Fiction

Eezy Freezy Springtime Specials

It’s started again… the people upstairs, banging and yelling in the middle of the night. I lie awake staring at the street lights shining through the living room window. It’s like thunder — the noise they make. And to top it off, I feel a cold coming on.

“Michael, get your ass over here this minute!”

A mumbled answer.

“Michael, what did you say? I can’t believe you said that. Come over here!”

The sound of a bottle dropping on hardwood floors.

Evelyn moans. I’m concerned for her sake. She suffers from these intrusions like a hangover. I usually forget about them by morning. I pull her near, cradle her head in my arm, and begin writing notes to them in my mind. Each time I swallow it feels as if I’ve eaten fistfuls of sand.

We tried talking to them when it first started happening, but it only made matters worse. They yelled even louder, pounded on the floor above our bed, ran their vacuum cleaner at three in the morning.

I’ve only seen one of them, the loudest one, the one who’s not Michael. He’s at least a half foot taller than I am, walks a Yorkshire terrier, and seems drunk most of the time. In the note I am writing and rewriting, the threat of death keeps popping up. I want to believe in the power of notes. I fantasize stringing this one up over their door with razor wire.

Life around us is beginning to feel a bit ragged: the dishes sit for days in the kitchen sink, unwashed laundry piles up for weeks, one of our houseplants has sprouted a leaf with blood red spots on it.

One night recently Evelyn came home from work and lost her temper. She’d been driving around the neighborhood for over a half hour looking for a parking space. She growled and threw a couch pillow across the room. It bounced off the bed and landed on the night stand, teetering against the lamp shade. Our dog, Lester, stood next to her shivering.

“The whole night’s wasted,” Evelyn says. “Over a fucking half hour driving around and around this crummy fucking neighborhood.” She slumps onto the bed. Lately, we’ve both taken to using the adjective “fucking” to describe just about anything that bothers us. “I parked in a fucking bus stop,” she says. “We’ll have to move it tomorrow morning.”

Though I know better, I feel it’s all my fault. Lester is thoroughly convinced he’s to blame. When I sit on the bed next to Evelyn, he comes up and squirms in between us begging for forgiveness.

Time is beginning to feel far too precious. Our days are spent apart, nights and weekends pass like shadows crossing paths. Evelyn and I have to make appointments to see each other, we communicate through lunchtime phone calls and hastily hand written notes, we sacrifice dinners for sex. Even when we’re home together, I’m absent — too distracted by term papers from my night classes to offer anything more than marginal one syllable utterances. I pace from my desk to the kitchen and back over a Cubist still life of rejected pages. I open the refrigerator door and am shocked to find there are things in there.

Evelyn continues: “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown. I haven’t slept the whole night through in weeks. I’m tired all the time. Work is boring. I never go to the studio. I don’t have an idea for a painting because I’m too tired to think. We can’t afford to live like this. Sometimes I just want to give up. And I want to have a baby.”

I suggest she slow down, take it easy.

She kisses Lester between the eyes, “How?”

My answers are like gauze where nothing less than a tourniquet will do.

… And then, in the middle of the night, it starts again — the banging and yelling from upstairs.

The next morning, we sit at the kitchen table, both of us staring at our coffee cups as if answers, like in one of those novelty 8 balls, will float to the surface: Ask again later.

“What are we going to do?” Evelyn asks. “I can’t keep losing sleep like this.”

I look up at her and wish I could give her the day off, send her back to bed.

“I’ll write a note,” I tell her.

Lester comes up and stands on the edge of Evelyn’s chair, hides his head under her chin, and puts a paw on her right breast. Lester has been with us through eight years and four derelict apartments. He’s accustomed to our whining. Evelyn drapes her arm over him while she flips through the Village Voice. She stops at Jules Feiffer and reads, rubbing Lester’s ears. I often wonder if he might not have all the answers.

I take a sip of hot coffee and it triggers a pain in my throat. I swallow over and over, inventorying the symptoms, my prognosis seesawing from allergies on the rational side to esophageal cancer on the hysterical. What would I do, I wonder, if I couldn’t speak? How would I laugh?

Evelyn looks up at the clock. There’s a crack in the face; there always has been. It came that way from her mother in New Jersey — an unused anniversary gift. Evelyn groans then stands, takes her coat from the chair. Lester goes to his spot under the kitchen table and watches us.

At the door, Evelyn turns to me. “I’ve only got a few days left.”

“What?” I kiss her.

“My twenties are almost over.”

I tuck her scarf inside her coat collar. “Take my word for it,” I say, “it hardly makes a difference.”

Once Evelyn leaves, I go to the desk and mark her birthday on the calendar. I notice that it bleeds through to the next month. An “x” on April 3rd casts a shadow on May 1st.

At Alamo Square Park, Lester runs ahead of me until he disappears over a knoll. It’s windy. On windy days he’s uncontrollable, like a note dropped on the street. I whistle for him and the wind is so strong it sucks my breath away.

The steps leading into the park are shallow, fat-lipped steps, cracked and crumbling in places. At the top of the steps there are concrete posts, like chess pieces, like pawns. One is missing, only the impression left from its being there.

From the top of the hill the view across town is so clear I feel I can reach out with my tongue and lick the dome of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Lester is at the tree near the tennis courts where he usually likes to go. The man who is always there is there, playing tennis with himself. He reaches into a wire basket full of balls, takes one, serves it, gets another and serves again, continuing until all the tennis balls are scattered like chamomile blossoms on the other side of the court.

Lester heads off towards the sand lot where an older Chinese woman is practicing tai chi. I whistle for him again. The woman moves slowly, winding and unwinding her arms, coiling and uncoiling her body like a crumpled piece of paper on fire. Lester trots past her. They ignore each other. On the other side of the playground he’s found some chicken bones. I catch up with him and leash him. I grab his snout and tell him, no. He looks away from me to the Chinese woman. Once we begin walking he snatches another bone from the ground. I give in. He’s won. The sound of cracking bones sets my nerves on edge.

Near the part exit, a pack of dogs mill about sniffing and barking at each other while their owners stand talking. An overly aggressive male German Shepherd runs up and begins sniffing Lester. He’s not enthused by this. The dog’s owner, a tall woman in a green pea coat, walks over to us.

“You should let him play.” She nods to the dogs at our feet.

“I do… sometimes.” I tug Lester away. The other dog insists on sniffing, acts as if he’s about to mount. The hair on Lester’s back begins to stand up.

“Good,” the woman says. Without thinking, I snap back, tell her to mind her own business. She doesn’t respond but her smile disappears. I am amazed at my own temerity.

Back in the apartment, Lester stands in the kitchen, wagging his tail and looking up at me.

“What do you want,” I ask him. He moans, stretches, then sneezes. “What? What is it?” He moans again, louder. I know that what he wants and needs is more exercise, more attention. I give him a biscuit and he runs into the living room. I sit at the kitchen table and write a note:

Hey you,

We’ve lost two night’s sleep already with your arguments.

We’ve asked you politely to stop. If you persist, we’re going

to take it up with the manager…

I think of the futility of that threat; the manager is never around. I add:

and if that doesn’t work, we’ll have to call the police.

Lester sits on the couch, leaning his head over the back, watching me as I get ready to leave. I put my coat on, walk to the kitchen, check the knobs on the stove, unplug the toaster, check my coat pocket for the keys, then walk back into the living room. I turn the answering machine on and then the stereo for Lester. I can’t decide between the jazz station or the classical. He’s still gazing over the top of the couch — not at me, but where I was. I suspect for some reason that today he’d like jazz. I pat him on the head as I walk past, but don’t look at him.

As I begin to lock the door of the apartment, I realize that I’ve forgotten the note. I go back in. Lester hasn’t moved. I pat him on the head again and leave after taking one more glance at the knobs on the stove. I walk softly upstairs and tape the note, folded in half, on the door over the spy hole.

As the metal gate of the apartment building clangs behind me I feel locked out. I reach for my keys reflexively. At the first intersection, I wait for the light to turn green, wishing I were back in the apartment, in bed with Evelyn, or sitting at the kitchen table again. Only this time, I would talk to her. I’d ask her to tell me everything, what she’s been doing, what she’s thinking.

Once the light turns green, I step off the curb and I wouldn’t mind if someone, anyone, held my hand as I cross the street.

At Castro Station, I’ve just missed a train. I think of the note I’ve left. I wish now that somehow I could take it down. I feel as if I’ve lit a fuse and I’m prepared to plug my ears.

Across the tracks on the other platform a man leans against the wall, one leg crossed over the other, hands shoved deep into his tight-fitting jeans. I reach into my left coat pocket and pull out the first piece of paper I find and study it. It’s a train transfer. My pockets are filled with train transfers that I know at the time I’ll never use. They’re like an extra parachute — just in case. This one is good for two hours in any direction.

When the next train comes, I get on the first car and search for a seat facing forward. I notice that in this car alone there are two people wearing eye patches and one young woman with a cane.

The train moves slowly through the tunnel — slower, it seems, than usual.

Out of the corner of my eye I see something move along the floor of the car, a dark spot that travels several feet then disappears. In the seat next to mine an elderly woman in a blue overcoat and matching hat is eating an apple. She takes quick bites around the apple then sticks it furtively inside her purse while she chews.

At the next stop one of the eye-patched passengers gets off the train and I wonder if the dark spot I saw isn’t the first symptom of glaucoma.

Across the aisle from me, a mother sits with her young daughter. The girl opens a large book, holds it like a plank of wood on her lap, and begins turning the pages while she looks around her. Our eyes meet. I smile at her and she smiles back, then quickly looks toward her mother. I begin to imagine what it would be like — the weight of my own child sitting on my lap. I rehearse conversations with an imaginary daughter, wonder how I would explain the world to a mind fresh and unfolding like a fern frond:

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“There… that.”

“That’s a man.”

“What is he doing?”

“Putting up a sign.”

“What’s that?”

“What…?”

“A sign.”

“Something that says something.”

“What’s that sign say?”

“EEZY FREEZY SPRINGTIME SPECIALS — BROCCOLI 89 CENTS A BUN — AVOCADOS 2 FOR A DOLLAR.”

“No…. It doesn’t say that.”

“Yes!”

Evelyn and I tell each other what good parents we’d make. We avoid the issue of finances. Our combined incomes put us right smack at poverty level. I only have to think of this and our living conditions for that small weight in my lap to evaporate.

A few stops later, I notice that the lighting outside the train seems strange. We’ve gone four stops, the last one in the wrong direction. I get off at the next stop and walk toward the university, passing rows and rows of identical homes with manicured lawns, and I don’t have the slightest interest in what goes on inside them. I’m twenty minutes late when I enter the office, but no one seems to notice.

For the last three days, I’ve been typing room numbers in little boxes on faculty schedule cards. The stack of cards is nearly half finished.

I take a few minutes to orient myself by looking out the office window. Students, frighteningly young and well dressed, sit on benches in the spotted shade of fir trees. I think of a close friend of ours who’s been away at a zendo in the mountains of southern California. We talk sometimes over early morning phone calls. I’m only partially awake, lying in bed. I ask him what he does. He says he gets up at three in the morning, puts his robe on, sits zazen for three hours, takes his robe off, puts a parka on, shovels snow from the path around the zendo, then changes back into this robe and sits zazen again. They take day trips sometimes to Los Angeles or Venice. I ask if he ever feels like going A.W.O.L. He claims he needs less and less to make him happy: the sun through parted snow clouds, the stars just before sunrise. He does say, however, that he misses us. Evelyn thinks that all he needs is a nice girlfriend. I think it’s more than that but can’t explain it.

I turn from the window and begin typing numbers in small boxes and nothing seems to fit.

A phone call: “Yes, I wonder, please, could you give me some help?” a woman’s heavily accented voice asks when I answer the phone. I tell her I’ll try.

“Yes, I’m writing a note to a teacher and…”

“Yes…?”

“And, could you tell me, please… how do you say it? Do you say…? Is it…? I mean, do you say to them: This is a note in thanking you. Or, do you say: This is a note to thank you…? Which one is better, please?”

“The last one.”

“The last one? A note to thank you is better?

“I think so… yes.”

“Yes… OK. I will write that to my teacher. Thank you very much for this help.”

I hang up feeling as if I’ve solved at least half the world’s problems. Then someone else calls and asks if it’s OK to sometimes — not always — but sometimes split infinitives.

Joan, one of the women in the office, comments on my looking haggard. I tell her about our noisy upstairs neighbors. She only half listens, is distracted by a chain letter that someone from another office has given her. She can’t decide whether to send it or throw it out. She hands it to me. It’s been copied so many times I can barely read it. It’s titled: With Love All Things Are Possible. There’s no money involved — only the threat of death if the chain is unbroken.

Eugene Walsh received this letter and failed to circulate it. He lost his wife six days later.

The letter apparently originated from a missionary in Venezuela.

Carlos Daddots, an office employee, received this letter and forgot it. He lost his job. Later, after finding the letter again, he mailed it and a few days later he got a better job.

Evan Chesterfield received this letter, and not believing it, threw it away.

Nine days later, he died.

I almost imagine the thing burning a hole through my desk pad. I hand it back to Joan and suggest she throw it out. Later, the woman who gave her the letter comes up and convinces her to mail it.

On my lunch break, I walk to the student union bookstore and go directly to the children’s section because, I reason, I’m less likely to run into somebody I know there. On the sale table there are wind-up books with little cranks on the side that you turn while flipping through the pages. I search through the pile and find one without a broken crank and wind it. According to the book, this is the ABC song, but I recognize it as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I’m surprised that all these years I’d never made the connection. I wind the crank faster and faster until the melody disappears and it sounds more like some kind of new electronic music or a miniature Balinese gamelan. I think about buying the book until I notice that “R” stands for robot, and “V” is for volcano. I’m not sure why, but this is enough for me to put it back on the sale pile.

When I get back to the office, there’s a message on my desk from Evelyn. Before I can dial, someone comes into the office wanting to speak to his professor. I tell him that his professor doesn’t have office hours until next week. He isn’t satisfied — wants her address and phone number. I tell him I can’t give him that information. He insists, slaps the side of a file cabinet, begins whining about how he’s driven 20 miles just to talk to her. At this point, I wouldn’t help him if he’d driven a thousand. I tell him he’ll have to wait till Monday and begin rummaging through my desk drawer pretending to look for something. He wants to speak to the chairman of the department. I know the chairman is in, but tell him that he isn’t available. He shakes his head, seems stunned by my intransigence. I look at the note in my hand. Under “message” Joan has written, “Not Urgent. She’s just bored.” The student is still waiting for an answer. I look up at him and shrug. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you any more than that.” He turns and walks out of the office muttering something about finding her no matter what it takes.

When I call, Evelyn answers on the first ring.

“Weinberg and company….”

“I want to order some wine.”

“How much would you like?”

“How much have you got?”

“Two warehouses full.”

“That should do.”

“You sound like you could use a doctor.”

“It’s a cold,” I tell her. “Maybe worse.”

“Not worse, Jack. Just a cold.”

“I got on the wrong train this morning.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. I had to walk from Aptos Playground.”

“Is that far?”

“Not too.”

“Are you going to be all right?”

“I’ll live.”

She puts me on hold. I listen to an instrumental version of an old Beatles tune and begin drawing squares on my desk calendar. I have a small sized quilt finished by the time she gets back on the phone.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I should go.”

“Oh…”

Before hanging up, she says: “Listen… Drink something hot. Go home early if you can.”

When I start typing numbers again I feel as if an unraveling knot has been retied.

At ten minutes after five, I’m standing inside the humanities building waiting for the train. The clockwork fog has begun to roll in. Thick clouds of it drift across 19th Avenue, passing over cars, pedestrians, and houses like a gray scrim over a stage set.

“My agent doesn’t like this ending. Tell me what you think.”

Gloria Rosen stands next to me in her sea green trench coat and a pair of shoes that look like house slippers. Gloria — a regular visitor in the office — has, for some reason, adopted me as editor. I take a glance, looking for the train. “OK,” I say.

“This mother finds out shortly after her daughter’s 16th birthday that she’s pregnant.”

“Who’s pregnant?”

“The daughter, of course. The mother could be pregnant, too. That would make it even more interesting. Anyway… so the mother is mad as hell. And so, she takes her daughter to her analyst. He’s a young guy, real handsome, and she says, ‘Doctor, I want to talk to you about my daughter.’ And we see that the daughter is real attracted to the analyst and vice versa.”

I see that my train is coming.

“So the analyst calms the mother down and suggests that they go out for Chinese to discuss it. The mother is widowed, see, and she’s not bad looking herself. But anyway, what she doesn’t know is the analyst is the father.”

“Stop there.” I rest my hand on her shoulder.

“That’s just what my agent said. I have an agent, you know. Anyway, what I was going to have happen is this: I’d have them order shellfish and all three would die of food poisoning.”

“Remind me never to get caught in one of your stories.”

“You don’t like the ending either?”

I smile at her and head towards the door. “Rule of thumb,” I tell her, “… never kill anyone unless you absolutely have to.”

When I get out at Castro Station the sun is shining. I walk quickly down Market Street, passing vaguely familiar faces at almost the same spot that I do every day. On another street, in front of a different store, at another time, I would recognize them but not know why or from where.

I stop at a flower venders on 15th Street and buy a dozen jonquils. They are like a chorus of jaundiced opera singers wrapped in purple tissue paper.

I take a short cut through Duboce Park. Two dogs chasing after a Frisbee nearly tackle a man jogging. Three kids gyrate on a tire swing. A young woman, very pregnant, sits on a bench with another woman who could be her mother. They sit facing the sun and something the older woman has said makes the younger one laugh.

In our apartment, I toss the mail — a telephone bill and a drug store coupon book — on the bed and rewind the answering machine. There are several hang-ups, a call about a bounced check, and then Evelyn’s father:

What do you mean you can’t talk to me now? Your own father, your own flesh and blood you can’t talk to? By the way, the music on this thing stinks. When you get a chance, call me — there’s something I’ve got to ask you.

This makes the third call this week — a recent record. Though his tone is playful, it’s obvious to me that his appeal to guilt has everything in the world to do with the small loan he gave Evelyn last week. I imagine that the “something” he wants to talk about is her tuition at art school and how one of his friends claims it’s too high, and that for the same price she could be going to an Ivy League school back east.

I go to the kitchen and fill a cranberry juice jar with water and put the jonquils in it. They sing to me from their stage in the center of the kitchen table. I turn on the radio and listen while I begin making dinner. The small staticky sound reminds me of hot New York summers, melting asphalt, and major league baseball.

On the radio, a young, recently published novelist is being interviewed. He’s in his early 20s, a Yale graduate. I don’t begrudge him his success, but wish he were at least ten years older. I toss it off as the success of the privileged and change the station.

I work fast in a race to have the dinner done and on the table by the time Evelyn gets back from walking Lester. I’m boiling, slicing, sautéing, moving so quickly that if I were to stop long enough to think I’d get lost. I bang my head on one of the cabinet doors above the sink, slam it shut, then punch it back.

Evelyn looks tired when she comes in. Lester runs up to me. I get him a biscuit and toss it. He misses, won’t take it till I go and get it for him.

Evelyn sees the jonquils. We kiss. I tell her about the note I left on the door upstairs. She buries her head in my chest.

“My man,” she says.

I run my fingers up and down her spine. “Call your father.”

After dinner, we sit on the bed, for now an island strewn with books, newspapers, pencils, a drawing pad, a half-empty box of crackers, our bodies. There hasn’t been a sound from upstairs all evening. We stay on the bed, only getting up for refills of tea, Lester following each time one of us goes to the kitchen and back. The room is dimly lit by two small bedside lamps. One of Evelyn’s paintings hangs on the wall behind us: a large still life of a bed scene, a gray robe draped over a book, a child’s slate board and chalk, two blue coffee mugs on a rose-colored comforter, the impression of human forms left in the rumpled pillows.

I get up from the bed, go to the stereo and select some music, a long piano solo.

After love-making, I lie there, half dozing, replaying a recurring scene in my mind: I’m two or three years old, standing by a hedgerow at my aunt’s house in New Castle, Pennsylvania. I feel as if the dense growth of leaves is pulling me in. I want to talk away, but I’m paralyzed. I see my father coming towards me, his white shirt sleeves rolled up, sunlight bathing his forearms. He smiles, reaches down and takes my hand. We walk away, and I want to tell him how he’s saved me, but I don’t know how to.

Evelyn and I are basking in the quiet, only interrupted by the swishing sound of passing cars on the street outside. I stroke the inside of her thigh, she runs her fingers over my arm. Lester is back on the bed, curled between our feet. I begin to drift off to sleep, then wake myself.

“Should I?”

“Yes,” she says.

I reach up and turn out the light.

Then, there’s a sound like thunder, early morning summer thunder. I am startled awake, lying on my side, and I can feel Evelyn’s heart beating fast against my back.

END

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Alyson is a writer, editor, meditator, and dharma practitioner. She lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Alyson Lie

Alyson Lie

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Alyson is a writer, editor, meditator, and dharma practitioner. She lives in Cambridge, MA.