She is up against the wall in the kitchen, pushed against the world’s smallest refrigerator, one hand on the world’s smallest oven, bright hot red. She is saying something. What is she saying?
The apartment is crowded. Who are these people. All these people.
She is still deaf in one ear.
She is drinking white wine. A plastic glass. Smudged. With a crack beginning where she has worked on it, splitting it with her thumb. On the flight from Mexico the flight attendant offered Bloody Marys. The flight was already rocky; Could you hold the tomato juice, she wondered. Would that be possible? Sorry, the attendant said. These are pre.
The white wine is not cold, and a little sweet. She imagines her lungs, the walls of her stomach, turned into a tropical village, the people in there saying, hey, why are you doing this to us, why do you wish to take away our happiness, our good health.
He is not talking. The artist. He is smiling, not saying a word. They never do. Wonderful looking, though. The teeth. What does he paint. Animals, she thinks. Horses. Elephants. Dogs. Mice?
She is wearing a dress made out of nothing at all. Black Kleenex. She can put the dress in her pocket. Put on the blue suede pants with the red and yellow bull’s eyes on the back sides, and stuff the dress into one of the pockets and go right on around the world.
Nothing. A perfect dress for February in Chicago.
On her hand, the heavy gold serpent ring with the sapphire eyes. Her present to herself after her book sold. The skin between her fingers is white. She spreads her fingers wide. Days in Mexico.
Or maybe the woman who is giving the party, who has these miniature Italian appliances, in this miniature kitchen, who is an art critic, whose father is a tycoon somewhere, whose name is Ludmilla, maybe her name is Ludmilla, maybe not, maybe something else. Maybe Ludmilla prefers this white wine. To Scotch. Or. What does Ludmilla drink. Red vodka, perhaps. Like Garbo in winter.
Ludmilla has blue hair. And white skin. And red lips. If Ludmilla could sing the song where everyone stands up and puts one hand over the heart, she would be a star. “Please now, everyone rise, and join us in singing our national anthem.” But the hand over the heart. Oh say can you see. That is another story.
Someone opens the kitchen window. She puts her hand out to feel the snow falling.
A long time ago. When she was coming back from Mexico. From her honeymoon, she and Teddy, her husband then, or Teddy Then, as she began to call him after the divorce, until a writer from New York said, I like that, I may want to use that. When she and Teddy were coming back from Mexico and spending hours at LAX which, in those days, she called Los Angeles International, and maybe other people did too. Did people say LAX then?
They were killing time. Waiting for the next flight to San Francisco because they had missed their flight. They had gone to the bar. They had already been held at customs to be re-vaccinated because they had lost their papers, had lost their passports too for a while, had lost, God knows, a lot of things.
We have lost, she explained in her letter to the hotel, to the consulate, to her parents back in Minneapolis, we have lost what Teddy referred to as the sweet nuptial jewels. The circle pin. The gold heart with the ruby arrow. The charm bracelet with the gold champagne bottle in a bucket, the mortar board that was a token cheer for graduating from Vassar, the darling MG, like the second hand one she had bought when she started working. Her pearls.
We have lost.
She had handed the jewels over to the night man at the desk at the Hotel Los Flores Muertes in Mexico City. In the little blue pouch. Handed the pouch over in what was just another lunatic gesture because there was no reason to bring jewelry to Mexico in the first place, because her mother’s advice, always to check anything valuable at the desk, made no sense, was just something a young woman from a nice family in Minneapolis might be told to do. In the morning, of course, there were no jewels. There was no pouch. The night man had disappeared, the day man did not comprendo.
The bag looked like this, so big, two cupped hands. This blue puffy silky impregnated pouch. Azul? No?
The day man suggested a trip in the elevator, then up a ladder that led to the attic, into a room where there was a baby buggy, a rocking chair, dusty trunks, bees. The whole world is yours, the day man might have sung, pirouetting on his shiny pepper colored shoes, smoothing his patent leather hair, spreading his tiny arms wide, the whole world in your arms. But not the pouch.
In the attic, on that morning, Teddy was looking at his watch with one of its many interchangeable Brooks Brothers bands. Red and green, blue and red, red and yellow, green and black, black and yellow, each good for three months. Teddy was saying they were going to miss their flight to Mazatlan. Mazatlan was the whole point of the trip. There were the lost jewels and there was the flight to Mazatlan.
The anxiety. The desperation. The excitement of being pulled away from where she stands, from where she thinks she ought to be, toward somewhere else, someone else, toward some other person’s desires.
As it turned out, she did wear the charm bracelet again. Six months after Mazatlan, after her father called a man he had known at the University, who had been in the Minneapolis office of Coca Cola, but who was now with Coca Cola in Mexico, head of Coca Cola, Ed somebody. Ed who knew the country like the back of his hand had gone to the hotel and made arrangements. No need to call the consulate in. Thank God for Ed. Without Ed. And everything was intact. Nothing missing. And yes, it was careless to be so careless, although it was the desire not to be careless (check your jewels, Mexicans steal) that had started what her father referred to as this god damned ball rolling in the first place.
At Los Angeles International, back then, back on home ground, more or less, sitting at the bar, she had ordered a Scotch, Johnny Walker, which was their dog’s name, the family Lab’s name, back in Minneapolis. Scotch which was what they drank at home, after the summer was formally over, until Memorial Day, or possibly earlier, if there was a warm weekend in May when they switched to gin and tonic. Scotch, she said, but Teddy objected. You always drink gin, gin and tonic, or rum, rum which you have been drinking all week. Rum is cheaper, for Christ’s sake. And she had drawn a line then that neither one of them understood. Sitting there at the bar, lighting a cigarette, rubbing her new vaccination spot, saying, Where I come from we drink Scotch in winter, a phrase that sounded to her when she thought about it like the title of a bad short story.
Tell me about your work, a woman with a tiny mustache is saying to the artist. Tell tell. The artist smiles. He shakes his head. I’d love love love to hear.
She wonders if the woman’s mustache is deliberate.
The artist takes hold of her hand and spreads her fingers so that the white streaks she is so pleased with are visible. The white between the fingers, a memory from yesterday and from summers long ago. He holds her hand against the kitchen wall and nods. Her hand is the red brown color of the wallpaper behind the kitchen counter.
The woman with the mustache offers the artist a cheese puff. A present. What can you tell me about your work?
What can I tell you, the artist says to the woman. What can I tell you. It is possible that he is drunk.
Her hands, her arms, even her toes are the color of the kitchen wall paper, but lighter than the red brown color of her diving guide who had removed her bikini bottom when they moved along a reef beyond the bay, disturbing the clams, he said later, startling the snorkelers. Si? When he had begun to spend the nights at her beach shack she had been surprised at how shy he was, how proper, how he did not like her to stare at him when he was removing his clothes and folding them carefully and placing them on the small wooden chair. How gently he would apply the burn cream to her shoulders.
Her sense of time is muddled. This morning she had been in Acapulco, at a tennis club. Where she had stayed with the couple from Philadelphia, Bunny and Ed. She and Bunny and Ed who had become diving companions had hired a taxi to drive them to Acapulco and the taxi was late, but they had stopped anyway, for breakfast at the little town along the way where they had called ahead for breakfast, where the tables had been set up for them, where it was just beginning to be light, where the dog was going down through the high grass to the beach.
Stay with us if you miss your flight, Bunny said. At our tennis club. In our room. But no funny stuff? A remark she found surprising, but perhaps understandable.
The Caribbean? the artist says, putting his hand under her chin, raising her face to his. An island somewhere?
She had been there before?
No. Not to that village. It was not easy to get to. You had to take the bus from Acapulco or drive, but it was better to take the bus. Safer. There were banditos on the road, little fires, sometimes soldiers.
She tells the artist a story about a man at the tennis club. A Chicago story.
At the tennis club in Acapulco the man had come along, bending over her, bringing a shadow like a wing, as she lay on the chaise next to the pool, her eyes closed, listening to the people paddling around the floating bar, listening to the interminable whack and thunk of tennis balls hitting the red dust on the courts below the pool.
The man had touched her belly with the icy rim of his glass, saying, Hi, I’m Johnny.
Johnny from Chicago.
Gold chains glittering like Christmas tree ornaments in the black branches of his chest. Want to go up to Frank Sinatra’s house and have some roast goat? Smiling, tipping his glass, believing that this was a reliable invitation.
The artist smiles. Johnny from Chicago. I know Mexico, he says. He takes a bottle of tequila from the counter, takes her cracked wine glass from her hand, takes crystal liqueur glasses from a cupboard and fills them.
The world is my etc. she is thinking. Right now. Because she had been adventurous, going to Mexico alone, finding a place on the hill above the beach, meeting a group of divers, wading out to the dive boat that first morning, going off for the day, putting on the tank and mask, swallowing her fear as she and Oliverio descended, hand in hand, later cooking fish and langostino at the island far out beyond the bay.
The world is my, she thinks. Because of the color of her skin and her hair. Her hair is almost white and soft from the salt water. Hair which you go through life thinking about as just hair, unless you have been to a tropical place, and it becomes very fine for a while.
Guaymas, the artist is saying. Mazatlan, Isla de Mujeres.
Zihuatanejo? He has been there?
The artist says he has. Then he says, no, he has not been there. He has never been to Mexico. He has never been to Chicago before. He fills their glasses again.
A woman she knows, a woman named K.K. comes into the kitchen and says, I have been dying to interrupt.
Interrupt, the artist says.
I am crazy about your work, K.K. says. She kisses her fingertip and places it on the artist’s lips. You are the most beautiful man in the room, K.K. says.
I am the only man in the room, the artist says. K.K. screams with laughter and drops her purple earring into her glass which the artist retrieves and clips onto K.K.’s demanding ear.
She is suddenly exhausted from her long day. She has had too much to drink. Time to go home. She ducks behind K.K. and starts down the hall- way to the bedroom where the bed is piled high with coats. Her fox fur is on the floor, and she picks it up and wraps herself in it, thinking for a moment about her mother who had sent it to her for Christmas when she moved to Florida. She had sent her mother a glass ball with snow falling on an elephant with red balloons attached to its neck, writing on the note, this is a Republican still stuck in the north. Her mother had written her a letter, though the letter inside the envelope was in fact a letter addressed to her sister. Dear Emily, Did you send me the elephant? It is very amusing.
The artist comes into the bedroom and closes the door behind him. He opens her coat quickly and efficiently, and takes the Kleenex dress in his hands. Listen to me, he says. I am taking you away now. Do you hear? He rips the dress. Rips it down the front. He has rent the dress, she thinks.
She takes the coat off, and puts the pieces of the dress in the pocket, and puts the coat on again.
You can’t leave, Ludmilla says to the artist when they come into the living room. You’re the guest of honor, you know. So many people want to meet you.
And you, Ludmilla might have said. I don’t even know you. I only invited you because you live in the next building, and because I wanted more people, because I know you know K.K. who is a friend of mine, and I see you around. I read your novel. I see you at the drug store. I see you at parties. I see you at the dry cleaners.
The artist smiles and shakes his head. They are leaving.
They are going to her apartment. They are crossing to her building, nod- ding to Charles the doorman, stepping into the elevator, leaning against the smoky mirrors. The apartment will be empty. Her daughter is with Teddy.
She had left her duffle, not yet unpacked, in the front hall.
She will change her clothes. They will have dinner somewhere in the neighborhood.
What kind of food does he like.
American food. Oysters. Clams. Steak. Do you have food in Chicago.
Oh yes. She says this as though she is pleased to discover such a blessing. Yes, yes, the steaks come from right here, downtown, behind the place where they have the Ringling Brothers circus, from the stockyards. Seafood is a sort of joke. It is flown in.
Of course there are fish in Minnesota where she comes from. Or there were. The fish have gone away. Or there are fish, but people are tired of fishing.
The silk of the coat against her bare skin feels cool and slippery, but it is not the kind of night for these absurd shoes, these purple sandals, these Mexican sandals, here in February, with the snow up to her hips, these lovely shoes with sand grains in the settings, in the red and purple stones set into the straps. At her apartment she will change into black leggings and a black sweater and knee boots. They will go to that place that has sand on the floor and tea lights, the place that pretends to be in Arizona.
The door is unlocked and they step over the duffle and stand for a moment next to the hall table where the mail is piled, where her daughter has left a pair of red boots and a stuffed bear with one eye. The apartment is warm, but a fire would be nice. A fire is more trouble than it’s worth, but pretty, and why have a fireplace. If you don’t?
The artist turns to the hall door and locks it, and takes hold of her coat, ripping the little fasteners, pulling at the fox hairs, lifting the coat up over her head, waving it and throwing it down the way you would a beach towel, though he does not smooth it carefully, does not anchor the corners, does not settle himself onto it in the very center, facing the sea, but throws it down like a dead animal, flings it hard and pulls her down with him and says, into her mouth, I am going to fuck the light out of you. You are going to turn black. You are going to disappear. Dissolve.
The artist is wearing nothing but dark glasses now. Where did those come from? His cowboy boots, and jeans, and jacket and shirt have disappeared.
She is still wearing her shoes with the red and purple jewels. Her lovely shoes.
Dissolve? Well, good. O.K. She feels all right with that.
No dinner, but O.K.
Just for a moment, she is afraid. But people here know him. Ludmilla. K.K. Other people. He’s having a show. He is here for a reason. The artist.
When he starts to hurt her, and she screams, she buries her face in the silk lining of the coat so the couple across the hall with the plants, and the awful paintings, who are so nice to her, the couple who ask her to dinner, who have a son they want her to meet, who play bridge, who ask her to play bridge, so the couple will not hear her scream.
She howls into the lining.
Her neck hurts. She had bitten her lip. She licks it, and feels blood there. She is sitting on the fox coat, with her arms around her knees, shaking. She has never been like this before. This shaking.
This shaking is not good. Also, the lining of the coat is torn. And the hooks. The hooks are pulled out. The hooks you fasten the coat with. Two of the hooks are in her hand.
The artist has gone into the kitchen. She can see him there, bending over the kitchen table, pressing his face against the table. Now he is on the phone. She can hear him asking about train schedules. He comes into the living room. He looks like a dead cowboy, someone being shipped from the Mojave. His skin is white like the belly of a fish.
Are you all right, the artist says. She says no. She is not all right. He says he must take a train to a suburb. His mother is waiting.
She imagines this mother. In some cold, dead of night suburb, sitting in front of the picture window. Waiting for him. Waiting, and eating banana cream pie with slices of banana arranged very carefully on top, waiting and waiting, pulling her blue chenille robe closer around her because she can feel the chill from the picture window on this bitter night.
Something tells her this man has never had a mother.
He takes his shirt and jeans. Where is the bathroom. She nods toward the long hallway. Down there. On the left. When he closes the bathroom door she reaches for his jacket, pulls it to her, and takes out a wallet. In it are five one hundred dollar bills, some twenties, some ones. She removes the hundred dollar bills and leaves the twenties and ones.
If she had time, if she had a pen, she would write a note. Always check your valuables.
The artist comes slowly down the hall into the living room, and steadies himself against the fireplace mantle, pulling on the cowboy boots. He picks up his jacket. Shakes it. Slips it on. I have to catch a train, he says. She raises her head from the ruined coat. You said that before, she says. To see your mother.
When he leaves she locks the door behind him, and goes to the intercom to ask Charles not to allow the man who has just left to return. She knows perfectly well what Charles will imagine, and does not mind. Charles is a cheerful drinker who this past Christmas had come to help with their Christmas tree, who had tried to steady the stand, who had collapsed into the tree.
She is thinking she should call someone. Call someone up. Or go out. Go somewhere. Do something. No, what she must do now is make a plan. She must not go into her daughter’s room. She must not lie down on her bed. She must not curl up on her daughter’s bed.
She must straighten the fox coat, fold it, think where to take it, what cleaner, not in this neighborhood, a place where they do that kind of repair work, a place that will charge a fortune, a tailor who will be able to repair it. And where to take the dress, how to piece it together again. She takes the pieces from the pocket. Black scraps. Tomorrow she will throw them away.
For now she must walk carefully, precisely. To her room. Then she will take a shower, a hot shower, or a bath, a bath that will make her feel that she is diving again, turning over on the ocean floor.
First she will remove her sandals, she will carefully clean the grains of Mexican sand that have worked their way into the red and blue jewels. She will polish the stones and put the shoes away. She will run the bath and listen to the phone when it begins to ring and ring. The angry ring of what, betrayal? She will take the phone off the hook.
She will not sleep.
At first light she opens her eyes. The snow is still falling.
In the kitchen she puts the phone back on the hook. The stolen bills lie on the kitchen table. She picks them up and wads them into a ball. She opens the door onto the fire escape and feels the shock of the cold and hears the seals barking at the zoo. The garbage collector is unloading the containers from her building. She calls out to him and throws the money that lands on the hood of his truck. He removes his gloves and unfolds the bills and claps his hands over his head. Lucky morning.
Some things cannot be undone, she thinks. They can only be absorbed, and this is just the first day. Of so many more days and more days. And how does it go. And all shall be well. And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well.
(“A Chicago Story” originally appeared in our Fall 2011 issue).
- A Chicago Story - December 11, 2013