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.

Becky Stories

There is history to each old house rotting along the byways, peering out from under the stringy grip of the mad kudzu.  My aunt Becky knew lots of stories, about the living and the dead.  Some things she knew because she was a court reporter who spent hours looking up things in town records.  Yet some of the best tales she told were just things she knew because they were woven into the very countryside we called home.  And because she was the oldest aunt, she’d lived through the most stories. You could point to any old home place on our road and she knew who had lived there and how they died.  We always loved the creepiest tales.

ImageShe lingered on the telling, feeding them to us in bits while she made supper.  The whole family came to eat the Sunday meal in the house Aunt Becky and Grandma kept, so once a week there was a pretty big audience for storytelling.  As the other kids gathered in the living room or out on the front yard to play and to bicker, I would find a place to disappear in the kitchen so that I could hear the telling.  It wasn’t hiding so much as just blending in.

In the world of my childhood, you watched TV most nights.  In those candy bright living rooms, toothy bell-bottom wearers gave each other high fives while canned laughs told us it was all very funny.  But on Sunday evenings, the best stories to be had came from Becky.

One of her stories was about Rosie Hawkins and Duck March, whose name might sound like an annual event in the natural world.  Yet to us it had a terrifying connotation.  If older cousins wanted to scare you in the yard at twilight, they paused and looked into the woods, whispering, “Was that Duck March?”  The story Becky told was about something that happened a long while back.  This is how she told it.

Rosie Hawkins was a spinster who lived all alone on Loop Road.  One Sunday evening, after she missed church supper for the first time in all her life, they found her swinging from a tree outside her house.  It was said she killed herself, but there was blood on her dress.  Doc Holiday said it might have been her virgin blood.  Someone else asked how she got up there; they found neither ladder nor chair under the tree.  Rosie wasn’t spry enough to have climbed up and jumped down.  Besides, the branches were all high.  Everyone knew how tidy Rosie kept that yard.  Every tree a proper soldier, arms up to salute the starched little general that was then the Hawkins farm house.

And Roy Sealock made a good point, too, which was about her church cakes.  Why would a woman who was planning to kill herself make three of the prettiest cakes you ever saw, lined up just so, with the basket she usually used for taking things to church supper sitting there beside?  Though they would never write it up as a murder, everyone agreed nothing made sense.

Becky knew something else, too.  She had written an article for the paper once, just a couple of years ago and long after Rosie Hawkins was laid to rest, about a psychic who came to live in the area.  The seeing woman told Becky she lived in these parts when she was a child, but her father moved them all to California back in the fifties.  She asked Becky about a sleep vision she once had far away in Santa Monica when she was a teenager, that she always felt had something to do with their old home in Virginia.

In this dream she saw a woman being raped on the floor of a small, whitewashed kitchen.  She was stout and had thick brown hair in a knot on top her head.  The man was wiry.  He wore his dark hair a little like Hitler, but his face was whiskered over thickly.  The story gave Becky pause, because the man sounded like Duck March, a local mad man who was attributed to some other unsolved murders.

Then the seer frowned with another thought and added that the man was missing a finger on his left hand.  She thought it might have been the pointer finger.  Then my aunt knew it was Duck.  The woman told her she saw the missing finger because she saw him making a noose.  She said the woman was already limp when he slipped it over her head; he’d broken her neck when they fought in the kitchen.  He climbed up on a ladder from the barn and dragged the rope over a tree branch, arms straining, until she was hovering well above a perfect carpet of grass.  In her dream, she was able to follow him back to the barn and watch him put the ladder away.  Then just before he bolted into the woods, he turned suddenly as though startled, and she had a funny sense that he was going to look straight at her through her dream.  She woke up in a cold sweat.

Becky said she didn’t know how she felt about psychics, as a rule, but the woman seemed sincere.  And telling the story left her visibly pale and unhappy; she was certain the thing she saw had really happened.  Becky had come to write about a psychic returning home, a light enough little piece to hold down the back page of the paper.  She could not and did not write the story the woman told her.

My aunt always saved a good detail for the last.  She’d get up to stir something on the stove while we mulled over what she had told us.  The other grownups started along side roads that stemmed from the tale: what ever happened to the Hawkins farm; did they every find the person who finally killed Duck March; was it true that when they found his body, his parents rolled him over and took his wallet?  Becky would answer each question in good time, but first she turned from the stove and added the delicious last stroke to her Rosie Hawkins masterpiece.

When she was leaving the psychic’s house – that little place with the blue door out on Airport Road near the animal shelter – the woman smiled at her and said that the queerest thing about visions was the details she sometimes remembered.  Like with the rape she saw in that prim little kitchen, she’d never forgot, there were three cakes with white icing sitting all in a row on the table.  They were perfect cakes, just so cakes, the kind you smoothed patiently with a cold wet knife.