A chilly breeze has its way as I walk to a salon down the street from my apartment where they seem to be having a celebration of a holiday.
The musical, over-flowing place frequents homosexuals and I am invited to sit at a table of lesbians near a wall covered in local artists' paintings.
One of the old women is from the same rural country I'm from. “Oh, you're from God's Country,” she says. “My old people called it that.”
“I get now, why you and her are always going around bare foot,” Mary, Grace's friend, says as she walks her boxer puppy.
It was a leftover trait ... In winter, in rain, on hot concrete, on gravel, the same sentimentality; to walk out and get something from the car, to go a few apartments down and hang out with friends, to step out the back door in the icy morning to throw the trash out, God's country's freshly grown children ... living in a city.
“I get on her about it all the time,” she says, “I drove out there with her to see your parents ... That place is so beautiful. As soon as I stepped out of the car onto that grass under those trees --- I'd be going around bare foot all the time, too, if that place had been my childhood.”
'Thought I was dead inside. The numbness happened because I instinctively knew to turn my common sense off in order to remain functional. That's what happens when you're trapped; that's what survival feels like. They had me in a corner with their impossible standard of proof. I do remember dreaming of being a hero in the future, same as any boy. Truth was he was already; he existed. The accusation is a boxing match I might have accepted when I was a boy. If only my sisters had been truly successful. I'd already be dead. Now I find the match a trick to keep me busy.
My supervisor in the bakery, the coworker who sits in on meetings and processes paperwork and schedules, is a blonde, overweight woman in her thirties who used to be a nurse. “But there's so little money in the South and the schools are so bad, it's embarrassing sometimes.” she told me. “You kind of have to learn things on your own.”
She also said I changed when I came back from Basic and AIT. When she said it, she made an expression that looked hurt.
The artist's salon, the one no one has ever seen before or knows exactly where it came from, is owned in secret by a woman. Daily access to the Yamaha C10 baby grand in her drawing room is why I take the risk of people getting close, it is why I stick around after closing at the salon.
Entering Elise's home, the sounds of Fiona Apple drift about. “What I need is a good defense, Cause I'm feelin' like a criminal, And I need to be redeemed, To the one I've sinned against, Cause he's all I ever knew of love ... “
The house is old fashioned, with high ceilings and built-in shelving, antique, restored furniture, and black and white pictures from her father's wars, recent films, and Hollywood.
As she lets me in she gives an embarrassed expression and puts on an Almond Brothers record.
“I've got to run to keep from hidin', I've got to keep on ridin', And I've got one more silver dollar, And I'm not gonna let them catch me no, Not gonna let them catch the midnight rider.”
“They like a lot of music,” I begin, looking at the window over-flowing with plants. “I don't really take care of them, as far as watering, -- but -- they -- flourish ... “
She nods her head, still looking around.
“Hence all the speakers ... “
'Do listen to a lot of music, I catch myself think. I didn't know until June 1st I had been listening to music backward, seduced as an eleven and twelve year old by beats and dramatic scores and self-involved lyrics. Now I feel how music pumps through blood first, earthy as breath, how it is language and emotions are felt to the beat of the heart. Since then all I've wanted to listen to are old blues and bluesy rock.
Loud rumba-like jazz blasts from the built-in speakers during intermission from the band's performance.
“I used to play,” Mrs. Kathy says to Elise in Moon Bean's back gallery. This week's featured artist focuses on impressionist portraits. “Too many bad habits now.”
“You should continue,” Elise says, aristocratic, her movements refined.
“I would like my daughter to learn, though. Clean start.”
'Stop playing, from confusion.
She gives that smile like she finds me an amusing artifact, as she steps in and places a vase of flowers in the window to the right of the piano, same as she did twenty minutes earlier to the window to the left of the piano.
“Mars and Venus were in love,” she says. “First Venus loved war, then Mars loved Venus. Their best lived by the Sun. Died and went there. Til they remembered when Mars loved Venus.”
Turning back towards me, she looks at me as if I'm not supposed to understand.
“Yeah," I tell her. "Prehistorically Venus has a pattern of looking like a lush scene from the Dinosaur age, while Mars a world of fiery desert and destruction."
The art exhibit is not from an artist who frequents the salon but instead has connections with the local, private Baton College.
In one exhibit, he has placed an entire floor's worth of random objects in a way that makes a design. During his speech he tells antidotes of the large purchases at thrift stores.
Mrs ElRames, my piano teacher from when I was little, scoops my arm into hers and leads as we walk along the gallery's walls.
“So, you're in the military, yes?” Mrs. ElRames asks. Though her face is young her voice is raspy. She wears a long, gray silk dress and looks down as we walk, as if she wants her blonde hair to shield her face.
“Oh, please; don't call me Ma'am,” she says with a laugh. “And you are Grace's brother?”
Fiona Apple plays from her jukebox. Elise rarely listens to the radio. “Virgin drivel,” she says.
“But why does she act like that ... “
“Just think of all the pain she must be in,” she says, pulling the laundry out of the washer. She exhales “Mhhmm,” as she bends her knees to load the dryer.
“Yes, and at some point, she'll snap out of it.”
I look at the floor, flex my bare foot, then look back up as she closes the dryer door with a click.
“You don't just snap out of pain,” she says.
“So I'm a shadow boxer, baby,” Fiona Apple sings from the radio. “I wanna be ready for what you do, I've been waitin' around for you, And I don't know when you're gonna make your move, I'm a shadow boxer, baby, I wanna be ready for what you do ... “
“Actors, man, they're crazy in real life,” he is saying. “Their being household names is only incidental to their profession, not greatness. The reason why actors in movies can seem so impressive is that they seem so respectful and present psyche-wise in each moment, even more so than a real person would have been in that moment in real life.”
On Thursday nights the salon, called the Moon Bean Coffeehouse, hosts a poetry reading night. Brad is the MC. “Celebrity life, it's an illusion bought into by sad people, like the best salesmen.” He is lost but passionate: almost done with a Bachelors with little direction. “But one would meet the real world's entertainment before meeting the real world, you know. Vanity Fair and all.” He is a year older than me, always wanting to talk revolution over black coffee and cigarettes. “Once, people didn't watch television, the invention didn't take because there was nothing on. No one could have seen the revolution coming,” he continues, his collegiate dress and shaggy brown hair blowing this way and that in the night wind as we stand outside the coffeehouse's entrance. “On television there was merely people going in circles, acting and playing around, wasting time, so the television remained off. Now the Americans accept bad television because there's nothing else on.” During his college years he was a popular DJ for the school's non-profit radio station. “Notice magazines. Their writings are in voices implying of course every one in the world sees the world this way but you.” When college ended his friends moved on and he was left alone, lost until he happened upon Max and Elise preparing the salon for the grand opening. He became their best volunteer worker. “And if you don't agree than you're not as cool as the celebrity on the cover. Notice the Sunday paper, informative and enjoyable due to its over-educated critical flair, unless you read it every Sunday in a row, you're so caught up you notice how the writers are already reacting to running out of things to write about ... “
He tries to explain my poetry to the audience before I read them aloud.
“He's ruining my life,” I exhale to Elise when we are alone out front.
She laughs so long and heartily she can't explain why it's funny.
'Help decorate the salon with Max, who runs the salon by himself. He says things like:
“You're so creative,”
Or, as I am putting up the Christmas trees, “You're so strong -- look at those muscles.”
Elise comes by to see how it's going and Max brings out coffee: “Do you know how much me and Elise just love you?”
The lines are long and fashionable across the street at the lit-up, majestic, downtown Wilton Performing Arts Center.
“Everyone's supposed to have that story,” Elise says into the loud, splashing rain. “It doesn't mean you've failed at love. You're supposed to have that story,” she says as I turn my face to hear her words and step under her umbrella. “You're supposed to sin, you're supposed to have a would've been,” she says as if she is quoting someone from inside the coffeehouse, but I know she isn't.
Though the rain drenches, I am to go to a New Years party at the salon. For some reason Brad offered to give me a ride. When I answer the door, he holds his flat-hat up with his left then drops it on his head as he says, “Is that what you're wearing?”
He continues his lyrical commentary, picking up where he left off days ago. He looks in my closet through its open-folding doors.
“Surely you've got a polo. You can't just wear a t-shirt and jeans."
(New York City)
At the coffee bar of the salon I meet the spirited Leanne. I find her awkward but hitch a ride with her to New York and explore the city alone.
"Do you know what it's like to go your whole life and still not meet an actual MAn?" she says during the drive. "I had crushes as a girl. I know what love is ... I try to talk to her, she's never shown much interest in me,” Leanne says concerning Elise.
One night, alone in the back of a cab, the driver thinks my military status makes me a hot ticket. “You gay or straight?” he asks.
“Born straight ...”
He laughs. “It ain't like how you think. I'm from Texas. The first question you'll be asked is which Ivy League school you graduated from--”
“--I'm serious. They'll ask that before they ask your name.”
Ground Zero looks like an abandoned parking lot with two deep canyons side by side in the center, like uncovered bottomless graves. On the day of, after having watched the news for hours, I went running in my usual way, then stopped halfway and walked home, seeing no point now that the future had been stolen.
The people here say, “hi,” instead of, “hey.” When I greet them with my low, polite, “Hey,” they act offended.
Shifted to a taxi cab pummeled by night rain. The driver is mumbling to the man sitting beside him in the driver's seat. The small, wiry brown-hued passenger turns toward the backseat and smiles. “You come from down South or the Territories ... “ he asks with a staccato clip. The driver continues mumbling toward him. “You one of them indentured servants, one of them mama's boys selling your life for your mama's?”
“Madison just a few more blocks, sir,” the driver says. “Then Lexington.”
“Building railroads ... “ I say to the Trickster. “Northwest ...” I look at the driver then nod. “Whoo'shere?”
“Oh ... “ he says, his smile gleaming. “He just talkin' to himself. Got big heads in New York ... “ he says with a wink. “People born not taking things seriously til it was too late.”
I grin a grunt.
“You from up there around New France?” he asks.
“Detroit ... No, Indian Land.”
“Them folks still telling stories about hunting mammoths instead of buffalo?”
The Northeasterners remind me of my family because they are the opposite of Southeast culture. They know what they want, ask for it, and remain proud of the private journey required to attain such skills.
Southerners are overly-hospitable and overly-kind because it is the only way to express the long-ago-assumption of such skills. Up North land is expensive so anybody can buy it. Down South land is abundant and less expensive. Only a certain crowd can buy it.
... Another one of those days where Elise and I go in and out of conversations as I help her with her work. Tonight we are to attend a concert at the Moon Beam. I bring in her begonias, move spare furniture in her storage building out by the Iris, sweep the attic floor where it meets the stairs, dusting as I go because she hates entering her ghosts' liar. “Is it possible to be masculine enough to be gay ...” I ask her as she dusts her piano in the drawing room.
“Every woman's dream,” she says with a laugh. I continue working on the guest latrine adjacent to the drawing room. “When I was in college at Baton there was this course for women only.” She sets a pot of flowers back into a window sill. “They lectured on how humans were living longer. As women we were in uncharted waters. When women were asked about the best sex of their lives, the majority of them said it had been with a gay man.”
I lean against the latrine's counter, staring into space.
I cannot hear her movements and wonder if she has stilled.
“Masculinity is the same as it always was,” she huffs. “It is its own. My brother said the reason guys didn't talk about it was because the most respect you could give a guy concerning it was silence.”
She exhales sharply. "What are we talking about," she says, turning away, quickly moving back into her work. “Men'll do anything for women,” she says. “Sooner you except that ...”
“Men will do anything ... for a piece of that certain vagina,” I state.
I step into the drawing room where she stands by her piano. I stay in the latrine's adjacent door frame. She turns back to me from her dusting. I cannot read her countenance, only stare at her expression.
"Meanwhile it's Beethoven, Frank Lloyd Wright -- known for their arrogance -- you find so attractive. Hence their portraits on your walls."
"Yes," she says, looking at the paintings.
"It doesn't make sense. One gender ruling the other."
"I think Brad's an artist," she says as she turns from Beethoven's gaze. "He's either blessed or devilishly clever."
Artists are like big kids, so they are more sensitive. Morality is known by a glance, a movement, judged to the point abandonment equals murder. Some find it silly and petty while actually it remains accurate, innocent.
"I think only the lucky marry their first love,” I tell her. “Instead they marry the second on their list, or the third, or their fourth love. They settle."
“The woman was in Iraq at the time of and spoke at our church and many others,” Mrs. Kathy says into the candle lit group sitting in the Moon Bean.
“I went three times. She was very intelligent and educated. She witnessed them taking down the statue and putting it back up, taking it down, putting it up, taping it over and over.”
Mrs. ElRames had been to one of the woman's lectures. She nods her head in agreement. The others in the group gape in concern.
“She was ostracized,” Mrs. Kathy whispers.
“What?” Mrs. ElRames whispers back.
“I don't understand. Why would she lie?”
Sitting in the back gallery of the coffeehouse, a Wailing Jennings cover band plays through the wall from the front room. I ask Brad about Jared, my old barber. “We were friends for a long time,” he says. “But he could never decide if he was gay or not. I tried to tell him it was common for little kids sexualized early to be heterosexual through elementary school, then evolve further to bisexuality."
Last week I noticed someone looking at me in a general store. I glanced at him. Jared turned his face back toward his spectacular girlfriend as she viewed shelves of gift candles.
As Brad continues I stare at a painting of a tree in a desolate plain, tall and sinewy like a prince with only a distant horizon of forest as audience.
I don't reply, wondering if neither Elise or Brad ever had a June 1st, 2004. If they had they would know they were heterosexual and there was nothing wrong with masculine-only and feminine-only sex. Maybe homophobia makes you 'gay.'
“Sorry the apartment isn't luxury,“ I say to her, unexpectedly visiting from her college in Pennsylvania.
“No, it's alright,” Rose says, setting the suitcase down. “What an interesting couch.”
I make room, moving furniture, taking up papers.
“If I hadn't been able to get a hold of you,” she says, in the same way all my relatives say it. “I would've been pissed.”
She notices a wine glass with Elise's lipstick evident. She squints her eyes at the evidence.
Funny, Elise never wears makeup.
“Bet Grace doesn't know about that,” she says.
“I ran into Sylvester,” she says. “He asked about you, which was odd, since you're neighbors. That's how I got your address.”
She works on her makeup in the bathroom; I sit on the edge of the bed.
“ ... I asked him about you but then felt bad, cause, I mean, you're still working at Walmart."
She sets her makeup bag with her pocketbook on a dresser in the bedroom, then surveys the artwork, stopping at one canvas that looks like colors but up close becomes a flurry of words. "Red car?" she asks. "Dumpster?"
"What does it matter ..."
"Don't you have to join the human race at some point ... " she sighs.
"'Already survived them."
She tells me of the family of her best friend, Samantha, and how they've spiritually adopted her. On the way from Carolina up to Pennsylvania, their homestead, she cried in line at a Wendy's restaurant because they would not let her pay for her food.
At the salon I give Rose a poem to read, a short, easy one. I read Eternal, my old faithful. This crowd doesn't like it when I show up without new material.
When I sit down from reading, she says: “You write as if you had experienced those things yourself.”
The dinner party is held at an Indian couple's house. “Haven't they started cooking yet?” I whisper to Elise among the tribal masks in the foyer. “'Don't smell anything.”
“They've been cooking all afternoon,” she whispers back. “Vegetarians.”
A clique has been growing at the coffeehouse separate from the poets, made up of educated marijuana smokers in proper careers who offer their olive branches to foreigners of their same rank and education. They live in the historic district, with its stately homes and grounds a short walk from downtown. Despite their charms and her own classical education, Elise disapproves.
“I'm not just some curiosity to them,” I whisper to her, suddenly self-conscious of my usual white t-shirt and blue jeans, as we take our shoes off at their door. When I was growing up there was no money for jeans.
Through glass sliding doors, the sitting room looks out upon a colorful garden encircling the house. We join Mrs. Kathy and her husband, both nurses. They are dignified and 'cool' at the same time. It was only until talking with Mrs. Kathy that I found out the movie “The Matrix” supposedly had deeper meaning. Elise and I sit near the Indian couple's niece, maybe twenty-three, twenty-four years of age, who talks while working on her laptop. “Only the young ... “ Elise whispers to me. She wears a print dress with a white upper bodice like something out of a Jane Austen novel. She fingers her silver necklace and sips her coffee as she chimes in on Max's energetic complimentary commentary. “Look at this MASK!” Max says into a glass cabinet. “Brought over from Mumbai,” the host says with pleasure as his wife pops in again and promises the food is almost ready.
“That's what's wonderful about art,” Brad says during dinner. “Books done for the sake of books. Film done for the sake of film. Television done for the sake of television. Paintings done for the sake of paintings. Family for the sake of family."
“No bars on the windows at Denny's? Oh, my,” one woman is saying afterward. She is South African, tall, mulatto with glasses and long black hair. “In South Africa that would never fly.”
“Why would anyone brag about that?” Elise says later when we are alone on their back porch, her stepping down onto the grass of the backyard with that devilish laugh she can have that makes her seem all the more redeemed.
“That's why I know you're trustworthy,” Brad says, as if he is about to tell me a funny story.
I look up. “Is that a question you had on your mind once ...” The dawn creeps in through the windows of my apartment's kitchen area.
“You want people to talk bad about you. You're that comfortable having everyone checking into you.”
“That's the only way you know the world around you. By hearing other people talk about the world around you ... You don't – Talk,” he says, suddenly turning from the sink but then standing still. He clenches his jaw, grinds his teeth.
I stay braced, feeling nothing is appropriate of me but the worst. All along he had been nothing but a story. Just somebody f-ing with me because they were playing a bigger game than me.
“You live as if you're alone in the world. Then you act like that makes you happy. Like you were born that way.”
Out of his jacket pocket he pulls out a cigarette pack, then a lighter, as if he were about to step out.
“You weren't born that way. That's why you're a poet. The only people who can keep secrets are the ones who don't have any of their own.”
“Do you realize what it takes to write a play?” I ask her inside the hotel room in Dumfries, just outside Washington D.C., where Elise and I have stolen.
She looks at me lying on the bed on my stomach, my bare feet against the headboard.
“You refuse to write the poem for as long as possible ... years even. The lyrics keep demanding themselves one by one, like writing on a wall. Then you put quotation marks around them, then start noticing how some sound like they are said by the same voice.”
She pauses in her work, her fingers dangling over her suitcase.
“Writing that way,” she says. “Seems like the writer would be required to be ... very lost.” She silently lays out her dress for tomorrow.
“Like Baby Newton," I try. "Signing a document. Donating his brain to science."
“That's not dating, is it,” I ask.
She reaches for two mugs, then a bottle of wine. Over several decades her house has been one business after another and remodeled so many times her kitchen now only holds a table with chairs. It is cleverly built with nooks and built-in shelving.
“Just because a man and a woman happen to be alone together ... Then later -- when described in hindsight -- it's to be described as a date ... How can that be right ...”
She does that sometimes, subtly implies things. Last night, when I seemed to have the beginnings of a cold she had me stand in her bedroom and remove my shirt while she retrieved Vicks from her cabinet. At first her hands were careful and slow as she silently rubbed Vicks on my chest and neck.
The bones in my adult hands remembering more and more of the Mozart of my little boy hands, not Chopin, or Elise's Beethoven, but Mozart, the beaten boy, the only one who can play Fur Elise the way that moves Elise, my hands shaking like Mozart's trembling hands, humbled by the powerful trills underneath fluttering fingertips.
She plays music emotionally, not athletically. She plays nothing like how I play.
“How do you play so perfectly, so casually,” I whisper.
“It's not perfection like how you're thinking about it,” she whispers back.
“Still, it proves so much work must have been done.”
“Just sociopathic enough ... “ she whispers with a soft smile. “To make it work.”
'Had never heard music in silence before. Never thought I could hear the whispering of clothes being undone, the beat of measures and the trills of cotton linen sheets, like when Beethoven seduced Elise, my bones miraculously know what to do as they remember the most fleeting, intimate moments of ancients.
“If I had met you earlier ... “ I tell her while looking at the floor.
She leans against the counter, then looks down at the floor.
I look up, “Sometimes, I can get -- too angry, so angry -- too fast ... you know ...”
"I'm very unforgiving," she says. "You'll have to take the other half of the balance."
“The bad is so bad ... “ she says through strained breath. “But the good is so good ... “
“... that's why they call it a boner ...”
“So ... “ I begin, my hands on two sides of the pantry door frame . “Are we in the same --”
“Am I attractive enough ... “
“Yes, of course ... “ she says in aside as she turns and dips under my arms then pulls a mug out of the cupboard and pours herself tea. “Are we really having this ... “ she says with a roll of her eyes.
“You seem too attractive for me,” I reply, lost in thought.
“Well, you're stuck with me ... “ she says.
The crickets begin early, the smells of the afternoon drift in cold from the garden through the open window.
“Men who get their manhood from men are not done,” she says. “Nor women who get there womanhood from women. It is beautiful alone but only gets uglier.”
Two white linen drapes play in a draft over the bed.
“Let's say women are wisdom,” Elise says to the ceiling, as if it were to be this evening's lesson. “Men are violence. Each try to articulate what they already know: The women war, the men peace. They'd be a bully if they went too far. Being so unique, each not having but their own point of view.”
Whippoorwills sing their hauntings as dusk descends and frogs throb their calm, steady discussions.
“Someone like that,” she whispers, as I continue moving silently. Her breath quickens: “Someone like that. They'd be a bully if they went too far. The world at peace, the world at war ... “
“I stopped tending the garden when I met you,” she whispers, after we hear Max trip over something on his way to the backdoor.
“Is that how you cast this spell,” I whisper back, rolling over.
“This I have learned,” Elise says into movements against white sheets. “To know a man's character. You have to see beyond flesh. That's why some flesh never grows unattractive.”
She turns her head toward mine.
“This of all things, you're not writing down?” she says.
I exhale, raise up. “I write lyrics,” I say. “I don't write like that.”
“The only reason men think women are less is because they're better at being men ... Making everyone happy is a very inefficient way of making the world a better place ... Women saying to women, 'But what do YOU think... '” she lectures as I explore. “Men saying to men, 'But what do your instincts say, what is your gut feeling ... '” Through thorough investigation I answer my own questions concerning the female body.
“Because human beings are born long-term thinkers,” she explains later into the dark.
“Always talking about right and wrong ... “ I say.
She points her toes as she leads her leg over the skin of my shoulder. “Their own fear makes them feel unglued,” she says.
“But this is sex,” she says, “You have intercourse, then play or talk or lay awhile, then have intercourse again. It's what people do, intercourse and the moments and days between intercourse -- it's all sex.”
I continue buttoning my shirt.
Hence the twenty year relationship Elise had with a married celebrity actor, one who flew her all over the world to meet him in hotel rooms and at events ... I was her rebound.
'Heard Pope John Paul the second has died.
Seems like he died almost immediately after giving a speech officially abandoning the American victims of the Catholic Priest Scandal.
(In Greensboro for deployment processing)
“Me ... “ I say to him with a smile as I work on the ladder. “No you don't want to play with me.”
He always laughs, jokes around, a 'cocky white kid,' Robert would say.
“Why not? We're going to war together,” Franz says, jokingly.
“Because I'm naturally merciless ... “ I tell him with a chuckle, navigating stocking the closet, my face an inch from the ceiling and its florescent light.
“Merciless? To your battle buddies?”
“I don't know -- I mean -- I guess -- To everybody. I don't know --”
“That's horrible. That's like -- the exact opposite attitude you should have right now,” he says, breaking into laughter.
“Yeah I know -- right --” I say, managing a box into the tight space.
“Once I filled in I became a fatty trying to keep the muscle, afraid it would go away. I kind of always have it in the back of my mind,” I whisper to her.
“I think about it all the time,” she whispers back.
“It's like I live three days in my mind.”
“The past, when I was fat, tomorrow when I will look like my mother, and the present,” she sighs.
I reach to turn off the hair dryer sitting on the corner of the bathroom counter.
“You don't know what it's like to be beautiful,” she says, quickly brushing her teeth, lifting the tip of the can with her toes, dropping in the tissue. “We have to spy on the herd.”
"How maternal of you."
Arriving back from work, her kitchen is mostly shadows and moonlight. Some tornado has cut out the electricity again. She turns to the sink, her back to me. The 'clinks' and 'tinks' of the dishes she works with fill the silence.
“Money's coming in.” Her hair moves enough so that I know she is making expressions of hurt.
I remain crouched down petting the cat. I'm always crouched down when we whisper an argument, like she's the queen, and I'm her investigative journalist, weaving her stories of war and genocide and the proof of exchanged money, the truth of symbolism.
“It's a new business venture."
“Maybe that's where that comes from,” I say to her. “The whole 'he's full of sh't thing.”
The bathroom light illuminates a rectangle of the bedroom carpet. “I don't get it,” she says from within.
“Because the male body would have to switch gears in order to take -- penetration. It wouldn't be able to switch -- back --would it?”
“Switch back to what?”
The sound of her laughter echoes in the bathroom before it spills into the bedroom. “Where do you get these things from,” she says to no one.
She laughs when I tell her I know about the human experience of being a girl.
“They're born perfect, soul and flesh,” I tell her slowly, trying not to gape at her, her not looking at me.
She casually, carefully places plates, silverware, and glasses in certain ways, depending on what shape, kind, and situation. Her focus remains busy with the kitchen sink and its duties as I stand leaned back against the same counter.
“Two sides of a coin,” I whisper absentmindedly, suddenly trying to slyly joke. “Or the coin does not exist.”
“Then,” she says, lifting to her tip toes as she reaches for a cloth out of one of the upper cabinets, darkly demanding me continue.
“But inevitably, they make this soulful decision to become the greatest diva the world, God, Satan, Mother Nature, and all the cosmos of born, dead, unborn, and reborn souls have ever known.”
She laughs so natural I smile, embarrassed and relieved as birds suddenly flutter outside the kitchen window above her sink.
“What do you mean, I scare them away?” I say, opening the two sliding doors a crack.
“Anyone remotely eligible,” she says as she tries to tidy things up around the kitchen and keep me hidden.
“If they're more masculine than me, you can tell me.”
“You're my working man,” she whispers in the dark.
I ignore her, calling her attention elsewhere.
“My own Jacob ... “
When I step out her bedroom door into the backdoor lobby leading to the gardens, Dylan is there, Elise's must-be-younger brother, his uniform soaked through with rain.
“Wh-AT! are you doing here,” Elise says quick, behind me, her bare heels pounding wood floor as she leads him down a hallway and through another lobby, toward the porch, them pausing a while. She pulls on his cigarette after he says, “For old times sake,” as they step toward his gray Oldsmobile parked on the street. “You got to go back to drill,” she says with an easy laugh I had never heard before.
“You crazy?” he says, his shiny boots standing in a puddle, water dripping from his patrol cap. “All this rain.”
She closes and locks the wide, wooden door behind her, then tightens her silk bathrobe. “He doesn't have the same uniform as the other National Guard soldiers,” I say to her.
“You don't understand,” she whispers, putting away keys. “Him sneaking home from the field is a memory.”
“No. Listen to me. I know how to do this; I just haven't done it before,” I whisper to her from where I am crouched on the other side of the sidewalk.
I look up to her face illuminated by Moon Bean's street light.
“A business venture,” she says, turning her face to look at the moon.
“Don't you want life to be self sustaining?” she says angrily. “For the wild to exist and humans free and good and bad to exist natural?”
“Yeah, but it doesn't mean I'm not allowed to look annoyed when you make me brake for a squirrel in traffic,” I say loudly. “I've rarely run over anything in my life.”
Sometimes she mistakes her breasts for too small; sometimes she mistakes them for too heavy.
“I think on the other side of religion -- and all that,” she whispers. “Is just ... more.”
All she has to do is breathe and her magic defies gravity, her flesh so alive she could step out the back door, lift her weight to the toes of her feet and fly away.
When I think of perfection, 'treat it as if it were a woman, sly, captivating, only truly attainable briefly, and satisfying, cooly pleasing ... When I attain perfection it feels like this woman has just matched my heartbeat, even if it is just two beats. Her effect on me so strong I know I will never stop going after her, never stop playing her games; in the end she becomes the essence of a secret happiness only I know.
“But the plan I have now is better than the one I had before,” I whisper quick to her. “So now those mistakes I made in the one before are all no problem.”
“All no problem ... “ she whispers into ocean waves of darkness.
'Walk Elise's mother's backyard, the wind sharp and playful in the fields across the boundary. The wind has its way with white sheets as I hang them on the line with wood clothes pins. Max remains inside checking on her mother and distracting her from our work, and especially Elise, whom she insults with pleasure.
“I don't want one of those marriages where someone good looking turns their body and settles,” I tell Elise at the top of the hill, the sky's color clear and deep, the wind loud in our ears.
“In my twenties,” she calls over the rushing air. She hangs more sheets on the other line, talking in that way she has sometimes, nostalgic, absentminded, “I remember getting on the bus and looking around. At my choices. Seeing I was this particular good looking person and can acquire this particular advancement in life unless.” She turns her body to handle a light blue sheet hanging too low to the ground.
“No one should be settling,” I say, still distracted with the sheets. “I like a good fight forward.” The wind sounds like her hair, wispy and sudden. “I want to find that portal where - just in case - your wife can get through and reach you, no matter time or dimension. I want to feel that,” I say to her, the loud wind a glutton.
Elise knows about the deployment. She hadn't even known I was a soldier.
“War is for the voiceless,” she says, stepping down the edge of her yard, her fingers trailing the drooping flower blossoms.
The morning fog and drizzly rain match her; she matches back.
The Devil's Tramping Ground is on the way to Greensboro.
“Because nothing grows on this spot,” Elise says, carefully leaning forward as she points.
“Where he paces,” Max says.
“Where he keeps watch ... “ I offer.
“Where he thinks in solitude,” she finishes.
“When I first met you,” she whispers.
“When I read the first poem ...” I whisper back, wondering if Max can hear us moving in the other bed.
“No, I hadn't arrived yet. I met you outside when the others were smoking cigarettes.”
“Really ... “
“You don't remember,” she chuckles, as she turns onto her side, her back to me.
I return my forearm to her waist and whisper: “You were telling me not to apologize for causing you inconvenience ... 'I live in madness,' you said.”
“'Must've sounded silly.”
“'Knew your method.”
In the bright lights of the hotel bathroom colored like chocolates, lying under a hairbrush, but also against my Army toiletry bag, rests a note.
“I know I'm in love,” she wrote. “Because I know life is beautiful because it can be.”
Downtown in the Capital inside a tucked-away movie house we watch “March of the Penguins.”
“How was it?” Elise asks later.
“It was -- loud with scenery and music -- you know,” I answer her carefully. “With these fleeting moments that shined light and meaning onto what it was to be a alive.”
“All you're saying is that it was a film,” Elise says. “What was it about?”
“Oh -- all that stuff -- it was really bad, actually. A bad movie all around.”
“Jake ... “ she begins with annoyance, like she's trying not to let her amusement show. “You sure it's not because it's your favorite color?”
“What? The color?” I ask, incredulous, then noticing the others in the paint aisle paying attention to us. “Why would anyone prefer the same color as the sky?”
Even after lovemaking her skin is like sponge to mine as we try to dance to jazz in her bedroom.
“Men formally learn what women find easy,” she is saying too simply for me to respect. “Women formally learn what men think is just nature.”
“What about all the rest ...” I ask down into her shoulder.
The month-long game of chicken remains fun.
“Have you set a date yet ...” she hears me say, reaching out from the bed as she dresses.
“Have you made the guest list ... “ she sighs in retort, hands traveling legs.
Shifted to the afterlife, my brother showing me around in the lighted, fuzzy realm. 'Excited throughout, turning corners, suddenly asking where God is.
He looks disappointed, frightened, as the shift breaks down. “We're just right here,” he says. “We're just right here.”
'Arrive back in my bed in the brick apartment, getting up, walking into the latrine, then the kitchen, amazed at how it feels as if I've been gone from here a long time.
“Aren't you afraid of death?” she calls to me from where she is preparing her rabbits' food in the kitchen.
“The only way to not be affected by the fear of death is to already be enjoying each moment because it is already gone,” I call back from outside the kitchen door where I am shining my boots in the back foyer.
“Where'd you learn that?” she asks with a suspicious laugh.
“I realized it on my own, June first, two-thousand four.”
“You know the date?” she asks, as if she were suddenly the wise one again.
“I wonder about the seasons."
“Don't get addicted," she says.
“Someone finally said, 'Okay, this is what they'll be called.”
“What?” she laughs.
“Everyone in the room shut up; all those almost perfect words.”
“No, your work is not done,” she says as I say, “Already done,” and make quick movements.
She gives me a necklace to wear. It contains a small amulet with a pouch inside packed with herb-smelling plants.
“Promise,” she whispers.
I sit up. “I don't understand."
My bits of chest hair stand, reaching toward her warm skin.
“I had to remember my Grandmother well,” she says. “To do this. It took all night. In the Confederate part of the graveyard next door.”
It is a small pouch tied with the sign of the cross.
Turns out, she's gotten a Brazilian wax.
“You're pussy's so ugly ... "
“No...” she laughs. “You can't write that.”
“Makes me angry enough to hit it.”
She laughs, re-positioning, pushing me away.
The game of chicken produced marriage, but somehow the avante guard at the salon find out. At first they are shocked because they erroneously assume Max and Elise are married. Later they find out about the actual marriage. They call it a scandal and tell of the young lamb slaughtered by Queen Jezebel.
“I mean I know why he did it,” one says as Max and Elise try to explain themselves.
“Of course he just wanted a family. But you ... “
“He was sent to tempt her,” one whispers to the other. “She has been found wanting.”
They're treating her as if she were a whore.
How was it that she always had more to give.
(in the field)
“It's a different kind of war ... “ says PVT Henning, concerning the war crimes in Iraq.
He has already deployed once.
“There is no U.N. in Iraq.”
“Yeah, she's my girlfriend,” SGT Janke is saying, implying a waitress at a restaurant in Wilton. “She just needs to get out of that town. Too many bad things have happened.”
“She thinks every town is like Wilton,” I say. “Why would she want to learn a whole nother environment, after all the trouble of the first one.”
Sitting beside me on the bus is Jason, from Basic. “Man, I told them how things have been for me,” he whispers, seemingly glad to see a familiar face. “How I was being beaten like that since I was a baby -- they're putting me on a prescription. She just signed me out of this deployment.”
'Know I'll never see him again. Any mention of history like ours, Army pushes you out.
'Returned from deployment because I did not pass medical: my heels are crushing in. The plantar tendon running from the balls of my feet through and above my heel is swelling and contracting, inflamed. Once certain paperwork has gone through the Army's system, I redeploy.
I return to Max and Elise with plans firmly set.
They remain angrily heartbroken. She quietly lashed into me, sitting silent, surrounded by her worldly objects, bottles of wine that couldn't be bought stateside, black and white photos that shouldn't have worked in a kitchen.
With her back to me, her standing over the sink she said I wasn't allowed to be nice to women unless I was going to go all the way, to be nice to them meant I was leading them on.
“You need to stay away from them,” she said, “So what you have done to me won't happen to someone else.”
The final exchange between Max and I occurs as I adopt two kittens from Moon Bean. Grace, a confident, playful tabby, and Michael, a wild, independent black-cat.
There was a girl at the salon my age. She tried to get into bicycling like how I was into it. According to Elise, she changed her appearance after I became a regular, though she already had a boyfriend.
'Catch myself feeling the worst about her hope -- the other girl's -- she wore short shorts for me.
That hour before officially shipping off away from her, 'watched her play Chopin's “Fantaisie Impromptu” from memory or emotion, 'couldn't tell which. My green duffel leaned upright against the antique bar just inside her front door. Though the duffel sits a room away from the concert grand I notice the metal tag shaking from her passion.
Life is Messy
Meaning where meaning shouldn't be,
Jake: loss is a snake,
Livin' off mama's milk.
Tragedies, recording, telling stories.
God keep cleanin' it up;
Messy as life can be.