Jenny Wales Steele
Cassie, is that you? The townspeople who remember me. And they add, Sorry, so sorry for your loss. I’ve shunned their sympathy. I’m curt, hard, not out of callousness, but because I can’t wallow. I’ve had to empty out my father’s house and have his things hauled to the charity thrift shop. Then get a realtor. Then buy a plot, a casket, a gravestone. And I’ve been visiting my totally-out-of-it mother in that crumbly facility, once an asylum, on the edge of town, in the shadow of an abandoned copper mine. A vexing week, tip-toeing a ledge of sadness. But I’m leaving Kirkdale tomorrow and tonight I’m knocking back a bottle in my motel room.
My father’s burial was this afternoon. It was mercifully brief, no fuss, no one invited. It was only me and the pastor in his rumpled gray suit and a guy with a shovel. A warm day, the sun making us squint, the sky the bluest blue, a tang of pine on the breeze. My mind dipped back to my childhood. Random scenes, jumbled. How I was always sketching. A pear, a hat, a horse. Or thieving. A bottle of nail polish, a pack of cigarettes, a fishing lure. The pastor read a psalm out of his vinyl Bible and I just stood there alongside this oblong hole in the ground, properly solemn in black trousers, a black cashmere jersey. I took in the words - grace, love - but I was again elsewhere. With Patrick, in his loft, in his bed, under him. Cassie? said the pastor. Yes? And after I thanked him, I added, Yes, thinking that none of this was too awful. But as the pastor escorted me out of the cemetery, I heard the scoop-thump-scoop-thump of shovels of dirt. That was awful.
I pinch cubes of ice into my plastic tumbler and tip vodka into it. I kick my flats to the floor, I set my mouth in a moue, I jut my chin. I should sleep, but I’m not sleepy. I scan the room I’m in. Tidy, sanitary, plain. Tones of white and wood. A foxed mirror above a porcelain sink. An ordinary bed with a fantail headboard. The anonymity of it all. The anyone sense of it, even with my things strewn around. This is the only motel and I’m its only guest. This town, my hometown. Kirkdale, idyllic decay. Half of it’s shuttered now. The hardware store, the tack-and-saddle store. It’s along a scenic route of valleys and pastures and a small lake, but it’s only a place to stop, have a pee, fill the tank, stretch cramped muscles. It isn’t somewhere anymore. It isn’t anywhere.
Suspicious. How I think of it. Wary, not curious. My father toiled in the copper mine, my mother was a seamstress. They weren’t unhappy. This was simply who they were and it never occurred to them to consider anything else, another horizon. It lodged a grudge in me. But I had my art. I drew my way out.
I’ve come back since college, if infrequently. I would stay with my father. Stay in my girlhood room with its traces of dainty angst. A cuddly bunny on the pink bed. Posters of Nirvana, Hieronymus Bosch. Who I was, who I became again during these short visits. My father and I would sit at the kitchen table with cups of coffee and say nothing. We had nothing in common. Or we would go to the nursing home and sit in its garden with my mother and say nothing. But it was okay. They’re only people, whom I love, as I love Daniel, my husband, and Patrick, my other. People’s lives.
It was my father’s neighbor, a lady who looked after him, who phoned me. I found him collapsed on the porch. He’d been whittling a turtle out of a block of cottonwood. A cottonwood turtle - the detail that puts me there with my father as his heart clenched - and I hear too the clatter of the whittling knife on the planks of the porch. As I said a brusque thanks and snapped shut my cell, Daniel said, What’s a six letter word for pale? Ends with w. We were sprawled on the couch, a lazy, hazy Sunday morning, and I was skimming the Travel section of the Times as Daniel did the crossword. My father’s dead, I told him. He knelt and put his head in my lap. After a long, long pause, I said, Sallow. Six letter word for pale.
The hours following are a blur to me, but somehow, numbly, I canceled a guest lecture and booked a flight to Phoenix. Do you want me with you? I told him no. Daniel is my other half, even if I’ve halved my heart for another, but I didn’t want either of them to come to Kirkdale with me. I didn’t want anyone.
Mornings with my mother. Her dementia was sudden and complete - it’s been ten years now - as if she had sunk into a quagmire, losing herself, losing all she had loved. People. Memories. Her tiny room is spare and uncluttered, as without character as she is now. But on one wall hangs an abstract gouache of tawny yellow and steely blue. It used to be in their house, above the mantle, so at odds with the artsy-craftsy stuff of my mother’s - the dolls of corn husks and gingham, the macramé plant baskets, the crocheted afghans - but it was there nonetheless. I point at it in her room and say, softly or insistently, I made that. I did that. This pulls her out of herself - if there is any self - and she says, You? A mere glimpse of one another.
The evening dims and the booze seeps in and through a long lens, I consider the girl I was. What I got away with so easily. Trouble. I smoked and drank and was often truant, but I always slipped out of it. Smooth lies, petulant denials. But there was no hazard in this trifling badness, no rush of blood. I craved a kick. I needed risk. I became a thief.
And what a thief I was! 7-11, the pharmacy, the emporium with its narrow aisles of toys, tools, paperbacks. It never mattered what I took. Candy, lipstick, a spool of thread. I had a method, clever and honed. I would amuse the cashier - if a teen boy, I was all coy, flirty charm, if a girl, I was shrilly gossipy, and with adults, I had a sudden, sincere interest in their lives, as if they had lives - and as soon as they were entirely enchanted, I would swipe something and pocket it. A cassette tape, a squirt gun, a fancy ballpoint. No security cameras then, no panels at the exit that tripped an alarm. I was skilled. It was easy.
I never got caught. Once or twice, almost. It was this almost that was so ridiculously sensual. A ripple through my body, in my bones, on my skin. My sex. It’s the same now. Who was that? As I shun my husband’s touch. What’s that smell on you? As I shut myself in my studio. As I burn with Patrick. As I burn - almost, almost caught - and I pace around my studio, then pause. On a shelf is the glass paperweight I stole so long ago from a small stationery store. The size of an orange, it’s an orb with a flattened base, with turquoise and emerald swirls within. A thing of beauty on a shelf with tubes of paint, jars of brushes, bottles of solvent. I should give it to Patrick.
I wasn’t looking, not consciously, not with intent, to lay my heart out to someone else. But it happened. I had a solo exhibit in a gallery in Tribeca. Opening night, I was mightily giddy, somehow both golly-gee-abashed and splendidly, chichi haughty. Daniel had a symposium he tried to bow out of, but couldn’t, so I was alone and fine with it. I sipped flutes of bubbly and swooped and looped through the crowd. After years of working in clammy, unheated, borrowed spaces, I had finally arrived on the scene. Here it is, I kept thinking; here is the scene and I am in it. I cruised around, tipsily, and collected the wows. Across one wall, I had a set of canvases, twelve inch squares of dark oils - maroon, olive, navy, thick impasto, with scalpeled slashes of canary, ochre, coral - an effect of depth and thrust, havoc and serenity. A guy had paused there. I noticed what he wasn’t - not angular, not trim, not melancholy - not Daniel. And his body was absolutely still. In the midst of the jostle and clamor, this stillness. With all the aloofness I could muster - maybe he was an art critic! - I sidled alongside him. Weirdly thrilling, his stillness. The sensuality of it. Then his eyes slid into my eyes and he gestured across my canvases and he said, Is it you? How it started. Yes, I said. How things start.
I’m somewhere between buzzed and blotto, where crazy seems sane. I check my face in the mirror - blink at this self - and I slip my flats on and step outside. Under the dome of night, its sliver of moon as if a smirk, I creep along the hushed street, in and out of pools of weak lamplight. Leave him, I hear Patrick say. Leave him for me. Cutting through a neighborhood of clapboard houses, I remember scenes - that porch where the town crone was always scolding her cats, that sycamore I climbed to salvage a kite, that shed where I first French kissed a boy - all of this is silent now, asleep. Yet there’s one window not darkened and I imagine a lone girl in that room, scorning bedtime, and with watercolors or pastels, she’s attempting a teacup, a posy of daisies, a shadow, finding her essence, taking herself elsewhere.
At the end of the street looms the brightly lit cube of 7-11, the only place open in these eerie hours. I skulk to the side of the building and lean against the grayish wall. The reek of the trash bin, the hoot of an owl, the texture of the cinderblock. My senses sharpened. My breath becomes shallow, rapid, as I peer around the edge of the wall. Behind the register, perched on a stool, is a teen boy immersed in a graphic novel. I stroll along the front of the store - the lidded trough with bags of ice, the propane tank exchange, the neon signs - and I enter. From under the brim of his baseball cap, the boy frowns at me, puzzled, not expecting a woman in funereal black to appear after midnight. Someone else maybe. Anyone but me. But he shrugs and bends again to his reading.
As if browsing in a fancy boutique, I move through the aisles and scan the shelves. Cans of soup, beans, ravioli. Cartons of fig newtons, saltines. Singly wrapped oatmeal cookies. I pocket one of these and move on. Tins of tuna, jars of salsa. Potato chips. A plexiglass cabinet of glazed doughnuts. Glass and chrome armoires of cheap beer and boxed wine. A pivot display of keychains with all the common names. I pocket one of these too, a random choice, Melissa. I glance at the boy cashier. He’s watching me now, watching too a security monitor bolted to the ceiling. Other views of me.
I drift into an alcove. A canopied rotisserie, one greasy and puckered hot dog revolving on it. Catsup and mustard pumps, their spigots crusty. A soda fountain, the columns of gigantic cups and lids, the litter of straw wrappers. I veer back around to the front counter. The boy’s eyes widen and he begins to fidget, tapping at his bare kneecaps as his legs bounce.
I slow. I hear Daniel. What’s a six letter word for pale? and I see the turtle carved out of cottonwood tumble out of my father’s hand. I linger along tiered racks of candy and mints and gum. It’s gum I choose, a pack of spearmint. The boy can’t ignore this and he rises into my challenging glare. I should taunt him, but I don’t. I should flounce out the door, but I don’t. Without any subtlety, I put the gum in a pocket of my trousers. A memory of feel, of filching that glass paperweight so long ago. I won’t give it to Patrick. I’ll give it to my husband. A lewd heat fills my body, but as the boy lifts the phone and dials the police, I become chilled. The not almost. We wait in silence. Soon, a patrol vehicle arrives, the red cherry on its roof whirring, slashing. The cop, no more than a boy himself, saunters in. Is it you? he says. I nod. Caught. Finally.