Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014
There is a woman who tells me stories. She sits in the alley behind the restaurant where I work, under the shade of the iron fire escape that snakes up the outside wall, and makes necklaces and bracelets out of glass beads. I assume she sells them elsewhere in the city. It gets hot but the harbor is only a block away and we can feel the breeze off the water. I come outside and sit on a milk crate and smoke cigarettes on my break. She sits on a folded wool blanket, legs crossed, wire cart of supplies beside her. She works while she talks, her time-bent fingers precise and slow.
“I once knew a girl who grew up here. Her parents had come from their country after the war and opened a deli on the corner—you may have been there before—and she spent her childhood walking these streets. Eventually she married and became a professor at one of the universities, and she and her husband lived in a little apartment just across the river from downtown with tall windows and pots of violets and carnations that hung from the kitchen ceiling. They had a son and she loved how his hair glowed in the light that came through the windows. She got up early each morning and slipped into her son’s room and touched his sleeping face. Then, satisfied he was still there, she took her coffee on the terrace and watched the sun rise over the skyline and thought about how lucky she was.
“When her son was five, two subways crashed into each other under the city, where the green and orange lines meet. People on the commons that day say they felt the ground shake. Seven people died, including her husband and son. She closed the curtains on the tall windows and the flowers withered and died. She no longer woke early enough to see the sun make its daily appearance. One day she gathered all the photographs of her family and put them in a silver jewelry box. Then she drove north, staying along the ocean.
“She drove for six hours until she was at the northernmost tip of the coast, a place where no one lived and no one visited. She walked out on a cliff, the wind so strong she could barely hold the jewelry box in front of her, and opened the top. She took out the pictures one by one and threw them over. Some floated down on the rocks below, some caught in the wind and swirled out over the water. She sat down and watched them, her history, her family, her love now too far away to make out clearly.
“She sat there long enough for the tide to come in and then go back out again, gathering all the photos that had landed below and taking them out to sea. Then she jumped off after them. Her body fell heavy on the wet rocks. Eventually the tide came in and cradled her like her mother had when she was a child and carried her away from the shore, but she didn’t slip down to the grainy floor. The photographs were all floating on the top, waiting for her, and they formed a shallow boat around her body. They took her all the way across the ocean, back to her parents’ country. There was nothing left for her here.”
I let out a long, slow breath, blowing cigarette smoke along with it. I crush the butt into the side of the milk crate and let it fall into the flower-pot-turned-ashtray beside the door. “That’s so sad.”
“The ending is sad, yes, but what about all the years of happiness she had first?” the woman says. “She had more in her life than most people.”
It’s not worth it, I think to myself, but I say nothing.
“You don’t get to choose your ending,” she says. A blue bead with a yellow sunburst makes its way onto a necklace. “You just have to take hold of whatever happiness you can and then accept whatever comes your way.”
I look at my watch—my ten minutes are up, the last break I’ll get until closing. I slip around the side of the building, away from earshot, and dial into my answering machine at home. There are no messages, and these days I never know whether to be relieved at that or not.
The smell of garlic and roasted tomatoes greets me when I go back inside. It smells nice in the dining room, pleasant and balanced, but back in the kitchen there are too many different smells and it becomes overwhelming, nauseating. The owner of the restaurant stands near the front door, singing along in robust Italian with the accordion player. He makes these special appearances once or twice a day, then weaves through the dining room, talking to customers. His bulky shape barely fits between the tables as he walks. He is jovial and gregarious during these visitations, and the diners love him—a real taste of Italia. He saves the scowls and curses, the scorching Mediterranean temper, for the behind-the-scenes interactions.
I move among my tables, bringing baskets of bread and pouring little plates of olive oil, writing down orders, refilling water glasses which immediately bead and sweat in the warm air coming through the open windows at the front of the restaurant. A middle-aged couple sitting by one of these open windows tells me they’re from Indiana. It’s their first time visiting.
I set down their food and notice that they are holding a brochure for the North End. Its glossy surface displays pictures of historic buildings and statues. I ask if they’ve been to the Paul Revere Mall, one of my favorite places in the city.
“We’re going after this,” the wife says. “We’re following the Freedom Trail.”
“You know, when they were restoring the courtyard, they found love letters hiding in spaces behind the bricks,” I say. It is one of the stories the old woman told me, probably not true but I appreciated it all the same, and I thought maybe the couple would too. “From Revolutionary War soldiers to their beloveds before they went off to battle, telling them everything they wanted them to know in case they didn’t return.”
“Oh.” The husband blinks at me, blinks down at the brochure. “It doesn’t say anything about that here.”
I tell them the location of my favorite gelateria in case they want dessert and go to check on my other tables.
Hours later, the restaurant is empty except for the workers and I am clearing the tables so I can go home. The arches of my feet cramp and my mind is already at my apartment. I haven’t been able to check my messages since break, and I’m antsy. I gather linen napkins and throw them in the canvas bin by the back door to be washed. I dump dirty dishes and silverware into the brown tubs, scraping the plates into the garbage first. I carry bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the counters behind the bar. One slips from my hand and falls; it breaks and there are shards of glass and slicks of olive oil all over the floor, olive oil on the wall. One of the other servers looks at me sympathetically as she passes.
I try to sweep it up, but the glass is slippery and the olive oil just spreads across the floor. I cut my hand picking up the pieces and drop the broom, almost tripping one of the busboys; he stumbles and drops the tub of dishes he’s carrying and there is a crash of ceramic against the floor. Then, the owner becomes himself, his sausage-like finger shaking at me, his mustache hopping as he rants. I’m told to go home without finishing cleaning up. I am a hazard, pericolosa, and someone else will do it for me. He insinuates that tomorrow’s shift will be my last but I know it won’t be. That is the threat he uses for any mistake, from breaking a tub’s worth of dishes to folding the napkins the wrong way or placing the salad fork inside the dinner fork. His anger is a daily occurrence for which he always finds a target, but it never plays out.
I go to my answering machine first thing when I get back to my apartment, but again there are no new messages. I change into sweatpants and a tank top, put on some music, reheat leftovers from the restaurant, open a bottle of one of my favorite wines. I take a sip but it is dry and flat in my mouth, ashy almost, and I can’t drink it. I pour it out. I stand at the kitchen counter, spread my fingers against the smooth surface. My leftovers grow cold. I stay there until the knots in my back harden. Then I clean, wiping down counters that are already shiny and crumb-free, taking dishes out of the dishwasher to do them by hand and leave them drying on towels beside the sink. I want to go to bed but know I won’t be able to sleep until I check in with my parents, even though I’m trying to trust my dad to tell me things when he needs to. It’s late here but not in California and I pick up the phone.
My father answers and tells me she’s doing fine but is asleep and can’t talk right now. I press him, making him answer my questions. Sometimes I think they keep things from me because I’m the farthest away and I can’t do anything when things aren’t fine. He assures me that everything is going the way the doctor said it would. She’s weak, sure, and needs to rest, but she’ll be fine. Everything is fine. I’ve grown to despise that word.
The weather is cooler now and red and yellow leaves blow into the alley where we sit. The wind chills my fingers as I hold my cigarette but the woman doesn’t seem to notice and works as diligently as ever. I wonder what she’ll do when winter comes and shrouds the city with crusty layers of ice and snow. She says the leaves remind her of another autumn and she begins.
“There was a man who sat on a chair in the corner of a graveyard and played the mandolin. He had traveled all around the country playing music when he was young, you see, but as the years wore on he got old and was tired of always going to different places and so he decided to stick to just one. It was an old graveyard, full of brothers of founding fathers and the like, the headstones faded and crumbling. He put his chair under a big oak tree in the corner, where the leaves fanned out and hid him in their shadows. He thought if he played long enough the ghosts would come out and dance for him.
“One day a woman wandered into the graveyard. He continued to play, secreted away in the corner like that, and she moved lightly among the rows, bending down to read the inscriptions, wiping her hand across the dust and dirt. She was wearing a pale blue dress with white flowers on it, and a white hat, long after wearing hats had stopped being fashionable. She matched her steps to the pace of the mandolin, her hips slowly swaying to a music meant for ghosts. She didn’t look toward him and the wide brim of the hat hid her face. She moved closer, trailing her fingertips along the tops of the gravestones. It wasn’t until she was mere feet away and a red leaf fell from the oak and landed in front of her that she looked over. She raised her face so he could see under the brim. It was the girl he had loved as a child. He felt as if he had indeed seen a ghost.
“She took off the hat and the sun shone on her face. Immediately he saw her as she was when they were children, playing by the river, an energy lit from within. As an adult, her face still had the same sweetness as before, but also a beautiful maturity that caused him to set his mandolin on the ground, and he walked over and took the hat out of her hands. She remembered too, and let him. She started coming to the graveyard every day to hear him play, and he traded thoughts of dancing ghosts for happiness with a woman he quickly realized he still loved.”
The story makes me smile. I like the ones with happy endings the best, and I like the idea that happiness can unexpectedly show up even after you’ve resigned yourself to a life among ghosts. I’m in a good mood as I go back inside the restaurant. I chat and laugh with the customers. The air that comes in whenever the front door is opened smells like warm sugar from the bakery next door. Later, as we’re closing up, the owner starts yelling at one of the other servers. She has accidentally left one of the sliding refrigerator doors open under the bar and the salad ingredients inside have wilted. He turns on me as I pass, pointing an accusatory finger, asking why I didn’t catch the other woman’s mistake. I solemnly agree that I should have been more diligent and walk off, still thinking about the story. I can feel the energy of the city surrounding me as I leave the restaurant, and I’m warm as I walk to the T station. I love where I am on nights like this, when the lights on the building are bright and stark, and everything seems new and exciting again, and possible. It never lasts long, but I hold onto it for now.
They have stopped treatment and she’s at home now, where she can be comfortable and he can make her feel safe and loved. He’s stopped saying that everything will be fine. My sister visits on the weekends, and I can talk to my mother on the phone more often, when she has the energy. I tell her the story of the man and his mandolin and childhood love. I do that sometimes, tell her the stories, but only the happy ones. I’m not as good at storytelling as the woman and I forget things. I can’t remember what color the childhood love’s dress and hat are so I make something up, stumble clumsily over the details. She likes it and asks if I have any more. She’s on medication and there is a certain thin, childlike tone to her voice that never used to be there. It occurs to me that this is the reversal of all the years she spent reading me stories before bed. This thought causes me to lapse into selfish silence for a moment, my voice catching and failing us both.
Then I start again. I tell her about the mime who performed downtown every day, silently telling the oblivious passersby the secret to happiness, until one man finally stopped long enough to understand and was able to fix the big mistake he made. I tell her about the blind boy who worked at the ticket office at the art museum and snuck into the sculpture garden at night, running his hands over the sculptures, feeling the textures and crevices, and went on to become a famous sculptor himself. I tell her about the woman who worked in a flower shop and raised her niece, who grew up and moved out and came back to see her aunt on Sundays, and how one Sunday she found her motionless and cold in her bed with orange alstroemerias growing out of the mattress around her, which the niece then planted, and the most beautiful garden in the world sprang up around them. I tell this last one without thinking and then pause.
“That sounds lovely,” is all she says. “You don’t see enough orange flowers these days.”
I agree that it is a shame. I try to gauge her voice, ascertain how tired she is, wonder if I should let her rest.
And then, “I’d like some orange flowers. You know. When it happens.”
“Please don’t,” I say, and the roles reverse again and I am the child once more.
She does the motherly thing and drops it. She talks instead of how today was mild enough that my father opened the windows for her, and she could smell the sea. It started raining and she took a nap and then woke to the sound of the seals on the rocks. As she talks I look out my apartment window, which faces a brick wall, and feel the poignant ache of a daughter who needs her mother, even though it’s been two decades since the last time I was afraid of the dark or needed a scraped knee cleaned off and bandaged. My mother, who simply gave me quiet support when I needed it and who never acted as if she knew better, even though, of course, she always did. My father stopped trying to give me advice years ago and has become silent instead, and I still hear my sister’s harsh voice in my head.
We were sitting at our parents’ kitchen table when I told her I was going. She didn’t say anything at first, just gave me the look that always made me feel way more than three years younger than her, and when she did speak, she did so slowly, coldly.
“Do you really think it’s going to turn out any different this time around?” she said.
I shrugged. It wasn’t the first time I had done something compulsive, followed someone somewhere for stupid reasons, although this was the first time I was going to follow someone all the way across the country. “I’m not just going for him. I want to try somewhere new.”
She drummed her fingers on the table, sighed. “It’s just going to be like the other times. You’ll go, things will fall apart. Who will help you when you’re all the way over there? It won’t be so easy this time.”
I was surprised to realize I wasn’t more surprised when things did end up falling apart. I barely felt any emotion when I moved out of his apartment after only two months into this tiny one on my own, stubbornly determined to follow through. What did surprise me was how quickly my savings disappeared in this northeastern city, how I couldn’t get anyone to return my phone calls or respond to my resumes, how eventually I started working at the restaurant out of desperation and how almost two years later I’m still there and it’s a game to figure out which of my bills I can get away with not paying each month. My sister’s words still circle through my head on nights like this.
“An elderly couple was driving across the country in a camper, taking one last trip to see the sights before settling into their golden years. It was raining late one night and they got off the interstate and onto a narrow highway. There were no street lights and they hadn’t seen a building since the gas station in the last state they drove through. Headlights appeared after hours of darkness and a car with two teenagers, probably drunk, crossed the center line. The car wrapped around a telephone pole and the camper flipped on its side. A state trooper found them. The teenagers were both smashed against the windshield, dead, but the elderly husband and wife were just barely alive. The husband’s shoulder was crushed and the wife was bleeding from the head. The trooper opened the door on top and undid both their seatbelts, lifted their bodies out and laid them by the side of the road. The camper’s overturned headlights illuminated their outlines on the wet ground.
“Then he started kicking them, his feet flying between the two, the connections solid and harsh. Their heads snapped back with each blow and their collarbones collapsed. The heel of his boot came down on their noses and cheekbones. Their faces quickly became bloody and their ribs, brittle with age, broke easily. They stopped breathing before long and still he kept kicking them. Their bodies, small to begin with, turned even smaller with the beating. The radio on his hip crackled with news of speeders on a nearby highway, DUI checkpoints in the next town. He left them there, the rain mixing the blood with the gravel and then drying a mottled pink as the clouds cleared and the sun came out strong and hot the next morning. By the time they were discovered, the third set of tire imprints along the side of the road were washed away and the assault was speculatively attributed to anonymous roughnecks who worked in the surrounding oil fields. The newspaper ran the story as a cautionary tale for tourists unfamiliar with the back country and the locals read it and shook their heads. The next rain came and the remaining stain soaked into the earth and disappeared, the violent fate of the couple forgotten along with it.”
I start to feel sick as she talks, imagining the old couple’s crumpled figures, and the blood. I can hear the sounds of fragile bones breaking and feel the kicks landing on their faces, bashing in noses and cracking jaws, the sun baking their broken bodies as they lie there the next day, waiting to be found. I shudder.
“That’s a horrible story,” I say. “I hate it. I hate that story.”
“There are all kinds of stories,” she says. “Some aren’t as nice as others.”
“It’s a horrible story,” I repeat. I can feel myself getting upset. “It doesn’t do what a story is supposed to do.”
“What is a story supposed to do?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Not that.” It’s cold outside, practically winter now, but my cheeks become hot and I realize that I’m about to start crying. I try to take deep breaths and can’t. My cigarette slowly burns itself down in my hand. I sit in silence until it dies out, then go inside without saying goodbye.
The next day I go through the front door for my break, something we aren’t supposed to do, and I see the owner watching me. I know I’ll be yelled at later. I sit on the bench outside and smoke and watch customers, now bundled in coats and scarves, go into the restaurant. The day after that, the first snowstorm of the season hits, and the woman no longer sits in the alley. I resume my spot on the milk crate and smoke in solitude, the blanket of white making everything seem sharper somehow, and I concentrate on the rectangle of bright blue sky I can see between the buildings. It stretches uninterrupted save for a single electrical line that dips and sways above the alley, looking lonely now that the birds have flown south for the winter.
He tells me it’s time to come home, if I want to see her. He says he can’t help with the plane ticket but I tell him it’s fine. I have a jar of tips that I haven’t taken to the bank yet and I count the bills, then put the rest on an almost maxed-out credit card. I go into the restaurant the next morning dressed in jeans instead of the uniform of black pants, white shirt we’re supposed to wear and tell the owner I might be gone for a while. He gives me attitude and this time I’m the one who loses my temper, thrusting a finger at him, telling him that I hate his stupid restaurant and that he can go fuck himself and his mustache, translate that into Italiano, asshole. I tell him I’m not coming back before he can threaten to fire me. I get on the T to go back to my apartment and I’m sweating under my parka. It’s after the morning rush hour and the train is almost empty as it sways across the tracks and carries me under the city. I lean my head back against the cool plastic windows and am glad for the quiet.
Later, I go to the airport, barely making my flight. I close my eyes during take-off, like I always do, and don’t open them until I hear the seatbelt sign ding off. First the landscape is spotted with snow-covered inlets and hills, then flattens out into a drab patchwork of fields as we fly over the Midwest. I think of the stories as I stare out the window. At first they’re comforting but then I start to think of the ones with death and lost loved ones and I start to feel panicked again, so I watch the in-flight movie instead. We cross the Rockies, the dusty and colorless deserts, the foothills. It’s dark by the time we get to the coast and I can see the lights along the water. I take a cab to the house.
I go into her room and she’s asleep, her hands cold as I hold them. She doesn’t wake and I don’t try to wake her. I sleep in my childhood bedroom that night. My sister is here first thing in the morning, making coffee and French toast for everyone. Her eyes condemn me for only now being there. I didn’t know, I plead back, if I had known she was going to get sick I wouldn’t have gone. But defending yourself when you haven’t been accused of anything only makes you look guiltier so I stay silent. After awhile she asks me short, perfunctory questions and I’m torn between making my life sound more glamorous than it is, a way to maybe justify leaving on some level, and confessing how awful it all is. I end up going with the former and she grips her coffee mug and makes one-syllable responses.
It’s almost noon before I can be alone with my mother. She’s awake and lucid, smiling on the pain medication and happy I’m there. A bloated, misshapen leg I don’t want to see pokes out from under the sheets. She does most of the talking. I smile and say all the right things in response, my hand on her arm, forcing myself to look at her face. I can only manage that when I concentrate on her eyes. Before long she is tired again and I pat her on the shoulder and tell her to sleep, that I’ll be back later. I leave the room and walk down the hall to the little half-bathroom, the one with the framed watercolor of a sailboat above the toilet, and rest my forehead against the counter as I cry. I turn on the faucet to cover the sounds.
The next week I skip the viewing at the funeral home and clean the house instead. First I tidy up and put everything where it should be—I take the dishes to the kitchen and load them into the dishwasher, fold the blankets on the couch and lay them neatly over the back, sort through the unopened mail that has been collecting on the foyer table. I fluff the couch pillows and vacuum, scrub down the bathrooms, mop the hardwood floors. I dust every surface and make the beds in all the rooms but hers. I go inside and lay a necklace on the dresser, which I had bought from the story lady months before and forgot to give her when I first arrived, its glass beads a swirl of purple and gold. I leave the room and close the door. The smell of cleaning supplies overtakes the sweet smell of antiseptic.
I stop at a flower shop the next morning before going to the cemetery. They don’t carry alstroemerias so I buy some arum lilies instead. They’re pretty, curling into themselves, the outside more yellow and the inside a bright, deep orange. The weather is cool and changes from sunny to overcast and then back again, the grass in the cemetery dappling as the sun hides and resurfaces. I stand between my father and sister, the rest of the small crowd behind us. They will wait until after the service to throw the dirt down but I still won’t look at the grave. I look instead at the trees spotting the grounds, but none of them are oaks, and no music comes from underneath their branches. I think of my bank account and the return ticket I’ll most likely buy, the apartment whose lease I can’t afford to break and the restaurant I won’t return to. I think of my father and the medical bills he will be paying off for a long time and consider asking my sister for help but know I won’t, unsure of what the purpose would be at this point anyway.
We’re too far from the coast now to smell the ocean but I’m able to pull the sensation from my memory with ease, and it mixes with thoughts of the harbor lying just beyond the alley back east. The sun slips behind the clouds, returns again, is covered once more; everything is bright all at once and then gray again. I watch the shadows. I think of the woman with the dead husband and son and the picture-boat cradling her out to sea. I envy her, that when there was nothing left for her there was something to lead her home.