Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Dolls


The transformation from Miss Mocha Chocolata to Mr. Lester Lawrence was instantaneous and all about the eyes. Just one swipe of a wet towel across the face and Detroit’s plus celebré gender-bender became unbent, so to speak. The change happened last, when all that remained was the corset, the make-up and the mirror. Even then—amber wig off the head, tonight’s choice of outfit in a heap in the corner, heels kicked under the desk—you would have sworn he was a woman. And a beautiful one at that.

Perhaps it really was the eyes, only the eyes. He’d always been told he had pretty eyes—a sharp leprechaun green creating dissonance like a jazz record against his Hershey Bar skin. Everyone thought they were contacts, nowadays.

Mocha grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on the desk in front of her. Before her, the bulb of one the lamps clipped to her mirror had burned out. Her gold-tipped fingers set off icicle shadows from the remaining light. She scratched her stomach through the dingy corset, still damp and musty with sweat, and sat back, letting the hand with the tissues fall to her lap. Lester was always sad to see her go; every night a little piece of him went missing. He never quite understood what it was that made Mocha so pretty, but he sure as hell loved it. And he loved her; they all did. She pawed at her lips with the tissue, which was already tearing in her hand. Little by little, tonight’s ill-chosen hot pink gave way to a more sedate rose color. Dusty Rose. Just like what he wore on regular days, when Lester needed augmentation and Mocha needed her beauty sleep. Goodbye lips. She tossed the tissues in the trash and reached around behind her back.

Ginger Vitis had a dresser, she thought bitterly, but Ginger was in P-Town, not Detroit, and had had the guts to stay there even when things got shitty. Out there on the street like a carnival barker Ginger sold her act nightly. And for her efforts the Fates rewarded her with a real dressing room and a dresser. Now there was a queen who roared, Mocha thought as her thick fingers fumbled with the knotted corset strings. Like a lion ruling over the Provincetown jungle. No matter how much of a woman you were, a drag queen still needed balls. Mocha yanked at the knot, tied over-zealously back long ago, when the night was young.

Aside from by looking at a clock, you wouldn’t have any idea that the sun was about to rise above the earth when Mocha Chocolata left the stage to call it a night. The cramped dressing room in the back of the bar had no windows, its one opening to the world outside having been painted over in black years ago. What was left was a nappy lime green shag rug, two folding chairs—one in the corner, one at the chipped wooden desk—a mirror with two clip-on lamps on the sides propped atop the desk and a hook, hidden on the wall in the decades’ worth of creatively obscene graffiti. In 1998, after being granted sole use of the room by the bar’s owner, Lester took the liberty of writing “Home, Sweet Home” in a free space above the door.
Now, with another Saturday Night Special behind her, Mocha sat alone before the mirror, her back to the door that fought against the dying sounds of the bar. The trembling bass line still invaded the space through every opening—the keyhole, the cracks in between the floorboards, the chips in the paint, the holes in the wall that once held tacks. The pervasive thump swelled up and surged forth at every point, even at this late hour. People were still outside, there was still dancing to be done, songs to be played. And inside the small room, sitting at the desk, Mocha was reminded at every moment of all that was happening outside. The driving, steady rumble set everything off-kilter within the dark space. The lamps shook just barely, giving Mocha’s reflection a blurred and unfamiliar look; occasionally the chair in the corner would tap out the beat for a second or two before coming to a rest. The shelf on the wall beside the door also shook and the two figurines that sat on top of it had to cling to each other for stability.

Far away in another place and another time, far from the world of Mocha and the Saturday Night Special, Mrs. Plucart and Mrs. Davenrow were sitting down to afternoon tea. The Sweet Cinnamon Sticks—an experimental recipe Mrs. Plucart had attempted earlier that afternoon—rustled like crinoline as Mrs. Davenrow took a tiny bite. Somewhere in the world, Mrs. Davenrow raised the ring finger of her left hand to the corner of her mouth to catch a falling crumb before sharing an appreciative smile with her companion.

“Simply splendid,” said she.

The two women sat on the veranda, the sun gracing them with a warm and goodly light. Their white dresses glowed honey-colored and their cheeks were touched with a healthy pink gleam. It was balmy, as August will be, but not nearly hot enough to cause perspiration. Nevertheless, Mrs. Davenrow dabbed at her neck twice with an embroidered handkerchief. Mrs. Plucart, eyes shaded by a magnificent new white hat with a brim that dipped over her graceful features, breathed deeply of the fertile air and cast a smile at Mrs. Davenrow.

“I glad you like them,” Mrs. Plucart said.

“They’re marvelous,” said Mrs. Davenrow.

The ice tinkled in Mrs. Plucart’s Waterford crystal glasses as she and Mrs. Davenrow both raised them to their lips and drank of the freshly squeezed lemonade. Earlier they had been speaking of current events.

“Quite a world we’re living in,” said Mrs. Davenrow.

“I can hardly imagine a worse state of things,” said Mrs. Plucart.

“It nearly stops the heart.” Mrs. Davenrow shook her head, looking out into the distance. The place where the trees met the sky was alive with activity. Birds, birds that looked like crows were taking off and setting down at a constant pace. Their bodies sprang into the air and fell back like so many stray leaves tossed by the wind of a building summer storm. They moved with furious purpose, often alighting from one place only to take hold of a nearby branch seconds later. The trees were full of these creatures, and they were all moving. Mrs. Davenrow imagined that there must have been quite a cacophony associated with the display, but her ears heard nothing.

Somewhere in the world, on the cool metal surface of a table, atop a lace coaster, lemonade in a Waterford glass began to perspire; a bead of water rolled down the side and seeped into the cloth beneath.

Mocha untangled the knotted corset strings and pulled them loose through the holes in the back. The heavy creature expanded slightly and nestled into her lap. Air rushed in at all sides, cooling the beads of sweat that gathered in the crevices of her torso. Again she scratched her stomach. Sitting only in underwear and a corset, the pungent odor of a night’s work rose to her nostrils. The whole room smelled like sweat, and worse. The air itself was fetid. She looked around and again cursed the sealed window and the cramped space. She couldn’t even fart in there without suffocating, she thought. Shithole. At least there weren’t rodents. Thank God for small miracles. Absent-mindedly, as she scanned the floor, she ran her hand over her bare thigh, enjoying the prick of the spiky hairs that poked out from her skin. Time for a wax.
She leaned forward and scratched her back, loosening the corset and letting it fall to the side of the desk. She never felt like her breasts were gone until the corset came off, even though she took off her bra and its contents soon after her clothes. Now she felt her chest as if for the first time. Spiky hairs made their presence known here, too, appearing all over the surface of the skin sticky and salty with dried sweat. She cupped her small pectoral muscles and tried to shake them, instead just running her hands up and down her chest. Hands flush against her body, she stopped for a moment and peered down at the corset, lying open on the floor.
Three sharp raps pierced the low mumble of the beat invading from outside.

“Who is it?” She called.

Julio opened the door and stood in the doorway. With him, the flood of music came rushing in, too.

“Dammit, trick, I said ‘Who is it’ not ‘Come the fuck in!’ Close the damn door behind you.”

“It’s me,” Julio said, trying to muster a smirk through a coke haze. He stepped in, closed the door and stood, arms akimbo, beneath the shelf. He wore only boots, a do-rag and a strategically-placed spandex sock.

“Well, what do you want? I’m all naked.”

“You got a visitor,” Julio said, crossing his arms.

“Who is it?”

“Some woman.”

“Okay. What’s she want?”

“Fuck if I know.”

“Dammit, ho, what she say? What the hell good are you if can’t even take a Ms. Message.”

“Fuck you, Mocha, I ain’t your secretary. She just come in here saying she looking for you. I was on break. What do you want?”

“Fine, fine.” Mocha got up and bent over the pile of clothing on the floor. “Stop looking at my ass.”

“I ain’t.”

Mocha turned from riffling through the clothes and glared at Julio, whose half-closed eyes remained resting on her lower end. “Please, trick, keep dreaming.” She turned back to the clothes and came out with a towel. With flourish she pulled it around herself at the waist and tucked it in. “Send her in, whoever the hell she is.”

Julio opened the door again and exited, this time leaving it ajar. The mirrorball outside sprinkled a dandruff of light across the floor in the dingy room. Sitting on the desk in a towel, Mocha stared at the squares of light. It seemed as if any moment Diontay would come in with his broom and his shiny pecs to sweep up the detritus of a spent Saturday night and the sparkles would disappear with him. They seemed like magic to her, something belonging only inside those walls, to vanish at the daylight. But Diontay did not appear and the gray-white squares remained as the music poured in from outside.

“Lester?” The voice was familiar but Mocha could not trace it. In the split second between the time that she heard his name being called and when she looked up from the floor, she searched her memory but came up with only ghosts and shadows, no names. The woman stood in the doorway; her overcoat draped over one arm, a crinkled Macy’s bag on the other. She had deep dark skin and a head of silky hair that had once belonged to another woman. She wore pleated khakis and brown flats, a brown blouse and a small gold chain. She stared at Mocha with a mix of attentive concern and sickness.

“My God,” Mocha said. “Mama…”

On the shelf, the dolls clung to each other all the more tightly. The woman stepped in and closed the door as the two serious ladies above, plastic of face, polyester of dress, flaxen-haired with dainty hands, stared down at her. They had the same soft body beneath a respectable dresses, nearly identical. The only way to tell their pale skins and pink-painted lips apart was that one had a wide-brimmed white hat and one did not. Lester had lost it years ago. They wore the same white dress and the same tiny white shoes. Their faces had the same placid expression and they were the same size, though one fell against the other, giving the impression that it was smaller.

The woman at the door licked her lips, painted deep purple. She opened them, but no words came out. She grimaced and clucked her tongue. Mocha could do nothing but stare. She, too, opened her lips, but found nothing to say. The woman’s eyes drifted around the room, at Mocha’s near-naked body and the dirty towel that covered it, at the mass of clothing dumped in the corner, at the desk, and the graffiti—limericks about oral sex and phone numbers long ago changed, cancelled, reassigned. Her eyes came to rest on the vacant folding chair in the corner that didn’t hold the clothes. Mocha followed her gaze and quickly sprang from the desk. The woman clutched her coat tighter and stepped back, watching as Mocha breezed by and yanked the chair from its place. She set it down in front of the woman, turned at an odd angle, facing the wall. Mocha looked down into the woman’s eyes. The woman blinked and turned the chair slightly, taking a seat and spreading her coat across her lap. Mocha remained standing, lost in the tiny room. The smell of body odor mingled with a familiar perfume and muted traces of talcum powder. The woman removed her hand from beneath the coat and waved it in the direction of the desk. Mocha blinked and stepped back, again coming to rest on the chipped edge.

The two women spoke at the same time.
One: What are you doing here?
The other: Are you wearing lipstick?

And then there was silence.

The older woman shifted in her chair; it creaked. The ladies on the shelf, terrified by the sharp noise, tore their eyes off of each other and peered down at the events below. Mocha had brought her hand to her lips, but paused before touching them.

The older woman was the first speak: “I waited all night at your apartment. The girl told me where to go to find you. I wasn’t going to sleep… I didn’t know where.”

Mocha could do nothing but look.

“I didn’t expect to be in town, but I got here this evening. I would have called… My connecting flight was cancelled, see.” She shifted her eyes from Mocha and refocused them on the soft camel-skin that draped her lap. In the silence, the two serious ladies murmured words of comfort to each other.

“Shall we go to the store?” Mrs. Davenrow asked.

“Don’t lets go yet,” Mrs. Plucart said. “It is far too lovely a day to be inside.” Mrs. Plucart picked up her glass; it was wet to her touch and she recoiled. She tasted the liquid inside timidly, but finding it unchanged, soon drank appreciatively.

Mrs. Davenrow continued to be transfixed by the birds alighting and descending on the cluster of trees in the distance. “Do you see that, Mrs. Plucart?” she asked.

“Pray tell, what, Mrs. Davenrow?”

“In the distance, there, all the birds. Do you see them?”

“I certainly do. It appears they are coming home for the evening, or preparing to, I should say.”

“Do they do this every day?” Mrs. Davenrow asked.

“Why yes, they do,” Mrs. Plucart replied. “It is a harbinger of the dusk. They seem to know that it is coming even before we do.”

“And without the benefit of a watch,” Mrs. Davenrow said with a chuckle. She turned from the trees and looked at Mrs. Plucart, who returned her gaze.

“Would you care for another Cinnamon Stick, Mrs. Davenrow?”
Mrs. Davenrow reached across the table and touched Mrs. Plucart’s hand. “I would love nothing more.”

They began again, the two women in the small room.

“Why did you come?” Mocha asked.

“Are you wearing lipstick?” Mrs. Lawrence asked.

“I was, yes.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Mrs. Lawrence said.

“Why did you come?” Mocha asked.

“Because I love you. And I miss you… sometimes. And sometimes I don’t… I miss us.”

“You miss who you thought we were.”

Mrs. Lawrence paused. “Is that wrong?”

“You’re only fooling yourself.”

“I’m the only one I need to fool.”

“I guess you’re right,” Mocha said, eyes drifting to the two ladies on the shelf. “How long are you in town?”

“Only until tomorrow morning. Or rather, later this morning, I should say.”

“Why’d you come to the club?”

“I told you, I waited all night at the apartment. Shaina told me that you wouldn’t be back before I had to go back to the airport. I wanted to see you. I missed you.”

“Yes, you said that.” Mocha got up and walked over to the pile of clothes. She knelt down and began to search it.

“I’ve never seen the place, either. It’s quite an experience, I must admit.”

“How’d you get in?” Mocha asked without turning around.

“It was a bit of an adventure, I’ll tell you that. I had to show them a photo in my waller prove that I was your mother. Lucky the bouncer knows what you really look like. And the crowd, all those people. It’s quite a madhouse…”

Mocha grunted, not looking up.

“They tell me,” Mrs. Lawrence said, “that I just missed your show. That’s too bad.”

Mocha turned around and let out a laugh. “Right. I’ll bet.” She stood, a pair of jeans in one hand. “You mind if I put some clothes on?”

The other woman looked caught. Her mouth hung upon for a second, before she bunched her coat near her chest and turned slightly away from her son.

“Thanks,” Mocha said as she slid the jeans on beneath her towel, sucked in her stomach to fasten them and took off the towel. She dropped it on the floor beside her. “You can look now.”

Mrs. Lawrence turned back. “Don’t you want to put on a shirt?”

“Right…” Mocha reached down and picked up a small, crumpled blue t-shirt from the ground and slid it over her head.

Mrs. Lawrence shifted in her chair. Mocha moved again to the desk and leaned against it, never taking her eyes off the other woman. The music seemed to have died down outside. The thumping had stopped. Mrs. Lawrence took a breath.

“Last time I was in Detroit, what was it, 5 years ago?”

Mocha simply looked at the woman.

“It was right before your father passed, that’s how I remember.” Mrs. Lawrence continued.

“The Alzheimer’s was getting worse then. He didn’t remember much anymore.” She paused. “I didn’t think… Well, why mince words? I knew it wouldn’t be long.” Mrs. Lawrence looked up at her son. He returned her gaze, emotionless. The older woman thought for a second. “It wasn’t a terrible thing. He wasn’t suffering much, but it wasn’t a good thing either. It’s a quiet madness, Alzheimer’s. The disease. That quiet, it defined our home in those days. We lived mostly in silence. He, afraid to speak. Me, the same. Both of us struck dumb for different reasons with the same thing underneath—we didn’t know who we were anymore.”

“So you thought you’d come see me…” Mocha said.

“I thought you should know.” Mrs. Lawrence stood and placed the coat on the chair. She stood before Mocha for a second and then turned to the door. She surveyed the walls, her eyes pecking across the surface, studying the inscriptions. Rising, her gaze caught the shelf. The ladies clutched each other tighter. Mrs. Lawrence reached up and took one down.

“Sometimes I envy your father for his ignorance. He must have known the real world, somewhere; he must have had some recollection. But as far as I could see, he was oblivious. What I wouldn’t give for that,” she said.

“How long are you… How are you doing now?”

“I’m alive. His ghost is still all over that house. It’s hard to tell the shadows from the light sometimes… Sometimes it’s like nothing ever changed.” Mrs. Lawrence looked up. She knit her brow and cocked her head. “These dolls. What was it… Mrs. P and Mrs. D? I never understood why your aunt gave them to you. Such a terrible gift to give to a little boy. Such a cruel thing to do.” She placed the doll back on the shelf. “This is a small room. I couldn’t survive in here. I’d go crazy. I really would. I just can’t be by myself, that’s what it is. I never could be.”

“Well I like it fine.” Lester paused. “I could come home, if you like. I’ll come home for a little while.”

Mrs. Lawrence turned around and caught her reflection in the mirror. It looked perverse, distorted, like something out of a funhouse. “I’m sorry,” she said. Mocha looked up sharply, a movement in her chest. “Don’t get excited,” Mrs. Lawrence continued. “I’m not done. I’m sorry you seem to be stuck in rebellion.” She moved to the chair and picked up her coat. “I’m sorry you seem to be content on going to Hell.” Again she caught herself in the mirror, now a blur, like a canvas that had been smeared over in frustration. “I’m sorry our lives turned out this way. Because you’re my son and I will always, always love you. But I can’t stand what you’ve become. This shouldn’t hurt you, Lester, because you’ve heard this all before. Maybe not from me, but from your father. And now it’s just the two of us.”

Mocha’s hands trembled as she reached down the desk, not taking an eye off of her mother. She slid open the drawer and withdrew a pack of Camel Lights and a lighter. The runners on the drawer scraped loudly in the still room. Mocha closed it again and the wood met wood with a jarring thud. Mrs. Lawrence looked at her carefully.

“If you’re coming home,” Mrs. Lawrence said, “come as our son.” She turned and touched the shelf again. She shook her head and brought her hand to her mouth. It hurt, barreling through her chest; it came screaming to the surface and nearly knocked her over. She slumped against the wall. Mocha came to her and gingerly grabbed her shoulders.

“Are you okay?” She said.

The two stood still by the wall, the son holding the mother. She turned her head and looked up into his clear, green eyes. Such wisdom, she’d said when he was born, such peace of mind in those eyes. This was the answer. He was to be the savior of them all; their future was in those green eyes. They stared back at her fearfully now. “Are you running from us?” Mrs. Lawrence searched Mocha’s face. “Is that what it is? Are you trying to get away from your father and I?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know he wasn’t an easy man to live with, but baby he’s been dead for 5 years. Can’t you stop punishing us?”

Mocha let go of her mother’s shoulders and looked at the older woman, mouth agape. Mrs. Lawrence sighed; her chest slumped. Her eyes searched the ground for something to say. “We’re never going to have this conversation, are we?” She asked.

“What conversation?”

“Lester… Mocha.” She grimaced. “I don’t know how to… I’ve only been a mother once, and I guess I’m still making mistakes. I’m still learning how to do it. I just want to be who you want me to be. But I don’t know who that is, and… it’s eating away at me. Quietly. Like I wouldn’t even know.”

Mrs. Lawrence looked up at Mocha. Mocha returned her gaze. They stared at each other in the silent room.

Mrs. Lawrence parted her lips, but no sound came out…

A bead of sweat rolled down Mocha’s neck and she swiped at it with her fingertips.

The air around them stopped moving and fell to the ground.

Their hearts grew quiet inside their chests.

Noiselessly, they remained alive.

Even the sound of their breathing disappeared until there was nothing left.

They waited.

Then, in the stillness, that which held them inhaled and broke.

Gently, one woman cleared her throat, and averted her eyes.
The two women stepped back from each other.

Mrs. Lawrence laid her coat across her arm and tossed the hair of her wig, the real hair underneath being pitifully thin and gray. She moved back to the door, placed her hand on the doorknob and opened it. No driving beat came rushing it, no sound at all, except the tinkling of glass. The woman turned back to her son and kissed him hard on the cheek. She stroked his face.

“Please don’t smoke,” she said. “You have such a beautiful voice.”
She released him, turned and walked away.

Somewhere in another place and another time, Mrs. Plucart and Mrs. Davenrow drank the last of their lemonade from sparkling Waterford crystal. The lace coasters lay soaked through with water. They leaked onto the table and rust began to form at the microscopic level.

“I believe we can go to the store now,” Mrs. Plucart said.

“Yes, let’s,” said Mrs. Davenrow. Both women stood, their starched dresses rustling lightly around their smooth legs. Mrs. Davenrow, who did not have a new hat, shielded her eyes with a slender hand. “The sun is magnificent today, isn’t it?” She asked.

“Indeed, it is,” said Mrs. Plucart. “So beautiful and bright. A lovely day for a walk, I’d say.”

“I agree,” said Mrs. Davenrow. “I’ve never seen anything more divine. It’s good to know that there is still beauty in the world.”

Above them the quiet fire burned, a swift and silent blaze consuming space and time. Above them, in the squalid nothingness, where there is no air, there was a low rumbling, a steady hum of darkness burning. The roar of a blazing star swallowing up everything in its path. It destroys all it comes in contact with, suffocating in its brilliant light.

Mrs. Plucart and Mrs. Davenrow descended the front staircase. In the distance, the birds in the trees had suddenly grown still. They sat breast-to-breast, shivering, awaiting the coming of the darkness. In the mad silence, Mrs. Davenrow sensed a muffled rumble rise up around her. She looked up but the birds were still. The shaking persisted. Almost like thunder, she thought. Almost like it, indeed. She raised the index finger of her left hand to a stray hair and swept it back behind her ear. It was nothing more than the wind. After all, the sun was shining.

Mocha watched the empty doorway where her mother had been long after the woman left. She could still feel the touch of her hand on her cheek. Outside, the club was empty now. Diontay was mopping the floor; Julio and the other dancers were nowhere to be seen. All the patrons had gone home, to return when the darkness crept into the streets again. Mocha looked up at the shelf, at Mrs. P and Mrs. D. They sat slumped against each other. She smiled at them and they smiled back. Mocha reached up and fixed Mrs. P’s white hat, which was slightly tilted on her head. The doll smiled graciously, grateful to be set right again. Mocha stepped back and looked at the two beautiful ladies. They would be just waking up now, she thought. The sun would spread across their pillows and they’d awake to a new day. She was tempted to whisper “Good Morning,” but hesitated, lest the ladies decide that Sunday mornings were a fine time to sleep in.

Mocha turned, picked a towel up off the hook and walked to the bar. Perhaps she was imagining it, but it seemed like her mother had grown more timid. Never a woman to shy from conversation, Mrs. Lawrence had seemed changed. Mocha had had to strain to hear her, she realized. Her thoughts turned then to Mrs. P’s porcelain face; it seemed as if a genuine affection had played across her tiny features. This was something she’d never noticed before. She ran the water over her hands and her towel in the sink at the bar. Shutting off the faucet, she shook the excess water from her long, thick fingers. She walked back to her dressing room and sat down before the mirror. Behind her reflection she could see the expanse of the small club. Someone must have propped the front door open because a jagged slash of yellow light cut across the dance floor. It blinked as someone walked by. She returned her focus to her face. The towel was hot in her hand and she brought it up to her eyes, scalding her skin. She let the cloth rest there for a second, feeling the wisps of steam seep into her pores. Then she bunched it up and wiped it down her face in one swift motion. She folded it and wiped it across again. She wiped once, twice, three times more, then laid it to rest in a pile on the desk. Mocha looked up at herself in the mirror. Lester Lawrence stared back. Sad green eyes with bags beneath them, five o’clock shadow and a gap between his two front teeth.

He stood and switched off the lamp. The chair she had sat in remained in the center of the floor. He avoided it. He blew a kiss to his two ladies, peacefully resting in each other’s arms, and left the room. The door clicked closed behind him and he headed out of the club, being consumed as he went by the light.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Oliver's Daughters

[Fiction.part one] (unfinished)

The first words to come out of Ronette McClain’s mouth in four years were uttered in the chaos of the living room of her father’s house and were drowned out by louder shouts and screams from the mouths of others. As a result, only her son, Charles, heard them as he stared up into her face looking for reassurance and safety in a moment of terror. A woman of few words prior to the accident that killed her husband, Ronette had given up speaking altogether afterward. She found this condition quite agreeable, as she was able to go about her business more easily than she had; people tended to avoid her and her time wasn’t wasted by idle chit-chat. She enjoyed the peace of her muted world and had long ago resolved never to speak again when she found her lips opening and her voice rushing forth into the electric air the swirled around her and the rest in the room. Her son, her only child, had forgotten the sound of his mother’s voice, as he was quite young when she went silent and had resolved the idea in his mind by deciding that she was a mute. He stared at her in that terrible moment not looking for comforting words, but rather the language of her eyes, which he had come to understand quite intrinsically. She did not return his gaze and he squeezed her hand to gain her attention, for he knew his voice would not reach her ears in the cacophony. She persisted, continuing to direct her attention to the mass of people struggling at the doorway and opened her lips and spoke, for the first time in four years.

Ronette’s father, Oliver, had been dead for exactly 73 hours when she found herself speaking in his living room. She had been called to his bedside one week earlier to say goodbye to him in his final moments and she sat with him for the full week until the very moment when his life passed conclusively through his lips. She did not speak to him during those times, but held his hands and searched his face for signs of the man she knew in her childhood. Finding now, this stranger lying in bed losing his life before her, she reaffirmed her decision to never utter words again. Her sister came and went during that week, checking in nightly and every morning, kissing her father on the forehead and murmuring sweet words to him. She cried unremittingly from the moment she entered the room until the moment she left. She reminded the semi-conscious man of good times spent together and fond shared memories through a steady stream of quiet tears. She had few words for her sister, for she felt they were wasted. But for the silent man in the bed, they were all she had left to give.

Ronette’s sister, who slept in the room next to her father’s, left each morning with a long goodbye to her father and a knowing look to her sister and traveled to the hospital where she birthed babies all day long. She wore a constant placid expression as she went about her duties; she smiled lovingly when it was appropriate, she dressed her face in professional concern when things did not go according to plan, but beneath it all was the casual indifference that had come to define her work manner. This indifference carried over into her home life in Oliver’s last days, for Ronette’s sister, Shelia, cooked his food, dispensed his medicine, bathed, clothed and cared for him and herself with a certain detachment. None of this was really happening. It was only when she knew the end was near and entered the room that he was to die in, seeing him frail and weak-looking surrounded by sheets and cards and her silent sister, did she allow his life to affect her. And then she could not stop weeping.

Unlike her sister’s silence, Shelia’s resolute coldness was not a conscious decision but rather a symptom of her condition. Ronette, as she sat by her father’s side day and night, watching her sister move automatically in the lens afforded by the doorway and the window that overlooked the front yard, wondered to herself how and why her sister had become the woman she was. But she made no indication of her thoughts when Shelia entered the room weeping and whispering, nor when she exited, wiping her eyes and smoothing her blouse, nor when she watched her move briskly to her car parked at the curb, check the rearview mirror and drive to the hospital. Ronette asked no questions of her sister and her father, but she they brushed against her heart and as she held Oliver’s hand in his last hours, she felt that he could sense her concern.

Shelia had not been there to witness her father’s passing. At the very moment of his death she had sat in the nursery of the hospital rocking a stranger’s child to sleep. Surrounded by sleeping children, Shelia thought of nothing but the motion of her arms and the care of the child in them. She remained fearful every time she picked up a child that her arms would loose themselves from each other and fall to her sides as they had done once before. Every child she held, she envisioned falling to the ground at her feet, helpless and shrieking. The image terrified her, but her face, now as ever, revealed no indication. She had dressed her expression in passive peacefulness, to reassure the child should he glance at her as he drifted off to sleep, and beneath the peaceful expression was the same detachment. As her father and the child fell to sleep, Shelia thought of nothing but the movement of her arms and the paint on the walls around her.

73 hours before she spoke again, Ronette held her father’s hand and searched his face a final time for someone she knew. His eyes were closed, as they usually were, and the muscles in his hand were weakly constricted around hers. Ronette pursed her lips and glanced outside to see if Shelia was home yet. The sun had only begun to set and she knew that Shelia did not come home until dark. The house faced east and Ronette could see the reflection of the reddening sun in the windows of the house across the street as she searched for Shelia. She returned her attention to her father. He shifted slightly beneath the covers and Ronette shifted, too, in her chair. She leaned in close to him and listened to his breath. So faint was his breathing that to hear it she had to let her ears graze his lips. The weak gasps were thin and shallow, but he was breathing. She moved her head lower and rested it on his chest, lightly, so as not to tax the muscles that pulled in wisps of oxygen. She thought of Shelia and the many tears that were contained to this room and tried to conjure up sobs for her father. She rested on his chest as she had so many times in the past and let the fingers of her free hand stroke his face. He responded slightly to her touch and for a few precious seconds in the amber-tinted room, the daughter and the father were indivisibly connected and through this connection they spoke, they communed with one another. The daughter pled with her father for his life and he comforted her. The silent man enswathed in beige sheets, which had now taken on the orange glow of the setting sun, counseled his eldest daughter and eased her fears for her sister. He told her how things had to be, when his life escaped his grasp, and instructed her on what needed to be done. She stroked his face and told him of her love for him and as she felt his chest rise for the last time, she heard his last words burn themselves into her ears and after that her mind and heart. These were the words that would carry her everyday following and these words would dictate her every action in the hours to come. These words allowed her to understand all that she could not previously understand. Ronette lifted her head from her father’s chest, having made peace with what was to be and loosed her hand from his. She stared once more into his face and then, for the first time in a week, left the room.

When Shelia returned from work that evening she knew that her father had died when she found Ronette sitting in the living room of her father’s house burning a stack of papers in a metal wastebasket and weeping into the flames.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


[Fiction sketch]
this piece started out as a rather stupid writing exercise from John Dufresne's book, A Lie That Tells The Truth.

Sometimes crazy old black ladies just gotta bust into song. Sometimes it’s gospel, cuz that’s the way crazy old black ladies sing on the teevee. Sometimes it’s radio music and sometimes it’s just whatever old crazy old black lady song just popped into their fool head. With the ratty purple knit cap sitting proud on top of it like it’s making a point. The crazy old black lady seems like she’s a metaphor but she probably ain’t. They never are unless it’s on the teevee or unless they’re angels. But that’s another story. This is Margie and she’s not an angel. I don’t think. You’re not supposed to know, supposedly, but you would think you’d get an inkling. Plus angels don’t say M.F.-er, do they? I don’t think they do. Margie says M.F.-er like it’s her first and last name and favorite color. Which, for all I care, it is. She’s the crazy old black lady who’s either on the bench or under the tree in that sad little park next to the Dunkin Donuts. The sad kind of city park that’s sort of like, “Well, we tried, but… well, you know.” It’s all of 12 feet by 12 feet and you’ve seen 7-11s bigger and with more trees inside. Well, not the second part, but really, the point is the park is small. It’s not a park, what with one bench and a big wooden thing that probably passed for art back in the 70s when they did all this nonsense. And two trees. Under which you can most probably always find Margie. The other one belongs to Ben. He’s probably an angel. He doesn’t say M.F.-er. And he kind of looks like Morgan Freeman. But that’s another story. I go for coffee for myself and Gloria and Magda, the receptionist, Clarence, who’s a little bit slow at around 7:30 every day. By then we’ve all been there a good hour and a half (except Gloria because she’s been with Customer Service since the telephone was invented and she’s got to get her son, George, off to school and she isn’t trying to break her neck for no G.D. job and if you think she should you can stuff it up your A., M.F.-er.) I’ll have a cup of coffee at home before work, to wake up, but by 7:30, I’m usually nodding off at the computer, my little headset slipping down my head and people all, “Hello? Hello?” on the other end. So, I take a walk around the block, past the construction they’ve been doing on the far corner for what seems like 3 years, which is how long I’ve been with the company, across at the traffic light that takes forever, and past the ugly brown park. Everything about the park is brown, even in the fall, even in the winter. Even when it snows. The park is on the corner and you walk past it and make a left to get to Dunkin Donuts, which is next door to the cleaner’s and the Chinese food place where Magda calls our orders into on some days. Margie is always there in the park, like clockwork, and always awake. Which beats the H. out of me because if I was a crazy old black lady or just a general bum I sure as H. wouldn’t be getting up at no time in the morning. And at the same time (well, I guess the same time, can’t say for sure) every day. Maybe she’s got an alarm clock. That’s what Clarence said when I told him about her once. I try not to talk to Clarence cuz he’s slow and not very funny and doesn’t understand me when I talk about Day of Our Lives, which I watch when I get off of work in the afternoons, but he sits right across from me and if I move my head left or right even the littlest bit there he is looking at me like a little puppy. I said like a puppy cuz Gloria said I ought to throw Clarence a bone every once in a while and talk to him. So I do. I told him about Margie and how she was always there and awake and being all crazy-like and he said, “Well, maybe she has an alarm clock.” I just rolled my eyes and decided that I would accidentally forget the Sweet & Low for Clarence’s coffee the next day because what he said was just so G.D. stupid, pardon the expression. Clarence really has no kind of brain whatsoever. If you were a crazy old black lady, why in the H. would you set your alarm to get up? Why, you got an appointment to jump around like a monkey in front of City Hall ‘round 3 p.m. and you want to get ready? Clarence is all kinds of slow. Like yesterday he asked me if I was getting coffee and I had to simply stand up and look around like, “Say what now?” because don’t I get coffee every day at 7:30? And wasn’t it 7:10 and didn’t that mean I’d be getting coffee in 20 minutes? Lizz, with two z’s, says we ought not waste our money and just drink from the machine in the lounge. We think Lizz might be a lesbian. The coffee they have in the lounge is not as good as Dunkin Donuts. Plus, I like the walk. So, I get up to go early cuz I can’t even stand to look at Clarence no more with his slow self and the people on the phone can stuff it, I’m sorry to say. Gloria looks up all, “You’re getting coffee already?” and she’s going for her purse and I say, “Just pay me when I get back.” So, yeah, so I’m walking past the construction and waiting at the light and I see Margie, like always, and she’s leaned up against the tree and scratching the bark all absent-minded. Like she’s stroking a cat. Ben, who’s an angel, is asleep on the bench. Guess he called in sick to Crazy R Us today. Margie’s got moles all over her face. Kind of like Morgan Freeman, actually. Which makes me a little confused and wonder if maybe Margie and Ben aren’t married. But that doesn’t make much sense in any case. That stupid Clarence’s got me thinking all kinds of dumb stuff. The light turns green and I cross and Margie’s still rubbing on the tree and now I can hear she’s singing her crazy old lady song. She doesn’t sound bad but I wouldn’t be suggesting her for American Idol any time soon. For one, she’s too old. Margie’s got all these gray hairs sitting up in her matted black hair, which she wears natural. I say that like it’s a choice. Maybe it is. I guess crazy old black ladies have style choices, too. I smile a little bit as I’m getting to the other side of the street because I just imagined Joan Rivers standing next to the big wooden art thing in the park and commenting on the fashion of all the crazy people walking around. “Oh! Oh! One-legged Man, where did you ever find that mustard yellow wool coat with red stains all over the front? Off a man you shot, you say? So fascinating! Do you think you’ll win tonight?” Man, I’m funny. That Clarence has got no idea. I feel like I know the song she’s singing, but I can’t place it. That’s going to bother me for the rest of the day, I know. I stop, well, not stop, but kind of slow down to a real slow pace so I can get a better listen. One minute it sounds like “Amazing Grace” but then the next minute it sounds like “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. So I don’t have a clue. Looking at her this way, though, it’s like she’s playing a harp on the tree and I think how interesting it must be to be crazy. Maybe she really thinks she’s playing a harp. I half want to ask her. That and also what she’s singing and if it is the Rolling Stones why in the world she’s singing the Rolling Stones, though I guess that’s a matter of taste. If it’s “Amazing Grace” I’m gonna look around for the television cameras for real because I must be special guest star Neal Patrick Harris and she must be Della Reese and this must be Touched By An Angel, if you follow my meaning, cuz nobody just sings “Amazing Grace” at like 7:12 in the morning (I know going early is going to throw my whole day off) without being some sort of extra special being or having some sort of meaning behind it. Not even at sunrise service on Easter Sunday. But then my Aunt Joan who is a preacher says we’re entertaining angels unawares, which, I believe, is supposed to mean that we’re actually not supposed to know which one is an angel and which one is not. I really want to ask her if that means that angels can say M.F.-er but I never remember and plus when I see her it’s Christmas and there’s no delicate way to approach the subject. Aunt Joan says that we are to be on our best behavior, though, because angels are in our midst and one never knows. “I stand at the door and knock,” she says. Which is a quote from the Bible about letting Jesus in your heart, from my understanding. Well, I haven’t a clue what any of this has to do with Margie and the harp, but all of the sudden I decide that she might want a cup of coffee. See, I knew leaving early was going to throw my day off. I don’t know. It’s getting cold lately and she’s got a long day of acting the fool ahead of her. So, I stop full and think to myself, I hope she really is an angel cuz that would be something interesting to talk about and even Magda, who’s heard everything, will have to shut up about Belarus for one G.D. second. God, Magda, really. I open my mouth and Margie looks at me. I don’t even know how I knew her name was Margie. I think Gloria told me once. How Gloria knew is a mystery to me, but Gloria knows everything so it’s no use asking. Margie stops stroking the tree and I stare back at her. “Are you playing the harp on that there tree?” I ask. Which is not even in the least little bit what I was trying to say to her. I was trying to say, “I’m going to get you a cup of coffee, you crazy old black lady making like Mick Jagger and whatnot.” I don’t know how, but this is Clarence’s fault. Margie’s eyes get real big like and dart back and forth in her head.

“Whaddya want?” she asks. Which, I have to admit, is a very good question.

“I want to get you a cup of coffee,” I say. “From Dunkin Donuts. If that’s okay.”

Margie lets her hand loose from the tree and pokes at her hat. She looks at me and says—you won’t even—she says, “We’re entertaining angels unawares.”

Well, I just ‘bout fell over. I looked for the teevee cameras for real and wondered if maybe the ladies at the office were having a little fun. They knew, I think, that I’m a little curious about the supernatural and whatnot. I mean, really. “What are you talking about,” I say.

And then Margie does the strangest thing yet, which, believe me when I tell you, is very very hard to do. She starts to cry. Not like weeping and wailing, but she’s got tears coming down her cheek. And she looks at me and I look right back at her like, Honey if you don’t get yourself together. She opens her mouth and sort of gags and then says, “I ain’t ready for you.” And I look at her even funnier, which is probably not possible, but I do it anyway. Then she hangs her head and sort of mumbles to herself, “We’re entertaining angels unawares.” She starts to shake and says to me, “It’s time, ain’t it? You come to take me away.”

I say, “I ain’t taking you nowhere.”

And she breaks out into the biggest grin I’ve ever seen with no teeth save a couple on the bottom. “I got more time,” she says. And I think to myself, again with crazy old black ladies having schedules. Let me see she’s got Microsoft Outlook all set up on some laptop under that pile of old pizza boxes and I’ll be through for real.

I say, “You got all the time you want.”

It looks like she’s mouthing “Thank you,” but I can’t hardly hear nothing. Just air and a tear or two running down her face into her empty mouth. I start walking cuz, well honestly, she’s crazy and I realize that I don’t like that sort of thing.

She calls after me, “You’ll watch after me, though, won’t you?”

And I turn and I look at her as I walk away. She’s no angel, I think to myself, she’s just a lady who got down on her luck and ended up sharing a two-tree apartment with Morgan Freeman and likes the Rolling Stones. Or Mahalia Jackson. She’s as human as anyone. “I will,” I say. “I’ll watch over you good.”