Purple velvet

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When I start to remember my father’s attic room, I feel a tug of desire quickly followed by revulsion.  Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same coin, I’ve heard.

I am a divorced middle-aged woman with a good job as a systems analyst. I own a three-bedroom townhouse in Mississauga built in 1990, no attic, no basement, no hidden corners.  I live with my 22-year-old son who says he will move out once he finishes his computer science degree and gets a good job. No hurry, I tell him. And I mean it.  It’s just him and me here and that’s fine. He can stay as long as he likes.

I grew up in a big house in Toronto, out in the Beaches area. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, the Beaches were not yet a modish place to live. They were backwater, and our house was a bit of an eyesore. The roof had moss, and the front yard was filled with weeds. My mother had a diploma in applied arts, but she ended up freelance copy-editing because she was a natural with language. My father was an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He had gotten his MA in English in 1965 and, like so many other students, had embarked on a PhD only to abandon it after seven years. Seven years of stabbing at it, until it was finally dead. This is the fate of so many PhD students. Did you know most of those who start PhDs never complete their degrees?

Dad started teaching when I was about five years old, and from then on, that’s all I remember, that he taught composition courses with the odd literature course thrown in. Piles of exam booklets on our hall table, stacks of typed, stapled essays scarred with white-out.  His slanted handwriting in blue fountain pen along the margins of student papers. And the books. Books were everywhere in our house.

His abandoned PhD had been on attic spaces in 19th century literature.  He was prescient: Gilbert and Gubar published their feminist masterwork Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 in which they argued that the attic in women’s literature was a site of female oppression. But my father, before his time, was arguing for a more nuanced view.  Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Alcott’s Jo March, Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Lucy Snowe, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: All had attic rooms with different possibilities, sometimes empowering and other times oppressive.  Perhaps he was a proto-second-wave-feminist. If he had actually finished the dissertation, I feel certain it would have been important and published as a monograph. My father is brilliant. He would have been celebrated, gotten a tenure track job somewhere, and I would have grown up in Berkeley, or London, or Chicago.  But he never did finish, just got more and more resentful at his supervisor (it was all his fault of course), while he toiled away as an adjunct, teaching six, seven, even eight classes a year crammed with mostly ignorant undergraduates, and the odd shining star student whom he praised at the dinner table.

My father had taken over the attic room in our house as his study.  We moved into that house when I was very young, so my earliest memories are that the attic was “Dad’s study.” My sister and brother and I were a little scared of it, yet drawn to it as well.  My father had told us he needed a private space and we weren’t allowed there unless he invited us in, nor should we disturb him when he was working. The times I was invited in I can count on one hand—and I lived in that house from two until I left for university at eighteen.  At a certain age, I did start to make the occasional secret visit. And then I started to visit more frequently.

There was a door at the bottom of a set of steep steps that ascended to the room.  The walls on the staircase were covered with brown burlap that was peeling at some places, especially at the seams.  As you entered the large room with its dramatically angled ceiling, the first thing you felt was the heaviness of the stuff in the room—bookshelves of dark wood lined almost all of the walls and they were crammed with books of all sizes and shapes.  And the books weren’t lined up all nice and tidy, either: They stuck out and bristled with extruding notes and bookmarks. There was the smell of Nag Champa incense—sweet flowers, sandalwood, and charcoal.

A large purple velvet sofa was to the right as you walked into the room; the springs almost gone, the two concave cushions molded by the bottoms of hundreds of previous sitters. The nap was worn away on the two arms, and patches of shiny brown material showed underneath.

To the left as you entered was my father’s desk—really just an old door set up on concrete blocks with a wooden captain’s chair in front of it. An ancient gooseneck lamp threw light over his typewriter and disorderly sheaves of paper.  Very little light entered this refuge—just two small dormer windows whose sills were crammed with more books and pottery incense holders from Mom’s early days as an art student.  The rust Berber carpet was old and stained of course. We had no money for anything new.

The room was unremarkable, but the feelings I had about it were complex. When I was 11, my brother Carl had told me that he had snuck in once when Dad was away at a conference and had discovered that one whole upper shelf of books—out of our reach—was filled with “erotica.”

“What’s erotica?” I asked Carl.

“Books about sex or with sex scenes in them,” he explained kindly. He could have made fun of me for not knowing—even though it would be a rare 11 year old that knew that word.

“Oh. Why, do you think he likes to read that?” I ventured.

“I dunno. Because he’s tired of having sex with Mom?”

I felt sad when I heard that, but competing with the sadness was a tug of excitement. I wanted to see those books too.

After that, I started to plan and execute my own stealth visits to the study.  Dad’s current teaching schedule was always taped to the fridge so we would know his office hours and teaching times. That helped me gauge how much time I had to get in and out.  And my mother was out working too, at a new press. Sometimes she had late hours there. So I was pretty free to go explore.  One time I went in and just walked around, looking at all of the objects. I sat briefly on the purple velvet couch, sinking into the soft crater and feeling the creak of the springs beneath me.  I touched the blue incense box, with the long wooden sticks protruding from the crinkly paper. I picked it up and smelled the heady, fruity odour that would stay on my hands all day. I ran my hand over the book titles, sometimes taking a book out to look at it, careful to return it to its place just so. I stood in the middle of the room, the rough rug under my bare toes, and listened to the dull thunder of traffic on Lakeshore Blvd.

Another time, I brought the small kitchen stool with me so I could get to the “erotica,” as Carl called it.  I positioned the stool right under the shelf and reached. I was just able to touch the spine of Fanny Hill, between Tropic of Cancer and Story of the Eye, but couldn’t get my fingers around it. The books on this shelf were packed in tight.   A larger book stuck out from the shelf, making it more accessible, so I pulled out The Joy of Sex. The book looked brand new, and I wondered if Dad had bought it recently.  I sat on the couch and had a good look at the cover, a bearded, long-haired man kissing a woman. They were naked except she seemed to be wearing his unbuttoned shirt.  I flipped through some of the pages, and the book opened to an illustration of a man’s face in a woman’s private parts. All you could see was the back of his long curly hair and his broad back and her face with eyes closed and beatific smile. As I examined the picture, I started to feel warm and tingly down there.

I thought I heard the front door opening and closing, so I quickly shut the book and tried to return it to its place, but it was hard because the other books around it had sort of collapsed into the void. I had to pull my Dad’s captain’s chair over to the bookshelf so I could gain some purchase on the shelf with my hands and clear a space to ease the book back in.  Wow, that was close, I said to myself once I put the captain’s chair back, grabbed the stool, and got safely down to my room.

After that, my confidence grew, and I started to borrow the odd book from his shelves—novels or books of poems that looked interesting. I knew, of course, he’d be furious if he knew I had been in there, so I was extremely careful to leave everything as I found it and to return the books promptly. I was a fast reader.  I borrowed from Dad’s secret library for several years without a mishap. I had decided to leave the shelf of erotica alone, however. I felt a little scared about what I didn’t know. I wanted to not know.

Then I turned sixteen, a tough year for me.  I mean, I was smart and good in school, but not athletic or particularly pretty.  God this sounds so cliché! And another cliché, we were reading A Catcher in the Rye in English 11! I suppose I identified with the alienated teen, Holden Caulfield. I loved the book. I even started using “crumbum” to mean something shitty.

In April of that year, it was still snowing, wet snow on and off most days. But there was also spring in the air, so a combination of spring snow and the smell of the earth. I remember the snow because when Dad’s student Denise arrived at the front door, she was wearing big black snow boots and an off-white parka. She stamped hard on the porch before she entered, and when she came into the foyer and threw back the parka hood, trimmed with fake fur, a few chunks of wet snow slid onto the floor.  Her cheeks were moist and red and her eyelashes had water droplets in them.

“Hi, I’m Denise Rothgar. I don’t know if your father said, but I’m here to see him about a paper I’m writing for his class.”

She had black hair in a short feathery cut, and she wore big peacock feather earrings that mixed in with her hair, making it look like she had big green-gold eyes framing her face.  She had a book bag in one hand and her purse in the other. I was a bit mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked like a Cherokee princess (whatever that was). That is the thought that arose, though—Cherokee princess.  Along with Salinger’s novel, I had been reading a history book about the Trail of Tears, so I had Cherokees on the brain.

“No, Dad didn’t say. Here, let me take your coat—you can put your boots on the tray.”  I hung up the parka in our hall closet and it immediately fell off the flimsy wire hanger, which flustered me. Why is this girl here? Dad never had students to the house. This was a first.

I heard Dad coming down the steps from his study and then down the next flight of steps to the first floor of the house. He came up behind me and in his deep casual voice greeted his student as if I weren’t there.

“Denise, how are you? Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, Professor Blummer.”

“Come on up to my study.”

Then, as an afterthought, he looked over at me while I struggled to get the parka onto another hanger, a wooden one this time, “Cynthia, I’ll be at least an hour. Let your Mother know not to disturb me.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I got so entranced in the book that I forgot to say anything to Mom. I was reading in the living room, just off of the front hall, when Denise came softly padding down the stairs about an hour and fifteen minutes later.  I looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you loving Salinger?” she asked, beaming a big smile back at me. She had caught the title on the spine of the book.

“Oh, I adore this novel!” I cried, leaping to my feet in enthusiasm and to get Denise’s coat.

“What high school?”

I opened the hall closet.  “Malvern.”

“Teacher?”

“Mr. O’Neill.” I took her damp coat off the hanger and stood there watching her sit on the hall stool to pull on her boots.

“Oh my goodness, I had him too!” she laughed.  “You know, you’ll really impress him if you also read The Great Gatsby, and start talking about this other unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway.  I mean O’Neill is all about Holden Caulfield as unreliable narrator. And I know you’re going to love Fitzgerald.”

She stood up and I held her coat up as she slid her arms through the holes. That’s something I had seen men do for women, but I had never done it before. It made me feel grown up and gracious.

“That’s a neat idea,” I offered. “I know my Dad’s told me about Fitzgerald. He even lent me Tender is the Night last year. He said it was one of the greatest American novels ever written. But I haven’t read it yet.”

“Oh, start with Gatsby. You’re going to be so far ahead by the time you start University. Cynthia. It’s Cynthia, right?”

“Yeah, Cynthia.”

She zipped up the parka and started to sling her purse and book bag over her shoulder. I wanted to detain her a bit longer. I liked talking to her about books, about O’Neill.

“What did you think of Mr. O’Neill’s impersonations of actors? He’s funny, isn’t he? He does that hilarious Dick Van Dyke, falling all over himself.”

“He’s a scream.  I can’t believe you’re at Malvern.”

“When did you grad?”

“Four years ago. Now I’m in third year at U of T.” There was a lull in the conversation.  “Well, nice meeting you Cynthia. Don’t forget – Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway the unreliable narrator. You’re going to ace his class.”

We had dinner about an hour after Denise left, and I didn’t mention her nor did Dad.  I don’t think Carl or Barbara, my brother and sister, even knew she had come. They’d been out all afternoon. And my mother had been sewing in a back room of the house. She hadn’t heard the doorbell or Denise leaving.

The next day was Sunday, and I finished Catcher while lying in bed curled up toward the big window next to my bed. A very weak sun was breaking through the cloud cover and there was the drip drip drip of thaw season.  God, what a fantastic book, I thought. I have to get Gatsby and start reading it. If I have a bunch read by tomorrow, I can mention it during English period.

I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, looking for Dad. I am pretty sure I had seen Gatsby on his shelves during one of my secret visits, and I knew he’d be happy to lend a copy “for my edification.”  The exceptions were his rare books and first editions, and he had a few.  If he were at home, I would ask him innocently if he had a copy I could borrow.

My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, editing a manuscript. She always worked with an ashtray at her elbow, and a row of different pencils and pens in a wooden tray at the other elbow.  She looked up when I came in, her face wreathed in smoke.

“Good sleep?”

“Yes, but I’ve been awake for ages, reading. Is Dad around?”

“No, he’s gone to play tennis with Hank, Riva, and Daniel.” My mother wasn’t sporty, but my Dad loved tennis and had several friends from grad school who liked to play, sometimes doubles.  I always cringed a little when he came back from a game still wearing his tennis clothes because seeing his thin shanks and the sweaty terry cloth headband embarrassed me.

“When will he be home?”

“Oh probably not for hours.”

My Mom didn’t ask why I wanted to know. My sense was that she was essentially uninterested in me. Sure, she loved me, but she was usually preoccupied with one thing or another, so she didn’t ask questions about what I was thinking or doing.  For example, she might have looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want your Dad? Is there something I can do?”  But so it goes. You can’t choose your parents.

I wandered out of the kitchen. I had gotten into my head that I must have The Great Gatsby NOW.  Usually I executed my visits to Dad’s study when there was nobody home but me. Today, I would have to venture it with Mom in the house. As long as I walked softly so she didn’t hear steps above, I should be okay.  After all, she was in the kitchen on the main floor immersed in editing, so it was highly unlikely.

I climbed the stairs stealthily and made a beeline over to the bookshelves, immediately spotting the Fitzgerald book I was after. After I picked it carefully off the shelf, and started to walk back to the stairs, a white object lying on the arm of the couch caught my eye.  I bent over to look at it more closely.  It was a plastic or rubber whitish-yellowish tube, but to call it a tube was wrong because it wasn’t stiff like a tube of toothpaste, but more like balloon material or sausage casing. It was transparent, made of super thin, almost transparent material, with a thicker rim at the opening that reminded me of the blow-end of a balloon. The rim was more yellow than white, whereas the bottom of the tube was more white than yellow.  This thing lay sort of collapsed on the purple velvet, twisted up, and there was some whitish liquid or cream contained mostly at the end of the tube, but some smeared inside the rest of it.  The tube was around six inches long, with a knot about one third of the way down, as if to seal the glue or viscous stuff down at one end.

What could this thing be? At first I wondered if it was a variety of book glue that perhaps came packaged in plastic tubes. Maybe my father had been repairing books. I know that he had done this at one time. It had been a hobby of his to repair old books, sometimes gluing bindings back on. He used to do this on Sunday mornings before he got so busy with teaching.  When the mind has nothing to go on, no previous experience with a new object, it tries to slot the new item into the inventory of what it already knows. With that item slotted, I forgot all about it and went back to my bed to immerse myself in the world of the Buchanans.

I was a great hit with Mr. O’Neill because I was able to discuss Nick Carraway with him. And I got an A plus in that class.

The following year in Grade 12 I had sex for the first time.  It wasn’t that spectacular, to be honest. I felt okay about the guy, Martin.  We were really just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. And we both sort of wanted to get it over with. He was nice and gentle, but it was definitely anti-climactic.  We did it in his parent’s basement rec room while they were out at a party.  Martin, after lying on top of me for a while, leaned over and whispered into my ear.

“I’m going to pull out now, okay?”

“Sure, I guess so.” I’m not sure why he told me that, but I guess he just didn’t want to make any sudden moves. We were both scared as two jack rabbits. In retrospect, I am surprised he was able to ejaculate.  In the half-light of the rec room, I watched him roll the condom off of his smallish, semi-erect penis. It looked so pink and babyish and vulnerable, lying against his white thigh.  He rolled the condom down his penis so carefully, so methodically, like ladies rolled their nylons off their legs in the old black and white movies.  Then he took the condom with some white stuff caught at one end, and tied a knot near the top.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pulling the fake fur blanket up over my breasts, shyly.

Martin looked embarrassed. “Well, I heard that you’re supposed to so that so the jism doesn’t spill out and make a mess.”

“Jism?” I laughed. Martin looked at me and smiled. He put the used condom on the arm of the hide-a-bed that we were lying on. I looked over at it lying there, and then I realized. Oh! So that’s what it was, in Dad’s study. That’s it.

I felt a bit sick then, and wanted to leave Martin’s place quickly. I dressed and insisted on walking home alone. “Cynthia, what did I do to upset you? Please tell me!” He pleaded with me.

“Really truly, it’s not you, Martin. It’s just something else and I’d tell you except it’s private.”

I’d like to say that something happened after that, but it didn’t. The next year, I graduated and soon after that I got a place at Queen’s in Kingston, where I started in English but switched pretty quickly to some business courses and then went straight through to get an MBA.  My Dad and Mum split up a year after I left home and sold the house.

I haven’t seen my Dad much since I moved out so many years ago. I see Mum regularly; she’s very close to my son. But it seems that when my Dad and I get together, I start remembering that thing and the events surrounding it, even though I am 55 now and it’s almost 40 years since the “whitish object” on the arm of the  couch caught my eye.  The remembering fills me with both revulsion and yearning. When I am with him, I am always on the verge of saying, no of screaming, “How could you? Why didn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you have organized your love properly? Pay attention to me, not your students! Make love to your wife, not Denise! She was only four years older than I was—how could you?”

Now that I haven’t said anything for this long, it’s pretty much impossible to introduce it into the conversation normally. “Oh by the way, Dad, why was there a used condom on the purple velvet couch in April of 1974?”  I wasn’t supposed to be in his study in the first place. How would I explain it? And part of me hopes there really could be tubes of glue that look like used condoms.

The whole thing is just so unsettling I tend to put it out of my mind, and then before you know it, another year has gone by.

 

 

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Four things

 

“I think your financial guy is the same financial guy as my financial guy.”

Oh my god, thought Shig, did I really just hear that sentence? She took another twenty from another customer for a double Americano, and—making change—placed the plastic purple and blue bills in an outstretched hand. Her septum ached from the new piercing. Was it getting infected? She kept touching it throughout the morning, moving the ball closure ring back and forth through the tender hole. It was akin to the tongue going to the sore tooth. Is it all right? Am I leaking snot?

Shig, tall and willowy with short-cropped dark hair, drove her life in lists of four. Her manner since childhood had been to hold back and plan her movements, which imbued her with a tentative grace. She approached people with a protean, mobile face—she was ready to smile if you smiled, ready to turn away if you ignored her. There was a guarded, wait-and-see look in her brown hooded eyes.  She often took her cues from others in the life outside her skin, yet her interior life felt mostly like a cathedral, orderly and spacious, filled with light, demarcated by quartets of pews.

The cathedral image had formed when she was fifteen and they had read Raymond Carver’s story in English 10.  Two pictures stayed with her: One, of the full-bearded blind man enclosing the narrator’s hand in his own as together they drew a cathedral.  A cathedral is a place built, the narrator said, because men want to be closer to God. And the other picture was what she imagined the interior of the cathedral was like—her interior, really. Instead of blood and bones, a heart, a liver, a pancreas, she had ribs of stone, an airy dome, stained glass windows, warm coloured light, cherry wood pews with velvet cushions.

Right now everybody wanted Americanos. The head barista Blondie is working quickly, expertly tamping down coffee into three brew baskets, plugging portafilters snugly into La Marzocco (they called the big espresso machine Zocco for short).  When Blondie interviewed her for the job on Skype, Shig wanted to ask were you named for Blondie in the comic? Or were you named for the other Blondie, the  singer?  Shig’s mom had an old Parallel Lines L.P. in a milk crate in the basement, and she liked to look at it sometimes. She liked it that Blondie didn’t feel the need to smile in that photo whereas most of the goofy looking men surrounding her had grins on.  Or maybe Blondie was called Blondie simply because she was blonde, dyed blonde. Blondie did look a little like the fifties comic with her glossy wheat-coloured wave curving over her brow and her shapely figure and tight clothes. But comic Blondie didn’t have tattoos, thought Shig.  Or at least visible ones.

As she took orders and made change, Shig started thinking about her own name. It started when she was four and had hair long enough to put up. She was mesmerized by the women with chignons that she saw in magazines and on billboards. “I want one!” she told her mother, and from then on, for perhaps two years, Chelsea would ask for a chignon every day, and her mother complied. The only girl in kindergarten with her hair up in a fashionable do.  Her brother, two years older, insisted on calling her Shig, short for chignon (yes, the g is silent, but he was six at the time and just starting to read). The name stuck.  And now Chelsea was a thing of history, and Shig was her identity, even though her hair was super short now, and she hadn’t worn a chignon since high school.  Sometimes she was even Shiggy when a friend was being affectionate.  Back on task, Shig, she told herself. Change, cups, two Americanos, one machiatto with legs.

Shig rhymes with dig, and her first boyfriend, Aaron, had written a ditty for her on the back of a McDonald’s napkin: My sweet Shig, You I dig.  But Shig also rhymed with prig.  Aaron had called her that when she didn’t want to remove her clothes in public. A group of her friends took Ecstasy after graduation and had ended up dancing around a bonfire in the woods, semi-nude.  Sure enough, she had taken the Ecstasy, greedy for the experience, but then she was the only one who refused to take her shirt off.  Oh Shig, You’re such a prig. The boys and the other girls tore off their tops and flung them into the bushes, laughing.  She remembered the blur of coloured bras in the firelight.  And the boys’ chests, bronzed and luminous.

Still, there were times when the cathedral flung open its doors to outer life, and she let that interior glow guide her.  That was happening more often.

Just after her nineteenth birthday, Shig started to think about leaving her hometown of Kamloops. She and Aaron had broken up, and she had no interest in going to Thompson Rivers University like her brother.  She was ready for a change from the job at Starbucks and the home routines that had played out since childhood.

Shig imagined how it might go if she announced her intention. There would be an argument about why she should stay, followed by grudging acceptance, the U-Haul rental, arranged by her Dad, the choosing and packing items, supervised by her mother, and maybe a family party to say good-bye, to which her friends would be invited via her mother’s Facebook page. To Shig’s dismay, all of her friends were Facebook friends with her mother.   Basically her parents would take over.

She wanted to do it alone, to start over, to strike out. Her parents’ love felt like a hoodie that was warm and protective, but starting to feel too warm.  The hood blinded her from seeing peripherally, and she was aching to throw it off.  Shig started by searching Victoria Craigslist every morning before work. That way, she thought, I will catch the right job and nab the room in the best shared house before someone else does. Around that time, Shig’s cathedral started to bloom with light.

Always disciplined and methodical, at age six Shig had lined up her beanie babies in categories (cats, dogs, reptiles) at nine, kept her pencils and felties organized by colour in Bonne Maman jam jars on her bookshelf.  She had decided at age eight to get better at gymnastics and forced herself to practice every day for 30 minutes. Soon she was winning medals.

Now she applied the discipline to a secret plan—to find a home and a job in Victoria without assistance, and to make it all happen with minimal parental involvement.  Loco parentis, she thought. In the place of my parents: me. I can be responsible for me.  And I can do it all in lists of four.

She had made it happen—saved her money, found a place to rent in a shared house—all arranged without her parents’ knowledge. Nailed a job online after a Skype interview (she had Starbucks experience and that counted for a lot).  Decided not to bring anything but herself and a few books and clothes, thus no need for a U-Haul and her father’s interference.  She took the train two months ago and here she is.

Shig makes lists in her mind, four things at a time as she moves throughout her day. It might be, for example, teeth, boots, cat, earrings. That meant first she would clean her teeth, then put on her boots, then feed the cat, then choose earrings.  (She missed the family cat Ollie the most, followed by her brother, then parents.) This listing kept her focused on the tasks at hand. One of her father’s favourite sayings was “be where your hands are.” That was good. She couldn’t get too far ahead of herself. It kept her on task and in the cathedral when she needed to be.

Sometimes she wrote down her lists of four. She had her little coiled notebook, but when it wasn’t near, she used scraps of paper. Listing was private. Once her brother found a list of four on the floor in the dining room—it must have fallen out of her pocket. “What’s this?  Dishwasher, library books, toast, make-up. Shig, this is your writing. What’s it about?”  She was embarrassed. “Just a list of things to do.” “What? You need to make a list to remind you to eat toast? To put on your make-up?” He laughed and put the list in her palm.  “You’re a sweet strange one Shig.”

Another thing Shig does is wonder about sayings—where did they come from? What’s the meaning? Her grandmother had given her a book for her seventh birthday: Mad as a Wet Hen and other funny idioms.  She loved that book. She still had it—stained and dog-eared, it was one of the few books she had brought with her on the train. And since then Shig had kept a running list of idioms and their meanings. First in notebooks in her neat cursive, then transferred into a Word file when she got a laptop.

And so here she is at Caffe Fantastico, taking orders.  She used lists, determination, the cathedral, her borderline OCD-ness to get here, get this job, get that room, save enough for the septum piercing for her twentieth birthday last week (a gift to myself, she thought). On task: order doppio, take money, make change, clean cups up on Zocco.

The latest idiom on the list troubled her. After she got her nose pierced, she posted a picture on her Facebook page.  Her mother commented, “You look like a bull, Shig. Watch you don’t get led by the nose.” Whoa! She wasn’t prepared for that. Yes, she knew that her mother, though appearing supportive, loving and cool to all of Shig’s friends, could also be sharp and mean in private. But this was public—right on her timeline.  Was this to get back at Shig for taking responsibility for her own move to Victoria? Was this a subtle revenge tactic?

Her parents had been shocked when at dinner one night she made the fait accompli announcement she was leaving. It was as if she had betrayed them. All she was doing was what they had told her to do all of her life. Be responsible for yourself. They were surprised because they were used to her taking her cue from them. Both parents had been hinting about TRU—what would you like to take? Why don’t you do a “fun” year taking classes you are interested in, a try-it-on year?  That’s what we both did, then we found our majors.  We’ll pay for it, honey.  Just figure out what you want to study. But what if she didn’t want to go to University at all? What then? Would the world end?

Domestic cattle, usually bulls, often had their septums pierced and rings inserted, the easier to lead them and control them. To be led by the nose meant to be easily controlled by others.  So was her mother, then, suggesting she was weak, gullible, liable to be controlled? Why the fuck did Shig care so much? The irony, she thought, was that yes—she had been controlled by others, and those others were her parents. She had taken their cues all of her childhood and teenage years. She had been led by the nose. And she had taken steps to change that by executing her plan to move away. And now here she was.

Why did she even friend her mom on Facebook? Because it seemed unkind to ignore the friend request, and she was a kind person, she reminded herself.  She touched the nose ring yet again and noticed the next customer in line looking at her with—what was that—disgust? It looks unsanitary, me touching my nose all day, Shig thought. She asked Rose to take over the cash. “I just need five minutes,” she said, taking off her apron and shimmying around the back of the horseshoe shaped counter. She went out into the bright light of day.  People were scattered over the patio, sitting at the spindly tables, sipping coffee, talking and laughing, some jiggling babies on their knees.

Okay, I need to list, thought Shig walking purposefully down the road away from the cafe. I have five minutes. This is the Shig way—listing makes things better. There is no try, said Yoda, only do. Her father had a t-shirt with some Yoda saying that had shaped her childhood. Don’t try, just do. Just do it. No, that was Nike, not Yoda, but both ideas prevailed in her house.  And now she had to undo this discomfort, this feeling she had somehow capitulated to the “system” by getting a nose ring. She was pissed off at her mother, she was embarrassed, and she was resentful.  Tell Siri set alarm, five minutes, then breathe, then stride, four: turn back at the corner. Shit shit shit shit, it’s time to go back in. She slipped behind the counter, pulled the apron back on, tied it absentmindedly, and started in again at the cash. I don’t need a list of four things to do. I need to just tell my mother to fuck off.  Take the bill, make change, clean cups, put the order slip on Zocco.  One, two, three, four.

“You alright?” asked Blondie, nudging closer to her. “You look upset.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s a stupid thing. Just mad at my mother.”   Then a funny thing popped into her mind. “Gird your loins,” her father used to say, jokingly, as he drove their Jetta around town dropping them off at school or gymnastics. She even remembered him saying it to her as he escorted her into preschool when she was three and still in diapers some of the time. “Gird your diapered loins, Chels.”  My father is so weird, Shig mused with a smile.

That saying, that particular idiom, popped into my head right now because it’s a sign, she thought. I need to gird my loins, I need to protect myself from my mom. She can be mean, and now I need to protect myself. Maybe not my loins, exactly, but she does get me where I am most vulnerable, my sense of autonomy.

During her lunch break, Shig got her iPhone and looked up “gird your loins” in her running list (alphabetical).  She had been thinking it meant to protect oneself as one went into battle. Well not exactly. It means to prepare yourself mentally to do something difficult, and it came from the Bible, where girding up your loins meant to tie up long loose clothes to get them out of the way when you were working or going to war.  In effect, you made a kind of diaper out of those robes men used to wear. So it was still relevant to her situation, she thought. Yes, that’s it. I need to mentally prepare myself to confront my mother and tell her something. . . .  But I’m not sure what yet. But yes. Gird my loins.  Tie up my loose apron and focus.  Except the idea of the diaper kept interfering with her image of being fierce.

At 3:30 p.m. Shig was standing on her front porch, digging around in her deep leather purse for the keys to the house she shared with three others. After letting herself in, she took off her helmet, dropped her stuff and sat on a stool at the kitchen island with her notebook. Lists had been formulating all the way home. When she got anxious, as she was now, the lists got granular.  When she really needed to calm down she would lay out the four things to do on the cathedral pews, like they were little bits of paper, one on each pew. So, one on the first pew, get laptop from room. Two on the second pew, go to Facebook and sign in. Three, on the third pew, take three deep breaths (a way to gird my loins). Four, on the fourth pew, re-read the post. Then I’ll need another list to figure out what to do next. But that’s okay. One thing at a time. Be where your hands are. Cathedral.

Wait, I didn’t eat at lunch. New list. One, bread out of fridge, two, two slices into the toaster, three, cut cheese, four, mayonnaise.   As she sat at the stool chewing her sandwich and swallowing, she started wondering about Raymond Carver and what he had meant.  She had loved the story, but a tug in her solar plexus told her she was missing something important. She wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Mrs. Romney had given, that the narrator had finally realized true sight at the end, a kind of spiritual vision that the blind man already had.  Somehow there was more to it than that.  She liked to think about the blind man’s big paw wrapped around the smaller hand of the narrator, the two of them sitting close together on the couch with Robert’s full beard grazing the narrator’s neck. They had just smoked a big joint. And the wife in the doorway yammering, “what’s happening? What’s going on?” Shig chuckled aloud just thinking about it.

She started working through the list she had made prior to the sandwich, running up to her room, grabbing her laptop, and bringing it back to the kitchen island. She liked sitting here in the afternoon because the sun splashed into the room like a big stream of honeywater.  She logged into Facebook and paused, taking her three deep breaths. As she completed each of her numbered tasks, she picked up the paper from the pew and crumpled it, putting it into her pocket. Not really, of course.  There was no actual paper, no cathedral, but she went through the actions in her recessed interior, where light played over the mosaic floor, the rood cross.

Okay, my loins are girded. She went back to the post she had made to accompany the photo.  Lulu, the woman who had done the piercing, had offered to take a picture of her. Though her nose hurt like hell, Shig was radiant in the photo, proudly showing off her jewelry, eyes sparkling, huge grin, her gamin hair pushed back on her sweaty brow.  She checked the comments underneath and breathing slowly, read through them all to find her mother’s.  “Shig – way to go you wild woman!” “Shiggy you are so brave.”  “You look wonderful” “Shig come home we miss you!” “You look hot” “Hey I want one of those” “Can I come visit, Shig?” all peppered with brightly coloured emojis.  She exhaled, smiling. Her friends were so lovely.

But where was her mother’s post about being led by the nose?  Nowhere to be seen.  She read through the comments again, more slowly. Not there! She closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the sunbath. My cathedral, Shig thought.  She opened her eyes, closed her laptop, and started a list of four.  Laundry, pee, shopping list, email.  No, that should be pee, laundry, email, shopping list.  She felt so good, so satisfied, so content, that she risked a second list of four before she went up to the bathroom. Part one of the shopping list: eggs, almond milk, avocado, kale.

Story and photo by Madeline Walkerimg_0776

 

 

 

Inter-Art: Highbrow/ lowbrow reading

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I remember taking a required class on bibliography in grad school. That was fifteen years ago. Our prof, young and bold, had us dissect a book right down to its spine. That exercise felt sacrilegious—deface a book?

Another activity was to list all the books and other material we’d recently read that we didn’t mind people knowing about in one column, then write that other list—the texts we felt squirmy or embarrassed about—in a second column. I listed in column one all of the classics or books considered “literature” I had recently finished. And in column two: Maeve Binchy’s novels. I felt uncomfortable admitting that I loved curling up with her squishy sentimental fictions and a box of Kleenex. That was like admitting I enjoyed O Henry bars (Binchy) more than Green & Black’s organic dark chocolate (James Joyce). When I met my husband he was apologetic about listening to John Grisham audiobooks. My mother’s love for Rex Stout is something she hides in the basement while all of the history and art history books have pride of place in the living room. These prejudices are deep-seated: Are we worried about appearing dumb? Undiscerning?

Book snobbery is captured at a gut level in my favourite Margaret Drabble short story, “The Merry Widow.”

In tight third person, Drabble writes about her “merry widow” Elsa. Elsa’s husband Philip has recently died, and she feels liberated. She is looking forward to a holiday in Dorset at a cottage alone. The holiday was planned when Philip was still alive. She would have suffered through it, under his critical eye, but now the getaway has an enchanting aspect to it. It will be her first vacation without him after decades of unhappy marriage:

“She had been absolutely fed up to the back teeth with Philip, she said to herself, gritting those teeth tightly as she wrote to increase the standing order for oil delivery, as she rang the plumber to arrange to have a shower attachment fitted to the bathroom tap. Why on earth shouldn’t she have a shower attachment, at her age, with her pension and savings? Her jaw ached with retrospective anger. How mean he had become, how querulous, how determined to thwart every pleasure, to interfere with every friendship.” (p. 152)

For her trip, Elsa packs her bird book, her butterfly book, her flower book, her Pevsner, and her Margery Allingham omnibus. One of her greatest pleasures is to identify birds, butterflies, and flowers, a hobby that had irritated Philip no end. “It had seemed a harmless pleasure, until Philip attacked it. Harmless, innocent, and proper for the wife of a university lecturer. An interest in flowers and butterflies. What could be wrong with that? By some sleight of reasoning he had made it seem sinister, joyless, life-denying.” (p. 155). Drabble is so good at showing how a critical partner can grind his spouse down to a stub through continual undermining, sarcasm, and mockery. The belittled spouse loses all confidence and, ultimately, loses delight in life.

But back to my topic: categorizing some texts as “lowbrow.” Elsa loves the little Dorset holiday cottage and the “modest wilderness” around her. She enjoys her solitude, her wanderings and walks, a gin and tonic in the evenings. She reads and watches the long-tailed finches, relishing the luxury of answering to nobody, of doing exactly what she wants. She revels in her own company, realizing she had been crushed under Philip for a very long time.

“Philip, she reflected…would not have approved her choice of novel. She was reading a Margery Allingham omnibus, nostalgically, pointlessly. Philip had despised detective stories. He had mocked her pleasure in them. And indeed they were a bit silly, but that was the point of them. Yes, that was the point. After lunch, she took Margery Allingham into the paddock, with a rug and her sunhat, and lay under an apple tree.” (p. 161)

Throughout the story, Elsa reflects on how Philip would have judged her choices, and the reflection makes her relieved and happy that she is no longer under his surveillance. She doesn’t have to defend her reading preferences any longer—for example, “pointless” and pleasurable detective stories.

After Philip’s death, she cancelled his subscriptions to scholarly periodicals, which comprised his reading matter.

Now she could relax: eat what she wanted, take long hot showers, watch what she liked on TV, listen to Radio 2, identify flowers and birds, look at the local architecture, indulge in Margery Allingham’s entertaining stories. Philip’s snobbery and psychological abuse died along with him, and she feels suddenly extricated from under the shadow that greyed out her life. (Another shadow emerges in the story, but I won’t spoil it for you.)

That two-column exercise doesn’t work for me today: I can write only one eclectic list—the books I am reading. I don’t need to hide anything; I don’t need anybody’s approval. I hope the same goes for you.

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Drabble, M. (2012). The merry widow. In A day in the life of a smiling woman: Complete short stories (pp. 151-168). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.

Inter Art: Scarcity and Abundance

I recently re-read Alice Munro’s story “Friend of My Youth,” about the sisters Flora and Ellie who are Cameronians, a “freak religion from Scotland” (p. 152). When Ellie is confined to her sick bed, Flora puts her sister to sleep by reading to her from old books of their faith, “all the stuff that was in their monstrous old religion” (p. 157). Sometimes those readings were leavened by stories about Scotland, about “urchins and comic grandmothers” (p. 157). The only title mentioned is Wee Macgregor, about a Glaswegian lad and his family narrated in Scots dialect by J.J. Ball. These mawkish tales were first published in the Glasgow Evening Times around the turn of the century then gathered in a small book. As I read about the few books Flora had on hand, I thought of my mother’s house and how an early impoverishment of books shapes minds and lives.

Then I turned to Richard Wright, an important twentieth-century African American writer, whose 1961 short story “The Man who was Almost a Man” contains another kind of paucity. The only intertext in this story is the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Dave doesn’t have his own copy—he has to go to the local store and borrow the catalogue so he can pore over the pictures. It’s doubtful he can read. Getting a gun from the catalogue, thinks Dave, will make him a man. A persistent theme in Wright’s work is the black man’s struggle to be seen as fully human.

“Howdy, Dave! Whutcha want?”

“How yuh, Mistah Joe? Aw, Ah don wanna buy nothing. Ah jus wanted t see ef yuhd lemme look at tha catlog erwhile.”

“Sure! You wanna see it here?”

“Nawsuh. Ah wans t take it home wid me. Ah’ll bring it back termorrow when Ah come in from the fiels. ”

“You plannin on buying something?”

“Yessuh.”

“Your ma lettin you have your own money now?”

“Shucks. Mistah Joe, Ahm gittin t be a man like anybody else!”

Joe laughed and wiped his greasy white face with a red bandanna.

“Whut you plannin on buyin?”

Dave looked at the floor, scratched his head, scratched his thigh, and smiled. Then he looked up shyly.

“Ah’ll tell yuh, Mistah Joe, ef yuh promise yuh won’t tell.”

“I promise.”

“Waal, Ahma buy a gun.”

“A gun? Whut you want with a gun?”

“Ah wanna keep it.”

“You ain’t nothing but a boy. You don’t need a gun.”

“Aw, lemme have the catlog, Mistah Joe. Ah’Il bring it back.”

When Dave takes the catalogue home, his mother thinks it will provide toilet paper in the outhouse, but is quickly disabused of this notion. Dave pores over the pictures during dinner and is told to put the catalogue away. In John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath farm labourers are suspicious of the written word because it may be used to manipulate and deceive. And here, similarly, Dave’s parents see the catalogue as dangerous—putting ideas into their son’s head. All those glittery objects they cannot afford.

Dave gets his gun and of course the results are catastrophic.

What is it like to grow up where there are no books in the house? Where you have to borrow a catalogue from the corner store? Or perhaps there is only one book: the Bible. This poverty is hard for me to imagine. I grew up surrounded by books and received books for every birthday and Christmas as I was growing up.

However, my mother grew up in a strict German Lutheran home with seven siblings and no books save the Bible. Born in North Dakota in 1929, my mother Virginia was so grateful when one of her much older sisters—my Auntie Fran—gave her the gift of her first book when she was 7 or 8, Shaun O’Day of Ireland (1929). She remembers this gift fondly because it unlocked the door to literacy and a lifelong hunger for books and reading. She mentioned the book to me again when I visited her last Easter, and she is 87—so this is an indelible memory. Curiously, the author of Shaun O’Day is Madeline Brandeis, with the same spelling of Madeline that I use. Although my mother says she named me Madeline because she “liked the name,” I wonder if it was this author’s name—author of a treasured book—that partially inspired the choice?

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The words and pictures in books might give people ideas about having a better life. My mother started reading about Shaun, imagined how life was in Ireland, and soon she had her eye on a different life. She left her parents’ farm in Lodi, California to move to LA and then to Berkeley. She met my dad on the Berkeley campus where she studied Art History and he studied Sociology. Both of them surrounded themselves with books, just as my sisters and I do. From scarcity to abundance.

If you have any ideas for future blogs on inter art/ intertext please use the comment section or email me at maddyruthwalker@gmail.com Thank you for reading.

Work cited

Munro, A. (1990). A friend of my youth. In L. Chalykoff, N. Gordon, & P. Lumsden (Eds), The Broadview introduction to literature: Short fiction (pp. 150-167). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Note: I use APA here even though MLA is expected. I have used and taught APA for the last while (working in a School of Nursing), so I need to re-learn MLA now.

Inter-art and music

Today I am writing about Charles Baxter’s short story, “Gershwin’s Second Prelude,” a beautiful example of inter-art in the form of a short story wrapped around a piece of music. Baxter, like Ann Beattie from the last post, is an American writer born in 1947.

In this story, Kate, the protagonist, is in a tenuous relationship with Wiley. Wiley borrows money from Kate and can’t keep a job. He’s unpredictable and irritating. But he’s also a brilliant, charismatic guy—a great lover and a very funny man who keeps Kate amused with his clown antics. Kate is taking piano lessons from Mme. Gutowski, an ancient Polish pianist who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and knew Ravel, Bartók, and Cocteau. The story runs like two trains on parallel tracks. We switch from Kate and Wiley to Kate and Mme. and then back to Wiley again. When Kate finds a needle in the bathroom cabinet, Wiley admits he likes doing heroin. Kate asks why he does it. “I like to feel like God,” Wiley said. “I like to have the sun explode and then spray over my face” (p. 9).

Meanwhile over on the piano train, Kate is failing miserably at Shubert and Mme. instructs her to cease: “’No more Schubert,’ she repeated irritably. ‘You play like an American. You speed up the tempo to make a climax. This is Schubert, not Las Vegas’” (p. 2). She orders her pupil to play Gershwin’s Second Prelude instead. “’Gershwin?’ Kate frowned. ‘That’s trash’” (p. 3). But Mme. disagrees. Gershwin, she argues “’requires wizard, but teaches tenderness from first bar to end. You Americans have such trouble learning tenderness, I don’t understand. Learn to relax into calm’” (p. 3). Mme. talks about dead musicians as if they were alive and accessible. She encourages Kate to get to know Gershwin, “a nice boy. You two will adore each other” (p. 3).

Here’s where you stop to listen to Gershwin’s second prelude. This is Michel Legrande’s 1994 recording of all three preludes; you can skip to number two from 1:25-3:56. 

After Wiley leaves her, Kate shows up to her piano lesson drunk, and Mme. tells her a story about her lover in Paris many years ago who succumbed to opium and the delusion that you can be happy all of the time. That lover ended up committing suicide by leaping from the top of a cathedral.

Mme. describes those artists who grab at joy and happiness: “’Joy is infected. Joy for too long is infection. Cannot last’” (p. 14). Rather, it’s what appears to be mundane that has value: “’Boredom has its own tenderness, its own mercy’” (p. 15).

I cannot reduce Baxter’s complex story to one takeaway, but perhaps Madame has it right—what may seem boring, the day-to-day sitting at the piano bench (or writing desk) and working at making a connection with the composer/reader, is the key. Grabbing at happiness and trying to make joy last will make you crazy and sick.

At the end of the story, Mme. extracts a promise from Kate that she won’t keep striving to be happy and insists on a toast with imaginary champagne: “’You will become a hero. You will learn to face losses of giant size’” (p. 15). And they raise their invisible glasses to celebrate loss, boredom, and hard work.

I listened to Gershwin’s piece a few times, trying to understand what its presence meant in the story. I felt the melancholy of the persistent refrain. The minor notes seem to undercut the jaunty rhythm, and five notes repeated throughout the prelude seem to illustrate the boredom tinged with tenderness that Mme. spoke of.

This story reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s message about stubborn gladness. She writes that her “ultimate choice, then, is to always approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness” (p. 219). She just plugs away, trusting throughout losses and wins, ups and downs. Note she does not use the word happiness or the word joy; she uses gladness.

Stubborn gladness. Tender boredom.

 Works cited

Baxter, C. (1984). Gershwin’s second prelude. Harmony of the world. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inter-art

I am writing short stories. I am on number six, with a goal of ten. And sometimes I need a break, so I decided to start a weekly blog post about intertextuality, more broadly inter-art. Most of my stories so far refer to other books; for example in my long Fez story the young protagonist is in love with Catherine Barkley of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and in “Elephant Man Comes Out,” the protagonist is aroused (again) by Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story.  I am often captivated by poems, stories, and novels that refer to other poems, narratives, paintings, pieces of art, songs, movies, and symphonies because art is such an important part of my own life. Following the threads of influence and provenance is a mysterious process, revealing layer upon layer of literary and artistic sediment/sentiment. I am also reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and feeling the rightness of just writing and not necessarily getting it right. Blogging is good practice. A way of priming the pump for the stories.

So each week (or more often, or less often), I will blog about inter-art. I will either discuss something I have come across in my writing, or I will open books randomly to find something (a favourite pastime of mine). I’d like to start, though, with one of my favourite short stories and the poem referred to and, in fact, quoted in its entirety, in that story.  Ann Beattie is an American novelist and short story writer (68 years old), and her “Yancey” is a story about an ageing woman and her ageing dog (whose name is Yancey). In the first person, this woman (a poet), describes an intriguing encounter with the IRS man who comes to make sure she does have a home office dedicated to writing that she has claimed in her tax return.  After he looks at the room and they exchange some playful dialogue, he says to her “If you were to recommend one book of poetry I should read, what would it be?” We don’t expect an IRS man–a numbers and rules man–to be interested in poetry. They discuss poems, the narrator probing his tastes, and finally she settles on James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” 

A deceptive poem, a lovely poem, a shocking poem. The bronze butterfly and cowbells, the sunlight, the chicken hawk, the horse droppings all mused upon as the speaker lies in a hammock on a friend’s farm.  Then the last line: “I have wasted my life.”  When the narrator recites the poem to the IRS guy, he is incredulous.  “Is that really a poem?” He asks. And “I’ve never heard anything like that. The last line comes out of nowhere.”  And the narrator, who is, remember, a poet, disagrees. She responds that the last line could have come first, but the writer sets us up, seduces us.  And they both end up agreeing that everybody feels like that–that they’ve wasted their life–at least some of the time.  Their brief encounter, the old poet reciting Wright’s startling poem as she sits on the stairs, her dog next to her, the IRS man listening patiently:  it is all so unusual and so unlikely. And yet it is the stuff that happens in our lives, those random coming togethers with strangers or near strangers. Those almost magical encounters.  The IRS guy leaves, saying he’ll get a book of Wright’s poetry and she responds “Any day’s good when you get someone to buy a book of poetry who wouldn’t ordinarily do it.”

Reading “Yancey” several times made me recognize how the meeting of two unlikely people can create the heart of a narrative. What do they exchange? How are they transformed by the exchange? I hope that I do some of that work in “Elephant Man” and even in “Family Life,” though in that story it’s an exchange between a son and his mother.  More next week.

Madeline