Appears in Other Voices #47
The man at the office was the first to tell her he was dead. In her blue suit with the cinched waist and her pearl earrings, the exact things she wore to any business meeting, the man handed her the monthly alimony check and very politely—with his eyes blurred by thick-framed glasses—very politely, very quietly, very respectfully told her that this would be the last month of her alimony because the payer had transitioned out of the system. “He never said a thing,” she said.
In those last years, he couldn’t remember why he hated his wife so much and he wanted to tell her that he always felt, standing next to her, or he had come to realize that he always felt, like somehow less than a man. Like maybe she was the man, with her big hands and her broad back and her tallness and the way everything seemed to fall off her shoulders, as if she never truly felt anything. And he secretly wanted to ask if this was why she called him little. Because in talking to the ghost children they were supposed to have, he had gotten over the yellow and the bastard part, but not the part about being little.
For months after the divorce, her husband would pick up the telephone and he would open his mouth, ashen at the corners from too little use, as if he meant to ask something, something very important, something that would let him sleep at night and something that would maybe stop him from slicing the muggy nursing room air with his grainy thin voice—to no one, to no one at all—as the nurses recently told him he did, or something that would make her, the only her there ever really was, think twice about not loving him the way he wanted her to and forcing him into other women’s arms, something that would clear up this sensualist business once and for all, and where the hell did she get that comment from? He meant to ask, but instead what came out of his mouth was always the same question disguised in innocuous ways: Do you miss me? “Where’s my red tie?” Do you remember us? “Can’t you ever forgive and forget?” I saw you. “I didn’t want to talk to you nohow!” I saw you with that woman. “Who you calling sensualist?”
He never said a thing, at least not to her or to his living children or to the ghost children that hung around his bed at night, nibbling on the rotten fruit and whispering to him about a secret place far off that they wanted him to go to. Home. Home, their lean arms extended and their hands like open pockets.
Sometimes they slept with him, these ghost children. They were faded gray apparitions with moist hands and bright teeth hovering over him, waiting. They would crawl into his bed and whisper into his ear, and he would make a space for them in the crook of his arms and listen to them go on and on about this place that he felt like going to and, then again, he felt like he couldn’t just yet.
They made him confused, but not in a bad way. Not like his living children. They made him confused in talking to them about the things that happened to him over the years: the first piece of artwork he had seen at a traveling circus, the first time he petted a girl on her behind, the first time he fought a man—for calling his girlfriend, who was to be his wife—a cold-hearted, coal-skinned piece of nothing.
His new home consisted of a bed without a headboard, an old 1970s RCA television, a blonde side table and a worn out orange chair that visitors, should they come, could sit in. But they never came. That is, he never remembered them coming, even when they came. In this time, his children took on an ethereal quality, as if they were part of his memory, but a part of everyone’s memory, as if they were on one of those television shows.
He had forgotten the order of them and often called Job, John or Caleb, Meschach. And when they asked him with clenched teeth and open hands if there was anything else they could do for him, he wanted more than anything to say, “wear numbers next time.” But even under the lethargic miasma of his medication, he knew they would never come again if he said this. So he kept his attention on the television’s remote box, pushing the buttons with his ringless doughy hands. Change, goddammit, change. “Now Daddy,” they said, hands over their ears as the volume ricocheted around the small space, “Now Daddy, stop.”
They came. They asked controlled questions; they brought fruit and flowers that attracted flies and rotted into black fist-sized growths on his side table; they never sat in the orange chair, but stood around him as if he were about to spring up and fly out the window.
The first time he called it had been two weeks after the divorce. He called to see if he left his red tie, his favorite tie. The one she hated and had been using as a silver polisher for some time now. It was one of the reasons why he left, he said. Her obsession with things—the silver, the floors, the children’s clothes, the perfectly made beds—“you infect them and they become simply un-amazing,” he said. He talked like that the entire time they were married.
But in the privacy of their bed with its cool, clean sheets, especially in the early years, his tone was light and silty like the cloud-full puffs of cotton she held in her hands as a little girl. She imagined that that was the voice he used in other beds, so she cut the tie into pieces, which was unnecessarily necessary, and told him that she had not seen the tie, maybe he should check with one of his mistresses. One of those people, she said, her voice too light to be threatening, her voice rising like a butterfly.
At least that is what both of them could agree upon, the end was near, was always near. They were old now, wrinkled like things left too long in the dark, collecting nothing but more death, more disease, waiting patiently for the bad news. But there was something else sad about the wife that could not be explained by her hanger-bent carriage or the fray on her slippers or the way she crooked her head down to the radio at night.
There was something even sadder about the husband than the way he paused just before answering her “hello” on the telephone, and the way he took pleasure in letting the fruit curdle beside him, and the way he lay on his bed and crooked his arm as if holding something that wasn’t there. But they would not talk about this either.
For months after the divorce he would pick up the telephone with a question in mind, but he would put it back down having asked for a piece of clothing that he really didn’t care for and had to dig deep to recall if he ever really owned, just to hear her voice. “Hello,” she would say in that stilted high voice of hers, the one that reminded him of Eleanor Roosevelt, like nothing you expected from a woman who’d picked cotton.
She was not lonely when he left for that other home. Quite the contrary, she had a friend down the hall that she hadn’t seen in many months. But she knew the friend was still alive, because every Saturday night there was a knock on the door and then a tinkling of keys and a small folded envelope was pushed under her door jam, as if the opening underneath it had birthed a message or its tongue was sliding out. Sometimes the letters were long and tedious to read, and sometimes they were short and frenetic, but they always said the same thing to her: Salvation is yours, the end is near.
To fill the space when he left she would bring down a hand held radio one of the children left behind and she would listen to the rapid-fire tongues of the Mexicans and the humid cooing of the Caribbeans and the bouncing thickness of the Jews. And although her hearing was better than it had been in some time, empty house echoes winding their way through the darkness and into her growing terror, she would bend her ear down to the speaker’s mesh grating and listen for the messages that came between the words.
Their seven biblical children—Mary, John, Jacob, Meshach, Job, Isaiah, and Caleb—used the momentous event of their divorce as a reason to spiral farther out of their lives. The oldest, Mary, made furtive suggestions about the efficacy of separate estates. Their youngest, Job, murmured something under his breath…“orphan,” “bastard,” “motherless child.” She loved them a little less for their bitterness, for their defection. Insinuating eyes like hers, fast-moving hands like hers, slow-moving mouth like hers—he hated them all.
But you must know that this was not all of her fault. This slow unraveling of their relationship was no one’s fault. He was too shameless and too passionate. She was too proud and too careful. He married her because he thought she was elegant in her blue suit and pearl earrings and sensible in her walk and in her manners. She married him because she thought he was daring in his gabardine shirts and felt pants and quick-witted in his approach. They were wrong. So what?
In the night he would reach for her and she would suddenly express an urge to check on the children or get a glass of water or make some excuse to verify the gas oven’s inactivity, so that soon he stopped reaching, or rather, he would reach unthinkingly and halfway to her ginghamed back he would remember the lines she drew in the sand and recoil, as if being slapped. They were like two warring boats on a wide-open ocean in those last years of their togetherness. Neither wanted to go down, but each could not stop defending their territory, the end was near.
After a while, what seemed like an eternity to her previously quick mind, she noticed the brown half moons under his eyes. She noticed the sagging pockets of flesh under his arms. She remembered how much she hated his mistress’s musky scent on the pillows. The three that died, they were fortunate, the end was near. And when she began getting sick, physically and utterly incapacitated so that she had to grip the sides of her bed to stop from falling off from the motion sickness it was causing, she accused him of the only thing that her overexposed senses knew, just knew, was right: he did this to her.
It wasn’t any single part of that sentence that disturbed him. It was the complex combination of all the parts together that let him know how cloyingly intimate her hate was for him. No. That was wrong too. The everything of that statement let him know that all those times he spent explaining why he married a dark woman to his friends and family, all those times he spent kissing her cotton-scarred skin alive, all those times he spent looking at her in the mirror as she put on her gold earrings with her head tilted just so (like the broken wing of a bird) and said, and said, “Beautiful!” as if he had just thought up the word himself, and all those times he practically cried at each new breath of life that flew from between her roughened thighs—too many—and all those times he felt proud to be standing next to this tall woman when other men would have shrunken up inside like a hard little burrowing thing, would have asked that she not wear heels when they went out, would have worked their entire lives to make her stoop and bow behind them to justify their anger at the disproportionate justice of life, would have reopened all those cotton scars—all that time, she felt like crushing the big man inside him.
He did this to her. He broke her. Not even the cotton fields in North Carolina could do that, but he did it. And he had to have had help; because there was nothing natural about the kind of hole she felt growing inside. And oh, when he denied it—the liar, the thief, the sensualist! She could not hold back any longer. Out of an oily black darkness that spread inside her, deeper than the fibrous growths of her children, an eruption the size of infinite hate—hate going back to the first man who laid his hands on her through his eyes, hate going back to the first time someone explained to her what black meant, hate going back to the first hate—that anger that builds in any woman with a crushed flower inside her, she said something that he would never forgive and that even she didn’t know she had in her. She said, “You little yellow bastard!”
Proof that she loved and hated ineffectively, from distances, from vistas, from wide-open gulfs, was this: It was as if she were standing in the fields and looking out over the rows and rows of cotton at the setting sun, looking out over her seven biblical children before her at the table, seven feathery pairs of limbs reaching for thick weighty glasses of milk and winding yesterday’s spaghetti into their gray, beakless mouths.
She loved things like this: she loved things when they were a bright, filtered farness: blue and white china, soft fallen feathers, the sun on your back, the moon on your face, far from North Carolina now, and in the heat and grime of the Bronx, “hey man, you got some stuff?” “Hey mama, you lookin’ good.” “Why you got to treat a man like that?” The hustle of New York’s streets made her love North Carolina more—how you could look off into the horizon, for instance, and see nothing but the earth reflecting back.
That’s how she looked to him, over a pail of sepia-toned diapers or looking out their tenement window with her pearls gnashed between her teeth. Even in the middle of a department store, her blue purse and white gloves gripped like safety jackets. She seemed miles away, even then. “The children need…” she said, a trumpet note to his days, nothing more. He said it was coldness, and once painted her portrait with a vanilla cone of hair and dried blood-red lips, which he loved passionately and she hated just as ineffectively so that he never painted her again.
He came upon the bedroom, after looking for her in every room and unwillingly going to the one place he knew she couldn’t possibly be and saw something that made him squeeze the bag of cold cuts until mayonnaise juice ran between his hands; he saw something that made him so sick that he stood very still and could do nothing but watch, as if it were someone else’s wife with her scarred hands fervently kneading pink nipples; it was someone else’s wife with her black, black hair making a pattern against the white, white pillows; it was someone else’s wife sing-moaning like a Sunday preacher in the still and suffocating air. He knew.
The door was unlocked and he crept in planning to sneak up on her when she was least suspecting it. This afternoon treat, not like the early evenings when he picked her up from the Himmels, her eyes stinging with disinfectant, her hands crisscrossed with chemical scars. He knew.
“Hey Manny,” he said, slapping a familiar white-gloved hand at the door and leaving it innocent of handshake dust, of gear oil, of luggage sweat, and field sweat if truth be told, a hundred-year-old freedom in his handshake. The elevator going up, only up. “I got a surprise for my baby.”
The man said a lot of things that he didn’t care for, that would break a lesser man and make him forget his seven children and wife, that would force a sane man to rip apart what little world he had left, but it was too blindingly sweet of a day to let this get to him. He would be paid, whether he worked or not, whether he had to wear that monkey’s suit—which he wouldn’t be seen dead with on any other day—or not, whether he had to kowtow to men far less noble than some of the worst back home, or not—that was what was most important—had to be most important; he had a fully paid day off for the first time in his life.
He got off early from his shift as an elevator operator. The man said that the building was going to be closed because of an infestation problem and that they were going to spray, so even though the man—a boil with greasy hair—said “don’t see why you have to leave, nothing seems to kill your kind,” he whistled as he walked out the revolving door and whistled all the way to Saul’s Delicatessen and whistled through the buzzing afternoon streets on his way to surprise his wife with a chilled sack of her favorite food.
It was small pieces of these little violet shames and a larger orange-red wave of heat. She had nearly forgotten the many afternoons that they lay in her bed: the way she made a noise like a startled dove when she touched her thighs, the way she let her hair fall from the ivory clasps she wore just before hitting the embroidered pillow, the startled gasp of recognition as she knelt over her, thigh to thigh, breast to breast, two curves pulling away from each other like violins laid side by side. Afterwards, it was agreed that they would never talk about it. And of course, who would be the wiser? The scent they left behind was feral, potent, enflamed, but neither cared.
She remembered, ashamedly, looking at her own large hands, blue-black in color, bulging knuckles and deeply lined from the cotton fields and burnt at the edges with cleaning chemicals—ringless, because she was careful not to mar the only thing of value she owned and did not want to lose the ring down the drain or mangle it in the blades of the washer—and seeing that they were not pulling away from Ernestine Himmel, as she would have suspected, but were holding on as if they had finally found their right usefulness.
The initial shock of a white woman’s touch was the first thing she remembered about the affair. She remembered looking at Ernestine Himmel’s hands and thinking, of course! Thinking that they looked like the hands on a box of detergent. Thinking she had held a paper version of these same hands many times before.
These things happen. That’s what the woman, her young Jewish employer, said to her. These things happen, as they both bent down over the broken dish that had spun out of her hands. She had been so careful and still the broken shards lay on the black and white tile in a blue and white mosaic pattern.
Ernestine—that was the woman’s name. Ernestine Himmel had brown hair that swept back from her head like someone had painted it on with three quick brush strokes, brown eyes that took in all the light in any space she was in and long fingers with various gold rings perched on them like weighted butterflies. Ernestine always wore silk in colors that reminded the woman of bruises: purple, brown, black and the orange that appeared on white skin after three days of healing.
The two women bent over the pieces no more than a foot apart from each other: one in handmade leather heels and the other in corduroy loafers; one in cream slacks with darts and points and petite stitching, the other in stretched gray cotton that covered her ashen knees and scratched at her old scars; one smelling of something musky and buttery, the other of something acidic and corrosive. Their hands moved across the floor in swift sweeping motions that made undulating patterns on the floral-papered wall behind them.
The only sound, at least the only sound that she could hear, were the heels of Ernestine Himmel’s shoes as her lithe frame, coolly wrapped in fall-colored silk, spun across the tiles in search of something sharp. Their hands eventually met somewhere in the middle.
It would be a mistake to think that she was, at any time, jealous of his mistresses or spent any time thinking about them as people. To her, as surely they were to him; they were like mythical figures he painted on thin canvas boards. Women that he met on the elevators: up and down, up and down, he could not separate the motion from the intent. He painted them with their mouths gnarled in cruel expressions, their cheeks high and waxen, and their necks reaching out into the stormy backgrounds like tree limbs—medusas and mermaids and nymphs—all in movement, like snakes in dark water. She could not be jealous of anything so mythical.
Her breakup was just as artistic. She began taking the pills to calm her nerves from the work of seven children and the work of cleaning (for a nice Jewish family in a nice neighborhood in a nice gray uniform) and the work of knowing, just knowing, that she was better than what she got. The pills made her tall dark frame sloop; the pills turned her skin to the perfect complimentary shade for her maid’s uniform; the pills let her forget that she had ten children, once.
“I love the way you smell,” she would say. “I love the way you hold me,” she would say. “I love the way you look at me,” she would say, because that was what she had heard was right to say to one’s husband. And, indeed, he seemed to beam with pride when she said these things, the entire fluid movement of his body bending to her with a greedy floral presence that both sickened her for its signs of weakness and gave her pleasure at her power over him.
Up and down in that elevator all day. Yes sir. No sir. I’ll get your bags sir. And then home, the children’s hands out like ice cream scoops, waiting for his attention. “Leave your father alone,” she said, as they scrambled around him, grabbing at the uniform, his gloves coming off finger by finger, a hand swatting the air above their heads in anger and irritation. Seven flies in one swat, like a fairy tale. They called him sir from the start.
She wore gloves all year. Those hands that had picked and plucked and wiped and carried and padded and preened and swirled tight knots and bulbous ponytails onto writhing and whining heads had always felt overworked and larger than the delicate spring blossoms that were the hands on detergent boxes with names like Downy, Caress, Ivory.
The children came like summer in New York, hot and sticky, leaving trails of soot, grime, and grit, and smelling of cheap spaghetti and wholesale meats. At night she was bent over buckets full of stained cotton blossoms floating in briny water. Too many for the city, too many seeds in one field ruin the soil, he thought and sometimes said. “Where do they keep coming from?” He asked, looking at her grimly in the bedroom mirror, the pearls circling round her taut neck like phosphorescent suns.
He was twenty, with a firm body to prove it and a gray felt hat to illusion it. She was barely sixteen, known by the way her skin glows under her pearls and the way her right hand slightly grazes his in a youthful show of shame and a preoccupation with ritual. She is thinking, “Someday, someone will see this, and they will think that the couple pictured is like a porcelain wedding cake centerpiece. They will think the bride is as flushed as a Chinese apple and the groom is as sharp as a strong scythe. They will wish for one moment that they could have been near such ruddy, brooking devotion.”
In the picture of their wedding day he looked at her as if he was giving up on the idea of freedom, which was not easy to do for a man known to charm women with just the right word, just a quick two-step, just an old story of feeling like he could conquer the world, if only they’d let him; and she looked another way—off into the distance, into a field of cotton or at some shining airborne gristle that had caught her eye and, in turn, was captured and distilled in the amber gaze of the camera.
He moved without seams. He moved like his clothes were catching the wind wherever he went. She liked that about him. She liked his gait, the way his back never seemed bent over, even when he was bending over; she liked the way he embodied what she perceived to be the meaning of the word “grace.”
Her body, she felt, was a patchwork of stitched together parts. Everything about her moved in opposite directions so that, in looking at her from the side, one thought of those wooden artist’s puppets with the requisite clacking, pivoting appendages that jutted out in laughable expressions. It was why she worked so hard on her mind and her heart.
She thought, and this is partly true, that a balance could be struck if she could control all the other parts. So, even though her behind jangled, her thighs warbled, her feet sunk, her breasts nestled, her chin staged a war against her face, and her head bobbed to some secret rhythm, people came away from meeting her with a feeling like they had just walked outside in the middle of August and found snow on their doorsteps.
As a little girl, she would sit on her hands or hide them or put them inside specially made midnight blue gloves to play down their size and shield the delicate ladies of the church—“Oh Jesus, oh lord, rescue me”—from the scars that years of picking cotton had left her with. But he grabbed them. No, that was the wrong word. He held them up to the light like they were feathers found by the roadside, fragile and free, and the look in his eyes held the unmistakable air of having caught something wild to bring back home.
A ladylike affectation—the swiftness with which she gutted the orb and exposed its spine was congruous with everything about her that made him think of the sea—her pearls, her blue suit, her nude stockings with the seam racing the back of her long calves, her briny smell. But these were things that someone who had never seen the sea would think. What did he know about it? He was from Alabama. What did he know of things not buried in the ground or hanging from trees? He did not know, could not have known, that this was her approach to everything and that he had mistaken—like someone standing on the top of a mountain and looking towards the water’s edge on a clear bluing day—the sea for the sky.
Things he loved about her were so simple. The way she ate the grapefruit was this: with the thumbnail on her right hand she would slice open a wedge along its crescent-shaped center and pull the skin back until the flesh was exposed. The discarded skins sat on the edge of her plate like a pile of pulpy wrappers or a mountain of pickled ginger. The fruit, now exposed, now like the intestines of something from the sea looked awkward and naked without its skin. Looked like her in Harold’s Deli, 57th Street, fresh from the red, burnt afternoons of North Carolina. Can only get work in New York, she said. Something about a sick grandmother and two young brothers back home, the pearls around her neck sweating blue. Her high cheekbones coloring as he reached across her, took a slice, ate it in one bite without thought.
This is how the story was told. The young man and the young woman met. She fixed her lip liner in a gold-leafed mirror. He fixed his tie in the window’s reflection and pushed back that one black cowlick. He sat next to her; she adjusted her skirt over her equine legs. He had two eggs, scrambled, and a cup of coffee. She had grapefruit because it was the cheapest thing on the menu. But he shared his eggs with her and she split the grapefruit into quarters with her butter knife and together they made a meal. And that is how everything happens.