by Nick Powell
“I dated one boy before I met and married Oscar,” she said from her seat at the table as I pressed pasta sauce through a strainer, “And I was a complete bitch to him,” I laughed, “You laugh because you think I’m exaggerating. I was a shrew, and not for any good reason. He was a bossy know-it-all, but not a bad boy, and I would string him along like life was one big test he needed to pass to be in my presence. I’d wait days to call him back. If he even mentioned a bill I’d pull out a cigarette and go find a stranger to give me a light. I made him wait eleven dates before the first kiss, and from that point on I acted like a complete and total tramp until we reached the stoop of his dorm,” she began acting it out with a shaking hand, “And then I’d put a hand on his thigh, kiss him on the cheek, press myself against him, and then the second he started to put his arms around me I’d push myself away, thank him for the lovely night, and wiggle off into the night. A few of those and he just broke up with me. I was fine with it at the time because I convinced myself that I was a good Christian and I didn’t like him much anyways, but since then I’ve realized I acted like that because I liked him more than Oscar. I only got married to Oscar because he was so quiet and pleasant that I would’ve felt too awful to give him any grief, so we never argued. We just stayed together for so long that there became nothing for us to do but get married.”
I smiled, “You’re so mean to Oscar, Edi. The poor guy took you to Samoa.”
“Well, let’s not make much of that. It would be one thing to backpack through the Caucasus, or go to the Congo to perform reconstructive surgery on female genitals, or whatever. But a mission is just a place where … you’re in a strange place, yes … but you experience it all through the filter of your religion. And I love my religion, of course, but it was all rather like watching a movie directed by a soggy white Hollywood shut-in. I met many very nice savages.” She pointed at her head with a shivery gray finger, “But I remember them as characters in a mud-covered storybook.” She winced as she moved her hand back to her lap, “I remember Oscar as a mastiff. And I remember that first boy as a good time.”
“In today’s circles,” I said as I slid the drained chicken and tomato onto a plate, “It would take a lot more than that to qualify as a ‘good time’.”
She gave me a withering look, “Well now with homosexuals everywhere everything’s about hedonism,” she said. I’d mostly learned to ignore those remarks. “You’ve all become numb to the electricity of simple touching and the intimacy of conversation. Are you with a girl?”
“I won’t ask about specifics because I’d be disappointed in you, but are you comfortable with her?”
She nodded pleasantly, as though I’d just told her that cantaloupe was five cents off at the supermarket, “That’s nice.”
* * *
The pavement ended with two cement posts and a mass of shrubbery overrun by blackberry husks and English Ivy. All around were brown white-trimmed ramblers connected in pairs with identical squarish crew-cut lawns. There were no kids or cars or noise except for a blackbird shuffling across a chimney cap. I felt for a moment like a mannequin on a suburban mock-up lot built for an A-Bomb test in a New Mexico valley. Somewhere there was a lead-cased camera, waiting to watch my atoms swept away.
I parked my bike and undid the straps around the plywood black-painted crate on the trailer and removed the top, and left everything on the driveway. I picked out a pair of Tupperware containers, opened the front gate with my foot, and tip-toed through the overgrown walkway, wincing in anticipation of spiderwebs. I hit the doorbell with my elbow and waited all of three minutes for the door to open. For Howard that was prompt.
“Hello Mr. Compton!” I said, generally trying to channel my inner game show host as I slipped my sandals onto the door mat.
“Afternoon,” he said as he turned to shamble back to his bedroom, which was a slightly deeper shade of uniform beige than the rest of the condo. “Turn down your pant leg.”
My right jean leg was rolled up to my knee. I set the Tupperware on the coffee table and rolled it back into place. He was still only halfway there. “I thought we’d try something a bit different today. I baked you some cookies myself.” I leapt into his path and opened the container. They were beautiful, perfect circles (by virtue of an ice cream scoop), dense with half-molten chocolate chunks, dusted with maldon salt, and cleanly cracked like the surface of a parched mud lake.
He lowered his nose and sniffed. “You can keep them for yourself.”
I looked down at the cookies, looking for a bug or fungal growth. “But you could try them. I made them because it’s healthier and cheaper that way. Well, it’s cheaper for me because I have a friend who works at the dairy market and gets me free butter. But I just like to bake.”
He sniffed them again, “I think you should keep them for yourself, they look very rich.”
I tried to laugh casually, “I made way more than I could eat. How about I keep most of them but I leave a few with you after dinner. Just for a bite.”
“They look very rich. I like Pepperidge Farms, you should have brought me those,” He said, “You have friends to share with.” He said, and shuffled into his bedroom to wait for his weekday dinner: a medium egg on toast and a roasted chicken breast.
* * *
“Is this a federal crime?” I asked with my feet on the dash, “This is government property after all.”
“No, 9-4-5-6,” Miranda said, so I flipped through the envelopes in the bag on my lap and found the right wee bundle of grocery fliers and handed it to her, “But I think riding in anything without a seat belt is a felony these days,” she leapt out and threw the junk mail into its box and leapt back. We were in one of those ‘diverse’ neighborhoods on the edge of the city that most people ignored. There were no sidewalks, and half of the side-streets weren’t even paved.
“I’ve got inside connections,” I said with my right arm hanging out the side, “Just don’t take any sudden left turns. And besides, you’re not wearing a belt!”
“I’m a trained government operative,” she tipped her blue cap, “9-4-6-4. If I don’t have the ability to leap instantly from this truck, people will die.”
“So it’s like cops running red lights.”
“Exactly the same, except if cops weren’t sissies. 9-4-7-2. The other day I was driving down to my route along 82nd, and I spot one of my customers, this old man who has an insane crush on me, I see him standing on the very edge of the sidewalk, looking at something coming the opposite way, a bus!”
“9-4-8-0. I looked into this man’s face from 50 yards off, and saw, with my government training, the plaintive eyes of a lovelorn man intending to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to teach the woman he leaves how stupid she’s been for spurning him. 9-4-8-8. He wanted me to see it happen, from the inside of the very truck from which I’d rejected him so many times.”
“It’s exactly like a Poe poem.”
“So, without even bothering to stop, I leapt out of the truck and ran through two lanes of oncoming traffic! The very sight of me froze him in place. We looked at each other as the bus went past. In my eyes, my crystalline blue eyes, in whose depths I had never given him access before, because he’s a hideous little troll of a man, and in those eyes he was exposed to the deep truths of his own soul, and instantly abandoned his love for me, and realized that all this time he was meant for his snaggletoothed cousin Flora.”
“Wait a second … I don’t think I believe the part about the crystalline eyes.”
“In thanks, he gave me his suicide note. It was a thirty page calligraphied epic poem dedicated entirely to my chest.”
“Wow,” I said, “It’s like I don’t know who you are. Each bra I peel off reveals another more enigmatic layer than the last.”
“But you’re too deep to get out.”
“So, so deep. Never before had I imagined what it would be like to become involved with the hottest mail carrier on the east side.”
“Just hold on tight, Curtis. Hold on to something and don’t let go. 9-5-0-2.”
“Suicide sometimes sounds lovely to me.”
She groaned, “Oh, great, another one.”
“How many does that make for you?”
“Four men and one woman. 9-5-1-0.”
“I was actually talking about my clients. They’d love some good suicide. They’re such utterly miserable, sad, miserable people that they don’t even have the imagination to conceive the idea. But it’s just what they need: a nice big bottle of Tylenol.”
She groaned with actual disgust, “I’d rather be cooking for grumpy old people than this. 9-5-1-8.”
“Ms. Johannson, the former burlesque dancer? I tried to sneak her a homemade noodle and sausage casserole instead of her boxed Hamburger Helper. She ate half of her dish with a smile on her face. Then I dropped the bomb. She spit up a noodle onto her plate and pushed it away.” Miranda laughed, “It’s not funny! There’s not a goddamn neuron of sense in some of these people! I offered Mr. Compton some of my chocolate chip cookies the other day.”
“Ooh! The ones with the salt?”
“Yes! He sniffed them and waved me away. The only one I like is Edi.”
“9-5-3-4. Is she the one who plays backgammon?”
“No, the missionary’s wife. She’s a hatchet-faced bat who, for some reason, moved here a year ago without any family in the area. She wears wide-brimmed feathered hats. She belongs on the porch of a Greek Revival being handed iced tea by slaves, but she loves my cooking. She thinks I’m some sort of wandering Mario Batali. She fantasizes that I tear through day-long cooking binges fueled by cocaine and Spanish coffee. She only wants to eat things she’s never eaten before and cleans her plate every time. Once I was flat broke and made a boiled potato stew which I reduced with some foraged sage leaves. I told her it was a traditional yucca dish made with ingredients I’d bought from a shady Ethiopian grocer. She loved it. Of course she’s a Republican. She blasts talk radio all day. I cook lunch while Sean Hannity tells me I hate my country.”
“9-5-5-0. The missionary thing should’ve tipped you off.”
“I guess if you spend twenty years of your life surrounded by brown people who, by the very definition of your presence, are inferior and need to be changed, it turns you into a bit of a … well, she’s not a skinhead, she’s just … withering. But she loves food, so she’s fine by me. She liked burgers and fries as a kid, found out that Pacific food was pretty good, and then realized that there’s probably a helluva lot of food elsewhere in the world that’s probably better.”
“What’s wrong with her? Oh … is it just age?”
“No, she’s only in her seventies, but her hands are crippled by arthritis, and her hips are giving out on her. So I guess I’m her ambassador, taking her on her own little world tour until she chokes on an anise seed.”
“That’s awful, Curtis.”
I slapped her knee, “Edi would want it that way.”
“9-5-6-6. So, you judge people entirely by whether or not they like your cooking, to the point where they should literally be happy to die consuming it.”
“… That wasn’t really the point I was getting at, but sure.”
* * *
“Don’t cook today, Curtis” Edi said, turning down the volume on the radio, “The apples on the tree in the back are too red. Go ahead and pick them, one for my lunch with nutella and that fig jam that’s almost gone, and then you can do what you wish with the rest. Ms. Abignail across the street has a large freezer, and I’m sure you have many friends to share the others with.”
I parted the blinds and looked out the back. I’d never gone back there. Edi never talked about it, and she certainly never went back there, her skin was the color of chicken fat. It must’ve been part of the groundskeepers’ rounds. Sitting in the middle of an austere lawn was a chubby apple tree bubbling with red.
“There must be four hundred apples on that!”
“Exactly, I won’t have them falling on the ground to be swept up and thrown out by the Mexicans, Curtis. It’s perfectly good food and I won’t have it wasted.”
I ignored the tempting argument and began calculating. How long would it take to pick them? Did I have any crates? The one on my bike trailer would probably carry only 50.
“And wear sunscreen.”
“It’s seventy out, and I’ll be under a tree.”
She shook her head, “Wear sunscreen. It is my tree and my house and you will wear sunscreen.”
* * *
I didn’t have a ladder or a picker. I had one black plywood crate (minus the room occupied by other deliveries), and the four immaculate unused bottles of sunscreen Edi kept in her closet. Within three days I’d ransacked the lower branches, with the spoils distributed between snacking (I like mine with camembert), two apple pies, and Miranda’s freezer. Edi instantly grew sick of them and refused to eat any beyond that first meal, but I believe this was partly due to the looks she kept sneaking through the blinds, seeing rotted apples piling up on the grass. Those wouldn’t have been a problem, but she explicitly told me to “let the Mexicans clean that up, it’s their job,” though I’m sure she was more concerned about her cook’s hands being soiled.
On the fourth day I leapt into the tree, hooking my foot into the joint where the trunk split, pulling myself up, ducking my head and contorting my body until I could poke above the canopy. I found a crook to set the crate. Hanging shiny in the sun was a cluster of apples so red and dense they looked like a bunch of unripe grapes. I wrapped one hand around a branch and leaned forward, but my sunscreen-greased hand almost slipped and I just barely caught myself. I changed tact, there was a stouter branch, sprouting from my feet towards the bunch of apples, which I centered my weight on as I leaned forward. I reached out, grabbed the smooth skin of a crimson apple, twisted, lifted up to snap the stem, and it came loose crisp and clean. Then the branch broke. Something smashed me in the face. I flailed out with an arm and it caught the ground first, bending in a very, very unnatural way.
* * *
Mr. Compton actually grinned when he saw the cast and my bandaged face. He demanded we sit down so that I could tell him the story in detail (though not before he could complain about the substitute cook, who always overcooked the egg and underpeppered the chicken), and laughed as much as his body would allow when I told it to him. I was annoyed until he told me his own quick story, which left him exhausted:
“In Korea … In Korea? Yes, Kujin. We had strapped down Gunny Bruce to a stretcher, and were carrying him back over the foothills to the M.A.S.H. unit because all the helicopters were busy. Bruce had been hit twice, in the stomach and the femur. He was dead, as far as we knew, except for the all the screaming, but we had to try. On the way, though, my mate, Slope … forgive the name, it was a different time, he had droopy eyes … slipped on some gravel on this steep path and snapped his arm at the elbow, just like that, except he only fell about three feet. Not sure how that’s possible. We changed his name to Bird Bones after that.”
“But he bucked up and carried the stretcher anyway?” I asked with rue.
“That would’ve been nice, but really I just took the front end of the thing and dragged Bruce another mile to camp while Slope bit his tongue. Couldn’t say a damn thing cause there was a man nearly dead right there in front of him, even with a bone nearly sticking out of his arm.”
“So I guess it’s a relief that you weren’t laughing at my incredible pain.”
“What? … Oh, no, I’m sorry son, I was laughing at life, I guess. And I’m laughing at the thought of you dealing with it.”
“Cause I’m one of these ‘sensitive’ types, I suppose.” Mr. Compton smiled weakly, “I had to borrow my sister’s car. I suppose I could still manage to ride a bike, but it just felt dangerous when I tried it. My girlfriend’s cooked a lot for me. She even went and picked apples from the tree I fell from.”
“Can you still cook?”
I lifted my arm and tried to flex my fingers, rimmed in plaster and frayed gauze, “I mean, mostly, but I can’t grip a pot. You’ll need to give me a quick hand when I fry the egg, I just need someone to hold the pan, and maybe a few other things.“
He smiled, “Go get started, huh? I need a minute to sit still first.”
* * *
“Have you ever broken a bone?”
Miranda sipped from her pint, “Yeah,” Miranda said, sipping from her pint. We were sitting in a booth in the back corner, the red leather split at almost every seam. The walls were covered in graffiti and vintage pornography. She was slumped with her legs up, which was pretty much her normal posture when she had a buzz. “I was eight, riding my bicycle alone through our neighborhood, and I was gonna cross the street, and I guess the guy in this truck couldn’t see me cause I was short and maybe my head didn’t come above this parked car I was riding in front of, so I just shot out into the street and his bumper plowed right into my leg. I also got a concussion and barely remember any of it. I remember sitting in a white booth after the doctor had given me some shot, and I was in so much pain that I was crying, and my mother was with me, looking very annoyed.”
I paused for a moment, considering whether to plow forward or not. “What’s the deal with your mom, I don’t know a thing about her.”
She took a long sip, “Family stuff. It’s very boring.”
At the jukebox, a tiny man with a mustache and a tall black girl were having an animated discussion about Michele Bachmann, which somehow required the tiny man to pantomime sexual positions. Miranda smiled at me and rolled her eyes. “My favorite dive for a reason.”
I draped an arm over her shoulder, “Miranda, all that family stuff may only be boring because you project it as boring. Every time I get a hint of your past I start to get the feeling that you’re actually a character in a Faulkner novel.”
“I don’t know Faulkner.”
“Jesus Christ,” I grabbed her pint and took a long drag off it, “Then Steinbeck … R.L. Stine maybe. It doesn’t matter, you know what I mean.”
“And you know what I mean.”
That sentence, as snippy as it sounded, was very comforting. It dissolved all my responsibility. Those are wonderful, exhilarating moments in relationships when you realize there’s less work to do. There’s one less game to play.
And yet …
I lowered my head onto her shoulder. “Can I ask you something?”
“Why do I love it when you avoid confrontation?”
She put a hand on my leg, “Because you’re a sweet guy.”
It was a compliment. But at that moment, in the dark corner of a familiar bar, arm wrapped around a beautiful girl, it made me feel sick.
© 2010 Nick Powell