I looked at the woman in the mirror the next morning. An old woman who might as well have been wearing a blonde wig, with a sad expression, who was trying not to remember what she had seen the night before. Goddamned sleeping pills don't make me look any younger, I thought, pulling at the skin beside my puffy eyelids. What was she, half my age? I was about her age when I married James right out of college. The most clueless adult stage a person can have until senile dementia or alzheimer's hits. So Valentine has a clueless girlfriend in her early twenties. There was a sting like something snapping in my solar plexus. It's really better this way, though, isn't it. It's better this way.
That was the way to think about it, or not think about it because it hurt so. Far more normal for him to have a girlfriend near his own age than the old fool in this mirror. It's better this way. Okay, I'm glad it's over, and he's found someone else. Maybe that's why he introduced her to me at the symphony, to let me know that it was really over between us. This is good to know. Time to focus on my own present, the University community, KC, Moersgard, and maybe the satisfying departure of Fatzer. Did she stay with him last night in his austere little apartment? Did he move the same way -- stop! God, that hurts.
I've got to leave town, get out of here, I've got to think about something else, anything else.
I pulled the toothpaste from the drawer beside the sink. Not enough there for a miser to squeeze. Fortunately I'd had the foresight to purchase a new tube some days ago, and I retrieved the new box from the supply basket under the sink. As I opened the top of it, I was struck (in my sleeping-pill-fuzzy state) by the sides of the pasteboard box. They had scintillating sparkles that looked silver at one angle, but reflected every color in the rainbow as the box was turned, from a neon red through yellows to deep violet. How is this done? I asked myself, searching for a different train of thought. But I had no idea what technology made it possible to make silver dots turn green or orange or blue.
If I had seen such a pretty package as a child, I would have carried it around in my treasures until I could make something of it. Perhaps I would have cut the sparkling speckles into strips and preserved them as bookmarks, for the miracles of science that could make such a wonder were still far in the future.
En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... the highways were small and followed the trails of the great-great-grandfathers, and there were no supermarkets. The stores of a community carried enough goods to keep the community alive, but the individuals of the community expected to have to keep themselves in whatever comfort they could save. A flour sack could become a blouse. A worn out blouse could become a dusting cloth, or if there was enough of it intact of a size large enough to be hemmed, a dish towel. Old dresses and pants and sheets and pillowcases became quilt covers. Wrapping paper was gently flattened out and put away for a future gift; crates used to ship fruit to the grocery store were coveted and vied for as raw materials for little end tables or seed-starting flats or boarding up cracks in a wooden screen door.
The empty bottles from sodas or beer were returned to the stores for five cents or ten -- to be sent back to the bottler to be reused, not recycled, and I remember my grandmother pouring boiling water into washed mayonnaise jars because they were of a perfect size for canning jellies.
Every kitchen or pantry had its ball of string; string saved from around packages from the butcher or from parcels in the mail, ready to do its second duty as turkey trussing at the holidays (boiling water to sterilize again, of course), or as trellises for beans in the back yard garden, or in the case of an unused wealth, kite string.
We saved shoestrings from worn shoes because they could be used to tie up tomato plants. We saved corks to use as fishing bobbers. We saved half-torn pants because they could be torn some more into strips to be braided and sewn into durable rugs.
I saw a rug like that in Burlie's mother's house over the holidays, a spiral of colors and textures that told a story of acquisition and use. I pointed it out to Kimsky, and said, "This is beautiful. Why don't we do stuff like this anymore?"
Kim blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling and said, "Because I've got too many damn things I've got to get done to sit around making a work of art rug that Dimitri is going to spill ketchup on anyway."
But when people used to do it (even my mother learned to do it), it wasn't considered art, it was just part of what people did.
A bottle of vitamins came in my mail. The plastic bottle of pills had a tight foil seal under the lid, and a clear plastic seal around the lid and the top. Around this doubly-sealed container was an eighteen inch swathe of bubble wrap secured by a rubber band, and the box in which this purchase arrived was filled with styrofoam nuggets and was large enough to hold nine bottles.
Who saves leftover boxes? Who has uses for ongoing shipments of styrofoam peanuts? Perhaps somewhere, an enlightened populace has a use for these things, but not in Port Laughton. The most efficient use of these wasteful discards is how the homeless people make use of them to insulate their nests in the undergrowth of the state park west of Highway 1. At least the stuff becomes functional once again, rather than taking up a shameful amount of space in a landfill, buried and wasted.
In the Heaven of Unused Gods, Buffalo Woman complains. "I went to the people with a solution when they were cold and hungry. I kept them warm and made them houses. I kept their bellies full and made handles for their knives, and needles, and even fuel for their fires. Be grateful and generous, I told them. Use all of the gift and share with all.
"But they quarreled over who could claim the meat in what territory, and then other people came and slaughtered my gifts and left them rotting among the waving strands of the prairie grass. And the people forgot about using all and sharing all.
"Now they rely on the gamblers and call games of chance 'The New Buffalo,' and they will grasp and trade in gold and throw everything else away until their lust for riches destroys them."
"I know just what you mean," says Corn Woman. "I went to the people and showed them how to plant and how to harvest, how to thatch their roofs and make sandals to protect their feet from the scorpions under the rocks. I fed them and made their skins shine with health. But it wasn't good enough for them. They left the Way of Corn and added sugar and hotdogs, and made their gardens so big that Holy Maize is fed to pigs and cattle."
Osiris groans like an out-of-tune organ in a corner, "You think you've been forgotten? You have no idea. I went all over the world teaching the people to grow wheat and corn and barley for beer and grapes for wine, and my popularity soared so high that I had temples full of grain enough to feed the continents for ten years. Then out of sheer spite, some people started egging my brother on to kill me, and pretty soon, all that's left of me is an arm here and a kneecap there, and my wife Isis had to spend her time hunting for my parts all over the Nile. Never did find some of them, and while the people grew fat and prosperous, I was gone from their memories, except for the part about my genitals never being found. Everyone remembered that, of course. From Great Teacher to Off-Color Joke in one easy dismemberment. My wife goes on to become a superhero in a kids' show on Saturday mornings, but Osiris? He's just a hieroglyph."
"Oh, shut up," says Buffalo Woman. "We predate you by about ten thousand years at least, and we didn't go around bragging in temples, we got to work and got down and dirty being of use."
Osiris wanders off in search of Norse Baldur. "Maybe he'll be up for a game of checkers," he muses. "Nobody remembers him any more, either."
Was she brushing her teeth in Valentine's sink this morning? It was still only five after six. No, the bitch was probably still asleep on his pillow, my heart ground out, and It's better this way.
I picked up the rainbow-speckled container that had held my tube of toothpaste. Does anyone even know to call this 'pasteboard' anymore? I thought, and threw the thing in the trashcan. I turned back to the image in the mirror.
"That's what you do with beautiful but no longer useful things," I told her. "That's you. You better find a new job soon."
She turned away, unwilling to let me see her brushing at her filling eyes.
"The soul of the saved says, 'Who art thou? For never did I see on earth a maiden more beautiful and fair than thee.' Then will that maiden say: 'I am not a maiden, but thine own good deeds ... For when on earth thou didst see one who offered sacrifice to the demons, then didst thou offer sacrifice to the gods, and when thou didst see on who passed false judgement, then thou didst sit down and speak witness right and true. For though I was venerable, thou hast made me more venerable; and though I was honorable, thou hast made me more honorable; and though I was endowed with dignity, thou hast confirmed on me yet greater dignity.'
"The soul of the damned says: 'Who art thou? For never have I seen an ill-favored wench on earth more ill-favored and hideous than thee.' And in answer that ill-favored wench says to him, 'I am no girl, but I am thy hideous deeds ... For when on earth thou didst see one who offered sacrifice to the gods, then didst thou sit apart and offer sacrifice to the demons, and when thou didst see one who welcomed good men and offered them hospitality, and gave alms, then didst thou treat good men unkindly and show them dishonor; nor didst thou give them alms, but shut thy door upon them. For though I was disreputable, thou hast made me yet more disreputable; and though I was dishonorable, thou hast made me yet more dishonorable; and though I sat among the unaware, thou hast made me yet more unaware.'"
"Thank you," I commended the student who read the text. "You captured nicely the lyrical tone of the writing, meant to be a symmetrical opposition of good and evil. Many of the Zoroastrian writings are balanced in this way, description of good, description of evil."
"Why is it always a man?" asked a girl from the back of the class. "Here this guy dies and he sees intangibles as female. In Islam, if a man goes to heaven, he has women to wait on him. Why don't the writings ever tell about a woman's journey to the next world?"
"Class?" I handed the question on. They all knew the answers, they were just restless with the resumption of school after the holidays. The girl was probably looking for a quarrel to showcase some feminist sentences to show that she was a scholar, not a party girl.
"Wasn't that because in those days, women were basically possessions of the men?" said a young man who hadn't outgrown the habit of raising his hand during discussions.
"Yep," said another, "they didn't think a woman had a soul." "Just like animals," nodded a junior, knowing what to say to instigate a riot.
"What do you call that," said the second boy, "The Wisdom of the Ancients?"
The girl who had asked the question was swelling with indignation at the growing laughter.
"No, listen," said a redheaded girl slyly, "They had to write the stuff down just for the men, because the men were too stupid to ask for directions."
"Stop," I said into the gales of laughter. "The reading is about the saved soul and the damned soul, but there is another message to the words. It's not about an actual person, or the person wouldn't be first saved and then damned."
"We have here listed some good things: holy sacrificial offerings, truth, almsgiving or charity, hospitality. 'I am the good deeds' says the beautiful creature. Then there are the bad: worship of false gods, unkindness, stinginess, falsehood. The face of this one is hideous. And the message they bring?"
They all sat and looked at me blankly. One ventured, "That if you're bad, you'll go to hell?"
"Where do you see the word 'hell"?" I asked. "This is a poetic description of a moral code, but it's gone a big step farther than just to say good is good and bad is bad. The reader (or listener) is reminded that it is his (or her) choice of good that makes it better, or the choice of bad that makes it worse."
"Hey!" said the arm-waver. "The ugly one says 'I sat among the unaware' -- does that mean that evil is found among the foolish and ignorant, because they haven't been taught any better, so they can't choose?"
"You got it," I grinned, "good one!"
"Then choosing evil makes people more ignorant?" said the redhead.
"Think about it. If they're choosing evil, they sure aren't looking for enlightenment. Eliade, page seventy: more lyrical descriptions of the good and evil that came into being in creation; again the balance of themes, good and evil, beginning and end of time, and once again, throughout, the idea of choice, not circumstance."
They thumbed through the pages hurriedly, and scanned the text. A few nodded. Two of them might even have read it before class.
"Let's contrast that with the earlier Sumero-Akkadian poem on page two hundred seventy-two, written in a time lacking a formal moral code. The importance of personal choice as individual responsibility is not apparent. The author writes, 'Man is dumb; he knows nothing ... Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.'"
"I like the 'Man is dumb' part," said the redhead in a low voice.