9 New Yorker Stories by Rick Rofihe
“These surgically precise slices of intelligent life are distinguished by virtuosic phrase-making and fetchingly off-beat specifics.”
—Bruce Allen, The New York Times Book Review
“Mr. Rofihe can be surprisingly effective, with a quirky tenderness. Oddly touching, the interest here lies not in the stories’ mundane incidents, but in things barely hinted at: beneath this calm surface, powerful currents flow.”
—Bruce Bawer, The Wall Street Journal
“Rick Rofihe’s stories have bulging motor nerves and threadlike muscles. They are contour almost without mass; lines of fierce magnetic energy with only a dusting of iron fillings to reveal their course. They are elusive, but not in the sense of escaping us. It is more as if we are unable to find them, and then they spring out at us; we are not sure from where.”
—Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times
“The narratives weave toward minor epiphanies, backing and filling, curving around their characters with a seeming lack of coherence—yet they are strangely compelling, as the refusal to make plain their meanings gives more depth to implication.”
—Michael Darling, Books in Canada
“A gentle but insistent touch. . . . Rofihe pays close attention to how people talk about what they think and do.”
“What makes him different from some of the other successfully quirky writers? The difference seems to be one of commitment; he takes the big risks so many stylists never do. Without moralizing, Rofihe judges. His nose quivers at a new odor in the emotional air, and he makes a guess at what it is. Like all the good poets, he’s there to name things—in his case, things most of us don’t even notice.”
—Marianne Ackerman, The Montreal Gazette
“Rick Rofihe’s short stories are very sophisticated indeed, and it comes as no surprise to learn that they have appeared in The New Yorker. He is a talented writer whose versatility and empathetic sensibility are remarkable. This is serious literature.”
—Joan McGrath, CM, Canadian Library Association
“Rofihe speaks convincingly in many voices. His characters are absolutely believable, and the kind you wouldn’t cross the street to avoid meeting.”
—Gregory McNamee, Washington Post Book World
“Life’s victories and defeats are measured by little moments and insights. But in the stories of Rick Rofihe they become unusually dense, compact fictions that resist easy reading and quick retelling almost as much as they resist leaving your memory.”
—Jacob Stockinger, The Madison (Wisconsin) Capitol Times
“The proof of true mastery is making what’s difficult look easy. Rofihe has a real knack for telling a convincing story; instead of playing the puppetmaster, he becomes the puppet itself, breathing life into each character. These stories are rich in detail, nuance and feeling, each a separate gem in its own modest way.”
“Most of these stories are told in the first person by characters who are unsure of their thoughts’ importance, who are searching for explanations. In their narratives, the trivial and comic jostle the momentous. Uneasiness hangs over every scene, a chronic strange vibration, but all are enormously sympathetic, and their courage and humour haunt like sad music. (All the stories would be wonderful to hear read aloud.) Every sentence—cryptic as it may be—both rings true and sounds poetic, as if some massive emotional significance is close by, only a paragraph away. No words are wasted. These are small, quiet stories, serious, sophisticated, and evocative. This is a literary book.”
—Russell Smith, Quill & Quire
“Each of Rofihe’s stories is a puzzle you want to solve, and you smile when you do. Communication in one form or another is the key to these playful warm tales. A fresh, funny, and deeply felt collection.”
—Donna Seaman, American Library Association
“. . . brief, mostly first-person stories about the riddles of communication and the grammar of loneliness. Rofihe’s oblique narratives are coded messages, waiting to be deciphered.”
—The New Yorker
All of these stories first appeared in
The New Yorker.
9 New Yorker Stories by Rick Rofihe
Copyright: Rick Rofihe
“No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly. . . . It must be done indirectly, not by one who claims to be extraordinary, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to. . .approach from behind the person who is under an illusion. . . . One must have resignation enough to be far behind. . .otherwise one will certainly not get the person who is in an illusion out of it—a thing which is difficult enough in any case.”
—Kierkegaard, The Point of View
“I love you so much I hate you.”
—Carlene Carter, Every Little Thing
by Rick Rofihe
Learning to type? Not easy, right?
It is work which gives flavor to
It can’t be easy, with the letters presented to you shuffled up the way they are. Few typing instructors will concede that there’s any disarray, but at least half the instruction books I’ve seen feature practice sentences that try to play up the learner’s sense of purpose and foster a feeling of order where there’s apparently none.
Enid is in her room putting on makeup. Why do anything to those delicate features? “Because it takes up time,” she would say if asked.
Enid closes her bedroom door when she changes her clothes but leaves it ajar when she’s doing her face; is she hoping some small talk might reach her dainty ears? If that’s so, and if I am to oblige, I have to keep one eye on the keyboard, one eye on that door. Have I been much too quiet already? It must be so, for she’s starting to sing.
I’ve been across this country
That’s a good song; why would I want to interrupt it? Besides, typing requires concentrated practice.
Do the thing and you have still the
power; but they
Soon she says, “Oh you want more floor show?”
When Lady Luck would treat me right,
She stops making up in her oval dresser mirror and comes out to look in the full-length one.
“These pants are too . . . what is the word, Noonie? Or cats got tongue?”
I like Enid, and I like just about anything Enid says to me, and I’d just as soon hang around here with her and her cats as just about anything, maybe anything. Now, to talk or to type?
If you would not be forgotten, as soon
as you are
“Unable to wear THESE pants at THIS time,” she says, and walks back into her room and closes the door.
This is the longest I’ve stayed at Enid’s, six weeks now. The sofa here is certainly comfortable; I prefer it to the bed in the spare room, to my bed back home, maybe any bed anywhere. Now the door is ajar again.
I’m a girl who digs a chance
Her room, if you enter, is just a neat, compartmentalized, one-windowed box with sections for books, for yard goods, for notebooks, for keepsakes— but the first thing you notice is the background odor, which is of perfume mixed with stale cigarette smoke. That doesn’t sound inviting, but you might not turn and run.
I’ve danced in the east,
Enid once told me she was going to be a singer— that was when one of her husband’s friends, who instead became a doctor, was going to be a songwriter. Do I think Enid might get married again? Any such new husband would certainly want the sofa cleared, or perhaps a new, less comfortable sofa, and, simultaneously, the cats declawed. That would all be too bad, but what do I have to do with it outside of being a worrier about Enid? Now the bedroom door is opening wide.
BOYS who do the BOP,
Enid, wearing different pants, walks from her room toward the bathroom.
those BOYS—Boys! Boys! Boys!
I’m no help, either. On Tuesday, after I came back and told her about a girl I met over at the Peabody, Enid stopped wearing a bra. She set up the ironing board right in front of where I was typing and started ironing with her shirt mostly open, so what did I do but ask how come she usually wears a bra. She said something about gravity and time, then left the room, and when she came back she’d buttoned her shirt nearly up to her neck.
“Hullo, anybody home?” Enid, now through with bedroom and bathroom, says to me, then turns her attention to one of the cats. “What, not enough litter for a cute thing to scratch? We call Cat Litter King, o.k.?” She picks up the cat and brings its face to hers as she sits by the phone and dials the King’s message machine. “Greetings! Enid and cats on Comm Ave. wouldn’t mind a royal visit. We want a case of cat food that says ‘Cat Food.’ Not without labels, not cat-and-dog food, and not labeled ‘Dog Food’ that you say is cat food. One hundred pounds of litter in ten-pound bags, not two fifties—what do you think we are? We’re home late tonight and all tomorrow night. Sois prudent, Your Highness.” What an entertainer! Enid is no snob!
Enid puts down the phone and the cat, and is lost to me for a few minutes. I think she is thinking about the past, which is something I’ve pretty well cultivated out of myself, thinking about the past. As I turn off the typewriter, Enid looks over at me and says, “Let’s go here, let’s go there! That’s the thing to do, right?”
There was nothing like the Cat Litter King where I came from; there were also things in Boston I couldn’t get used to. Just before I first visited Enid, her small white cat, the one she told me would sleep on her neck, got stolen from out front by the junkies down the block. “Let’s go get it back?” a friend of hers had mocked my suggestion. “Noonie, you don’t go confronting addicts!” So as I went up and down Commonwealth Avenue putting up Lost Cat signs I had to fill my mind with other things, like memorizing the alphabetically ordered cross streets—Arlington, Exeter, Fairfax or Fairfield, Gloucester; that’s all I remember now, and Exeter Street’s easy, because that’s where the Exeter Street Theatre was.
It was only a couple of days later that Enid started talking about my getting some kind of job, though following right up with how after she moved to Boston she’d go through the Help Wanteds, circle all the interesting ones, fold the newspaper neatly on top of her recycling pile, and then go out to a museum or two. Once Enid did get me something part time at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. She was working near there then, so a lot of times we got to have lunch together, and I even started thinking maybe that’s why she got me the job. If it was a nice day and I got off early, I would go back to her place and sleep on the sofa in the sun with the cats. On days I wasn’t working, I would walk and walk—one day I did the whole Freedom Trail—or just turn to my Old List, which was some basic things that had looked at first to me impossible to do but that just about everybody seemed able to do, like skipping rope, riding a bike, driving a car (or, as I updated the list, if you learned on an automatic, then driving a standard), swimming, and, of course, typing. (I don’t have a New List but do keep an Auxiliary one, which is for not-impossible-looking things, like certain dances.)
Enid and I set out walking and, by the Charles River, Enid lights up a cigarette and tells me how her mother, who smokes, too, waits until everybody at their house has gone to bed and then goes outside on the patio and breathes out, all the way, emptying her lungs—push push push—completely, then breathes in a full load of fresh air, and then forces every bit out again, convinced that she’s cleaning that day’s smoking out of her lungs. I laugh at that, really laugh, and after a two-second delay Enid laughs, too.
I’ve never actually met Enid’s mother, but I talked to her on the phone once when she called and Enid was out. She knew who I was and kept calling me by my first name, again and again, with the most luxurious voice. Enid has every right to sound like that but doesn’t. Enid’s mother wanted, I think, to ask me how Enid really was, and I wasn’t so sure of myself that I said anything that would make her worry, but I didn’t try to make her not worry, either.
Here, there; and from the Cambridge side of the Charles, up by MIT, Enid points out the narrow eastern face of the new Hancock building and tells me that it reflects the sunrise in a long vertical line, and that the western end does the same at sunset. (You’ve got to admire the Hancock, though it’s tall and modern, and modern with problems. Try looking at it from the south when you’re way down on Tremont, or from the north, from beside the old Hancock, going right up close.) “I liked it in plywood and I like it now—windows and all, as long as nobody gets hurt,” Enid says, while reaching one hand over her head, tracing a halo’s shape with her finger, around and around.
It isn’t late when we get back to her place, but Enid’s tired, and does have to get up early to move her car for Friday street-cleaning before going to work, so right away she puts on that white cotton nightdress of hers and gets into bed. I feel bad that we’ve developed any sort of routine at all, Enid and I, because soon I’m probably going to be someplace else, and, to take just one example, who’s going to read from her book, that scrapbook of stories about sleep she’s put together in her more-than thirty-one years? Every evening I’ve been reading something from it to her after she gets into bed. It’s a great book—so good that I’ve had all three hundred and sixty-six oversize pages photocopied to take with me when I go. Tonight’s story was taken from the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:
. . . I had walked again up the street,
which by this
Philadelphia? I only have to hear a city’s name and I start to get ideas. Actually, I’d kind of made up my mind to try New York.
“Are there any more words to the song?”
“There’s more I can’t remember right now. I think I’m asleep.”
Before I leave this time I’m going to get those Bop lyrics on paper; otherwise I’ll have to write to wherever she is, and what if she has a new last name?
“Is it o.k. if I stay up and type?”
“S’all right. I like a little background noise when I dream.” (Enid really doesn’t mind it when I stay up late and type.)
It was only ten-thirty and I still wasn’t sleepy, so I started looking through the cupboards for something to eat. Next to three boxes of Wheatena and behind the saltines was an open bag of Pepperidge Farm Tahiti cookies. There were only two cookies in the bag, and since I hate to eat the last of anything when there’s someone else who might come snacking, I took just one cookie. Then, maybe because I was alone and it seemed so quiet, I got out a pen and wrote in ink on the bag, “Contains One Only—No Good if You’re Hungry.” I put the bag back on the shelf, went and stretched out on the sofa, and thought some more about Benjamin Franklin, and then Thomas Jefferson, and then John Hancock, and then whether or not I’d kissed Enid good night. I had, but it was the kind of kiss you can’t expect to go far, a kiss without plans.
So all that was a Thursday night. Then Friday, then Saturday, then Sunday; then Monday I left for New York, and I haven’t seen Enid since. I did leave her my P.O. box address from back home, because I wasn’t sure where I’d end up, and my cousin who works at the post office is good about forwarding things. Using that system, I’ve received three communications from Enid, three in five years:
1. In a puffy envelope mailed not long after I left Boston was the empty Pepperidge Farm cookie bag, with an “N” added to my note; i.e., “Contains NOne Only—No Good if You’re Hungry.”
2. Several months after that I received a postcard showing the lobby of a hotel in a place like Tahiti, and there, among other words, was “honeymoon”—not as in “Hoyle Up-to-Date,” not honeymoon bridge. (Enid once told me that her mother used to tell her, “You might as well be nice.” Even with that I couldn’t decide whether or not to send a wedding present, which is to say I didn’t.)
3. Then nothing for over four years until this menu, here in my hand, reached me earlier today. No message, but each dish and price printed in Enid’s hand, along with the restaurant’s name, and its address, three thousand miles away. I looked at the menu for a long time, and did think of writing something on it like “Menu Only—No Good if You’re Hungry” and sending it back, but then thought better of it. (Another thing I’d been cultivating was thinking better of things.)
As for what went the other way, once in a while I’d sent her funny newspaper clippings and stuff, but every time I wrote a real letter I knew it was a mistake the minute I dropped it into the big blue box. And telephones? You can’t get them to work right.
That’s still a great song, that Bop one. It’s a good thing I wrote down the words before leaving, but just getting lyrics on paper is not really how such things should be done. The way to make a song yours is by singing it—right? Some how-to-do book must say that. I gave my typing one away, because learning was so hard for me I began to feel that if I ever got good at it it would be while getting less good at something else.
Doing all right in New York, with all my books in one place for the first time in fourteen years, including two big identical old Random House dictionaries. I keep one at each end of my apartment so there’s no lugging around. I turn to them often. “Menu” comes from the French for “detailed list,” “detailed” as in “small and detailed,” while “snob” has no accepted etymological origin—though I’ve heard of Latin teachers who like to say it’s short for “Sine NOBilitate”, “without nobility.” But Enid was no snob!
Enid’s sofa was comfortable, yes, but on that Thursday night there was some noise from the street, a car radio playing loud, I think, so I moved my blankets into the spare room in back, which shared a wall with Enid’s and was its mirror image. Unfortunately, the bed there was much too soft, and I still couldn’t sleep. I started wondering if there was any part of a moon out that night, and if the long narrow ends of the Hancock ever reflect moonlight in a line—if not when the moon is large but pale on the rise, then maybe when it’s small and bright in the sky. A little while later I heard Enid get up, use the bathroom, and, I thought, go back to bed.
A few more minutes passed and then, from outside the spare-room window, came a sound that should have made me think of death, or birth, but even before I got up to look I knew what it was: Enid, expelling a day’s intake from her almost thirty-two-year-old lungs, cleansing them well with the damp, night-morning air.
by Rick Rofihe
The question he asked me didn’t start with “Father” or anything like that—I’m not his father. It wasn’t the words in his question that made me think of the question I’d once asked my father.
The kid’s a good kid. He’s full of good questions. And while it’s true that I haven’t let him call me anything, that doesn’t stop us from talking.
I did, different times, consider all the names he might call me, like Father or Papa or Daddy, but none ever seemed right. I could have let him call me by the name his mother and others do, but since I really don’t care for it, that would miss the whole point.
I just once, early on, asked about the father, and she said it had been only one night; then, smiling and pretty, she said it gets dark at night. She said it takes more time than she took to know how a person really looks, so it was a very good thing that the kid looked like her.
When I’m with the kid and someone says he must look like his mother, I just say, “O.k.” I don’t say, “He’s not only her.” I don’t say, “She’s the one who had him, and now, mostly, I have him.” I don’t say, “She says that even though I don’t let him call me anything she thinks that he likes me.”
It’s a nice place, this place; in the day, it has very good light. It’s the same place that it was when she first brought me here—same full cupboards, same clean table. I did paint the ceilings, but everything else is the same, except for a few things now that are mine and more stuff that’s the kid’s.
By the way, I do like him, and it’s not just because he’s not my own age. When we go out for a walk—well, at first he was two in that red-and-blue stroller—I always ask him about something, because after he answers, and it’s always a good answer, I like to ask anyway, “Now, are you sure?” I do it just to see that firm way he nods yes, and when I nod back, that dreamy look he gets because he likes being sure.
Billy Blair’s my own age. He was my best friend in sixth grade, but now I don’t see him often. The last time I did, I asked, “Hey, Billy Boy, does your mother still sing?” He said his mother never sang, and that’s a bad answer, so I said, “But she did. When she was folding the wash, she would sing.” And then, you know, he said something, and I didn’t say back to him how maybe I was a drunk now but that I was just a plain pure boy in sixth grade when his mother sang.
Should I find a good doctor, or go to the meetings, meet people? I’d rather—really, I’d like to—go see Mrs. Blair. She’s not my own age, so the question would work fine, and she’d even call me Jacksie, my name to people from then.
What if I was the only boy who ever noticed her singing? What I mean is not just the only boy but only man. (Someone should tell her. She really could sing.)
Of course, I’m not going to see Mrs. Blair. From the Blairs’ house you can see my old house—diagonally across the street, on the next block, the house without trees. Well, there might be trees there now; it’s been twenty years. My father wouldn’t plant trees around the house. He said trees around a house get big by making the house small.
Did my mother like trees?
I’m not saying my father was wrong; I know what he meant, and what that meant, but it would have been nice to have trees.
Am I thinking of my father because of Billy Blair’s answer, or because of the kid’s question, or because today’s Sunday? Just because the sun’s not up yet doesn’t mean it isn’t Sunday. I’m here in the kitchen, drinking black coffee.
In Japan, there are now big factories that operate all night without lights—robots don’t need lights. These factories of robots are dark in the dark; all black in black. You can hear these factories long before you can see them; you can be almost next to them and still not see them; you might have to touch them to see them.
I don’t know why, but on Sunday mornings my father never got drunk. It wasn’t because the liquor store wasn’t open—he’d buy his week’s supply on Saturdays. And it wasn’t because he was religious. He used to say, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’ve got some different angles on the cross.” Maybe that’s part of an old joke, I don’t know. My father also used to say something else like that, but he’d recite it like poetry: There’s only one God / God sees the little sparrow fall / There’s only one God / He’s for sparrows.
I never went to Sunday school, because my father, who wore suits and ties, didn’t want to see me wearing suits and ties.
The sky, except for a few stars, is still dark. The moon has gone down without waiting for the sun to come up.
I was only thirteen when my mother died in the spring. I still think that spring is a strange time for someone to die. It was about noon when the people came back to the house from the funeral. My father came charging through a crowd of them shouting, “Take off that tie! Go to your room and change out of that suit!” That day wasn’t a Sunday, but it was like a Sunday. I don’t care what everyone thought, he hadn’t been drinking that morning; he wasn’t drunk, he was wild.
My father didn’t last long—four-and-a-half years isn’t long. I wore a suit and tie at his funeral and I thought, and people said, that I looked pretty good.
They let me stay in my house while I finished twelfth grade. I just wasn’t supposed to be alone, although it turned out that a lot of the time I was. When anyone was staying in the house with me, I would sleep in my room, but when nobody was I’d move out into the den and sleep on the rug between lots of blankets.
A housekeeper would come in from ten until two five days a week, so I’d come home for lunch and when I’d finished eating she’d pour herself and me fresh coffee. I’d never liked coffee before. Because she hadn’t known my parents, we talked about just anything while she mostly kept moving around the kitchen. When the housekeeper did sit, it was in my mother’s chair. The housekeeper didn’t know whose chair it had been, and I didn’t mention it.
I was o.k. for money and had accounts at some places. When I had to go to a doctor or dentist or something, I’d take a taxi. The first snowy day that winter, I got a driver who had just moved from China and had never seen snow before. I remember now that he kept saying, “So white. So beautiful.” over and over again. Although he didn’t speak English very well, he had a way of making the word “white” sound white and the word “beautiful” sound beautiful.
On Saturdays, the housekeeper would come for just two hours in the morning, so weekends were pretty quiet. Sundays were really quiet.
After the house was sold for me, I never went back there.
I’d been thinking again lately if I should let the kid call me something. If it doesn’t work out between his mother and me, and I leave, he should be able to call me by a name if he sees me somewhere. I’d have no reason not to let him, and, who knows, sometime he might want to introduce me to someone.
If he called me by the name I’m called now, I still wouldn’t like it, and especially not from him, because the name was my father’s, so I’d been thinking, Why not Jacksie or Jacks? Until yesterday, I’d pretty much settled on Jacks, which was what people called me when I lived alone in the house.
If I let him just once call me something, I was thinking, then it would be up to him—he’s almost seven—whether or not to call me that from then on. But then I thought should I let him start calling me something right away or wait to see how things work out with his mother and me?
It might not seem easy to breathe any love into a name like Father. It’s a stiff word—it’s not soft, like, say, Papa—but sometimes you have to breathe love into names you don’t choose.
Yesterday, Saturday, in the afternoon, the kid had a question he came in the house to ask me, and the question didn’t start with “Father” or anything like that—he knows I’m not his father—and there was nothing like “must” in his question. (As the sun comes up, this kitchen will get brighter; the ceiling, the table, the cupboards are white.)
The kid’s question was just one about a picture on the box the Wiffle ball come in, which shows the curve and the slider, but because he was looking lower than my eyes, at the bottle I’d just opened, it made me think of the question I’d once asked my father, who I called Father.
It’s only now that I’m thinking that my father might have heard my question before, not from being asked but by asking, and the answer he might have been given could have been the same one he, a glass at his lips, gave me.
When the kid asked me his question yesterday about the curve and the slider, what he wanted was for me to come outside and catch the ball for him, and throw it to him. He wanted to watch his own throw and see mine, and then talk it over, so he could be sure.
So I went outside with him and the Wiffle ball, but first I used the same answer I’d been given to a different question. Now the kid can call me that or not that, whatever he likes; he doesn’t have to worry. And I know that he heard me—he looked up at my eyes when I said, “Father must.”
by Rick Rofihe
If you think it’s too cold for a woman my age to be eating her lunch out here by the beaver dam, then the first thing I have to tell you is, don’t worry about me. Or, if I say it the way I first said it as a little girl, “Don’t worry ’bout me.”
I seem to have been saying and thinking the same things right from the beginning. For a long time my mother would look at me as if the things I was saying were a little bit funny—just a little bit, not funny enough one way to laugh at or the other way to get upset about.
I don’t know—is “Don’t worry ’bout me” such a funny thing to say if you’re a small child? Many times after I’d said it my mother would ask me if I was angry about anything. I told her I didn’t think so. Maybe what I should have said to her was that I just didn’t like to have anyone worrying about me. But I don’t know if I knew that yet. After a while my mother didn’t say any more about it, but she would still sometimes look at me closely when I said it, as if she were looking not just into my eyes but into my whole face, if that’s possible.
I did start to wonder once if it might have something to do with the trains that used to go by our house—if the things I was thinking and saying might be funny because whenever I asked anyone a question I didn’t hear the answer right because just then a train went by.
This is nice and hot, this vegetable soup. I make it with celery, onions, and carrots. Fresh tomato for base. The sandwich I baked the bread for in the wood stove. Now, it might look like that’s roast beef in the sandwich, but it’s really a thin-sliced leftover from last night. We had steak, with green beans and mashed potatoes, and then apple pie for dessert. I could have brought some apple pie with me today, but there was this nice little piece of angel-food cake.
It wasn’t so cold yesterday, but I didn’t take my usual walk out here. A rather cheerless day, yesterday. Maybe just because it’s the end of the season. Couldn’t interest myself in anything—not knitting, not reading, not anything—so I just crawled into bed with my thoughts.
Just as one thing I say is “Don’t worry about me,” one thing I think is that you love somebody by living with them. Now my husband—maybe he lived with me because I loved him, and even maybe he lived with me because he loved me, but he never loved me by living with me. Anyway, I was married once, long ago. Three children, two now away.
The satellite dish up by the barn, next to the road, on this side? Hard to miss it. My son, his wife, and the boys watch programs from all over the world now. I really do like living in my own home with family about, yet often when I hear them talking and I think it has to do with people around here but the names aren’t familiar and I ask, it turns out to be about something that was on TV. So I do miss out on some talk that way, because I really don’t look at the television too often. And if I haven’t much interesting to say sometimes, maybe that’s why.
This bread of mine, I think it’s very tasty. It’s from my grandmother’s recipe, though I never knew her. But I do make it like my mother did, not only by the recipe but from having watched her. So it should be the same. And I’ve started using the wood stove again. So now it’s exactly the same.
They say you shouldn’t slice bread hot, but my mother would, for me. And now, if anyone’s interested, I offer to do it for them. And I do it for myself, too. Because it’s always the same for me, that fresh hot bread.
The pond here, that’s something that’s not the same. More like a lake now. Up at the other end, it’s still as good for wading as it used to be, but most times now I’ll just sit down at this end and watch the water trickling over the beaver dam. When it’s warm enough, I dangle my feet in. And I saw lots of baby beavers this summer—so cute.
Do you think people change? Maybe it’s that they appear to—if they really do, I don’t know. If it’s a sudden change, maybe it’s just that they go back to being like they really were all along. If it’s a slow change, as they grow older, it’s probably just them becoming more like they are—I think people don’t get less like they are; they get more like they are. Sometimes the change is toward you. But sometimes it’s away. Even if they love you. Even if you love them by living with them.
I like a crusty bread. Last spring, when the man who sold my son the satellite dish told him that the signal wasn’t coming in good because of the big old elm tree across the road by the house, that it was getting in the way of the reception, everyone—my son, my daughter-in-law, my grandsons, and then, because everyone else was, even the man—looked at me. I loved that tree. It was always there. It would always make me feel good to walk in the yard through its patterned shadow on my way into the house. But then, across the road, there was the satellite dish. I said they could chop down the tree, but that I wanted every bit of wood from it cut and stacked in a pile by itself. And though I hadn’t done it for years, since we’d got an electric stove and a furnace, I started back using the old wood stove, which we’d left in the kitchen mostly for looks. It’s better to cook bread in a wood stove anyway. You can tell the difference not just in the crust but also in taste.
That elm tree was healthy. Perfect. Solid all the way through. So at least I’m putting it to good use. Even with such a warm summer I did. And I will, until that wood’s used up.
Anyway, it’s something else to keep me occupied. I do like a full day. That way, when night comes I’m tired, and can fall asleep fast. Then morning comes quick. After breakfast, that’s when I take my walk down behind the house where the trains used to run. Since they took up the tracks, it’s left a nice path. I almost always see rabbits.
The trains weren’t really a good explanation for all those things I was thinking and saying back then and for all these years now, because the trains went by only four times a day, and one of those times I was usually in school and you could hardly hear the train from the school. And two more times I’d be in bed—for the late-night train, I’d be asleep, or almost asleep, and for the early-morning train I’d be just waking up. So unless I was dreaming and asking questions and getting answers in my dreams, and with just one other time of day when the train went by, the things I’ve always been thinking and saying couldn’t have had much to do with those trains. And you know, at night, if I think about it, I start to miss the sound of the trains.
What I will miss now, until spring, is people coming up from the city for vegetables and things. Sometimes you meet people who, even though you never saw them before, when you talk to them it’s as if they’re answering questions inside of you that you don’t even ask. People like that I start thinking I could live with.
Some things have happened in my life and some haven’t. And I always got along by going carefully—that’s even how I have to walk now. But you see a little light and you scratch at it. For a little more light. That’s what I do. If you find life a little dark, I think that’s what to do. Even if it only amounts to making tea for someone and serving cookies. Any little things I might do to get a little more light—well, I’m not ashamed to do them.
Could be an early cold winter. The moon was getting nice and round last night, so there might be a frost soon. I should cover the tomatoes. I wonder if anyone will remember that I like to take my own apples down to the cider mill to get pressed. Won’t make any plans, but I love to go.
Didn’t get enough beets this year—enough to eat, but not enough to pickle. Next year, more beets, and maybe more Swiss chard, too. And some flowers closer to the house.
The angel food’s gone, so I’ll get on my way. You know, whenever I cross the road now, even if I’m looking down just at my feet, I can feel the satellite dish above and behind me where it wasn’t before, and the tree and its shadow not above and ahead of me where they were before. All those things seem to make me walk differently—not slower but stiffer.
How would it all look to you after I walked from the beaver dam here, through the field? Up by the road, as you drove over the rise? On the left you’d see the barn, then the satellite dish, then me—don’t worry ’bout me—crossing the line in the road on my way to the yard and the house on the right. But you wouldn’t see a patterned shadow of the tree on the house and the yard, and you wouldn’t see the tree.
by Rick Rofihe
The first time Jane saw Bim, she and I were standing at the table near the elevator, checking the mail. About a week, say, after I signed the latest lease. So for her, living here with me, that would have been a few days in.
I turned my head and raised my hand to wave, but Bim didn’t see us because he walked out of the elevator looking straight ahead, going right outside—on his way, I suppose to the grocery store.
When we got into the elevator and the doors closed, Jane asked, “So who’s your friend?”
I said, “He’s not so much a friend; he lives on five.”
“But . . .” she said, smiling. “So were you.”
I like the way it goes with Jane. I don’t have to lie—I’ve never lied to her. And I don’t have to tell the exact truth—that Bim’s really, really taken. That it has to do with how he gets his information. So I just said, “Bim’s not me,” with the elevator rising.
Bim, almost any afternoon, down at the grocery store on the corner, buying tangerines: testing them between his thumb and fingers, deciding in his palm. One hand selects as many as the other hand can hold—three tangerines, or four, or five, depending on the size. He pays and steps out onto the sidewalk. Sliding the hand with the tangerines into his jacket pocket, he releases all but one: that tangerine, both hands help to peel. Then it’s his selecting hand that separates a section and brings it to his lips as he walks away to work.
It’s not that I follow Bim around all day, or spend much time thinking about what Bim does or why he does it, but since he lives on the floor below me I can’t help seeing him a lot. And sometimes in the elevator, though Bim’s not there, I’ll see a tangerine that I figure must have fallen from his pocket when he was taking out his keys. I like tangerines o.k., so when this happens I pick it up, and as I walk along I peel and eat it—nothing special, at least not for me. I mean, I don’t know what it is with Bim and tangerines, but it must be something.
Bim and Lily, they’re on five and I’m on six. All the other tenants hate us because of the elevator thing. They call us the Elevator Neighbors, but it was the landlord, down on one, who set up this system, long before any of us moved in. When he converted this building from a factory, instead of installing a new elevator he just fixed the old one; then, thinking that with less use it might last longer, he sealed the elevator entrances to two, three, and four. He left our floors alone: good fifth- and sixth-floor-walkup tenants might not be easy to find and keep. (If anyone downstairs from us complains to him, he says that according to the law this building doesn’t have to have an elevator at all.)
For a while, Bim and Lily tried letting the other tenants take heavy things up on the elevator into their place and then out and down the stairs, but it usually ended up being just as hard to move stuff down the stairs as up. And if anyone says anything to me about the elevator I just put it this way: “You think I like the landlord?”
I do like the landlord—him with his one-year leases, always thinking that the city’s going to let the controls on rents expire. Then, with one-year leases, he wouldn’t have to wait longer to raise the rents. But I like a one-year lease as opposed to a two-year lease, because then I never have to stop and think if it’s the year to sign a new lease or not. And because I always look forward to the day I sign the lease, a one-year lease is twice as good as a two-year lease to me.
Bim and I moved into our floors at the same time. Bim alone, really alone, unlike me—I was just waiting to get settled before asking Sandra to move in.
The landlord actually gave Bim and me the same appointment to sign our leases. So that’s where I first met Bim, in the landlord’s office. There we were, both painters needing space to live and paint, signing leases with identical terms.
After shaking hands with the landlord, Bim and I went out and had a burger. Bim told me he worked five nights a week as a dinner chef and I felt bad to have to tell him that I’d started painting full-time. But Bim already knew my work, because I was beginning to get shown in some galleries here and there. I hadn’t seen any of Bim’s paintings then, but I had a feeling that they were probably not much like mine, because when I told him I used mostly acrylic paints he said he used all oils.
It was five one-year leases ago, about six months in, at three in the morning, when Sandra woke me up, all worried. At first I thought it was smoke, because the air seemed heavy, but as I started to get more wide-awake I said to Sandra, “That’s turpentine. I don’t use it, but Bim might—he paints with oils.” Though so much that it would come up through the floorboards? And in the middle of the night?
I pulled on some clothes, ran down the stairs to Bim’s place, and knocked on the door: “You awake, Bim?” It wasn’t long before Bim opened the door, a finger on his lips.
“I am, but she’s not,” he said, pointing over at the sofa. With the paintbrush in his other hand he motioned me in.
“So everything’s o.k.? Sandra and I were wondering about the turpentine. We never noticed it before.”
“Never painted all night before,” said Bim, and I followed his eyes to a painting at the other end of the room, and then back to the sofa. Whoever she was, sleeping there in a sweatshirt and jeans, partly covered by a mohair blanket, she looked familiar.
“You don’t know Lily?” he said. “You eat breakfast every day where she works.”
But I didn’t know her name, because she’s second shift there, and I go in early. “Yeah,” I said. “I see her coming in, having coffee with the busboys at the back before she starts.”
“Ten to four-thirty. When I was having lunch in there today, I told her that if she’d come over to the place where I cook, I’d feed her dinner in the kitchen. So she comes straight from work and stays, watching, eating a little bit of this, of that—stays until I’m through. And then she says, ‘Now that I’ve tasted your cooking, I want to see your painting.’ So I brought her back here and dragged out a few paintings and she says, ‘No, not your paintings. Your painting. You painting.’ So she goes and stretches out on the sofa, and I start painting with her watching. Around midnight she falls asleep. So I just cover her up and then keep painting.”
I looked again at Lily sleeping, and then the other way, at the painting Bim was working on. I couldn’t tell if what I was seeing was because of the lights Bim was using or if it was a way Bim had of painting light. “Bim,” I said. “You buy some kind of special lights?”
“Nope,” said Bim. “Just plain old lights.”
I stayed a few more minutes. When I got back upstairs, Sandra asked me, “Turpentine?”
“Turpentine,” I said.
And then she asked, “So what’s going on down there?”
Later I thought about it—if what I answered was actually lying, because what could I really say about painting light like that, or painting all night, if I’d never done it? I suppose it would have been true to say, “Bim painting, Lily sleeping.” But then Sandra would have asked me who Lily was. I mean, if you’re introduced to someone when she’s sleeping, what can you say about her? That she’s just some waitress? That wouldn’t sound right. So because of all that I lied. And because I’d never lied to her before, she didn’t notice that first time.
So, sure, I knew I was lying when I said to Sandra, “Nothing.”
The morning after I met Lily, when I went for breakfast where she works I asked Karen, the waitress there who I’d known the longest, “Besides working here, what’s Lily do?”
“Who knows? She never talks about anything like that.”
“Do you think she paints?”
“Her face, a little. But don’t you find her kind of bony?”
“Look, I just met her downstairs in my building last night.”
“Then why didn’t you ask her yourself?”
“I never like to ask—anyway, she was asleep.”
“Then you should have asked Bim.”
“You know Bim?”
“I knew Bim.”
“O.k.,” I said. “So maybe you don’t like Lily.”
“What I know about her is that she looks like her father.”
“You know her father?”
“She was going through her wallet one day and I asked her about a picture in it and she said it was her father. Same nice facial structure. Same eyebrows, same color hair. Then I started to wonder if I didn’t know that anyway. Sometimes without ever seeing the mother or father you can tell which one the daughter looks like. And one more thing . . .” Then Karen surprised me. “Except for her moving a little too fast—in here, on her feet, got that? Making me look slow? I really don’t mind Lily.”
After Lily moved in with Bim, the turpentine at night became a regular thing. Sandra wasn’t bothered by it—things didn’t seem to bother her when she knew what they were. But whenever I suggested to her that we invite Bim and Lily up she said she spent enough time, at the gallery where she worked, with artists who were cooks and, in restaurants where she ate, with waitresses who might or might not be artists. Me, I was becoming much less interested in just what else, if anything, Lily did, or whether Bim’s painting would ever be in demand. I began to think that riding in the elevator with Bim and Lily, or either one of them, or even one of Bim’s tangerines, might be one of the nicer things that could happen to me in a day. And maybe one of the nicer things that happened in a year was when I’d set up the lease-signing appointment on one of Bim’s days off. After signing, Bim and I would go from the landlord’s office to meet Lily after work and the three of us would go and have a burger somewhere. Once, just once, I also got Sandra to meet us, but I ended up spending so much time trying to keep her from asking Lily exactly what it is she does, or had ever done, or planned to do, that I really lost the evening. And that made it like having a two-year lease.
Other than lease-signing days, the longest time I ever spent with Bim alone was when I drove him out to catch a plane when his mom got sick. As we walked through the airport, it seemed to me that every woman in the place was looking at us. But whenever I looked back at any of them I noticed that the angle of the gaze was never quite right, their eyes not meeting mine. A little higher, a little to the side—it was just Bim they were looking at. And there was Bim, looking only straight ahead, always seeming to take too much time before brushing the hair out of his eyes.
I almost walked right by him once because of the way he lets that hair just fall over his face. On days when I used to meet Sandra at work uptown, I’d go a little early and see what was doing at the Met. And I was walking up the steps outside when this hand with a tangerine pushes out at me. There’s Bim, sitting, elbows on his knees.
“Hey,” I said. “Any good shows in there?”
Bim, peeling the tangerine and handing me half: “I just came up to see a painting,”
I sat down and he told me which one, and he had to tell me where, because it was a painting I was only slightly familiar with. And nothing at all like anything that I or, I thought then, Bim would paint.
As I got up, I said, “Lease time’s coming around.”
“O.k. Set it up,” said Bim, bringing a section of tangerine to his lips.
When I got inside the museum, the first thing I went to, of course, was that painting. No, nothing like what either Bim or I would paint, not what’s in it. But then I found myself trying to figure out the lighting in the room—until I remembered the last time I’d done that. And just like then, in Bim’s place, it wasn’t the room that was strangely lit.
I’d always been so careful not to ask Lily questions that in almost four years I’d hardly talked to her at all. Over the yearly lease-signing burgers, she’d mostly just listen to Bim and me. In the elevator it would be things like the weather, or I would just say hi when I saw her walking double-speed into work in the mornings, or just as fast afterward to hang around where Bim was cooking. With Bim, on her days off, Lily had another, almost sideways way of walking: slower, and she’d face into him and talk and talk and talk. And he’d be walking, looking straight ahead, as usual, but nodding his head and smiling. I used to try to avoid them when I saw them like that, because I didn’t want to interrupt. Then one time—it was just before Sandra left—they were walking and saw me and stopped to say hello. After a bit, I noticed Lily looking at my jacket—I was wearing an old khaki jacket. “Something you like about my jacket, Lily?” I guess that’s the first question I’d ever asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “It . . .” Then she turned to Bim and said, as if I weren’t there, “It softens him.” And then, because I was there, she turned back to me. “It softens you.”
I’d started spending time with Jane just before Sandra moved out. It was about halfway between leases, and I thought, Let’s see what happens. Let’s wait six months—I can work here but sleep at Jane’s place. And see if I feel I won’t start lying as I lied to Sandra through all those one-year leases, starting with the first one, six months in. So even after Sandra left, it was a while before Jane moved in here with me.
I’d almost decided to give up this place, because I really should be thinking about buying something of my own. But when lease-signing time was coming around and Bim, as he did every year, said, “Set it up.” I thought I might as well stay put for now.
The morning of the day we were going to sign the lease, I was sitting in the restaurant when Lily came in. I started thinking that, with Sandra gone, and with Jane still at her place and busy packing, instead of going out somewhere afterward why not take Bim and Lily back to my place, because they’d never been there. Rent a movie. Cook up something. And later I’d go over to Jane’s.
I went to the back of the restaurant, where Lily was drinking coffee and listening to the busboys. When I told her my idea, she said they had some food that Bim had brought home from work the night before, and it could be a kind of picnic, but then she said, “Maybe hold off on the movie. Because Bim might not like a movie.”
I said, “Bim and I could drop by the video place before we pick you up here. He could choose it.”
“But he couldn’t choose the frames.”
“He . . .”
“Bim finds movies too full of things to see.”
“Bim’s very careful how he gets his information.”
I was trying to think of something to say to make myself more comfortable. “Ted Williams,” I said. “Ted Williams played baseball for the—”
“The Boston Red Sox,” said Lily.
“Right, the Boston Red Sox. Ted Williams, when he was playing for the Red Sox, never saw a movie because he wanted to save his eyes for seeing the pitch.” I looked at Lily. “But that’s different.”
Lily thought for a minute as she started to get ready for her shift. “Um, different, different, but not so different.”
That night, after we’d finished eating and I was leaving to go to Jane’s, I said, “Come on,” and pointed to the elevator. “I’ll let you out at your place. How often in this building do you get to take the elevator one floor down?”
At five, I kept my hand on the button that holds the door open. I said to Bim, “Hey this morning Lily was filling me in on Ted Williams and the Red Sox . . .”
Lily started laughing. She said, “My father must have thought I was the closest thing to a boy in our family. He wouldn’t stop talking to me. And I loved to listen.”
There’d be no one waiting to use the elevator. I kept my hand on the button and allowed myself a question. “So there’s more like you at home, Lily?”
Lily looked at Bim.
“He wants to know about your sisters, Lily.”
“Oh. Well, there’s two of them, but they’re really not so much like me. They’re… they’re like . . .”
“They’re like each other,” said Bim to Lily. And then he said it again, but to me. “They’re like each other.”
I used the hand that was holding the button to wave good night.
Anyway, it’s late. Already, some nights, three months in, this happens.
“It’s late,” says Jane. “Honey, come to bed.”
I turn off the VCR and in the dark, with open eyes, I get in bed. My hands know where I am and where they are, and you would think that whatever I’m then becoming part of would be enough to set aside that turpentine.
But that turpentine—if it starts to float up through the floorboards, I guess I start to float inside of it. Because the next thing I know, Jane has to say my name—my name, but as a question. And, so far, that’s the only question that she asks, because, by asking it, I’m back.
But what happens if Jane starts asking more than that? Not just in bed, but other times, when something makes me think of Bim painting light with Lily sleeping. Or Bim and tangerines. Or my khaki jacket. Sandra used to ask.
If Jane starts asking? I’ll start lying. I’ll say, “Nothing.” If it’s something.
by Rick Rofihe
Still sleeping? Or just not out of bed yet? I wasn’t gone long. You know, you can—you’ll say you can’t, but you can—read Chinese. Maybe not a book, but for sure a newspaper. In any language, a newspaper’s a newspaper. You look at it, you turn the pages—you can tell which parts are the news and which parts are the ads. You can look at the photographs, the drawings, the border designs. You can figure out what’s international, what’s local, what’s fashion, what’s entertainment, what’s sports, what’s business. Some of the words you can read because some of them they don’t translate. Some people’s names they don’t translate. So you have a bunch of Chinese characters and then you have a name like ROY ORBISON. Yesterday there was an article that was all Chinese characters except for ROY ORBISON six times. So most names they go ahead and translate, but others they don’t. And K-MART they don’t translate. And THE SUNSHINE STATE they don’t translate. Certain expressions they don’t translate—KEEP FIT they don’t translate. BYE-BYE they don’t translate. Some words you think they would they don’t translate. DOWNTOWN they don’t translate. And SPAGHETTI and PASTA they don’t translate.
That’s Chinese newspapers, but spoken Chinese—sometimes in the coffee and pastry shops here in Chinatown I mimic the words I hear, but very softly. If you do it, don’t get too loud, because then it sounds like an echo, and people start looking around.
Chinese, spoken, is such a pleasing language. So many tones—it’s like singing. Since I don’t know what I’m saying, I never try to use those words when it comes my turn to order. I say, “One of those, one of those, one of those, one of those, and one of those. And one of those.” All in one tone. Not so pleasing.
Oh, you learn a few things in Chinatown. One thing is that you don’t whistle. Because whistling in China is what the blind people there, the ones who massaged for a living, would do as they walked down the alleyways. Like the ice-cream man here, but whistling, not bells. And parents would send their children out to the alleyway to put their hands on the walking sticks of the blind people to guide them into the houses that needed their touch.
And in restaurants you learn. For instance, it means something if you’re alone and order bird’s-nest soup and the waiter smiles and says, “Good for you.” If he tells you what it means when you’re alone and you order it, you might change your mind on the soup, but some of the things he says you’ll remember exactly: “And if you live in a house full of love you love the house. You love the bird that builds its nest under the eaves of the house.”
Do you have anything you want washed? The laundromat I leave my stuff at uses a Chinese kind of soap; maybe you noticed. When I’m in another part of town and I want to calm down, I just go and sit by myself somewhere. I don’t actually shut my eyes—I just keep still until I can smell the soap in my shirt.
Who knows, who knows how it will go? What you want, what I want, and so on. The Chinese seem to have fewer words than we do. Maybe they make every three words into two—so one word would cover “want” and “desire,” and one would cover “desire” and “need.” Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison, Roy Orbison—right now that’s all I can say.
Are you sure you’re awake? Don’t you like mornings? But it’s o.k. for you to keep sleeping while I go out and come back like this. What’s great about living in Chinatown is that there’s so many people getting up in the morning knowing what they want that I start wanting what they want. So this is coffee with cream and sugar. That’s right, cream and sugar—don’t you want to try some things that I like? I tried some things that you like. Some of them I liked. These are sweet rolls, all different kinds.
And because I know that the world really doesn’t—at least not for long—go away, I picked up some newspapers. Three published here, two from Hong Kong. Let’s see . . . here, you start with this one. It’s in—they all are, and now that you know you can, you can read—Chinese.
by Rick Rofihe
Cousin, you’re a rough diamond—you’re diamond-hard, hard to follow. Even for me it’s not easy to keep up. Sometimes you go slow, so you don’t lose me completely; sometimes when I act like I almost want to get lost, you drop back to get me; and even though you’re always letting me know, again and again, that I’m closest to you, and most like you—Cousin, even with all that, I barely understand what you say and do.
How did it go last night when I came over to your house and wanted to watch the news on TV? You said, “Maybe not tonight. Come on, I’ll show you a good place to watch the sun set.” So we got in my car and I drove where you told me, up one paved road, and one dirt one, and then, because my car was too low to get through, we got out and walked up an old logging road until we came to a clearing where there was a stand of trees, mostly birch.
“Now, Cousin,” you said. “I heard somewhere that on the night of the full moon in July the birch trees give up their bark. It’s just like the tides.” You talked about how it all comes together—the time of the year, the pull of the moon, the warmth in the air, the wet in the trees—and said that when the moon was high, if I just touched the bark it would fall into my hands. And then you said, “I’d stay here myself, Cousin, but my son wants something to drive tonight—and you know those trucks. I’d give him my car, but the wife should have that. So you stay here, and then he can use your car.”
“You want me to stay here all night?” I said.
“Besides, my wife wouldn’t sleep well if I were out in the woods,” you said. “You, Cousin, you’re perfect for this. You, no one will miss.”
Cousin, you’re like life, you are rough. Then, as you walked away, though all I could think of was your son with my car, what I yelled after you was “I’m supposed to spend the night out here doing that? And how can removing the bark be good for the trees?”
And you, still walking, said, “It is not so much that you remove as . . .”
And then I couldn’t tell what you said, so I called out, “What did you say?” And I guess you said it again, but you were farther away, so I still couldn’t make out that last word.
You must have stopped and turned around long enough to shout back one more thing, because I did hear you say, “And not now. You have to wait for the moon.”
Six trucks, Cousin, and not one of them working right. The Chev with no muffler. The red Dodge that won’t start and the blue one that won’t stop. The Japanese thing you can see through. The Ford—all right, I found you that Ford, but you agreed, so we both can be wrong on old Fords. And that jeep-style heap—good engine, but not much of a transmission left to get power to the wheels, so, because the tires were good, we put the wheels on the Chev.
Cousin, you want what you want from me and you know how to get it. Like last night, you must have known that hearing about tides in the trees would be something I’d like. But that other time, when I really wanted something from you—I’m not saying I didn’t get it, but, since you have your own ways, you weren’t easy to follow.
“Just because you want to talk about her doesn’t mean we’re going to,” you said. And I would have left it at that, for a while, anyway, but then you said, “We could go see her stone.” Somehow I’d never seen it. It was a hundred miles inland and I’d always stayed around home whenever anyone else went. So we got in one of the trucks that were working then, but at the end of the driveway did you turn left to go inland? You didn’t say anything, and did I say one word as you turned right to drive the other way, toward the shore? First down a paved road, then a dirt one, and then, where I was sure that all the roads ended, we took an old hauling road the fishermen used.
When we stopped and got out, I noticed that, although there wasn’t much of a beach, there were some big, sharp, dark rocks at the high-water mark that sheltered some larger, light, rounded, smooth ones on the land. Even with a storm out at sea those sharp rocks would take all the force of the waves that came in, and keep the smooth ones mostly dry. I saw right away that, if you wanted to, you could lean into those smooth rocks, or up against them, and be held half standing as you slept in the sun. Those smooth rocks there, surrounded by sparse grass growing up through the sand, were the ones you walked toward and around, Cousin, looking at each of them until one stopped you. You ran your hand over it and said, “Here it is. This is it. This is the one.” Then you showed me a heart shape that had been carved into it, with your sister’s initials and someone else’s and the year inside.
“O.k., Cousin, I get it,” I said. “A rock is a stone. But that year is before my time and kind of early in yours—whose initials are those with hers?”
“Just some local guy she was seeing.”
“So they’d come here, like on picnics?”
“Cousin. Cousin. They’d come here at night.”
And then, as I looked at that large smooth rock and its angle, I was wondering whether she’d been heaven or earth, her back against the sky or the rock; either way, it must have been nice. Maybe there’d been the spray from the waves hitting those sheltering rocks, and the heat of the day must have been deep underfoot in the sand. Pretty, on a clear night with the stars and the moon; even if the fog rolled in, it still would be nice.
Heaven or earth, Cousin? And the guy? Anyway, he was there. And since she was there, it must have been, had to be, nice.
Cousin, thank you for taking me there. I don’t think I said anything then. I just walked around that rock and listened while you talked about her, talked and talked as you sat on that sparse grass that grew in the sand.
As you said then, she wouldn’t have adopted those two kids if she’d expected to die. First the girl, then a few years later the boy. I wonder if she was planning to take another one, or two, or more and more. Right up to when it happened, everyone said wasn’t it something how happy she was, and how good she was at raising those kids. Because whatever it is in people that wants to shelter and care for, in her it was something those surgeons could never cut out.
She always looked so good on the outside, and while we all knew, even me, that she wasn’t all right inside, we always thought that between her husband and those kids and the doctors, between all those hands outside and inside, she’d find a way to steal another year every year.
It wasn’t so common then, Cousin, but with the inside taking the outside like that, cremation made sense. As she’d said once, if her body was going to give her so much trouble, it was the only way to give it some back, to someday get rid of it for good. And they say that from the time you returned until the burial, and even though her husband was also around, you kept that urn with her ashes with you; you wouldn’t let it out of your sight.
You and her husband had flown back with the two kids and the urn. And, first thing, you’d decided to go and get the kids haircuts and one for yourself. In the barbershop, you lifted the boy up into one of the big green waiting chairs. You put him all the way back into it, and his feet hardly came over the seat. The girl climbed into the next chair, but even though she sat on the edge as she swung her legs, the leather soles of her blue-and-white oxfords barely scraped the floor.
You put the urn up on a shelf, next to the bottle of hair tonic. Now, not everyone knew yet—you’d just got home, and the obituary wouldn’t appear until the next day. The barber looks at the kids and says to you, “Sister in town?” And you nodded at the urn and said low, right into his ear so the kids couldn’t hear, “She’s in the jar.” The guy nearly fainted! But I know that the joke was not really on him but was one just for her. And she would have laughed, Cousin—she loved to laugh. And, young as I’d been, I could make her laugh—do you like to laugh, Cousin? Me too, I like to laugh.
Now, the boy, no, there’s no way he’d remember anything of her, just as he’d remember nothing of his first mother. But the girl—do you think there are things she might recall? Even one thing, or a little bit of one thing?
And then there’s the husband. It’s true that it was hard for us when they first got married, because it meant her moving away. But we’d liked him because he was special to her. Cousin, the day long after, when I went to see him, I think he was looking for something of her in me. And I think I was a disappointment to him. Not because there wasn’t anything of her but because there was, and, of course, it could only be some little thing.
Yes, he’s remarried and all, and has more family. Still, it must not be easy for him, being the only one around there who really knew her. Because to know something people around you don’t know can put you outside of them. And then you can’t get back in.
It wasn’t so bad walking down that logging road this morning. And the minute I got to the dirt road a guy on his way to work gave me a ride into town. He went out of his way and drove me right to your house. And I saw your son there, washing my car. He said to go on inside, that his mother had left me some coffee. Anyone miss me? Anyone come by looking for me? Any mail for me? Any calls?
Cousin, if somebody leaves you out all night in the woods, don’t lie face up. Not if you’re alone. There are only so many stars you can stand, and even with all of them you don’t get enough light. Even with the full moon in July, there’s just not enough light. So it’s really a time to let gravity take you. Turn yourself over, and gravity makes it feel as if the earth presses back.
Cousin, I see you, and, rough or not, you are a diamond. I see you and see through you. And just as with the bark that fell into my hands last night, it’s not that I want to remove. I want to receive. But do I ever get the urge to put my hands into something—like dough, or like clay? I never do, do I? And do you ever?
It was last night when I thought about it, Cousin, and now there’s something I want to know. A hundred miles inland, where you didn’t take me, where the stone with her full name and full years are, and where you finally had to let it go, what’s buried there? What’s in the jar? A fifty-fifty mix? Sand and ashes? Or is she, all of her, outside and inside, at the base of that rock near the beach? Where we went with one of the trucks. Where I saw you—I saw you!—dig your hands deep into warm sand.
by Rick Rofihe
My girlfriend is trying to say that she doesn’t care if he’s my best friend from work: before she leaves the room, when he’s looking the other way, she holds up her index fingers, which means she wants him out of here by eleven.
Denny is saying, “Maybe I should have looked at the serving lady when the hostess, Mrs. Logan, spoke, or at Mr. Logan when their guest spoke. But when someone’s speaking to you, you look at that person, right? Not at somebody else in the room. Or maybe I would have got it right about Gordon and Polly if I’d looked just a little bit over everybody’s heads, at those yellow walls. Or at anything—if only I hadn’t kept looking at the person speaking. After a while, when it got darker in there, they wouldn’t have noticed even if I was looking out a window into the garden. But”— Denny says this to me as if he’s not sure— “other people must not have to do stuff like that. They must be able to look at the person they’re listening to and think at the same time.”
It’s hard to know about Denny. He takes a drive up the Hudson to someone’s house, and just has to understand why the walls of one room are different from the others. Now, six months after dinner there, he’s caught up in thinking about something that happened, and why he got it wrong. But at work he can be very confident and dry. At an auction of science volumes he did last week, he told the bidders that Goethe’s book on color theory, though breathtaking to look at, wasn’t scientifically sound. Then he paused a second to add that, of course, Goethe, like the encyclopedist Diderot, was a novelist on the side. And, just when I was sure he was going to start the bidding, he added that even way back in the early nineteenth century Goethe found cause to complain that there was just too much printed matter to keep up with. But then the other day, when I showed him a signed copy of The Meaning of Relativity, Denny’s eyes became serious and sad, and he said, “Einstein was the kindest man.” Like the guy had been a personal friend of his, and he missed him.
Denny probably got a little unnerved when the first thing Mrs. Logan asked him at dinner was “Ever been married, Mr. Dennis?” Denny tells me about that and then says, “O.k., maybe it’s just a casual question.” But I know he takes it as if someone’s asking if he’d ever been loved. Or been happy. Or had a home. “I mean,” says Denny, “she didn’t ask me, ‘Are you married?’ I mean, that I’m not—and, o.k., that I’ve never been—does it just show?”
I tell Denny not to worry about it, that he’s had some bad breaks, that forty’s not too late to think of starting. He says, “Then she asked me, ‘Ever thought of setting up a firm of your own?’ What if I’d said that I wasn’t brave enough? After all, it does take a certain amount of courage to buy with one’s own money. Courage to buy and courage to sell—I mean, maybe the real courage is in the keeping, before you sell. But no, I just rattled on about how I preferred the camaraderie of the workplace. The generous benefits. The profit-sharing plan.
“Not brave enough—I did say it,” says Denny, “but to the first question. I meant I’d never been in a situation where it didn’t require a lot of courage to get married. And then, after I said that, I looked at the two empty chairs across from me, and, as if it were part of my answer, I asked if they thought we ought to call Gordon and Polly; there was, after all—and I remember pausing there, as if I might be being forward—a phone in their guesthouse. Perhaps they’d got the hour wrong.
“If there was any response to that, it went by me,” says Denny. “Because Mrs. Logan just says, ‘A fine young man such as yourself. Edith here . . .’ and she looks over at her friend Edith at the far end of the table, ‘Edith took a course in marriage once, didn’t you, Edith? Why don’t you tell Mr. Dennis about it?’
“Then Edith—I don’t remember her last name; it’ll come to me—Edith says, like a schoolgirl who’d been waiting her turn to speak, ‘I’d been standing at a bus stop in the city, and I picked up one of those brochures with the night-course offerings. And, leafing through it, I noted a class called How to Marry a Millionaire. It was to be held not too many blocks east of where I live, and just for one evening. Now, Mr. Dennis, it’s a bit droll that I would have an interest in such a course, as I’d been married for most of my seventy-odd years to a millionaire, and been the daughter of one before that. But I just wanted to go—’ and here Mrs. Logan interrupts her. ‘To observe,’ says Mrs. Logan, finishing the sentence for her, probably so Edith wouldn’t lower everything by just saying ‘out of curiosity.’ ‘It was a class for women only,’ Edith says, ‘but there were women of every age and appearance there, I might add. By the way, Mr. Dennis, the instructress said that every fourth term she also offered the course to men.’
“Then Mrs. Logan prods her on: ‘And what did you take away from the class, Edith?’ Edith gathers herself up in her seat and says, ‘Well, it all seemed to come down to this: the most important thing about marrying a millionaire is to marry him.’ Then she stops for a moment, as if waiting for a cue from Mrs. Logan. ‘And what else did the instructress say, Edith?’ Edith starts out slowly. ‘That, if you wanted to carry it to the logical extreme, you should pick a very old millionaire. Very old, and not very well. Your honeymoon night is none too soon for Emergency Services to arrive.’
“Mrs. Logan looks right at me. ‘The logical extreme,’ she says. And then she smiles, to put me at ease. ‘Not something Gordon and Polly would understand.’ She nods at the two empty chairs, as if to tell me that she was not ignoring my question about where they were. ‘Both of them so young and so good-looking. And even before marriage they were—how would the instructress put it, Edith?’ Edith shifts in her seat to prepare her delivery: ‘Million-heir and million-heiress.’ ‘Right!’ puts in Mrs. Logan. Both of them started laughing. ‘And neither of us had need of a course, either, did we, Edith?’ And then, for the first time, she looks over at Mr. Logan—not, I thought without affection. ‘Really,’ says Edith to Mrs. Logan, ‘at the time it would have been so much trouble to marry down.’ ‘Not so much today, but still some,’ says Mrs. Logan.”
Denny takes a deep breath. “The serving lady had come in to remove the dinner plates. If she or the cook, who was holding the door for her, had found anything to be shocked or put off by in any of the conversation, I couldn’t tell. What Mrs. Logan and Edith were saying,” Denny says to me, “I wouldn’t have said in front of them, would you have?’
“I’m sure they’re used to it,” I say.
“Well, in the dining room, anyway, I hardly looked at the servants,” says Denny. “But I do remember looking at my watch. Eight-forty-five. Dinner had been planned for seven. Mr. and Mrs. Logan and their friend Edith and I had waited in the living room until seven-thirty before we’d come in to sit down. Perhaps Gordon and Polly hadn’t heard the time right, I thought. Unlike me, they’d been to Mr. and Mrs. Logan’s before—maybe dinner was customarily at eight. And maybe Mr. and Mrs. Logan usually didn’t seat everybody until a half hour after that. But now the salad course was being served. And then I was wondering out loud if we should turn on some lights. Again, if there was any response to my question I didn’t notice. ‘Such a fine summer evening,’ says Mrs. Logan, looking nowhere in particular. ‘I think you two,’ meaning Mr. Logan and me, ‘have been very wise in deciding to leave looking at those dusty books till morning.’ ”
People often do as much damage bringing books in to us as has been done in five hundred years. The company knows what they’re doing when they send us out to get them. Denny’s always available to make the overnight trips to the clients, and I do the estates—up and back on Saturdays, a little country trip with my girlfriend. The first thing I noticed about most of these estates was that although a lot of the furniture was missing, and paintings had obviously been taken from the walls, the bookshelves were always full, never any empty spaces. Some great missed opportunities for the survivors. And some of those books have been there for generations—unread, the pages uncut.
“I think if I did start on my own,” says Denny, “I’d specialize. Children’s books—you know, they don’t have to be so old. Anything from the first half of this century, if it’s in good condition.
“If I left, you think the boss would wish me the best? I wish almost everyone the best. But you’ve got to keep watching what people do. If there’s not much doing, then you have to try and go by what they say.
“The first thing Polly said to me was ‘How interesting!’ That was when Mr. Logan, whose book collection I’d come up to inspect, brought me in and introduced me to her and Gordon and left me with them for a bit. I’d just come back to the main house after unpacking my things. ‘How interesting,’ she said when she found out why I was there. Of course, you hear that a lot, especially from people of means, who are very interested in what someone might do out of necessity. Still, I think Polly’s interest was sincere. I remember her standing behind the velvet armchair across from me, where her husband was seated, and as she leaned forward, cheek beside his, even he mostly stopped looking at his newspaper and seemed interested.
“Polly told me Gordon’s father was an old friend of Mr. Logan’s. She said she and Gordon often visited during the summer months, and stayed in one of the guesthouses on the hill above the main house. She asked me which one I was staying in. First one on the path, I told her. ‘The pink one? It’s lovely,’ she said. ‘We stayed there once. Now we always use the farthest one, over the crest. Will you be here long? I’d love to learn about old books. Gordon and I have some that were his father’s.’
“People want to know, isn’t that right?” says Denny to me, as if I’d understand exactly what he meant. “Don’t tell the boss,” he says, “but if I meet people I feel familiar with, I tell them to forget about the things I have to look for in books. I take them aside and recommend a good reprint. I was just about to say that to Gordon and Polly when Mr. Logan came back and said he wanted to show me around the grounds. ‘We’re having dinner at seven,’ he told them. Polly leaned down closer to Gordon, who lowered his paper. They said to us, almost in unison, ‘See you at dinner!’ ”
So in about ten minutes my girlfriend is going to come out and do a little walk around the room with her index fingers flashing up and down to remind me that she and time really exist. I think you have to be flexible with friends sometimes, but she says, How often do we go over to his place? Still, I think Denny is, in his own way, considerate. Right now, he’s laying out magazines all over the coffee table to protect it when he puts his feet up. In the long view of things, why shouldn’t he get comfortable? All of a sudden he looks around the living room and glances past all the doors.
“Yeah,” say Denny. “All white. White, or off-white, yeah. And that’s the way it was at the Logans’. She gave me a tour of the house, and I saw only all-white or off-white rooms, except for one. You know, I don’t think I could even tell you exactly where the place was. Somewhere near the Putnam-Westchester county line. I took my time driving there; I got on the Palisades Parkway so I could drive up the west side of the Hudson and through Harriman State Park, where I crossed back to this side. Somewhere near there.
“O.k.,” he goes on. “I did finally see them at dinner. After a while, I couldn’t even imagine that anybody was going to sit in those two empty chairs. I looked past them, and that’s when I first began to notice what Mr. and Mrs. Logan had done—something I thought was strange. The area where they ate breakfast and lunch, which was just off the kitchen and faced south and east, they’d painted, like the rest of the house, some shade of white. But the dining room, which faced south and west and caught the long, slow sunsets that are warm and yellow anyway, they’d painted yellow. But then I thought, Well, now the sunlight’s there, because it’s summer. For most of the year, though, they’d be eating dinner by artificial light. So the yellow walls would add warmth then. But by the time I’d thought of that, it was so late you couldn’t tell what color the walls were anyway.
“That’s when I heard Polly’s voice through the screen door. ‘Should we light some candles?’ she said. ‘Here, I’ll do it,’ said Gordon, as they came in, and I saw him let go of her hand to reach into his pocket for matches. The second they sat down beside each other, they made a nearly simultaneous move to hold hands again. I noticed a slight sheen on his brow, and his hair wasn’t as tidy as before. Hers was all tousled, and her face was flushed—less like porcelain than I’d remembered it from that afternoon.
“The serving lady brought in some plates of food for them, as if their being late were a regular occurrence. In the next hour or so, Gordon and Polly often held hands, but never looked into each other’s eyes or spoke to each other, as if to do so would be to flaunt something. After dinner, again hand in hand, they walked me out through the garden and the tangle of trees, then along the path that led to the guesthouses. At mine, they’d said, ‘See you at breakfast!’—again almost in unison. Then they turned to walk up over the hill. But,” says Denny, “I didn’t see them at breakfast.
“Nice life—I remember thinking that as I tried to get to sleep that night. And I didn’t mean the money. I had sat there all evening worrying about Gordon and Polly missing dinner, because I forgot—maybe I don’t even know—that two people can find such pleasure in each other that they forget about time. I didn’t sleep well that night and was kidding myself if I thought it was just the strange bed. Because I don’t think I’ve really slept very well since—and it’s been six months. Do you believe something like that could have such a long-lasting effect?” Denny looks at me, but I don’t think he wants an answer.
“So I had breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Logan and Edith the next day, chose among the books, got the contracts signed, and left just before noon. Gordon and Polly didn’t appear, but by then I was making allowances for them. I drove back on this side of the Hudson. I remember stopping to pick up a few groceries—at the unhistoric Stop & Shop in historic Dobbs Ferry—and still I got back to the city by two. Anyway, I didn’t see any of those people again until today.
“‘I know you, don’t I?’ I hear a woman’s voice saying. I was on my way to the Surrey, on Seventy-sixth, to pick up a book from a client. ‘I know you,’ I hear, and then I see her, framed by a shop entrance on Madison, but I don’t place her right away. I’d only seen her with Gordon.
“‘Now I remember,’ she said. ‘You came to Mr. and Mrs. Logan’s?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Polly. And Gordon, how’s Gordon?’ ‘No more Gordon . . . ‘ said Polly, with, I thought, a serious look. I started to say, ‘He’s not …’ and caught myself. ‘Not . . .’ said Polly, finishing my sentence, ‘married to me anymore. Is that what you’re trying to say? He’s not married to me, and I’m not married to him. We’re not married anymore.’ But I just kept looking at her as if I didn’t understand. ‘We’re divorced,’ Polly said. ‘Divorce—ever hear of it?’ And then she asked for my card in case she ever came across any books I might be interested in.
“Well,” Denny says to me, “now I have to revise my memory of the whole evening, and maybe everything since. But that doesn’t mean I’ll sleep any better tonight.”
Girlfriend aside, I want to go to bed. And it’s not that I’m tired of Denny—I’m just tired. I decide to try wrapping it up on a light note. “Denny,” I say to him, “so you’re not a specialist in everything. But you know Polly has at least a million dollars. And now she’s not married. And she’s got your card . . .”
But then I see Denny’s not laughing or even listening to me. He’s just sitting there with his feet up on the coffee table, and I guess correctly that he’s still running a six-month-old movie of that evening back and forth in his mind, trying to figure out if there was something he hadn’t paid enough attention to. “It was getting dark,” he says after a while, “in that yellow dining room.”
by Rick Rofihe
So far, Simmi hasn’t asked me one single question about Buck—not a direct one, not an indirect one, not one. She also doesn’t seem a bit interested in hearing anything about when he and I were together, or how we got together, or about us splitting up.
It’s probably all right that she doesn’t feel any need to know that kind of stuff, because I don’t think it would matter much to their being together. But when Buck called just now, I started thinking of the time I’d tried to find out why he was so quiet, and he mentioned his mother, how she’d had a way of speaking for him.
“You mean if somebody asked you a question, she’d answer it?”
“No,” he said. “It wasn’t like that.”
“You mean she used to tell you just what to say whenever you had to speak to anyone about something important?”
“No, that wasn’t it, either,” he said. “When it came to her and me, she had a way of saying things . . . so that even though she was speaking to me . . it was as if I were doing the talking. To her.”
When Buck came by here this evening, he asked me if I remembered the lullaby he told me about once. The one his mother would sing to him in Penobscot, then in English.
I can just about see them going away.
He told me that when he sang it to Simmi, she said, “It’s beautiful. But please don’t sing it again.”
Buck’s so interested in finding out what other childhoods might have been like that he’s always trying things like that. They usually work. With me, and, I’m sure, others, they’ve worked. So he already knows, since I’m Simmi’s sister, and I knew Buck first, that our mother sang to us:
Sleep, baby, sleep.
She sang it in four languages—Polish, Yiddish, German, and English. Mama would still sing it to Simmi anytime, if Simmi would just call her and ask her to.
Yes, Buck’s heard it from me, but he hoped to hear it from Simmi, who’s on to his wanting to know what it was like for her, growing up in Larchmont.
Last month, on her first day in New York with me, I arranged for my little sister to go to my stylist and get the works. Simmi didn’t know it, but I made the appointment while she was already on her way there. Not everybody in the place was clued in to what was going on; I heard that when the woman who does my facials—and is pretty sure she knows everything about me—asked Simmi how she heard about her, and Simmi said, “I’m Etta December’s sister,” the woman kept on applying the steam mist and said, “Etta doesn’t have a sister.”
When Simmi told me that, I started to tell her about something a woman who lived with Buck in 1987 said to me, but the second I said “1987,” Simmi broke in to say that it seemed like an awfully long time ago, so I just let the story trail off.
I guess I was wondering if she’d be interested to know that Buck can play guitar. I only found out by chance, when Buck and I were in Prospect Park one day and he noticed a boy with an electric guitar and a little battery-powered amp who was having some trouble tuning up. Buck says to him, “Here, let me try.” He tuned it, started playing, people gathered round; it was a scene. And it was like Buck was somebody else. After a while he gave the guitar back to the boy, and we kept on walking. I said, “Buck, you could earn a living at that.” He just laughed. Then he told me how he’d taught himself to play guitar when he was little. He and his mother saved up to buy one, and she arranged for him to keep it with some people who lived at the other end of town and to practice in their garage. Buck didn’t say anything else, as if that had been a normal way of doing things, so after a while I say, “Why?”
“Why did you have to keep and play the guitar at someone else’s house?”
“Oh,” he said; then, “Dad.” A few steps later, he said, “So there were only a couple of times I ever got to play for Mum.”
If I don’t know much about Buck, others probably know less. The woman I’d started to mention to Simmi, the one he’d lived with for most of ’87, I’d seen at a Christmas party he took her to back then. She and I were just sitting around, there was no problem, and then, to make small talk, I said, “Isn’t it something when Buck picks up a guitar?”
She got almost hostile; I could see she thought I was playing some trick on her, and she says, probably the same way the woman doing Simmi’s facial did, so sure, so coolly, “Buck can’t play guitar.”
Last week Buck told me, there he is walking up Broadway with his arm around Simmi, and he doesn’t say anything to her, but when he sees something in a store window that he thinks she might like, and lets go of her a moment while he goes to look closer—the instant his arm’s not there, Simmi won’t take another step in any direction. She’s saying, “What happened to me? What happened to me?” Buck says that if I walked by and I wasn’t her sister, I’d think Simmi was kidding. Because then she says, “Just a minute ago—no, just a second ago—I was here. What happened to me?” She’s a riot; she’s so funny, anyone would think. If she is being funny, it’s just at the very first, the same as when someone smiles without really meaning to.
So Buck tells her he was just looking at something he thought she’d like. “Something for you, Simmi.”
She says, “Who, me? Who’s me? There was a me who was walking with someone, but then the someone wasn’t there. So what happened to me?”
Buck told me that he knew he couldn’t win this one. Simmi wouldn’t walk toward him or away, and of course she wouldn’t swear or anything like that. So rather than have her get upset, he has to take the, oh, five steps to put his arm around her and steer her to the window. But of course by then whatever had caught his eye was beside the point, so they turned away together and kept on walking.
Simmi’s only been in New York three weeks, but the second night she was here Buck took her to a coffee place he knew, and now Simmi makes sure he takes her there every night. Maybe if there’s somewhere else they have to be, something one of them has to do, they’ll skip a night, but they couldn’t miss too many, because then it would become something they used to do. And that would make it part of the past. And what she thinks is part of the past Simmi won’t consider.
I’ve been telling Buck, “She trusts you. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t do any of that stuff. She’d just walk away, get out the credit cards Papa gave her, and start in on that endless driving again.”
I want to help Buck, because I really started all this. I asked Simmi to come to New York for a visit and then organized that instant party with my automatic dialer. I’d known it wasn’t going to be easy to get Simmi to come to New York at all, and that it would be even harder to get her to stay. The only thing the idea had going for it was that Simmi hadn’t ever spent much time in New York, so there was a chance she wouldn’t think of it as part of the past. I could tell she might even be looking forward to coming when she called to ask if I’d send her the Manhattan yellow pages, care of general delivery somewhere in Arizona, where she’d be in a couple of weeks. After that I got a fax from Colorado, giving the name of someplace in New Mexico where I could send her the white pages. I knew that Simmi was trying to get a head start on figuring the city out. That’s good, I thought; she’s acting as if she’s never been here before.
But if she had a theory for it, it didn’t quite work out. She got here at four in the morning. Took a nap. Took a bath. Took a walk. And then she was ready to leave. So I told her I was having a party that evening—that I’d forgot to tell her—and that I was treating her to the works at my stylist in the afternoon. She said o.k., she’d get her hair cut or something, and she could leave after the party, when there wouldn’t be much traffic; so I said that people don’t even start arriving at my parties until really late. Then, while she was at the stylist, I phoned everybody on my automatic dialer.
“You know,” I said to Buck, “if she hadn’t taken to trusting you at that party, she’d have been tail-lights over the Triborough the very next day.”
My name is, or was, Etta Dietz, and I was lucky to be born in New York City in 1952. My sister Simmi was born, also lucky to be born, in 1954, but just before she arrived my parents moved about twenty miles out of the city, to Larchmont, where Simmi was delivered.
Buck, born something MacIsaac on March 26, 1955, was my boyfriend for, at most, four weeks in 1985. Now, in 1990, he has been the boyfriend of my sister, Simmi, for three weeks and holding. Buck was born in Bangor, Maine, at the hospital closest to where his parents lived, in a one-story bungalow on a long triangular lot, on the road between Orono and Old Town.
I hadn’t really seen much of Buck in the past five years. Maybe on the street, and maybe once in a while at a party somewhere. I hardly ever saw him, but I did put his number on my automatic dialer in 1985, and I never took him off. Now, because of that, I’ve seen him a lot in the last three weeks, because he either stops here to pick up Simmi on his way home from work or, even if he knows she’s not here, drops by anyway to ask me a question about something that Simmi’s done or hasn’t done, said or won’t say.
Buck isn’t known for being very talkative. Otherwise, on the phone just now I would have asked him, “Buck, were you lucky to be born?” Of course, I wouldn’t have meant it in the same sense that Simmi and I were lucky, which is at all, or in the very best sense, which is and every minute since, but just how it looks now to him.
It may be that Buck is not always good at explaining things, but I think he’s a good listener. Over the years, I told every one of my boyfriends the most important story of all my family’s stories, and as far as I know, and this was even before he knew Simmi, he’s the only one who gave up eating jelly doughnuts on the spot and forever.
“I was eleven and Simmi was nine,” I’d told Buck, “and it was in our house in Larchmont. My father goes out and buys a big bag of fresh jelly doughnuts.
“It wasn’t that we’d never eaten jelly doughnuts before, but he and my mother had decided that the day had come that we were both old enough to understand what they went through living in Poland during the war. How they survived to get out after, to America.
“Papa said that as the Germans advanced he and Mama fled from the town where they lived, near the southern border—to Warsaw, but not to the ghetto. Papa wasn’t Jewish, but he had to hide Mama, who was. He hated to walk in the street for fear that someone who knew who he was married to might inform on him, or that the authorities might follow him back to her.
“Before, my parents both had good professions, but now they were in hiding, in some small rooming house. They had to make a living quietly, and somehow they settled on jelly doughnuts. There were lots of cafés, and many of their suppliers were disappearing.
“Papa used the bit of money they had to buy flour, eggs, shortening, sugar, and jam. But he was afraid to hire just anybody to deliver the doughnuts. Then he noticed a little boy who’d lost his parents. ‘He was even younger than you are now,’ Papa said to Simmi. ‘And he probably didn’t really know that he was Jewish. And, like your mama and your sister here, he had blue eyes and was fair—that was good, because he could blend in with the general population.’ And they took him in, like a son, and as a delivery boy.
“They taught him where to deliver the doughnuts and how to collect the money. They told the boy to take only gold coins, because the Polish money was worthless. At the time, jelly doughnuts were a boon to the cafés, but Papa said that didn’t mean he and Mama were living well or anything—they spent just enough to feed themselves, pay expenses, and but more supplies to make the doughnuts. Because if they wanted to be able to save for their escape, the had to live very simply.
“Papa said everything went o.k. for about nine months, and then one day a Gestapo man followed the little boy home. If it had been a younger agent—they were more ideological—it would have been the end. But it was an older man, and he was on the take. He demanded a cut. So he began to collect a percentage from them, and that made it more difficult to save money. They worked even harder, for about three more months, and then one day the boy didn’t come back on time. They waited and waited. Then somebody from one of the cafés sent word that the boy had been taken away. So Mama and Papa took the gold coins they’d saved and sewed them under the buttons of their coats, inside the lining, and fled eastward that night.
“Papa said to us, ‘And in all that time, girls, because those doughnuts were all that we’d had to sell in that whole year we never ate one of them.’ Mama added that whenever Papa had sprinkled the powdered sugar over the finished ones his Adam’s apple would go up and down with desire.
“Then Papa opens the bag, takes out the jelly doughnuts he’d just bought, and puts them on little plates and passes them around. ‘One for Simmi. One for Etta. One for Mama. And one for me.’ We all started to eat—all except Simmi. That’s the first time I ever saw that expression she still gets. We looked at her and her eyes were wet, and wide with fear, and she said, ‘What about the boy? Where did they take the boy?’ ”
If Buck drops by my place when Simmi’s not here, he’s not coming to complain—he’s just trying to understand. “Simmi won’t even let me talk about what we had for lunch the day before,” he might say. Or “What happened to Simmi?” he’ll ask. What in the past, he means. I always tell him to believe me, nothing ever did. “But now you are,” I say to Buck. “Now you are, and you’re the only thing that’s ever really happened to Simmi.”
The evening Buck stopped in to ask me if I’d noticed that Simmi never swears, I had to tell him why—it was part of the past, so Simmi never would. I told him that when she was little she heard one of mother’s friends use the word “ass.” It wasn’t a word Mama ever used, so later Simmi asked her if what the lady said was a bad word. And Mama didn’t want Simmi to think her friends were saying bad words so she said, “It’s really not.” But then the next time the lady came over and said to Simmi, “How are you doing today?” Simmi gave her a big smile and said, “I fell on my ass.” Simmi got sent to her room, and everyone was all flustered. That was the last time anybody heard her swear.
Buck’s never actually come out with it, but sometimes I think he wants to know why Simmi and I are so unalike. The closest thing I can come to explaining it to myself is that it’s as if the same light has fallen on different films.
When I turned thirteen and moved up to another school, I changed my last name. It all went more or less according to plan, and I think all plans probably involve some fear. But the more I watched the war documentaries on television, and the more I read about Poland during the Second World War, and the more I asked Papa questions, the more I figured that if my Jewish mother could make jelly doughnuts there, in the middle of Warsaw, and survive inside the shifting borders of Poland from 1938 to 1945, I could be brave enough to change my name from the German spelling, “Dietz,” which Papa’d changed it to for protection, back to “Dec,” the Polish spelling. So I wrote “Etta Dec” on every school form in grade 7, and after a few days my homeroom teacher came down on me and said, “Etta, what sort of name is Dec?” I didn’t want to explain, and that’s when I started telling people, “It’s short for ‘December.’ ”
I might have thought about it later—what happened to the boy—but Simmi noticed right away. I remember we all stopped eating and Papa told us he had heard that the boy was sent to a concentration camp, but that he must have got away. Someone who knew that Papa and Mama had survived and gone to America saw and talked to the boy, who was working on a ferryboat between Italy and Malta. And that person wrote to somebody in Poland, who wrote to somebody in America who told them.
“So,” Papa says to Simmi, “the boy was all right. Now you can eat your jelly doughnut.”
But Simmi just looks at the doughnut on her plate and asks, “Did he—did the boy ever eat one of the jelly doughnuts you and Mama made?”
“No, none of us did.”
“Then,” said Simmi, “I think I’d rather have ice cream.” So the rest of us didn’t finish our doughnuts and we all ate ice cream instead.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When Buck heard the story from me—even though he didn’t know or ask anything about Simmi, and even though he and I weren’t together for very long after that—right then, on the spot and forever, he stopped eating jelly doughnuts.
“Safe with me? Comfortable with me?” That’s what Buck said, the day after the party, when I told him how I thought Simmi felt with him. “And of all the guys on my automatic dialer I’m glad it was you,” I told Buck. “And she even got to sleep with you.”
Buck said, “I really wouldn’t call it—well, it was sleeping only. She wouldn’t even let me take my leather jacket off; when I started to, she gave this little shake of her head to say no.” Buck looked at me as if he didn’t know what was going on. “Safe with me? Comfortable with . . .?” She had him so afraid of seeming forward that he kept his boots on. “Breathing together, maybe. And sometimes our kneecaps touched under that old opened-up cotton sleeping bag—that was it.”
Simmi hadn’t wanted to use my convertible sofa, so they’d slept beside it on a small rug, with Buck facing her, she in her wool sweater and jeans, nestled where the floor met the wall.
“Puh. Puhnub.” My father just couldn’t get it right when he heard it the first time. Almost like when he first heard “crunchy granola” and thought it was one long new word.
“Puh-nob-scot” I said it slow into the phone. “Penobscot. Well he’s half Penobscot, really.”
Almost twenty years in the city, and I’ve never met a man that I’ve trusted like Simmi trusts Buck. I mean I even met Buck, but it wasn’t so much that I trusted him—for me, I think, it was those high cheekbones and that straight, jet-black hair. But Simmi had only been in New York about twenty hours before she did—Simmi, who gets uncomfortable if a man even looks at her.
When I called my parents in Coral Gables, where they live now, and told Papa about it, and that I didn’t think Buck could support her, right away he said, “I’ll send checks.” He said that anything was better than that constant motel-to-motel movement of hers. That he wouldn’t go broke either way. “If only we can get her to just stay in one place,” he said.
After I got out of college, I had a way of advancing from job to job, but when Simmi graduated she would start out on one thing, then quit for an entirely other kind of thing. It didn’t seem to matter so much at the time, because, even though she was changing jobs, she was always working. Now it matters, because she doesn’t want to do any job she’s done before, so there’s almost nothing that she’ll do.
I’ve been telling Buck and everybody not to get Simmi wrong. She likes to work. It’s just that you can tell by the look of fear in her eyes when someone says to her, “Why don’t you work in public relations?” and she says, “No, I worked in public relations,” that it’s useless saying to her, “Yes, but this is a different city, you’d be at a different firm, and you could try a different position there.”
When I told Buck about calling Papa, he said he felt a little funny about the money part, but he’d agree as long as we let Simmi know all about it, so we did. Then Buck says to Simmi and me that our parents sounded really interesting, and it would be nice if they came up for a visit. So Simmi wouldn’t have to say anything, I said to Buck, “They kind of like the idea of Simmi better than the real Simmi.” When Buck asked just what that meant, Simmi came right out and said, “It means they love me better when I’m not around them.”
Of course, I hadn’t told Buck or Simmi the whole story. During the call, Papa said that if Buck every wanted to marry Simmi, he’d buy them an apartment. And when Mama got on the phone she said that if they did get married then maybe Simmi would think, There, that’s that, and then she’d get on with whatever she was supposed to do in life. But I told them that I thought the best thing to do at this point was just to take it one check at a time.
Mama and Papa both made me promise to try to get Buck to talk to Simmi about getting professional help. I hate it when they bring it up, because I never know if they’re right or wrong. But I said that sooner or later I would. Then, before we finished the call, Papa said I should make sure to tell Buck about the jelly doughnuts too, so he wouldn’t bring some home by mistake and ruin everything, and I said to him, “Don’t worry, Papa, he already knows,” which was the truth.
If you ask Buck if that’s his real first name, he’ll just answer, “My mother always called me Buck.” I think it’s his way of making sure everyone calls him Buck now, here in New York.
He’s never told me much about his growing up in Maine, just a little bit now and then, to get me talking. He would always look at me with wonder whenever I’d tell him stories of my girlhood, about how Mama would put us on the train, and Papa would meet us in the city, and take us somewhere for ice cream, and then say, “Now to the stinky children’s zoo!”
If you asked Buck what he might have been doing on a summer afternoon in 1963, he’d just say something like “Oh, making stuff. In the back yard.” He wouldn’t tell you that he was using scrap lumber he’d gathered to build birdhouses to sell by the side of the road, and that that’s how he helped pay for his guitar, and that he really liked to work with wood, so he got good at it, and that’s how he became a cabinetmaker.
To find just that much out, I had to ask him about a dozen questions. Because Buck can’t believe that anybody could find those things interesting.
I’ve always thought Buck has too many preconceptions of what a normal childhood’s like. Even if there were some things he missed, he shouldn’t confuse them with what might make him happy now. He has this idea that there’s some certain way to be, that it’s all around and he’s not in on it, but when he asked me something about Simmi the other day I told him, “You think you want to be with somebody cheerful, and have everything in place. If that happens and you’re happy, fine. But what if that happens and you’re not?”
Buck has admitted to me that there are times when he starts to think that Simmi’s trying to tell him he really isn’t so different from her. One day he took her along to Connecticut to look at some cabinet restoration work outside Stamford, and when they got near the exit to Larchmont, he said, “We could stop off.”
“Sure,” she said, “Someday when we’re on our way back from Bangor.” Bangor, Orono, Old Town—you can tell that those places seem very far away to him, and Larchmont so near, but of course he hadn’t been thinking how it all might have seemed to Simmi.
When Buck came by earlier this evening, he told me that he and Simmi were out for a Sunday-afternoon walk yesterday, and that they bumped into a couple of designers he was building cabinets for. Buck stopped to talk to them, but a pizza delivery must have gone by, because all of a sudden Simmi started sniffing the air and tugging at his arm, saying, “Buck, I smell pizza. Let’s get out of here.”
Things like that about Simmi aren’t news to me. I could have just explained to Buck that, first, it has nothing to do with pizza, because you can take her to a pizza place where you can see pizza and smell pizza and eat pizza at the same time, and everything’s o.k. But to just smell it without at least seeing it—that might make her start thinking of someplace she went for pizza in, say, 1988. Or even 1968. I could have told him that, but I thought this was a good time to keep my promise to my parents instead.
“You know, Buck,” I said. “There are people who think maybe Simmi needs to see, you know, some kind of shrink. But of course I tell them that then they’d better take up a collection to send you through shrink school. Still, maybe if we could find a good professional . . . and you could talk to Simmi . . . maybe go with her …”
But Buck just ran both his hands at once over those high cheekbones of his and through that shining jet-black hair. It seemed to leave his eyes extra clear as he fixed them right on mine and said, more firmly than I’d ever heard him speak, “She was right about the doughnuts.”
I just nodded. Yes, she was right about the doughnuts, quick about the boy.
So this evening he left here about a quarter after five, and I was surprised when he called me about an hour ago, at eleven-thirty, while Simmi was taking a bath. He said something about how he’d tried to make an issue out of the things that were bothering him, to see what he could get Simmi to say. And he especially wanted to get her to swear. He said they had dinner, and then she was lying on his sofa, reading a book, and he was on the floor, using her leg to prop his elbow on while he read the paper. When she says isn’t it time for them to start heading out for coffee, though he’s got nothing against it, he starts in on her that maybe they shouldn’t go there so often, or maybe only on alternate nights, or one week to one coffee place and another week to another. He’s trying to get her angry, but after he keeps it up for a bit her eyes go full of fear—first wide, then wet. “And then,” Buck says, “I swore for her. And after a while we did go where we always go for coffee, thought by that time it didn’t seem like such a big deal.”
Yes, they went, but not right away. Because Simmi said, “I think I’ll read my book some more before we go.” Buck thought she was even smiling a little when she said it. That was after he said, “Turn around. Turn around so I can kiss you.”
by Rick Rofihe
It doesn’t happen on the Wednesdays, when Carmen’s meeting her mother at LaGuardia. Every time, for the past few years, it’s when her mother’s about to leave, during those final steps to the airport bus. Last trip it was math. “Carmen, honey. It’s thirteen years since that stuff with Eddie.”
“Eighteen and thirteen is thirty-one, honey. What about the next . . . .”
And the trip before that: “Carmen, if you could keep your eyes on one guy—”
“Ma, there’s nothing wrong with my eyes; it’s these guys!”
It’s almost too much for Carmen to think of when she tries to follow it back. Her mother didn’t go to college, because of getting married. Then she herself didn’t get married—but she didn’t go to college, either.
Her mother, when she was the age for it, was all “What’s he like? What’s he like?” That’s the way Carmen’s Aunt Jean, her mother’s sister, tells it, and how Carmen’s parents got together. Aunt Jean had been seeing some guy while she was finishing her last year of high school, but kept putting him off because she was getting ready to go to college. Then he catches the eye of her little sister, just one grade down, who starts asking what he’s like.
Aunt Jean said she knew it was going to be trouble because her little sister had also started talking about home not feeling like home anymore and, gee, sometimes she’d sure like to get out of the house. From the very first week Aunt Jean went away, she started sending presents back, one a week—Ohio State sweatshirts, T-shirts, pins—to try to make the idea of college more real, to get her sister to hold out one more year.
That same guy her aunt put off back then her mother took on. And it was the same week in November the pregnancy test came back that the bookmark with the college song, “Carmen Ohio,” on it arrived.
“ ‘Carmen,’ that’s a nice name.” That’s what her Aunt Jean told her her mother said. That if it was a girl that’s what she’d call her. “Your mother didn’t really have much on her mind in those days, Carmen.”
“Aunt Jean! I was named after a bookmark?”
As far as Carmen could tell, from all the things she could remember, her parents’ marriage had never been good. What could it be like for her mother? Because she always finds in her own life that when it’s not working out either she starts to forget or she starts to remember what life’s all about.
Her Aunt Jean, a few years after graduating from college, moved out to the state of Washington and got married. She wrote back to her sister that she’d heard things weren’t so good for her, to bring Carmen and come out there to live. Carmen had read the letter when her mother left it in the telephone-table drawer. But they didn’t go. All Carmen’s been able to figure out in all the time since is that her mother didn’t ever want to do anything that made it look like she’d made a mistake, even if staying was a bigger one.
Maybe other mothers thought the kind of things her mother would say; Carmen didn’t know. Once, a woman her mother’s age came into their tuxedo-rental place and said, “You sure are lucky, Mrs. Mitchell. You get to be around so many men.”
Carmen’s father wasn’t far—he had to have heard. Carmen’s mother looked at the woman as if she were focusing, concentrating, compressing before she delivered her response, full but not loud, and through a narrow smile. “Men?” And then, as if it were music, she let a few silent beats go by before finishing. “I hate men.”
Carmen had a good view, standing there behind the cufflink showcase, with her mother and the woman in front. She could see for a few seconds the woman didn’t know how to take it, but then her mother’s smile broadened, which made it look as if she were just joking, which allowed the woman to smile also.
Carmen wasn’t even in high school yet, but she already knew her mother always chose her words carefully. Since she’s been out on her own and thought about it, she’s realized that though there are many things beyond her mother’s control, at least her thoughts and her words are her own.
Even in those days, when she was helping her parents after school in the shop, Carmen would look at her mother speak and notice she never seemed to start a sentence until she was sure of the end of it. And even after they enlarged the place, when Carmen couldn’t always get a clear view of her mother saying the things she said, Carmen could still imagine, from the tone of her mother’s voice, the exact look on her face.
At first it was all men, because they’d conceded the wedding-dress trade to the women’s shop down the street, but when Carmen was in tenth grade her mother prodded her father into taking over the small store next to theirs. They broke through a wall to make a large arch, and in the new part they put the women’s section, with wedding dresses, bridesmaids’ outfits, flower-girl things.
Her father mostly avoided that area, while her mother roamed in and out of both. Before the shop expanded, if a bride-to-be came along to help her future husband pick out a style for his tux, Carmen’s mother might say to her, especially if the bride was very young, “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” Meanwhile, Carmen’s father would be kneeling on the floor, trying to call out measurements to her mother, who was supposed to be putting them down on a form sheet. But her mother would still be turned to the bride. “Have you talked it over with your mother?” Her voice was clear and low. “Do you know what it can mean to be married?”
At times like these, the grooms invariably deferred to Carmen’s mother as some kind of wit, and her father, down near the ground level, couldn’t say or do much about it. The business may have been his, as it had been his father’s before him, but he could never control what his wife thought about it. And, when customers were there, the things she might say. “Wait a while,” she’d tell the brides-to-be. “Maybe come back in five years—we’ll still be here.”
The worst thing for Carmen about the stuff with that boy in their town, Eddie, was that she really didn’t know what her father thought about it. Not then and not now. If he really did think she should marry the boy and stay around town, shouldn’t go to Ohio State—if there was any possibility at all that that’s what her father was thinking—she didn’t want to know. But not knowing made her even more frightened then than she already was. Just another reason now for not going back home.
“Carmen . . .” her mother had said to her when she asked.
“Well? What does Daddy think?”
“Carmen, honey . . . I know you’ve got your heart set on Ohio State—but I just don’t think Columbus is far enough away.”
Well, Eddie had said to Carmen, “You think I can’t drive over to Columbus and find you?” Yes, she knew he could. He could find her by phoning her dorm or hanging around outside, or at the part-time job she had waiting at the Lazarus department store downtown. He could bother her. He could make her nervous. And it would be when she was new in Columbus, new in the dorm, new at work.
“Carmen . . . .” her mother had said softly, standing in the doorway of Carmen’s room, reaching behind herself and producing one of those little squarish suitcases that you hardly ever see anymore—train cases, Carmen thought they were called. Women always used to carry them. Inside they had five-by-eight-inch mirrors, fitted sideways into the top part, and elasticized pouches along the edges, with bobby pins or grit left in them from some previous trip.
This was a dull-blue-green one her mother was holding. Carmen looked at it, then at her mother. “Ma, am I going out to Washington to stay with Aunt Jean?”
“You’re going to New York. There’s a place you might like there—it’s a hotel where I stayed that trip Daddy couldn’t go. I liked it so much I wanted to live there.”
Her mother had entered Carmen’s room and started packing, as if it were she, not her daughter, who was going. “I know it’s late, honey, but maybe in the dark is the best time to leave. I’ll drive you to the bus station and wait with you. I can send you more dresses and things later.” Her mother packed the case better and quicker than Carmen could have herself. And whichever drawer her mother’s hand went to Carmen didn’t mind. She hadn’t thought about it before, but there was really nothing anywhere that she was hiding from her mother.
As long as it was August, it was fine there in the Gramercy Park Hotel. But as soon as the calendar said September, Carmen had to keep reminding herself why she wasn’t in Columbus.
During the three weeks in August, she hadn’t really done much besides taking the check that would have been her tuition and dorm fees to a bank around the corner and opening her account. That was probably the biggest thing—there seemed something very final about it.
The rest of the days were more or less the same. In the morning she read every word in the newspaper over a long breakfast. In the afternoon she napped and read magazines. She would always go down for dinner after she watched the news on television—it broke up the evening, and when she came back to her room it was almost time to get ready for bed.
Then, for the first two weeks in September, she really wanted to call Ohio State to find out what the textbooks were for the courses she would have taken. So she could sit in her hotel room in New York and read them. Was that so strange? She started thinking that there was nothing about herself she couldn’t explain—explain away, she thought—in a few seconds. If there had been anyone asking.
From her hotel room, the stuff with Eddie began to become clearer to her. When it happened, it had taken her completely by surprise; she didn’t understand what was going on. After all, she didn’t know him that well, even if he had graduated from her school the year before. But there he was, all of a sudden, calling her. Just small talk, and then he could say, in different ways, that he wanted to see her in a wedding dress. And she always seemed to be running into him, near her house, or near the shop. Then it got worse. “Your long dark curls and a long white gown—hey, rosy cheeks?”
“Stand a pretty little thing like that around all those wedding dresses and what do you expect?” the policeman who came to take the report had even said to her mother. He said they would, if she wanted, send someone around to talk to the boy and his parents, but that might not produce the desired effect. That a court order of protection could be requested, but it’s just a piece of paper. And since the boy really wasn’t threatening her—what he was doing was asking her to get married—a judge might not take it too seriously. “Maybe it’s harassment, and maybe it isn’t,” the policeman said. “Either way, she can keep saying no.”
Those first few weeks in New York it was no good calling her mother every day, collect or not. Whether she called the house or the shop, her father almost always answered, and when she asked to talk to her mother her father would stand by the phone while they talked, so her mother really couldn’t say much about how she was doing. And the times she did get her mother alone all Carmen wanted to ask her was “Now what do I do?” But she began to realize that her mother couldn’t answer that, so after the first couple of weeks she called less.
Every day, for those six weeks in the hotel, venturing a little further into her new world, she found herself learning new things in, for her, a completely new way: which newspapers not to buy, which restaurants not to eat at, which apartments not to go see, which jobs not to apply for, who not to give her name to. All this while trying not to cause any problems for her mother and not to be anything like her father, while also trying not to make the same mistakes as her mother.
Mornings, alone, not fully awake, she’d look at the yellowing leaves outside in the morning light, figuring out what she wasn’t going to do that day—when going to Ohio State would have been the natural order of things. August was too late to apply to any of the universities in New York, but she knew she wasn’t going to start midyear, or the following fall, either. The whole idea had been to go to Columbus after twelfth-grade summer vacation. To her, no other place and time for that was ever going to make sense.
Her mother visits her twice a year now, spring and fall. She always arrives on a Wednesday evening and Carmen always meets her plane. And she always leaves on a Sunday afternoon, and lets Carmen go with her only as far as across the street from Grand Central, where she catches the airport bus.
“Ma, can’t I—”
“Carmen, honey, I’ll be all right.”
Every trip her mother leaves it until then: Shouldn’t she look for an apartment in a better area; shouldn’t she try for a job with some future? “And, you know, someday you could get married, Carmen.”
It’s true that she’s never had the same boyfriend two trips in a row. Some of these visits of her mother’s she doesn’t have a boyfriend at all. The last guy lasted six months, which was about right; if her mother saw her with the same guy twice, she might get her hopes too high.
“It’s not easy, Ma. It looks easy, but then maybe their friends have to like you, maybe their family has to like you. And if somebody doesn’t like you there’s nothing you can do to make them like you—they’re going to look for things.”
Her mother was married at seventeen, so how could she know of such problems? Because it seems to Carmen it’s taken every year of her life in New York to learn them.
So Wednesdays her mother gets there, Fridays and Saturdays Carmen follows her around while she shops, but Thursdays she just takes her mother along to work, a costume-design place in a loft in Chelsea. “They’re not real wedding dresses, right, Ma?” And her mother’s got it all sorted out, after so many trips, that some of the boys there prefer boys, and some of the girls prefer girls. There’s not really what you’d call job security, not much health insurance, but it’s quiet up on that high floor, and there’s never anybody who’s not speaking to someone else, so it’s an easy place to be for whole days.
On the Sunday mornings, when she’s leaving, Carmen’s mother always counts out some twenties. She squirrels them away for these trips, for Carmen. “Save it or spend it—up to you. You’re on your own, anyway.” Her mother always tells her something like that.
And Carmen saves it to spend it. Once a year, she’ll have two parties. When, in the beginning, she thought of having a party, she started to worry. So many invitations to repay—all those people, and she didn’t mean numbers. Then she figured out what to do: two parties, on two nights in a row.
To the first night’s party she invites people who may not like each other, but she doesn’t really care if they do. To the second she invites people she knows will. So on the first night she worries but doesn’t really care; on the second she cares but doesn’t have to worry.
Of course, she tells everybody that her place just isn’t big enough, which it isn’t, to have all those people arrive at one time. And if she thinks one half of a couple could be right for the first night and the other for the second, she feels bad about it, but they both have to come the first night. Because she’s trying to get the second night the way she wants it. On the first night she’ll have freedom of thought at least, but on the second she’s got to also have freedom of speech.
It’s on the second night she finishes paying the caterers with those twenties from her mother. She pays them half in advance when she books them, half when the second night’s party is just as she wants it to be.
“You see?” she says to the caterers, always making a sweep with her hand to include all her guests. Besides herself, the caterers are the only ones ever there on both nights. “You see?” She says it every time she has these parties, on the second night. “You see?” And she always says it in the same way she answers her mother across the street from the airport bus, every trip now.
“Carmen, honey . . . .” her mother will say, starting to tell her one thing while Carmen looks for a way to tell her another: that she has her own place, she pays her own rent, that some of the people she knows really like each other.