Turbulent Equatorial Sky by Patricia Mae Young
You'd better do something before you crack, Maury told herself as she plodded out of the Safeway store with German sausage, red cabbage, sour cream, and two packs of Marlboro 100's, the only kind of cigarette she'd smoke. The gray sky and incessant rain weighed upon her like a winter coat. She climbed into her ten-year-old gray Suburu Station Wagon and thought of the evening ahead. Alone. Her daughter was visiting relatives, and her other friends were occupied with various escapades which meant she was alone again.
Not that she wanted to be with them anyway with her prevailing mood. Nothing satisfied her, not her new occupation, nor the latest publications. Nothing. I need something else, something exciting, a romance preferably, she mumbled. But she knew that wouldn't take care of the uneasiness, the constant discontent--discontent, an old shoe she seemed to grow more attached to as the years rolled by, just like a pair of boots she purchased when she was sixteen, over twenty-two years in the past.
They were Italian leather, round-toed, mid-calf tall and laced up the front. She wore them everyday, and when the seams split, she had them repaired over and over until finally the shoemaker had told her there was nothing left on them to hold a stitch. Maury kept them even then. She stored them in the back of the closet until she married when she was twenty. One day when she and her new husband were moving; he found them and tossed them out. She came across them in one of the garbage bags. Her hand reached out, but she drew it back with a sigh. Years later she would think about his assumption that he knew what she needed to throw away and her complicity in allowing him that assumption. Men, she thought, as she pulled up to her beige and brown detached garage with bountiful green knee-high weeds growing around it, a small version of her house.
She got out of the car, opened the garage door, then drove into the small, cluttered space. Years of rusted shovels, rakes, old potting planters and other assorted equipment lined the walls and shelves. Many times she had tried to throw away the bent snow shovels, the leaky hoses, but always she found reasons why they might be needed later. So she kept everything, waiting for later. Men, they're good for yard work or for repairing the screen door which clattered in the wind ever since Bemer, her ever-faithful German shepherd, had knocked off its latch the previous summer. That they're good for more than just fixing things was a fact she didn't often like to admit. She'd given too many pieces of herself to the different ones over the years.
She felt as if the men she'd loved had taken small, but significant pieces of her when they walk away from her door. Her friends told her that she was nuts to think that way, but she ignored them. After all, didn't she have bits of each one of them embedded like crystal shards in some meaty place inside of her, especially the last one, Colin? She had been convinced he was the last one until he, too, decided to move on, adding another shard to her growing collection.
She went into the house, turned on the radio. "Ain't Misbehavin'" wafted around her. Memories of the last night she and Colin spent together seemed to flash on the walls. Then the other memories joined in. See, she told her absent friends, put on the right song and each one of them appears, first their voices, then miniature holograms of them dance about me.
Each one special in his own way, each one emitting his own special musical pitch, just as a piece of crystal does. No wonder the nights were so long, the days, at times so meaningless, with all these discordant melodies embedded within me, she told herself as she walked into the small kitchen with its wood-grained counters and almond-colored cabinets, cabinets she sanded and painted herself two summers ago when Colin left.
Standing in the kitchen, she realized it was not just his voice she longed to hear, not just his face she wanted to touch, she wanted all of them, in one body. Somehow she wanted all the shards to fuse together, so that when the music played she'd resonate a whole note instead of all the quarter measures. The pull and tug of the lyrics engaged her and she felt her body responding.
Dancing would be an answer, but so would diving deep into the LaPlata where the rocks were not smooth from age but still sharp, glacial in their cut. She shook her head, knew this was no answer, knew, too, she had to define happiness within herself. She had to find a way to allow the tempo of life to flow, to move around her, through her. But since Colin's departure, when he had taken his small sons and left her life, she had began to fight with herself.
It doesn't matter, anyway, she would remind herself when tears would seep from her eyes. He was just another one. A sleeping year later she said, but there is no one else; how can there ever be anyone else? Two yawning years after that, she still dreamed he would walk through the door with a bag of groceries and ask her if she still liked her cabbage smothered with sour cream. A perfect pitch.
You're so corny, she said to herself when she repeated the pun, a perfect pitch. She glanced down at the cabbage sizzling in the pan, poking at the purple, bulbous vegetable with a fork as she listed the badges of her self-sufficiency, her independence. She owned her own home, (poke) drove an undented car, (poke) could shop at Nordstroms if she chose (poke). Her daughter was happy, thriving (poke). Why couldn't that be enough, she wondered? With a sigh she put down the fork, lifted the lid of the sour cream, spooned a dollop of it on her single plate, glanced through the TV Guide, and prepared for another night, another movie. How simple life would be, she thought, if life followed a script.
She would be at work one day, busy with answering questions, delegating responsibility. Her mind would be occupied, intense in its direction. She'd look up from her work, and there "He" would stand. His name would be James or Dennis. But of course she wouldn't like him. He'd be too tall, or thin, or his mustache would still contain crumbs from his morning croissant. He'd inform her he was her new protege, someone she would have to work with on a daily basis. This would irritate her too much. She'd think of having him fired or relocating herself. But after weeks of working closely with him, she'd notice how agile his thoughts were, how much their thinking complemented the other. Occasionally she'd notice his blunt-tipped fingers and how smooth his nails were. And one night as they labored over one more project, James would touch her, softly, on the cheek, to wipe away a blue smudge of carbon. Their gazes would lock for a moment. Then they'd both look away, begin shoving papers into their respective briefcases. But later she'd fall asleep with her hand cupping the cheek where his touch had rested for that brief flicker of eternity. He, of course, would toss and turn all night, mumbling and groaning.
The next day they'd both pretend nothing had changed, perhaps even begin to bicker over petty things, even go so far as to point out defects in one another. They'd avoid each other for a week or two, maybe more, but eventually they'd be commissioned another task which required them to fly to Paris where they would have to stay at a hotel where everyone else was a stranger. For a day or two, they'd do their daily work then escape back to their separate rooms. By the third day, loneliness and boredom would force them to agree to a Dutch dinner date.
They'd sit across the table from each other wearing wariness like a pair of gloves. Then she'd ask innocuous questions, about his parents, his goals, maybe where did he grew up. He'd look down, begin telling her.
California, not the California of today, but one in which the fields of sunflowers grew twice as tall as a young boy, and a boy could hide from pals, mothers or anybody he wanted to, amidst their stalks, only come out when he wanted to, only come out when he felt safe. But when he wanted to have some fun, he'd go find the other kids swinging at the park, or having spitting contests behind Haggerty's Market. When the spit would impact the dust, it would sizzle and leave miniature craters, and he had to be careful not to land his missile in someone else's trench or there'd be a fight for sure. I'd yell, meet cha at the canal and within minutes there'd be six or seven of us racing to see who could strip down and be in the water first. Most of the time I won. We had to give up swimming there though, when I was ten.
Why, she'd ask. And he'd know when he looked into her green eyes that she really did want to know. Trusting that solemn stare, he'd tell her.
The city blocked off the canal after a storm.
As his story unfolded, his gaze left her face and focused on that day, a horizon thirty years in the past.
The canal water was thicker, darker than normal. It'd been raining for a couple of days straight but had let up that afternoon. The sky was churning with dark thunderheads, but the heat had driven us to the canal. We were bored with spitting, bored with all the usual games. There was a current running between us. You could almost see the blue sparks of ionic reaction as we raced to our swimming hole. We'd been warned to stay out of the canals during the storms, but we were young and each of believed we were Captain Marvel or Superboy or at the least Batman's Robin. So we dove in. Johnny Panther was the first in that day. Then the rest of us tumbled in, carried away by our daring, by the energy of the wind, the thundering of the dark clouds.
The tone of his voice would grow urgent, its tonal quality higher almost as if his storytelling were taking him back to that day. She'd watch James' face, and it would seem as if the years were melting away. The story would take on a life of its own, creating a setting, atmosphere, and vitality, and she would also feel the wind breaking against her body and remember the smell of crayfish, their odor ripe with sun, decaying on the banks.
We were wrestling, pushing, shoving. One of us would dive deep, grab an ankle, tug downward. The one being tugged would scream, and we would echo him. It was if we were trying to drown out the mounting thunder; pushing, and shoving, grabbing and screaming until the rain came.
She would almost see the naked, muscled bodies frolicking in the darkened canal water. One was blond with a scar over his left eye from fall down the stairs. Another was small, darkly compact with a grin as impish as a pup. The tall, skinny one with the dark hair and hooded eyes must be Johnny, she'd think to herself. She'd smile, knowing that James had entranced her in his childhood.
Then the rain came. First in heavy droplets, then in a torrent, gushing as if the gods of thunder were trying to hush our impertinence. We scrambled out of the water. The going was rugged since the bank was slippery with the downpouring rain on the already slick mud. But we came out shaking our fists at the skies, laughing, marvelously glad to be alive. We grabbed our clothes. We were headed towards the park two blocks from the canal, lightening bursting around us. A rain shelter was there, a patio of sorts that had a barbecue pit in its center and wooden benches attached to the walls.
His face would began to change, seeming to change from boy to man in moments. She'd note, too, that there were tears wetting his lashes. She'd want to touch him but knew that to do so would interrupt his vision, this panorama of his past.
We got to the shelter, threw ourselves down still laughing, still gasping from the sheer joy of living. I wanted to remember that moment, somehow knew that it was one of those crystal ball moments that I would carry with me until the end of my life. So I looked into each of their faces, drinking them in. And that's when I noticed Johnny wasn't with us. I called his name, thinking that he might have stepped outside to relieve himself. We all stopped to listen. The wind was still whipping the trees, and the rain was drowning, pounding, hounding out all but its own voice. Somehow at the moment we all felt that we would never hear Johnny's voice again. Fear like ice descended upon us. Our lips were blue, and our teeth chattered. None of us uttered a word. Finally, I got up and told them I was going back. I was going to find Johnny. They all sat there. I ran back the way that we had come. I was yelling for him. "Johnny, Johnny. Olly, olly oxen free," I screamed at the top of my voice, an insignificant squeak compared to the torrent's bellow. And when I got to the bank, I couldn't find him. I knew deep in my gut, the canal, the gods or whoever, had swallowed Johnny. They had taken him from us because we had had those few perfect moments of being alive.
Tears would be streaming from his eyes, his countenance that of a ten-year-old boy's first struggle with death. Realizing she loved both the boy and the man, she'd reach up and touch his cheek. He'd shudder, that shudder would startle him back from the distant horizon to the restaurant and to the auburn-haired woman sitting across from him. He'd tell her how sorry he was. She'd know that he wasn't sorry that he told the story, but only for Johnny's death. She'd nod and look away, as he'd wipe the tears from his face. The scene would then fade. In the next scene, together, in rose-tinted room, they would be entranced not with the past but with theirown glowing future.
Maury looked down at the plate in front of her. Remnants of red cabbage and sausage stared back at her. She realized she'd finished a meal that she hadn't tasted. I got to stop this stuff. My life is not a movie, will not have a movie's easy ending. She walked over to the radio, turned it off. In the bathroom, she washed her face with the mascara-stained washcloth, brushed her teeth with a paste-encrusted toothbrush. When she looked at the bare-faced, middle-aged woman in the mirror, she saw wrinkles and pitted flesh superimposed over the silken skin of a young girl, a girl who somehow believed in everlasting love. Then Maury looked into own her eyes and saw both the girl and the woman she'd become, a woman who had had great happiness and great sadness, a person who had always been willing to take risks and follow her dreams. She looked for regret but found none. I am whole, she told herself, in clear, sure voice. For a moment the conglomerate of shards seemed to tumble, then realign themselves in a symphony of harmonious warmth. She shivered, telling herself, Tomorrow will be another day, a better day.
In her dreams, she saw the young girl running, together, hand-in-hand, along the shore of a crystal canal with a dark-haired boy, both yelling in perfect synchronicity, "Johnny, Johnny. Olly, Olly oxen free."
Jan Strever is the managing editor of R&R, an electronic journal, and the advisor of Legends, a literary magazine. She edits Kimera: A Journal of Fine Writing and co-edits, Heliotrope: A solstice journal. She also teaches everything from ESL to creative writing with a dash of technical writing thrown in at the community college in Spokane, WA.
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