Joan Frank
PROSE
 
Picaro


Ellen has not thought about Winston for perhaps twenty years. She first knew him when she was scarcely twenty years old and he, still a child. Was the boy even seventeen when they’d become lovers? He’d probably been sixteen. Her memory of it, buried in a cold, dark fog—the kind she once lived in, near Ocean Beach. Buried so long it seemed to disappear.

Until one evening not long ago, when Ellen watched a television program. A plane crash into the side of an Andean mountain fifty years before, deeply buried by the avalanche it caused, had lately risen to the surface. The glacier covering the crash had moved slowly downhill, scooping earth and ice beneath it: under, along and eventually up, wheeling, pushing its secrets up, up til they lay exposed and faintly ridiculous: found-objects placed as if by colossal prank on the lunar-like surface of the high, snow-patched mountains. Big, deeply-treaded tires bobbed into view out of nowhere, intact. An engine. And a mummified human female hand lay delicately among the rocks and snow, perfectly preserved all the way to way to mid-forearm, elegant in ballet-like pose, graceful and stiff as a department store mannequin’s.

Perhaps its owner had been resting it on the armrest of her seat when the aircraft hit the mountainside. Did they have armrests then? Agitated, Ellen rose from the couch, stooping in the lamplight to kiss Dan goodnight. He would stay up with the television awhile. Standing before the bathroom mirror, Ellen could see only that petrified hand, its permanent gesture of grace—though the exploring party’s South American leader had waved the mummified limb disrespectfully when he picked it up, gesturing carelessly with it as if it were a drumstick he’d been eating. The hand seemed to Ellen to embody its own last moments: that its posture was blithe made its message more terrifying. She could not stop mulling the way innocent bits of people and machinery had suddenly risen to the surface, mute and harshly palpable after so long.

Then today. A typical Sunday in the gym’s cardio room, where people stairclimb or cycle as they stare at reading propped before them or gaze up slack-faced at six televisions, earphones plugging their ears: Ellen is pedaling on an exercycle, reading a story in a magazine. In it, a divorced mother goes to visit a faraway friend and finds, in that friend’s kitchen, her childhood sweetheart. (He is making a sandwich.) The woman secretly hopes to strike something up again with him. But his life has taken turns that have made him someone who cannot act on his old wishes.

The Andean ruins and the magazine story seem to marry in Ellen’s mind, making a little explosion. She puts down the magazine, takes a drink of water, wanders to a window of the gym and leans against its frame, looking out on the tall birch trees. Their leaves shiver and ripple in the raw spring wind. She thinks immediately, and for a long time, about her last meeting with Winston.

When it happened, she had already lived many years in the world with no thought of Winston, no word of what had become of him. Ellen was thirty-five at the time. She had traveled and worked many jobs. She lived in the city alone then, caught for reasons not yet completely understood—if they ever are—in a maudlin and punishing love affair. The affair had been going on far longer than it should, longer than made any sense, and since she was an intelligent woman, Ellen despaired. She was clawing away at it every chance she got, trying to make a hole in it through which she might escape, as if the affair were a plastic bag that had sealed itself over her—a clear membrane separating her, subtly but seamlessly, from the living.

Her lover’s name was Angel, which he certainly wasn’t, except—Ellen had thought this during her early thrall—he was probably intended to be, when he was christened. Oh, intentions. And it was pronounced On Hell, wasn’t it? He was big, dense, and dark, with a thick headdress of straight black hair. He looked like a Mayan prince. He was married and had a small son, a tiny, black-haired beauty who in Ellen’s mind resembled the little boy born to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Angel’s wife was a red-diaper lefty, tough and wily: She was onto him—his childlike wanderings, his serial infatuations. His wife worked Angel’s guilt every possible way—staging scenes, slamming out of the house in a bitter rush, the boy mewling in her arms. Angel, torn in fine Latin torment between allegiance to his family and his belief that Ellen was the “tender heart” meant to lift him from mundane invisibility—wept easily, copiously, and could never, no matter what promises he made, leave his wife.

So Ellen and Angel saw each other, or they didn’t. They took turns making vows of various sorts, and promptly broke them. When they didn’t see one another for a while, Ellen felt her life starting to suck into itself, like a deflating thing. When they did, she felt as though someone might step in front of them at any moment and clap shut the hinged arm of the filmmaker’s clapper, yelling “Cut!” Their encounters felt that absurdly stylized; cinematic self-consciousness seeped through their tears and embraces, as if everything they did were performed with an eye on a nearby mirror. Ellen wanted out, or believed she did. Other lives seemed to be carrying themselves along apart from this sticky, sandy web. Why couldn’t she enter those other lives’ midsts, shoulder in and belong to them again—unquestioned, valid, blissfully straightforward? Yet no exit seemed to appear that Ellen could yet discern. Each time she tried to end it, some invisible tether caught her and yanked her severely back, and each time she felt she was going mad—trapped in an elaborate Borgesian punishment, pressing along the walls of a lightless room, feeling blindly for the seams of a door, the air supply running out. Ellen kept creeping: edging her fingertips on.

But sometimes she’d have to sit down and cry.

The phone call arrived, she remembers, one dark, foggy evening.

“Hey, Ellen-Jellen. Hey, Jelly Bean.” Though it had been fifteen years, she knew it was Winston Rattle. Jelly Bean had been his nickname for her—a strange skewing of her name that he’d once thought a clever tease. It had always bothered her—it was artless and affectionless—but she’d felt back then (she was scarcely twenty; he, sixteen) she had to accept it because it was his only expression of anything like intimacy, though it had also had the dismaying effect of distancing and mocking her. It even seemed, unhappily, to strip her of her sex. Which was odd, since sex had been a major activity for them, as she recalled.

Winston’s voice hadn’t changed, though it had filled out and sagged a bit, like a middle-aged man’s body. It was still slow and rough; suspicious and cautious, Bogarty. She remembered at once how she had diagnosed this manner: it had been his self-protection, she’d thought, this tough and skeptical sound. His voice woke her memory the way smell or old music does, setting off a chain of associations: how she had resolved as a girl, in Earth Mother mode, to melt Winston’s tough Bogie front by cossetting him. She would be the good medicine, the Love Antidote. She’d set out to show him she was rare and true: tough wasn’t necessary. He’d never dropped the mode, though, apparently. Not even now.

“Winston Rattle. What are you doing here?” She was surprised at her own aplomb. Maybe it was because she was currently steeped in such relational gore—her history with Winston seemed a picked pimple by comparison.

“I’m here because I’m on business, Jelly Bean,” he answered in that falsely hearty, have-I-got-a-deal-for-you tone. “I’m on a mission.” Winston had found work as an entomologist’s assistant when she’d last seen him, and it seemed he still did something like that now—traveling to capture and classify the insect life of Missouri, where he now lived. It had used to be Northern California, and he’d used to call her from towns like Willits, from rooms in roadside motels whose grainy televisions he’d be watching from the requisite lumpy beds, eating shitty, greasy food. Winston’s complexion had been a mystery ride, she suddenly remembered, sometimes pinkly boyish and smooth, sometimes erupting uglily. Well, he’d been a kid, hadn’t he.

“I’d like to see you, Jelly Bean,” he added in that half-cautious, half-swaggering growl. Protecting itself, always hooded in case of rejection. She listened, and remembered the way Winston kissed. A particular feminine abandon in it. As if he allowed himself to go into a swoon; something innocent and receiving, even corruptible about his soft, slightly-parted lips. Winston had always resembled Michelango’s David, Ellen recalled. She’d even tried sketching him once or twice, reclining nude and pale and smooth in her bed—his youthful proportions, his dark curls; a relaxed, natural beauty of the sort older men turned to watch. Even then, as a naïve girl, she had seen that Winston carried his beauty with a careless but distinct awareness of it. Without any outward sign he was mindful of people’s admiration the way a beautiful young girl might be: accepting silent homage to something he’d been vested with. 

Part of Ellen, at the moment of his call, did wish very much to be distracted. Even better, admired. Admired without complication. Winston now lived far from her, and had a life out there. He’d mentioned a girlfriend; some muffled sort of difficulty with her. A tiny ping at the way-back of Ellen’s mind pushed experimentally at the idea, small as silver b-b shot, of striking something up with him. She could hear behind Winston’s words the same idea, a pituitary pellet. She didn’t like this presumption, in herself or him—it felt coarse—but found she could not dismiss it out of hand. She agreed to dinner. A Spanish place, Picaro, down the avenues, nearer to the ocean. She wouldn’t let him come to her apartment. It was too full of the rawness of her present life—and she had at least to protect the privacy of her street address (making a mental note to get her phone number changed to an unlisted one). There had to be something between her and god knew who-all, pushing at the cave door of her ragged-ass existence.

In Winston’s voice she heard the clear gleam of interest. It was archeological play, she sensed, an adventure-dig. She did not cancel the notion in her own thoughts, but kept it tucked up under them somewhere, a coin under a pillow.

 

It was at that interval a “not-seeing” time in the Angel/Ellen wars. He had gone back to his wife yet again, whimpering. Ellen had tried to kick him in the stomach just before he did. They were parked a block away from his wife’s flat. Ellen had understood, with or without words, that he’d returned to his wife, eaten food there, fucked his wife again for the billionth time, slept with her. For some reason this homeyness (as she imagined it) set fire to Ellen: the shiny fortress of it, the screwed-tight coziness taunted her, cutting her with swift little slices second by second, leaving her dazed with rage. Once Ellen had chased Angel down the street, maddened, barefoot, wearing nothing but a thin cotton kimono. Angel had run very fast. She had run barefoot on the cool gritty sidewalk until her lungs seared her, until she’d had to stop in the silent warm night, the deserted sidewalk, the forsaken, blank street, hands on her knees, heaving air and sobs.

This time, in the car, Ellen had tried to kick him—she was behind the wheel; he at the other side of the front seat—but he’d seen her foot shooting out karate-style, and flattened his midsection against the car door behind him, scooting backward quickly so that it prevented her from placing the kick squarely enough to do any damage. And this bungled blow would continue to frustrate her in recollection, against all accrued reason, for years. Whenever she re-summoned the scene, she could still taste her desire  to hurt him (that gray, cold day), feel her foot connecting in one hard, deep slam to his soft midsection. Hear his breath shoved out. See him fall out the door onto the street, on his back. But Angel was a nimble fellow. He’d learned to be.

In fact Angel had small, twitching eyes and a feral wariness about him like a rabbit’s. Years of scampering at the rough edge of white men’s laws had polished him smooth, made him know how to move without attracting the wrong kind of attention. What currents to sniff, when to dash, when to recede. Angel was most at ease, Ellen knew, in the type of bar where she’d first met him—jazz bars full of smoke and sticky urine-y beer smells, full of inchoate movement and sound into which he could slip invisibly, take a quiet seat, nurse a beer. Eventually he’d strike up talk with anyone at hand, about anything at all. Angel needed response—anyone’s—to feel he was alive. She wouldn’t understand this completely for a long time. It had been she who’d been at hand to respond, of course, arriving at the bar that fateful first night to hear a trumpeter she liked—she who’d come alone; self-conscious, brave, ignorant. She’d noticed Angel, been drawn to his Chief Broom looks, laughed at his clumsy jokes.

They had talked. She had driven him home. Home where his wife and son slept, waiting for their Papi.

She’d been single and lonely so many years, she didn’t know how to know better.

It makes a queer backwash when someone from one life you are leading slaps up against someone from a different, earlier life. Each seems to challenge the other’s physical existence, like pieces of furniture brought together from different planets. Or bringing your second-grade teacher, her thick ankles drooping over her sturdy nurse’s shoes under long, billowy, Amish-length skirts, into the room to meet your current lover in his T-shirt and leather jacket. “Mrs. Mahoney, this is Angel Gutierrez. Angel, this is Mrs. Mahoney. Mrs. Mahoney, Angel is a machinist for a candy factory. Angel, Mrs. Mahoney pinned my penmanship up on the class bulletin board.”

 

Ellen agreed to have dinner with Winston one week from the night of his call. But during that week, something queer happened.

Nausea.

Waves of it. At first a whispering unease, then more emphatic, a sudden deep rolling twist—enough to make her stop walking or reaching or whatever she might be doing when it hit. At the same time she began to comprehend, slowly and stupidly, that no period had shown yet that month. At approximately the same time came the onset of sharp, highly specific longings for pancakes and rotisserie chicken, for donuts with peanut butter on them and chocolate milk, for patty melts and cottage cheese and Egg McMuffins. But when she’d drive out of her way to get these things into her mouth they tasted metallic, as if infused with powdered iron or rust.

The food tasted like blood.

She took a morning off from her job and walked up the hill to the neighboring university clinic for the test, her heart fibrillating shallowly like a drugged, fragile pet. Hope was a dulled, witless thing, because it knew it was not admissible this time. She watched the wine-colored syrup pop cheerfully from beneath the tender inseam of her open arm through the translucent plastic tubing, colorful burgundy display looping-the-loop into the clear-glass beaker.

The call came three days later. The voice on the other end of the phone a woman’s, youngish, deliberate and steady. That voice had practiced delivering its payload to every manner of response. How must it feel, Ellen wondered, to have people wait on your words this way. The way they might stand in a Coliseum’s dirt arena, amid the animal dung and the white-noise roar, attending a Roman ruler’s whim.

Positive. Four weeks.

Oh, Christ oh Christ oh Christ.

 

The restaurant meant to be a gothic affair. It was stony and chilly, dungeon dark. Fat candles sat on ornate black iron sconces nailed into the walls. Waiters moved about, wearing the familiar waiting person’s expression of fixed, grim aversion. The Gypsy Kings played on the speaker system—music that always made Ellen think of being sold into Moroccan slavery. Their furious guitars, their Muslim wails ululating like mosque prayers, their forlorn urgency—made you want to misbehave. Drink liquor straight from the bottle, pitch your half-smoked cigarette aside impatiently, slap someone. Ellen would come to hate the music. It seemed to stand for everything she had thought she loved, in the beginning, about Angel. And it was dawning now that Angel’s tremulous urgency was the most tedious possible groove to get stuck in. The whole business had even begun to border on comic, to seem outsized and floppy—an outsized Musketeers hat, ostrich-feather falling down over some kid’s face.

It was hard to think of a Gypsy King standing around with a limp garden hose, watering the grass. Or pushing a cart down a fluorescent supermarket aisle, eyeing the canned corn.

Or leaving his perfectly capable wife and innocent child to marry his pregnant girlfriend.

Winston was waiting for her at a small table. She spotted him at once, from the back. Same color hair. Same back. It squeezed her in her chest for an instant. Winston was balding. In his thirties.

Ellen had parked two blocks from the restaurant because she had needed time to clarify, to gather nerve and wits. She wore a black sweater, black skirt. What did she tell herself in those few minutes? What do any of us tell ourselves? Something on the order of must go forward. The late afternoon was typical near the beach, where the streets snub out and the trolley tracks become a circular cul-de-sac. The end of the line. Thick, gray fog bore down like packed batting, almost mist, finest droplets vibrating as they hung, beading. You could scarcely see. The heavy fog seemed to pet her as she moved through it; cool and wet, cobwebbing everything the same gunmetal grey.

Winston turned quickly as she approached from behind, as if his peripheral vision were so tautly strung it could apprehend the least motion. He eyed her in one practiced sweep as he half-rose; Ellen flinched.

“Hey, Jelly Bean.” Winston grinned tightly in that sarcastic, embarrassed way he had. He did not move to take her hand or embrace her. His eyes shone sideways at her a little wildly, forehead and cheeks radiating a faint pink, as if he were alarmed at being caught out at something. Ellen remembered this look.

“Winston,” she said, leaning quickly to peck his cheek. It smelled of men’s cologne. He wore dark pants and a pendleton shirt. The boy had turned into a middle-aged version of his boyhood self. Though in truth he would have been about 31 that day, in appearance at least he’d gone from seventeen to 45 somehow. With what between?

She sat. Her stomach rippled. A parachute, lifting and settling slowly, blorpy and bubbling.

“How are you, Jelly Bean?” he said in a tone that seemed to spread itself across the table like a fanned-out line of cards. She wished to God she had not agreed to this, and silently added it to the long, long list of Never Agains.
“Not so well as I wish, Winston,” she answered. Her glance bounced around the dim room. The music, the hollow, musty smell of the wax and fake stone walls, the deathless howls of the Gypsy Kings, were making her feel a bit faint.

“Strange stuff has happened since you called.”

“What sort of stuff?” He was on it at once, the new note in her tone, different from last week’s on the phone, and alertness prickled over his face. Winston’s features were actually pert; nose smallish, black-brown eyes watchful. It was his hairline that had most changed, clipped short and shrinking perceptibly backward like an atrophying lawn; it must have caused him grief. Ellen was truthfully sorry. It wasn’t fair, of course: men were bequeathed hair or bequeathed its absence, a random gene toss, coalescing atoms. Nobody deserved grief for that. Ellen remembered Winston’s father’s bald head, and wished, as she often did, that she could realign these things. She would fix it permanently so no one cared about the way their nose bumped or their eyebrows joined or their thighs strained at the seams of their jeans. She would fix it so we all moved about happy and loose, sleek and iridescent and unisexual as guppies. We’d all be translucent. Able to see each other’s guts, the absolute same as anyone else’s. Heart, liver, stomach, intestines. Little traveling, lighted displays of neatly-packed organs.

She didn’t have it in her to lead Winston down a falsely-busy path. She’d never been able to avoid answering a direct question directly.

“I’m pregnant, actually, Winston,” Ellen heard her mouth speak the words. She waited, dull and queasy, watching him. Winston’s features emptied and his eyes grew mottled, though they were still trained on her. The information was glancing off him without real penetration, she saw; it was more than he could take on, or in.

Some sort of behavioral statute of limitations applying here, Ellen thought. She may as well have told him she’d contracted polio.

“Is it—“ he paused carefully. Precarious, this. “Someone who wants to have it with you?”

“No. Not exactly,” she said.

“No,” she corrected. “It’s a mess. He is married.” How could she possibly describe the hemorrhage of emotion and sex and earnestness, that was Angel?

“Jelly Bean,” he said. “What’re you gonna do?” This was not spoken compassionately, but with a survivalist’s curiosity—the way one truant schoolkid might ask another how he planned to evade the police.

 “I don’t know, Winston.” She looked at the tablecloth, a field of whiteness. Against it, her mind fanned successive images of the ludicrous, petitioning Angel. She had phoned him the previous Saturday morning; driven all the way out to the factory in South City where he labored. Met him in the parking lot, confronted him. The eucalyptus trees fencing the area nodded, waving their long loose leaves in the cool morning wind off the sea: seemed to embank the two in the bottom of a big bowl. Angel had wept, of course. Fallen to his knees and embraced her, pushing his face into her belly. He’d taken both her hands and kissed their fingertips and palms. He begged her to have the baby by herself. Ellen worked in an office as a secretary. Her parents were dead. She had no savings. But—a gust of inspiration—he’d send her money! He had a friend who’d done it, he told her. (Let’s be clear, Ellen thought, his wife had this friend.) Carried it all off alone. Gone to the hospital, expelled the infant, came home unescorted on the city bus clasping the infinitely small, infinitely helpless new creature—a creature which would, in about five minutes, Ellen knew, turn into a hulking, hungry, despising teenager who’d demand money. But that first vision of the pale, exhausted woman seated on the city bus, looking out the window into the cottony haze of day, her tiny issue the size of a loaf of bread wrapped papoose-tight in her arms—made Ellen go cold. Imagine a baby wailing in her apartment, while a few blocks away Angel was tucked in sweetly with wife and mijito. Imagine Angel pressed to the cyclone fence outside the preschool, tears streaming, or knocking on Ellen’s door at all hours, drunk, plying the bewildered child with weepy injunctions and symbolic little trinkets under the pretext of Mysterious Uncle.  And that would only be the beginning. The beginning.

The waiter, a man of about 40, had glided noiselessly to the table’s edge and stood inquiringly, managing to partly cloak the bitter fatigue and disdain contorting his expression. So many of these men were gay, their natural looks starting to evanesce, fine sheen of kitchen-steam perspiration covering their brows, and Ellen knew waiters were not generally offered health plans. What on earth was to become of them?

But why limit the question to waiters?

 “Well, hey now.” Winston was still looking at her, trying to gage what might be recoverable here. “Let’s eat something, Jelly Bean.”

“Winston, could you please, please, please stop calling me that,” she said, in a voice that came out thin and frayed.

He colored up promptly as a stoplight.

“What looks good?” He seized one of the long, laminated menus and fixed his gaze furiously on the columns of words.

Ellen tried to rouse herself to the ivory-colored cardboard whose lettering was like old-fashioned hymn music. Paella was supposed to be good here. She gave up and asked Winston to pick anything for her. The place was not cheap, but she’d not thought of that earlier. She’d only been hoping, when she’d suggested it, to—what. Provide a setting.

Winston ordered the dinners and asked for wine; when it came he tilted his glass briefly toward her and bolted a fortifying gulp. She took a polite sip. The food arrived, a vast ceramic oval platter of blackish things and whitish things. Her stomach dimpled a little; hungry but uneasy.  She touched the food with a fork, prodding it gently as if it might move.

“Winston, I’m not feeling awfully good. I think I might have to go home soon.”

“Aw, Jel—aw, c’mon now, kid. It’s been so many years! How often does a chance like this—” He amended himself. “—a reunion like this happen?”  He smiled in a lopsided way, adding as if in bright afterthought:

“I’d like to see your apartment.”

He was peering at her.

She stared at him. A voice hissed: fill the time, fill the time.

“Winston, what’s your life like? Are you happy?” She licked some beans from the tip of her fork. They tasted good at first; in the next beat a coppery dog food flavor tinged the insides of her cheeks.

The question annoyed him. Too dry and high-minded, she guessed, like public television compared with porn.

He shrugged, chewing. “I don’t know. I’m all right. The town’s okay, boring as hell. The job’s good. Girlfriend’s kind of a roller coaster, though.”

Why?

“Wants to live together; get married.”  He grimaced and again colored a little. “The usual.”

Ellen always felt stung by reports like these, implicated by them. Home and family appeared the only things, time and again, that her sex seemed to publicly desire. It shamed her that it seemed true for herself as well—those two things a sort of primal recourse. Everything else—travel, school, jobs—slid witlessly as soap in and out of one’s grasp, despite best plans. And even though the year was already 1985, the big proverbial butterfly net was still—still!—what men joked about and shied nervously away from, clattering off like cartoon-characters in every direction. Princess or peasant, the sorry lot of women still trapped in that dreary reflex: to merge and file toward the distance, two by two.

“Winter sucks,” Winston was declaring, with a knowing leer. Again she was struck how he still barked these ugly-sounding words as a kind of shield, as if to seal the least crack of vulnerability. It was easy to see how her misty girlhood self might have resolved to overcome this. Wendy to all Lost Boys.

He brightened. “Hey, Jel. Remember the days when all we did was hang out and smoke dope? Remember Spring Run?”

Oh yes, she remembered. College. Most of her gang, dropouts still working for the university. In spring all the men arriving in early morning on thundering black Harleys, blackly shining and snorting like barely-tamed bulls; the men too in black, leathered and helmeted, the women cleaving to them on the rear of the seat or driving Volkswagen vans. Down Highway 1 to Big Sur they all rumbled; campsites were assembled, pup tents and little geodesic shelters by the cold crashing sea—how cold it was, but in those days you didn’t mind getting cold and wet and sandy, everything damp and salty and reeking of campfire and weed smoke—the wine, the beer, the barbecue, the grass laced with PCP, the mescaline. They played guitars, sang. How had they survived? Everyone working the strangest jobs: obscure, patchy things. Washing beakers, canning peaches, nude dancing, library filing. Catching bugs in jars for the state. Grace, sheerly, was how they’d survived. A grace they’d embodied—none of them would for one millisecond question it. War was far away: the boys showed up at the draft board in drag (everyone helped dress them in lace and hose), or went to Canada. Pain was what you felt in love. They all crammed into someone’s old car together, backfiring down the highway to the drive-in where they watched Peter Pan loaded up on PCP. Ellen remembered watching the cartoon’s children, Wendy, Michael and John, fly off with Peter and Tinkerbell into the glittering indigo night—the song’s chorus following the children like a glitter-trail. You can fly, you can fly, you can fly. How it seized her heart, an anguish of longing for the children to be safe, for them never to come to harm. For goodness to prevail. She remembered crying out words that must have escaped the car window into her own far-starred, hay-smelling night: “How dear! How dear!” It had never occurred to Ellen until this minute that that loopy era, of Wendys and Lost Boys and all their sweet foolishness, might have outright used up her grace quota for life.

“Of course I remember, Winston. Do you miss that time?”

“I had my head up my ass—but there were some fun times, weren’t there.”

“We were all that way then, Winston. It was automatic, a factory feature.”

They talked about what had become of people in their old gang, though neither of them had much information. People disappeared, and with them, stories to tell. Ellen hadn’t thought for years about her days of living with Winston. As they talked it came back in patches, a screen filling in by pixel-sized bits. An actual little wooden cabin near the railroad side of town: when a train passed (its lovely, mournful whistle) the crockery on the kitchen shelves really did shake. She’d loved that cabin, until, until—but when, exactly, had she ceased to love it? She’d worked hard to cook like Winston’s Italian mother, making minestrone and lemon meringue pies and bagels and English muffins and pot roasts. He’d devoured it all. The food would be gone, and then so would he, and then the cleaning remained. But it wasn’t that. There was something else—something had happened. Ellen pressed her mind to locate the ache of unease. Suddenly enough she found it.

The bed. The made bed.

A distant girlfriend had visited Ellen one day in the middle of the week, a girl from out of town. Ellen had no remnant left in mind of the girl’s name or history, or even how they’d been acquainted. But she remembered her face: mild, cheerful, freckles. Bobbed sandy hair. Tomboyish, athletic. The girl must have stayed overnight on the living room couch. Ellen recalls, fainter than a picture from a baby-book, the pleasant conversation between the three of them at dinner. The following day Ellen left for work. At the time, Winston had no job except high school, and it was summer. That day the girl was to have returned to her town, but the girl and Winston would have had part of the day together. Ellen had come home from her library job in the afternoon and found the bed, the bed she and Winston slept in, carefully made up in a foreign way. She remembers standing there, staring at the bed.

She saw it again clearly: the crisp, smoothed cotton madras spread, the careful little tuck where it folded under the neatly-aligned pillows. A hotel-made bed, a way she never made a bed, and Winston had never bothered to make a bed in his life. Coming home to that tidy bed had been for Ellen like finding the house violently burgled: every drawer yanked and dumped, closets gutted; furniture overturned and glass smashed.

Ellen was just a girl herself then.

As she sat transfixed, gazing at the recalled scene, the lens on it seemed to dilate very wide, to envelop her and Winston sitting fifteen years later at the table in Picaro, and then to pan back: her head bent, dabbling slowly at her food, staring into the white tablecloth. Winston eating and drinking with big, American gestures, watching her with a monitoring attention: attention waiting for the signal it sought.

The oldest attention in the world.

This time the voice that had urged fill the time, spoke quietly.

A cad then, a cad now.

She blinked. Just because a chunk of time passed did not guarantee that somebody grew smarter, or better. Just because a seventeen-year-old was perpetuated along by food and drink and oxygen into his own future, into the body of a middle-aged man with a social security number and an address—didn’t translate as some sort of automatic redemption.

Wherever had she gained the idea that it could?

Ellen’s stomach bunched up wickedly. The cramp of nausea and hunger woke her to her present, and her predicament: O how far, but how unrewardingly far, from the early years! Stupid adulthood, brought to you directly by stupid youth. She fell gloomily silent. Did a life amount then only to this? A series of unconnectable neighborhoods, each with its resident, motley cast? Its roving brats, its garbage collection, its weedy parking lots and barking dogs?

Winston, still eating, was alert, watching her.

“What are you going to do tonight?” he finally asked.

“I’m going to try to sleep, Winston.”

“Aw, Jel. It’s early still. Why don’t you show me your apartment? We can have another drink there, right? Howzabout it?”

Again he smiled in that lopsided way, cocking his head—his best rendition, she knew, of Beguiling. Poor goddamn Winston!

Hoping he could infect her with his what the hell itch, just by bearing down on it with all his will. Hoping she’d somehow snap like a pop bead into the mindset, take him up on it. She had after all, she knew, sounded amenable on the phone. But that was before she’d received her rude news. A lousy script for a painfully unfunny movie, and now she had stumbled—nauseated, facing Winston’s shameless eagerness over cold, gelatinous food—on this crowning touch.

But more would be required. In the doctor’s office, up on the paper-covered table, legs apart, dreamy on valium, listening in wonder to the bubbling vacuuming machine, holding the kind doctor’s hand. She’d be praying then, for forgiveness. For whatever grace the cosmos might still see its way clear to accord her.

“Now, Ellen, after this you must try harder not to get yourself knocked up,” he would smile sadly when it was over, squeezing her hand. There would be no pain. He was a gentle man who was close to retiring; gallantly, he’d use the vernacular in sincere effort to ease her. A girlfriend would wait in the lobby to drive her back. Maybe they could get some breakfast on the way.

Maybe it would taste good.

She forced herself to focus her eyes on the wary Winston across the table.

“Winston, I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t do that,” she said.

His smile faded. She began to talk very fast.

“In fact I really have to go now. Thank you for dinner—thank you for coming—here’s some money, okay? No, really,” she added quickly as she rose, pushing the bills under his hand when he opened his mouth, stopping his voice. “No, really. Please.

“And thank you, Winston. Really. It was great seeing you.”

He was standing. She pecked him again—his face quickly turning towards hers, eyes closing, lips opening softly in reflex—and she fled.

She walked back to the car in the cooling mist. She would drive the few blocks to Ocean Beach. Walk a long, cold, sandy walk. Look out to the fogged edge of the gray, white-chopped sea: the far edge where she believed her own destiny dwelt, a not-yet-born thing. She would drive there singing the song, the anthem that had filtered up from the clumsy, innocent deeps of those years ago. If her eyes spilled while she drove, no one would see. You can fly, you can fly, you can fly.

 

Ellen turns from the gym window, the view of the shimmering birch branches beyond it, with a sigh. Time to clean up. There is the Sunday paper to collect, the bread for sandwiches, the olives. Dan will be waiting, probably fooling with the irises out front—he always looks so severe, Churchill at Yalta, studying his bushes and blooms as if they were about to speak back to him, whacking away branches and weeds, his face too sunburnt, his silver hair flashing in the sun. Their granddaughter will stop by soon—Dan’s son’s toddler Bethany, a honey-haired child who races to the books Ellen keeps for her, to be read over and over. The little girl’s exhausting, but Ellen loves her smell—like new snow—and her willingness, at scarcely 2, to musically recite any word Ellen may utter. Another baby is due momentarily now, a brother, they think, for Bethie. You can tell, they say, by the heartbeat.

The noon light is powdery; she and Dan might just have time for a short walk.

Destiny wore such mild clothing.

It might have been otherwise.

You could summarize in sentences.

You could say she went on living alone. That the Angel habit, and some others besides, finally shrank away: rolled out to the horizon and off its edge, like a dwindling ball of lightning. That she lived awhile, had dinner somewhere, met a man, had more dinner, lived with him, fought him, reconciled and—for a thousand ineffable reasons—stayed on. But that wouldn’t begin to explain the whole of it. The whole now appears to be something more like the long view of time itself: a series of infinitesimal accretions and losses. Years of them churning and melding, yielding up at last a smooth, habitable surface: a living present on which she might comfortably stand. The time for glaciers is not yet at hand. Technically, of course, they can loom up anytime. We know that.

But they won’t come just yet.

And that is all one might reasonably ask.




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