SEPTEMBER 2006 – NO. 8
The first short story selected by our third Guest Fiction Editor, Nicholas Montemarano.
Ian smelled like ice, like February, the month he was born in. His sharp face was imprinted with its qualities. I was golden, softer, like May, my month. We were 12 then, in 1980. In our first lesson, Ian explained that all words looked like what they meant. Like trapeze. He wrote the word on his pad, every letter in a different color. He drew a T and made it into a swing. Then he drew a man in a red striped costume forming the R, A, P, E, Z, E. The motions of a body through the air. Everything is what it looks like on the page, but there isn't a word for that. Words are for the hearing.
Hear, the thing everyone else's ears did but mine, and here, the place where I always am, sound the same. That is something called homophone. There is also onomatopoetic. Ian drew it for me. It featured a long, complicated octopus squeezing the letters. Words, all words, sound like what they mean. But that was difficult, since sound meant nothing at all.
Aunt Jana, his mother, smelled of spice cake, the result of French face cream and Opium. She perched on things and made them go. Horses, cars, skies. The Welshman she married, because of what was going on in her womb, grew up on one potato a day and hacked up black liquid from the age of eight on and had — perhaps inspired by the regurgitated stuff — gone into the oil drilling business. He made lots of money, drank lots of Laphroig, and had his license taken away in four countries, so Jana drove the Aston Martin. She drove it fast and she was very beautiful. She kept her license when they stopped her.
23 Hazel Road, the brownstone where they, and briefly I, lived in Godalmere, smelled of new paint and old must. Number 23 labored in a perpetual state of semi-destruction. The exhausted front room had been done and redone — never to Jana's liking. Wallpaper was put up and stripped off. Mammoth glass light-fixtures hanged … then came down. Workmen sanded and painted and pounded. Wood slats and piles of nails and power tools stacked up the walls. Old furniture huddled in the middle of the room.
The house was also in possession of an au pair, ostensibly with us to learn English. For reasons that remained unclear — Ian did his best to explain — she was referred to as the blonde girl even though her hair was really light brown. Her breasts, the size of well-fed lap dogs, perpetually bounced before her, announcing her indignation at our likes. She enjoyed an adversarial relationship with the washing machine, which she also extended to the vacuum cleaner, Jana, Ian, and myself.
Late in the summer of my year with them, she stormed out because the dishwasher door refused to cooperate. Jana said, are you stupid, you stupid bitch. Ian wrote stupid and bitch. No explanation necessary. They were words that had come up before. The blonde girl stared at Jana as if she'd been slapped and then ran out of the house.
Ian and I left the breakfast table and followed the action into the front hall. All we caught was the front door slamming shut. Jana seemed prepared to pursue the matter when she stopped and picked up the phone. It must be Uncle Welshman at his office in London because whenever he called she put one hand on the wall above the phone in the front hall, trying to push it down. The effort made it go white. I knew when Eric the riding instructor called because she picked up the phone and carried it into the front room, swishing the long cord like a train, and closed the door. But this was definitely Uncle Welshman wanting something she was reluctant to do. Whenever he asked her for another scotch she would slowly pull a Dunhill out of its little couchette and light it and have a long drag like she hadn't heard him. Then she'd get up and get the bottle.
She had the cigarette out and was about to light it when she slammed down the phone. She squinted at the two of us in the kitchen doorway and said something. I looked to Ian. On the ever-present pad, with his colored pencils, he wrote London.
The blonde girl incident stranded us with no keeper so we were to get into the car. Last time Jana had left us alone we'd painted the front room a deep red I'd found in the cellar. Hard drips had dried in rivers all down the wall before she got home. She wasn't about to leave us alone again.
On the way out I knocked over a pile of knit squares stacked waist-high along the walls of the front hall. I wasn't sure I had actually touched them. It'd been happening a lot lately; walking past things and having them fall without touching them.
Jana, while watching made-for-television miniseries from America, furiously jabbed at yarn with needles, making the squares. She smoked one Dunhill after another; weaving the yarn into the only thing she knew how to make. I dreamt she sewed them together and made a blanket big enough to cover number 23. It was so dark and hot we couldn't breathe. We were found dead by the front door, trying to push it open against the weight of the blanket.
I knelt down to pick up the squares, knowing she wanted me to look up at her but I pretended I couldn't tell she was there. She moved her hand in my peripheral vision. Still I continued to pick up the itchy little patches. Making a show of what a careful little girl I was, I moved more slowly as her anger got quicker. I could imagine her lips moving rigidly. When her anger went like that Ian always faded away. I felt him slipping back into the kitchen behind me.
She placed her booted foot on my hand and ground it in. I kept the good girl look on my face. After a long minute she let up the pressure. Cautious as a mime, I released the square, crept my hand out from under her foot and looked up at the underside of her voluptuousness. Her breasts covered the entire front of her, collarbone to waist. Her hips were wide enough to straddle the largest horse with ease. She wore Oxford Street military fatigues, adding to the sexy dictator effect of her sunglasses and her short dark hair. She stared down at me, pointed to the front door and hollered, Out! No need to shout, I thought.
The Aston Martin's radio was on because they were singing. Or mouthing the words, but I didn't know yet that people did that. Ian wrote Queen in purple pencil. Then he drew a picture of Freddie Mercury with a tiara pointing a gun at another man, also with a pencil moustache. Under it he wrote courage. He handed it back to me from the front seat and I laughed.
Years ago, my mother, a well-meaning, anxious sort of person, had taught me how to laugh. In all qualities the opposite of her sister — petite, pale, unassuming — she worried that my unmodulated sounds were upsetting. She spent hours explaining to me through touch and gesture that when I felt a certain kind of joy it made a terrible noise. We practiced placing my hand firmly over my mouth and expressing with my eyes. In Jana's care, however, I'd become lazier. No longer under my mother's watchful eye lest her wanting daughter should offend, I felt my throat creating more sounds.
Jana looked up and said, Stop It at me in the rear-view mirror. I smiled at her like I thought she'd just said I Love You.
In London, on Nicholas Street, Uncle Welshman was standing outside the restaurant. Annoyed to see her entourage, he murdered his cigarette into the cobble with his toe. They didn't greet each other. She stood in front of him in her sunglasses, daring him to hold her gaze. His watery brown eyes, like an iridescent pool of oil in the sun, glanced at Ian and me. I'd had a few sips of scotch and it made my eyes water too.
Uncle Welshman liked me. I didn't talk back. On those rare occasions when he was home, he would play with my hair at the dinner table. Secret chocolates sometimes attended his visits. He would beckon me into the front room and offer them with a finger to his lips, as if I needed to be reminded to keep quiet. It was he who'd bought Ian a pad of paper and encouraged him to tell me what was going on … perhaps he wanted a witness.
We stepped into the cold, dark restaurant. A waterfall trickled down a stone wall. The woman standing behind a desk smiled and held out her hand to Uncle Welshman. Her pale blue eyes were clear and calm. Jana said something and we were seated at a table in the back of the restaurant, closest to the wall of windows looking out on a garden, with bonsai trees and a fountain covered in moss. Next to the window, large white and gold fish rose to the surface of a pool and then recessed into the depths where I could just see the suggestion of their bodies. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass as a waiter brought orange squash for Ian and me, a martini for Jana, and a scotch for Uncle Welshman. I looked at their faces. No one was speaking.
I focused my attention on a silver bowl of tomatoes gleaming in the center of the table. The seamlessly smooth skin wanted to be touched so I picked one up. My hand's hot ache and its cool flesh met, dissolving each other. I held the tomato, feeling them watching me. I closed my eyes and ran the cool skin over my cheek. My heart started to race as I rolled the tomato over my face and neck. I covered all my bared skin with it.
Jana was reaching out to take the tomato away from me when the waiter interfered by placing a menu in front of me. I waited for her to remove it, but shedidn't. I looked at Ian, who shrugged. I was deciding my own food fate. Jana and Uncle Welshman began to talk. She drank her martini in one swallow. Ian's face grew tight as a knot.
My menu, a thing I'd never had before, wanted attention. Half the words were a mystery, probably in another foreign language. In a terrible moment soon after I came to number 23, I'd realized that the blonde girl spoke something besides the language I couldn't hear, and that, in fact, there were thousands of languages around the world that I was not privy to. It wasn't just the one I needed to somehow work a miracle and figure out.
I was puzzling what pois might mean (little p, then an o, what did it look like?) when Jana slammed her hand down on the table, making the silverware jump like nervous ballerinas. They argued. The waiter rested in the shadows at the other end of the room and failed to take our order. Ian shrank further away. I pointed to the fish outside. He wrote the word koi. Then he wrote the word again and drew a Japanese girl with her hands over her mouth looking sideways. Both of these had the same word. He pointed to the fish and then pointed to me. After a moment he pointed to the girl and pointed to me. A coy koi. I took the pad and drew a woman with a fish tail and carefully wrote out mermaid? We'd spent hours in the past few weeks on these creatures. I knew the mer was a French word for sea and maid meant someone kind of like the blonde girl and kind of like me.
Ian smiled, pleased I'd understood the riddle with so little prompting. He took the pad back and wrote the word divorce on his pad and put it on my knee under the table. No picture. I knew what that word meant. The V in the middle said it all. When I looked up he was still smiling, but he was no longer pleased.
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