Monday, January 25, 2010

Too Damn Big

Judith Blue stands out in the parking lot and watches as two women scream at each other out their car windows. “Jesus! Will you learn to drive that thang!”
“I was here first.”
“So the fuck what! You can’t drive worth shit!”

She turns and looks at the line of women that snakes out the door and down the sidewalk in front of the small specialty stores that share this rather large strip mall with The Beefeater, the restaurant, bar, and disco she manages for Chuck. Women are beginning to push each other in front of Yin Lee’s Chinese Gifts.

“Oh god, what am I going to do now?” She thinks this aloud and the sound of her own voice startles her. A very pregnant woman gives a mighty shove at the woman in front of her, who goes down, hits the pavement on her knees, and as her hands come down on the concrete she screams, “What the…….”

Judith turns toward the restaurant and starts moving as fast as she can, considering her high heels and the slope of the parking lot. She keeps thinking, ‘I didn’t know this many women lived in Springfield. Oh god, what am I going to do?’ When she gets to the doors she slips past a trio of women waiting to get past the two waiters stationed at the door. One of the guys guarding the door whispers in her ear as she squeezes through, “We need more wait staff.” It’s 5 p.m. Tuesday night. The show doesn’t start for two hours and the place is packed. The only men inside the place work there. She wants a couple more big guys with good manners and attitude on the front door.

A month ago she took this job as a lark. She needed a distraction from the faculty wives parties. When she and Henry first arrived she’d amiably gone along with the suggestions that she “participate.” The first abomination was a tea for faculty wives. It looked for all the world like the DAR and Junior League all wrapped into one. Then there was the Gourmet Club. What a fucking joke that was. Someone brought a green bean casserole, with canned green beans and Campbell’s mushroom condensed soup. Gawd. It was funny and sad at the same time. 

At one faculty dinner party they attend, she and Henry are seated across from each other, and each time someone addresses a question to him he looks at Judith to deliver his answer as if the two of them are alone at the table. She looks at the person who asked the question, hoping the hapless questioner sees her as merely the medium through which his answer is transmitted. She can barely keep a straight face. After that she knows she has to get a job to escape faculty wifedom. It is a role for which she has no talent.

During her interview with Chuck she asks all the questions while Chuck’s girlfriend/accountant gives her the skunk-eye. Both Chuck and his girlfriend come from Paducha where Chuck’s daddy owns the Caddy dealership. Must be a lot of pimps in Paducha. Chuck and his accountant are in their late twenties and have no idea what they hell they’re doing. Judith must be his first interview. When she’s through asking him questions, she asks one more. “Do you want to ask me any questions?” He stands up, giving her his most charming look which is an Elvis lip curl, sticks out his hand and says, “Welcome aboard.” She shakes his hand and asks one last question. “What do you plan to pay me to make this into a profitable venture?” His left eyelid flutters a little and he says, “$800. 00 a month” and beams. She says without batting an eye, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and turns toward the door. He says, “Whoa, not so fast, that’s just base salary. If you can turn a profit, I’ll give you 2% and of course, you eat and drink for free.” She pauses for a couple of seconds and says, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”
“Make it $1,000. and 5%, and don’t hassle me about the changes I want to make. By the way, what’s your advertising budget?” She looks at the accountant who looks at Chuck who says, “Let me know what you need to spend, and we’ll pay the bills.”
“On time?”
He looks at her sideways and says, “Sure. Is that it?”
“No, I need to spend a week or so assessing staffing. Supplies., talent. Any changes I want to make, you’ll okay?”
“You’re the boss.”
“If I find that you have not paid staff, or vendors, or advertisers on time and in full, I’ll quit. Are we clear on all of that?”
“Yes ma'am.”

Walking to her car she knows she has just made a huge mistake, not asked for enough, got nothing in writing, but what the hell, she can always quit.

When she gets home Henry is there, smoking, drinking straight lukewarm vodka in a half full ice tea glass reading student papers. If you are a lucky student he gets to your paper just before that ice tea glass is empty. By then he doesn’t even bother to read them. He just gives these last four or five A’s and leaves it at that.
“I got a job.”
“Have you eaten?”

He says this rather too loud for her taste, and she wants to say, “Henry, go fuck yourself,” but refrains for once because she really doesn’t give a shit if Henry’s eaten or not, she’s not cooking for him, so, why engage?

She heads for the shower. An hour later, after the shower, drying her hair, and getting dolled up a little, she grabs her handbag and starts toward the living room. Henry says in his whiniest voice, “Aren’t you going to fix dinner?”
“How astute, Henry. Was it the click click of my high heels?”
“Want to have a conversation, Henry?”
“NO. Are you going out?”
“I got a job, Henry. I told you, but it didn’t seem to register. I thought maybe you’d nodded off. I’d take you to dinner, but I doubt you could walk, and really, I want to see what the dining experience is like for a woman alone.”
“Henry? Are you in there? Why, to what? Are you so obtuse in class?
“A restaurant? Really? Will you bring me something back?”
“Probably not, since you’ll be asleep before I get back. Stay sober and I’ll buy you dinner tomorrow night. Good night Henry.”

As she drives to The Beefeater's, Judith thinks about the possibilities. The place is huge. The restaurant seats two hundred. The bar is another hundred . Fire code says the disco can hold a maximum of three hundred. She does not know the population of Springfield, but thinks keeping this place busy is really going to be a challenge. It's Thursday evening, just past 6 p.m. when she pulls into the parking lot. Stores are still open, but even so, the lot is almost empty. Oh God.

The first week she feels she has located all the major staffing changes she will need to make. She spends most early afternoons meeting with the back of the house—mostly the three cooks, one of whom has Culinary Institute training. They revamp the menu with specials that will not necessitate reprinting menus. Add dessert specials, everything is made in-house, bread, desserts. They work on a new wine list. Not necessarily more expensive, but better. Printing costs will be small. She gets rid of the English serving girl dresses with all the cleavage exposed and the long skirts that are a tripping hazard, and put everybody in black pants and crisp white shirts.

She spends her evenings in the bar. They have a cowboy quartet that starts playing at six. She gives them two weeks notice and puts up posters at the University’s music department and an ad in the classifieds of the News-Leader asking for jazz musicians. On Wednesday afternoon she auditions three groups. Hires a jazz band called Entropy. Judith thinks the bands name is pretentious and not apt, since they play quite swinging or soulful Jazz standards but decides it isn’t worth arguing about, since very few bar patrons will have the slightest idea what the fuck it means. She hires a great looking female bartender and keeps the one male bartender who doesn’t hit on her right off. She asks everyone to put out the word that she’s looking for another bartender. She has three cocktail waitresses to start with. She’ll add them as she needs.

Judith Blue is now on a mission to poach talent from restaurants and bars in the surrounding counties since she’s stolen all the good ones in Springfield. She’s left Horton’s alone because it is her only refuge from 
The Beefeater, so Larry and his staff are safe for now. Henry is too deep in his cups to really notice her absence and perhaps he's got a girlfriend again. It's been his habit in the past to accept the advances of pretty coeds. Who besides Judith can blame him? He isn't exactly getting much attention at home. But then he isn't exactly scintillating company or much fun in bed. When he started passing out and pissing the bed she started sleeping in the other room.

Now she is concentrating on the disco. Its days as a disco are numbered. Donna Summers is sort of old hat now, and it's time to transition to another incarnation. But what the fuck will that be? The place has a stage and dance floor and is too big by half. One morning in Fayetteville she stops for breakfast at a coffee shop near the the UAF campus, and while reading the paper, notices a small piece on page four about a club in Kansas City that sparks her interest. This little club, the Plug Nickel, has made news by offering the ladies a male strip show. The reason it makes any news at all is the huge crowd it draws—all women. Fancy that. She finishes her coffee, puts out her smoke, and tucks the paper under her arm and heads for the parking lot. She climbs into her Gran Torino and lites another cigarette before she turns toward Springfield. It’s a beautiful drive once you get past the strip malls that blight the landscape around Fayetteville, Benton, Rodgers, then she’s off the beaten track and on to Cassville and then Monett. Gorgeous farmland, no strip malls here. And she’s thinking all the way home.

She spreads the word among her staff of mostly S.W.M.U. students, that she’s looking for male dancers, real dancers, for an all female audience. Within a week she has fifty-eight names on the audition list. And The Beefeater is buzzing. Business is picking up at a steady rate. Sometimes on Friday and Saturday nights there is a waiting list for dinner and the overflow is enjoying jazz and cocktails in the bar. Everybody’s making money and bickering and backstabbing is at a minimum. Even Chuck and the accountant are pleased.

So far the disco is a cavern still mostly empty, despite the sound of Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Gloria Gaynor, and Chic blaring from the huge speakers. The glittery disco ball still twirls in the darkly lit space. She has banned the Bee Gees from the play list, but there is always a small crowd late at night around the long bar, and a few diehards still making the most of the big dance floor. But the times, they are about to be a changin'.

For three mornings she holds auditions in the empty disco. There are the dancers, the cocktail waiters, and the female DJ’s all in separate lines. Judith stands on the bar platform and tells them her plan. DJ’s have always been guys, but that is going to change on Tuesday nights. The women auditioning for DJ head to the booth. Dancers are limbering up down by the stage. And the first players in this performance are the cocktail waiters. Sixteen guys begging for ten spots. Mostly college athletes and frat boys thinking this is going to be easy. They have to audition just like the dancers. She is going to turn the nightlife gender roles upside down and see what falls out just one night a week for a month. She tells everyone exactly what her intentions are and what she expects of them. She will be the choreographer and majordomo of this whole shebang. An experienced cocktail waitress from the bar gives lessons to the waiters auditioning. They have to be able to carry a heavily loaded tray high above their heads, arm fully extended, weaving their way through closely placed tables, with a certain grace and agility without spilling a drop. Almost every guy fails his first try. The regular DJ is demonstrating in a showoffy way the inner workings of the booth. Music gets going and then stops abruptly. She leaves the bar tournament to the cocktail waitress and female bartender who will now make Tuesday night a regular part of her schedule. She's filling fake orders and loading the trays for these desperate waiter wannabes. Judith heads for the dancers.

This is going to be the tricky part of the whole deal. So they needed to have a little sit down. “Hi, I’m Judith Blue. Nice of you boys to show up, but this might not be exactly what you understood from the ad and posters. We are going to put on two shows a night one night a week for an all female audience. I repeat. Women only. You guys will be the entertainment.” There is a slight rise in the energy level of this group of attentive young men. They look at one another and smile. “I want to incorporate several elements to this performance, but I know this is a highly religious community, so to be fair to all of you, I must tell you first off, that there will be a little stripping involved. Anybody object to taking off your clothes while dancing and ending up nearly naked on a stage ought to leave now. We’re not doing anything illegal, but…” She shrugs, and sits at a table looking at the handsome, eager faces arrayed before her, spread out in repose on the dance floor, languid and muscled young men. Not a sound. No one moves to leave or even shifts his weight. “Is there a choreographer among you?” Three hands shoot up. She motions them over. They take chairs flanking her. “Will the remaining fifty or so of you break into groups of ten or eleven”? She waves her arm in the direction of the DJ booth. “Keep the volume low for awhile. We need to be able to talk in a normal tone, okay?”

There is a low murmur taking place in every part of the room now, then a large crash as one of the loaded trays hits the concrete floor. Dead silence for just a long moment, then the murmur starts again.

She has a powwow with her three choreographers and sketches out what she wants to see tomorrow, same time same place with some rough costuming. Is this possible? Yes, it turns out, it is.

Everywhere she goes she tells the women, in hushed and whispered tones that they might want to come for a special night just for women at the disco. At the bank, the grocery store, the doctors office, and throughout her strolls through the halls of academe.

By the following Monday morning they are ready for a dress rehearsal. She has ten well-trained waiters in short, tight black shorts and white wife-beater t-shirts, wearing white tennis shoes on their feet. She was tempted to make them wear high heels, just for the object lesson, but decided against it in the end. Her DJ is not only a hot babe, she has great taste and timing. Judith’s strippers are dressed up and ready to go. The only thing missing is the audience, but it all works flawlessly in practice.

By six, the restaurant is full and the bar is overflowing. Women all over the place, and the excitement of anticipation is palpable. Conversation is decidedly more animated this evening. Judith surmises that without the sobering influence of the menfolk, the women are a little more uninhibited. She opens the disco doors and there is a near stampede from the bar. Women are running for the tables up front. Oh my God. Judith has the first of what will be many moments of dismay this evening. She stands inside the huge room and watches it fill in minutes. Her waiters are in full swing fast. She slips into the stock room behind the disco bar and uses the wall phone to tell the boys tending in the bar to come into the disco and assist the waiters at either end of the bar. This frees the two women bartenders to mix drinks for the female customers three deep the length of the disco bar. Oh shit, this is not going to work as planned, there are just too many of them. Not one single ad and this is what has happened? There is a half hour to go and she already senses the chaos that might ensue if the bar fills with men waiting for the end of the shows and the emerging women. She checks with the wait staff in the restaurant. All the waiters agree that they will help out in the bar or disco when their tables empty. The waitresses express their displeasure at being left out. Judith says, “Check your pockets at the end of the night and then tell me how left out you feel.”

The show is perfection. But it is not the show that concerns Judith, it is the audience. This is like a fucking rock concert. Women are screaming and jumping up and down, throwing their panties. Waiters have come to her saying women are pulling their shorts down when they bend to take an order. These guy are getting groped. What the hell’s going on here? She gets goosebumps on the back of her neck, b ut gives a quick demonstration on how to squat at a table to take an order so as not to get ones shorts pulled down. This does not however solve the groping behavior. These guy are going to get groped. Nothing she can do about it now.

There are obviously kinks to be worked out, but there is no denying Judith is on to something here. Just what, she is not sure. She decides right then and there to do a fashion show on Wednesday night. She wanders into the bar and sees a milling mob of men. They are waiting almost patiently.

After a month of strip shows with an ever growing horde of women and the men who follow them, she has received television news coverage as far away as Kansas City. Now she gets a visit every Tuesday evening from the Fire Marshal to make sure they do not exceed capacity. Two burly cops flank the stage. Boys are coming out of the woodwork begging to cocktail for free, claiming all kinds of experience. But the crowd of screaming women of all ages and in all kinds of conditions, like hugely pregnant, or swooning and falling from the arms of their chairs where they stand to get a better view? This she cannot deal with. So, once the first show starts, she heads for Horton’s for a drink and a quiet dinner.

©2008 Peggy Pendleton

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Strange Woman

"I was born with a flair for the dramatic but it was ridiculed out of me young. Not eradicated entirely, just driven under the bone, deep into the heart and spleen.” She pauses as if that’s all there is, finishes her Old Fashioned, plucks the cherry out with two long, slender, well-manicured fingers, tilts her elegant head back exposing a long supple neck and plops the glistening cherry in her open mouth. After she chews her cherry she continues, staring into her empty highball glass. “As I grew teeth, I ground them into cracked and splintered nubs. I eventually made tourniquets of the muscles surrounding my head, which I’m sure must feel like the binding of Chinese women’s feet in the old days. I only got to perform when I was assured of privacy. And there was precious little of that. Not that we were a big family. No, there were only the three of us. But there was only room for one performer in that small audience.”

She says this with a straight face and in a fairly convincing southern accent. Her voice is husky and deep, a whisky voice with that rough edge of a smoker. The whole thing sounds like something from a play. She’s addressing this load of crap to some big old John Wayne clone who’s muscled himself into the narrow space next to her at the bar. She’s responding to something he whispered into her right ear. He looks frankly bewildered, furtively glancing around for less complicated prey.

You can tell by the way she looks that what she says just might be true, but she tells it like a bald-faced lie. She’s a head turner. Not flashy-dramatic, but eyecatching. Classy, chiseled face. Even if she isn’t terribly thin or young, she’s got great bones. Her clothes are expensive—quality, well tailored, good fabrics. Her dark brown hair is cut about shoulder length and it gleams. It sways when she turns her head. Everything about her is striking, but quietly so. She’s the sort of woman everyone will turn to look at, but won’t approach. She looks self-contained and needing no one. Part of it’s her age. She’s not young enough to hustle. Not old enough to con. And despite that line of bullshit, and her age, she’s sexy.

The man who sits next to her at the bar wears a huge silver and turquoise watch and matching belt buckle. He’s tall, balding, and beer-bellied. She isn’t wearing any jewelry, no earrings, no wedding band, no watch. They don’t even come from the same planet.

A tall, slender man in his thirties sits at the far end of the bar where it curves around and ends in the wall--something to lean on if need be. It’s the opposite end from where the bartender takes orders from the cocktail waitresses. It’s a good place to watch the waitresses and the rest of the bar clientele. He watches one of the cocktail waitresses for a few minutes. She smiles at the bartender as she rattles off the list of drinks she needs, and the second he turns away and starts working on her order, her face is a total blank, completely losing its warmth, as if a light went off. And just then she catches the slender man watching her. Her eyes lock on his, and he finds it impossible to look away from that completely expressionless stare, as if it were a dare. When she finally turns away from the bar with her two vodka tonics and three 7&7s loaded on that tiny tray, he looks down the bar at the dark haired, older woman who is watching him with a bemused expression on her very interesting face.

She raises one eyebrow and lifts her highball glass in a salute. He lifts his drink to salute her back and feels his face flush. He signals the bartender, and when he looks back up at her, she’s looking in the mirror behind the bar bottles. At first he thinks she’s looking at herself, but her face is completely unstudied, and it occurs to him she’s watching the table behind her. She has the rapt expression of a voyeur. When the bartender takes his order, the slender man also orders one for “the great broad drinking the Old Fashioned,” nodding in her direction.

A small, aged, black man at the piano finishes “‘Round Midnight.” The slender man at the bar pays for the bourbon and soda the bartender sets in front of him and leaves his stool to walk over and put a dollar in the pianist's tip jar.

When he passes the back of the aging beauty’s barstool, she’s still watching the table behind her in the mirror. She sees him pass in front of them. When he walks back, after delivering his compliments to the pianist whose name turns out to be Bill Bailey, she turns her head and flashes him a high voltage smile. He smiles back. She says, “Hard to beat “‘Round Midnight” isn’t it?”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“Thanks for the drink. Care to join me?”
“Sure, for a minute.”
Still smiling she says “My name’s Judith,” and extends her hand. She has long slender fingers. Her hand is soft but looks like it’s done some work in it’s day. There’s a small round scar just above her little finger. She has what’s called a French manicure.
He turns to her and says, “Would you like to share an order of escargot?”
“I’d love to.” Her lips are red and shiny. Her teeth are white and even. He asks her if she minds if he smokes. “No, not at all, I used to smoke and I’ll enjoy yours vicariously. It’s one of the reasons I still come here. Most places are so sanitized these days. Lord I love Larry Horton for keeping his bar properly smoke-filled.” Again the almost southern accent.
“You know the owner?”
“It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody else and their business. So, since I don’t recognize you, you must be new in town or passing through. There are few strangers at this restaurant, since it’s small and far off the interstate. How did you find our little treasure?”
“I spent the day at Dillard’s today and asked the manager where to eat. She recommended Horton’s, so here I am. Sorry I’m so rude. My name is Martin. Martin Laterite”
“How very French.”
“The name, yes. I’m named after a great-grandfather.” He waves the bartender back and ask for the escargot. He says it will take about fifteen or twenty minutes.
“I noticed that you’re wearing a wedding ring. I find that so touchingly sweet in a man. Were you shopping for your wife?”
“No, I was selling. It’s what I do for a living. I sell women’s designer sportswear.”
“God! What a hellish job for a man.”
“Most women think it would be a great job.”
“Well, unlike most women, I hate stores and shopping. Did you like Lilly?”
“Lilith Jacobson? The store manager?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Yeah, I do. She’s a straight shooter. I like her directness. And I’m grateful to her that I’m not eating at Howard Johnson’s or the golden arches.”
“I play bridge with her once a month. And she does my shopping. God bless her for that. She’s a terrific friend.”
“And a wonderful job she does if the outfit your wearing is her handiwork. It’s Anne Klein Couture and they don’t carry the couture line in-store. So you must be a very special customer.”
“Just a picky friend. Besides, I only buy a few pieces each year. It’s not that much more work to buy special things for me. She knows my wardrobe and only adds what’s missing. I’ll bet she’d be here with you if it weren’t for her husbands business party.”
“Why aren’t you at her party?”
“Because I’m here having a drink with you, Martin.” she raises her glass and sips her drink.
Bill Bailey starts “Straight No Chaser”, and the bartender heads toward them with a plate of escargot. When they’re finished with their appetizer, the hostess comes over and tells him his table is ready whenever he is. He asks Judith to join him for dinner and to his surprise, she accepts. This scares him a little.
They are escorted by the hostess in her long black dress to a table by the only bank of windows in the crowded room. As the two women lead the way he watches them whispering to each other. They bump hips and he notices Judith’s ass. The bias cut of her silk-jersey skirt pulls slightly as she moves from foot to foot and her hips rock from side to side. Martin balls his dangling hand into a soft fist.
They don’t talk much during dinner, but he does find out that she’s married to a college professor who doesn’t have time to go out, so she goes out by herself. He notices she doesn’t wear a wedding ring and says, “Women who don’t wear wedding rings scare me.”
“They ought to scare you. You are married to a woman I presume. What’s she doing while you’re on the road?”
“Staying home with the kids, I hope.” When she laughs he notices her neck is long and white. She eats with relish and makes slightly sexual noises with her first few spoonfuls of lobster bisque. It is a soft moaning noise deep in her throat. He wonder’s why she and her husband aren’t at Lilly’s party.
“Do you work?”
“You mean, do I work outside the home, honey? Yes I do. I’m the wife of a poor college professor, remember? I have to work so I can buy my Anne Klein Couture.” She throws back her head and laughs. Martin thinks about his penis.
After dinner he asks for the check and the waiter says the check has been taken care of.
He says, “No, I’ll get the check! Judith, I travel on an expense account. Please let me get the check.”
She says, “I have nothing to do with this. It’s probably Larry or the guys in the kitchen.”
“Who was it? I’d like to thank him if it was the owner. And I’d want to thank the kitchen anyway for a great meal.”
The waiter says. “I’ve been asked not to say. I’m sorry.”
Martin pulls a twenty out of his wallet and leaves it on the table. He says, “Judith, would you like to have a cognac in the bar and maybe some dessert?”
“Yes, thank you. I will join you for an after dinner drink.”
The waiter, still hovering, pulls her chair out just as Martin reaches for it.
When they head back into the bar, the pianist is playing “For All We Know.”
They order cognac and sip it warmed. The crowd in the bar is thinning. Soon the kitchen crew starts coming in through the restaurant. It’s almost eleven.
Before he gets a chance to invite her to his room, Judith stands up, nods to the two tall very-young men from the kitchen, and says to Martin, “My dates for the rest of the evening are off duty and ready to escort me to my job.”
One of the two young men looks like Mick Jagger when he was twenty-something. The other looks like Jim Morrison alive. They hover a discreet distance from the drinking couple.
Judith leans over and whispers in Martin’s ear, “Our meal was comped by one of those two characters. They’re the chefs, and we’re going to the club I run for this rich boy who lives in Paducah. These guys want to go for the last strip show of the evening. They’d be very cross if I invited you. But I had a lovely evening with you Martin. Maybe next time you’re in town we can do it again.”

©2008 Peggy Pendleton

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The End Of Love

Their blue gray Grand Torino rounds the corner to the house, middle of the block, south side, and all the lights are blazing. It's June 15th at 3:48 AM. She pulls the big quiet car to the curb and cuts the lights, the engine, and sits there listening for a minute. The engine of the Torino pings a few times, but other than that, it's silent. This is later than she usually gets home on Thursday night, or rather Friday morning, but not much. She runs the biggest restaurant, and only disco in town and has turned the dead zone of Tuesday night into big news by transforming the disco into a stage for a variety of themes, but Tuesday night is Male Strip Show with a female-only audience. There's a Jazz trio in the bar for the line of women waiting to get in when the doors open at seven, so the restaurant is packed early and the bar is doing brisk business since the place opened a couple of years ago. She's made the Evening News in Fayetteville and Paducha. So, now, getting home before 3 AM is damn near impossible. But why would all the lights be on? Oh God, she hopes he isn't waiting up for her.

The "he" she doesn't want to wake up, is her husband. He forgot her birthday, three days ago, or four, depending on how you count the days. It doesn't matter to her. On the actual day, she left for work late, giving him time to call, or come home early himself. When she got up, there was no card or gift left behind. No call during the day. So she hung around for awhile kind of loitering in her own home, until she was an hour late for work. It's not up to her to remind him. She never remembers their anniversary. They got married on Bastille Day, but she can't remember the year. So, when her little calender says, Bastille Day, she wishes him happy anniversary. Nothing more.

She walks softly across the wooden porch and tries the door. Oddly, it's locked. She runs her hand around inside the bottom of her bag and finds her keys--they are a large clump, a fistful. Carefully she finds the key by the light shining from the living room window. She hears Dinah when she opens the door. Her small gray female cat is waiting at the door meowing loudly. As Judith enters, Dinah turns and runs for the kitchen. Shit, he didn't feed her. How could he sleep through her nagging? She glances at his chair. It's empty. The ashtray is emptied. His iced tea glass is absent, so it is either in the bedroom with him, or in the kitchen sink. God he's predictable.

She quietly opens the fridge door, and gets out the can of cat food. A small dish is on the floor behind her. She bends to pick it up, turns to the counter and scoops out a couple of spoonfuls. Then, when she picks up the cat food can plastic lid, she notices a few dark leaves and blue red petals in the sink. She picks one petal out of the sink and rubs it gently between her thumb and finger. Unmistakable long stemmed red rose petal. She hates them. Such a fucking cliche. They are overpriced, never fresh, and remind her of all the men she's known who had no imagination. Shit!

She grabs her smokes and lighter, sets her bag and keys down on the kitchen table, and wanders back through the house, her heels percussive in the early morning silence.

The dining room is full of them. How had she not noticed? Selective blindness? There are tall tea glasses with three or four each, wilting high on the stem at each tightly packed bud. These are some droopy assed roses. She turns the corner into the living room and finds them everywhere. Every vase they own is crammed with the thorny stems of too-tall, dark red roses. The end of love, she thinks, but doesn't say aloud. This is what the end of love looks like.

She bends and puts her face in a huge cluster of them and smells the inside of the refrigerator truck they were shipped in. "Jesus, what a waste of money." They'll all be dead by tomorrow night. Just out of curiosity she walks around the room and counts them. Thirty-one long stemmed red roses. Fuck that! She just turned thirty. Asshole doesn't even know how old she is. Can he count? She is four years older than he is by only a month. She sits down hard in his chair and lights a cigarette.

As she smokes, she tries to figure out what that extra rose is all about. Some symbolism? Junior speaks symbolism but doesn't know it himself. It's his secret language. They have been together four years, and she has been listening to this secret language, since he has taken to actually using words less and less. He has non-verbal tells. Not a card player himself, he isn't familiar with the term, but one of his tells is the shifting of his scalp, much like William F Buckley, when Buckley used to do Firing Line. In Junior's case it means, "This makes me uncomfortable" as in, "shut the fuck up!" Another of Junior's tells is the raised left eyebrow. If they are at a faculty dinner party and he wants to go, he finds her, makes eye contact with her, and lifts his left eyebrow. She starts making excuses, claiming she has to get up early, when they all know it's a lie. She thanks the host and hostess, finds Junior and says, sweetly, "Junior, we need to go now." He looks around, smiles weakly, and turns to follow her out. How has she let it get this bad?

The first year they were in Springfield she was expected to join in all the faculty wives' functions. There were teas. There were luncheons. Then there were the dinner parties that Junior had to attend as well. It was at one such dinner party, fairly early on, that she realized she could not keep up this masquerade. Junior was seated across the table from her between two women, one of whom had just asked Junior a question about his writing. He looked up from his serious consideration of his baffling plate, loaded with things he would never eat, if given the option. There was an awkward silence. Heads were turned his direction, all eyes on Junior. He looked up at Judith, wiggled his scalp and raised his left eyebrow. Judith turned to the man next to her left shoulder and said softly, "I think Junior isn't feeling well; we better go home."

Junior had started his serious drinking in Denver. She ignored it. It didn't start until his last year, and he was home from teaching and grading papers. But one night he pissed the bed they shared. When she woke up cold in the middle of the night, she found all her paintings removed from the walls and pilled in a corner. Junior was on the floor, wrapped in a blanket and snoring softly. She woke him up and demanded, "What the fuck is up with the wet spot in the middle of the bed.?" He said, "I mushed have shmilled my ash." This cracked her up. "Well, shmarty smants, why don't you tell me what you did with my paintings while you're sober and inert." He yanked the blanket out of her hand and slammed his head back down on the hard, cold floor. She moved to the guest room, and wondered how long he'd been getting this drunk.

So now she sits in the living room of the the house they rent, in Springfield, Missouri which she pronounces Misery, and looks at this disgusting display of Junior's guilt. Maybe $150, $200 worth of guilt. Probably called in and ordered over the phone. Delivered in a very big, long box this afternoon. They are dying by the second. And so is her love.

Finally she lifts herself out of the Windsor chair and walks, still in her high heeled boots, into Juniors room. It reeks. She can see from the light of the dinning room, that his bed is empty, and there is a very large wet spot in the center. She sees his naked foot and leg extending on the other side of the room, partially hidden by the bed. She walks over, no longer careful of the sound her boots make on the hardwood floor. He is naked, no blanket or sheet clutched to his chest. Flaccid penis lolling to the left. His arms are flung outward, palms up. His black hair is wet and curly around his blue shaded face. Jesus on the cross. She nudges his leg, hard, with the pointy toe of her black, patent leather boot. "Junior." Nothing. He doesn't even flinch. She moves up his body and aims a mighty kick at his rib cage, but cannot make herself follow through. She leans down and touches his shoulder. He is warm so not dead yet . She leans over, catches the faint whiff of vomit, and shouts, "Thanks for the dying roses motherfucker."

The song, "Dance Me To The End Of Love," starts playing in her head. She can't remember who wrote it, but can hear a man's voice singing it, sadly, softly. She rummages in her closet for a couple of suitcases, and starts singing along with the vocalist in her head.

"Dance me with the beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

When she's finished packing, she picks up the phone and makes her plane reservation.

©2009 Peggy Pendleton

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Still Life

My alarm wakes me up this morning with loud static instead of Morning Edition on NPR. It jolts me out of a dream of my own appalling ineptness as a parent. I go to the grocery store for the usual things: milk, eggs, toilet paper, nail polish. When I get to the grocery checker she says, “ We’re having a special on babies today, two for the price of one.”

I say, “Great, I’ll take two.”
"Boys or girls?”
“Can I have one of each?”
“Sure,” she says and reaches for the phone, and I hear over the intercom, “One of each, check stand seven.” A bagger brings two plump, bald babies in disposable diapers, lays them one at a time on newspaper, and wraps them like flowers, heads emerging from the unfolded end, wobbly, like large blooms on slender stems. The two of them fit snugly in one paper grocery bag, and the bagger offers to help me to my car. I decline the help, like I always do, and head to my car, bag of babies grasped to my chest and plastic bag of other stuff hanging from my left arm, keys in that hand. I open the trunk of my car, sling the plastic bag in, and then very carefully set the paper bag of babies next to the tire well, so it won’t fall over. Then I slam the trunk shut just like I always do. When I get home, I unpack the babies and put them on the kitchen floor. Pour milk in one bowl and cat kibble in another, and then I go to work.

I come out of this dream relieved to be awake even with the static. I have a headache and I’m sweating. I’m sluggish and shaky.

I’m the new receptionist at a chic and busy, upscale beauty salon. I’ve been brainless and sullen all day. Slightly paranoid and lazy in a resentful sort of way. I even annoyed myself.

Halfway through my shift at the front desk of the salon today I get nauseated. It’s Friday. The last day of the first week at this new job. Part of my job is to look chic and upscale. Well-coiffed and well-dressed. Another part of my job is to clean up after everyone else, so I sweep hair in my Ellen Tracy silk suit and Donna Karan three inch heels. This is not where I thought I’d be at forty- eight. Living alone in a carriage house with two cats. My God, how pathetic.

Both phones are ringing, and a fiftyish blonde in a taupe silk skirt and T-shirt and lots of tasteful silver jewelry, sits in a chair, scowling at me across a too short distance from my face. Her stylist has kept her waiting for the past half hour. He seems to be having some trouble finishing the perm he started two hours ago. That doesn’t bode well for the tastefully aging blonde or the permee, I think to myself while flashing her a truly sympathetic smile. She makes eye contact and then stares unbelievingly at her watch. She seems to have transferred her annoyance from me to her offending watch.

I can’t get away from the phones long enough to check the supply of clean towels and capes. I notice, as I pass one of the many walls of mirrors, that my lipstick has faded to the bruised blue pink of my lips natural hue, matching in tone the deepening circles under my eyes. I need to make more coffee. I need a cigarette and a nap. The perky blonde shampoo girl is getting surly. She washes coffee cups, aggressively banging them around in the sink, so I’ll notice she’s doing my job. Torpor sets in. Deliveries of hair care products are made, but the manager left and forgot to leave checks. I want to sleep, dreamlessly.

Some pimply, pudgy, sweet faced high school boy comes in and asks for Miss Torkleson’s order. I know nothing about Miss Torkleson’s order. I try to ask the stylists closest to my desk if they know anything about her order, but no one can hear over the noise of hair-dryers and Light Jazz. Eventually I find out no one knows who she is, or what the hell she ordered, or where it might be. It takes me ten full minutes to cover the entire space of the salon looking for clues to the mysterious Miss Torkleson and her missing special order.

When I return to the front desk, the peach fuzzed boy stands to the left of my desk by the ringing phones, shuffling from foot to foot. Two teenage models enter the salon laughing companionable. They smile at me and say “Helen, Hi!” as they pass my desk, not even glancing at the boy turning pink beside me. I sit and look up at him trying to formulate the right question. I ask him if he can give me any more clues about her or what she ordered.

He says, “I think it ends in O and R.”

“What ends in O and R?”

“The name of the stuff she ordered.”

I think to myself, great, that’s a big help, since no product I can think of ends in O and half of them end in R as both phones light up and start bleating. While I’m trying to fit the two women on the phones into the packed schedules of the stylists they want, he stands there, beet red and rocking gently from side to side.

When I get off the phones I say to him, “Are you sure you have the right salon?”

“This is Milano’s isn’t it?”

I ask him if he works for Miss Torkleson, and he says, “No, I’m a student.” As if that isn’t perfectly obvious - - he’s only fifteen or sixteen, at the most.

“Where does Miss Torkleson work? Can you call her?”

“She’s my teacher at Ellsworth High School. Can I borrow a phone book to look up the number?”

My God! Who does this teacher think she is, the Queen of France? He finds the phone number, dials it, and asks for Miss Torkleson. They put him on hold. The color in his face deepens by the second as he stands there, phone clamped to his ear, knuckles whitening around the receiver. After three or four minutes he hangs up and looks up the phone number again.

I look at him and ask, “What happened?”

“They hung up on me.” He dials again. He seems to be trying to hide his irritation and discomfort, but his eyes roll up in an involuntary and universal expression of disgust. He’s starting to sweat. I smile. I hope I appear sympathetic.

I haven’t said aloud any of the nasty things I’m thinking about his teacher, but I grow increasingly pissed off that some prissy bitch high school teacher would abuse her power and authority — would be such a perfect jerk as to send this poor, blushing, pimply, pubescent boy to Boy Hell to pick up some unknown beauty potion for her highness’s hair in the middle of a school day. What gall! I hope her damned hair falls out strand by stringy strand. My every gesture tortures him. Poor little shit — the whites of his eyes are beginning to show above his lower lids alarmingly. I write a brief note to his teacher suggesting that she call and tell us exactly what her order is, and when she’s coming in to pick it up. I give her the phone number and ask her to feel free to call. He leaves shaking his head in disbelief.

I stop at the Smith’s near the salon on my way home to pick-up cat food and coffee and a gallon of milk. It’s 2:15 when I leave the store. I’m trying to get my cats to give up baby-food lamb. Since we moved, traumatically, cross-country, a little over a month ago, I improved the quality of their diets to help them cope with the stress. Now I can’t get them to give up the Gerber’s Pureed Lamb. Fanny sniffs her bowl of cat food and slowly walks away. Phoebe stands there for a while shifting her dirty looks from her bowl to me before she covers the bowl with the dish towel I keep under their bowls, as if hers contains a stinking turd.

I’m puzzled when I unlock my door and Handsome greets me. He’s a large cream-colored tom with orange tipped ears, and blue eyes that cross when he gets close to Phoebe. He has orange freckles across the top of his cream colored, pink tipped nose. He spends a lot of time stalking Phoebe so he can jump on her back and bite her. If he can slip past me, he swaggers into the house like he owns the place. I kicked him out when I left for work. My two stayed in. At least that’s what I thought. Now Handsome is in, and the girls are out. What the hell! Is Handsome more talented than I thought?

Once he dashes out, I notice my backgammon set is open and the pieces strewn across the floor. And I think to myself, how the hell did that cat get the case open— it latches like and old Samsonite train case. My eyes drift up to the window above the kitchen sink, and I notice two small colored glass bottles lying on their sides at odd angles on the sill. A third and larger bottle is gone, presumably in the sink. The grey stone pestle hangs on the edge of the sill and looks like a wilting erection. I guess Handsome tried to get out the window. Poor guy. Trapped in the house.

And then the hair rises on my arms, and muscles tighten along the back of my neck. Something isn’t right here.

I find myself standing there, just inside the threshold of my house, tote and plastic grocery bag slung over my shoulder, keys in my hand, and my heart is pounding wildly. Nothing moves but my eyes. They drift from the windowsill to the antique hutch against the west wall of the kitchen. Two doors on the upper left side, above the flour bin, hang by one hinge each. The flour bin is all the way open. Wow, Handsome. You must have been really upset, I tell myself. It doesn’t work. I can’t quite buy it. I look back to the window, expecting to see the screen missing, but it’s not. Then I see the poker jar. The Ball jar I keep my poker change in is sitting in the center of the pie shelf. Last time I played poker, which was three weeks ago, I put it on the top shelf above the flour bin and closed the door, which at the time had two hinges. It’s not possible for a cat to get a quart jar off a shelf and move it to another shelf. He might have been able to push the doors off their hinges. He might have been able to push the jar and then have it fall to the floor, or into the open flour bin, but he couldn’t have set it on another shelf. I want to cut and run.

I force myself to turn my head toward the bed, which is partially screened from the rest of the living space by an old mammoth armoire. All the photographs and paintings are still on the wall behind my bed. The closet doors are open. And then in a panic my focus pulls back to the typing table, and I’m momentarily confused to see my computer still sitting there where it was this morning. Maybe it was just the cat.

I breathe and take a couple of steps into the room. Then I see the underwear. It’s all over the floor around the bed. Not the socks, they’re still in the bottom drawer of the little three-drawer chest beside the armoire. That drawer is pulled out about an inch and a half. The next drawer up contains cotton bikinis and tank tops. It’s halfway out and nothing seems to be wrong there. It’s just a tangle of faded cotton panties and T-shirts like always, but the top drawer is all the way open and empty, and all my silk bras, thongs, panties, tap-pants, teddies, slips and strapless bustiers are on the floor and spread all over. A small black velvet coin purse with a silver clasp is open and in the middle of the bed surrounded by my set of round Tarot cards, which were in a round basket with a lid at the back of my closet
The two drawers at the bottom of the armoire are open. They contain the prints from my photography classes. Almost exclusively figure study. Black-and-white nudes. All female.

One framed photo has been removed from the west wall above the window beside my bed and left in the deep sill of the window. It’s a female torso reclining on her side with her back to the camera. The knee of the top leg is bent and rolled forward in a stretch, which exposes the interior upper thigh of the other leg. It’s a high contrast print, very starkly black and white. Strong light from a window falls precisely on a barely visible tuft of pubic hair. My mother thinks this photograph is obscene.

I notice something else on the bed. The long flat pouch Charlie insisted I carry my passport and large bills in when we went to Costa Rica. I grab it and feel the passport without having to look inside. I clutch it to my stomach as I head for the phone. That’s when I dial 911.

The woman on the line says it might be quite a wait, since my situation isn’t life threatening, and the intruder is gone. She tells me not to clean up the mess until after the police look at it.

Fanny and Phoebe show up while I’m waiting for the police to arrive. They enter cautiously. They roam the house sniffing everything as if nothing were familiar. Eventually Fanny heads for the daybed and Phoebe perches on the bedroom windowsill. I pace for a while noticing more disturbance. My typing chair has been moved and there are huge shoe prints on it. Everything on top of the Armoire has been opened and dumped. I move from there to the solarium, take the two steps down and stand there in the warmth of late afternoon sun. The mattress on the daybed is slightly askew, but Fanny doesn’t seem to mind. She is snuggled into the pillows at the shady end by the west wall, which is redwood. I turn left into the bathroom and see that all the drawers have been opened and the boxes and cosmetics bags have been opened and emptied. Jewelry lies scattered on the top bookcase shelf between the toilet and the sink cabinet. There are two rings and an earring on the floor. I kneel down and start searching the floor. There is nothing else but hair, the odd bit of cat litter, and dust bunnies. I head for the closet to check for my camera.

It’s not where I left it, but it’s there, out of the case, lenses scattered on a bureau top. Film cans opened, but all the film seems to be there. I examine the camera carefully. I have a roll loaded with six shots left, so I start roaming around the house taking pictures. Load another roll of Kodak 35 millimeter, 24 exposures, 400 ASA, and start really looking at things one small frame at a time. There is dust on every surface. In the sink, along with a broken bottle, there are food scraps. Some toast crumbs and four sections of orange rind.

When Officer Crowley arrives the cats split, fast. One of the first things he does is tell me how traumatic a break-in is. He talks to me about the burglary being like rape, a violation. There will be emotional repercussions. Officer Crowley says to me, “Don’t let the man who broke into your house,”-- (and went through my underwear drawer, scattering flowered silk bras and panties like petals across the floor at the foot of my bed)---“make you change the way you live your life.”

We know it was a man because of the size of his footprints on that typing chair. He left handprints here and there on dusty surfaces. I wonder what Officer Crowley thinks of my housekeeping. Dusting is obviously not a high priority for me.

He asks me if I’ve only noticed what isn’t missing, and I’m so grateful for the fact that the burglar didn’t smash and destroy everything, didn’t shit in the middle of my bed, didn’t leave a threatening note, I can’t focus on what might be gone. He didn’t take my computer or TV, VCR, or camera. They seem obvious targets for theft. He even left credit cards. I keep telling myself how lucky I am. I keep trying to focus on the positive. I keep wanting this to be a victimless crime.

Officer Crowley is gentle and patient. He seems a very sensitive man. Not at all my stereotype of a cop. He has a round head with short blond hair, and a round gut. The rest of him is blunt and muscled--short, stocky, solid looking legs. But his voice is soft as if it rises from the great bulk of that belly. I like Officer Crowley. I don’t want him to leave.

He stays for about forty-five minutes. Says it looked to be a random break-in--someone looking for cash or drugs. He says I’ll probably never get robbed again. He says it convincingly, as though we all have our allotted burglaries assigned at birth, and now I’ve finally had mine. Whew! Then he tells me I should get a new door with better security locks and a dog wouldn’t be a bad idea either. He suggests bars for the windows. As he’s leaving, he says a photographer will be by later to take pictures of the gouge marks in the door where the burglar forced the deadbolt. I’m sorry to see him go.

Officer Crowley told me the cats might be traumatized and need tranquilizers. Hah! It’s getting dark now and my youngest cat, Phoebe, has brought into the house, proudly dangling from her jaws, a live moth the size of a healthy sparrow. She drops the stunned creature by my chair and smiles up at me. She’s carried it like a prize bird dog would — undamaged. It sits poised on the carpet, and then Phoebe reaches out one paw, claws retracted, and gives it a little tap. The moth rises and heads for the green gloaming of the solarium. Phoebe sits, still smiling, and watches its flight. It flies low like an overloaded B-52, clears the four-foot height of my yucca tree and crashes into the glass wall. I see a smudge of dust from where it hit the glass. Phoebe looks back at me and then trots off to the solarium to investigate. I know what her plan is. She’s slowly going to torment the moth, making it last as long as possible. When it seems finely lifeless she’ll walk away, disgusted and bored.

Fanny sleeps like a cat in a coma, curled into the pillows on the day bed. She doesn’t even look the second time Phoebe falls from the ceiling of the solarium. The first time she fell we both investigated, now we try to ignore her. Fanny naps and I pace. Phoebe climbs the redwood beams supporting the big glass panels of the solarium’s walls and ceiling. As she gets near the top of the beam she tries to reach the frantic moth with one extended paw, claws outstretched, taking swipes at it, as it hovers against the glass sky. Its wings beat fast; my heart seems to beat to the same frantic rhythm.

There’s nowhere to go but down. The racket Phoebe makes when she lands on the tile floor amongst the dust pan, the half empty bag of kitty litter and the broom is alarming. There’s a momentary silence and then the broom falls over punctuating the quiet with a sound like a hard slap as the wooden handle hits the tile. Phoebe leaps straight up three feet. Then walks sedately on tippy-toes to the toilet for a drink.

When she begins her next assault I decide to intercede on the moth’s behalf. I stand on the daybed and try to capture it in my cupped hands, but I swear I hear a sound that could only be a moth screaming, and it dives for the glass wall that faces the garden and the fence along the alley.

I can still hear the moth bashing its wings against something hard. I can feel the tattering of wings, smell the dust. It lies still for a moment. The moon shines through the glass roof of the solarium creating pools of cold light. I think about light and the moth, the smudged window, the disheveled day-bed, Fanny is a pool of black in the corner, the apple tree a pale ghost in the moonlight through the glass. I look through the lens.

©2008 Peggy Pendleton