Marie’s Crisis

On a side street in the village, there is a little booze joint with a piano.  It’s in the basement of a narrow townhouse.  The floors are sticky and the writing on the bathroom walls mostly forgettable but sometimes funny and tragic.  Drinks are never a fantastic pour, but they’re cheap and the price fair.  People don’t come for the hooch; they come for the music and the community.  It is church for people who love show tunes more than god.

If the Lovely Man is behind the piano when he peers through the window, Marcus comes down the steps and makes his way through the throng to the bar.  He won’t stay if the younger one is there, the one who tosses his hair around and plays the keys heavy, who purses his lips to say things that are snide but never witty.

The Lovely Man has a gentle smile and the kind of hands one wants to see at a keyboard.  They’re long and slender hands, pale and elegant hands.  If Marcus stays late enough, nursing first one and then another snifter of bourbon, most of the crowd will clear.  The Jersey thrill seekers will leave first, in their nice long coats, and all the way home they’ll probably chatter about the songs and voices. The young bloods who came in groups will leave in pairs.  Finally the stage queens will slip out into the night, swishy old cats with short prowls home.

At this late hour only a few remain, the shy ones who wanted to sing all night, but hadn’t found the moment or the courage.  For such a small group, at two in the morning, the Lovely Man plays any song he knows, even if it’s not Broadway, which is the rule of the bar.  It’s a rule the young one with the hair keeps jealously and without humor.   Not the Lovely Man.  He and his stragglers want to hear and to play and to sing what is soft and blue.  Their hearts and notes break over lyrics written for molasses voices that pour slow.  What they like best isn’t for shouting.  These last singers, these patient souls, are the sweet remains of the long evening, the honey to cajole from the bottom of the teacup. There’s always some new faces, but many have been coming for years.  Marcus knows a few of them by name.

He knows Miss Katina, who always tells new lies and never repeats one or tells the truth.  She’s told him her name is Anthema, Cheryl, Nefertihiti and Butterfly Moon.  He sticks with Miss Katina because that was the first one he knew. She sings from deep in her big belly, up and up through her nose and out over her teeth.  Once she told him how her daughter died – freezing in the night on a roadside in Virginia – and how she could never again sing ‘Autumn Leaves’.  She wept so mournfully, he almost believed her.

Old Sam sits by himself, a wasted little elf with silver and jet curls, with a speaking voice dry and lonely.  When he sings ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’ he has a rich baritone that seems not to belong to him.  The surprise he causes delights him.  His eyes crinkle when he sees jaws dropping.  He eats up the applause with kid delight and no one wants to stop beating their hands together for him.  When the claps at last subside, there’s a gentle sadness that steals back into his blue eyes.  He turns toward the table where he sits, the smile fading, but not quite leaving him.

The stout man with the opera voice sings things like no one else, songs with Italian words that make him throw out his hands when he trills them. Marcus doesn’t know his name, but he thinks of him as Senor Lieberman.  His affectation is Italian, and clearly his appetite, but there’s something about him that makes one think he grew up in the back of a Jewish deli.  He reminds Marcus of a boy named Ira, who he loved when his hair was still golden.   The senor has mastered something that would never fly at the Met.  He renders opera small and tender, making the epic explosions into soft confessions for the midnight hour.  Maybe it’s something about the way he sings that makes Marcus remember past loves.  He cries every time, clasping the senor’s hand fervently and whispering, “You bastard.”

Before the bar closes and the others shuffle out, the Lovely Man casts Marcus a glance from under his long lashes.  He smiles and says, “We can’t turn out the lights until you sing us out.”  Marcus blushes and he wants to protest, but he won’t because it seems silly when all the others mustered the courage.  He smiles back at the Lovely Man and they begin.

When Marcus sings, he starts rough and ends sweet.  The engine needs to warm.  If the first song is short, he’s usually asked to do another.  His poor voice is broken, he was told long ago, but he made it into something of his own.  It’s a woman’s voice, but a woman who had it bad from the word go.  She’s tough and hard and bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter, not that she’d want that to get around.  When he sings ‘All of Me’, people look away – it feels like peering into a window – but they listen close.

These nights, Marcus walks home in a glow, the music of the others still lingering close, like voices of people he lost along other walks along his way.  They come back to him through the singing, and they stay to put him to bed.

Our Lady of Perpetual Snark

As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack.  Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”

Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night.  Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold.  The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.

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Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule.  She hated her first name.  It was a soft name that never fit her personality.  Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”

“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.

The two of them could always joke in that way.  A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could.  She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are.  Honest.”

She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time.  It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed.  Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.

As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”

Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser.  Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list.  If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass.  No, thanks.

Hawkins knew the drill.  She knew how to talk to people like Denise.  Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice.  “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”

“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report.  “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”

Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that.  She composed herself, decided the game was up.  “Look.  What you mutter is private.”

“Then why mutter it at all?”

“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it.  Out of courtesy.”

Denise looked at her for a long while.  Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can.  Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.

“Well, she does have super good hearing.  I’ll give her that.  How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something?  Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”

Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it.  Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”

The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette.  She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child.  The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars.  Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.

Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”

At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.  If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t likely.

“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air.  “Maybe he had it coming.”

If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good.  Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips.  Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.

She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue.  They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them.  Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day.  Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s.  The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate.  She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.

She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island.  On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food.  It quickened her hunger and she walked faster.  Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days.  The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.

Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them.  The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully.  He glanced up at her when she entered.

“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know.  I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday.  You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”

He laughed. “You have a good day?”

“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones.  They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen.  She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake.  “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”

“They’re good,” Shawn said.  “And I did clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep.  And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”

Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”

“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”

She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions.  As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”

When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn.  His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name.  The other two came a good long while later.  Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself.  In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other.   When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short.  Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself.  One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.

Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her.  Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything.  She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove.  And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school.  He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.

“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him.  “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”

“I forgot about my trust fund.”

She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t.  It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college.  His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough.  Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.

“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”

That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces.  She set her jaw.

“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers.  Get it?”

He’d given her one of his looks.  His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp.  Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold.  It amused the old woman.  “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.”  Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look.  It always made her glance away.

Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again.  Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father.  He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard.  Her boy was self-possessed like herself.  With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.

In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue.  She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son.  It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home.  But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer.  Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus.  It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory.  Maybe it was.

She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night.  All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit.  In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee.  She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully.  The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind.  Howl.

Sharp, More

We’ve been strolling for about twenty minutes when we again circle the benches at the fountain.  This time when Sharp raises his brows in the question, I nod in agreement, so we stop and take a seat.  He sighs in contentment as he settles in.

Sharp looks good today – relaxed and even a little dashing in his jacket – so I make the mistake of telling him.  He looks away with a scowl that does little to hide the smile that almost lit on his features.

I squint up into the sky.  “Well, you look as good as a guy like you can look, anyway.  Your hair is at least combed and I don’t see any mustard stains on your shirt.  New lady in your life? Something you’d care to discuss with the group?”

“Some group. Me and some shithead.”

I laugh right out loud.  It’s fun to get his goat and I long ago decided he can’t tell it’s a kind of flirting.  Sharp is a brilliant man but he has his blind spots.  It’s clear he isn’t going to tell me if he’s dating someone.  We sit without talking for a while, studying the other people, listening to the music of three jazz musicians standing in dappled light.

It’s Sunday in Washington Square, warm for this late in October.  Cardigans have come off and are tossed over elbows or knotted around waists.  The leaves are all stained glass and back lit.  This is an impossibly beautiful, Hollywood kind of day.

Sharp taps my shoulder, says, “Look.”

He has spotted a woman and her son arguing near the fountain.  The woman is yoga-and-kale-juice thin, wearing one of those dresses that looks like bicycling clothes.  Her blond hair is short and messy and something about her looks familiar.  She might be an actress I should know about.  Her son has stylishly disheveled hair and wears skinny jeans rolled up to show off striped socks and rugged little boots.  Peeping out from under the jacket he is twisting out of is a vintage-looking Blondie concert tee sized for a five year old.

“What do we think of that shit?” he asks.

“Well, I think it’s dreadful.”

“Dreadful,” he mocks not unkindly. “I agree.  You know you’re a little Victorian, don’t you?”

“Dreadful has been retired?”

“Eh,” he says.  “Looks like mamma wants Timmy to keep his jacket on.”

“Well, Timmy’s winning,” I say. “There should be a rule. Until you are pretty much a teenager, no one gets to dress you up cute and trendy.  You just wear some old shit off the rack at K-Mart.”

He laughs. “Then when you get your first pube, someone throws you a bone and takes you to a J. Crew outlet in Jersey.”

“Yeah.”  I ponder it a moment more. “I guess it’s annoying because you know that kid is going to be such an asshole.”

The boy we’ve named Timmy has wrestled free of his jacket, leaving his mother holding the sleeves with a frustrated and slightly astounded look on her face.  Sharp shrugs. “Looks like he already is one.”

I laugh, warming to the theme, and say, “Timmy’ll be that guy who always knows exactly the right new bands to mention at parties.  Bands you haven’t heard of yet.”

“He’ll quote Camus incessantly,” Sharp says, not missing a beat.  “One by one, his traits will be perfectly fine – almost admirable – but collectively, they’ll make him the absolute worst.”

But now I’m bored with making fun of Timmy. He’s fallen and he’s crying while his mother checks him over.  He’s become just a little kid again and it’s time to let up.  Sharp must agree because he has an old couple in his sights.  They are sitting on a bench on the north side of the fountain.

“You name them,” he says. “I did the last one.”

“But you call all little boys Timmy.”

“Your point?”

I study the old woman, who is scribbling in a Sudoku book with a purple fountain pen.  She is tallish, you can tell, with hair that hasn’t been taking calls since Carter was in office.  It’s flame red and curls stiffly against the popped color of her tweed blazer.  Her slacks look expensive but slightly high-water, as if they refuse to meet her curious choice of huge white tennis shoes.

“She is definitely a Marion,” I say.  “Or else something romantic and feminine that never suited her.  Like Gwendolyn or Genevieve.”

“Genevieve,” Sharp says. “But then he’s given her some big red nose of a last name that totally wrecks it.  Like Rosenblatt.”

“Genevieve Rosenblatt.”

We laugh.  Sharp taps my arm, “You’re not done yet.”

I squint at the man now.  He sits far enough from her that a child or a small person could plop down between them.  His hands are empty, loosely woven together on his lap.  He is shorter than his wife and not just because he’s so old – this guy was always shorter than her. You can tell.  He dresses exactly as bad as Norman Fell on Three’s Company, so I take the easy way out.

“Stanley.”

“Stanley and Genevieve Rosenblatt,” Sharp says. “I can buy that.”

“You know she has a prolapsed uterus.”

“You say that about every woman over sixty.”

We’re silent a moment more.  The breeze has shifted and you can smell food from the neighborhood: briny franks, spicy gyros and something a little like brown sugar and butter, too.

“Let’s get brunch,” I suggest.

As we stroll along, I return to the subject of the Rosenblatts.  “You know, I have this thing where I always imagine older women having prolapsed uteri but being unable to talk about it to their doctor.  Like it embarrasses them so they won’t get treatment.”

“What is this? A fucking PSA?”

“No.”  We step around a small man in Daisy Dukes, tugging the leashes of three dogs. The littlest dog is a shih tzu and the biggest a great dane.  I dig my hands in my jacket pockets, wishing I’d worn only a t-shirt and jeans.  I’m only ever happy in a t-shirt and jeans.  Anytime I try to add another component, I live to regret it.

“Can’t you just see her daughter coming over and saying, ‘Ma, you’ve got to go to the doctor about this.  It’s going to get infected, you know?'”

“Now I can,” Sharp says, wincing.  “How come your version of her daughter sounds like Rhoda?  Whenever you do a New York woman’s voice, it’s Valerie Harper all over the place.  Don’t look, but your suburbia is showing.”

“Fuck off,” I say.  “In my dreams, they do all sound like Rhoda.”

We stop on the corner of Waverly and MacDougal while the traffic moves against us.  He grins at me, saying, “This still about what happened to your sister?”

Sharp remembers everything you tell him.  His mind is a steel cage.  I laugh as I recall the story my sister told me.  She said she went over to our mom’s house to check on her one Saturday.   Mom was in the shower when Julie got there so she made herself a roast beef sandwich and then threw herself over Mom’s bed, looking through a magazine and eating the sandwich.  When Mom got out of the shower, she said, “Julie, I want you to take a look at something.”  Julie got up and stepped into the bathroom, the roast beef sandwich in one hand and the magazine in the other.  Our mother was standing in front of the bathtub, toweling herself dry with her legs about shoulder width apart.

“Look at this, honey,” Mom says.  She lets the towel go and points to herself down there and where her legs meet up, there is something that looks exactly like a huge wad of chewing gum – that weird color called burple – blown into a bubble and then stuck there, half deflated.  “It’s my vagina,” Mom said.  “My insides are coming out.”

My sister said she literally threw up.  She puked the roast beef sandwich right out over the bathroom floor and some of the throw up splashed up on both her and my mom.  Then my mother, now as shocked and grossed out as Julie was, pukes in turn.  And this puke, as Julie tells it, had walnuts and Craisins in it.  “You know,” she added. “Those dried cranberries. But now they were reconstituted, so they just looked like normal cranberries.”  She said it was the grossest thing that ever happened to her and I bet she’s not lying about it.  Of course I called up Sharp at the time and told him first.

That was last year, when Sharp and I were in the thick of our friendship.  We’d only been friends a year or so at that point and, his divorce over and him shy about dating again, we spent a lot of time together.  That was back when I was a little bit in love with Sharp.  The night I figured it out, we were walking back to my place from a bar.  It was two or three in the morning, but we weren’t really that pissed.  We’d been drinking slow and talking all night and we’d never switched from beer to liquor, though we talked about it.

I saw a mirror on the sidewalk someone had thrown out.  It was cracked in one corner, but it had an interesting frame.  Sharp could tell I liked it as soon as I paused to give it a look.

“Want me to carry it?” he asked.  It was a big mirror and he is a bigger guy than me, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t manage.  Maybe he could see I was a little peeved that he offered.  He said, “Or we can take turns. It’s still five blocks.”

“Okay,” I said.  So we took turns carrying it back to my place.  He held it when we got to the apartment door so I could get out my key and let us in.  The hallway is small and its easy to stand too close to someone in it even when there isn’t a mirror pushing the two of you together to get through.  I could feel the heat coming off his body he was so close to my side.  It made getting the lock a clumsy task.

When we got inside, I told him to throw the mirror up on the mantle shelf.  The chimneys have all been bricked up, so the mantles are just relics now.  He put it up and turned to face me, his stupid face a little red from coming up the steps, his eyes shiny and dark, the only bright things I could see at that moment.  He was smiling at me warmly, as friends do in those rare moments of quiet we allow ourselves.  I knew in that instant how much I had come to rely on him for feeling happy and it just kicked me in the stomach. This was a real pain I’d felt once or twice before in my life.  I turned away with a cross brow and said flatly, “Thanks, Sharp. I think I’m gonna go to bed, so you need to go home.”

He left with a scowl on his face and I cried myself to sleep.  But that was a year ago and since then I’ve folded those feelings up until they fit our particular box.  It was that or no Saturdays like this one, where we walk and talk this way, opening up strangers and deciding we know the shape of them on the inside.  We’re very clever, we like to think, and that is how Sharp and I work.