Wednesday, April 9, 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 “Judith, 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 an 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.

5 comments:

Linda (Sama) said...

come on over and grab your Rebel Grrrl Award over at Ageless Hippie Chick! yee ha!

Linda (Sama) said...

directions:

anyway, here's how to grab the award -- put your mouse pointer on the picture, and right click....it will say "save image as" or "save picture as"...then you click that and a window will come up so you can save it as a .jpg in your My Pictures or My Documents folder. then you add it as a picture to your blog.

if you need any more instructions, let me know!

Beach Bum said...

Read this the other day and once again you have written a great story. I've always needed to be guided through literary allegory (I gave my English teachers fits) but was I wrong to feel a connection between the moth and Judith? Both seemly trapped in their lives.

Utah Savage said...

Beach you are dead on, though I never thought of it before. It is the perfect conclusion to that odd, empty ending. I was never sure about that ending, until now. Because of you, I now know why it wrote itself like that.

Scarlet W. Blue said...

Good work, UT.