WATER, NOT FICTION
There’s a cement parking curb outside the restaurant where I work. I look at it every morning on my way in to see if it has been transformed yet. That is, I’m waiting for it to become beautiful. The way I see it, everything has some moment when it becomes beautiful. Henry says this to me all the time. “Jenny,” he says, “the world is beautiful.” He’s always asking me if I get that. He grew up and attended a private prep school in Manhattan. “The world, Jenny, is just waiting for us to transform it,” he’ll say. But this curb is stained with spilled gasoline and darkly beguiling remnants of what might have been chewing gum. So I wonder.
Megan, my older sister, called long distance from Oklahoma yesterday to tell me more news about Lonnie, her first boyfriend, who jumped or fell to his death from the Talequah water tower last year. There are two things I think about when I think about Lonnie: (1) his sideways smile when I rolled my eyes at the enormous “LGR” engraved in his belt buckle and (2) the faded sunflower wallpaper in his mother’s kitchen. I thought that I was something back then. Or, more accurately, I worried that I was not, in fact, something. But I didn’t even know then to swish water around my mouth after brushing my teeth, so it goes to show how off your perception of yourself can really be. Now that Lonnie Gary Rossier is dead, I think I really miss him. Megan, however, is more interested in than upset by the subject. Researching the provocation of Lonnie’s death has become her project, sort of like a genealogy of a long dried love. She and Rita, Lonnie’s sister, approach everything very scientifically.
“I’m pretty sure we have located a suicide note,” Megan tells me over the static. We have a bad connection.
“I thought you decided he fell. I thought all the Budweiser cans in the bed of the truck. . . you decided he was drunk.”
“Lonnie didn’t drink. Those were Mitch’s cans.”
“But last summer at the lake—-”
“That was before. He gave all that up. For me.”
“For you?” I hear my mother humming in the background.
“According to this letter Rita found in the coffee can.”
“In the coffee can?” I repeat over the crackle of miles.
“He kept all sorts of stuff in coffee cans,” she pauses, asks my mom to hand her the notebook. “The letter said that he loved me first, last, and always. He loved me more than life. He, and here I’m quoting, wanted to make right and win me back from Hank.”
“That boy was always crazy about you,” I hear my mother say from somewhere in the distance. The muffled bang of closing cabinets and then: “What can I use for an ashtray, Meg?”
“And he used all this water imagery,” Megan continues. “That’s why we think it’s a suicide note, you know? Mom’s read it. She agrees.”
“And the laundromat,” I remind her.
“Yes, the laundromat,” she repeats, probably twisting the phone cord around her finger the way she does. “I thought about that too.”
For a full minute or so, both of us hold the telephone quietly as though everything to be said has been expressed. We listen to the static and Mom banging around in the background. Then Megan: “I gotta go, honey.” I continue to listen while the line crackles off into a deep, primordial silence.
I’ve been trying to think of things in terms of metaphor lately. Henry says it’s a good mental exercise, a way to sharpen perception. Being with him is sometimes like studying for the SAT.
“Illness,” he will say suddenly while we’re waiting in the check-out line at the Safeway. “Think of illness in terms of metaphor.”
I look down at the rolls of triple-ply toilet paper and the Basmati rice I am holding in my arms. “A mildewed sponge,” I answer. Henry nods, satisfied. “A dirty stovetop with burnt rice stuck to the aluminum foil liner,” I continue.
“That one’s too detailed to pull off,” he says and places the grapes and soda on the moving conveyer belt because it is now our turn.
The thing is, I have it backwards. I say that I am trying to think in terms of metaphor, but what really happens is that something strikes me and I try to figure out what it means. Usually what the thing means has something to do with my life. The unbeautiful cement curb in front of the restaurant, for instance, represents my life, that my life, like the curb, might not ever be made beautiful. Walking to the dry cleaner the other day, I saw a trash can thrown away in a bigger trash can. The irony, I thought, what does that represent? What does it mean that your function is discarded in your own function? And then I thought that what it really represented was my own life. By not appreciating the things that make up my life, I was slowly killing my life. Then I tripped on an overgrown tree root that a had cracked its way through the sidewalk. That too somehow represented my life. I guess you could say that my metaphors are not very universal.
Henry is shorter than I am and has just published his first collection of short stories. We have recently moved into a bigger apartment in the middle of the city. It’s a loft with pipes running along impossibly high ceilings like exposed vocal cords. I suppose the pipes are really part of the air conditioning system, but I still think about voices when I look at them. When I tell Henry to stop teasing the cat, for instance, I imagine my voice bouncing around the enormous space, ricocheting off the steely pipes, becoming smaller and smaller until finally rolling into the corner behind the defunct radiator.
Henry loves to tease the cat when he can’t think of anything to write. He wads up marked-up paper and throws it at her, one inky ball after another. He likes it best when she starts hissing, when she charges his desk chair with a spiked spine and then scuttles backwards on the slick floor. We named her Muse, but neither of us like her very much. She is the love child of a feral tomcat and Megan’s fat Calico. There were two other kittens in the litter, but both died in my brother-in-law’s pick-up truck when they crawled under the hood and into the fan belts. He didn’t know they were there, of course, when he started the engine.
Later Henry wrote about the incident in his story “Pastoral,” only the main character actually sees one of the cats crawl into the engine and starts the truck anyway. I guess you could say the main character is not a very well-balanced individual. I worried that Hank, Megan’s husband, would think that we thought that about him, that just because he still lives out at the lake in Oklahoma, he likes to slay kittens under dented hoods of muddy pick-up trucks. But Henry rolls his eyes at this. “It’s fic-t-ion,” he says, spreading the word out like mayonnaise, thick and slow. “It’s not about Hank,” and then he sticks two fingers into the mason jar and fishes out another black, pitted olive.
But it sort of is. I understand this because Henry writes about me all the time. At first, before we were an official item, I was shy and seduced by the whole idea of being someone’s inspiration. A few weeks after we had been dating, he let me read a story he was writing. It was about this guy who worked late nights at a boring office job. This coming from Henry who, at the time, sold insurance policies over the telephone to low-income households. So the character hated his job and his life in general. He would stare at people on the bus and envision fantastic lives for them: the lady in the blue raincoat danced in Las Vegas for the Rick Springfield cabaret show, for instance; the driver farmed peacocks and made mineral soap in her off hours. But the character would always return to his cubicle and spend nine hours on the telephone repeating words like “co-payments” and “infant mortality” and scratching his forearms because he was allergic to the room deodorizer his boss sprayed around the office. Then this woman walked into the building wearing a red dress and white shoes and basically changed his life forever. They kiss, his mouth to her mouth’s kiss, I remember that line, in the coffee supply closet just before walking out onto the damp, moon spangled sidewalk.
(“Quick,” Henry asks me, muting the Palmolive commercial on television, “what’s a metaphor for hope?”
“C’mon, hope. No doves or rainbows, either.”
“A line of endless telephone poles?”
“Faded kitchen wallpaper?”
“I know. A moonlit sidewalk.”
Satisfied nod. “That’s it. You got it.”)
I, of course, own a red dress. It’s clingy and low-cut and makes me feel like a seductive strand of cooked spaghetti: long, limber, and enchantingly in need of physical support. I wore it for our second date at the sushi restaurant on Broadway. Although we did not kiss my mouth to his mouth that night, I got the burning feeling that he was writing about me, that I somehow irreversibly altered his life that night during my graceless attempts to chew entire California rolls in one bite and still maintain conversation as coy as the many fish finning in big, gurgling steel-edged tanks all around us. And, after reading the story, I wished that it had liner notes like Megan’s Def Leppard albums so that I could know for sure it was about me: “This one goes out to Jenny and THAT night. You know what I’m talking about, babe” etc. It’s the white shoes that threw me off. Henry specifically described the woman’s white shoes, the way the polished patent leather reflected the office’s iridescent lighting in its milky surface (his words) with her every step. Except for a pair of old sneakers, more mildew than milk, I own no white shoes, let alone would I wear white shoes with a red dress.
Even coming from Oklahoma, I know that good fashion is a measure of balance and that darker colors should always, always, always be worn lower than lighter colors. “Dark footwear keeps you grounded,” my mother always told me. She wears only black shoes. Stretched out in the plastic lawn chair overlooking the muddy lake, she lets her black mules dangle from the tips of her big toes. They dangle as loosely as the cigarette hanging from her lips. They dangle so precipitously that sometimes, if she coughs too hard from a shaky inhale of her Salem Slim Light, she’ll lose a shoe to the weeds below. Then she immediately gets up, puts the shoe back on and starts the whole process over again. I don’t tell Henry this story.
Later, after Henry and I moved in together and acquired Muse, he off-handedly mentioned while buttering a burnt piece of toast that the red dressed girl was based on a prostitute that he once knew. He was thinking about prostitutes at that exact moment, he said, because he had read an article in the New Yorker about a religious organization that was boycotting Land O’ Lakes. Apparently the Land O’ Lakes CEO supported the legalization of prostitution in Las Vegas. He suspected the group was from Oklahoma somewhere.
Telephone poles have been getting a lot of my attention lately. I love looking at telephone poles on the way to the restaurant, the way they stretch along the street for miles and miles, leaning this way or that but always sadly symmetrical, like it’s their duty to be in line and they are conforming half-heartedly because it’s something they have to do. And the way you can go for days not noticing them and then suddenly they’re there, everywhere, have always been there, and you can’t not see them, how sadly beautiful and important they are. I guess I have been trying to figure out what telephone poles mean, to figure out what it means to be a telephone pole.
The last time Rita spoke to Lonnie was at the Sit-N-Suds Laundromat on a late Friday afternoon. As the story goes, he was washing a load of work pants and Rita stopped by to drop off keys to her house. He had promised to feed her German Shepherd while she went shopping in Dallas for the weekend. He looked dejected, sitting sloppily in the plastic chair and staring at the black and khaki trousers turning endlessly behind the smudged glass of the washer. I can’t take this life any longer, he told her, and could she hand him the Shout Out stain stick? She did and he began to work on some mud dried to the bottom of his pants. This life, he said, where nothing is important, where he could think of nothing more important, he told her, than securing the one dryer in the laundromat that burned the hottest. And how important is that really, he asked her, half-heartedly dropping the now stained stick into the laundry basket. What is life if the only thing that’s important is a hot dryer?
This conversation struck Rita as odd, coming from her brother who typically spoke out only on such issues as pro-wrestling and the tyranny of a fishing license, her brother who was only ever depressed by the cancellation of the Dukes of Hazard syndication on TBS. And then he asked her about Megan, my sister, if Rita had kept in contact with her over the years. It was this critical query, made more dramatic by the sudden high-pitched rattle of the washer shifting into the spin cycle, that later launched Megan and Rita’s search for a suicide note. When a jogger stumbled over Lonnie’s abandoned “LGR” belt buckle and then, a few minutes later, his body at the base of the water tower, Megan and Rita were certain that he jumped out of an unspoken, unrequited love. It didn’t seem to matter to them that Lonnie and Megan had not actually talked in over ten years.
My mother called today to find out how Henry’s book is coming along. It’s my day off at the restaurant and I’m in my pajamas even though it’s four in the afternoon. I’m also eating peanut butter out of the jar with my index finger.
“It comes out next Tuesday,” I explain to her. “They’re publishing it straight to paperback.” I attempt a swallow, but my spit is too viscous; my mouth is a morass of Jiffy. “Don’t mention that to him though.”
“Are you eating peanut butter?” she asks, cautious.
“You can tell?” I know she knows that I only eat peanut butter at low moments, so I feel trapped, unwilling to answer definitively lest I admit my vaguely hopeless mood. I can see her on the other end the line, sitting at her red Formica kitchen table beneath the open window with an ashtray balanced on her knee. She’s shaking her head, reaching for the special sale edition of the Sears catalogue, squeezing the phone between her ear and shoulder. And as I tell her about the big book reading extravaganza coming up next week, I coil the phone cord around my finger like Megan, thinking about my mom and Megan and the way the faded kitchen curtain is probably billowing quietly in the afternoon breeze even though the room is already heartbreakingly gold.
“Just be sure to wear a good pair of shoes,” she reminds me before hanging up.
Henry finds Lonnie endlessly fascinating. “Why did the guy jump?” he’ll occasionally ask in that mystified voice of suppressed mirth. “What was going through his head?” He wrote a story about the whole thing. His editor insisted that it be the title story in the collection. It’s called “Water,” which may be why Megan is now looking for water imagery in supposed suicide notes. She said that she felt almost famous when she read the story, even if she didn’t like the name Henry had given her. Arlene, she said, sounded like a fat woman in curlers. “And Jed,” she complained, “I mean, really, what kind of name is that?” She would have preferred Henry to use their real names; she had, she claimed, nothing to hide.
I, on the other hand, wanted to hide everything, the entire story, especially from my family. Although “Water” does have that mayonnaise-like quality of fiction where truth is spread out, gelatinized, made more flavorful, the people in my family are still recognizable. “Come on, Jenny,” Henry says, “it’s fic-t-ion.” But I, well, I can still taste the original egg.
(“All right,” I imagine Henry saying from the bedroom while I am ironing my waitress apron. He is laying on the bed, tapping his pen on an empty sheet of typing paper. “What does distorted reality look like?”
“Like a condiment,” I call back.
“Like dried mustard,” I say and scratch a stain from the apron’s left pocket with my fingernail. “Like mayonnaise.”
“But that seems random and solipsistic,” he would say. “Ultimately, it reveals nothing about the nature of fiction.”
He’s right. I sigh with the steam rising from the iron.)
Lonnie, in Henry’s story, is a born-again preacher, a Christ-haunted figure in deer-hunting fatigue who frequently stands akimbo. He is like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, but Henry would never admit that. In fact, he would be insulted because, in his words, Flannery O’Conner is an overrated weirdo with a bad haircut. So instead of drinking at the Brothers Three Lounge on Friday nights (which is what Lonnie used to do on Friday nights), Lonnie, in Henry’s story, drives lonesomely down dirt roads in a beat-up pickup truck composing sermons on a tape recorder. In a voice garbled by the pings of kicked-up rocks and the grinds of a rusted transmission, Lonnie speaks about God’s love as a healing ointment, about his mother and her tenacious belief in Vicks Vapor Rub, about lost lambs and fatted calves, and then, in a voice made quiet by timeless despair, in an almost impossible whisper, sounding something like an eggshell (Henry’s words), he announces that sadness, sadness is everyone’s secret. It’s a very moving moment.
If the story had ended there I would have been okay with it. Unfortunately, it didn’t. First, there’s Arlene’s mother who smokes Salem Slim Lights and is forever buying half-priced shoes at the discount shoe store. Arlene’s mother smokes a lot. She is always waving the smoke from in front of her face with a leathery hand to make significant eye contact when talking to Arlene. She says things like “Arlene, Lonnie’s a river rat” or “Arlene, you could eat soup off the top of that short boy’s head” or “Arlene, get you a real man.” And then she exhales and waves the smoke away from her eyes. There’s the show-down scene with the loveless Arlene at the laudromat where Lonnie tries to baptize her with hot water from washing machine but she refuses and throws a beer bottle at him. And finally, of course, there’s Lonnie’s excruciatingly long swan dive off the rusted water tower into the waving ocean of wheat below (Oklahoma doesn’t farm wheat, I should have told Henry, at least not in Talequah), the description of his wooden, outstretched arms, the slash across his lower left rib from the broken Miller Lite bottle, the whispering of his final word: “love”.
(“What does it mean that a person smokes a lot?” I ask Henry after brushing my teeth for bed. “Does it mean that they are watery? Does it mean that they need spark?”
He looks up at me from his Utne Reader.
“I mean, how does faded wallpaper make you feel?”
“Did you remember to rinse?” He asks.
I nod yes and climb under the covers beside him.)
The only real truth in Henry’s story is that my mother does love shoes. Despite her almost chronic state of squalor, disregarding the kitchen cabinets spilling over with plastic cups from promotional events at the Brothers Three Lounge, she takes meticulous pride in her shoes. She saves the original box for every pair. She stores the shoes delicately in the boxes, wrapped up in tissue paper, after each use. Her bedroom closet looks like something from the Roman catacombs, all the boxes lined in perfect symmetry, one on top of the other, every shelf filled neatly with boxes housing neatly spooned black shoes wrapped in tissue paper. Her closet is perfectly ordered, although you have to trip over dirty laundry to get to it.
What I’m saying is this: there is a word that borders on spiritual mysticism that describes what my mother feels for shoes. Henry probably knows it, the word, but hasn’t used it yet to describe her. He captures her trip down pockmarked streets to Payless Shoes, how the car windows cast the wheat fields (ahem) in a sallowed smoke stained haze, the plasticness of her discount sandals. He hasn’t said anything about the way she stroked the hair back from my damp forehead for two entire hours when I was sick with the flu or how she will pick up on a song I may have been singing under my breath while washing dishes, how she’ll hum that same song all day long as though because it was a part of me it has become a part of her too and even when we are apart, even when she’s bellied up at Brothers Three Lounge and I’m here in New York, she’s still singing my song, like it’s a consecration, thinking about me. Henry hasn’t mentioned any of this, not yet.
At the big book signing, Henry is standing behind the autograph table in a turtleneck talking to his agent. The two are holding paper plates filled with brie and laughing at something. Everybody is wearing black. I am wearing black shoes and thinking about the night my mom, Megan, Lonnie and I all rode the water flume at the Tulsa State Fair.
“Why did he jump,” Henry is saying. “That was the question that really mystified me. It really got me thinking, you know?” The agent nods his bald head, the bookstore’s track lighting reflecting in various degrees off both his scalp and his glasses. The agent confesses: he too was fascinated by Jed’s character. Using words like “old soul” and “rustic” and “prophet,” he tells Henry that, in his estimation, Jed was redeemed by the extreme mediocrity of those around him. He was greatly moved by Jed’s sacrificial death and final expression of love. “Albeit darkly comic and absurd in a southern gothic sort of way,” he says and smears melting brie onto his cracker.
And I remember how the four of us load into the plastic log, are swept away by the mechanical current, twist this way and that, and then ride up the damp conveyer belt that brings us to the top of the hill. My mom clasps her arms around my waist and, during our slow ascent, I wrap my arms around Lonnie’s torso, who is holding on to Megan’s hips. At the top, we pause before the plummet, waiting for the log before us to drop. The lights from the nearby Ferris wheel sparkle off the water and illuminate the brown plastic log, its black scuff marks and stains of dirty chewing gum. “Your heart’s beating fast,” my mother leans in to say to me. “I can feel it from here.” And just before we drop, she starts to hum “Love Bites” from Megan’s Def Leppard album and then we are falling down the hill at super speed, my mom humming and Lonnie whooping and Megan screaming and my heart is pounding, pounding so loudly that it can’t be mine alone and must really be four hearts, the four of us, all falling down river in a dirty plastic log, falling and made beautiful: love. Henry doesn’t get this, not yet.
Carolyn Mikulencak lives in New Orleans with her
husband and three children. Her work has been
published in Stirring, Literal Latte, Ellipsis, and
anthologized in e2ink: The Best of Online Journals.