Authors: Carol Anshaw
Tags: #Literary, #Fiction, #Family Life, #General
The problem was not between Alice and Maude. Their time together,
their conversations, their shared jokes, the sex, even though they were three years in, was all still dense with color, everything so amazingly vibrant. The problem lay in the connection between Maude and her mother, Marie, who had by now figured out what was going on between Maude and Alice, and was lobbying her daughter to move back into her own apartment. She referred to Alice’s loft as an occasion of sin. Alice was resigned to this move. What worried her more was that Maude had taken on some of her mother’s crazy queer hating herself. She saw her attraction to Alice as something inside her, but not exactly who she was. Alice feared Maude saw it as something she should be able to kill.
“This won’t really change anything,” Maude said, now deeply late for the shoot, rushing back into her clothes and clattering handfuls of tape cassettes into a duffel. “I’ll call to see how you are tonight. And I’ll see you this weekend.”
Alone, Alice sat at the kitchen table while her coffee went cold, then finally went into the studio and sanded a gessoed canvas to begin a fresh portrait of Casey Redman. This would be the fifth. The early ones came to Alice set in places of Casey’s childhood—inside a snow fort in a field by the toboggan hill, on a raft in what was clearly Sullivan Lake. Like that. As these were also places familiar to Alice from her time at the co-op, she was remembering as much as imagining. But the next one—Casey awkwardly slow-dancing with a boy at a party—came to Alice already articulated, though she had no familiarity with the specific setting, what seemed to be a paneled family room. In this new painting—which she already saw complete although she had yet to touch brush to canvas—Casey is about fourteen, as she would have been if she were still living. She still has white-blond hair although Alice realized that, had the girl lived, it might well have darkened by now. In this picture, she is leaning inside a shadow, against a pole, which supports the high, blue-white light pouring across the edge of a football field.
Alice was beginning to see the terms of these paintings. She would wait for them to arrive and then paint them, like clicking a shutter, making snapshots out of oil and canvas. This was the central point of her art now, to record the girl’s unlived life. Also, these would be her best paintings. She knew this already. She could see a whole world of paintings ahead of her that she wanted to make, and she would make them, but none would be as good as the Casey Redman paintings. She wasn’t sure if this was a gift, or a sentence.
Around noon, she looked out the window next to her easel. Across the street, there was a vestigial patch of the neighborhood as it used to be—a short row with a wholesale butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer. On the sidewalk directly below Alice’s windows, there was a cart that sold sno-cones with breathtakingly lurid syrups. Chartreuse and ultraviolet and blood orange. The scents, which in a weird way matched the colors, drifted sweetly up through the gray, slightly industrial air.
She broke for lunch at the
downstairs. Coming back in, she could feel Maude’s absence as a small breeze whipping through the place. She sat down by the phone, but didn’t know who to call. None of her friends wanted to hear about Maude anymore—her comings and goings, her waffling about her sexuality. They had said what they could say, put an arm around Alice’s shoulders, bought her a drink, took a few weepy calls graciously, and now they were done. Alice was on her own with this now. Then she thought, Jean. Jean might have a few drops of sympathy left in her. Alice biked up Halsted to her studio. Jean was at a soundboard pushing small levers up and down. She had headphones on and didn’t see Alice until she looked up.
“What’re you working on?” Alice said.
“Oh. Finishing up the Sylvie album.”
A year ago, Jean’s uncle dropped dead at a Cubs game, cheering then dead. Suddenly she was in possession of a small windfall. She moved back to the city, bought herself some state-of-the-art recording equipment and a real studio—a two-story brick building on Halsted with a storefront at street level, an apartment above. Free of financial
constraints, she was now able to make a significant contribution to music preservation. She had already signed a few neglected artists she considered truly important, even though almost no one knew their work. She intended to change that.
One was Sylvie Artaud, an elderly
Jean discovered in a tourist trap in Montmartre, playing piano, backed by a Mr. Drum, singing “C’est si bon” and “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” for Americans killing time waiting for showtime at the Moulin Rouge.
“I think Sylvie’s problem—in terms of commercial success—is that she’s too good at what she does. Her songs, you know, about the crippled streetwalker. Or that one about the woman whose lover is killed as he’s bringing her flowers and doesn’t see the falling safe from behind his bouquet. Who could bear to listen to that? I think her records are bought by the same handful of fans. Women with a few divorces behind them. Older gay guys. People who live in some far reach of romantic nihilism. For them, Sylvie’s songs are kind of a liturgy. Which is great. All that intense devotion. Still, I’d like to see her reach a wider audience.”
Alice couldn’t listen to Jean talk about Sylvie at the moment. She told her that Maude might have left her.
“You don’t know for sure?”
“What can I say? She’s here, then not here. She won’t stay put. I am either with her or waiting for her. I’m so used to the pattern I’m imprinted with it by now. Like T. E. Lawrence. He was beaten and maybe buggered by Turkish guards in a prison cell, and then for the rest of his life, to get aroused he had to hire someone to give him a good whipping.”
“Yes,” Jean said. “Just like you. A little more exotic than your case, maybe, what with the Turks and the prison cell and all.”
“There’s something else,” Alice said. She needed to tell someone who knew Carmen, to test the waters. “Matt is having an affair with the babysitter. I saw them in his car in a 7-Eleven lot.”
“Maybe they were getting milk.”
“They were not getting milk. They were having a big serious conversation. It’s worse than if they were making out. It means they’re already up to the serious conversation stage.”
“What’s Carmen going to do?”
“I haven’t told her. I’m still thinking about that. I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s better she doesn’t know. Maybe it’ll blow over.”
Long blank of dead silence from Jean. One eyebrow went up and didn’t come down.
“Okay, I know. But shut up about it now. Shut up that silence. And especially shut up that eyebrow.”
On the way back into her building, Alice pulled a handful of mail out of the box. Here was something good. She had won a fellowship. A few thousand dollars. She had applied for this, among many others, so many months back she recalled its specifics only vaguely. Coming off the elevator into her loft, another small surprise awaited her. The small breeze of Maude’s absence was no longer present. The space was filled with vague energy. Maude was on the sofa, reading a script. She was making tentative moves out of modeling, into acting.
“I missed you,” she said, then took Alice’s hand, pulling her down on top of her. “I just fucking missed you.”
At the bank the next day, Alice hummed along to the jaunty instrumental piping ludicrously from the speaker in the ceiling above her. “He blew his mind out in a car,” she hummed as she filled out a deposit slip, and saw that she had misread the amount of the fellowship check, that there was another zero at the end, ten times what she thought she was getting. About twice what she made in a year. She went over and sat down on a long leather-covered bench near the entrance. Alice had wondered in the past what this padded bench was for, who would need to sit down at the bank. Now she knew. People who needed a moment or two to accommodate the news that their life was about to change.
saints and martyrs
Carmen was frosting a cake in a kitchen electrically bright, and cozy—twice warmed by the furnace and the oven, an atmosphere antidotal to the damp chill pressing against the windows. “Imagine” was playing on the radio. Today marked ten years since John Lennon’s death and the airwaves were thick with Beatles songs.
She was so exhausted she could almost fall asleep right here, standing up. Her nights lately passed with a tumble of fatiguing dreams, wet socks in a dryer.
Abruptly, a work crew—husband, son, dog—barged in through the side door. They dragged big smells—adrenaline and chilled sweat, damp fur—with them from the alley where they’d been shoveling last night’s snow to clear a patch in front of the garage door. The blast of cold air, the noisy explosion of arrival, filled the kitchen and jostled the delicate balance of elements Carmen had assembled around her.
Matt was big when she met him, but a couple of years ago he started working out at the Y, and his mass had taken on architecture. He had turned himself from a Paul Bunyan kind of guy, into a hunk. Now any room he entered strained to contain his physicality. He hadn’t reinvented himself for Carmen; she thought he was fine the way he already was.
Gabe followed Matt with an exaggerated, slouchy walk, trying to imitate his father, trying to figure out what being a man felt like. So far, he was a mild disappointment to Matt, who was extremely sports-minded. Gabe hadn’t shown any interest in catching or throwing or hitting any sort of ball. Neither was he interested in watching professionals throw or catch or hit balls. Of course, Matt tried not to let his disappointment show, but still, somehow, Gabe knew.
Since they’d come inside, their dog, Walter Payton—an unsortable jumble of breeds, they’d had him almost a year now—skittered back and forth among them, trying to translate for Carmen the excitement of their hard work.
Gabe caught him and knelt to kiss the dog’s head, to show him he had been a big help.
At six, Gabe was tall for his age, but with a fragile air. He wanted to make paintings, like his aunt, his grandfather. He wore glasses and his complexion was pale, his cheeks freckled. Skinny and often distracted, he looked beat-upable, snatchable. This pressed on Carmen’s heart and made her fearful every time he stepped out of her view, into the wider world.
“It’s chain-gang work out there,” Matt said, pumping up Gabe’s pride in the job. “Warming up. Everything’s turning into ten-ton slush.” He dragged a passing finger through the frosting bowl, the sort of invasive gesture Carmen hated when they first got together, then became inured to, and now hated in a fresh way. She didn’t say anything, though, just kept spreading the cream cheese frosting over the cake, like a patient in a mental institution performing a calming, repetitive task. The cake was for her father’s birthday dinner tonight, an old-fashioned prune cake recipe from his childhood.
Gabe had shrugged off his parka and was going through the
on the table to find the comics. Walter had opportunistically wedged himself between Carmen’s legs and the cabinets under the counter where she was working, just in case any frosting might drip his way. This warm family tableau was deceptive. It only existed because Carmen stood here in this kitchen, determined to keep things small and regular.
“What about we just get some takeout for supper? Chinese maybe,” Matt said to Gabe. “Give your mom a break?”
Carmen’s response to this innocuous suggestion was to start crying—because Matt was being kind to her, because she hadn’t had any good sleep in days, also because he had completely forgotten her father’s birthday, an occasion they used to have fun dreading together. She kept standing at the counter and braced up her voice. “We can’t,” she said. “We have to go see Horace.”
“Oh boy, I totally forgot,” Matt said. “The thing is, I’ve got someplace I have to be later.” As he said this he moved to put a hand on her shoulder, to touch her, but stopped shy. This was worse even than his telling her the other day that she had been such an important person in his life. These were the sort of terrible, quiet things that had been happening in the weeks since Matt told Carmen about him and Paula.
That Paula was only nineteen and Gabe’s babysitter made the whole situation look like a giant lurid cliché, like some sort of early midlife crisis for Matt, or some delayed oat-sowing. But it wasn’t any of this. Matt was not an oat-sower, and he was too sane and organized for an inner crisis. And “nineteen” and “babysitter,” while both true, gave no picture at all of Paula. She was not a naughty nympho teenage babysitter. She was a studious, willowy, plain girl with late braces she had been paying for herself. The affair had been going on for several months and had yet to be consummated. Matt was Catholic, and Paula was very Catholic, and so they were waiting until he got out of his marriage.
The reason Matt had given Carmen for discarding his marriage was that Paula was “more traditional, more religious.” She went to daily Mass and wore her hair long and straight, parted down the center. She wore a lot of clothes patterned with small flower prints; she sewed a lot of these out-of-date garments herself. She told Carmen she loved helping her mother at home, both with the housekeeping and with the younger kids. When Carmen tried to make conversation with her beyond what Gabe ate for lunch or did the guy come to service the
furnace, she quickly found herself drowning in long anecdotes about Paula’s large, ailment-ridden family and their miraculous cures as the result of prayers, particularly the family rosary. Or an installment of Paula’s school life, or her latest failure with one or another of her complicated knitting projects. How could she be the person Carmen was being left for?
Now Matt was waiting for their divorce to come through, also for an annulment so he could remarry within the Church. This was apparently a tricky business and Carmen had no idea how long all this would take. She was letting him stay so they could have Christmas as a family. If all the legal rigmarole lingered past January, she would ask him to move out. But for the time being, she just stood in the kitchen at the back storm door at night, watching Matt sit on the steps hunched inside his pea coat, his exhalations creating small clouds of condensation, his heart sunk with the gravity of his love.