So it was the hands she watched, having glanced up from her reading. They were large, meaty things, the nails gnawed to half or barely gibbous moons, and filthy with the dirt and grease of that little car with which he was constantly tinkering. It was a distinctly Neanderthal dexterity that she perceived, as many times she had, although perhaps not with such intensity as just now in this instant of annoyed and acutely focused distraction, as they tore the lemon-raspberry-poppy seed muffin apart and fed it into his mouth. However, it was not the hands which had drawn her away, but rather it was the slurp of his coffee and the sound of his open-mouthed chewing that had challenged her concentration which was already taxed by the melded voices and clink of porcelain, and the strident moan of the espresso machine. So it was not the hands that had been the source of her distraction, but it was the hands on which she became transfixed until she willed herself back to the grimed and printed page.
* * *
With a thick greasy crayon, Amanda leaned into the mirror and rouged her lips. She lingered then, proud of their chubby, almost grotesque shape. She knew other women envied her mouth, knowing where her mouth, her lips, led mens' minds. With a step, she leaned and tore a square of toilet paper from the fresh roll in the dispenser. Returning to the mirror, she put it to her mouth and placed it between her lips and then holding it before her, regarded the imprint. Laying the tissue on the vanity, she tore another square from the dispenser, and laid it on top of the first.
Then she leaned into the mirror again and like a painter applying a second coat in order to attain full color saturation, she put the implement to her luscious, ichthyoid mouth once more. She drew the unctuous rod slowly across her labia, as though prolonging some agonizing ecstasy, as her other hand went absently to her bosom, and the finger tips, touching the silk of her blouse and brushing lightly over the nipple, swept downward across her belly.
Finally removing the stick, she lingered again, pursing her lips ever so slightly, practicing, constantly refining the gesture so as not to be perceived by their conscious minds, to slip through that membrane of male intellect and so taunt and pester the huge boorish sub-psyche.
Perfect, Amanda thought. Much too perfect to be kissed. Which had been her endeavor. As it was her intention to attract and tantalize the softer-minded of her species, yet she wished to repel them, hoping that the perfection of her lips would beckon yet stave their kindergarten subconsciouses, like the house of cards that draws the child-finger near, yet experience has taught that the slightest touch will bring it down. She understood that they understood things like that; games and gambling, balls and playing cards.
For she had no desire to be kissed, no interest in any such intimate and sincere expression of fondness. It was of no use to her. Rather she wished to lead those reptilian brains to other places, other realms where they might become fixed and obsessed with other things; of a kiss, yes, but of a kiss upon her netherlips.
* * *
"Are you kidding me?"
"Netherlips? You can't be serious."
"No it's not."
"Yes it is. Why would you even show this to me?"
As the table was littered with balled napkins and torn sugar packets, and crowded with their coffee cups and the plate on which his muffin had come, she'd held the story in her hands, sitting forward, only gently leaning her forearms against the edge. But her mouth had fallen open as she'd read, and now she sat back in her chair. Gone was her excited anticipation at seeing him, and returned was her annoyance, with her own naiveté; the hope she had allowed, that, 'maybe this time ... ' And again she saw him plainly, his filthy, tattered and splattered clothes, and sensed anew the effluvium of beer and cigarettes in which he always walked around.
"You don't like it."
"It's disgusting," Ellen reiterated. "I'm your sister, for Christ's sake. What did you expect me to say?"
With her reaction, Steve hung his head.
"Ichthyoid? What the hell is that?"
"It means fish-like."
"Where'd you get that?"
"I looked it up."
"Well, you got the ick part right. Why fish-like anyways?"
"You know," Steve defended, "like The Incredible Mister Limpet. Or like his girlfriend, Lady Fish ... or like all those movie stars have those great big fish lips."
Ellen rolled her eyes and looked out the window.
"Why would you even write something like that?" she asked, turning back to him.
"It's sexual," Steve answered.
"Yah, I got that."
"My professor liked it."
"He did, huh?"
"Yah. He did."
"He says all great writing is sexual."
"He does, huh?"
"Yah, he says all great writing boils down to poetry. He says poetry is the purest form of writing, the purest form of art, and all art is sexual because art is the synthesis of love and death, and that's what sex is, the synthesis of love and death."
There followed a pregnant moment, and then throwing up her hands ... "What the hell are you talking about?"
Without a response, Steve cast his eyes down on the table and then in unison, they turned their heads to the plate glass. Across the street, facades of stone were broken with colorful store front windows, before which cars crept, and then rushed in elongated speed, and then crept again.
Ellen stole a glance at her brother. Long black hair covered the side of his face, and scant continents of beard patched his cheek and jaw. Its incompleteness took several years from him, and bestowed a boyish charm. His cap was pulled down tightly now and his eyes were remote and withdrawn beneath the bill. She returned to the street then, and they sat for a while watching the traffic.
"So are you still living with those friends of yours?"
Steve glanced at his sister and then down at the table again. "You mean Luke and Kara?" he responded, as with the tip of his index finger he began sweeping the crumbs of his muffin into a pile.
"Are those their names?"
"Yah. No, I'm not living there anymore. Kara got pregnant so ... "
"So where are you living?"
Intent, Steve continued gathering together the remains of his muffin. "I'm thinking about getting an apartment with this guy I'm working with."
"His name's Jeremy."
"Well, have you got it? Are you moving in?"
"No, Jeremy's got to get a co-signer. Speakin' a which ... " Steve continued, looking up at his sister.
"No Steve! I cannot co-sign a lease for you."
"It's just for six months."
"No! I'm sorry, but I can't do it. We've been through this."
"Yah," Steve muttered as he squished the doughy pile into a pyramid. "You think Mom'd sign?"
"I don't know, you could ask her. So you said you're working with this guy, Jeremy. What're you doing?"
"I'm back working' for Carl, hangin' drywall and paintin'," Steve answered as he molded the pyramid into a cone.
"Well, so how long have you been doing that?"
"Like three weeks."
"So you've known this guy three weeks and you're going to get an apartment with him."
"No, just a week. He started last Monday."
Ellen sighed and looked out the window again. The day had begun to fade. Street lights were coming on, their poles baring holiday ornaments like fallen roses.
"Steve?" Ellen said, looking back to her brother.
"Yah," he answered, as he nudged the cone of dough across the table, as though coaxing a tiny creature, Tom Sawyer and his pinch bug.
"What're you gonna do?"
"Oh, El, don't start."
"Well you know ... you call me to meet you down here to read your story, and ... that's fine but ... "
"But what? The class was your idea. I thought you'd like to read it."
"I do want to read it. Or I did want to read it."
"And then you didn't like it."
"Well Jesus, Steve."
"Well Jesus, what? It was your idea."
"I know it was my idea ... " Ellen broke off and withdrew, having learned that the anger summoned by these exchanges only left her depressed. But then with detachment, she watched as her brother, hunched over the table, continued to prod the now filth-gray cone across the surface, until another wave of anger assaulted her. It left her tingling, and by force of will she stayed the hand in her lap, precluding it from rising up above the table and the fist smashing down, squishing it -- that blob of dough, which suddenly seemed like his tiny silver shoe or Scotty dog that he was constantly nudging from square to square, consumed with some silly game, yet never getting anywhere. Ellen turned her head away. Then finally composed, she turned back to her brother. "I just wanted you to get an interest in something."
Plucking the cone from the table, Steve ate it. "I've got interests," he said.
"Like what? Comic books, and video games?"
"Go to hell."
"You go to hell. Look at you."
"You're a fucking mess. You go from job to job. Nobody knows where you're living from one week to the next."
"For Christ's sake, here we go."
"Well it's true. Do you know how much worry you cause everybody?"
"Oh that's great. Well, fuck you too."
"I gotta go," Steve said. Reaching across the table he stood, and twisting his story into a cylinder, shoved it into his back pocket, and turned to leave.
"Steve," Ellen said.
"Yah?" he answered, turning back.
"Do you have a phone?"
He paused. "Not right now."
She sighed, dropping her eyes to the table and then turned her head and looked out the window. Her brother lingered an instant and then turned again.
"What?" he answered, turning back.
"What is it?"
"What is what?"
She hesitated, unable to find the words until finally she simply gestured with her hands, at the entirety of him.
Steve sighed then, and looked out the window. "El," he said, "I don't know. If I could just ... "
"I don't know."
"If you could just what?"
"I don't know!" He shrugged and raising his arms he offered his palms in exasperated surrender, and then turned and walked away.
He turned once more and looked back at her across a clutter of tables and hard little chairs.
"Can't you ever think to ask about the kids?"
"How are they?"
Pausing another moment, Steve turned and walked away.
* * *
The sound of the party throbbed through the bathroom door. Taking the sandwiched squares of tissue paper from the counter, Amanda folded them once and tucked them into her brassiere, and then boosting her bosom, threw back her shoulders. Pleased, she pursed her lips and then turned and reached for the door knob.
With no breach in the mass of bodies, yet she entered, like a naked aboriginal with a gourd upon her head and a baby on her hip dissolves without the disturbance of a frond into the impenetrable rain forest. The proximity of flesh enraptured her as the tactile sensation of crowded bodies possessed her like a drug; the word of a house party like a siren's song.
A week before, Amanda, in a work place restroom, had overheard of the party, as it had been described by another young woman. For the last two years Amanda had been vaguely aware of her, a rather plain girl who worked in an adjacent suite of offices. Later that afternoon, Amanda approached the young woman and struck up a conversation. As engaged by another perceived to be above her station, the woman had responded with alacrity and immediately they had become friends. When Amanda inquired as to her plans for the weekend, the young woman had told her about the party and suggested that Amanda come along, that they ride together and she had offered to pick Amanda up in her car, but Amanda, sighting the uncertainties of her day, had declined and suggested rather that they meet there.
Through the frenzy and crescendo of voices, Amanda flowed, past loosened ties and opened collars, remarking jewelry and stealing glances into the clefts of bosoms while lavishing in the non-verbal commerce and enjoying, like a game, trying to discern in what pocket or brassiere, a tiny baggie of white powder might languish. Catching an eye, her lashes would flutter and her lips would purse before resolving into the faintest smile as a breast would brush the back of the hand that held his drink. Or if it was a face of her ilk, she would bat her eyes and offer the smile as well, although imbuing it now with a subtle but profound connotation, a smirk, that saccharine regard of uniquely feminine disdain. Unless of course, some intuition whispered to Amanda that this one might be a sister, a confidant, or that somewhere upon her, something secreted might be shared.
As she neared the kitchen then, there was a momentary breach in the crowd, and she saw something. And then it was gone, the gap closed again, but the image lingered like splattered colors on bleached retinas; a mustache and a checked shirt were stark against a shifting backdrop of white collars and soft shiny cheeks and jowls. But there was more, and Amanda was jostled as she remained grasping, it was the demeanor, the face lined as with sun and wind. And not talking, not quite smiling, yet serene, thoughtful and observant; a violation of the ethos, a thing out of place, like an actual rose in a cheap craft store.
* * *
"Comic books," he scoffed aloud, and thought of the seat behind him, piled with paperbacks and notebooks. Out of the wind, still it seemed colder as he blew on his hands and watched the cross currents of silhouettes at the intersection fade beneath his breath as it gathered on the windshield. With his hand he wiped at the glass and watched again. Their anticipation of warmth and comfort were suddenly evident in their movement. And they seemed remote, not so much in actual distance, but in kind, as though he was observing the migration of a species distinct from his own. Or perhaps not so remote or distinct but rather very close, almost the same except for one small thing, one chromosome they possessed which had been dropped from his make up, 'sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up,' Steve thought. And then that expression in their movement, of progress toward some destination, suddenly became, as Steve watched, metaphor itself. How do they do it? How do they move ahead? He wondered, as he sank into the seat and his breath again filled in the glass. Pulling the keys from his jacket pocket, he started the car but hesitated as, as always, he wasn't sure where to go.
* * *
Raising her eyebrows, Amanda opened her hands, indicating she had nothing. "What are you drinking?" she said loudly, leaning into his ear.
She wrinkled her nose. "Is there any wine?"
"Probly, lemme see."
He made his way to the kitchen island where tall square liquor bottles and opened bottles of wine crowded together like an urban skyline. Lifting a bottle of Chardonnay, he held it aloft, and Amanda gestured affirmatively.
"I'm Craig," he hollered, handing her a glass.
"I'm Amanda," she responded, anticipating, expecting, thinking even as she spoke her own name, 'Why can't I remember to pick another? What would it matter?'
"And I need you today, oh Mandy."
Bemused, Amanda offered a tight-lipped smile.
"All right, I can see you've heard that one before," Craig said. "Let's start again. Hello, my name is Craig Jones," he continued, offering his hand.
"I'm Amanda," she responded, taking it.
"Pleased to meet you, Amanda."
"Nice to meet you, Craig."
"So, how do you know Bernie?"
"Who's Bernie? This is his place."
"Oh, well, I was invited by a friend of mine. I'm supposed to meet her. She should be here by now," Amanda said, as she swept her eyes across the room, and then turning back to Craig, pursed her lips and smiled.
Suddenly from behind, an arm was thrown over Craig's shoulder, and a triumvirate of young men accosted him with boisterous greetings. Startled, he turned away from Amanda. With the deft hands of a pickpocket then, Amanda drew the folded tissue from her brassiere and slipped it deep into his pocket, where her fingers lingered for an instant. At the sensation of her touch through the thin fabric of the lining, Craig tried to turn back to her, but the arm draped over his shoulder wrapped around his neck and pulled him backwards, and Amanda vanished into the crowd.
Adrift again, smiling faces approached, and she would commune with them, batting her eyes and pursing her lips as they slipped past. They would recede behind her then, though they would crane after her, as the smell of their cologne, for a moment fragrant like a passing water hyacinth, dispersed.
From across the room, Amanda noticed a woman. Tall and shapeless in her dress, her hands were composed about her middle with a glass of wine as she stood against the wall. The face was held in static composition, the chin aloft, a determined smile. It brightened occasionally as bodies moved around her, and the faces glancing up, were momentarily occupied with mild curiosity. With the safety of distance, Amanda watched, the throat was graceful, the jaw was handsome, but skin was beginning to droop and sag, and that singular disdain, when youth in celebration of itself is obliged to acknowledge its doom, rose in Amanda. And then in a moment of intent, she found the eyes and was caught looking. The smile brightened and Amanda looked away, but she knew that the woman had seen it, that her tiny scowl had betrayed her, and in the instant of that particular intimacy, shared across a gay room, the woman had been afforded a peek inside. In a flash Amanda experienced the dread nudity of exposure. But that feeling, quickly turning to anger, resolved just as quickly to hatred, which rising, settled like sweet cream upon her consciousness.
"How ya doin'?"
Blinking, Amanda turned and looked into the face.
"I'm Chet," he shouted.
"Could you hold this for me, Chet," Amanda handed him her glass. He accepted it from her like a rose, and his glassy eyes moved from her face to the single perfect print on the rim. "I've got to go to the bathroom."
"I'll be right back, okay?"
* * *
The terra cotta walls shone dully in the fluorescent light as his hand went over the fitted pipe, bumping at the couplings and feeling the dimpled scabs of rust painted over. The pipe was cold beneath his hand, as was the air, and his breath appeared thinly before him as his shadow preceded him down the stairs. At the bottom, double doors were wedged open and passing through, he stepped to the wall and loitered as men who had been behind him passed, the soles of their shoes chirping on the tiled floor. The basement ceiling was low yet the room was murmurous with voices, accented by the occasional cough or hock in the throat, and the clatter of metal trays.
Steve started down the wall, and took his place in line. Shuffling forward, he reached a table and took a tray from a stack and a knife and fork from plastic troughs. He went through the line then. Holding out his tray, the compartments were filled with the steaming tasteless food, served by somnolent men who did not look from their work. At the far end he took a paper cup of water and then turned and started down an aisle, passing tables on either side where men filled forks and spoons and lifted them to their mouths, toothless jaws collapsing upon themselves, working slowly, ruminatively. Reaching the back of the hall, he took a seat at an empty table, and began to eat, slowly and deliberately like the others, until the disturbance he had caused in his passing had settled away.
He didn't have to come here. Carl had paid him the day before, so he had money in his pocket. But he felt a kinship with these men, and so he was drawn here, as though by need to satisfy a curiosity. With his head tilted to his meal, yet his gaze was expansive, his eyes like hummingbirds visiting random faces. He had made a few acquaintances, and had heard some of their stories, each unique, yet there seemed to be a thread running throughout. And as it was a dreadful camaraderie Steve sensed, he was obliged to pursue its nature. Were these men lazy and shiftless? Was there something omitted from their character, as even the charitable are wont to believe? Did they all possess that particular flawed chromosome? Rather it seemed to him that they had hardened off a part of themselves, not in order to endure the life they had chosen, or had chosen them, but conversely, it seemed to Steve, to live in the world. Why had they done it? He wondered. Perhaps they saw things in too much resolve, the sun was too bright for their eyes, they heard everything too loudly. They had annealed themselves, as it was the only way they could continue, and their predicament now only a consequence of that decision. Finally he took his notebook from his coat and began to write.
* * *
As the evening accomplished, Amanda moved through rooms of vaulted ceilings and lavish furnishings. Intoxicated by touch, she basked in the satisfaction of frustration, as a voice shouting to her would be lost in the roar, his struggle toward her useless as she drifted away.
As she neared the threshold of another room, music emerged from the din, and bodies began to move with the rhythm. But as they were packed too tightly for even Amanda to penetrate, her progress was halted. The room was sunken however, and she watched the dancers, frozen in the flashing of a strobe, and lulled to a sleepy euphoria, she nearly allowed her legs to give way and her body to be supported by the swaying mass.
Suddenly then a very large man, his face writ in anger, burst from the dance floor. Taking the two steps up in one, he pushed through the crowd. A chorus of protest went up and people stumbled, spilling their drinks as waves on either side moved outward from his passing.
Unaware until it was upon her, Amanda was knocked about by the thrashing bodies, and as she began to fall, a flailing arm, the hand holding a glass, caught her in the mouth, driving her upper lip into a front tooth, causing a tiny chip and a cut that began to bleed. Amanda cried out, and falling, grazed her brow on the edge of a stone planter. Bodies were stumbling and falling then, and for a protracted moment, Amanda cowered beneath them.
Then someone had her by the arm, and was helping her up. And as an arm went round her shoulder, Amanda was ushered down a hallway and into the bathroom. Leaning on the vanity, she gasped as the door closed, shutting out the party. Looking up, she glimpsed her face, her lip that had already begun to inflate, and a bruise, coloring around a small gash on her forehead from which seeped a trickle of blood. Her injuries startled Amanda, but then she was distracted as she recognized the shapeless form behind her, and a pair of large hands took her by the shoulders and led her to the toilet.
As she sat, Amanda covered her face with her hands, and tenderly but grimaced as she touched her lip. Tasting blood, she tore a length of paper from the dispenser, and wadding it, held it to the cut.
Water had been running in the sink, but it was turned off and Amanda listened to the swishing of the fabric, and watched through her fingers, now surveying the bump on her brow as the woman, holding a wash cloth, gathered her dress and settled on the edge of the tub. Reaching out, she gently pushed away the probing hand and lifted Amanda's chin. "Let me see," she said.
With the damp cloth, she dabbed at Amanda's lip and Amanda grimaced and pulled away. "It's all right," she said, moving to the goose egg, "Actually, I'm more interested in this one," and began dabbing there. "Are you dizzy?"
"No, not really," Amanda responded. "Maybe just a little from the wine."
"Do you feel sick?"
As the woman worked intently, leaning forward, Amanda noticed again the sag of flesh at the corners of her mouth, and then the wrinkle in the hollow of her throat beneath the small strand of pearls, and again at the cleft in the bosom. And then she noticed a tiny watch, slid partially down the wrist, and the frail loop of silver that dangled and shimmered in the vanity light. Finally finding the eyes, the women regarded each other, for a moment now, as the smile now only played at the corners of the woman's mouth. "Quite a party it's turned out to be," the woman said.
"Yah, I guess," Amanda replied.
"I'm Deirdre, by the way."
"Well, regardless of the circumstances, it's nice to meet you, Amanda."
"Are you here with someone?"
"No ... or yah. I came with a friend of mine."
"If you tell me their name, I could try to find them, help you get home."
"It's all right. I don't know where she is. I haven't seen her for most of the night anyways."
"Hm, we seem to be in the same boat."
"Yes, I was invited by a friend as well, but I haven't seen her all evening either."
Deirdre rose then, and returned to the sink. Turning on the cold water she held the cloth beneath the stream. "Well, you certainly seem to be taking this very well, Amanda."
With a desultory movement of her head toward the sound of Deirdre's voice, Amanda scoffed, "This?"
"Yes, you've got a couple of good bumps."
"Hm," Amanda scoffed again. "It just pisses me off, is all."
"Well, you're a brave young lady," Deirdre said, as she turned off the tap and wrung out the cloth. She returned and settled again on the edge of the tub. Placing the cloth on the bruise again, she took Amanda by the wrist and raised the hand. "Hold that there," she said, placing the hand atop the cloth. She leaned back then and lifting the fabric of her dress again, crossed her legs as her hands composed one atop the other in her lap. "We'll just sit here for a few minutes and make sure you don't start to feel sick."
"The bump is on my head. Why would I feel sick?"
"A concussion will make you nauseous."
"Well, I feel all right now. I think I'm just gonna get out of here," Amanda said, and began to rise. As she did though, she became light headed, and nearly swooning, Deirdre caught her and helped her back down.
"You see," Deirdre said. "Let's give it a few minutes and see how you feel."
Settling back down on the toilet, Amanda returned the cloth to her brow, as the other hand felt the empty air until it encountered the wall beside her. For a moment the room turned. Then blinking open her eyes, Amanda found Deirdre again perched on the edge of the tub. The folds of her dress, posed against the outer chaos, shaped a tremendous stillness, and the pointy toe peeking from beneath the hem, which nearly touched Amanda's shin, seemed to her a pitiable elegance. A forearm lay across Deirdre's lap now and the hand cradled the other elbow, as the other hand went to her chin and a forefinger lay across her lips. Amanda's eyes remained upon the floor then, shifting across the tile as the discomfiture of observance asserted itself upon her, until finally raising them, the women's gaze held. Deirdre's eyes, pale and shiny in the vanity light, appeared as though to throw off tiny sparks and her dry, brittle hair, scintillant in that source as well, and done so obviously for the occasion, expressed a pathetic futility, yet the lips which faintly smiled behind the finger, seemed to convey a small satisfaction, and a perception of smugness arose in Amanda.
But then gradually Amanda began to notice something else. With Deirdre's hand partially obscuring her face, the eyes seemed to emerge. With a sudden shift they were removed from the context of the moment, and they floated, detached, like eyes within a mask, or rather perhaps eyes in a small mirror that floated before a backdrop of blue sky and open road, and Amanda experienced a sinking nausea as it accompanied memory, rushing upward, and desperately she cast about for something with which to shatter the moment.
"So what are you doing here, anyway?" Amanda asked.
Deirdre, considering the question, removed the finger from her lips and her hand, returning to her lap, settled atop the other. "Like I said, a friend invited me."
"That's reason enough for you, but not for me?"
"No, that's fine. Whatever."
"Well then, suppose you tell me what I'm doing here."
"I've got a pretty good idea."
"Well, go right ahead."
"Let's see," Amanda began. "You just got divorced. You're husband left you for a younger woman, which wouldn't be so bad, in fact that could almost make you feel better, that she was just younger, and there was nothing you could do about that, at least. But you can't stop comparing yourself when you were young to her now. You've been through boxes of pictures of you and your husband together, and the thought of breaking up makes you sad enough, but after a while you are not looking at the two of you together or even at him. You are only looking at you, and you are comparing the you in the picture to the little bitch he left you for. And she's prettier than you ever were. That's the worst part, the part that eats at your insides.
"You should just feel sad about the break up. Maybe you've got kids. They're probably older now, but they're still mad about it. That makes you feel bad too. But then you always think, 'these are at least good reasons to feel as bad as I do,' but they're not the realest reason. The realest reason is, she's just prettier than you ever were. And that makes you feel even worse, because of all the reasons to feel bad, that's the shittiest one.
"So now you go out at night. You go to movies by yourself, but being out with other people all around, makes you feel even more alone.
"So some friend feels sorry for you and invites you tonight. Deep down you know that it's a bad idea, because you're going to be so much older than everybody else, but you're so desperate to meet somebody that you come anyways, and so here you are in your long dress and your bleached hair, standing against the wall, and feeling like an idiot while everybody has to walk around you like you're a piece of furniture, feeling lonelier than ever and wishing you'd listened to that little voice."
As Amanda's words settled, Deirdre remained, her hands composed in her lap, and the folds of her dress falling, possessing yet that enormity of stillness like heavy drapery in an unused room. Now the women's eyes held in fierce isometric stasis, like stalemated arm wrestlers as the throb of the party crept beneath the door.
"Truth's a dog must to kennel," Deirdre said.
"To hurt with such cruelty is a childish thing. And after I've shown you kindness. You've obviously never been hurt yourself."
Amanda did not respond.
"Or no, that's not right, is it? Of course it isn't," Deirdre continued, "you've been hurt. You've been hurt quite badly."
Still Amanda was silent, as though distracted.
"And now you are relishing the success of your thrust. Your satisfaction is almost palpable." Deirdre leaned forward then, her eyes narrowing, "What did it replace?"
"What're you talking about?" Amanda finally responded.
"What does it replace?"
"What does what replace?"
"The satisfaction you are savoring just now ... like a dog that only knows the taste of rancid meat," Deirdre noted offhandedly. "It replaced something ... something that washed over you a moment ago. I watched it happen. What was it?"
"Hm," Deirdre replied. "So what are you doing here, Amanda?"
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? It's a party."
"Yes, it's a party. Do you know people here? Are you enjoying yourself with your friends? Or no. You said a friend invited you, but you haven't seen her all night."
"Yah, that's right."
"So you don't really know anyone here either?"
"Not really. I know a few people. What's it to you?"
"You just seem to have a separate agenda."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just that you seem to have your own reasons for being here."
"It's a party. What other reason do I need? I've got more reason to be here than you do."
"Yes," Deirdre replied, "as you have thoroughly explained, I am here in a pathetic attempt at romance. You on the other hand, seem to have no need of that."
"Of meeting someone, so to speak, of connection and intimacy. You're single and unattached, I assume."
"What business is that of yours?"
"None at all, other than the fact that we are already aware of mine. So for fairness' sake, why shouldn't we then be of yours?"
"Do you always make this much sense?"
Deirdre smiled. "Probably not even," she replied. "Much less, I would have to say if the looks on my students' faces are any indication."
"So you're a teacher."
"I am a professor, actually."
"So what do you teach?"
"I teach English literature."
"Hm," Amanda replied dismissively.
"So," Deirdre continued, "Quid pro quo, Amanda. We already know that I am divorced. How about you? I don't see a ring, so I assume you are not married. Are you seeing anyone?"
"No, not really." Amanda broke away from Deirdre's gaze. "Not right now," she added as her eyes went about the room.
"Any long term plans, though? Marriage some day? Children?"
"I don't know, maybe. What's all this shit about relationships, anyways?"
"It's just conversation," Deirdre replied. "Isn't it the common denominator? Don't we all want the security of a committed relationship? Don't we all want to be in love?"
"What are we talking about love for? Like with a man?"
"Why? There're all assholes."
"You don't think so?"
"No, I don't actually."
"Well, was I right? Did your husband leave you for some little bitch?"
"Yes, you were right. My husband left me."
"See, they're all assholes. And you're an idiot if you don't believe it." Amanda paused. "Men rape. That's all they do. Don't you get that? Either actually rape you or they smile and spend a little money on you and then they slit you open and suck you out until you're a shriveled pile of skin and bones and then they walk away still smiling and sucking the last few drops of you from their fingers." Amanda paused again, as though the tumbled words had left her a little surprised.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just that, it's very poetic."
"Well, I don't know what you mean by that, but whatever you are, you're not stupid. I can't be telling you something you don't know."
"I'm sorry, I can't agree with you."
"Then you are an idiot."
"Perhaps it is a curse that, unlike you, I am unable to repudiate love."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"For me to say I didn't believe in love would be like a pilot saying he didn't really believe his plane could fly."
"Like I told you, I teach English literature. Poetry has been my life."
"Poetry's just a bunch of stupid crap if you ask me. I don't even know what it is."
"Poetry is the expression of love, and by love I mean the search for understanding of our existence, the need to know our purpose and grasp the nature of the goodness that we stubbornly persist in believing in, despite so much evidence to the contrary."
"You might say," Deride paused, considering, "to put it another way, that poetry is the expression of the curse of consciousness. Since we humans first realized that we die, and we cannot know what happens after that, we have clung to the idea that love transcends death, we believe that we can feel it, that if we love and are loved, we will not die, that love is a force in the universe which binds us together, that maintains the frailest strand between us and those who have passed on and will yet bind us to those we leave behind. Perhaps it binds everything together, all life, everything, and so poetry, being the convergence of those two things is the amalgam of love and death."
"You lost me."
"It's the same as sex, I suppose."
"How do you figure that?"
"Well, if you think about it, if love, expressed in sex, the moment of procreation, when two people are reduced to the frailest strands they could ever be and those two entities come together, they make new life and so in that frailest moment, death is transcended. It is a bit of a syllogism I suppose; if poetry equals love and love equals sex then poetry must equal sex. I never thought about it that way before."
"Since when does love equal sex?"
"Well, isn't it called making love?"
"Not any more."
"Then what do you call it now?"
"Oh lots of things. Why do you have to call it anything. It's just having sex. That's what you call it, having sex."
"Hm. So you see no connection between love and sex?"
"No. What connection would there be?" Amanda's candor gave Deirdre pause, and she put a finger to her chin again.
"Well, I was just saying ... "
"I don't even care about sex."
"No. Sex is boring."
"Yah. It's boring and stupid."
Deirdre laughed. "I suppose that's easy for you to say."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, you've got every man here panting and craning after you as you slip through the crowd."
Amanda rolled her eyes. "Now I really don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, don't be coy, Amanda. The way you brush against them, and touch their shoulders in your passing. I've watched you all evening." Deride broke off, her brow knit. "That's it, isn't it? This is where you find fulfillment. This really is better than sex for you, isn't it?" She looked into the girl's face, the swelling above the eye closing it a little, making it sleepy. "So what do you do, Amanda?"
"I work in an office."
"What's wrong with that?"
"You sound like you think that's below you or something."
"Not at all. Now you're being defensive."
"So where do you teach 'poetry,' at Harvard?"
"Riverside Community College."
"Oh yah?" Amanda paused. "I went to Riverside."
"Yes, I know."
"How do you know?"
"I remember you."
"You do? I don't remember having you for a class."
"Then how do you remember me?"
"It's not difficult, you're quite beautiful, Amanda."
"Funny, I don't remember you."
"That's not surprising."
"No. Why would you? You only acknowledge people with regard to what you can get from them."
"Yah, so how else are you supposed to 'acknowledge people'?" Amanda mocked.
Deirdre paused, and looked again into the face, the lovely face, she thought, only bruised a little now. "Yes, well, I guess I don't have an answer to that question."
The women regarded each other, a pulse in the still air.
"So what does she look like?"
Deirdre hesitated, "You know perfectly well what she looks like," she answered, as an urgent rapping came through the door. "She looks just like you."
* * *
The snow was very fine and coming straight down, in more of a shower than a flurry, and Steve watched it, having just zipped himself into his sleeping bag, give shape to the downcast light of the lamps appearing like pairs of huge silver cones across the acres of parking lot. Light spilled as well from the glass doors of the building and the huge illuminated letters of the store's name appeared as though through frosted glass although his breath had not yet begun to condense, so evenly and finely the snow fell. Occasionally a door would slide open and admit the ingress or egress of a tiny figure which would hurry to its car, and Steve thought of a film he had once watched in a behavioral science class concerning a mouse and a maze and an electronically controlled hatch, although just now he could not remember the revelation the experiment had produced. Tipping his beer, he drained the can and then reached backward over his shoulder and tipped the empty into the back seat. Then he took another from the twelve-pack on the floor below the passenger seat next to a plastic gallon jug half full of urine. Opening the beer, its wonderful exploding sibilance mingled with the effect of the falling snow, causing him to smile as Steve ashed his cigarette through the cracked window and settled deeper into his sleeping bag.
He thought of his sister then. Her question had been perfectly acceptable, her frustration understandable to him.
And then Steve thought again of the people crossing at the light with their destinations, and their homes built up of brick and mortar. But he also thought of their possessions collected into those places, attracted to them as though curving in gravitational suck toward spinning massive centers. And he thought of the institutions -- phone and insurance companies, credit cards -- to which those people, by consequence became attached, entangled as in a patch of briers, in obligation and debt. Steve wondered again at that particular gene, what exactly it was in him that was missing, why every device with its battery and its power cord that in a year would be obsolete and useless, seemed loaded on his back, why every scrap of mail, which had been a tree and upon his discarding of it would be added to a landfill or the atmosphere, a tiny seeping cut.
He had read a book once about reincarnation. But it had been referred to as transmigration. Steve preferred that word and its implication of movement, and he thought of the Indians of the plains and that predilection, and then he thought of everything that he owned or wanted which was in the trunk. What if an Indian wanted to settle down, Steve wondered, to build a house and fill it up with more than he could move in a day. Would everyone he knew look at him like he was crazy? Would he feel himself out of place and time?
Tipping again the curling ash of his cigarette through the window, still he watched the snow, and the pairs of silver cones contrived of its falling, spread across the expanse of white asphalt, summoned a cold and alien landscape from a science fiction novel he'd once read. Steve lingered on the story for a moment and then opening his notebook, he switched on the pen light duct taped to the steering wheel.
* * *
The door was ajar and light from the hall fell in a thin plank across the dining table at which she sat. What other light there was came through a bay window from lamps posted along the curving drive. The party raved on, but it was distant and remote now and she listened to it as she watched through the window, snow softly falling. Deirdre, gone now, had first settled her here and called the cab. In the veiled room then, Amanda waited, lingering over their exchange, slightly annoyed for although she would have wished otherwise, her mind would not release it, the memory like a sparrow beating against a garage window.
Suddenly then the panel of light that fell aslant the table widened, and someone entered. Stepping just inside the room, he paused. For an instant he did not see Amanda, but advancing he noticed her and stopped, and his face, in the meager light, expressed surprise and he put a hand to his heart. He smiled at her and raised his hand in greeting, to which Amanda responded by curling her upper lip. It was a natural expression. But in its natural thoughtlessness, it summoned a pain that even before it could accomplish, caused her to grimace and in reflex, she raised a hand to her mouth.
At her discomfort, his brow knit, and he approached a few steps. Leaning slightly, he scrutinized her face, and she responded by recoiling and scowling which again called forth the pain. He retreated then, but still with a look of puzzlement on his face, he raised a forefinger and indicated with a swirling motion, the injuries to her face, on his own. And then spreading his hands, he gestured an inquiry.
"What do you want?" Amanda said.
Seemingly oblivious, he raised a hand and an index finger, bidding her wait and he turned and left the room. In a few moments he returned carrying a plastic freezer bag full of ice. Handing it to her, he indicated that she hold it to the bump on her head. Still scowling, yet she accepted it and touched the bag to her forehead. As she did the cold compounded the pain, and recoiling from the pack, she grimaced, but he gestured, imploring her to keep it there. Gently she touched it to her forehead again, and in a moment the cold was soothing.
Taking a chair opposite her, he folded his hands and rested an elbow on the table.
The evenness of his gaze and his mustache brought her recognition then, but it and the profundity of the air, empty of commotion or at least talking, asserted itself upon her. It occurred to Amanda though that she should thank him, which she did, but he shrugged and smiled and waved her gratitude away, leaving again the empty air.
"So what's your name, anyways," Amanda finally asked.
Leaning forward, he opened his eyes in inquiry and gestured in a circling movement with his index finger about his mouth.
"What's your problem?" Amanda said.
"EF," he said, pointing to his ear.
"Oh, you're deaf," Amanda said. "So, what is your name?" she enunciated.
He shook his head and leaning forward, he reached out a hand, and she recoiled as he touched the arm that held the bag of ice. As she took the bag from her head, he gestured toward the window and then with his fingers moving, he indicated the entering light.
He nodded, and then moved his fingers before his mouth.
"You have to see my mouth? You read lips?"
He nodded and then holding the palm downward, tipped the horizontal hand one way and then the other, gesturing -- a little bit.
"What's your name?" Amanda repeated.
Taking a notebook from his breast pocket, he pulled a pen from the coiled wire spine and wrote.
"Bob," she read.
Nodding, he smiled, and indicated toward her.
Puzzlement writ his face and with his expression he asked her to repeat herself. She did, but still not understanding, he turned the pad to her and she wrote her name. Turning it back to him, he read and smiling he nodded, and then wrote, 'Nice to meet you, Amanda.'
"It's nice to meet you, Bob," she responded. And something, within the pain of her own smile, or perhaps within the sound of her own voice, as it could not have been his, gave her pause and she gazed at him.
But the feeling lasted only a moment, because in the next, the chill of the ice possessed her, and a shiver went through Amanda.
At this, his brow knit again and he crossed his arms.
"Yah," Amanda replied, "It's cold."
Rising, he took off his jacket and moving around her, draped it over her shoulders. The lining was worn but soft and it contained his warmth, and she pulled it closer about her as she watched him return to his chair.
As he sat, this time one hand went to his lap and the other lay across the table. And in the steady evenness of his gaze she saw that he sought nothing from her, that his gesture came without price or expectation. The realization caused within her a confusion, and for a moment she was distracted.
But then her eyes went to the hand upon the table, extended into the swath of light. It lay perfectly still, almost unnaturally it seemed to Amanda, serene and composed. It was not particularly large it appeared to her, but angular and meaty with development. Even in the poor light, she could tell it had been scrubbed, yet the lines were still etched, and the little scars bore the legacy of the work, it did. As she continued to stare, the hand engrossed her, brushing away horizons of memory.
"So what do you do, Bob?"
Sitting forward he opened his eyes wide, asking her to repeat herself.
"What do you do?" Amanda enunciated.
He spoke then. The sound was small and unintelligible and incongruent with his countenance, and Amanda began to laugh, but the pain in her face stayed her expression.
"What?" she asked.
Taking the pad, he wrote, and then turned it to her.
"Sheet metal worker," she read.
He smiled, pointing at himself, and then indicating her ...
"I just work in an office."
Moving his fingers, he indicated typing on a keyboard, and then pointed to her.
"Yes," she said, smiling and nodding her head.
Headlights swept across the room then.
"That's my cab," Amanda said.
He looked over his shoulder and out the window and then back at Amanda, and pointing at her, indicated a steering wheel.
"Yah," she said, and nodded.
He stood then as she began to rise. Taking up the pad, he replaced the pen within the spine and returned it to his breast pocket as Amanda deposited the bag of ice in a potted plant.
Into the hall, he escorted her to the door. Opening it, she passed through and he followed. Scuffing the sole of his shoe he indicated the slipperiness of the pavement and offering her an arm, she took it and he walked her down the drive.
Amanda shed his jacket from her shoulders as he opened the cab door, and handed it to him.
"Thank you," she said.
He smiled again, and again waved away her thanks.
She climbed in then and he closed the door, and Amanda watched him through the glass, raise a hand, as the cab pulled away.
* * *
Set back from, and above the street, fine suburban homes slept, peaceful and secure and dark against moon-shot clouds. Amanda watched them pass with the detachment of a tourist gazing out upon a pastoral landscape, yet remained aware of the ticking advance of the red ciphers floating in the darkness, as well as the eyes in the rearview mirror.
The radio played softly from the dash. It seemed to afford some separation between the front and back seats which she appreciated, and she vaguely listened to the frenetic melody of his home. Perhaps her injuries had at first drawn his attention, but that curiosity worn off, they then mitigated his interest and presently he forgot about her, and returned to his driving.
Settling into the warmth of the cab and the deep cushions and the deep accompanying satisfaction then, Amanda commenced with her ritual. Her hand closed upon a small clutch on the seat next to her and managing the clasp, she opened it, and began going through the contents. With childlike anticipation, she awaited this moment, and with a child's delight, reaching into the Christmas stocking -- for the disparate items could slip from her mind -- she discovered each piece as though anew, and relished each in its turn; a silver clip holding a sheaf of folded money, a ring, a man's watch, a silver wine bottle stopper with a tiny elephant on top, a tiny jade Buddha. Then her fingers found the watch that Deirdre had worn. The silver thread curled in her palm, and Amanda again recalled their exchange. And again the vague annoyance, and an ambivalence arose in her. But regardless, it now lay in her hand, glinting in the intermittent wash of street lights, yet it retained something, almost like a residue that came off on her fingers, and so the deep satisfaction of the moment was minutely tarnished, and she let it slip from her hand back into the purse.
Through an expansive landscape the cab now rushed, past warehouse stores and strip malls, and the drive-through restaurants, still open and colorfully lit, dotted the asphalt, the first delicate wildflowers to find purchase on a lava flow. As Amanda watched out the window, her fingers went again into the purse and when she looked down, found that she was holding the knife. It had only been a few moments but she had already forgotten. Running her fingers over the carapace, she sensed the wear of years and use, and in the wash of another streetlight, she again saw the glinting, now of the dull edge of the folded blade, and in an instant was aware of its distinction among the contents; it was not an ornament, but rather something he had carried with him, and employed, and consequently was imbued with him. It was as though she had taken a piece of him. And as he was so strongly infused in the thing, so too was the kindness he had shown her, and again the lambence of the moment flickered and dulled.
The cab began its traverse of the bridge into the city then, and she looked out across the water. The moon wrought a swath of silver upon the surface. It drew her gaze and its serenity possessed her senses. Turning back, her eyes drifted to the mirror, and in a momentary lapse of vigilance, they encountered his. They held her for an instant, and a bolt of fear went through Amanda. She tore away then, but remembered, for the second time that evening, and with an acute and transportive clarity, that terrible, sinking feeling, and the words, 'I should not have gotten in this car.'
Casting about the interior of the car, her eyes settled on the meter. The numbers floating in the darkness, like the embers of a fire, reached into her memory, and her mind strained for something, as though it was just there, crashing in the outer darkness, like a coon or a fox just outside the ring of light.
Through the city now the cab raced, braking and rushing, shapes and lines melding into confusion broken by cross streets. Glancing down again, she found the knife still in her palm. She sensed the weight of it, and she thought of her father's knife, as she had not in years. She would find it in a dish along with some change and his keys and a sundry collection of nails and screws and nuts and washers, atop the wood box next to the stove. She remembered picking it up and feeling the weight and she recalled how it seemed to hold him, how it contained him, his gentleness and kindness. Her eyes returned to the meter then. Still there was something and again her mind grasped for it.
And then she remembered the fishing trips. On a Saturday morning they would load the truck and drive down to the reservoir. They would spend the day catching the bluegills and crappie by the dozen which would feed them for a couple of weeks in the summers. She could remember the smell of the fish plucked from the lake that clung to her hands, and her father teaching her to scale and clean them, and the battered filets from the heavy skillet in the fire. They would spend the night then, pitching the tent if it looked like rain, or sleeping around the fire if it didn't. She remembered the warmth inside her sleeping bag, and the feeling of safety as with her mother on one side of her and her father on the other, she would watch the dying fire. And then she thought of how everything had been taken from her, and how she'd spent the following eight years in foster homes, and the next five more or less outdoors; years spent lost in confusion, of trying to understand, how in the flash of a headlight it could vanish, and finally arriving at the lone conclusion that safety was an illusion, as foolish and childish as the belief in Santa Claus or justice.
As the cab turned onto her street, Amanda returned from remembrance. And as it stopped outside her building, she gathered up her cache. She paid the driver with money from the clip, and as she waited for her change, she reached back into the purse. Accepting the bills, her eyes returned to the mirror once more, purposefully now, and watched and held him as she imbued with scorn the few crumpled bills that she passed back to him.
Light came through the rear window and fell aslant Amanda's lap. Glancing down, having stuffed the remainder of the money back into the clutch and performed the clasp, she found in the palm of her other hand, the watch and the knife. Now in the meager light she noticed that the knife had turned, and in the worn wooden surface of the other side were carved the initials, B.C. Amanda lingered an instant, and then she pulled the latch, And stepping out, as was her custom -- an offering to some karmic god somewhere -- let slip from her hand, the watch onto the floor of the cab before she slammed the door.