Monday, December 8, 2014

What might have been purity (Attempting Fiction)

With a simple refocusing of the eye, I reject the simple white cruciform, trite and true. Dogwood blossoms are too easy. They are also too hard, also at the same time.  
O, odious redundancies!  
That's me: Sweet Tea Back Porch Southern Zen all over the place, uh-huh. I rummage through my Rubbermaid container, pull out a purple pencil. It should probably be coded “lilac” in perfumed italics, or even “lavender” in a gothic font, but no, it is a simple cheap purple pencil, unlabeled.  
One requires the right tool for the right job.  
This morning, the first without my chipped San Diego Zoo Mountain Gorilla mug of viscous caffeine coffee, this morning, I sketch in luxuriant malice. My purple pencil is a perfect match for tracing the circles of succulent wisteria just outside the window.   Wisteria, this morning, serves as the ideal for decaffeinated artistic malignancy. Metaphor for, you know?
None of this is truly shocking; I am not avant-garde; My rage is tame. I am easily amused. This is called being finger-down-the-throat cutesy and since my tolerance for nonsense is low, I don’t alarm myself.  
If only my desire for the genuine java bean were not so great. The mug that a long ago muscled lover bought me has never been washed, because he, in his sophistication, taught that suds would "bruise" the flavor. Of what use is this mug now? Perhaps I will scrub it with granules of Ajax, leave it to soak in Clorox. Should I warm to a puckishly Earth Mama role, I could root a sweet potato or an avocado in it with the multicolored, fancy toothpicks we somehow keep amassing in the junk drawer. Toothpicks for that Someday Party, for the martinis that don’t get made, much less shaken or stirred.  
I could so easily be an alcoholic, although that is sure to offend those who are, I mean I understand it is nothing to be desired. But that something could be valued for so much more than just what it is! Just the thought of it, it as a mathematical absolute, caught between upright lines, the smell of it, the weight and color of it, its infinite varieties to suit weather and mood, or to subtly alter them through alchemy.  
Grow the bean high, and on this side of the mountain, cold mist in the morning, bright sun in the afternoon, each and every one under the swarthy gaze of the black eyes of the enigmatic Juan Valdez.  
Juan is my muse.  I've never had a muse.  It's crowded in here.  
My brain does this, goes absolutely serpentine before the sensual or in this sad case, on this sad day, its loss. Booze or coffee, does it matter? Pick green bud beans gently in Costa Rica, say, or Guatemala, Colombia, or Nicaragua. The farmers, how hard it is to think of a farmer of coffee. Well, the farmers are as restricted as their family of two old, old trees, or they are middling farmers, the progressive cooperative community, pooling and pooling, those scary folk, those too-good-for-me folk! But the coffee bean farmer is also a rich bastard, a man on top of a pyramid, a plantation and all that that might imply. Dealers everywhere, in every twist on habituation, are like these coffee bean farmers. And there is always a ghost of a man in a poncho, disappearing on his mule.  
The paper says there is a glut of coffee this year and that they are all suffering. Some growers mix their beans so as to sell more, destroying what might have been purity, curse them, but some of the purists still processing their own, bless them, washing, drying, and removing pulp, finally roasting according to dark ancient family recipes.  
For the sake of heaven, I had reached the point of not caring. Just get it to me fresh, I wanted to scream, before you infuse some insipid yuppie flavor – amaretto, almond, Irish cream. The very heart of vomit.   The brewing was left local, the brewing was crucial, the brewing was up to us. Clean, cold, fresh water and the simplest of method. Even bleary eyed and hooked on the joe for good, the addict does it right.
Sliding down into a subterranean bar mid-morning for an early tonic, the ravaged alcoholic weighs, turns the glass in hand -- heft matters -- and listens to the ice chink. He does not look, mind, he listens. The coffee junkie goes for the heavy white diner cup and saucer, or for mugs testifying to visits here and there [where, in faith, I drank the bean, comrades], and proffers nose to steam, red line eyeballs the murky depths, anticipates.  
And yes, sometimes there is supposed to be a dribble plumb with the point of the initial lip lock.  I don't know when the novitiate should be taught the fine rules of public sips and private lolling pleasures.
Probably sometime when we're young, just on our own, and charmingly foolish.
Between half-completing an unaccredited degree program at a Podunk university chosen specifically to shame my parents, I worked a few years and lived with women who advertised for roommates. The first woman was Edith. Because her parents owned the house in which she lived, two bedrooms downstairs, the upstairs mysteriously closed off, a kitchen to share, a living room that would be off limits (not by any spoken rule but by a more explicit icy glance), a nice, nice garden, lovely street on the bus route, I interviewed with them and not her. That would strike me as odd now.Then, though, I just needed to get off the street, out of extended stays.  
My bedroom, complete with a non-functional grand piano, my own phone, and a vivifying rusty-coiled mattress on a very cold concrete floor, was an add-on to the house, with a separate entrance through the garden.  That garden remained nice and lovely throughout it all.
That is the nice and lovely thing about things. How they just remain, if we will let them.
Oh -- don't get all excited thinking about the secret of the closed-off upstairs to the house, like maybe there were blood-stained walls overhead where the Human Sacrifices took place, or that there were chained, mute waifs laying about as sex slaves. It turns out the family was simply trying to lower the fuel bills.
Anyway, Edith's  father had a distinguished past during which he had translated the Bible as part of some grand ecumenical academic movement. I would remember the details today, being interested in grand academic stuff, and having dropped out of seminary right after Greek School, but just then I wanted a cheap room and a nice roommate.  Or just a cheap room and a roomie not on anyone's wanted list.  
He had a bulbous nose and wore cardigans. Her mother I recollect not at all, therefore I pronounce mousy. I rarely recall mousy.    
Edith was an accountant. She was oval. She was oblong. She looked as if her hair were cut along the outline of an authentic 19th century porridge bowl. Her features were minimal. Or light brown over écru. Edith was strict. She told me not to touch her food, never her drink, and that her room was off limits. But she was also kind in that she did things, such as grocery shop for me, a difficulty since I had no car. She would not shop with me, but she would shop for me. We went together most Saturdays to the Laundromat.
She ate TV dinners -- a choice of three Banquet varieties -- every night, washed down with lots and lots of lemonade. She studied something vague every evening in the living room, some course work from a community college. She had lots of books on banking and statistics and manuals and workbooks, too, all spread out around her, from the ultra-flowery sofa to the coffee table, then down in a precise curve on the plush carpet. It came to me that it was like a defensive moat -- protecting Edith, the insurmountable something at its center.   
Don't talk to me, I'm studying. Don't stand there, you block the light. Don't do that, you'll get crumbs in the moat. Don't blink, I can hear you.  If you scuff your shoes like that, you'll make the water slosh.
I worked a 7-to-3 shift and loved playing around in the garden afterward, walking in the neighborhood, fighting the nesting female impulses, the desire to cook for two, to clean, rearrange, fix, redecorate.
Sweat streaming in rivulets down my scarlet face one July afternoon after a session of tousling with vines, in that sweet time before Edith came home from work, I pranced into the empty house, pretending I lived alone, all needs and wants addressed or managed, and, without thinking, poured a big old glass of what had to be lemonade Kool-Aid from Edith's ratty green pitcher, chugged some, and about died on the spot.  
There is nothing inherently wrong with chugging cold cheap lemony vodka but this could not be a good sign, thought I, ever on the ball. The warm golden sun froze on my bare shoulders.
Emboldened, I opened her bedroom door. I reasoned, believe it or not, that there was no real "opening" as it had no knob, being a swing door. I was free-falling down the slippery-slope, having first drunk from the forbidden pitcher.  But Eden this was not.
There were at least one hundred pairs of dirty old lady style underwear strewn all over the floor, about half as many identical bras, and bullets, lots of bullets.Three guns on top of a tall bureau. Empty underwear wrappers, with their flimsy white cardboard inserts.  And vodka, vodka everywhere, the drops already drunk. Mostly empties, plastic bottles. Too scared to stay, I backed out, hearing the creepy crawly music creepy crawly movies play.  
I tried to refill the crappy green pitcher with her special blend but it was so late in the afternoon, would the temperature be off? Would the ratio of Kool-Aid match her discerning palate? Wait, I also found some lemon Crystal Lite, O, for the love of God, Edith, which one was in here?  Would my face give all away? Had I let too much fresh air into her dirty pantied, dumpy bra and bulleted bedroom?
Did I have time to get away and when would this bad movie music leave me alone?   She'd be home in 43 minutes.  Maybe I'd get away with my trail of transgressions.  Maybe she'd never know.  
She knew.  
Hid in my bedroom, sitting stupidly behind the enormous piano, fingering its silenced keys, I could hear her banging things around, grousing in a Grendel's mother mumble. But silence soon set in, Edith studied her vodka in the living room, I slipped quietly under my covers, and said a stupid benign prayer.  
I had the next day off.  A sinfully perfect café au lait in the living room, drapes dragged apart, windows up, breeze a-blowin', radio on.  I had sex with a friend at nine, then he dropped me off downtown so I could share a sauna and massage with his wife at eleven. My co-worker Candace and I met up with some folks for big, cold carrot juices at a nearby health food store.  I bought things I could not afford but that felt good and witchy – seaweedy, blue-clay-from-specific-earth kind of things.    
Then I hopped on my #6  bus, and hooted and hollered my way home. In those days, the good feelings from sex and steam could be stretched to take in several days. Once home, I would make some witchy, seaweedy tea and decide whether to fashion food or a facial mask from the clay. It cost the same either way. Okay, so I also had chorizo, roma tomatoes, a head of garlic, some pasta, and a vintage $1.99 Australian wine.
My arms were full, my heart light. Last night had to have been an illusion, and my now was so darned sweet.
I was trying to open the French doors to my bedroom entrance when I heard the first ring of the phone.  No good with keys, I was jumbling, missing the lock because in there was a person who so badly wanted to talk that they were willing to ring, ring, ring.  I caught it on what must have been its fifteenth screech.   It was Edith’s boss, a nice enough sounding man, though definitely with the same ovoid tendencies. A CPA -- the CPA of CPAs I supposed.
She had called in sick to work, he yelled at me, was she better, could he expect her tomorrow, could he speak with her?
Honest to a huge degree of fault:  Mr. CPA, I don’t know if she is sick, I just got home, I pray she is not here, and yes, surely you will see her tomorrow. Speak with her, why no, I think it better to leave sleeping dogs lie, don't you, sir?   
She wasn't home, I knew, the car was gone.  It kind of made me feel better about our Edith. Human after all, she'd skipped work to enjoy the gorgeous day.  Maybe she was thinking of the Serious Conversation we were going to have to have, and all the healthy changes that were coming to our lives.
She drove her car into the brick house about an hour later, the front bumper stopping just short of the chintz armchair in the living room's far corner.   Smashed the windshield to pieces, broke her nose, and sliced a scary gash-- to the bone -- from her high round cheek to her widow's peak, just sparing the left eye.
The house damage I am unable to recall but can tell you Edith wore a garish red embroidered pancho, piss-scented grey sweatpants, and one shoe.  
We visited the hospital, courtesy of an ambulance service.  Her parents appeared as if by magic, neither of us having supplied their phone number or names. It was the only comprehensible thing Edith had managed to say: "Do not call my parents.  Do not call my parents."  
Her Mom wore a boiled-wool ruby jacket and skirt, with a tasteful ivory silk shell. Perfect pearls, modulated voice.  How had I thought her mousy, part of some background?
 "How are you, dear?" she offered, before she pecked me on the cheek, leaving traces of lavender scented powder.  “You’ve lasted so much longer than anyone else.”
"Indeed" was the cold day-old meatloaf praise from her father, who wore an actual watch on an actual watch fob on an actual tweed vest.  
Since Edith was asleep and drooling, I answered as if for us both, said, "Fine. Thank you.  Yes, yes, indeed."
They told me to go home, handed me a folded five for a cab.  
There was a crew there, already patching and repairing, her car was gone, though the street and the lawn and the house bore the fluorescent yellow marks of governance.  
I grabbed a big black garbage bag and ran to Edith's room but was too late.  The panties, bras, gone, the bullets, gone, the guns, gone, the empty bottles there, but piled in large paper bags, the kind you stuff dead leaves in.  
So I put my pasta sauce in the fridge -- so abundant I had been, it took three plastic bowls.  I scrubbed every inch of the already clean kitchen, then started on myself, wondering why my shower had no hot water, not caring overly much.  It was warm and raining and I left my doors to the garden wide open, knowing I would never sleep as I fell asleep.  
Her father found me at work the next morning, told me by an arched brow to step into an empty room, and then gave me an unsealed envelope with a cashier's check for $5,000.00 inside, "for my trouble and moving expenses." I could leave the keys and any outstanding bills on the kitchen counter, if that was amenable.  
There'd been little time to daydream, but all that day I'd had visions of visiting Edith in rehab, some in-patient posh place, egging her on, going to AA meetings with her as a supportive friend, going for coffee after, and somehow starting over -- maybe turning over a new plot of ground for organic veggies to go with our lush flowers.  Taking down the heavy damask drapes, letting the light in, tossing every cursed plastic pitcher, taking walks at sundown, getting new dos.  I would go blonde, she could go red.
I don't know what they did with, or to, Edith.  I cashed the check and moved into a condo near work, in what felt like an alternate universe where everyone behaved "just so," and dressed in one thing khaki plus one pastel, with one funky accessory, and shoes always of leather.  
I wonder now how Edith felt, say, two days after "the accident," and if my brain detoxifying from coffee can even begin to compare with the biochemical mess of her brain drying out from booze.  Probably not.  Maybe her one-month mark of not being pickled in vodka might match up with my skin-crawling, crayon-drawing, wisteria-whiffing first day without Juan Valdez.  
In the years following what I euphemistically call "My Time With Edith," the curving lines of garden paths, the intricacies, even, of my bus routes, all straightened to intersecting, plottable adult-looking figures.  But in her honor, I add unexpected holes and cultivate useless vines that grow gorgeous for three weeks out of fifty-two.  
And in every room of every house that I have rented or owned, with every woman and every man with whom I may have shared that space, I've learned the art of moat-making. Sometimes these men, these women and I have tossed our clothes onto warm green lawns and splashed naked in the muddy water.  Sometimes they've knelt on one side, and I've hid behind a sketch pad across the way.  On a few occasions, we stood facing one another across the water, waiting for governance to come.

© 2014 L. Ryan

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