Monday, January 25, 2010

What I Want to Tell You About Water

I walked along the same path every day; it was just a concrete bridge over a stream. Only once was a fat dog trapped in the water. I skidded down the embankment and pulled the dog out, but he didn't bite me and I didn't hurt myself, so it's not much of a story.

Deep water
Lifeguards' whistles.
Alternate endings told in semaphore.

We stood at Niagara's fringe in yellow slickers and I laughed to imagine the great Falls soaking me one drop at a time. He reproached me for too much fun. Maybe he really died from lack of joy.

Cats don't mind water, but are terrified of shampoo.

I have been practicing Navy showers, which are best in July. In January I leave the water running and tell myself there's time for conservation in the desert.

We floated down the Ichetucknee River in inner tubes while snakes swam past without even water-wings. Clear-water streams meet tea-brown rivers and are swallowed. I shudder to imagine being pushed from the light into the dark and disappearing.

Beer is mostly water.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

An Act in Three Plays

He picked up the flask, glanced at her, put it down. She watched him without expression. He studied a knot on the pine floor; it had oozed resin as a green log and the sap had hardened into amber, trapping the past. She watched him. He picked up the tiny bottle, fingered its jade cap, worn smooth from centuries of decisions like this one. He looked into her jade eyes, similarly worn. He hesitated. He set it down. Her expression didn't change, but he grew more agitated. He pulled his fingers through his hair repeatedly. Like a man leaping from a pier into the eternally icy waters of Hell, he unstopped the flash and drank it down. Finally, she smiled. She took his hand and they left the house together.

The fluid was called Verdigris after its gray-green shimmer in the bottle, but no one had ever explained exactly what it was or how it had come to rest on her mother's dressing table. She had heard the story, of course; she could already tell it perfectly herself, but she still loved to hear the aunts tell it. She had asked questions every time, sometimes the same old questions, sometimes new ones as she grew. Always the reaction was the same. the sisters' eyes would open wide and one finger would cover their lips. A warning.

Her mother permitted her to touch the bottle, even to pick it up when she got older. She felt very grown-up the first time, even though her mother cupped the tiny hands in her own. How many times had Mama warned about carelessness? Too many to remember but the secret danger made the flask larger than life. Maybe larger than death, if she had been a dramatic child.

When the cup breaks, Mama had said once, the tea loses its shape. You will see it briefly on the earth, then it will be gone to you. This made no sense, no matter how many times she turned it in her head. She tried to remember if Mama had been drinking tea when she said it, but the memory felt like a voice in the fog.

She watched the colors play on her hand as she held the flask to the afternoon light in the window. Even things that must never break sometimes do. She woke from a daydream to hear an animal scream in the distance as the fluid danced briefly on the floor like mercury, then vanished. She jumped away from the shards to confess to the sisters what she had done, and the house remained silent.

My mother taught me to use less perfume than I needed. "People stop smelling themselves," she warned, "but other people smell them just fine." I heard it as an etiquette lesson and nothing else, until I saw The Bottle. The Bottle had come from a roadside shop, the kind that sells Evening in Paris and Orange Blossom Express. I was drawn to those cobalt bottles, sure that something magical lived inside. Maybe not just a delicious scent but a tiny genie who could actually whisk me away to a French twilight or an open-air train through the Florida groves. This Bottle was different, and someone should have known better than to leave a Bottle like that lying around, even if that someone was my mother, and someone should have known better than to pick that bottle up, even if that someone was eleven years old.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On the bus I get mean, and sometimes I'm afraid that the bus Jessica is the Real Me. I start wondering why two people so stupid and ugly keep making babies, I mean GROSS! Or why that old man gets on the bus every day and goes back up to Cornell, even though he's way too old to be really working and everyone there must feel all sorry for him because he doesn't have anything better to do. There isn't even anything to do on campus besides shop, and who wants all that stupid Cornell stuff? I'm never going to school here! I'm going far from here, either to UCLA or Brown or Northwestern or SUNY Cobleskill. Cornell sucks. Except for hockey. Hockey rules and I don't kow if they play hockey at UCLA because it's not very cold there. Anyway, I hate riding the bus some days because everyone is such a loser and even when I sit on the outside and put my earbuds in people want to sit down next to me and I have to move over. Someone fat - gross! - and it wouldn't hurt you to stand up, lady cow, it burns calories! But, see, that's what I'm talking about, because in real life I'm super-nice and friendly! Ask my friends! Christy and Eric and Rain and August and Andrea - they all totally like me. Except for August and Eric. I think they're mad at me because it seems like they hate me. Sometimes I think they all hate me because some days I'm fat and disgusting and I hate me, so why wouldn't they? I got a zit this morning and even the stupid fat losers on the city bus didn't want to sit down next to me. I make me sick!!! I feel so gross.

My mom wants to go shopping on Saturday. Why can't she get her own friends?? Except, if I go with her, she'll probably get me whatever I want, even the low-rise jeans at the Gap if we have lunch first and she's not so grouchy. She eats all the time - seriously- she's eating like three or four times a day. I eat an ice cream sandwich for lunch, but she makes me eat something for dinner that was a plant once. I'm trying to lose five pounds by the wekend so I don't look like a cow at Andrea's pool party. I'm so gross. 112 pounds. I look totally disgusting.

Andrea is acting so immature - what is she, 12? She says something ridiculous about me and laughs like a big idiot about some joke no one else gets. I want to smash her stupid face in and laugh really hard and see how she likes it.

On the way home I have to ride with Mrs. Loud. Her voice could, like, break glass. She's so stupid, too, and I can't get her voice to stay out of my head even when I turn my Nano way up. She should be one of those tour guides or a teacher who shoves knowledge into your ears whether you want it or not. Except, she's not saying anything smart or funny and the only knowledge she shoves into your ears is how much she paid this week to fix her stupid car. And she's always talking to some other stupid woman who acts like its the most interesting thing she's ever heard and I want to smash both their faces in and see if they think that's interesting.

I heard this great group, Aerosmith, and I told my mom she should hear them, but she just laughed. Whatever, it's your loss.

I just started yoga and I'm getting so enlightened!!! It makes me feel really super calm except that it lasts too long and I get bored. It's still pretty cool, though, and I get filled with great love and peace. That's why I hate riding home with loud, ugly, stupid, fat people because they ruin it for me. Why can't I have a car??? I'll be driving by next summer and should definitely have a car ready. It doesn't have to be new. I keep telling my parents it could be like a 2009 or a 2008. If it's something like a Beemer or a Mini Cooper it could be a 2007, because they hold their value longer. That's what I'll say to Dad, because it's pointless to talk to him about what's cool. He still thinks his PT Cruiser is cool. If I had my own car I would probably never get mad again because I'd never, ever have to hear stupid people talk.

Friday, January 22, 2010

She Said

There's no time to wash your hair
, he says. You look perfect, he says. I just thought of it this very minute, he says. I have to listen to my genius when she speaks.

Mystery, my ass. I haven't had my coffee, and this is last season's dress. He said it matched my eyes, but my eyes are not green! As though it matters. Leonard, you big flamer, you're not even looking at my boobs. I am smiling. Look, if your genius was so hot to see my teeth, she would have given me two minutes to brush them.

Ecch, I feel slim. All I can say is, no one else better ever see this painting.


Monday, January 11, 2010


102° in the shade, and what could possibly be so important that we sit out here in the sun waiting for some damn train - pardon my French. And, a girdle? You have got to be kidding, and you are lucky I even put on these stockings, rolled down below my knees. What is the point of that, anyway. Not even a damn water fountain - pardon my French. Naturally, Isobel has on her girdle, but she still has a man at home, God help her. I buried Frank on a Saturday, rest his soul, and by Thursday that ring was in the jewelry box and the girdles were in the garbage. If it's not gold to choke the life outta you, it's Lycra. I wish I had a beer.

Dear sweet Lord, it is hot! Esther doesn't give a fig about how she looks, but I'd take a backside full of lumps if I could slip out of this girdle. Henry would go apoplectic if I ever left the house like that. It's probably what killed Frank. Oh, I don't mean that. Esther's my best friend, but she's too set in her widow's ways to ever find a man again. Will that train ever get here? Darlene getting married in velvet - land's sake. But who expected a September like this? I can't believe I walked out of the house in white shoes. I guess my brain don't believe it's September neither, and my feet don't care. I wish I had a Coke.

My word. these gals sure look hot. Why don't Esther just roll them stocking right on off? What is the point of that, anyhow? Sitting over there, looking like she'd bite you soon as look at you. Just the heat, I guess. Land! It sure is hot.

I guess I done alright by Isobel. Henry's a good man. Not one for having a good time much, but that suits Isobel just fine. I don't imagine she's had a good time since she accidentally had fun at the church picnic. Which shows you you shouldn't drink beer in public no matter how hot the day.

Quit checking your watch, Isobel. That train is not going to roll any quicker if you look at the time. What's your goddam hurry to get to another wedding? Another wedding for Darlene, of all things. One man apiece is more than enough without sniffing around for extras. I wish I had my Joe.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Of Her Own

Her mother was scandalized by her Nevada divorce, nevermind that it was her second. She thought she was keeping it secret pretty well, but damn Ed and his big mouth. Selfish. And that had been the whole problem. That had been part of the problem. He was selfish. She was selfish.

The things he wanted were things he could only get from her: a clean house, children, holiday dinners. The things she wanted she could only get for herself. The divorce wrung her out, and so she had remained for nearly a year. Juiceless, balled up and paper-dry.

The words, at first, were tightly wadded things. Dense, clotted bits of her soul that she seemed to hack off with her pen. You can still read them somewhere, in one of those old notebooks. She would be mortified to think of someone reading them now; in fact, you may feel a little dirty as you open the pages. Like reading your mother's high school diary. So, go read them or don't. I can only tell you so much.

Her first marriage had been almost too brief to count as a marriage, but too long to be annulled. After two weeks she sat across from him at the breakfast table and wondered, "Is this it?"

The words began - so slowly! - to unclench inside her. They weren't easy words. Some of them were ugly, and some days they made her ill. That's when you or I would have laid down the pen, but she couldn't. Not yet. It’s no wonder she never wrote when she was with Ed. He reminded her of her bedtime each night and reminded her he was hungry. He kept such regular hours. He had a tidy mind. And so, as he breathed, he wrote. Pages flew from his hand as sandwiches and coffee appeared at his side and empty plates and cups vanished.

One morning she mentioned her own office. Ed laughed. She knew which room it should be, and she pressed him. It isn't that he forbade it; that would have been absurd. It's just that that room was to be a nursery soon and what's wrong with writing in the kitchen? The table is spacious, and may we please discuss this after lunch?

She never wrote like he did, like breathing or daydreaming. For her it was laboring (she imagined) to deliver a child that never quite got born. When she read the words back -- those red, angry, wailing thoughts -- she was disgusted, but she didn't stop.

Her biographers say her work came from her pain. From what I could see, it was entirely the other way around.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Silk Noir

It's a tough business. She was sweet - that's the thing. She was a picture that didn't need a caption. I fell for her like everyone else. Eyes as black as the coffee I drink to do my work and hers, too. Eyes like the chocolate I slide onto her desk before she gets in around noon. My desk. I don't mind so much.

She wears dresses that could stop your heart. Those dresses pull the clients in by the rings in their noses. Even that tough old dame who wouldn't give us the time of day. Go figure. It didn't matter. We were stuck to her like flies to the tape.

See, she gets the clients, but we're the grunts. Didn't start out like that. I was the Big Dog before she came. Curves like a mile of Tennessee road. Fellas slipped me chocolates on those days. That was all before her. Now she runs the show. Owns us all, heart and soul.

Like I said, I was Top Cat. They called me The Broad Who Can, and it ain't 'cause my can is broad. We had a spot, needed an agent. I put an ad in the Gazette: Wanted: Cream of the crop Commission only Bonus if bringing clients DEarborn 6-1234 She shows up - no call. Pretty brassy. In my doorway, but giving Johnny and Theo that smile like a high beam. Those headlights weren't lost on me, either.

"Thanks, boys. I'm sure this dame can hold herself up now. Can't you, honey?"

"I can do better than that." She turned that smile like a lighthouse beacon on me.

Easy does it I thought. You've made a fool of yourself before over a pretty face and a killer figure. This little number is just like all the rest.

"I asked for the best, Missy. Whatcha got?"

"I bring five clients. They jump when I jump."

"Where're you jumping from?"

"Best you don't know, due respect." She's a tough nut. "It might create an "ethical dilemma" for you. Know what I mean?"

One cool little cucumber, but I was feeling hot under the collar. If I had been wearing a collar. Her eyes plunged like my neckline, danced around my collarbones, then jumped back into her head and met my gaze. This lady was reading me like a book, like a box of corn flakes. She was reading me like a billboard. I didn't like that one bit. I liked it a little bit. She was dangerous. A loose cannon. A joker in the deck.

Those five clients made me tingle, too. This agency needed clients, and times were hard. I had to think about the agency.

"Come in tomorrow. Eddie'll find you a desk and you can get started."

"I can start Monday, " she says. Cool little number. I could see I was gonna have to remind her who was queen bee around here. I'd shown those fellas, and she was no different. She was a little different. But, I'm a professional. The agency comes before my private life, and that's just that. Private.

I came around my desk. In these heels, I'm as tall as the men, and I've gotta be. Keep their respect. I shrugged. "We need someone tomorrow. It's you or it's someone else. Your call."

Her eyes never left mine. They went all sad and soft, just like I was going all soft in the head. "This is the best shop in town. I'd kill to work for you! I just can't start 'till Monday. It's a promise I made, you know?"

She made for her purse like she was going for a tissue. Her hand brushed my leg. I told you. She read me like a road map. She read me like a street sign. "Fine," I told her, kicking myself. "Nine a.m. sharp."

She flashed that smile like a miner's lamp. "You won't be sorry," she said, all cool again just like that. Oh yes I will be, I thought. Just not on Monday.

That was fourteen months ago, that Tuesday. I know how she likes her coffee. When I come in to take dictation - just a favor I do her - she shares her chocolates. She doesn't know I brought them. She might know. We all do it. I've been growing my hair since February. She likes that. She gives me fashion tips, too. Says her clients like to see a secretary looking like a dish. "You're keepin' 'em coming back." She winked at me. She slid my dress over my knees, like the girls on Randolph wear. Almost like that. "Like this." She didn't move her hands. "Those gams are killer." And turned on that smile like an emergency flare.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Every Day is Ladies' Day

You had to have someone like Lailey in a beauty parlor. Curled, plucked, painted and rouged, the blue velvet dress she wore every Tuesday just set off her Forever Amber eyes. I saw a cat with eyes that color once, but never a stand-up-on-two-feet woman.

Her apartment was so splendid. She invited me up one Tuesday after her manicure - she lived two buildings over, just over the Set-A-Spell Diner - and I just stopped right then trying to be sophisticated and elegant. Her curtains were red velvet like the rope outside the ticket window at the Bijou. Like the curtains in a bordello, Frannie would say, but she has a mouth on her and no client of hers has ever invited her to tea. Frannie likes to say Hair today, gone tomorrow! to the old ladies under the dryers when they can't hear. She has another irritating mannerism, but it's not a good one to talk about in polite society.

"... wasting time on gin rummy" was all I caught from what she was saying and I figured I ought to say something about that, but Mama spends a lot of time on gin rummy herself, especially on Saturday night when Miss Shellynn and Miss Rachel come over, Miss Rachel always bringing a half-filled paper bag holding yesterday's crullers. Mama sees those crullers coming and says under her breath I guess our troubles are over, but she's been saying it so long she doesn't make herself laugh anymore. Sometimes it tickles me, though, so I guess I'm keeping it going.

That apartment was like sugar on pie. It had kind of a funny smell, like maybe the litter pan was just one day past due, but I didn't care one whit. She turned on a lamp next to her fancy sofa, and it gave off a beautiful pink glow. She had draped a scarf over it, and I was afraid it might catch fire, but that's none of my business and she's twice my age so she's been turning on lights longer than I have and knows a thing or two about not catching things on fire.

"Have a seat, dear. This is normally my afternoon for whist, but today I just can't face the familiar phobias of my three dearest friends." I nodded like I could just imagine how trying that might be for her. "Bernice has a fit until I turn off this lamp. She is sure I'm going to burn us all up as we're bidding." I nodded again and made a little face to show I couldn't imagine worrying about such a thing.

"Tell me something interesting about yourself, dear," and I blurted out the first thing I thought which was that next Tuesday is my birthday. "Will you be taking the day off?" she asked me, but that was something I hadn't thought of before. I started thinking how Clarice and Pug might not care much if I took off, especially if the parlor isn't so booked up, or else maybe I could call in sick Tuesday morning. I could call first thing while my throat is still froggy and I sound all croupy, but then I remembered that they're both invited to my party that night and would see how I'm not so sick after all. I should invite Lailey! It would be Tuesday, so she'd be wearing this same dress but she'd be sitting in our kitchen with the chipped white sink and the light over the table with the string instead of her beautiful pink-light lamp ... and then I remembered that she had asked me a question and I just said "No Ma'am." And I decided Lailey should never, ever be sitting at Mama's old Formica kitchen table, cake or no cake, gin rummy or whist.

"You know what I like about Beulah's salon, Dipsy?" I shook my head. "Every day is ladies' day!" and she laughed a tiny laugh like she hadn't thought it was all that funny, but she didn't want to hurt her own feelings. I tried laughing that same polite way, but I accidentally snorted the way I do when Frannie says something naughty in fake French while she's sweeping up hair. Lailey didn't seem to notice, but I wanted to fall into the floor and die, or maybe just die and let someone else worry about what to do with my dead body.

I jumped up like I had springs on my behind and said "I got a manicure in five minutes, Miss Lailey. Thank you so much for inviting me to your beautiful lamp ... " and then I flew out her door and back to Beulah's. Nope. I was not going to invite Lailey to my house, not next Tuesday or in this natural lifetime.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

LaFonda Fireberry

She was the queen of the show, that La Fonda Fireberry. I never even liked drag shows, but Maria told me I was being a drag, so I paid my money and sulked. I pouted through Hedda Lettuce, wasting my salad days, and idly picked my teeth through Ginger Vitis' act.

Then, La Fonda took the stage. Curves that shouted SLOW DOWN: CAMP AHEAD! Curls the color of the sun in my Tequila Sunrise. I raised my glass to her. She sashayed her way over and sang just to me, and when I pulled that portrait of Jackson out of my pocket, she let me slip it right down the front of her dress.

These days I'm not so big on reality. La Fonda ruined me for all women. She left a fireberry-red nylon hair on my sweater, and a size 15 stiletto through my heart.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


It's too much, she thought, to think about tonight. Tonight I'll drink tea and meditate and go to bed. After all, tomorrow is another day.

She rummaged through the boxes for a teapot and settled for the ancient Lo-Heat stainless steel pan her grandfather had bought sixty years ago. It hadn't occurred to her before to wonder why Papa Joe had bought such fancy cookware. Nana had been dead thirty years - after that, the girls had done all the cooking. The story went that Papa would tease the girls by pretending not to know who had cooked that night. "I can always tell Norma's biscuits - dry as dirt!" Hazel and Norma both got themselves into a snit over stuff like that. Mary Anne was too little and didn't have to cook anyway.

It really was all too much to think about, but Orla thought about it anyway. She could never keep all this stuff. Matt would be patient for a few days, but after that would begin to fidget and clear his throat a lot, like he was starting to speak but had thought better of it. After a week of that, he wouldn't be thinking better of it anymore and that's when the fights would start. Orla wasn't ready to fight and didn't expect to be ready in two weeks.

Patrick didn't care about these things. Not really. He had heard the stories and had looked at the pictures. Maybe the three-dimensional glass and porcelain and steel would capture his heart and close the connection. She knew she was kidding herself. This stuff was not the reality, and no matter how many stories she told, she could never make these things real. What she needed was Smell-o-vision. Papa's house had always smelled vaguely like meat, which was probably the bacon grease in the green beans or the pork knuckles in the collards. Orla had tried cooking like that for Matt when they had been newly married, back when his patience was still thick and she was relaxed in her life. He had eaten it without saying much, refusing seconds. Before long he started mentioning saturated fat and cholesterol when they weren't at the table. He bought her a heavy non-stick pan and her mama's cast iron pots disappeared. She just realized that. When had she last seen them? No, really, it is too much to think about tonight.

Orla switched off the gas and looked around for a cup. Matt would have reminded her that that's what you do while the water is heating instead of staring out into the blackness just beyond the window. She opened the thick pecan cupboard door to the left of the sink, but it was an unproductive reflex because the cups were in a box in the living room. She padded across the old familiar planks to find what she needed. The first she came to was a white china cup that had been repaired at least once. Tonight it was missing just one triangular piece from the rim. Matt would have tossed it in one expert arc into the metal trash can in the corner. Something that broken isn't worth keeping. She pulled it out of the box and went back to the kitchen.

Orla stared at the cup then around the big kitchen. The light over the stove was on, but she had left off the bright overhead light with the long string. She reached into her purse for the phone and hit "Home."

Matt? I'm going to need to stay longer than I thought. There's too much. No, no need. Stay there.

Something that broken isn't worth keeping.


I've wanted to tell you this for the longest time, but I never had a greeting card small enough.

A Borrower and a Lender Be.

My mother hid in barrels and read all day. She took apples in with her. I think my Grandma Vera practiced relaxed parenting. I loved to read just as much, but never had a barrel and never wanted one. I preferred caramel cubes to apples, but I was willing to mix it up. Gnawed cores or cellophane wrappers - reading always leaves a tell-tale sign.

I went to the library this week, kickin' it old-school. I slid up and down the aisles, judging books by their covers, not even knowing how many stars Amazon readers had given them. When I met Annie she read a lot, and every book was new off the bookstore shelves. That's its own thrill, and I feel it, too, but when I asked her about her library card I saw one, two, three blinks of incomprehension before we were on the same page and could turn it. I've lured her to the Frugal Side.

It has always seemed that I should have to work to borrow a book. Maybe sweat into the oak card catalog drawer for a while. Run my fingers over the softened cardboard file cards with one hole at the bottom as a security measure. A brazen reader, indeed, who would rip the card from its steel rod. Then the scrap of paper, a stubby pencil and the hunt was on. I got dizzy the first time I realized I could ask for a book online and it would come right to my library. Now I'm waiting for the day it comes to my mailbox. But, it's snowy today - could you walk it to my door? Just leave it wrapped outside - I'm in my bathrobe.