Never Be

Standing in the corner with the umbrellas and the hat-rack is an old rolled-up map of places the old woman has never been. She sits and rocks in her chair in front of the television that has been broken since 1967 and stares at the window behind her left shoulder and the silhouette of her figure  reflected in the rounded screen before her. The dials are dusty and the buttons are cracked with age. The plug is melted to its socket from the time a bad power outage sent a surge through the wires and sparks flew everywhere.

The old woman’s cheeks are sunken in and her shapeless knit hat is askew. She chews her bottom lip in a rhythmic motion that matches her rocking, and she counts. She counts the steps it takes to get from her chair to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the post-box outside. She counts the steps it takes to get to the store in town and to the bus stop that takes to the city and to the music hall in the city where she saw the young man with the broken tooth and the newspaper hidden in his jacket and the glasses fitting his face lopsidedly. She counts how long it would take her to find her address book and run her finger down the alphabet to find his name; how long it would take to get a grip on the page and how long it would take to flip to it without ripping any of the pages in between. She counts the teeth left in her head and the days that have passed since her children have visited.

She counts wrong, often. She loses the thread between four-hundred twenty-seven and four-hundred twenty-eight. Sometimes she skips numbers, going from one thousand and one to twelve-thousand fourteen without a pause.

Her door is unlocked and she waits for the cowled figure she was promised in childhood. She remembers pictures of hourglasses and the fear of other girls looking at the scythed man beside them in the tarot cards. She knows exactly what she will say if he ever shows up. She will complain, and ask why he didn’t come when she could still take a step, a dance, a twirl. He will have to carry her out now, she’ll point out, and what, she’ll say, is the point of that.

Even with Good Reason

Crammed in a corner of a booth, Marta watched the flurry of snow outside obscure the street. There were two people she didn’t know sitting across from her.   The storm had ushered everyone inside and the owners didn’t want to kick anyone out. It was uncomfortable – Marta was a reporter, used to talking to people, but she was also used to being prepared. Being invaded by this couple made her feel as if she was back home.

They were bickering. It was whispered – hissed, really. Marta kept wanting to wipe nonexistent spit off her face. She tried hard not to look at them, but her plate was empty and her book was too dense to concentrate on in the louder-than-usual bustle.

Another similarity to home, that overcrowded air. Different, though, was the fact that the diner seemed to have been invaded, whereas home had never been any different. She clenched her fist and caught the couple staring at it. She took it off the table and hid it in her lap, turning a page of her book with the other hand even though she hadn’t taken in anything on the previous page.

She glanced out again. There was no one in the street that she could see, but then they might be behind the first or second or third curtain of snow.

There were a million reasons for why she was sitting alone – more alone than she’d have felt if there was no one else at the table with her – and at least half of those were reasonable. But a deep, black rage bubbled inside her and she had to put her book down to be able to clench her other fist in her lap.

“S”

Whenever she looked out her window, she saw a big “S” on the red brick building across from her. Just one letter, a simple one, with a serif on either end. It wasn’t the most innocent or joyful of letters; “snakes” and “sadness” and “sordid” all began with it, and she couldn’t help thinking of those and other harsh words whenever she looked at her “S.”

But not everyone had a big, two-story-tall letter painted on the building across the street. She could tell it was that large because she could see the windows next to it. Okay, so maybe it was only one-and-a-half stories tall, but it was up around the tenth or eleventh floor, and everything looks bigger higher up. Or so she thought at least.

It was kind of like Stephen (another “S”, she always reminded herself) who was so beautiful and seemed so majestic. He was tall, and his head was disproportionately large for his body. But she couldn’t help being attracted to him, daydreaming about him, adding the letters to his name to her view of “S.” Stephen, for his part, didn’t know she existed because they’d never been introduced. In fact, his name wasn’t actually Stephen, it was Pedro, but she’d given him a name of her own after she’d seen him at the bagel shop on the corner for the fourth morning in a row.

She wasn’t an obsessive person, no, you couldn’t say that exactly, she thought, but she was definitely aware, and self-aware as well, and she knew there was a certain obsessive quality to her fascination with her “S.” Especially when she knew there must be more letters painted up there, hidden from her by the jut of another building that was angled just right to show her the one “S” and nothing else. She wondered whether she’d ever see the thing, the letter or the entire word, from street level and see what it was referring to. The thought was terrifying.

Ursula Awake [Flash Fiction]

The hammering, clanging, clanking – the sheer metallic cacophony of sound was driving Ursula slowly, but surely, crazy. It wasn’t very late – only eleven-thirty or so – but there were rules about this kind of thing, even laws. No noise of this kind after eleven o’clock. Or even ten. She wasn’t sure which, but either way, by now the work should have ceased, the workers gone home for the night.

Turning over again, she lay a hand on her ear, shoving the other one deep into the pillow. Her own skin and bones weren’t nearly enough to shut out the racket, so she pulled over her husband’s pillow – he was still in the living room, watching something stupid on TV – and held it over her ear, making her head look like a strange, Ursula-faced sandwich. She began to laugh, a little at first, then harder, finally rocking with hysterical giggles, stifled behind her mouth. She tossed the second pillow away again. It wouldn’t do to be woken in the middle of the night by the sound of her husband’s ridiculing snort.

Still the noise went on. Ursula sat up and shook a couple more pills out of the plastic, orange bottle that was as familiar by now as a teddy-bear. Reaching for her glass of water, she hesitated, wondering if her habit was escalating. She decided she would think about it in the morning. Right now she needed the deep sleep that she hadn’t gotten since her daughters were born some thirty years previously. Maybe tonight would be the night, even with the pathetic stage being built in the park outside.

And that was another thing: why on earth were they building the stage at this hour? The park was controlled by the neighborhood, and they’d all signed to have the lampposts turned off there during the night. How were the workmen seeing what they were doing? Ursula mentally upbraided herself for assuming that the workmen were men. She supposed perpetual fatigue was as good an excuse as any for being a bad feminist.

Amelia [Character]

Amelia thought about death a lot. She didn’t consider herself morbid. She told people she was a realist. “Every time you cross a street, you might die,” she would say. “A freak tornado can happen at any time. Earthquakes aren’t that rare. All it takes is one moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re dead. And that’s a fact.”

She ran a finger underneath the velvet choker tied round her neck. Lifting the long-stemmed glass in front of her, she took a sip of champagne. The bubbles burned her tongue. The restaurant was brightly lit, clean and simply decorate, but Amelia saw dozens of opportunities for death all around her. If the waiter slipped right there, he would bang his head on the corner of a table. If the bartender poisoned the beer barrels, everyone who was ordering on tap would be in trouble. If the electric chandelier fell, it would crush the angry family sitting at the table directly beneath it.

“Ah, Amelia! Welcome back, welcome back,” the head waiter said, shuffling over rather nervously and drying his sweating hands on his tailcoat. “What can I get you today?”

“Nothing much, nothing much. This champagne is rather nice, you know.”

“I’m glad it’s to your liking!”

“Yes. Do you know that if you swallow something the wrong way, the fluid stays in your lungs? You can accumulate so much fluid there that it can kill you.”

“Indeed?”

“Hm. I think so. Maybe not. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Amelia realized she was a little tipsy. This was, after all, her third glass. “Death is a beautiful thing, my dear sir, did you know that?”

“Amelia, now,” the head waiter extended his hands forward, trying to ward off the oddness. “You remember what happened last time we had this talk?”

“Yes,” Amelia said, her voice serene and her eyes gazing far away. “You ended up escorting me out very rudely and then calling the police. The police, mind you, could have been very rough with me. Did you know that there was a kind of thing as ‘suicide-by-cop?'”

“No, I wasn’t aware. The cops weren’t rough with you, were they?” The head waiter’s anxiety levels were rising and he could almost feel the blood pressure closing his arteries and making it difficult to breathe. Amelia, or maybe it was Amelia’s money, often had that effect on people.

“No, no, of course not. But they could have been, you know. I just think you should get us both some lemon pie and then sit down and have a chat with me. What do you say?”

The head waiter made his excuses and hurried away to get the bill which he would put, not so tactfully, beside Amelia’s plate of pie. He sometimes had nightmares about Amelia. It was hard for him to envision her as someone like him, with a family and a past and some future. She had significantly less future than he did. Maybe that was part of why she frightened him so much.

It was so convenient and easy to see her as a scary old witch who was fascinated with her mortality; it was rare that people saw her for what she was – her friends dead, her family members all involved in their own lives, she was an old woman who was, indeed, fascinated with her mortality.

An Ode to Dorothy

Dorothy, poetess supreme,

For you I long, of you I dream.

Parker, drinker, hostess, wit,

I find no adjective to fit.

Life was longer than you planned,

Death escaped your grasping hand.

You sure attempted suicide,

But never gained the other side.

 

Marianne

An abundance of light brown hair, creamy skin and freckles made people stare whenever she told them she was born in Africa. It always amused her, seeing this prejudiced reaction in the people who ate at the restaurant where she worked. She sounded French, you see, and so they all assumed that she was a young photography student, maybe a dancer, who worked during the mornings.

She was a student, this was true, but not of what people always assumed. Her large eyes and pink lips seemed to give most people the impression that she was a dreamer, when, in fact, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. She hadn’t remembered a single dream she’d had at night for over ten years. This isn’t to say that she was without imagination – theoretical mathematics required more of the stuff than anyone who wasn’t studying it could believe, and Marianne possessed it in abundance. The simple logic of numbers, a universal language, was beautiful to her, and the deeper mysteries of unreal numbers and the roots of negatives fascinated her and raised a song in her heart.

It was hard for her to find a date – there wasn’t time between night classes, homework and her job at the cafe to go out anywhere. She got countless phone numbers from customers leaving a fat tip on their credit cards, smiling at her with cheeky grins, but she never copied them from the receipts, simply leaving them in the cash register where they belonged. She wasn’t interested in random men who saw her wrapped in an apron and looking like the picture of womanly virtue. Neither did she want the fawning boys in her class who drooled at the thought of a female mathematician. No, she was looking for something else, and she would recognize it when it came. She hoped.

A Crucial Fireplace

Some say that Fate guides them through life. Others believe that it is God who grasps their hand and tugs them, gently but insistently, into the future. Whether one or the other is true, or whether life is just a series of random happenstances, I am certain that things might have turned out very differently if Amanda had known the the room had a fireplace. Circumstances, then, be they under divine control or not, have the utmost impact on people, and Amanda would always look back at that dratted fireplace as the start of the whole sorry tale.

Amanda, the reader might want to know, wasn’t religious in the proper sense of the word. She believed in God, although she characterized Him with the sense of humor of a rather crotchety, bored old man, but she often forgot about Him in the fun and flurry of the holidays. It was hard to remember, when hanging up cheap silvery-colored ribbons on the Christmas tree and laughing uproariously with her two roommates over wine-coolers, that the celebration on December 25th owed anything to religion at all. It was all a big pageant to her, full of red, white and green, golden stars winking from shop windows, snowmen standing in backyards and children carrying little ice-skates over their shoulders. The magic of Christmas was to Amanda the same now, at the ripe old age of twenty-six, as it had been when she was four years old and wearing a full pajama suit that made her look rather like a koala bear.

But we are straying from our story. The moment of the fireplace, as we must call Amanda’s first glimpse of it, happened on Christmas Eve, but was not directly connected to the birth of the Son, nor to Amanda’s remembrance – or rather, lack thereof – of the meaning of the holiday. The fireplace lay in the room where she was to have her interview for the position of copy-editor in the Local Post, a weekly newspaper that was distributed for free around town and was filled with advertisements and coupons. The room where the fireplace lay was on the ground floor of the tallest office-building in the small city, and Amanda had been working in the self-same building since she’d gotten her M.A. in journalism. Because of her familiarity with the rather old high-rise, she dressed warmly to work every day during the winter, since the heating never worked properly. Naturally, she assumed that her interview for the lowly position in the Local Post – which was, nevertheless, better than her current job as a secretary – would take place in a cold room that had a crack or two in the window.

But, alas, as Amanda discovered when she walked in and saw the figure of Mr. Charles Forthright, the old fireplace that was in the editor’s office was ablaze, and warmth washed over her. She was much too embarrassed and tense to begin pulling off her two sweaters and one of her undershirts, and so she sweltered, face growing redder and forehead sweatier, answering the questions Mr. Forthright posed with liveliness and enthusiasm but what seemed to be extreme guilt or discomfort. It is a sad fact that sweat and redness often are products of liars, and Mr. Forthright was a rather supposing man, in the sense that he supposed things he thought were true without bothering to check them too deeply – he had fact-checkers on staff to do that dreary work for him. And so, although he thought that Amanda looked like a lovely young girl, he supposed that she was hiding something, such as an unwanted pregnancy that would lead to taking time off, or perhaps a health concern that would lead to the same, and as a calculating man, he decided not to give her the job.

Amanda conveniently forgot that she could have asked for a moment to remove her sweaters and get more comfortable. Throughout the changes that she would go through in coming years, she still insisted obstinately that if it weren’t for that fireplace, she would have gotten the job at the Local Post, and her life would have turned out entirely differently.

A Mad Woman in Berlin

She leaned over the back to back metal benches and asked the pair of English tourists if they smoked tobacco. Her accent was thick, sometimes sounding German, and at others Russian, although her English was good. The man, glancing uneasily at his partner, answered that he did. When the woman asked if she could have some, he looked confused for a moment. His partner told the woman that they only had cigarettes. The woman nodded eagerly, and asked if she could have one. The man smiled politely and produced a pack of Camels. The woman asked for a light, and the man leaned over toward her and lit her cigarette, which she sucked on greedily. He then turned to his partner, and they both spoke for a while in another language.

The mad woman didn’t quite fit the stereotype of a homeless person, living on the streets. Her hair was a shock of grayish-brown and her skin looked almost healthy. She was somewhere between forty and fifty, but wore the age well on her face, which was elegantly lined, although her cheeks were still full and youthful. Her clothing was oddly fancy, or at least the top half was. She wore what looked like a light brown leather jacket and her handbag was of similar material and color. The mere fact that she had a handbag was strange. Her skinny legs were wrapped in tight pants in shades of brown, olive and black, like a military uniform made into fashionable jeans. The mix between the pants and the well-kept leather jacket were perhaps an indication of her madness. Still, she could have been an eccentric fashionista and nothing more.

Except, that is, for the fact that she was talking to herself loudly and was holding a pink carton of cheap wine.

“It is security, you see. I don’t trust a man, and security is inside me. You have to stay inside the clothes, inside the pants. The pants are protection, they protect me. But I am an attractive woman. If another man come near I go away. But if another woman approach me,” and here she sounded a little defensive, “then that is okay, I mean I am an attractive woman. A woman can look at a woman and appreciate her and I don’t mind if a woman looks at me.” She took a drink from her pink bottle, and the smell of wine washed over the English tourists as well as the others on the platform. Just then, the train arrive, and everyone boarded, including the mad woman.

She sat across from the English couple and fell silent for a time. When a fat man with a tiny dog boarded at the next station and sat next to her, she got up at once and moved into the narrow space between the Englishwoman and a bearded businessman. She started talking again. “It is like the jackets, do you know the jackets in London?” she turned to the businessman. It wasn’t clear whether he ignored her or nodded for she kept speaking almost at once. “There are nice jackets in London, long coats. Every person should have them, they are made of good fabric, of, what is it called… Not wool, it’s not wool. It’s not like the jeans. There are jeans that are made of denim, and they are the color of – the color of indigo. How do you say indigo in German?” she turned to the Englishwoman.

“I don’t speak German, I’m sorry,” the tourist said, shrugging and smiling, but drawing closer to her companion so as not to brush the woman’s jacket.

“That’s right, you’re not from here,” the mad woman dismissed her at once and continued speaking of fabrics and jackets in America as opposed to those in London. She got off at the next stop, still speaking to herself in a loud, coherent voice, as if she were having a conversation with someone else. The English tourists probably never saw her again, but there was no way they would forget this strange and lonely woman who chose them as smoking- and seat-companions on a short journey on the U-Bahn in Berlin.

One Good Thing

Jodi lay on what she knew to be her deathbed, and thought about life. It was impossible for her to think about death. She’d been thinking about death for the past three years, ever since the doctors had found the first tumor. But in a few hours, the doctors said, she would die. They’d offered her morphine, to ease the pain, but she’d refused. It wasn’t because she was particularly strong, nor because she desired to suffer. It was merely that she wanted to think about life a little before she died, and she knew that she wouldn’t do that in the blissful haze that morphine gave her.

She wasn’t a very good woman. Ninety-three years old and her neighbors had been wishing her dead for two decades already. She knew that no one liked her. But that was alright. She’d realized sometime during her sixties that she didn’t like herself much either. At first she went to therapy and tried to fix herself. After four sessions, she’d decided that there was no reason to fix something that had been broken for so long, and anyway, Doctor Haddock was simply gaga.

Lying in the stinking hospital room, on her soiled sheets, Jodi wondered whether she’d done anything good in her life. She thought of her children, and concluded that they turned out to be good people despite her, not because of her. Her husband of forty-five years had died a long time ago, and she didn’t think that she’d made his life better. She thought, upon reflection, that he would have done better to have married his mistress when he started having an affair. She didn’t begrudge him anymore. Her grandchildren she hardly knew, although they were all in their twenties and probably having babies of their own by now. But her children had both run away to far corners of the earth, and so she’d never come to know their offspring well. Better this way, really, because her death wouldn’t be of much notice to anyone.

But surely, she thought frantically, she must have done something good in her life. No one would remember her for long, it was true, and if anyone did they’d remember a gruff, violent old woman who couldn’t hear very well but insisted that she did. They’d remember her spiteful cackle and the way she never opened the door for children at Halloween. None of this bothered Jodi, not really, but she still thought that there must have been something good in her, sometime.

A strange memory came upon her as she stared at the boring whitewashed ceiling. An image floated across her mind’s eye, an image of a red-haired girl giving a flower to an old drunk on the street and handing him a thermos full of strong black coffee. She remembered the man blessing that red-haired teenager, who was wearing a frightfully short yellow dress, and calling her “ma’am.” She remembered the red-haired girl laughing merrily, giving him five dollars – more than a month’s worth of allowance back then – and telling him to get a job. Finally, the last image she could see was of a janitor whistling as he swept the floors in an old office building where the red haired girl worked as a secretary. She remembered the red-haired girl smiling at him and shaking his hand and the man blessing her for the coffee and the money, but most of all for giving him hope.

Jodi’s crabbed fingers clutched at the call-button. A nurse came in, warily. She was new, and she’d heard horror stories about the old woman’s temper.

“Tell the doctors that I want the morphine, girl,” Jodi said in her rasping voice. “And be quick!” The young nurse jumped, surprised at the vigor in the words and hurried off without a word.

Jodi smiled to herself, toothless, sunken-cheeked and liver-spotted. She’d done one good thing in her life. That was good enough.