After Chagall

She was pretty sure he was watching her, the old man sitting across the train station, eating a fish sandwich out of a paper wrapper.  He had a soft face, a lumpy nose.   The hands that held the lunch to his mouth were spotted brown and red.  His gaze fell away each time she caught him looking.  The eyebrows shot up almost wistfully.

chagallDigging in her purse, she found her phone and opened up her calendar, checking dates for the week ahead.  It was a shame her assistant had put her with the Bryants on Thursday morning; she didn’t meet the wallpaper hanger until Wednesday afternoon and she knew he wouldn’t provide her a quote overnight.  If she could move him up, get the labor quote and his estimate of rolls before Thursday, she might walk out of her presentation with a deposit in hand.  It would certainly help, but it was already Tuesday night and she hated to press the wallpaper guy.  Experience had taught her to go lightly with asking favors.

Noticing that her chest was tightening with nerves, she decided to relax about the mix up with the schedule.  Julia was trying very hard and, really, it would all work out in the end. When she glanced up, the old man glanced away again.  He’d balled his sandwich wrapper up and it rested in his open hands.  He pitched his face toward the floor for a moment, then chanced another look.  Their eyes met and held.  He surprised her then.

“You Eleanor Parks?”

She narrowed her gaze. “Yes.”

“You helped my wife with a design – years ago.”

She smiled.  It was odd to keep calling across the space between them, so she hitched her purse strap on her shoulder and closed the distance.  “What was your wife’s name?”

“Adriana Leopoldi.”

She tilted her head, wishing it rang a bell.

“It was a long time ago.  You were just starting out, apprenticing under another designer. My wife always figured you were given the job because it was kind of small potatoes and your boss was too big for it.  We lived in Queens, a little bungalow that’s no longer there. You told her to take the drapery down everywhere and get blinds.  She painted the kitchen light yellow.  We had it painted ten years later, but she used the same color again.”

Eleanor smiled, though the woman still didn’t come to mind.

“But did you and I meet?”

“Only once, passed in the driveway.  My wife was talking real fast, trying to kind of push you along because I was in my work clothes and I think it embarrassed her a little bit. Adriana was like that. She wanted things always just so.  She always liked what you helped her with.”

It occurred to her she ought to ask how she was now, out of politeness, but thought better of it. If she were dead, it might make the old soul melancholy and make her feel worse for not remembering the former client.  Taking a seat beside him, she said, “Was she sad to see the house razed?”

“She never knew. Alzheimers. By the time we had to sell it, she was in a home and most days, she was pretty out of it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  My mother had Alzheimers, too.”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s why you did all that free work a few years ago at the Hirshhorn Clinic, on account of it was the wing for people like my Adriana and your mother.  I read an article about it in the Times.”

“I’m surprised you recognized me.  I’m not a very distinctive looking person; sometimes my friends don’t realize it’s me until they’re right up on me.”

“The Mrs. used to follow you for years, when you first got published.  She told everyone she knew how you once helped us.  Kept a scrapbook of your career, bought all your books. I think it was on account of you were the age our daughter would’ve been and she always said, if Chrissy’d lived, she could’ve done a lot worse than to be a fancy interior decorator with antique jewelry and a horse farm in Connecticut.”

It came to her in a flash then, a quick little memory of his wife.  It was almost twenty years ago, she and the other woman standing at each other’s shoulders in front of a kitchen sink.  They couldn’t afford to pull out all of the cabinets and the room was small.  She pointed to a light yellow paint swatch and the woman smiled, saying she always wondered what something like that would be like.

Adriana Leopoldi.  The name sounded kind of rich.  She wore her makeup perfectly, if a little too heavily, and she smelled like the perfume counter at a shiny department store. When she talked, she worried a string of small but good pearls at her neck, and her smile for Eleanor was always warm, always generous and trusting.

The kitchen had been hot, the whole house a little stuffy.  When she recapped her project to her boss, the stout southerner had rolled her eyes.  “Well, sugar, you have to suffer through some of the little ones. They all teach a lesson, even if it’s only that nothing greases creativity like cash.”

It had made her feel a little ashamed of her work for Mrs. Leopoldi and then ashamed of that shame, too.  She found that she took extra care to make the woman in the little house in Queens feel important enough.  When they were done with their work, Mrs. Leopoldi sent her a card.  Thin paper, Eleanor’s boss noted, reaching over her shoulder to rub the front flap.  But it was after Chagall, the older woman’s favorite artist.  She thanked Eleanor for all her help in flowery words, an elegant hand like honeysuckle running.

Eleanor had hated her boss for a moment when she pointed out the thinness of the card, but then tucked it away and cherished it for many years when rummaging through her desk drawers.  It went with her twice, once when she left her mentor for a job at a larger firm uptown, and once more, when she opened her own fluffy little boutique in the village. The boutique didn’t last, but her career boomed.  The card and the woman who wrote it had lapsed into the realm of forgotten things.

“She was a real fan of yours,” he said.  “Said you were a lady.”

Eleanor nodded, but she couldn’t find words.

“Thank you,” she said at last.

“Hey, you okay?”

“I’m just very touched.”

They sat in silence for a moment.  At last she asked, “Where are you these days? Do you miss the house in Queens?”

“Oh, no.  I’m in Williamsburg now.  My grandson’s got a eyeglass factory there; they make everything out of wood.  Real old-fashioned kind of stuff, but kind of modern, too.  I think his grandma would have liked his work.  You might even.  He has two apartments over the shop – one for each of us.  He’s a good boy.  The like you don’t find too much anymore.”

Eleanor imagined the grandson.  She bet he wore his hair a little messy, wore all of his clothes ironically.  His grandmother wouldn’t quite understand.  She’d spend too much money buying him a suit he wouldn’t want to wear.  She’d tell him things like that still mattered. And if he were kind, he’d give her a hug and tell her he knew she was right, even if he had his doubts.

“Cashmere,” she said, remembering the color she’d recommended to Mrs. Leopoldi.

He winked at her.  “That was it.”

Car Pool

She beat that road every day to work, the years flying by like the blurred scenery.  The White House changed hands three times, her sisters got married and her best friend moved away.  In all that time, her job got easier to bear or else she just got numb. One thing she knew: it only ever paid enough to get by and not a dime more.  When the fridge broke or the car started to overheat, her guts twisted like she was passing gravels.  A long time ago – it seemed – she’d thought this life would be temporary.  She’d move on, move up.

Yet time made the route into the routine while her ass got bigger and her eyes dulled from blue to a quiet grey.   Most nights she pulled into the drive and couldn’t remember anything about the drive home.  She was so anxious to get there, she’d put off stopping to fill up the car.  The red light on the dash would stare her down all the way to the gas station the next morning and she’d just about go crazy worrying about making it there.  She told her mother this once and she said, “Why the rush to get home, Carmen? You ain’t got no one waiting for you unless you count that dumb cat.”

ImageJust after New Year’s a new girl started at the plant.  Her name was Emily.  There was a soft, sexy quality about her, like the bombshells out of old black and white movies.  She talked a lot and because she was so young it was mostly about guys.  She changed her nail polish every Wednesday night.  It was always something colorful and a little weird.  Still, Carmen found her eyes seeking out the new look each Thursday at lunch.  At least once a week something looked different in that ugly ass break room.  One day they discovered they lived on the same road.  Emily suggested they should ride together sometimes.  Carmen told her she’d think about it.

Emily’s suggestion came up when she had supper with her folks one night.  Her mother said, “Carpooling would be a good idea.  Just make sure she’s not a meth head or something first.  Once they know where you live, they’ll steal your TV to get a fix.”

That was her mother’s talent: finding the thing to be concerned about.  Carmen kept mulling it over.  Something had changed since the girl brought it up.  No one from work had ever lived near her and so it had never been an option.  But now that she could imagine having someone to talk to on the ride, it made her notice the silence of her drive all the more acutely.  She wasn’t really sure she wanted to talk to someone every day, but then again, it hadn’t seemed so lonely until now.  Maybe it was the drab winter countryside.

One February afternoon, she unwrapped her tuna fish sandwich, stared down at the soggy bread for a long while and somehow came to a decision.  She glanced over at the girl.  Today her nails were black with red hearts, five a hand, exactly fitting each square oval.

“How about we ride together every other day at first?” Carmen said.  “See how it goes?”

“Okay,” Emily agreed without pause.  “I can drive tomorrow.”

“I’ll drive.  Just give me your address before we go home.”

“I’ll text it to you.”

Carmen nodded and gave the girl her number.  The black tipped thumbs moved like lightning as Emily plugged it into her contacts.  The young ones handle their phones like part of their body, Carmen thought, feeling old not for the first time.

Emily lived in a plain brick rancher with beige trim, bearded with shaggy evergreen shrubs all around.  On the carport, someone had started to take apart an old Mustang and had never got around to putting it back together.  Spider webs draped the yawning hood.  She had barely stopped when the side door flew open and Emily barreled across the yard, bent against the cold, looking younger than ever under her fluffy hood and baggy coat.

She slid into the car with red cheeks.  “Good morning.”

“This your place?” Carmen asked, backing carefully out of the drive.

“No.  It’s my grandma’s house.  I live with her right now.”

“You’re lucky.  I never knew my grandmother.”

“Oh,” the girl said.  “Grandma’s sweet.”

As they drove along the highway, she was surprised that Emily didn’t talk her ears off as she had thought might happen.  Instead, she found herself doing the talking.  She heard herself asking if Emily was allergic to cats; she had vacuumed out her car just in case.

“He’s hardly ever in here – just to go to the vet – but I thought maybe there might be some from my coat or something. He likes to sleep on my coat if I throw it over his chair.”

Emily blinked at her and smiled. “I’m not allergic to pets.”

She asked the girl if she minded the radio and the girl said she liked anything but talk radio. She didn’t like all that political stuff.  Carmen told her the only talk radio she liked was an AM program about conspiracy theories.

“But just for laughs,” she said.  “You know the type I’m talking about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, maybe I’ll subject you to it sometime.  You’ll either love it or hate it.”

Then Carmen remembered that this was just an experiment, them driving together.  Her own idea to treat it like a trial of sorts.  Why was she doing so much of the talking? This was not her way, usually.  She tuned in a pop music station and it seemed like in no time they were pulling into the parking lot at the plant.

“That seemed quick,” Emily said.

“It did, didn’t it?”

On the way home, Emily was just as Carmen had first imagined.  She chatted about everything under the sun and Carmen realized she was probably not a morning person.  It didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would.  When she stopped for gas, she glanced now and again through the window, watching the girl texting friends on her phone.

She asked herself if she’d ever been that young and decided at least not at heart.  Maybe there was something a little psychic in the air, because when they got back on the interstate, Emily asked, “How old are you, Carmen?”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“That’s young,” the girl said.

Carmen snorted. “Do I look a lot older than that?”

To her surprise, Emily turned to study her, taking the question to heart.  What was it with these young people?  The way she was raised, you always lied and said people looked younger than they were.  It was a courtesy.  A no brainer.

Emily said, “I don’t think you look thirty-seven, but I’m not sure what that’s supposed to look like anyway.  I think you’d look younger if we changed your hair a little bit.”

She considered being offended.  She picked it up and put it back down again.  Instead she heard herself let out a sigh.  “I’ve been thinking about doing something different with it.”

“You’d look good with bangs,” the girl said. “The kind that sweep off to one side.”

“You think?” She shrugged. “Maybe you can show me something on your phone tomorrow. I’m open to suggestions.”

Emily smiled at her, but just as quickly her smile faded as they turned onto their road.  She pointed to an old farm house on the corner, one that had been abandoned and falling apart as long as Carmen could remember.

“Doesn’t that place just make you sad?” Emily said.  “I always wonder why it’s so alone like that.”

Her voice was so sweet and wistful, it made Carmen study the place closer.  She hadn’t noticed it in years.  Vaguely she recalled that she used to feel the same way Emily did about it.  It was good to have someone to make you notice things.  She felt relieved that the carpooling wasn’t terrible after all.  At least, not so far.

When she let Emily out at her house, she watched her dash across the yellow lawn before backing out onto the street.  She was smiling a little bit, thinking about bangs that sweep off to one side.  Then she remembered that tomorrow would also be a new nail polish day and she found herself chuckling.

“Carmen, you old ass,” she said into the car.  “You’re gonna paint your nails tonight.”