Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Still Life

Kate Michaels wanted to run away. The need to escape had made a home in her throat long before this time spent waiting for her husband to walk through the front door. She stopped counting at five the hours Mark was late. Now she moved to counting six panties, three warm sweaters, two pairs of pants, a toothbrush, a tube of hand cream, and one photo of her teenage daughter, Willa. She wondered if she should rifle through her sweater drawer for the rosary that although she hadn’t touched for years tethered her to task.

All of these items would fit in a brown shopping bag that Kate could easily carry out of the apartment building without sparking neighbors’ questions. Wouldn’t she look silly, a woman her age with a suitcase in hand responding, “I don’t know,” to the question, “Where are you going?”

If she counted the pair of underwear she was wearing, plus the six in the paper bag, she could do wash just on Sundays and hold on to a shadow of luxury: a different pair of underwear for each day of the week.

Luxury had once meant security. Security wasn’t about thugs or thieves. It was about walking into a grocery store to buy whatever looked ripe, or red or imported with no thought of the cashier’s scowl forcing her to say, “So sorry, I’ll put those things back.”  

Three years had passed since Kate had handed over the keys to her brick colonial with White House like pillars to a sheriff yet she still tucked her chin when entering this honeycomb for divorcee-, living-on-a pension, still-in-graduate-school apartment building.

Last Sunday Mark, unshaven as usual, called “I’m taking the boat from the marina to Annapolis, solo. I’ll be back in a week, by noon.” Once a vascular surgeon, now making a gas station attendant’s salary doing something or other for insurance companies, held on to his sailboat, the Lily Bijoux, a remnant of an existence he had killed with his own hands. As he walked out the door, Kate called “I’ll see you at noon,” while pushing down the scream, “I hope you drown.” What else would you yell at a man who had used the craft of his profession to cut each of his fingers from tip to wrist bone, excising during the procedure, all the tendons that held life together?

“He’s stuck in traffic,” sounded as plausible as “he threw himself overboard.” Was it really possible that her prayer for his fate had determined his present whereabouts? When Willa called from college, would she have to say, “Dad did it this time, honey. He’s finally a success.” This salty tone had been born before Willa was old enough to walk, when Mark chose work and women over her, but she kept it from her daughter like a secret, letting it seep out slowly and clearly.

The hours passed and the evening light coming through the narrow living room window stirred a yearning in Kate for a little pill. One round pill with letters pressed into it. Doctor’s orders to close her eyes and dip right below the line of consciousness was all she asked. Not a permanent altered state.  That was for cowards. Just a few hours, when she didn’t have to wonder if her secret prayer had been answered or if she’d have to face the hour when it wasn’t. Her prescription bottle was empty. She didn’t really want Mark dead, just erased.

Kate had loved broad-shouldered Mark Michaels once upon a time. He was going to be a doctor. His name sounded like a designer. Big hands trained to sooth and a voice poised for comfort beckoned her. “Coffee, please.” He’d say, ‘please’ real gentle, never calling her babe, just patiently waiting for her to stroll over to his table with her pad and pencil. His arms resting on a stack of books topped off by his gold watch created the only bright spot in that dingy burger joint. Kate wanted to say, “Order me. Make it take out.” He wore golf course green and canary-island yellow shirts with an alligator on the upper left side. The alligator was his personal symbol, a coat of arms announcing “Suburban royalty.” To a twenty-year old living in a yelling-hitting house, working long hours, cleaning up people’s napkins after they blew their nose and spit their chew, the headlines to find yourself in the promise of a burning bra and a career was chatter, piling up with the rest of the world’s debris. Marry a doctor was the answer.

The doorbell rang.

The police, she thought for sure, were standing on the other side of the door. Again, like the time before when Mark hadn’t come home and the hours passed, she’d open the door to the detective in a crumpled suit and a trained look of sincerity, saying “Mrs. Michaels? We found your husband. But this time he can’t be stitched.  He’s like a deflated blowfish at the bottom of the sea.” She felt sickened by her relief.

Kate banged her knee against the ottoman. Jordan, the wavy-haired graduate student who lived one floor up, next to old Mrs. Donovan, stood in the hall. Kate took meals to Mrs. Donovan and had gotten in the habit of packing a portion for Jordan. “I haven’t cooked today, Jordan.  It’s not a good time.” She put a hand on his navy blazer to gently push him out the door, and he pushed back.

“Kate, please, I’ve got some bad news.” She lost her footing.  Word of Mark’s death would come from someone she knew. That was unbearable. His caring eyes looked down on her as they had during exchanges in the hall when he’d talk about his research on the Italian painters of the 1500’s. She liked when he pronounced names like Jacopo Bassano. Jordan could talk about color and God and nudity all in one sentence. Now he’d talk about death.

“I’m sorry. Mrs. Donovan died. They took her away this morning.”

At the unexpected intersection of expectation and reality, Kate cried uncontrollably. 

Jordan offered his shoulder. “She went peacefully.” He ran his hand down Kate’s hair once and then again. His arms reached around her petite frame challenging her trained response to post fences and retreat. 

“Kate, come with me,” he said.  She followed him up the stairs, seeing through blurry eyes his naked feet in leather loafers. “Mrs. Donovan left us each a package. The super put them in my place.”

Their apartments were the same size, but there the similarities ended. Kate’s apartment looked like a furniture store along a dusty country road.  Overstuffed chintz sofas and big mahogany end tables, from seasons passed, squeezed into a small space. Clutter from a closet needing sorting out. Jordan’s place was more a visit to the public library. It was well accented with poster art by the masters.  Books stacked in cases so neatly created the suspicion the Dewey Decimal System was at work.  His furniture was lean and light as if it had walked all the way from Sweden.

“Tea, Kate? It’ll do you good.”  Uffizi was scrawled across the mug.

What must Jordan be thinking? Instead of this hausfrau floral she should have been wearing something more flattering. Why hadn’t she worn her calf-length black skirt?  She wished she had worn her other eyelids too, the ones that hadn’t started drooping. But, Kate lost them when Willa had left for college. She reproached herself. Even if she could staple her lids to her forehead she wouldn’t be appealing to a thirty-year old man. Embarrassed by her hidden thoughts, Kate tried to read the word on the mug, “U-fee-zee?”

“A museum in Florence. You’d love it.” He didn’t correct her pronunciation. “It is like walking down corridors lined with man’s highest hopes.”

She had never heard a man talk about such things. Mark’s conversations were more like reports centered on the day’s events. “Anybody call?”  “What’d the mechanic say?” Occasionally he’d inquire, “What’s up with Willa?”  Only when Mark talked about his old sailboat did his tone change. Mark saved passion for his escape routes. A long time ago she had been one of his escape routes.

“I must look like a scarecrow. Or as we’d say when I was a kid, death warmed over.” It wasn’t funny. Mrs. Donovan was dead.

“I found her,” Jordan said. 

It had been Kate’s idea for Jordan, on pretense of not having a coffee maker, to let himself into Mrs. Donovan’s and make them both a morning cup. Gladly, Mrs. Donavan gave Jordan a key. She knew what they were up to: the deathwatch.

Nightly, Kate took her shift after cleaning up her single dinner plate.  She’d let the steamy shower run over her and then dress with a fresh shirt as if the day were beginning at 9:00 p.m. Through the building’s halls humming with televisions, she’d climbed up eighteen steps, counting one by one, left foot, then right, until she reached Mrs. Donovan’s apartment.

 “Never saw a dead person before,” said Jordan. “The old girl looked rather beautiful. I saw her sitting, slumping a bit, in the high-back chair. The rectangular window framed her. A morning ray, touching her cheek, highlighted her face, and left her body in shadow. Perfect still life.”

They both sat silently. The smell of Jean Nate toilet water must still be in Mrs. Donavan’s rooms, but she wasn’t there to say, “Sweet Kate, what would I do without you?” Her crusty voice etched by years of Camels swinging on her lower lip would no longer tell her tales. “Sit with me. I’ll tell you about my first husband. I’ll tell you about my second, and if you want, my third.”

Jordan’s phrase “still life” moved through Kate.  “A perfect still life.”  There was something inconsistent in those words. What was that called?  She tried to remember. The word that describes a phrase that is contradictory? Like white chocolate.

The lady sinner, Mrs. Donovan, with the unusual combination of dimples and wrinkles was gone. Mrs. Donovan had earned both kinds of marks on her face, never one replacing the other. The curable cancer that devoured her only daughter was shared alongside her strip tease performance at the Blue Rose Burlesque House.

“I dreaded going to the hospital to see my daughter eaten away in that bed” she told Kate. “But once I got myself to peer around the curtain I could sing a melody to her. I’m sure she heard me.” And that story just rolled into “And I stuck my naked leg out on that stage I swear it was shaking from the fear, but after enough whistles my thigh knew how to shake the house down.”  She wasn’t confused. In Mrs. Donovan’s memory both curtains were the same.

Salt and sugar were laid out on Mrs. Donovan’s table, mixing one granule with the other, indistinguishable. A ruby cross, as large as a hand, designed for a plunging neckline, rested on her chest, pointing attention to God and to a once full bosom. Body and spirit, wine and wafer mingled.

She must have inhaled, but not exhaled. Or was it the other way around for the last one?  Kate took a deep breath, so deep that it generated a gasp that broke the silence, and she didn’t let it go. Her chest expanded, her head rolled back and she held her breath. And held it. Kate had done a lifetime study of breathing. Her conclusion: It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  Like the short, short, short and long breaths used for childbirth. They did absolutely nothing for the pain. Blow. Mark knew it. He hadn’t practiced because it was a waste of time.

Once she knew breathless breaths. Mark had taught her how to let her auburn hair fall across her face and straddle him till they both breathed in rhythmic abandon. Those breaths, too quickly, became cruel reminders of how, in the daylight hours, their breathing was out of sync.

The long slow holding breaths meant to relieve emptiness were another not so funny joke. Kate had tried them while thinking of moving clouds and rushing water. You can fill your lungs and remain empty when you’ve counted on someone else to fill you. 

Breathing in the black of night was no easier. Kate slept on her well-worn side of the bed with a pillow between her knees listening to noisy clumsy breaths from someone very far away. Today Mrs. Donovan taught that breathing kept one promise.

When it stopped, you were dead.

Kate held her breath until Jordan shook her.

“What the hell are you doing?”

She exploded.  Her breath leaving her body sounded vulgar.

“Kate you all right? Hey, come on. Let’s see what the old girl left us. Maybe a couple of round trip tickets to Firenze.” He laughed and reached for two boxes, the size of egg cartons. “Don’t look so confused. Firenze, you know, Florence. Maybe she sent us on a trip.”

Was Jordan thinking moonlit strolls? Had he spent all the time talking to her because he was in need too? Was her passport still good? That too would go in the brown paper bag. Or, now she could carry a suitcase because she had a place to go and someone to go with.

“What would you do there, in Firen…you know Florence?”

“Besides sipping divine wine, smearing hard bread in olive oil, I’d go back to the very place where my world split open. On second thought maybe I wouldn’t dare go back. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“Forget it Kate.”

“Tell me, really.” She saw his hesitation.  “Look no more tears, no more turning blue, I’m fine. I’m a good listener. Talk to me. Please.” How desperate did she sound?

During after school hours with Willa, she had developed skills of attentive listening. Wanting to be a cheery mom raising a daughter in a house decorated with faux normalcy nouveau, she’d smile intently, applauding Willa’s every comment. “Mom, do you think Barbie knows how to spell? Do you think Barbie wants to be President?” Kate mastered the art of looking interested, nodding to her daughter’s inflections while she imagined Mark sticking his tongue in that red head from the tennis club or the patient who was  so very grateful. She hoped Jordan didn’t want to talk to her like a mother and child over cookies.

Kate didn’t need to prove her listening skills.  Jordan quickly accepted her invitation to talk.  Florence was the place where he had discovered the high renaissance. Where balance, a principle of design, was manifested in its most exquisite form. Balance refers to the way the elements of art are arranged to create a feeling of stability, he explained. High renaissance explored the harmonious arrangement of parts in a composition to a degree that had never been reached before or since. Jordan moved a matchbook, the tea mug and a large fruit bowl on the coffee table to demonstrate the point that portions of a composition can be described as taking on a measurable weight, a dominance, yet can be arranged so that they appear to be in balance. “Balance can be symmetrical or formal or it can be asymmetrical or informal. It can also be radial.” It all meant something to him.

Would Jordan encourage her to speak?  He could start by asking the simple question a lover or a handsome neighbor might ask: “How did you get to be such a twisted soul who doesn’t care if your husband is dead or alive?” Did he want to know more than she lived in 6B and cooked a pretty good shepherd's pie? It didn’t matter. Even if he’d ask, she had no voice for telling her story. Like when you’re standing under a shooting star all you can say is “wow” without being able to describe a single detail. Or when you’ve been in a car accident you just repeat over and over again, “He came out of nowhere.” Again she admonished herself. A man whose apartment was in such order could have no ear for listening to such things.

“I’m not sounding like a professor, am I?  Let me show you a painting I saw at the OO-Fee-tzee in Florence.” Realizing now she had said the name of the museum wrong when Jordan had given her the mug, she winced. She didn’t belong here either. From the bookcase, Jordan pulled a large volume to his lap. The title of the book was visible, Paintings of the Italian Renaissance.

“My world changed forever when I stood in front of a small tempera in wood The Gypsy Girl by Boccaccio Boccaccino.” The name rolled off his tongue like someone else would say ‘coffee please.’ “Amidst the hanging portraits of Madonna, Jesus and the gods was a simple girl. Her blue eyes, like no other painting I’d seen held all time’s desire and all time’s restraint.” He opened the book and Kate listened to him describe what was on the page. “Her head was wrapped in cerulean fabric, her shoulders bound by scarlet cloth, and her throat tied by a necklace, a cross resting on her chest. Her breast was the size of a cupped hand. It was draped in fabric that could have been gossamer or silk. You’d have to touch it to be sure.”

A tinge of excitement erupted
between her legs, something that usually came only from her own great effort.

“She was encased, yet reaching out and knowing she’d soon be on her way. Desire and restraint, blues and reds, need and duty.”

That’s not what Kate saw in the painting, but she hadn’t studied art.

“Do you want to know why she hangs on the wall in the museum? She was there to remind me, that like her, that one brief moment of equilibrium is possible. With the weight of life and the lift of possibility.” From art history to self-revelation, as if there were no boundary, Jordan confessed. “This gypsy girl from the Renaissance gave me the courage to come out to my parents. She said to me, be a son and be gay. You can be bound and be free.“ He added, “My parents hang up when I call.”

With a big inhale and only a slight exhale Kate said, “I’m sorry.” Where did the extra air go?

“Don’t be. I’m on my way.” He went on to explain how the composition, with the careful placement of horizontal and vertical lines established a sense of balance. “ Do you see what I mean? Can you see it in the painting?”

“I don’t understand.”

Jordan had held Kate close enough for to hear his heart beat. But she couldn’t see him. Between his comments on balance and color she had imagined herself throwing coins in a fountain with this man.  She was reminded again that she knew nothing. Except for one thing.  The gypsy girl wasn’t bound by clothing or by vertical lines. Well-educated Jordan had missed it. Jordan was like Willa calling from the kitchen for her mom to tell her where the ketchup was.  Kate would say “On the third shelf to the left.” Willa couldn’t see it although she was staring right at it. Jordan hadn’t seen what was right in front of him. That small gypsy girl hadn’t moved for hundreds of years because in her eyes was the same
look that reflected back to Kate every morning.

 fear and exhaling blame was Kate's life-sustaining ecosystem, like photosynthesis. She struggled to swallow the tea coming back up her mouth. 

“Forget the gypsy, Kate. The suspense is driving me crazy. Open Mrs. Donovan's package.”

Kate motioned for Jordan to start.  He read the note written by the corrugated veined hand of Mrs. Donovan. “To Jordan: I leave you all my earthly possessions.”
He tore the newsprint to reveal a Sunshine Farms Grade A extra large egg carton. “Kate. Do you think she was a closeted millionaire?” He counted ten, one-thousand-dollar bills. Being so happy hours after Mrs. Donovan’s death felt wrong, but Jordan couldn’t help himself. 
“Now you. Ten thousand for you too?”

“I don’t think so. You have her earthly possessions. I’d say Mrs. Donovan left me something else. Jordan, you mind terribly if I open mine alone?”

Down the eighteen steps holding on to the walls she made her way to 6B.  No light came peering from the bottom of her apartment door.

Mark had never come home. A storm had come up quickly and he couldn’t make it to the harbor. No time to grab the life vest or call for help. He tried to drop sail with his awkward scarred fingers, but he was too slow for the wind that rocked the boat. Only the lightening crashing across the dirty sky through the pelting rain saw him go down.

Or, Mark had come home and left his bag by the front door. He hadn’t noticed she was gone until he had to get his own dinner. So he took a piece of meatloaf and a plate of mashed potatoes from the refrigerator. Ate them cold, threw his fishy clothes on the floor, switched the light off and was snoring with no thought he had kept her waiting.

She wouldn’t go in to find out which was true, not now. It could wait a little longer.

Instead, she walked in to the cold night air along the rows of magenta and persimmon impatiens blowing in the fall wind because they had survived the hot dry summer. They knew the season that was coming.  Clothed only in her cotton dress, Kate knelt under the street lamp to read Mrs. Donovan’s note. The light revealed the words: “To Kate, I leave you my heavenly possession.”  Mrs. Donovan’s gift, worn on her chest as an anchor and as a sail would be no surprise.

 Kate rose to move from the edges that had framed her existence. There is, after all, still life.

Cyd Weissman, spiritual fiction (c) copyright