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.”

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.

Photo Bin

In the junk shop, the plate glass opens a flood of golden afternoon light onto a bin of old photos.  Each snapshot is a quarter.  Some of the pictures are faded, others spotted with dried food.  Once upon a time, people passed these around the dinner table, saying things like, “Doesn’t she look like her daddy there?” 

The women pick through them side by side, purse straps pulling unnoticed, the weight a part of them at least as long as motherhood.  Today they are just each other again, the best friends of lost years, the keepers of secrets, the ones to laugh at jokes no one else ever knows.  The kids are with their fathers, one set in Idaho, the other in Maryland.  Sticky kitchen floors and unfolded laundry seem impossible facts on the streets of New York, easily and deliberately forgotten for three days of escape.  In this musty junk shop, the only things that are real are dirty baby dolls and battered night stands, the feel of being together again yet again.

One could take all the paint-by-numbers on the floor and hang them together on a wall.  About halfway to the back, under a stack of record players, there’s a flowered sofa that would look okay with a pair of green chairs up front.  The coffee table with the finish bubbling off at the corners could work at the center of the grouping, an assortment of candlesticks brothered up on the glass.  The pair of plaster lamps on the counter might slide in with shades taken from other lamps.  And if someone ran down to the corner store for bulbs, there would even be light. In the end, scrambling through the dusty and the dismissed relics of all these other lives, a strong back and a quick mind could make up a room, comfortable and maybe too familiar – kitsch and even a little witty.  Yet there is a joy in letting the puzzle remain just the pieces.

Outside the shop, on the street above, the two women are perfectly framed in the window over the photo bin.  Wrapping the bottom of the window are stickers for bands, posts for concerts that already happened.  The colors are faded and the paper is curled.  Holding up photos for each other now and again, they laugh quickly, their fingers seeking out the next.  They could never explain exactly the photos that will come home with them, the sets of four worth their dollar.  Maybe none will come home, but that isn’t really the point of the moment, whether they know it or not.  Above their heads, reflected in the glass, the brick of buildings and the blue of the sky are impenetrable unless you stare through them a long time.

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.”

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.

Good Night, Lucille

She was the last one to ever care about the place.  Her grandpa had cleared the land and her father had worked it. By his side, she made it her work, too, even though her mother warned her she’d grow thick and spotty. When she was a teenager, her sisters lay in a ring on the green living room carpet, looking at the dresses in the Sears catalog.  Lucille sat on the stairs by herself, studying the Almanac.  Image

She turned that soil each season of her life, till her hands were tough and brown and her back always just a little bent.  The years saw the passing of her mother and her father and then two sisters from cancer.  Her other sister, Jean, drove out from Washington in her shiny green sedan now and again, but it seemed she had lost her love of all things country.  She thought the ham was too salty, the bird egg beans too soft.  Sitting in the living room, Jean’s eyes would climb the walls with an air of disbelief.  

“You can hardly keep this place up anymore,” she’d say. “But you never cared about the house as much as the barn. Just like Daddy.”

She loved Jean, but Lucille was never sad to see her go.  The place went back to normal when it was just her and the dogs and the swallows.  Little by little, the house was falling apart, but she was sure it didn’t mind too much.  The farm had taught her to understand rot. 

She loved each turn of the year, knew how the fields smelled when they were ripening.  In the mornings, nothing pleased her more than to stand beside the silver wood corral, stroking her old mare’s nose and mulling over what would get done that day. 

By the time her hair was white, she was working smaller crops, and she let two brothers from El Salvador live in one of the old migrant houses at the edge of the place in turn for helping her with things.  They were nice boys with sweet smiles.  Some nights, she stood on the back porch and could hear guitar music floating over the place.  She’d lean against the post, close her eyes and wonder how it was that a song she’d never heard could seem so much like a forgotten lullaby. 

She passed in the Autumn, on such a night, quite happily sitting on the rusty porch glider, falling in and out of sleep.  It was foggy out, but the strains of the guitar still came across.  A light out at the barn flashed through the grey soup now and again, seeming to wink at her as though the land itself knew and was saying, “Good night, Lucille.”