Here’s a poem I wrote on a foggy night. (It’s in the style of Tale of Genji.)
How can one not have
when foghorns drift in
& out throughout the night?
Here’s a poem I wrote on a foggy night. (It’s in the style of Tale of Genji.)
How can one not have
when foghorns drift in
& out throughout the night?
It was incredible pain. Waves and waves that had Will rolling on the ground screaming. After an hour of mental handholding, Chess took him to the emergency room.
The pain was centered in the lower right quadrant of his abdomen; Will was sure it was appendicitis. He had to lie down. The waiting-room chairs had arms so he went flat on his back on the hospital floor. The pain was slowly progressing into unbearable territory; Will thought he was going to throw up. The restroom was two yards away. There was constant traffic between Will and the restroom.
Chess knelt beside him. The nurses weren’t happy that Will was on the dirty floor but they left him alone. The big clock above him ticked away as the large double doors near his head opened and closed, gurneys with injured people sliding past him.
They’d been in the emergency room for almost an hour: there was a baby that couldn’t stop screaming and the faint smell of vomit in the air. A group of Japanese came in, all wearing face masks. The emergency room was just half full. Patients seemed mostly healthy except for the baby and a young woman who was burning up with fever. Her boyfriend had her wrapped up in his arms. Mysteriously, the Japanese were herded away into another building.
Through an intercom Will’s name was called. Chess helped him walk through those large double doors and into an examining room where a male nurse had him change his clothes before helping him onto a bed. Will shivered fiercely in the hospital gown.
“Let me get you some blankets,” the nurse said. “There. Better? Good. We tend to keep things cold. I know it’s awful but it keeps the germ count down.”
Will kept gripping the metal guards surrounding the bed, half rising in pain, almost as if he were about to give birth.
“We’ll get the doctor to see you as soon as possible,” the nurse said. He was so cheerful, so patient, so reassuring, so familiar. “And then we’ll pump you up with meds and get you as comfortable as we can. Just hold on a few more minutes.”
Meanwhile a hospital staff officer came with a thick packet of financial and legal paperwork to be signed. Will was in no state to read legalese, so Will opted to give Chess his power of attorney.
“You’re sure you want her to have it?” the officer asked. “Because she’ll make all the decisions from now on.”
And Will said with contentment, “I can’t think of anyone better.”
“We’re married,” Chess explained. The officer smiled, happy with the answer.
The doctor came. He asked Will five questions. He seemed to have diagnosed Will’s condition with one look, the questions basic and redundant. “Kidney stones, most likely. But we’ll get you scanned just to be sure.”
The diagnosis was a go signal for the nurse. Within five minutes, Will was pumped full of Toradol, Dilaudid and Zofran.
“Dilaudid,” Will said, giving a thumbs up to the nurse.
“Almost worth getting kidney stones for that,” the nurse joked. “Now how do you feel? On a scale of one to five, one being no pain and five being pretty lousy.”
“I’d say three. Going on two,” Will reported.
“That’s what we like to hear,” the nurse said, happy. “If the pain gets to four, call me, and we’ll get you back down to three. We want you to be comfortable but we don’t want you floating off to space, if you know what I mean.”
On the drugs, Will felt very calm. He’d thought the drugs would make him drowsy but he felt fully alert and at peace. Will wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt like this, his thoughts remarkably tranquil.
“I’m surprised I’m not still in the waiting room,” he said to Chess. “I got treated so quickly.”
“You jumped the line. There were several people ahead of you, including the screaming baby and a woman who was burning up with fever. I think it was because you were lying on the floor moaning. That really helped your cause.”
“I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m in the emergency room. I don’t think I could have planned it any better.”
“Kidney stones. I thought it was going to be something serious. I was sure they’d be wheeling you off to surgery. You had me really worried.”
“Me too. I had no idea kidney stones were this painful.”
“I think we must have the world’s most cheerful nurse,” Chess remarked.
“Is it the drugs or does that nurse seem really familiar?” Will asked. “I feel like I know him or something.”
“I keep thinking the same thing,” Chess said. “Oh! I know. He looks just like that actor—you know, the one we saw in that movie last week. That comic.”
“Yeah. He could be the guy’s twin brother,” Will agreed. “You don’t think it’s the actor doing research?”
“Maybe that’s why he was so liberal with the drugs,” Chess joked.
Will held Chess’s hand with gratitude and love.
“I’ve put you through a lot,” he said. “You must be tired. You haven’t even had a chance to eat dinner. Why don’t you sit down. It might take a while to get the scan.”
Chess agreed. There was a chair near the foot of the bed. She was still feeling jet-lagged from her trip to South America—she’d met so many people, visited so many farms and factories—her body buzzed with the trip’s vibrations and she couldn’t keep her eyes open, thoughts lost in the background noise of the hospital.
The tiny examining room was near the ambulance entrance. The corridor was busy, firemen and police, people in traumatic distress, gurneys and the sound of their wheels against the hard floor. Nurses and paramedics joked about sandwiches, their attempts at sneaking away for late dinner breaks, a quick smoke. Will’s first wave of pain had attacked him around five that evening. It was already ten.
Outside, in the corridor, a new struggle was beginning. There was an elderly man, six foot two, weighing maybe two hundred and thirty pounds. He kept arguing with the nurses: “Where’s my sweater? Someone took my wallet. Someone took my wallet! Where’s my sweater?”
“Sir, you have to stay on the gurney. We don’t want you to fall again.”
“I know what’s going on,” the man said. His voice was choking with anxiety. “You’re all in on it. Someone took my wallet.”
“Please get back on the gurney!”
He struggled to find himself. The nurses tried to soothe him; they asked him questions about where he lived: “Yes, yes, I live alone. My wife died. That was years ago. I live alone now. I used to teach. At the college. I have an apartment. I’ve lived here a long, long time. But it’s not really an apartment.”
Several times the man tried to force himself out of the gurney, but lacking strength, became entangled instead. Frustrated, the staff began threatening him, treating him as if he were a very large, very naughty child. Terrified, he refused to speak again, moaning, “Leave me alone, leave me alone.”
After this, for a long stretch, there was only quiet.
Will watched Chess. She was soundly asleep, fatigue creating shadows on her face. He remembered that first time she was asleep in his arms, on the floor of the airport, the blizzard raging away. They shared so many memories now, Chess and Will, tiny unremarkable memories that came surging through him as pure joy. His sorrow was that he hadn’t married Chess years and years before. Then regret dissolved and time was no longer relevant: in a total compression of heart and soul, his memory claimed Chess from the very beginning of his birth. Yes, he’d known Chess all his life and he was going to know and love her for a fourth year and a fifth year and a sixth year and on and on until all the years were a suspension of love and happiness.
A young orderly came in and asked, “So, you ready for a ride?”
Chess woke up. She felt as if she hadn’t slept at all, just merely floated along with the consciousness of the hospital.
“Is it all right for me to come?” she asked, gathering all their possessions.
“Sure,” the orderly said, getting ready to push the hospital bed out into the corridor.
Chess walked alongside the bed as Will and the orderly cheerfully bantered together. Will was still hooked up to his meds, still calm, still relaxed. Chess couldn’t help smiling. Which was strange. Everything felt strange, like she was hooked up to Will’s meds too. Maybe she was dreaming. But she liked it. Because for the first time, she actually felt married. To Will. That she and Will were really married. And she smiled and smiled. She and Will were all married together now.
“What are you laughing about?” Will asked.
“Nothing. I’ll tell you later,” Chess said. “Later, when we’re home.”
“Home. I can’t wait.”
Their home together.
Today I was reading Flavorwire’s interesting post on Jennifer Weiner and her difficult position in the debate about women writers. The post is also a dissection of Rebecca Mead’s Weiner profile in The New Yorker (Mead is one of my favorite writers, BTW—been a fan for years [even fact-checked a piece of hers and found her to be really nice, which you can't say about most writers]).
Both the post and article talk about genre fiction versus “literary” fiction. Genre fiction, like chick lit and what’s known as “commercial” women’s fiction have plucky, likable heroines and a happy ending. Most people like and want genre fiction. Thinking about this made me realize that most literary agents are also genre fiction readers. So many of my own novels have been turned down by agents because they didn’t think my heroines were plucky or likable. (The plucky thing seems to be very American.)
Alas. I have to agree with Claire Messaud when she says you’re in deep trouble if you’re reading to find friends. And as Michelle Dean writes in her Flavorwire post, “Many women are not safe, relaxing, and fun personalities, and it is a little strange, and constricting, and even stultifying, that we are afraid of seeing them be so messy in books.”
A little something for Halloween!
Picking a Halloween costume was an art. Early on, Megan and Penny had talked about going as headless ghouls, but somehow the ghouls had gotten lost in Dulcey’s plans. Penny was going as Little Nell. Megan was disappointed.
“What are you going to go as?” Helen asked Megan.
“I don’t know—I don’t think I’m going,” Megan replied. It just seemed too much of a bother. She’d stay home with The Tale of Genji. And a vodka martini.
“Of course, you’re going.” Sometimes it was as if Megan was Helen’s second child.
“What are you going as?” Megan asked, looking for inspiration.
“Cleopatra. Want to see the costume? I picked it up last night.” Helen had wanted to surprise everyone but she couldn’t wait. Her costume was too good, a gown threaded with gold and silver, a five-pound wig for a crown—just thinking about it made her feel regal. “I’m getting my makeup done at the salon.”
“This wig weighs a ton,” Megan said, putting the wig over her head. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to wear it? You’ll be sweating all evening. You will.”
Helen took the wig away from her.
In the past, all of Megan’s costume decisions had been made with Stella. Alone, she was indecisive and self-defeating.
“Why don’t you go as Mata Hari?” Dulcey suggested. They were all sick of Megan’s waffling.
“I’m too wash-and-dry for that.”
“Nonsense. You’d make a wonderful Mata Hari.”
“Why? What did Mata Hari look like?”
“Dark and mysterious. She enthralled men with her Javanese dance of love.”
“I’ll go as Virginia Woolf.”
“Be Mata Hari, Megan,” Helen commanded.
She resisted Mata Hari, but in the end, it was all she had. The evening of the party she inspected her costume and makeup. The fin de siècle felt hat that hung jauntily at an angle, the fake fur stole, pearls and gloves. Her suit was historically correct to the last detail (it’d taken a week for her to sew it). Her makeup was just as detailed, her face grayish white, her lips blue. She’d made her eyes bloodshot by putting a little vinegar in them. Painful, but necessary. Satisfied, Megan went downstairs to reveal herself.
“I don’t get it,” Helen said.
“I’m Mata Hari.”
“What’s with the makeup?”
“I’m dead. I’m the corpse of Mata Hari.”
“What’s that?” Helen asked, pointing to holes in Megan’s suit.
“Bullet holes.” Megan had borrowed a rifle to riddle her suit. The residue of real gunpowder was absolutely essential. Not just for the look of the powder, but also for the smell of it, the way the powder’s acrid smell wailed its way into the nostrils.
“You’re going to spend all night explaining that,” Helen said.
Dulcey saw the bullet holes and screamed with laughter.
“The question was blood or no blood,” Megan explained. “I thought I’d be tasteful. Just a spray of gunpowder.”
“I think it’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful! So! What about it, ladies? Shall we proceed?” Dulcey held out her diamanté-studded lorgnette and led the way.
As they neared the Lewiskis’, Dulcey’s heart began to pound. Stage fright. She felt extremely uncomfortable in other people’s homes, unfamiliar stages.
“There! There! We can park there!” She found relief in barking out commands, directing traffic. Getting out of the car, her knees almost buckled, her legs imperceptibly shaking. Penny gave her hand a squeeze. Dulcey squeezed back and walked swiftly towards the house.
Regina was the first to greet her.
“Dulcey, sweet sunshine!”
“You look amazing, darling.” Regina gave Dulcey a peck on the cheek. Threading her arm through Dulcey’s, she propelled her forward.
Helen lagged behind.
“Helen?” Megan asked. “You okay?”
Overwhelmed by her costume, Helen couldn’t breathe. Sweat was flaking off her gold and silver makeup.
“Just take off the wig,” Megan advised.
“I can’t. It’ll ruin the effect. I’ll be okay.” She didn’t tell Megan she was wearing a corset. Her gown was diaphanous and she’d wanted her body to appear perfect. She held on to Megan, walking slowly up the driveway.
Bob Lewiski waved enthusiastically at them. He looked more Hollywood detective than British inspector, but he did have a magnificent pipe hanging from his lips.
“Lady Fairmouth, I presume?” he said, pretending to write notes in a little black note pad.
Dulcey laughed, delighted. “That pipe! I love that pipe!”
“It was my pop’s. Last time I had it in my mouth, he beat the living daylights out of me. Welcome! Come on in everyone! The gang’s all here.”
“My god!” Dulcey said, surveying the room. “I can’t believe how fantastic everyone looks!”
Stephanie immediately ran towards Dulcey, giving her a huge hug. She was a chocolate chip cookie with a great big chunk missing. Carol had added teeth marks with felt pen.
“Oh, sweetheart, you look fantastic!” Dulcey said, hugging her back.
Megan’s heart dropped. The room was full of Scarletts and Rhetts, Marilyn Monroes and John Waynes. It was Hollywood, not Halloween. She wanted ghouls, headless demons, dead souls reaching for the living. Not a night of play, but a night of experience. She wished she hadn’t come.
Carol Lewiski suddenly popped up with a tray of drinks.
“Drink?” she asked. She was Groucho Marx, her thick electrical-tape eyebrows constantly in motion.
“Yes, thank you.” Megan took a glass and disappeared.
“I think we have a hit,” Dulcey whispered to Carol. “Only—I think everyone’s getting a little too sloshed. Me included. I had a few at lunch with Regina. I can’t believe she’s still standing. That’s one tough cookie.”
“Maybe we should serve dinner?” Carol said.
“The sooner the better, I’d say,” Dulcey agreed.
Carol struck a gong, one-half of some old cymbals Bob had lying around.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.”
The buffet snaked all around the dining room. Dulcey nibbled quietly in a corner, rehearsing lines in her head. A John Wayne came up to her.
“So when’s the fun starting?”
“Start, my dear? What can you possibly mean?” Lady Fairmouth asked, the voice husky and stiff, vowels curdled.
“You know—ah, right,” he said, winking.
It happened as people lingered over coffee. The lights turned off, then on. Startled, people gasped and then laughed in anticipation. Dulcey wailed melodramatically, “My necklace! My necklace! Someone has stolen my necklace!” Inspector Snoop came dashing in. A voice pierced the air— “Someone’s been murdered!” Carol faked a faint. Everyone rushed to say their lines, a free-for-all ensuing as everyone laughed hysterically, Dulcey’s face streaming with tears. Then suddenly a door slammed and the room blackened.
“Penny, sweetheart—you’re not supposed to turn the lights off anymore,” Dulcey called out.
“I didn’t turn the lights off,” Penny said.
Bob made his way to the light switch. “The power’s gone.” He looked out the window. The entire neighborhood was black, except in the glowing orange light of children trick-or-treating, their plastic pumpkins eerily swinging in blackness.
Carol hunted out candles. Bob lit an old hurricane lamp, the light somber, flickering ghosts deflected.
“You had this all planned out!” someone accused Dulcey.
“Not me!” she laughed. And then she found her legs. “It is All Hallows’ Eve, the night the dead become the living. Expect the unexpected. All other nights the ghosts hide inside us, wandering in our imagination, where dark is light and light helpless. Only once, one night out of the whole year, are they too strong to be held in imagination, too irresistible to be dismissed. Boldly they come, boldly into the night, to grab what is theirs and celebrate. What we won’t recognize, what we can’t believe because we are too afraid, is that this one night, they own us. Ghosts are here always, their breath on our hair, their touch down our spines, watching us as we huddle in our beds. It’s not just our imagination. Tonight is Halloween. Let’s touch the ghosts. Come on. Everybody. Blow out the candles. I dare you.”
Bob turned off his hurricane lamp. Slowly, the candles snuffed away. It was blacker with the sounds of hushed, anticipating breathing. The room seemed choked.
I can feel you, Megan thought, her arms folded about her. Stella.
Suddenly a cracking, thunderous sound!
“Is that you, Bob?” Dulcey giggled.
“How did you know?” Bob asked.
“Been on too many soundstages. Not bad. I’m going to put you into the act, dear man.”
Bob shimmered his cymbals.
“I know! Everyone, hold hands,” Dulcey commanded. “Let’s have a seance! Be very quiet. Be very welcoming. Hello. Hello. Is there a spirit in the house? Is there a spirit in the house?”
“Yes,” Bob croaked.
“Who are you, spirit?”
“The spirit of the drunken sailor!”
“What do you want, spirit?”
“A cold martini, shaken, not stirred.”
Dulcey quickly stood up, lit a candle.
“We’re going trick-o’-caroling, everyone,” she said. “Light all the candles!”
“Trick a what?”
“Trick-o’-caroling—you know, like Christmas caroling.”
“But there aren’t any Halloween songs,” Helen called out.
“We can sing camp songs,” Stephanie suggested.
“Stephanie!” Dulcey grabbed the girl and kissed her cheek, hugging her tightly.
“Right, then, off we go.”
“Oh, this is getting too hokey,” Regina whispered in Megan’s ear. “She can be too much. Don’t you think?”
Megan ignored Regina, walking away.
Gaily, Dulcey’s party went around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells and yelling, “Trick-o’-caroling!” As they sang, other groups joined them, until, a festive mob, they ended up on Platter’s Field, drinking apple cider and roasting hotdogs and marshmallows around a bonfire, giddy with joy. The power quietly flickered back on around four in the morning.
Dulcey always maintained Bob had planned the whole thing.
“You’re giving me much too much credit, Dulcey,” Bob would protest.
“Don’t play modest with me, mister. I have your number. Only, Bob, next time, don’t blow out the whole city. No point in overdoing things.”
They couldn’t stop giggling, bending over together in hysterics.
This was an excerpt from Anchored Leaves. If you enjoyed it, buy the book! The ebook version is free if you buy the paperback at Amazon.
Here, I share another excerpt from Anchored Leaves. In this parcel, Dulcey relives her past through her young, beloved protege.
Dulcey often talked about a children’s play she had once done called Tales of Scheherazade, a two-hour extravaganza she’d written based on A Thousand and One Nights. She’d play bits and pieces from the score, twenty-odd songs of delightful, haunting beauty, songs she was most proud of having written. People went home humming the music, remembering certain lines like forgotten yearnings recaptured. They insisted she do the play.
Dulcey hesitated—she wasn’t sure how she’d pulled it off the first time around. The basic text was written, the songs complete. All she’d have to do was consolidate her many versions, add enough lines for all the children. Penny could play the piano—but that would mean she’d have to create an arrangement, which was always so much work. Dulcey generally ad libbed the arrangements, using only a sketch of notes as a bible. For her, it had always been much more easier to create spontaneously than play what was already written.
No one took notice of Dulcey’s reservations. She’d done too good a job conjuring up the Tales. The play was growing chaotically around her and she didn’t understand. For the first time, she was afraid.
One of the play’s most enthusiastic supporters was Carol Lewiski. She was mesmerized by Dulcey’s descriptions of the original production and began immersing herself in the world of the ancient Persians. Sometimes she’d drive three, four hours to visit a museum or library, losing days inside books. She was especially affected by the religious art: the colors, the geometry, the grace and vibrancy that celebrated without mentioning—she couldn’t ever remember feeling so moved. It was more than looking at pretty pictures; she was filled with ideas, ideas she found couldn’t be expressed except with colors and shapes, in the sensuous flow of cloth. So much of her married life had been about Bob or the children, about being sensible and making a dollar stretch. She’d never known what a fulfilling career meant; she’d found a secretarial job with the school district to help support the family. If she had been extravagant, it had been for the children. Even her dreams had been for her children. And now she was so moved, being inside her own self, being able to express who she was without being bound in relation to anyone else. She felt confident in a way that seemed at odds with everything she’d ever thought she’d known about herself. For the first time in her life she wanted to travel, really discover the world and herself in it. All because of Dulcey’s beautiful play.
The premiere was three weeks away. Megan had arranged for the use of her school’s auditorium. Jim Abernathy had a friend of his print the programs in exchange for advertising. Only the costumes and props were left. In the Lewiskis’ garage, a band of volunteers spent the weekend sorting through donated materials.
“Oh, look at this!” Carol pulled out a large length of glossy yellow cotton, patterned with birds of paradise. She draped it over a shoulder to see if it was long enough for a full costume. “We can definitely use this. Maybe Aladdin’s robe. Or Scheherazade’s gown. I was thinking, Dulcey, if we had a bake sale we could probably raise three, four hundred dollars. Stephanie’s Girls Scout troop raised five hundred at their bake sale.”
“That’s a great idea. We can ask everyone to make something.” She knew Carol would take care of everything.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking. I just made some plain sugar cookies and they sold those for ten cents each. I’m sure Josie Abernathy would make her whoopie pies. Easily fifty cents. And Megan makes those heavenly almond meringues—I’ll start calling around.”
“You know, I have a pair of earrings just that color yellow. It’s the kind that hangs really long.” The flow of Dulcey’s fingers shaped the earrings down her neck. “It’ll be perfect. I think it’s somewhere in my closet. Penny, remind me to go look for those later.”
“Dulcey, you look tired,” Carol said, pressing her warm hand on Dulcey’s shoulder.
“I’m all right,” Dulcey said, smiling. “Just need a nice hot bath and an early night’s sleep.”
“Helen, why don’t you take Dulcey home,” Carol said.
“I think that’s a good idea,” Helen agreed. Dulcey didn’t protest.
The next day, Dulcey and Penny sat at the kitchen table trying to finalize the script. Penny was taking typing classes at school so she acted as Dulcey’s secretary. It was a good time to be working on the Tales, that quiet time in summer when everyone was away and boredom steeped in the heat. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe she was tired. She couldn’t concentrate, staring at the odd pieces of paper, the scribbled notes that seemed to float in and out of her consciousness. It’s just scribbles, she thought, scribbles. Somehow, when she imagined things, it was so much more. There was nothing here—just scribbled nonsense.
“All these little plays, these little songs I’ve written—they don’t mean anything to me,” she suddenly confided to Penny. “I haven’t done anything, not really. Haven’t accomplished a damn thing worthwhile. I’ve just thrown my life away. But it’s not too late. I’ve been working on something, something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Look—I want you to see.”
She put her iced tea down and dug through a pile of papers until she found the manila folder she was looking for. Inside were three flimsy pieces of onionskin paper.
“I’m writing a book,” she said, almost whispering. “It’s the story of my family. My mother’s family. They go all the way back to Jamestown. Royalists to the bone; after the Revolutionary War they went straight up to Canada. I bet you didn’t know there were colonists loyal to England. They don’t teach that at school. It’s just like my family—to stick to the losing side. Anyway, sometime in the 1800s they came back down to America and somehow settled in California. I want to write about that—a big family epic about California. Now you mustn’t tell anyone. I don’t want anyone to know until it’s all finished. I haven’t gotten very far—I’m just doing the research now. I’ve written away for some documents—birth records and property deeds. You know, we can trace the family back to Alfred the Great. I just want to accomplish something for once in my life. I had so much talent—but I just took it all for granted. Like my MGM contract—I just wasted it. I never tried seriously at anything—and I had so much. I could just kick myself.”
She snapped the folder shut.
“Don’t tell anyone now. Promise. I’m only telling you because—Penny, I want you to promise me that if I die before it’s all finished, you’ll finish it for me. You carry on for me.”
Penny slowly nodded, too frightened not to promise.
“You promise?” Dulcey asked again, wanting to be sure Penny really understood. Penny nodded again, feeling dizzy. Dulcey scrutinized her face, then relaxed, judging the promise to be good and knowing. There was no one else except Penny.
“Also—there’s something else. Come to my room.”
Penny nervously followed. Dulcey motioned for her to sit on the bed. She took a large cardboard box from out of the closet and rested it between herself and Penny.
“Most of this ain’t worth a thing. Just things I’ve collected over the years.”
From the box came smaller boxes containing costume jewelry, old greeting cards, programs, trinkets. The last thing to come out of the box was a large velvet cloth that was tied like a sausage.
“This is the only thing I have left that’s worth anything now,” Dulcey said, carefully unrolling the sausage. Leaved in between the velvet were a dozen pieces of antique jewelry, the whole collection not worth more than a few thousand dollars.
“These are all family heirlooms. I want them to be passed on to my nieces. The garnet pieces should go to my niece Christine and this aquamarine set I want Elizabeth to have. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Dulcey picked up the aquamarine bracelet and held it against her wrist. The dangling jewels swayed, releasing a reverie bound in cycles of light. Dulcey surveyed her treasures. She touched each piece and then patiently rerolled the bundle, being careful to lay each earring, bracelet, necklace flat against the velvet.
“I can’t believe it’s all I have left. How the mighty have fallen. There was a time when Ronny and I’d spend a couple hundred dollars at lunch and not even think twice. We had a magnificent home, entertained all the time. We never even thought about money. And then things happened so fast. Ronny retired and then the cancer—we didn’t think he’d even survive. Six months the doctors said. We had to trade the pension in for the operation. I used to teach music just for fun. God, it’s awful not having any money. I couldn’t even get a decent dress for Elizabeth’s wedding. Everyone thought I looked awful and I knew it. After the reception I was helping my sister to her room—she was really plastered—and she turned to me and said why did you even come? I know she was drunk, but, god, it was like she’d kicked me in the stomach.” They’d been so close—Dulcey had helped raise Christine and Elizabeth.
“I used to be very sophisticated, oh, so chic—Ronny was so proud of me. Now I’m just a buffoon. Where are those earrings I was telling Carol about? Here they are. What do you think? Just perfect, aren’t they? Here, you hold on to those. God, I haven’t looked through all this stuff in ages. Oh—you have to look at this!”
Dulcey gave Penny an old vinyl 78 single. The cover had swaying palm trees and the label read Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine! Sung by that new sensation Diane Beverley!
“Diane Beverley! That’s me! I made that when I was with MGM. Begin the Beguine! And, oh! Here’s my dress—the dress I used to perform in.”
Dulcey pulled away the fragile tissue paper. She carefully unfolded a black silk gown.
“I bet you can’t believe I was ever this small!” She held the dress to her chest and spread it across her hips. “There should be a pair of shoes—right at the bottom, Penny.”
Penny found matching black silk sandals in a plastic bag. She took them out of the plastic. The shoes were so delicate, silk fraying at the edges.
“There’s no way I’ll ever fit into those sandals again. I bet they’d fit you though. Try them on.”
Penny took off her tennis shoes and slowly fitted the sandals to her feet. She stood up, suddenly three inches taller, her body, the world, unbalanced.
Dulcey looked at the dress again, examining its details without seeing them. With sorrow she said, “Here. Try it on.”
Penny began to undress.
“Careful,” Dulcey warned. “Watch the shoes.”
Guiding Penny, Dulcey gently pulled the dress up around her, zipping it carefully up the back. She straightened the skirt, brushing the wrinkles and smoothing the fabric over Penny’s hips. The gown fell just an inch above the heels, Penny’s toes peeking out.
“Turn around. My god. I can’t believe it. It really is me. Only I was a bit more busty than you. But there are tricks to take care of that.” Dulcey stuffed tissue into the bosom of the dress. “What would we women do without tissue? There—you look a picture. Just some work on your hair and you’ll be ready for Hollywood. Oh, Mr. Mayer—” She fingered Penny’s hair, brushing the thick curtain away from her face.
“Let’s do something with your hair,” she said, pulling Penny into the bathroom. With large scissors, Dulcey began ruthlessly cutting away at Penny’s waist-length hair. Stunned, Penny sat watching as leaves of her hair fell all around her. Dulcey liked the way Penny’s new hair bounced around her shoulders. She decided to put it up in hot curlers for that Hollywood glamour look. Penny needed makeup, too. Lots of it.
“Close your eyes for some pancake,” she said, buffing Penny’s face with cream foundation. “I wish I still had some false eyelashes. There was a time when I never left home without them. But this will do, this will do. I think we’re finally ready.” Dulcey threw off the towel that had been protecting the gown and had Penny stand up for inspection. “My god—you look like a young Ava Gardner. Take a look.”
Penny didn’t understand what she was seeing in the mirror, the creamy paleness of her décolletage against the silky blackness of the dress, her narrowed waist, the blossoming of her hips. Her face was like a mask of someone she could almost recognize.
“What do you think? The dress is a bit loose, but you’ll grow into it. ‘Begin the Beguine’.” Dulcey seemed sad, wistful. And then, with a roaring voice, she cried, “Come on!”
She grabbed her record and marched Penny into the front sitting room where the stereo was. Dulcey turned the record player on. For a moment there was nothing but static, the needle skipping over scratches. Then the orchestra began, followed by the voice, clear and rich, and very young.
Dulcey stood behind Penny. She began guiding Penny’s arms, whispering movements through her body. Memory and experience sang through every fiber of their being. The song had become her life.
Dinner, As Told On Twitter
She sometimes ate her dinner standing up, in front of her living room window.
Across the street, in a window, a man was doing the same. The next evening too. And the next.
Soon tables appeared underneath the facing windows.
Sitting, they enjoyed the other’s company, the evening rosy with candlelight and wine.
Then one Saturday morning, through the window, she saw boxes and movers.
The man was gone & the table was gone & dinner was once again that alone time between light and dark.
In my last post I talked about how I wrote All Married Together and “miranda” at the same time, almost simultaneously. Wildly different stories and styles. And yet…
…if I think about it, both are reflections of my desire to break apart the barrier between prose and poetry. I think that’s been the impetus to my writing from the very beginning. Why the writing is minimal. I want to take the language near the breaking point, which the best poetry often does. There, at that point of merging, language becomes freer, interpretations personal and primal, the reading a knowledge beyond language.
I’m happy to announce that my novella All Married Together is finally available! I like to say that everything I know about marriage is complete in this one handy story.
The plot is simple: two people with hectic lives meet at an airport and decide to get married. But only for three years. Is three years enough to experience all that marriage is? Maybe.
I wrote All Married Together at the same time that I wrote my flash fiction “miranda”, often going between the two. While both are about relationships, the two stories couldn’t be more different and I wonder what in the world was happening in my brain.
At the moment All Married Together is available at Amazon as an ebook and should be available at the iBookStore and Barnes & Noble soon.
This morning I read Flavorwire’s “50 Works of Fiction in Translation That Every English Speaker Should Read”. I read a lot of these list articles about fiction and they leave me frustrated: there should be more books from Asia. Don Quixote but no Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West. And I’d certainly add Dream of Red Mansions and The Makioka Sisters.
And what about that blog post in Huffington Post asking about novels where clothes are important. No mention of The Tale of Genji? Really? I’ve never read a novel where clothes were so fundamental to the story. There’s even a chapter called “The Cicada Shell” because of a crucial thing that happens to a woman’s robe (the shell being the robe). To be fair, no one mentioned In Search of Lost Time either, but that post was pretty US-centric.
BTW, Dream of Red Mansions, which is also known as The Story of the Stone, has beautiful, lush descriptions of clothing. Philosophical, hilarious, risqué, tragic, this tale of the downfall of an aristocratic house as told by a magic stone is one of my top five favorite reads. If you decide to read it, you must read the David Hawkes translation. It makes all the difference in the world.
With all those little children learning Mandarin, I’m hoping these lists will branch out into Asia but how many generations will that take?
“What’s her name?” Penny asked him. She was mesmerized by the cat, unable to take her eyes away.
“I don’t think she has one,” Peter said, trying to be kind. “Why don’t you give her a name?”
“Kitty,” she said, laughing.
“Let’s name her Spook,” Megan said. She picked up the cat and pointed her finger at its face. “Spook! You’re called Spook!”
Eye to eye they stared at each other. The cat seemed to know who she was. Megan couldn’t believe it. “That’s the most extraordinary—”
The cat jumped straight into Penny’s lap. Thrilled, Penny captured the warm kitten in her hands. The kitten had such a tender face. Her paws were so delicate. Penny wanted to lick her up. She seemed to understand every word Penny said, her knowing eyes pulling Penny’s words deep into her.
At bedtime, Penny wanted to sleep with the cat but Helen wouldn’t allow it. Spook was to stay in the kitchen. Lying in bed, Penny thought of Kitty, alone in a new house, sad, lonely, puzzled at the future of things. She only had the box Peter had provided and some newspaper. Penny got out of bed and slipped downstairs. She opened the kitchen door; Kitty was looking up at her.
“Hello. Were you waiting for me? I had to wait first. To make sure everyone was asleep.” Penny scooped the kitten up, the furry warmth so wonderful in her hands. She smuggled the cat into her room.
From the top of her toy shelf Penny took down a doll’s cradle. She removed the doll, a porcelain baby whose eerie life-like features had always frightened her, and put Kitty inside the cradle instead. There was a pillow and a blanket, all in eyelet cotton, so Kitty would be very comfortable. Gently, Penny tapped the pear wood cradle and let it rock, quietly humming until the kitten seemed fast asleep. Penny couldn’t take her eyes away. She fell asleep on the floor, curled next to Kitty.
Penny was a light sleeper and often woke up several times a night, but that night she slept soundly, the most wonderful serenity hugging her throughout the night. She only remembered one dream, of a gentle, powerful breeze lifting her high into the night sky. As the breeze slowly died, another breeze brought her back up, one breeze after another like the hands of God carrying her through the sky. It was the most exhilarating feeling, being lifted up, floating down, lifted up again, her self circling the globe over and over.