I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Talking to Charlene is like having a conversation with her tits. The reason is that she is 6’1″ and not thin, so if you’re an average-size person like myself, her bust is right at eye level. It’s a real problem for her in New York, where absolute strangers will come up and say things like, “Why don’t you lose weight?” or “You sure have a pair.”
Charlene just plows on through the waves of pedestrians like a frigate under full sail. She carries her tonnage majestically. Me, I sort of bob along in her wake.
Charlene navigates the Lower Manhattan social scene with the same aplomb as she does the sidewalk. Our neighborhood, a patch of West Side blocks below Canal Street and above Chambers, has definitely become rough waters, appropriated by the nouveau chic. These days my building is full of rich Europeans and movie stars, but when I moved there in the late ’70s, rents were low and the streets were empty. Charlene and I became acquainted because there were so few people that we kept running into each other when were each on the lookout for a woman friend. There were no restaurants or boutiques, just wholesalers of coffee and nuts on the ground floors and empty warehouses above. Roasted peanuts and coffee beans wafted on the night breeze. I dreamt, intermittently, of circuses and sidewalk cafes.
The neighborhood residents were mostly artists in their early twenties, like Charlene and me, or older artists eking out work on the fringes of the art world—the kind who are still written up as “emerging” when they’re fifty.
Now it takes bucks to live here and famous doesn’t hurt either. If you’re not the latest boy-genius painter, you’d better be at least a Vogue model.
Charlene and I are not exactly beautiful and famous but we’re not losers either. Actually, Charlene manages to bypass the beauty/success yardstick altogether with her charisma. She has a soothing, almost mesmerizing manner, which is balm to frazzled New Yorkers. She’s a walking tranquilizer. Partly it’s her accent. That drawl pouring from my answering machine: “Phoebe, honey, why don’t y’all come over,” conjures golden afternoons on colonnaded porches, even when I know for a fact she grew up poor in Biloxi.
Personally, I have no charisma to speak of. What I am is impervious to the social scene. I carry the secret knowledge, like an amulet over my heart, that I come from money, to put it in Boston terms. If all the ladies in all the receiving lines I’ve been down stood next to each other, that conglomerate receiving line would stretch from Newport to Beverly Farms. I had the requisite piano and ballroom dancing, but it was the art lessons I especially liked.
Once a week I take a break from the studio, do something art-related with Charlene. Today it’s an opening in SoHo and afterwards we go for a drink in the Village. It is one truly primo day. Heavy rains have washed the carbon monoxide from the air; breathing oxygen is a sensual pleasure. No one malevolent-looking is out and about; it’s like a referee has called “time-out” to the dealers and hustlers, and the more benign elements have surfaced. As we amble across Washington Square, we are overtaken by swarms of parents pushing strollers that trail bright balloons. We pass couples making out on park benches. A mime waltzes with an invisible partner. Jugglers toss apples, oranges, fire. Bongos and marimba fade in and out like a radio tuned to a weak station. Trees are blooming.
We are seated outside at Grapa, under the arbor, and I’m on my second glass of wine when Charlene chunks a rock into the conversational stream.
“I’m pregnant, by the way.” She expects congratulations, but I find the image of Charlene with child unsettling. She’s so big in her natural state.
“Oh Phoebe, I do love being pregnant. It’s so fulfilling. I’d feel downright radiant if I could stop throwing up.”
“Who’s the father?”
“Scully, who else? He’ll make a wonderful dad. He just needs encouragement.”
When it comes to men, Charlene likes unevolved Cro-Magnon types. It’s strictly a brainstem job; her cerebral cortex is asleep at the wheel. She may find me instinctually wanting, but her tribulations only reinforce my standing policy: No entangling alliances. Anyway, her life provides all the color and drama I can use.
While Charlene enthuses about Motherhood, I am remembering the day I first met Scully. I don’t recall why I had dropped by Charlene’s place but I know it had to be before I knew her well because I remember being surprised by her talent for kitsch domesticity—the crocheted potholders and the floral furniture throws. The cookie jar which was a woman with voluminous skirts. The clock made into a cat with tail and eyes tick-tocking back and forth.
Charlene was at the sink with her back to me and a man sat in profile at the table, stripped to the waist. He stared at the sunset as if it were a TV. Tranquil as a Vermeer: “Domestic Scene with Late Afternoon Light” I was pierced by a fleeting, familiar longing I can never quite name.
Then the man turned towards me, crushing his beer can and flipping it at Charlene’s avocado tree, and the tableau dissolved into the sweaty end of a hot afternoon.
He had flat blue eyes and an aristocratic nose that he did not deserve. I remember thinking it was unusual to see a man so handsome that even tattoos couldn’t diminish his beauty. He scratched his brown chest, the thick hair matting and catching in his fingers. I tried not to look, but I was registering how each curly hair disappeared in the vee between his fingers as that hand slid down, down into the dip between his pectorals and up, up the other side. He gave me a slow smile to let me know he was enjoying my discomfort. He said, “Feels good to scratch where it itches—know what I mean? Or maybe you’re such a class act you don’t scratch?” I swallowed, and saw my father, elegant in a soft wool suit, presiding at the table that could seat 14, but was draped with linen every night for just my parents and me. I’m surprised we weren’t snow-blind from the glare off those miles of white between us.
Charlene smiled over her shoulder, mending the breach in the afternoon. Then she turned full face to me and I saw the bruises.
The waiters at Grapa are so quick to refill an empty wine glass that I’ve lost count. Charlene is still going on and on about babies and making love with Scully and about big men and big cocks but I keep losing the thread. I don’t know if it’s the sun or the drinks but I feel dizzy. Charlene’s large body suddenly seems fragile, a very thin skin stretched over all that vulnerable love.
Charlene doesn’t have formal art training. She picked up layout and paste up when she typed for a design firm. Now she does layout and art on the side. I’m surprised when she tells me she is going to be in an exhibit, but then, it’s just a group show. Still, I’m curious to see what she’s up to.
I get to the opening late. The gallery is packed but I locate Charlene right away. Hard to miss a giant woman in an off-the-shoulder, polka-dot blouse with puff sleeves. She is turning this way and that to speak with the circle of people who surround her. I wander off to chat up Ronnie Markowitz. Presently Scully appears behind Ronnie, looming over him, actually. “Come on,” Scully says, “You have to see her work.” He shoulders his way through the crowd, with me in tow. “Isn’t that great?” I am standing before a realistic painting of a china bunny. The dealer probably thought she was being ironic, but I recognize Charlene’s treasured chachka.
“Isn’t she out of sight? That’s the best painting here, no contest. I hung it.” He’s so proud of her it’s kind of touching.
“You know, people like Charlene and me don’t do this. I mean, this isn’t our crowd. We don’t get out much.”
“Scully, they’re just more blase.” So the difference between himself and these art mavens has registered.
“See, I don’t even get what that word means. You got a good education? You went to college and like that?” He laughs. “I went to the college of musical knowledge.”
“I played in a rock & roll band.”
“Did you ever go on tour?”
“Shit, no. We never even had a name. My idea was ‘Hell Dogs.’”
“Hey, you don’t have to make nice. I know it’s not your thing.” With a finger he drapes my hair behind an ear, and stoops to whisper, “Sometime you and me will talk about your thing.”
The plane with Scully’s family has been delayed, and the wedding can’t go on until they arrive. The guests are drinking to dampen the tension. This naturally has the opposite effect. Scully’s friends are pounding chairs on the floor, chanting, ‘We want the wedding!” Charlene’s friends migrate in a skittish herd from one side of the room to the other, like wildebeests with an eye to the lions.
Suddenly, as if on cue, the crowd parts and there is Scully, a dark rock in the swirling currents of people, hands on hips, just staring at me. He doesn’t look away and I don’t and everything stops, including any breathing on my part, but then I manage to break that gaze. I expect bones to snap with the effort.
“I don’t know whether I can marry these two people. What do you think?” It’s the minister, who has also withdrawn to the corner.
I say, “What do you mean?” although I suspect we may be accomplices in a sordid crime.
He seems to linger over the “speak now or forever hold your peace” part.
It’s a kick to experience Charlene’s pregnancy vicariously. Scully doesn’t seem overwhelmingly concerned. He’s got a summer job mending potholes. He’s home by noon, in one of two moods—either depressed or angry. He strips off his tee-shirt and stretches his torso until he achieves maximum muscle definition and drops to the couch yelling, “How ’bout a frosty one!” Charlene brings it to him and he grabs her and they wrestle together for a bit, while I examine the view out the only window.
They’re always so physical. My father used to say that’s a lower class thing. They don’t have any real power so they turn to sex.
My own family maintained a distance from the physical world, cushioned by the layers of hired labor. Only gardeners dug below the topsoil. Only carpenters knew the secret fit of mortise-and-tenon joints in the flooring we trod. I wanted hands-on experience. That’s why I liked making sculpture. The unmediated physicality of clay and plaster satisfied a need I could not then articulate. I was also looking for an escape from the Junior League.
Father encouraged my interest in art at first. He said, “Good choice, Phoebe. You can do it in the basement when you’re married.” Later he said, “You chose this field I know nothing about to shut me out.” Later still, “You can’t escape your class. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.”
He was wrong; I don’t think my appearance reveals the protective amulet of my background and I am most discreet. Even Charlene thinks I come from a blue-collar town like her hometown. I don’t mind; I only use the knowledge to give myself secret confidence. I imagine that I am traveling incognito in a foreign country.
Eventually Charlene returns to the formica table and we resume figuring the ins and outs of formula vs. breast feeding, cloth diapers vs. disposable. There are important financial questions too, like how soon can Charlene get on welfare.
Charlene is over her morning sickness, but she says the baby is kicking like a donkey. I’d hate to be pregnant in this heat. Everyone clever has escaped the City; being marooned here in August is a sure sign of failure. This afternoon is so hot that perspiration drips off my chin onto the list of baby names.
“Let’s do the girl names.”
“If it’s a girl I’m thinking of naming her Lily Gardenia for my favorite flowers.”
“Don’t you think that’s kind of an overwhelming name for a little baby? How about a name from your ethnic background? What are you? I forget.”
Scully yells from the other room, “She’s a Kraut!”
I had forgotten he was there. “Where are your people from, Scully?”
“I’m Irish and Apache.”
“Which is the dominant half?” An unfortunate question. He’s whooping around the room, brandishing an imaginary tomahawk. I sidle away but he grabs me by the hair, bending me backwards over the back of the couch, while Charlene intones, “Cut it out, stop it, leave her alone.”
“Where are your people from, who the fuck are you?” Fingers knotted in my hair and a hand around my throat. His smile is thin like a blade. Those pale eyes are augers. He is shaking me or I am shaking or my heart is pounding. He releases me with a little shove, and strolls away, while I gingerly right myself.
I lose touch with Charlene for a few months. That last encounter was a bit much. I hear news of them from time to time. There’s some trouble. Something about a bar fight.
I’m not really paying attention. I have to finish sculpture for a show. I need to sell some work so I can pay bills and make art for another six months.
Work mode means I roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee, and get cracking. I’m carving marble blocks. Out of these I build walls. Most of the process of making sculpture is technical and boring. The questions you pose to yourself are what make it intellectually engaging. Like: how can I make something look light and heavy at the same time? It takes years to work out the elegant solutions to the problems that interest you. Of course what you are building is your own private world, in a way. The best part is, it’s a world you control.
I work until 1:00 or 2:00 AM. The next day, same thing. Day after day unrolls in this monotonous, peculiar rhythm. I may not see or talk to anyone, since my studio is also my living space. I imagine that if I were to drop dead, I wouldn’t be found for a week.
God knows what my family makes of my life. The one question my mother asks is—have I seen any Broadway lately? I guess for her, if I am seeing Broadway plays, my life must be in good order. I say yes, sure, I saw one last weekend, things are fine. I don’t tell her that I rarely get above 14th Street I don’t tell her that at 60 bucks a pop, Broadway tickets are off-limits for this untrustfunded artiste.
When I think about it, which I frankly try not to do, it seems like a strange way to live. Except that there are a lot of people in New York like me. Late at night, I sometimes imagine that if all the roofs were glass and I could fly around Lower Manhattan I would see all the little artists down there working away in their cubicles. It makes me feel less alone, to imagine that.
The truth is that even if I were so inclined, I don’t have time for involvement. For now I’m an art-nun. I need to focus.
When Charlene does get in touch again, it’s at a good time. The show is hung and I am sniffing around for some company.
“Hi,” she says, “it’s me.”
“Hi, me,” I say. I recognize her voice immediately although we haven’t spoken for several months.
“Scully’s in jail,” she says, unperturbed.
“Oh. What did he do?” Jail was not really part of the program where I grew up.
“He broke into a bar. As things turned out, he’s better off in jail.”
I have often thought this myself, but I am surprised to hear her say it “Why?”
“Turned out the bar belongs to the Genovese family. They took him in the back of one of those social clubs and told him to leave town.”
“No kidding.” The mafia. This is exotic stuff.
“He broke my arm.” Matter of fact, “He doesn’t like my being pregnant.”
“Good God, Charlene. You’re not going to stay with him?”
“Oh, he’ll be gone for a while.”
I can tell from this that she has no intention of leaving him. “What about the baby?”
“I had ultrasound. It’s a girl. I want you to be the birth coach.”
“But you’re due in a few weeks. I don’t have time to be trained.”
“Everything will be just fine.”
Charlene’s nurse is adjusting the fetal monitor while I give Charlene a back rub. I’m kneading vigorously before I realize that I have poured Phisoderm soap, not almond oil, all over her back. I’ve got her lathered up and sticky instead of relaxed. Her back arches and goes rigid so I know she must be having a contraction.
I’m unequal to this. I don’t know the proper procedure. Should I hold Charlene’s hand, pat her on the back, talk to her? I don’t have time to figure out what people do in these circumstances because things are happening too quickly.
The doctor and the midwife are arguing in front of Charlene. The nurse looks embarrassed. I know that some action is called for, but I can’t imagine what it would be.
There’s a commotion in the hall. A drunken Scully reels into the room with a blond woman. Doctors, nurses, hospital security tumble in after him. How did he get out of jail?
Scully unwraps himself from the blond. “Charlene,” he slurs expansively, “this is my mistress, Bonnie. We thought we’d come by and see how it’s going.”
Charlene sits bolt upright. She doesn’t look so calm for once. “You shithead!” she screams. She is going to leap off the table and murder them both.
The doctor says to me, “Get him out of here.”
Then the nurse notices the monitor, and the pace quickens. They’re wheeling Charlene to the delivery room and she can only take one person with her. She chooses Scully despite everything. Scully’s girlfriend and I are left to sit on a gurney outside the delivery room while Charlene shrieks away inside. I really did want to see that baby being born. The way my personal life is going, this might be my only chance.
Suddenly I notice that it’s quiet. The nurse slips between the double doors carrying a bundle of rags, which she hands to me. I’m amazed that it’s a baby. It’s got a pointy head and strawberry blond hair. The baby is sleeping, oblivious for now to the cruelty and stupidity of so-called adults.
The nurse says, “Your friend named her Lily Gardenia.”
Charlene and Scully left New York City soon after Lily’s birth. They moved up the Hudson to Coxsackie. With the money she made selling the loft fixtures they bought a trailer on a half-acre. I can understand why she wanted to leave. Even without a baby I think about it myself. Just the day-to-day grind of the subway is awful. Stepping on the heels of the person in front of me while someone jabs me in the back.
I get house fever. I comb the real estate section as if I were truly in the market to buy. I purchase Architectural Digest and collect catalogue cuts about Spanish tiles, brochures describing greenhouse additions to the home.
I’ve heard that Staten Island is quite rural. One weekend I go there and look at a fixer-upper For Sale by Owner. I tell the woman all about myself, my great job. I ask about the schools; will the kids get a good education? Is there a leash law, or can our Labrador run free? I tell her how handy my husband is—he can work on the place himself. I am so convincing I can feel his arms around me—strong, competent, loving. Tears come to my eyes. This woman must think I’m nuts.
In the midst of my House and Gardens crisis I get a call from Charlene. Scully’s gone. Do I want to come visit?
Maybe I’ll move up the Hudson, too. Maybe I should investigate. As long as Scully’s not around.
Coxsackie’s main street is one block long. There’s the Kel-Lyn Restaurant and a Woolworths. The City Hall, courthouse and post office are all in one blocky marble building and the Parkway Motor Inn is down the street. That’s about it. No gentrification here.
Charlene’s driving a clunker of a pick-up truck. My head hits the roof of the cab as we bounce along.
“What are you doing for work?”
“Off the books at Kel-Lyn.” Which probably means that she’s collecting welfare. “Arlis is a big help with the mortgage.”
“Oh, I thought I told you. Arlis is sharing the house with me. She’s this woman I met at church.”
“It’s good of you to take her in.” The ease with which Charlene absorbs strangers into her household has always amazed me. I’ve thought of it as Southern hospitality, but it might be Charlene.
“No, I like the company. And besides, she helps with Lily.” Charlene takes one hand off the steering wheel, which I wish she wouldn’t do since we are now on a deeply rutted dirt road, to gesture at the countryside. “Isn’t it wonderful here? Ah’m jest a ole country gal. This feels like home to me.”
I feel at home too, in my own way. The landscape is in the New England mode of rounded hills and rock-strewn fields. The view from Charlene’s front porch is acres of goldenrod and the blue Adirondacks.
“Go and put your stuff in the house. We’ll eat outside.”
The trailer is a double one with a little peaky roof trying to pass itself off as a real house. Charlene has her crocheted stuff on every flat surface. There’s a slice of redwood burl in which is carved, “Hail Guest We Ask Not What Thou Art, If Friend We Greet Thee Hand and Heart.” There are other messages for the visitor, too, like the magnetized “Take it easy” on the fridge and the admonition in the bathroom, “We aim to please. You aim too, please.” That last is obviously advice for male guests. Does she ever have any? I wonder.
Outside there’s a weedy vegetable garden with chickens pecking around. Two large hounds rest in the shade of a small sugar maple. There is also a rabbit hutch, multi-colored kittens and a box turtle which could be either dead or asleep.
Charlene and I sit in companionable silence on car seats rescued from the dump—Charlene’s porch furniture. We watch Lily chase a black and white kitten. The sound of a chainsaw is very faint, and of a jet passing somewhere overhead.
Later we eat burgers off plates with “Kel-Lyn” printed on the rim. Arlis is off with friends. Lily, wearing only a grubby tee-shirt, waddles happily between us, begging food.
“She doesn’t take after Scully much, does she?” Charlene looks a little anxious.
“I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell when they’re this little, though. Their features are kind of undeveloped. Personally, I think she’s wonderful. A most extraordinary baby—or I guess she’s a toddler now. You are a big girl, aren’t you?” Lily is bringing me her toys to admire, one by one. I am being buried in a growing heap of blocks, dolls, books, and stuffed animals. She laughs in delight at this new game, her eyes the clearest, unmarred blue. Eyes like her father’s, but without the malicious glint.
“Do you think they’re born with a personality?” Charlene’s still worrying about genes.
“Are you asking do I believe in genetic predisposition as opposed to environmental influence?”
“Whatever. You know what I mean. Do you think she could have Scully’s bad qualities?”
“I can’t see it. Do you know where he is, by the by?”
“No. He might be at his folks, or that brother of his. He’ll turn up here sooner or later, that I do know.”
A little shiver runs down my spine at the thought. “Oh, great. Don’t tell me you’d take him back after everything that’s happened?”
Charlene folds her arms across her chest and looks off at the Adirondacks, a dusky purple line. “I’m not saying he has a good moral character. I just still care about him. I don’t think about it much, to tell you the truth. My business is to raise my daughter the best way I can.”
“Your daughter is quite adorable and you’re a good mother.” I mean this.
“You ought to stay here and live with us, you know.” Charlene can present an outrageous idea as if it were the one sensible choice. “No-no, Lily.”
I distract the baby with an orange segment. “I can’t do that. How can I do that?”
“Hold your breath and take the plunge. What do you really have going in the City, anyway?”
What indeed, besides a few friends scattered here and there? Some show possibilities, as elusive as will-’o-the-wisps. I need a break from the City. Also, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to let go and just be a person out in the world.
The weeks spin out while I settle in with Charlene and her ramshackle menage. The country sounds of urgent crickets and the rustle of night wind in the birch trees sometimes wake me in the long hours after midnight I lie in bed and wonder what I’m doing here, but I send a note with the rent to my landlord: “Visit extended through the winter.”
Living with Charlene and Arlis is certainly a change from my usual venue. For one thing, I’ve somehow gotten to be 25 without sharing space with other people. I even had a private room at college. As a child, of course, I lived with my mother and father, but I had my own wing of the house. Providential arrangement, that, since the major current of parental energy flowed not in my direction but between them, in an arc of mutual dislike that generated enough voltage to administer a palpable shock to any third party nearby.
Charlene accepts my presence calmly, like she does everything. She has her job, and Arlis and I babysit. Arlis is easy to be with, a lively septuagenarian with a wardrobe of pantsuits in pastel shades. With Arlis everything is “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise!” For a churchgoing woman she has quite a mouth on her, especially when she gets onto the subject of her Italian ex-husband.
When Lily goes down for her morning nap, Arlis and I take a break. While I stir my instant coffee, wondering whether this will be the day when Arlis’s concoction dissolves the spoon, she starts in on her ex.
“The problem with Wop men is that their mamas tell them that that dangly thing between their legs is the prettiest thing God ever made. You ever date any Eyetalians, honey?” Whenever she mentions an ethnic group, which is several times a conversation, she asks me if I’ve dated any. So far we’ve established that I haven’t gone out with any Mexican, Jewish, Irish, Canadian, German, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Polish, or black men. Usually she gives up, saying, “You don’t get out a lot, do you honey?”
Arlis can carry a conversation without much assistance. All I have to do is “Uh, huh” at intervals or ask a leading question. She has a lifetime’s worth of memories to pick and choose from. She serves them up with gusto, slapping them down in front of me like she used to serve the Breakfast Special.
“Did I ever tell you about my fourth husband?” Arlis has been married five times.
“Honey, that man had some strange habits. He used to put a tape recorder under the pillow, and…” She leans forward on her hands, her elbows jutting like two exclamation points, “…he liked to roll the bed into the kitchen and make love with his feet in the refrigerator! My Lord, my Lord. I used to live in fear that the kids would catch us.”
“Arlis. You never said you had children.”
“Three of ‘em, all different colors, too. Oh I know you think I’m prejudiced,” she shoots me a sharp look, “but I loved ’em all, best I could. Got a black one, a Chinee, and a little Mexicali.” She’s got a soft smile, looking into the past. “Yep, I loved those little babies, and their Daddies, too. When it was over, it was over. I don’t bear them no ill will. Except for that Wop. He followed his pecker around all the time.”
What with one thing and another, Arlis and I don’t get much cleaning done. Dinner is often courtesy of Mama Kel-Lyn. At night the three of us watch what Arlis calls “the lineup”—Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, and The Dating Game. It’s an undemanding life.
On Sundays, we attend the Assembly of God Church. Church is what people do for social life in these isolated towns. I know better than to tell these folks that I’m a rich man’s daughter or an artist from the City. When they say “God loves you” to me I say “God loves you” back at them.
It’s too cold to sit outside now. It’s not pretty out anyway; the trees and ground are nude and exposed-looking without a blanket of snow. Before we turn in at night Charlene stokes up the wood stove. Every morning we check to see if the ground is white. There’s a sense of holding one’s breath, knowing that it will happen any day. It’s a waiting time, between seasons.
At night we sit around the wood stove, with our feet up on footstools. Charlene is crocheting the world’s ugliest comforter, in green and orange. Arlis gives her a hard time about it. She says, “Oh, Charlene, Halloween’s over, or didn’t you hear?”
The TV is broken and we don’t have the money to fix it. For entertainment, we take turns reading from Arlis’s Bible. I actually find it quite stimulating, since I’ve only looked at bits of Genesis. I play a private game, ticking off the literary references. East of Eden, Giants in the Earth, Stranger in a Strange Land, Absalom, Absalom, The Sun Also Rises. By the end of November, my list is a page long.
“What’s that word mean?” Arlis passes the book to Charlene.
“I don’t know. Phoebe, what’s Bethel?”
“Read me the sentence.”
“‘Be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bethel.’”
“Well. I think the Hebrew root is beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which also means house, and eloheinu means God, so it could be an obscure reference to Israel.”
“Holy shit, listen to her. Ask a simple question, you get a complicated answer. Never mind, forget it.” Arlis reaches for the book.
“Piggy, piggy. You really like to read the sexy parts, don’t you Arlis?” Charlene winks at me.
“Us old broads got to get our kicks any way we can.” She licks her lips, mock-salacious.
By night on my bed I sought him
whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, but I found him not.
I will rise now, and go about the city
in the street, and in the broad ways.
I will seek him whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, but I found him not
What would it be like to feel like that? I try to imagine loving someone so much that I would go tromping around at night trying to find them. Tearing around Coxsackie or New York in a frenzy of love and desire. I can’t imagine it.
Charlene and Arlis are both looking at me. Neither of them says anything, even though I haven’t read a word for a while. It’s odd; what I see in their eyes looks like pity.
I am bound naked to the mast and splinters of wood have worked their way under my skin from neck to ankles. Rubbery chunks of body parts smack against my legs and roll away as the ship yaws violently.
I wake struggling. I can’t move. Scully is sitting on the bed with a hand on either side of my shoulders, using the blankets to pin me down.
“What are you doing?”
My family once owned a mean little strawberry mare. She’d trample you in a heartbeat if she smelled fear. “You’re quite the gentleman, Scully.”
“You’d like some of it, though, wouldn’t you? I see right through you.”
If I’ve never acknowledged that desire to myself, I certainly won’t admit it to him now. “You’re not supposed to be here. She doesn’t want you here.”
“Hey, that’s my old lady out there, that’s my little daughter. What the fuck are you doing here? You suck off her tit like that baby. Looking at people like us like we’re monkeys at the zoo. Like you’re watching some fucking video.”
He leans down until he’s crushing me to the bed, his whiskey breath in my ear. “You want to watch everything? I’ll make you a movie you won’t forget in a hot hurry.”
Thank God, I can breathe, he’s off me. Halfway out the door he turns, “Like they say, this one’s for you.”
Charlene’s room is next to mine. I hear everything like he meant me to. I hear Charlene pleading with him in a low voice so she won’t wake Lily in her bedroom down the hall, “Scully, don’t, you’re drunk. No, please, Scully.” Then I’m looking down at Scully and Charlene from the dizzying perspective of her bedroom ceiling. Charlene’s blond hair loose over the bed, her white buttocks clenched in his dark hands, groans and sobs from somewhere.
It’s like I’m watching but it’s happening to me at the same time. I’m the one turned onto my stomach. Rough hands open me and flesh that feels like a wedge of hot rock, like maybe pumice, is rammed in and ripped out of my most tender parts, driving my body forward until my head bangs rhythmically against the wall. What occurs to me is chicken. Did I defrost the chicken for tomorrow? and I open my eyes in my own room, pinned to the bed only by the horrific realization that the part of me that likes to observe may have have been anticipating this, the dramatic denouement to my videotape of Charlene’s life. I never anticipated being hauled right into the screen, though.
When I hear Scully snoring, I rise and dress. I know I ought to stay and see to Charlene, but I’m clenched with shame and confusion. Scully’s the perpetrator but also a vehicle. I’m a bystander, but not an innocent one. I also feel as if he had ripped away my skin and I can’t tell me from everything else.
Charlene, me, Scully—the images begin to whirl and blur and blend, until all I feel is an urgent and immediate need to get away from this place.
The one thing I do before I leave is look in on Lily. She’s snoring baby snores with her tush stuck up in the air. She looks so sweet. I start to cry. If this is feeling, I don’t much care for it. I actually have to sit down and stick a blanket in my mouth so I don’t wake her. I’m overwhelmed by a vision of Lily’s future. It doesn’t look too promising. It’s a movie even I couldn’t bear to watch.
Re-entry into New York life is like trying to hop aboard a merry-go-round spinning at warp speed. A lot has changed in the time I’ve been away. Friends have gotten in and out of relationships or moved to Brooklyn. Even the neighborhood is different, with new restaurants, clubs, more amenities, more spoiled Europeans. Tout change, tout passe, tout lache. Everything changes, everything ends, everything falls apart.
I fall to work ferociously. In one night I work up drawings for a whole series of sculptures, enough to keep me occupied for years. I see the series as an image—the months stretching before me, big chunks of polished marble in a straight line to the horizon. I will leap from piece to piece, forward in time, and Charlene, Scully, and Lily will grow smaller and disappear behind me.
Just now they are my constant companions. While cutting stone, I show Scully that my alleged defects are just the hallmarks of a complex, creative nature. Generous and compassionate, I help Charlene recover from her ordeal, even as I sharpen chisels. Chips of stone fly while I rewrite the future for Lily, successfully gaining custody. What a triumph!
I’m so obsessed with those three that I kind of forget about Arlis. It’s a surprise when, months later, I get a letter. It’s on perfumed stationery with sparkly poodles running across the bottom. Quite illiterate, but I find I’m not prepared to mentally edit and sneer. I realize that I have come, in some small way, in whatever limited sense I’m capable of such a thing, to care for Arlis.
Not earth shattering, but it’s a start. I post the letter on the studio wall and read it often:
Dear Little Phoebe,
I have thought of you so much, and I wondered how you were, I just got out of the Hospital I broke my dang hip. Well that’s enough about me. We are having pretty mild weather here asfar as temperature goes but we have 17 inches of snow on the ground. Charlene and all the girls and guys at Church are so good to me they go get my groceries and whatever else I need, as I can’t even drive my car. Scully ran off and I say good riddance to bad rubbish. Well honey I’ll close I can’t think of anymore news I still miss you, I sure hope you get this letter so you will know I have not forgotten you nor will I ever and please drop me a line or two and let me know what you are doing and how you are. With all my love and best wishes, Always your friend,
Dee T. Axelrod is a sculptor-turned-writer who lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee