.”

“Your sisters are going to walk to the pool…”

“Mother, may I watch my stories in peace?”

A resentful pause; then an all-too-familiar bait.

“Do you want a fried bologna sandwich?”

“Very well, mother, if you insist.”

“If you don’t…”

“No, I do. I’ll be up in a minute.”

I took special care of that part of the house.  We didn’t have central air and the screens of our storm windows were always in some state of disrepair, so that all summer long there was what we called a fly problem.  At eleven o’clock, when the boring game shows began to air, I’d gather up plastic tumblers of Coke with dead flies floating in the syrupy backwash.  After I marched upstairs with them, I’d come back down with a butler’s whisk, a dust rag and a bottle of Liquid Gold.  Polishing the wagon-wheel end table until you could see your face in the spokes, I’d air my grievances over the condition of the place to my dream-mother, television’s own Barbara Eden.

“Can you believe how this swine live, Jeannie?”

Unfurling herself from the plush brown depths of the sectional with a kittenish yawn, she’d shake out her pink balloon slacks and give me a sympathetic eye roll. “I know what you mean, Sheffield. I woke up this morning with Cheetos in my ponytail. These people are pigs.”

I never asked her to use her magic to clean the place.  Not only would it have been rude to task a guest with the housework, I felt even then that the expectation of women to keep a tidy home was a sign of man’s centuries-long tyranny over the eyeshadow and wrap-dress sex. Ideologically speaking, my heart was in the right place.  Besides, something about my daily act of martyrdom was as pleasing to my senses as the smell of lemon when I mopped up Kool-Aid spills from the steps.

There was a corner in the back of the basement where a piece of the sectional that hadn’t fit had been stuffed. It created a sort of banquet against an accent wall of marbly streaked mirror.  The space struck me as sophisticated and somehow West Coast. Here I gave exclusive interviews to a then-young Barbara Walters, who my real mother had an unarticulated dislike for and whom, conversely, I had decided to worship.  Besides which, she rubbed elbows with the elite of the entertainment and political worlds. It was hard to downplay the panache of a woman who could cozy up in a taupe living room with a sticky-lipped Lonnie Anderson one week, then sit down in the Rose Garden to talk hostages with Reagan the next.  Between such engagements, she liked to catch up with me to discuss my latest, often gender-bending roles.

“Mr. Miller, tell us why you chose to star in this Of Human Bondage redux?”

Still a little high on Barbara’s effusive descriptions of my seaside estate in the opening, it took me a moment to focus on the question.  On screen, it would appear to be a satellite delay, despite the fact we were curled up together side by side in the sunny breakfast nook of my pool house.

“Oh, Barbara, so formal! Call me Paul or Sheffield or Destiny, please.”

“Alright, Destiny. But to the question…”

Here is where I knew the producers wanted me to ‘go thoughtful’ while they ‘zoomed in for a close-up’.  I also knew from past experience and from the sting in my left eye that I could squeeze out about two full sentences before the tears came.

“Well, Barbara, I had seen Of Human Bondage on WTTG out of Washington last Sunday afternoon when that hail storm cancelled our family run to Tastee Freeze, and I immediately thought, ‘Here it is. This is it. The role I was meant to play.'”

“The role you were meant to play,” Barbara repeated, nodding significantly. “But taking on a character that Bette Davis made famous…that would have to be daunting.”

“I never take on a project lightly, Barbara. And I called Bette to make sure I had her blessing.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes I did. It was important to me.”

“Destiny, what did film legend Bette Davis say to you when you called her Park Avenue condominium with brass wet bar and doorman service?”

“Well, Barbara…” And here came the tears, because of course. “I’m sorry…”

One of the boom operators slipped a Kleenex into my hand, barely detectable in the final edit, and I gifted him with the merest smile.  A rugged blond with a drooping mustache, he preferred to boom operate in faded denim cutoffs and a snug-fitting cinnabar t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘California Dreamin’ in juicy bubble letters.  I say preferred, but for all I knew, it may have been Barbara’s mandated uniform. Come to think of it, all the men on her crew wore the same outfit, even Hank, who clearly would have been more comfortable and less alarming in baggy coveralls.

“Barbara, Bette was very supportive. I’ll just say that.”

“Why so mysterious, Destiny?”

But I would never say and that was why Barbara always described me as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘unwatchable’.

When I was eleven, my parents put the house on the market and started building a new home on the other side of town. As the sprawl of our everyday lives began to sift into boxes and boxes became piles on the back of pickup trucks, I took pains to defend my basement wonderland. I lobbied that we pack it last, as it was after all the TV room and laundry, but the result was that the rest of them used it all the more.  Unable to explore my world of make believe in front of that particular audience, I found that I had few chances left to say a proper good-bye to this last stronghold of childhood fancies.  Then came a morning when my burly uncles clattered down the stairs to take out the sectional in pieces.  I had hidden my favorite accessory behind the interview banquet and rushed to grab it before they returned from the truck.

When I pushed my arm down between the cushions, my fingers brushed the chilly neck of a splatter-glazed bottle.  It was where my other Barbara lived, my Jeannie-mother, when she wasn’t reclining on the chocolate velour cushions, agreeing with me that perhaps Mash’s Charles Emerson Winchester III wouldn’t be such a jerk if Hawkeye wasn’t such a slob.  I stroked the bottle once more, wishing every wish could be true, all at once, a madly delightful escape out of the world of a misunderstood gay kid in the 80s and into the bottle, a round room with Technicolored pillows, swags of chiffon, and mad-cap adventures that returned to a familiar safe place every twenty-odd minutes.  Hearing the men open the basement door, the deep rumble of their voices as they shared a dirty-sounding laugh, I climbed up onto the back of the banquet, pushed aside a ceiling tile, and tucked the bottle away from sight.  It hurt to leave her there – my soft, blond mother, our dreams and adventures, our laughter – but the future loomed mysteriously, threateningly, and I felt somehow she wouldn’t survive out there in its bright glare.

In defiance of the changes I didn’t want and of the sweating brutes who called my mother sister, I sank Indian fashion into the center of the last piece of the sectional and folded my arms.  They thought it was funny to carry the piece out with me on it rather than to wheedle me into moving. And I thought it was funny, too, but not for the same reason.  It simply pleased me in a bittersweet way to be carried out of my kingdom on a throne.  A star deserves no less.

The Skies Over Bethlehem

He had a dream last night that left him floating all the morning in a surreal fog.  In the dream, he was looking through the woods for a persimmon tree he’d once found but lost.  That much he recognized; that tree had been on his mind recently.  His mother took him to it once when he was a boy and she’d said the fruit was only good when it was nice and fully ripe.

“Otherwise, it’ll turn your mouth inside out.”

He’d been thinking of his mother, too.  It happened like this a lot in the autumn.  They’d last seen her on a brittle Sunday afternoon of a long lost November.  The woman who disappeared just before his tenth birthday had worn a warm coat and a knit scarf of mixed greens and oranges.  Her scuffed boots had been brown like her hair.   She waved before climbing into the station wagon.  The man behind the steering wheel stared straight ahead, his thick glasses glinting so that his eyes could not be seen.  She winked at him as they backed into the drive, that familiar wink that was meant to say everything would turn out fine.  It wasn’t convincing this time around.  He and his sisters lifted their hands and waved as the dusty car vanished down the pale drive.

___________

In the dream, he came to a clearing in the woods and he stood there and turned around and round, peering into the forest, trying to spot the tree.  Then suddenly, in the way of dreams, he was no longer alone.  Stretched out in the clearing, lit by a stream of heavenly light, was a woman giving birth.  Her shoulders and her belly and her knees under the nightdress were a range of mountains.  The damp brown hair snaking through the wild onion was a black spring that began and ended with her.  He started at the sight of her, but she only smiled at him through her labored breathing.  It was a pained, mysterious smile, a bittersweet smile that was a little afraid.  She wasn’t his mother, but she had her smile.

“They say you forget the pain,” she said.

He crouched beside her in the wild onions and the hand that reached out to comfort her was pale and dimpled and small.  He hadn’t known until then that he was a child in this dream.  She took his wrist painfully.

“But you won’t be forever,” she said. “None of us are forever.”

“Please, let me go.”

She looked into his eyes for a long while.  He could not decide the color of hers.  They shone like the tops of lakes on days when the sun hasn’t broke through, but it might just.  Her gaze was a moving storm.   Finally, she released his wrist and he took his hand back.  He’d not got to comfort her, after all.

In the next moment, she was gone.  The clearing seemed to be growing smaller around him.  When he looked at his feet, the wild onion had become pine needles.  Soon, the forest was overhead again and the sky had changed to a deep, smoky violet.  It wasn’t the real color of a night sky, but the color of night skies in children’s books.  No, more than that, he decided; it was the exact color of a sky they had painted.

____________

His mother had agreed to help with the Christmas pageant at church.  She felt that it was her turn and perhaps she wanted a little something to help fill the long autumn nights.  She corralled each of them into the station wagon, Tuesday and Thursday nights for weeks, stopping along the way to pick up the Clatterbuck girl and then, a little farther on, the Willard twins.  The other kids lived close enough to the church to walk.  They were always there on the porch waiting when they pulled up in front, because his mother had never been on time to anything.   When she got the heavy paneled door unlocked, she’d reach along the inside wall for the switch to the vestibule.  Then one of the older boys would feel his way half way down the basement steps to flip the breakers for the knave.  It had been wired late and funny.

When the lights came up, the red plush cushions on the pews jumped out first, then the dark green carpet running up the twin aisles. The alter looked bare without the Sunday flowers.  The big room was cold at first, but the huge old oil furnace would quickly warm the place.  Coats and hats went into a graceless pile on a pew at the back.

His mother got them started on lines and in a half hour, another woman came to help out.  She brought a few kids with her, too, and she played the piano in the choir loft and helped with the singing bits.  His mother was in over her head, her slightly stunned face confessed, but she laughed a lot as she tried her best.  That was all she could do.

Close to the pageant, she had one of her breakdowns at home.  It was on the carport, while she tried to finish the backdrop to the nativity scene.  It was hard to paint the skies over Bethlehem with the wind kicking at the corners of the cloth.  The coffee tins she tried using weren’t heavy enough.  She tried prying up some stones from the garden.  By the time she spilled the paint, she was a nervous wreck.

“Goddam it!” she yelled. “It’s tomorrow.  Can’t the world give me a fucking break?”

He watched her for a moment through the screen door and waited for the nervous giggles that her breakdowns always caused.  This time they didn’t come, which was a blessing.  They always infuriated her, even though she knew it was involuntary. He pushed open the door and came to crouch beside her.

“I’ll help, Mommy,” he said.

“It’s too purple anyway,” she said.  Her face looked older than it needed to look under the yellowy overhead light.  The doubt and the anger and the suffering in her eyes was something he couldn’t quite understand.  They would get the skies over Bethlehem painted in time.  But her misery would vanish and come again and again. It was the way of things.  He felt the feelings with her and for her, even when they made no sense.

He took up the brush and began to smear the spill back and forth, filling in more and more of the white canvas.  Because there was so much, it spread far and quickly.  She sat beside him, her face in her hands, but her frown beginning to fade.  After a moment, she found another brush in her caddy and she crawled to the other side of the cloth.

“Just pour some on,” he advised. “It works good that way.”

Soon they met in the middle of a vast, plummy sky and laughing, they held up palms of the exact same shade.

“We should have started here and worked out,” she said ruefully.  But the crisis had passed again.

Fireflies

Story Grinder

Well, it would never do that he’d missed the train. She wouldn’t understand at all. Mariam was not the understanding kind. Particularly if she were inconvenienced. He sat on a bench on the platform for a long while, feeling the weight of her impending criticism descend upon him. It was so familiar, the sense of letting her down and being schooled about it, that it was almost as if he were already there with her.  Their humid little kitchen would smell of Dawn and pork chop grease, her back would be to him as she washed the dishes at nearly the speed of light.

Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.

The…

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The New Paris

Story Grinder

The night the bird visited them, they were eating a late supper on the balcony that overlooked the boulevard.  The scene below was idyllic: a handsome avenue, wide in the way of the new city.  The houses were tall and impressive; the lamps made the leaves on the young trees shimmer.

The husband glanced out over the darkening skyline and said, “The ghettos are all but vanished.”

His wife swallowed a grape that turned sour as she ate it.  Washing her mouth with wine, she said, “No, they have only pushed the ghetto to other places.  It is like grass that sends shoots under the soil.  The gardeners rip it up in bits, but the runners are always slinking out into the dark, slipping along, over and under the worms.”

He frowned. “Poverty isn’t a weed, determined to survive.”

It brought her up and they were silent for a moment. …

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