They Won’t Take Your Ideas
On a log, two birds face each other. With their beaks, they cross one another, pecking to the right and left. They look like Frenchmen caught in a loop of greeting, but they don’t touch, and their rhythm is too syncopated for a loop. Here and there, they pluck a beat from the air that twists like a worm. We watch from the car and laugh. Our dog in the backseat pushes in between us to look at the birds. Quickly, she turns toward the barn on the other side of the dirt road. She barks at the big, white barn.
The birds fly off.
We say, “Come on, Ida,” and “Why must you get so jealous?” The dog continues to stare at the barn where people build puppets all summer. Almost every tenant on this estate goes there to work: the recipe writer who lives in the converted milk house and the cook who moved into the landlord’s mansion. The cook lives off the library where the floor has a deep hole. We just found out about the hole from a bartender at the restaurant where we work. She fell into it during a tour of this estate. She lives in town and has been to the barn, but we never work on the puppets even though we live here. Only our dog goes to the barn, and we tease her about it.
“I’m so sorry they won’t take your ideas, Ida.”
“Zombie vet. That was a good one.”
Ghosts on sticks lean against the barn. Inside is dark and empty. It is early yet, being eight on a July morning. Months remain before the puppets must be done. They are for the Halloween parade in New York City. On Halloween morning, the puppets will get loaded into a truck headed for the West Village. Until then, we can make some money off the New Yorkers coming up here. The crowds arrive when the fruit trees blossom and leave when the branches are bare. Over the summer, we will work as much as possible: massaging people, working caterings. As a team, we wait tables up in the town of Hudson and clean houses. Unlike the other people on this estate, we don’t have time to go to “work parties” to make puppets.
We make fun of those who do. Continuing down the road, we speak in the nasal voices of ventriloquists, saying, “We are the puppet people.” Turning our heads jarringly, we move our mouths so that our words don’t quite match our lips. We are bantering about the quirks of plastic ghosts when we reach the greenhouse where we live. Over the years we have been in this converted building, we have refined our ventriloquist act. Maybe we have gotten too good. Our dog sniffs us with mild suspicion, first one head, then the other.
Here is our myth: that we live in paradise. The myth is easy to keep up in July when the fields behind our home are green. The breezes from the north are gentle. They blow the long fur of one of our cats, Merle, as she steps over the remains of a mouse. She comes in through the back door to have more to eat. At her dish, she shakes each dry star of meat hard as if to break its neck. One piece, flying from her mouth, lands on the old cat Tracy we took in last week. Tracy lets the star stay on her fat belly. Squinting, she seems to like her new home where it rains food.
But we mustn’t indulge in summer ourselves. This winter we got into debt. A medical bill paid through a credit service has become so expensive that we get sick thinking of it—so we try not to. We just keep in mind that we must pay it before winter. If we don’t, we’ll have to move to someplace less expensive.
As the head waitress, Mia, reminds us at work, we need to “make hay while the sun shines.” Mia makes more money than the chef, Aaron, which upsets him to no end. He looks a little cooked, standing back by the flames and frialator. His face is tender and puffy. It is easy to see why he is upset about Mia since his food is good and her service is spotty. She is fifty-eight and only works hard for good tippers; the others must sit and contemplate their sins. Aaron will rail in the kitchen about how much she makes. When he does, Mia calmly listens, her hands folded in front of her slender frame. When he has finished complaining, she waves toward the door to the dining room and says: “Anytime you want to come out, Chef, you can make the big money too. No one’s stopping you. Just come on out of the kitchen and meet the customers.”
She leaves for the dining room, and we follow her, hoisting trays on our shoulders. Our heads float past each other among steaks and fries. Pots of mussels sweat by our ears, and we sweat too as our boss’s favorite holiday, Bastille Day, approaches. We don’t know what to wear to the party our boss Talia is planning. We pick around the edges of each other, trying to think of how best to dress for the revolution at work, but Talia puts an end to our planning. While painting her guillotine red, she tells us that she will choose our outfits. She puts down her paintbrush to look us up and down. Her gaze reveals just how vividly she has been imagining the blood of the rich—so vividly that she can only see blood and money. Our costumes, she says, will show off what’s good for grabbing, and we should try, she adds, not to look like excrement when left to our own devices. Then she turns as serious as a priest at the benediction, saying with a solemn nod, “You will look good.”
And we do. We glow in the dining room, which Talia has made as shiny as Versailles. Mirrors with gold frames hang from the walls to reflect the choicest parts of the body, both male and female. When we come into the dining room with our trays, we are greeted by gilded rectangles of flesh—but not our heads. The shapes hover below our necks on every wall except one. This wall has vaulted windows that look out at topiaries. The potted trees have appeared out of nowhere as if on castors and concealing revolutionaries of odd shapes.
When the mock decapitations begin, Talia is the first to go to the guillotines. She emerges with a red ribbon on her neck and sits with men who sell antiques. Their shops line the main street with the newly upholstered and polished. Their work is meticulous, and their talk can be filthy. Talia can keep up with them on both scores. No one has anything on her polished tin ceilings, and her insults are so raunchy we would blush if we had it in us. Our blushing is reserved for public speaking, and so we keep silent when Talia insults us. We nod and slip away as soon as possible.
The last entrees of the night go to Elliot and Jane with a bottle of wine. They have just moved from the city. Jane keeps us at the table to ask us questions. She wants to know—she seems concerned about—how the locals are doing. We say we are doing well, as if speaking for everyone who works in town. We seem sincere but not as honest as Jane’s hands waving frantically under the table. She is shooing us away while nervously glancing at her husband, who never looks at us. Elliot is an important man who can lose himself in a good meal. After every bite he takes, he glances around the dining room. Most people in the restaurant know that he is the leader of an environmental group. He is trying to stop industry from coming in and polluting the increasingly quaint town of Hudson. He takes a bite and looks around and takes another bite and looks.
Returning to the background as instructed, we get as nervous as Jane’s hands. We know we are only playing “locals.” We came up from the city too, but with less money. Those who can truly afford this area may throw us out in a fit of redecoration. They may decide we clash with their restored Victorians and Greek Revival homes. We do look both too tender and stoic next to the thick pillars and bright gingerbread. The houses glow in the yellow lamplight as we walk to our car at the end of the shift. We drive south past the prison set back from the road. The lamplight stops, and the branches frantically cut their own silhouettes, their fingers worn to twigs that flicker black.
In July, the grass burns. The leaves on the trees rattle. We clean houses in the middle of the week when no one is home, so the air conditioning is off. But it is no hotter than our own house where we don’t have AC. When we sleep on our sides, sweat falls in our ears and wakes us.
After one cleaning job, we wrestle across the floor in our kitchen. We are fighting over ice cream. The carton is a quarter full, and we both want what’s left. Our struggle is contracted, our arms slender and bent like praying mantises’ as we grab the carton with weird concern. Are we protecting the ice cream or ourselves? It isn’t clear, but our seriousness is plain enough. Armed with spoons, we roll across the floor, our bones pressed into the wood. Our struggle smells of sweat and wood soap that we used on someone else’s floor. Dirt is sticking to our damp skin. We see it too keenly after hours of searching for dust and insects in someone else’s largely empty second home. Air gets pressed out of our lungs as we roll. “Gimme—” We are in danger of coming apart.
But how can we? Our nerves are tangled together. Branching sideways, they create sensations that sneak up on us, like the lightning in the windows. We both turn to see the white spreading over a line of junipers. The lightning writes a sentence, which the thunder then reads. “The juniper balances blue and green,” the bolt writes, and thunder says, “Branches balance stiffness with violent thrashing—but watch the sticks drop, the balance tipped.” A storm erupts, the wind shaking trees. Leaves on sticks skid across the road. Sneaking up on us is a feeling of being safe inside while being exposed in bed, the lightning spreading across our skin.
If we were to split into two, we would have to rend the sky, and maybe we could do it even though our arms are too heavy to lift. Outside an animal turns the dark white with a scream against the lightning. The creature sounds small, but its cry is louder than the rumblings of the thunder that has gone east. The leaves buckle, letting the water run off.
When we wake, we must dress for Sunday brunch. It is our easiest shift, in part, because it doesn’t involve Mia. When we work with her, we have to deliver much of her food from the kitchen to the tables. She won’t use trays and can only carry two plates at a time. Her position as head waitress has something to do with her friendship with Talia. The boss has no real affection for us, and so we must be on time, which means speeding this morning. A puppet has delayed us, a spider whose legs got tangled in the road.
At work, we find Vivian in the kitchen. She does several jobs: prepping, baking, cooking. Sometimes she works in the dining room, busing tables. Today she is doing dishes. She wants to cook more, but Talia won’t give her the shifts. When brunch is over, she comes into the dining room where we are reading the Sunday paper. Vivian says she loves to see us focusing, the last word underscored with a twist of her hands in the air. Sitting down at the bar, she lights a cigarette. As she exhales, she moves her lips over each other, making patterns in the smoke.
The haze rises, blurring the light from the front windows. The afternoon is sunny and clear. The antique store across the street, which used to be a supermarket, looks bright. Its entrance is wide enough for food carts. The long sign above the door—the red shows where the word “Market” once hovered—seems too inviting in the sun. It looks as if both the antique store and its ghost were open for business so that one could buy a mid-century chair along with a head of lettuce and some milk. Vivian knows the store as it used to be, having lived in Hudson her whole life. She stares at something specific outside. Her eyes narrow. Ghostly words seem to move across her soft features. The words get roughly translated in a look of disgust.
Turning to us, Vivian says Mia complained about her last night. Mia told Talia that the utensils weren’t being cleaned fast enough. The bins had no silverware in them, but the reason they were empty had to do with Mia. She was hiding fistfuls of forks and knives in the closet.
We know about how Mia stashes silverware. With her private stash, she can reset her tables, while we can’t. That means her section gets reseated more, we tell Vivian, and while Mia has a hard time delivering food, she has no problem taking orders and the tips that come from writing tickets. Her section at the front of the restaurant is by far the largest. It would be the most profitable even if she didn’t take the silverware.
Vivian listens to our explanation with a wry smile. Tapping her cigarette over the ashtray, she says with a raised eyebrow: “Well, I’ll tell you: if someone wants me to be their puppet, I’ll say, ‘OK. I’ll be your puppet’—” She looks at us, her gaze focused “—but I’m the one pulling the strings.”
Behind the restaurant, Talia makes a garden. Her ground covers send lime green and red around stone in sweeping lines. The vibrant leaves grow, like a hot shiver, in the cool shade. The once-potted topiaries have been planted by the wall of the next building. Above stone steps, Rose of Sharon stretches by a table. The seats clustered at the table look like the perfect place to escape the heat of summer. Talia, who used to work in fashion, can see deeply into the surface of things, and around a pool, she has placed houttuynia, red-edged and repetitive. The pattern burns with stubborn cool, its lushness refusing to extinguish its heat.
Talia takes us to see her garden from the floor above. It seems as though she brought us to this balcony out of pride. While not friendly with us, she does seem to know that we are hard workers, and so we can see the value of what she has done. With her arms around us, she shakes us roughly. “That’s my paradise down there,” she says, glancing into the corners of our eyes. She is in her late forties with bright silver hair. “My paradise. And maybe someday soon—” Vigorously, she rubs our shoulders and then pats our arms hard. “Well, we’ll see what the garden will become.”
As evening wears on, we do see the garden transform. Shadows behind the kitchen door grow long. The surface of the pond trembles in a breeze. Mia is suspicious of what we see and know. Why were we invited to the balcony? She is the only employee who sits there in front of the French doors that lead to Talia’s apartment. She and Talia, being closer in age, have much to discuss over wine and scotch, respectively. Why were we taken to their haven? It could not have been for the sake of friendship, and it wasn’t, we know it. We can see how the garden, now lit by the moon, could serve an end more mercenary than friendship. It could attract more customers by pulling them back into the fragrant shade—if the weather cools in the evenings, that is. Mia could never serve this table. The steps to the garden are uneven and treacherous, blending into the stone around them.
We climb them to take orders from a group outside. They are Talia’s friends from the city, and they have come for dinner. To serve their food, we must take a roundabout path from the kitchen. We head for the backstairs, stepping over onion skins and scraps of lettuce. With our trays, we go up concrete steps that are damp from the garden’s watering hose. The patio is dark. Only Talia could sacrifice function for style so completely that we can’t see far past the candles at the table. Her smile, hard and bright, emerges in the glow. Glancing up at us, she seems to see what we know: how to make her paradise work as a place to eat.
The heat stops at sunset, which has inched closer. The sun goes down at half past six. It is August, and many more tables are in the garden. At dusk, every sound has sharp edges and comes wrapped in blue light. A customer’s voice sounds as close as the bell in the kitchen or a shout between friends a block away. Above the stone steps are new tin lanterns. The lamps give the stone a deceptive softness. People are turning down Mia’s section to come up to this garden. They want to take the dangerous walk to paradise. The blossoms from the Rose of Sharon have fallen and turned viscous on the stairs. But we stay focused with our eyes cast downward. We never forget the debt that we are paying down.
At home, we are laughing. Behind our house, our cat Merle is hunting in the fields, and the dog Ida wants to hunt too but must learn how. Ida delicately lifts her paw as she follows the cat. Ida copies Merle’s every move. The cat stops and looks back at the dog, who stops to look back. The cat, unable to catch the dog’s eye, turns back and continues her prowl. Her step is careful, the grass tall. But it doesn’t matter how hard she tries to keep her cool while searching for mice and rabbit. Her cover keeps being blown by that dog behind her—that big, rustling, hairy thing. The cat stops, and the dog stops; and the cat looks back at the dog, who looks back.
And we laugh. The animals scatter. Rain falls, and water pools in the dirt road. Moths descend on the puddles, which turn to steam. The rising water is going through the white moths to birds high above. A flock is circling a rainbow just as the colors emerge. The scene resists description. The sentence, “Green dips its wings into the end of blue,” splits like fruit that’s too ripe.
Our work moves closer to heaven when Mia gets fired. She has been changing the tips on her credit-card receipts, artfully turning sixes into eights, sevens into nines. Ever since we have worked with her, Mia has made such profitable changes, but for some reason we can’t figure out, Talia has finally said something about it. On the subject, Talia delivers a short sermon at the bar: “Listen to me. I speak the truth: Don’t shit where you eat.” She takes a sip of scotch, and we take Mia’s shifts. We work hard, and so does Vivian, who is cooking more. She cooks on the weekends.
One Sunday night, we celebrate her birthday. At the bar, we serve her a cake. While Vivian looks our age—she has few wrinkles—forty-seven candles burn on her cake. She seems serious after eating. Her eyes are teary in the bar’s candlelight. Votives are flickering inside ruby-colored glass. Vivian, leaning back in her chair, crosses her arms and studies us. “You’re solid,” she says. As if to define “solid,” she lightly taps her heart twice with her fist. “I know what you do is wrong, but you are solid.” She doesn’t define the second part of what she says, but she doesn’t have to. We know what she means: morally, she objects to us. But we don’t care. We just want to dance and do.
Puppet snakes dance out of the barn. Our dog weaves among the people holding the serpents from below. She does not seem to hear us when we call her name. In her mouth is a huge bone she dug up in some field. Between the bone and the snakes, she is completely absorbed. She seems to think that she—and not the puppeteers holding the sticks—has brought the snakes to life.
August stays hot to the end, but the mornings are cool, like the nights. One morning we walk to the river to feel the breeze coming off the water. We cross the train trestle to a small cliff over the Hudson. We see two dots far out in the water. The dots are beige and a little larger than the juniper berries in front of our toes. The roots of a small tree are clutching the cliff’s edge. The tree shakes in the breeze. Having come for this cool air, we are smiling as we watch the dots. Are they ducks? They circle each other like ducks, but they are solidly beige with neither beaks nor markings. Are they a quarter- or half-way across the river? The mountains in the background, being both distant and immense, make it hard to calculate scale.
“What good swimmers you are!” we shout at the dots along with: “Look at you!”
They head for us slowly—or maybe they are quick. We can’t tell, distances being vague. At least we can make out the dots better. They are deer. Their hornless heads look up at us. We continue to shout compliments. How far must they come to reach this shore? How long are they swimming before they slip from view under the edge of the cliff? The trees beneath us rustle.
The deer reappear only yards away. They are dripping wet. Their ears are big and round like teacups. They twitch. How far have they come to reach this shore? How long was that journey through the river, that silent stampede of hooves beneath the water? Behind us, the train whistles to the north. The cry of the tracks grows louder. A train, the 7:22, roars by. When it has passed, the deer run.
A man falls down the steps to paradise and sues. Talia stops paying for all the hours we work. She argues that we, as fulltime workers, could force her to give us health insurance. We haven’t asked for it, but Talia says we could. We don’t object about our pay since our checks are small; what matters are our tips. With them, we have paid off almost all of our medical bill. Talia knows how to bring in customers. Already, she is talking about outdoing last year’s Halloween when she turned the dining room into another planet. One of the chandeliers was our solar system with the earth as a blue bulb. This year the poles by the bar will be tree trunks in a forest. After dinner, everyone will dance in the clearing. We will dance beneath a full moon that Talia is making with gelled lights, silver cotton and painted ironweed.
We sense the closeness of Halloween while driving home one dusk. It is September. The only sunlight is coming from behind the mountains. The light slipping around the stone is clear yet blue, like the water that lies buried in the Catskills. We fall silent as we drive up a hill to our home. Ida is between us. We touch her ears and neck. When the barn emerges up ahead, we quietly tease her with our usual lines.
“I’m sorry they won’t take your ideas.”
“That kennel ghost—”
We stop. Ahead in the road is what looks like a pillar. White and large, it stands by the junipers. While not as big as the trees, it seems enormous. It seems as big as a dream that resurfaces, like flotsam, throughout the day: an image here, a line of dialogue there. The object is a bone. Long ropes hang from its top joint. They are held by people staring upward, their mouths open with focus. They walk ahead and let the ropes slip from the top joint. Continuing to walk, they coil the cords around their arms. We follow in our car. The junipers are still, the night windless. We tell our dog: “You did a good job” and “Your best idea by far.” Driving slowly, we speak in the solid voices of the bone.
Caroline Wilkinson recently won the A. David Schwartz Fiction Prize at Cream City Review. Her fiction has appeared in many literary journals including DIAGRAM and Memorious. A graduate of the MFA program at Washington University, she is in the Creative Writing Ph.D. program at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Links to her fiction and book reviews can be found at www.carolinewilkinson.com