Posts Tagged 'character'

Feast

My mother ran the kitchen like clockwork and there was nothing that made her happier than preparing the annual summer family feast. Out of doors appetites are apt to be huge, and mother never let anyone go away hungry.

The year I turned seven was the first year I was allowed to help. While mother washed potatoes, got out bottles of pickles and okra and complained about the cost of flour, I ran to-ing and fro-ing, getting her the things she hadn’t known she’d want until just that moment.

“Tell Edwin to sharpen that axe,” she’d say, and I’d run outdoors and tell him quick as that.

“Take the buttermilk out of the cellar,” she’d say, and I’d bring it up, thick and chilled in a crockery pitcher.

“There’s elderberry wine for your uncle William,” she’d say. “Just leave it there for now, I don’t want to be giving it out to the whole family.” I went down there anyway and tasted it. Not very good. Kinda sour and bitter, not near as good as cough syrup.

The week went by fast, multiple preparations, pies to make, chickens to kill. Old chickens are stringy and tough, but bake them long enough in buttermilk in a deep casserole with a lot of potatoes and they come out okay. It was a hard year, I guess, but a feast is a feast, even if it’s spread a little thin.

Fortunately for us, there was a salesman came by in a wagon passing by on his way from Kansas to California. He had what he called crudités in his wagon, which looked like picked cauliflower and carrots to me, but it had a good sound to it. He talked to mother about how to handle chicken to keep it tender. Resist the temptation to toss, he said, while showing her how to handle those scrawny wrung out birds like they were made of silk, turning them gently in the flour then dunking in egg and browning them like they were royal damn peacocks or something.

What you need is some bigger meat for your feast, he said. And some fresh greens. I got a friend in Lawrence been raising lettuce and cucumber. Mother didn’t know about that. They sounded French to her. She’d also figured out that this salesman was probably going to hang around long enough to get himself invited. Father said go get it, then. He always did want to have the biggest best newest of everything, French or not, and especially so at the annual feast. So the salesman went, and came back with slabs of ribs lying on ice, with lettuce and cucumbers wrapped in soft cloths and tucked in between. 

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Walter

Walter in high school was not voted most likely to.

Walter in college did not distinguish himself.

Walter as an agent in his father’s insurance agency fell asleep in front of the green blinking data entry screens that measured out his days one blink, then another, then another.

Walter as a fiancée was comforting but not hot.

Walter slept well and drove a 4 door Buick when he was 22.

Walter’s hairline began to recede, slowly, at 27, but never blossomed into full-on male pattern baldness.

At 35, Walter’s wife, Elaine, left him for a slightly younger version of himself. Walter was mystified but not furious about this. They had no children, and Elaine disappeared back into the lake of his undistinguished youth without a ripple.

At 38, Walter went to his neighborhood Whole Foods market, where he bought a pint of black bean, corn and red bell pepper salad. Walking to the men’s room on his way out, he passed the community bulletin board. He read all the ads, in order, from left top to right bottom. At the far right corner, almost expired per the store’s 30 day policy, was an ad for International Cooking Classes, to be held in a home some two miles from the store. Walter pulled the tab with the phone number and stuck it in his wallet, where it stayed for months.

Around Thanksgiving, Walter, reflecting that he was almost 40, divorced, childless and uninterested in himself, found the tab in his wallet and called the number.

“No, no international cooking classes any more. I didn’t get enough people signed up. I’m teaching homeopathics now. You could sign up for that, it’s here at my house,” said the woman, whose name was Reina. No, Walter told her, he didn’t really want to study homeopathics. He wanted to learn to cook. Did she do private cooking lessons?

There was a short silence on the phone, and a brief negotiation about the cost of private lessons.

On the following Thursday, Walter went to Reina’s house. He brought with him an apron and a chef’s hat, both virginal white, and a set of hot mitts. Reina promised to provide the cooking utensils and the food.

That first week they sat at the table looking at cookbooks, identifying utensils by name, defining some basic cooking methods – dry heat, baking, braising, sautee, and so on. Walter took notes.

The second week they met at the Whole Foods in the produce department and they talked produce – quality indicators in different fruits and vegetables, seasonality, local growing patterns. They touched and smelled, they looked at prices and they looked at weather. Walter took notes.

The third week they met at Reina’s house. Walter brought pancetta, walnuts, chard, goat cheese, baguette, wine, beets and olive oil. At 7 p.m., they began.

Baloney sandwich

I’ve always been a moody bastard. Ask my brother. Real son-of-a-bitch, my brother. Still, he can confirm some basics. I have always been a moody bastard.

My first wife and I married when we were 17. Knew fuck-all about anything. Here’s a transcript of our approach to birth control, as I remember it 20 years later:

“How about the sandwich method?” she says.

“Sandwich method?” I say.

“Yes,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. Being basically simple about such things at the time.

A baby and a half later, turns out she meant the “rhythm method,” which we tried next and also didn’t work.

“What did you mean, the sandwich method?” I asked her late one night or early one morning between babies. “Something about baloney, pressed beef?”

“Well, I couldn’t find anything about it at the library. Baloney, I guess,” she said. She was wearing a crocheted maternity shawl in a bilious green that made her look, with her sallow skin, like a watermelon about to burst.

And the babies kept coming, regular as sandwiches, and we kept living in our little one room apartment until we outgrew it and moved back in with my parents, into their basement with the wet bar, laundry room, pantry and two small bedrooms. It was dark and prone to mold. Like some sandwiches.

The rhythm method was more fun with all that excitement about thermometers and pulling out; produced a couple more babies and a divorce. Eileen moved in with her parents and went to work for her father, who was more of a man than I was ever going to be, according to her mother, or maybe that was her, I don’t know. Four children and another on the way even as the door didn’t hit me on my way out and me not even starting to go bald. Far from it, in fact.

Bad news to be in your prime and divorced already. Should have taken up singing. Nice blonde woman, I remember her, Patricia or Cynthia something, at the divorce group, said that.

“If you feel like singing, sing. It’s good for your spleen.” She said this sincerely, like thinking about my spleen was going to make my life better, more meaningful. 

Meantime, I went out for drinks with her friend Angie, who wasn’t trying to heal my spleen but who gave me dance lessons, on the dance floor and on the sofa, and that gave me my beautiful Audrey. I never did live with Angie or Audrey, gave that one up in papers that I remember signing. Felt like blackmail.

I can fly a little. Always been able to fly a little. Learned how from my first girl, in high school. She taught me how to dance, too. Once time, we left the dance early and climbed up on the roof of the gym, in our polished shoes and corsages. I was on top of the world. She was a great dancer, that girl.

Omelette

Omelette

 

“Abshtinence led me ashtray,” was the first thing I heard her say. She was raising her glass high over her head. “Shalud,” she said to the glass, tossing it back and then keeling over onto the bed. She is going to feel awful tomorrow, I thought. I put on her camisole – why is it that women’s underwear are so much friendlier than men’s? I wondered, not for the first time. I carried my glass and her cigarettes into the living room and poured myself a glass of milk. It was late, not that late, but I was quiet, careful not to clatter around in this thin-walled apartment. I could hear her neighbor’s TV blaring, loud aggressive anti-everything propaganda with flag-waving and Jesus-invoking, and thought how that neighbor must drive Ginger up the wall. I sat on the couch and watched a movie about a crazed carnivorous eggplant-like alien zombie creature that decapitated unsuspecting teens for 90 minutes and was eventually destroyed by good old American ingenuity and a can of chilled whipped cream. Then, not sure whether to stay or go, I started to read her mail. None of it was addressed to Ginger. Hmm. Zuzu. Zuzu deGraib is her name. I wrote it down on a business card and put it in my wallet. Then I fell asleep on the couch.

When I woke up, the TV voice next door was still jackhammering. Light filtered in through the pale yellow curtains.  I took off her camisole and put on my shirt and slacks. In the kitchen I found coffee, eggs, oranges and some honey whole wheat bread. The coffee woke her up – Ginger or Zuzu or whoever she was – and she came into the kitchen in camisole and slippers just as the omelette was ready to serve.

“Good morning, anonymous omelette goddess,” I said, back turned toward the stove as I slid the omelette onto the plate.

Turning around, I caught her leaving, with cigarettes, coffee and omelette in hand, out the back door, to the landing just outside the apartment.

October 12th, poolside

Three months ago who would have thought that I would be here? The stars are shining on me. The stars are shining on my clean body, floating white and naked in a perfectly heated pool in the moonlight in October. October is grand, isn’t it? Is there any place in the world where October is not the gods’ favorite month?

Zuzu is eating olives and writing letters in permanent marker on 14×22” white boards. She writes letters to each of her old friends, and those lovers whose names she can remember and whose addresses she’s managed to find on-line or through other means. The olives are briny and fat. The French doors open to the pool, which is filled with filtered salt water. Warm and buoyant.

As she finishes each letter, she signs her name in red and black Sharpee. Zuzu de Graib. She gives herself various titles. Esquire, Lady, Mrs., Dr., Junior, Ph.D., Ph.Z. Doctor of Zuzulogy –  she laughs and sucks on a pit, a dark black kalamata pit, the kind that makes the underside of her feet itch, they are so strong.

Zuzu is the happiest person in her family, happy in her home, happy in her mind, happy in the astrological benediction that brought her here. Tile, sand, water, fish, mango, pineapple, light sheer curtains switching in the open doors. That smell, what is that smell? Frangipane?

She writes frangipane down on a dry erase board and puts it with the others. In all of her life, she never imagined she’d have all the dry erase boards she could ever want, and a place to keep them, where she could write words to be erased, and words to be kept. This is Zuzu’s first and only real home.

Gravity

My name is Yoda Forche. I am a Zen poet. You may know my mother, or my father, but I disclaim any knowledge of either. I was born in a catapult, hurled out into a streaming sea of comets and commentary.

In the solar system, century and subdivision into which I was born, there were certain standards and expectations that either I met, did not meet or exceeded.  There was an unreliable time-space continuum blending, folding and intertwining just then, which is now or then, and so the narrative thrust and linear architecture of my begetting and being was bent, a bit.

I was bent, a bit, from birth. This might have been foretold, or discussed after the party and the destruction of the asteroid on which I was conceived. The name of the asteroid was Astereth, Astarte, a good feminist constellation and I was born like the little prince standing upright, arms outstretched, on  a tiny bit of matter held together by gravity, all alone. Once borne, I was strapped into a device not unlike a slingshot and sent on my way. So much faster than back in the day, or so I understand from my casual reading of the history of my type.

The history of my type is quite a bit slower than my own personal history, as you know by now. You will by now have caught up with me, a few human centuries after the fact, and you will call me Saint Yoda, patron saint of the shooting stars. This makes me laugh in the way that champagne bubbles make small children laugh, just enough tickle to wiggle the nose, not enough to hurt me or you, and for that I am so grateful.

Gravity is a theory, like evolution. Gratitude also is a theory, but not one that has been much discussed in the context of science and that seems like an oversight to me. I am flying on the soft green cloud that carried me after I was hurtled away. Looking down, it seems to me that I see the gratitude tree, and it is green with wide leaves and yellow fruit, and might be mistaken for a banana if it weren’t for its effect.

The effect of the gratitude fruit is first to make the mouth open, like a small bird waiting. Then the mouth closes and the heart makes the skin on the sternum march slowly, steadily, and the belly makes a warm rumbling that is a bit like the song a silk worm makes.

The sun rising and falling on the gratitude tree makes some differences in color and flavor but the essential effect is the same. The sternum makes a thum thump, the belly makes a smooth silky rumble, the mouth opens and closes, and the wind that washes over the tree night and day keeps gratitude fresh and new.

This is the story told me after I was shot out and away into the big open. It wasn’t told in those exact words, not exactly, but that is how I will translate them for you now, like a nursery rhyme or a song.

A romantic mystery of the usual kind

 

Jill

Alene, Iris, Susan and Jill met for drinks once a month at the lounge in the Sorrento Hotel. By agreement, each one of them brought a secret with them, to share openly or by implication. A well rounded Malbec, assorted crudités, fresh bread and then cognac brought them to a peak of confidentialities every month. Some months, these were served with great whooping laughter, other months the four heads pulled together over low tables and they leaned into their secrets. In their twenty years together, they’d told a number of scandalous stories, some romantic ones, some sad and mortal. This year was their first brush with murder.

“What kind of hell would we live in if we all revealed our secrets?” Jill started, while the Mediterranean plate was passed around. She scooped kalamata olives, crusty bread and a roasted bell pepper tapenade onto the small bread plate. Setting it down, she picked up her wine. Looking over the rim of the glass, she assessed the effect of her words on Alene, Iris and Susan. All three of them, hands raised halfway to their mouths, had paused. Eyebrows raised, their faces made one unified statement: Why are we here if not to reveal our secrets? Here at least, if nowhere else? She tipped the glass, and the warm earth tones of the Malbec delivered red for strength. She set the glass down and began again.

“It was right after last month, after Alene wrote that check to Cosmo, remember?” she said. Alene looked around – yes, they remembered, even after the third bottle of wine. Cosmo and his specialty auto body and paint shop. Yes, even now all Alene really remembered was a smell of turpentine and the bright glaring lights and the tattoos on Cosmo’s shoulders and then the hydraulic lift and lower that explained to her forever after the appeal of the low rider. She blushed and picked up a large caper berry with the stem still attached. She put it in her mouth and sucked, watching Jill to see where this story was going.

“At the end of the evening, we said goodbye and said be careful, the roads are wet.” Jill continued. Her voice was flat. Iris picked up her bread knife and cut a thin slice of the chilled butter. She waved the knife at Jill and said, “Yes. Continue.” Jill looked at the knife and touched her throat. They could see a pulse, jittering at the edge of her collarbone, and her face, suddenly strained and strange. A stranger.

Susan pushed her hair behind her ears, attuned to something new.

“Let’s go to my house,” she said. A first. As a group, they’d made the decision to never tell tales where the walls might hear them. She waved down the waiter, paid, and 40 minutes later they had all reconvened in her living room.

“I got home that night and I was lonely. The lights were low and there were no stars.” Jill continued. The women sat clustered on sofas in front of the fire, the flames shaking their faces. I can see our twenty years passing in the flames, thought Susan.

“Wait. Look, I can’t say it. I can’t. Just look.” She pulled a photo out of her purse and handed it to Alene. Alene looked, dropped it suddenly, then picked it up and put it on the table in front of them. They all looked – that familiar face, known and unknown the way the very famous are – and the sudden, shocking realization that he was dead. Barely, freshly, horribly dead.

 

Iris

Her brother, Dennis, was her mother’s favorite. Iris’s hair was red, not blonde. She bit her nails. Her mother’s name was Charlene, and Dennis was a bully and the model for all her future husbands. “Iris-itis” was the nickname given to her by Dennis and his friends when he was fifteen and she was twelve, with big gap-toothed teeth and ink stains on every skirt she owned.  When he was sixteen, he tripped on a rock at the edge of a ravine near a half developed sub-division and broke his neck. Two years later he suffocated under the weight of a pillow, an accidental death that Charlene recreated in mixed media non-representational art for the next 15 years, until she died of mixing paint fumes with cigarettes and valium. She passed out and fell face down in a clay piece that was wet and sticky, and never came up for air. Iris went to art school on the insurance, and bought a little studio in a pricy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, where she worked when she was not in Seattle. Iris, like her namesake, liked wet, cold climates, and disliked both sunlight and morning.

When Iris first met Susan, they’d been out making the rounds at the espresso cafes that were so much a part of life in the pacific northwest. No point in being a morning person in the far north. Iris had moved there completely at random, getting away from the relentless sun and endless daylight hours of the southwest, and settled into the vampire routines of the northerly climates quite naturally. Eventually, she settled on a job in publishing that allowed her to work afternoon hours, which left night-time for studio work and morning for sleep. She quite liked her pale complexion in the rain forest among the ferns; her red hair lit up the woods like a dangerous flame, a suggestion of things not quite right, ready to erupt, sudden, violent heat pouring down the mountain side.


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