Archive for November, 2018

Esther.

November 22, 2018

Esther.

 

The sheets stuck to her thighs, they were twisted around her ankles as if her bed had turned into a jungle while she slept. Although she was in bed for nearly ten hours, she didn’t sleep well. Tick. Tick. Tick. Her mind clicked every moment like one of those angry old cash registers that sputtered and spit out white receipts except this was her mind and as she lay in bed the evening before she stared straight above her, drawing invisible lines in the ceiling cracks, connecting them to make a variety of shapes. A wheel barrel. An old man leaning forward. A dog. And finally, the devil. He grinned at her in his blotty stare, he was constructed out of five cuts in the ceiling caused by a water leak nearly five years ago. Once she saw the devil she could not un-see him. “Fuck” she whispered. Eventually she dozed off, but not until after she read half a book, drank water, smoked three cigarettes, masturbated, said a prayer she didn’t believe in, read some more, and counted the cracks. The devil stared the entire time. Grinning as only the devil can even if he is hidden in the plaster. She kicked at the bottom of the bed, wrestling with the sheets, they held her ankles as she did “they are trying to keep me in bed” she thought, she could smell the sweat that had soaked her bed while she slumbered. “What is wrong with me?”

The windows were open, all of them in the entire apartment, the two in her bedroom, the one in the kitchen and the three in the living room. All with the hope that this welcoming by the open glass portals would invite a breeze to come in, make itself at home. The slow-poke wind just sauntered by, giving a middle finger to the apartment as she melted inside. Unraveling herself from her bed, she walked to the bureau, her bare feet made a soft sucking noise as they peeled off the hardwood floor. Lifting a lighter to her first cigarette of the day, she stood a few feet back from the window and tried in vain to catch a breeze. Outside, the heat was coming off the black roof across the street in shimmering waves, two birds flew and landed on the electrical wire that stretched in front the building. The longest couch in the word, all made for these fluttering animals. She gazed in the mirror that was attached to the dresser, it was old with a blackness that had set in on the corners as if it were being eaten slowly by mold. She caught herself, turning her head sideways she looked at her breasts in the reflection, turning slightly she studied her hips. Her thighs were dotted with small greenish and purple bruises, “where did I get those” she thought as smoke climbed towards the heavens. A brunette smokestack with bangs. Moving to the center of the room, the cigarette hung like a thin white twig from her lips as she gazed at her body, the mirror only went so far and even by scooting back she was cut off at the knees. Her hair was mussed and she raised her arms above her head, her breasts pulling wide against her chest and ran her long fingers through her hair, tussling it about until if fell in the same manner that it did just before she tried to fix it. “Stupid hair” she thought and walked over to the small table next to her bed. Snuffing out the cigarette, she grabbed a purple rayon robe and slid it over her shoulders and pulled tightly on the string.

The smell of jasmine danced out of the kitchen and as she carefully carried her tea into the living split living/dining room she sang, “see the way he walks down the street, watch the way he shuffles his feet…” her mood was lifting, a small plate of English tea biscuits balanced on the small porcelain cup. Setting the jasmine tea down on the table, she pulled the chair up, it felt as if it was going to collapse under the weight of its own memory and as she scooted the chair in towards the table it made a small groan. “Jesus fucking Christ, already” it wheezed in its own chair way. She flipped through the pages of her book, the crisp white pages felt reassuring at the tips of her fingers,  the transformative powers of the words passed through the stiff texture of the pages. Books comforted her, more that almost anything else, and they didn’t disappoint or betray a person, they didn’t sling insults or raise their voices, they were always home on time, and could create a smile with just a few basic lines of print.

As the smoke circled above her cup, bending her neck back, she thought of a darkness that settled in her gut, deep into the bottom of her being. “Sometimes, I knock against the river but the river just rushes past” she thought as a small bit of sadness escaped from that bottom, it slipped out like a blink in a darkened movie theater. Her heart caught in her chest, the air in the room stopped, for one moment of a moment of a moment, the world stopped. She touched her throat, sliding her hand down her chest and held her thigh. It was gone, the smell of the tea and the faint smell of cigarettes filled her nostrils. She smiled, even this surprised her. Gently touching the table top, it’s wooden surface a highway of small chips and bumps from being moved from one house to another depending on whatever relationship had ended, switch or just for the sake of change. Her grandmother had given her the table when she obtained her first apartment, a tiny efficiency that smelled of cat piss, must and old man. She had scrubbed it out with Clorox, Pine-Sol, and optimistic determination that sprung from setting off alone on an adventure. She hauled the table up the stairs by herself in that first apartment, making sure to not ask for help as her mark would be made on her own, she didn’t want to owe anybody. Anything. To her, owing meant being owned.

“Let me get my truck and help you” her ex-boyfriend offered, “uh, no thank you. I got it” thinking to herself, “he’s just gonna try to fuck me for old-time’s sake.” “Dear, you are going to need help with that table and mattress, or whatever the heck that thing is you are going to sleep on. I don’t know why you just don’t get a real apartment with a bedroom and a bed. You can have the one from your bedroom, your father can take it apart” her mother said one evening while sipping a margarita, Frank Sinatra enunciating in the background. “It’s called a futon, and I don’t want a real apartment, I’m happy with the efficiency, it’s close to campus, I don’t want too much stuff in my life and this will help prevent that” a silent thought sat in her mind, “this is the reason I don’t want your help, always critical.”  Her mother sniffed, “if you only had a larger apartment you would be safer.” “Mother, that makes no sense” shaking her head. “Yes it does, what if some man enters your apartment and tries to rape you? If you had another room to go to you could lock the door. I love this song, do you know it?” Eyes rolling, “yes, of course I know New York New York”.

As she traced the scars along the tabletop, moving her fingertips in and around the indentations, left by the haphazard movements of previous owners, a cigarette burn here, a knife scrap here and a banging fist there, equaled an untold biography of the table. Her mother blended into the migration of her index finger as it glided through the wood, she recalled her mother’s tears behind closed doors, when the muffled moans fell deep into pillows stacked high on her mother’s bed. Remembered how her mother would not exit the room until all the red had left her face, all that emotion had been stuffed away to be replaced by fresh make-up, hair-doo set right and a smile stuck on her face. There were summers when her mother wore white pleated tennis shorts, that failed to cover up the highway of deep bruises that made a map of violence on the back of her thighs. When her mother had too many drinks as her head bobbed back and forth, to suddenly freeze while a moment of truth tumbled out of her mouth, “don’t.ever.get.married. men are scum.” These droppings would erupt suddenly, without provocation then abruptly leave is if they were constructed of water tumbling over itself, a sudden wave that split into the ocean, foaming then disappearing as the water was sucked back into the sea. Regrouping, her mother would swallow deeply, then move on into an easier subject, “well, I can’t believe that Fitzgerald’s would pull Katherine out of St. Mary’s and put her into the public school, I suppose if they want her to turn into a junkie then that’s that way to go. Which reminds me, you need to delete her from your phone book, at least until she gets her act together.” Esther would sit dumbfounded underneath the weight of disbelief, there would be no retort, no discussion of what was really unspoken or the irritation that came with such a swath of judgement from her mother. She raised the tea cup to her mouth, tasting the sweetness of the tea as she tempered the anger in her chest.

She scooted the chair back, put the cup in the sink, walked to the bed room and put on a pair of yellow shorts and a white t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Coney Island, NY” with a faded ferris wheel in the background. Slipping on brown sandals, the thin white leather straps grabbing fast against her toes, she went back to the kitchen and washed the cup. Drying her hands against her shorts, wiping them along her legs she left the house and went into the sunshine. Hands reaching deep into her pockets, searching for an answer to the restlessness that the morning brought into her fingers, the fabric stretched as she expanded her palm. An unlit cigarette hung between her polished red lips, suddenly she felt alive as the shine from the sun dropped science as quietly as a lamb’s yawn. In the bag that hung on her shoulder was a faux leather notebook that contained scraps and bits of her mind, she recorded like she were an archeologist of her own mind. Tick by tick, tock by tock she logged them down like clockwork every day but never revisited because once they were recorded that was it, you can’t recreate a moment she thought even though she would read words like a locust devouring fields in biblical manner. Pausing by a parking meter, she dug through the pale lemon colored bag, an afterthought of 1960’s fashion, with bold gold hoop rings at each of the straps and fat gold zippers on both sides and in the middle, she pulled out the small royal-blue plastic lighter and lit the cigarette. A couple strolled by with a small baby carriage, the husband turning back towards her with a frown, she shook her head and raised her eyebrows at him, “it’s a free fucking country” her eyes silently spoke. She absorbed the smoke, filling her lungs with nicotine she allowed all of it into her body and closed her eyes. Small islands of contentment, were what kept her sane.

The street was busy, a Saturday brought people out, with the sun sucking people out of their apartments  had liked it had never glowed in the sky before. There was no plan to where she was going but her feet followed route that may well have been grooved from all the times she had walked it. Three blocks north, two blocks west and another four blocks north and she had arrived at a large thrift store. She had a way of shutting out the world, a vision that walled off any distractions that not only kept her insulated but also safe. The sweet smell of pine was in the air as she walked into the store, it was always clean, a shiny homage to the discarded past of the items that filled the racks and white metal shelves. The old woman who worked the check-out line nodded at her, she seemed to wear curlers in her hair nearly every day with her sliver horned-rimmed bifocals balancing on the edge of her nose, held firmly but the silver chain that was lassoed around her ears. Esther waved to her, a small grin splashed across the old woman’s face, she had worked here for years and a gesture of kindness still made the old lady feel a warmth she couldn’t hide. A billion smiles over a billion gestures. Fetching her phone from the yellowed bag around her shoulder she slipped some headphones on, cued up one of her favorite records, “Dusty in Memphis” and proceeded to investigate the racks and racks of clothing. An unending supply of fabric that drew a line from every fashion event over the past forty years, deep blue polyester tops with ruffled collars, wide bottomed pants that hugged the hips as if they were a baby on a breast, and faded stone-washed jeans clogged against one another, resembling a Tokyo sidewalk during rush hour. Everything was blotted out as Ms. Springfield cooed about all the love she had to give, hitting like a soft needle in Esther’s heart as the sound bounced around her ears,  “I’ll never forgive you for what you done, I’ll never turn my back on you for anyone” brought a tablespoon of water to her eyes, she rocked slowly as she eyed skirt after skirt.

Behind her the sound of a young mother with what seemed like a herd of young children, she could hear the woman speaking in Spanish, a flow of words the sounded like a sharp song. Turning, she saw a diminutive woman, holding a baby in one arm, cradling the child in the crux of her elbow, at her feet were two twin children-no more than four, climbing over one another and behind her holdfast to the bottom of her skirt was a child who looked to be five or six. Esther smiled that the young boy, holding his mother’s skirt, causing the boy to smile back. A wide toothy grin that spread across his face as if it were a curtain being pulled open. The mother looked at Esther then down at her child, she smiled at him and then at Esther, a slight nod thanking her for calming the child. Esther looked over the pile of clothes she had pulled aside, a bundle of different colors, and she realized that she didn’t need any of these but her mind was calm, if not for the first time in nearly a week. Her hands felt the different types of fabric, polyester blends, cotton and denim a veritable time capsule of the past forty years nestled on top of her shopping cart. She had painted her fingernails and toenails last night, deep into the night when the restlessness brought her to the foot of her bed, and empty wine bottle next to her bedside lamp, the flicker of the outside lights making small fireworks against her window. She had painted her toes first, creamy white like the inside of a Cadbury Egg and for her fingers she choose periwinkle blue and choose a broach and earrings to match. If she could not make order in her head she could at least make order with her body, her outfit. A way to tell the world, “I got my shit together motherfuckers.”

She looked for a room to try the clothes on, there were lines in front of all of them, middle aged women with ankles bloated from carrying children, laundry and groceries up varying flights of stairs over the past twenty years, teenage girls blowing bright pink bubblegum in between words that tumbled out of their jaws like rain from a gutter, and a few other women, shifting on anxious legs, scanning phones or talking to a few people around them.  A family of immigrant children huddled around their mother, she shooed them along like ducklings and they soon stood in a line behind her. All these spoke about the weather, about what they ate that morning about dead-end jobs. Taking her place in the queue she stared ahead, counting her breaths she wanted to read and pulled a small slim paperback from her purse. Soon enough a room opened, and she entered the tiny changing room, her bright white toenails making a contrast to the grimy linoleum floor in the changing room, she tried hard not to set her bare feet on the filthy floor. She decided on two blouses, a skirt and a white three-quarter jacket whose inside was a faint black and white checkered pattern.  In the end, with her items tucked into the small burlap bag made from a reconstructed bag of coffee beans, she felt a fraction bit better, the needle had moved from empty to full in terms of her emotion. So much had happened she thought as she stepped of the curb to cross the street, the green light singling her to cross, it went like this all the time, her body following direction while her mind spoke of something else, a chatter that dipped, waned but never quite disappeared. He had called roughly a month ago, telling her that he would call her the next time he was in town, promising to meet her for tea or a drink, “anything, you want to do. I’ll be there for five days.” He had arrived and left, never called although she knew he was in town by his posts on social media, there he was in a crowded bar surrounded by people that looked familiar if just by their outfits, and the drinks they held in their hands. Props for the twenty-something crowd, another one of him on a ferry, the city in the background as if he were posing in a post card. She had reached out, sent messages, left a few voicemails and in the end waited while anticipation ate her whole from the inside.  She knew she felt those voicemails more than he did, even if they sat silent in some electronic vacuum.The weeks since then had stretched out a like an elastic band stretched too far, until brittle it lost its flexibility and broke, and each day had limped to a tired close while she battled the night with books, wine and music. She searched for him in the white spaces between the words she read, the dancing sentences calming her but he still went missing, a void in the middle of her life.

The sidewalk had emptied in just the hour she had been shopping, it almost felt like a scene from a movie for her, perhaps at the ending credits, for the next two blocks she passed nobody just shops and restaurants all of which had people sitting by the windows, sipping specially made-drinks, just for them and inside she saw their laughter, the chatter they made, the clinking of the silverware all went unheard as she walked in her quick pace. Her headphones were on, as a deep voice man warbled a cover of Pavement’s “Here” which made her feel even more isolated. She stepped sideways and missed a splatter of red and brown vomit that had exploded on to the concrete the night before, a monument to somebody taking fun over the line, filling their gullet with enough vodka and pale ales to cause his body to push it out the most efficient way it knew how. After spilling the previous seven hours onto the street his friends pulled him up by his armpits, pushed him into a cab and let the night see him home. Turning the corner, the music had switched now, it was a single trumpet and a dead man singing about regret and all the thoughts that swarm around such thinking. This afternoon, realizing she was unmoored—the ache in her chest was physical, and stretched up into her shoulders, down her arms and settled into her elbows. It affected everything yet there was nothing wrong with her, she knew this, she was careful about what she put in her body, choosing her food carefully, no meet, no dairy and her vices were cigarettes, a few glasses of wine and a joint in the evening.  A chasm had opened inside her, with every step she took, she suddenly stopped. Across the street a woman was screaming, long arching shrieks, her face so filled with anguish it appeared to be melting from the inside out, her voice cutting over the music. There, in front of a small shop under the yellow awning, dark mold creeping up its side, with the words BEER, CIGARETTES, FOOD written across the sides, was a man who lay with his hand over his face, a pool of blood circling his head, it was growing slowly like dark red liquid pillow around his head. There was no noise, no movement from him, only the seeping of himself onto the sidewalk, above him the panicked woman, arms extended, bent with hands held upwards as if she could summon the power of the sky into her palms. Her face a picture of torment, everything was still for a moment, she clicked the music off and the only thing she heard were the wails, and birds singing in the background. Seconds slipped by, as it time were an escalator, she stepped off the curb towards the woman wanting to touch her, to provide some comfort and suddenly two people ran out of the store and a young woman ran down the stoop next to the store, they were all yelling and coming to their aid. She stepped backwards, turned and kept walking. The music started again.

Songs provided emotional galoshes, as she waded into her inner swamp, a brown and gray muck that never seemed to go away, at times she felt safe—with the protection of song, of marijuana and the countless books of poetry she held like crucifixes while at other times, she looked for invisible vines to pull her out of an internal bog but oftentimes these were not vines at all, they were serpents. The inside of her legs felt weak, her feet moved forward while her throat went dry, a dizziness flickered on and off like a fly against a window—her pace quickened while she searched for a place to sit, anywhere would do as long as she could let her mind grow quiet. She could not hear the clicking of her shoes against the sidewalk but the sounds from the sole of her shoes presented a certain confidence that she had no idea she had, the clack of the heels were an announcement that Ester could not hear as the sounds from the phone flooded her ears. Her short dash to a bench a heroic act for those who were lucky enough to see it. Settling into the hard seat, it’s wrought iron construction was fastened to the concrete, nothing would make it move. She sat down carefully, glancing at her phone for a moment she tucked it into her lap. Staring up at the pigeons that fluttered around her, their wings making the sounds of a shuffling deck of cards, and she reached into her purse and pulled out some plastic packets of saltine crackers and tossed them in front of her. Smiling as the birds swooped in and gobbled them up with pointed beaks, crowding out the others who wrestled for the food, in a moment she turned inward. Her hands were shaking, the wrapper from the crackers slipped from her fingers, floated into the air as a rare gust of wind swooped in. The world was narrowing as she tried to remain calm. Sweat made small rivers down her back.

Eyes were focused on the asphalt in front of her, the sounds of birds, traffic and conversation sunk into the background as if they were swallowed by the concrete, reaching into her purse she fumbled for her cigarettes, holding the blue crumpled cardboard box, knocking the top of it against her wrist she stopped. Held her hand as she noticed it shaking, she held it as if she were muffling the sounds of a baby, so alarmed at the shakiness in her fingers. Closing her eyes, she was able to pull a cigarette from the packet, and slide it into her mouth, lighting it with eyes still closed she leaned back. Her chest heaved while she held the cigarette as if it were a buoy and she was being attacked by white capped waves, her other arm draped across her chest, holding herself so she wouldn’t explode. “What the holy fuck?” she thought, as she continued working on the cigarette, she felt the sweat rolling down her back, writing wet lines into her skin, her legs felt limp. Remembering a moment that would roll around every once in a while, an unwanted guest that dropped in at the slightest opportunity, she could see the light between the bottom of the door, half an inch from her cold fear to the terror on the other side. The television was chattering a noisy clatter, the sound of canned laughter from somewhere else, finding a blunted path to her ears, she pulled the covers up. She made herself small, she was smaller than a memory, a tiny speck in a field of white cotton sheets and camouflaged vinyl sleeping bag, it felt sticky against her but she was small she was certain nobody could find her as the sheets protected her. The television blathered on in the other room, her back hurt, as did her elbows and her shins, she was bruised she knew this—she always bruised easily even when she played volleyball in gym class, her legs would resemble the burnished colors of a Gerhard Richter painting, she could only guess what she looked like now. She feared the light from the other room, it meant he was home, if she listened carefully she could hear the floorboards creak under his feet, sounds muted by the green carpet that smelled of cat piss, she didn’t know what was worst the smells of the carpet or the musty vinegar odor the whisked off of his body when he climbed on top of her. Swallowing, she felt the dryness in her throat, she felt tiny but the sound of her swallow felt like an earth mover, “Shhh,” she reminded herself. “mam’e are you o.k. Hey, are you ok?” Somebody was in front of her, opening her eyes she saw an old man with a dark blue beret and what appeared to be the largest eye-glasses she had ever seen, he looked like an owl. “Are you ok?” he kept asking. “Honey, she’s probably just resting” and old woman in a canary yellow peacoat was saying to the man, the old woman’s wrinkly hand on her husband’s shoulder, “oh my God, look at her nails!” she felt herself thinking. Indeed, the woman’s nails were at least an inch long and painted a raspberry red. “Yes, I’m fine thank you. I just felt a bit faint…maybe I ate something that didn’t agree with me” her voiced trailed off, she shook her head to wipe any former thoughts clean, smiled at old-nail-lady, “thank you-you are very kind. We need that in the world.”

This is from a collection of short stories, this is fiction but I have filled in the lines for someone(s) I have known. IMG_0828

 

 

Advertisements