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Forty Billion Miles
"That night I said I had to go
You said you’d meet me on the sunny road.”
—Emiliana Torrini, “Fisherman’s Woman”
“Were you born here?”
“No, about ten miles south from here.”
“Have you lived here all your life?”
—From a conversation with an Irishman, paraphrased from “Rick Steves’ Europe”
It had been a long time since Zungvilda left. She asked him to come along, but Goombeldt didn't want to go. Some people have the urge to congregate in large cities swarming with other human bees like themselves. He was perfectly happy right here in the village. But Zungvilda was not. He knew he could not come along. He had to let her go.
Since they were kids, it had been presumed the two of them would be a couple. Indeed, they already were. There was little else either of them cared about, outside each other. Everything they did, they did together. Until that day, when both of them were twenty-two.
“I don't want to stay here anymore,” Zungvilda said, unexpectedly to Goombeldt, maybe even to herself.
“It’s too small here. I feel suffocated. I keep imagining all these places we read about in books. Large cities with all the excitement, all the possibilities.”
“I see,” Goombeldt said.
“Will you come with me?” Zungvilda asked.
“If I said no, would you change your mind?”
Zungvilda was silent for a few seconds. The answer was clear before she finally replied.
“No. I can't stay here anymore. Will you come with me?”
Goombeldt knew he could not come along. At times he couldn't quite understand why he felt so strongly about it. One would think that he should give it a try, but he just couldn't. He was perfectly happy here, with his garden and his books. But there was more. He felt an actual phobia of the crowds. He feared that his personality would be utterly destroyed. He had to let her go.
It was presumed, stated that they would see each other again. Time would pass. One of them would realize that being together was more important than other preferences in life. They didn't know who was going to be the one to give up. For a while, both of them believed in this. They wrote each other often: passionate letters filled with mutual sadness. Yet, Zungvilda was satisfied with her new life, and Goombeldt was still content with his old one. Gradually their correspondence thinned out to just one or two letters a year. She had been the one to leave, so Goombeldt chose to be the first to give up their intention of reunion. He met someone in a similar situation, a woman whose fiancé had left for the city. They were a good couple: both knew that they were each other’s second choice, and this equality allowed them to create a harmonious, peaceful life together.
Years passed. They had children. He worked, he read, he spent time with his wife, until one day she fell off a horse and broke her spine. She was paralyzed, everyone knew she didn't have much time. She just lay there, a sad realization of mortality in her eyes. Her eyes that seemed no longer here, as if they had followed her old fiancé, all the way to the city where he lived not realizing that in the same cluster of large buildings and noisy streets there also existed a person named Zungvilda.
Zungvilda too got married. They still corresponded, but not very often. He wrote to her about the death of his wife. She wrote back, letting him know that her husband had also died not so long before.
“Will you come back?” he asked in the next letter.
“Yes, I will,” she replied. “I just need a few months to sort things out.”
But she never did come back. A month later she was diagnosed with cancer. She died with Goombeldt’s name on her lips.
Several more years passed. He kept blaming himself for not going to see her before she died. At the same time, he knew there was nothing he could have done about his fear of the crowds. He was guilty without being guilty. Now Zungvilda was gone, but somehow, he still felt he might see her one day. Not in a superstitious way a religious person anticipates a meeting in the afterlife. He wasn't religious. He just couldn't reconcile with the thought that this world, so large and glamorous and well designed, could go on without Zungvilda in it.
Then the cough started, occasional at first, persistent later, with blood and chest pains. He knew what it meant. He didn't want to see a doctor. A few extra months would not make any difference. Not much made any difference anymore. Yet, in reviewing his life, he realized that he had not been unhappy. The small joys of existence had been enough to give his life a meaning. The thought of Zungvilda had added a spark. But now Zungvilda was no longer there to perform this task. He was ready. He was not quite an old man, but old enough. He had never left his village, never set foot in the endless spaces outside. Yet he had traveled a great distance, carried by the Earth as it rushed along its orbit. He knew the centrifugal force was about to catch up with him, to throw him off the planet’s surface directly into the open space. He was ready. He thought of Zungvilda. If she had a retrospective chance to change her mind then, would she do it? Would he? Would they be happier if they had made this journey together?
A long journey, yet such a short one. Just one lifetime. Just a meager forty billion miles around the sun.
Copyright 2007 by A. Molotkov.
A. Molotkov is a writer, composer, filmmaker and visual artist. A founding member of Discord Aggregate, he has created a vast gallery of mesmerizing works in various genres. A. Molotkov’s literary works include the novels Another Symphony for Drummachine, Without and everything, the book of poetry and short stories A Reflection of Shadow’s Eyes, the illustrated Not From Around Now – Poetry for a Small Choir and a short story collection A Photocopy of My Soul. His collaborations with S.B. Reda include the novels The Gospel According to the Christ Brothers and The Texture of the Sky. His recent debut CD release Can You Stay Forever? expands on the poetry from Not From Around Now in an innovative musical context. A. Molotkov’s current literary projects include a new collection Some of the World’s Poetry and The Hierarchy of Evil, a third novel in collaboration with S.B. Reda. Visit A.Molotkov at www.AMolotkov.com
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Man Dancing was first published in the Antioch Review, 40 (1982) and is excerpted from her unpublished novel, CONTRARY PEOPLE.
A tie. Anyone could buy a tie. First he had to find a cab though. He rifled through the directory. Cabinets, Cable Splicing…cabs–see Taxicabs, Cafes–see Restaurants. He would never understand the mind behind the yellow pages. There it was, a two and a bunch of ones. A child could remember it. A seventy-year-old man could forget it.
Mr. Isaac called the cab to come pick him up at nine. He would go to one of the men's stores on Guadalupe St. across from the university. They catered mostly to students, however, the older shops he'd used in years past were downtown, further away, a more expensive trip to make. Bending down, he scratched the top of Homer's head. Kate had named him. She'd named everything, including both children: Theo, the oldest, after him—but they called him Ted, and Kenneth, the youngest, after her uncle. He could see her standing in the kitchen doorway saying, “Theo, let's give our children family names. I like that tradition.” Wearing a loose pink dress, her cheeks rosy in its reflected light, she wavered a moment more in his memory, then was gone.
The cabbie honked just as he was knotting his old tie; he had no chance to inspect his clothes. Not until he was inside the store Mr. Isaac catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror. The oil spots from the salad he'd spilled yesterday gleamed wetly on the front of his trousers. Black as they were, they still showed stains. Black as a crow he looked and dingy! Umph! Shaking his head in disgust, he turned to a round table where ties were laid in an overlapping kaleidoscopic design and considered the wild flowered prints, silk stripes, polka dots. He'd not seen such a profusion of color and pattern since 1923 in London when he'd gone with Kate to Liberty's where a clerk unrolled bolt after bolt for her to examine. He saw them again tumbling down the counter, the bolts thudding softly, richly until the bare surface was covered with shining rivers of silk.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Though he kept his gaze on the ties he said, “I would like to see some suits. Summer suits.”
“What size sir?”
Mr. Isaac coughed discreetly and let his eyes run over what seemed to be almost a hundred suits catalogued behind size numbers. Then he looked at the clerk again. The young man was wearing a veritable flower garden on his tie and a shirt marked with thin green stripes. He lifted his eyes and confessed, “I’m not sure. I haven't bought a suit in some time.” Not since Kate's funeral, and he'd planned to be dressed in it when he died. Since yesterday though, since meeting Rose Davis again, he'd decided he needed some more clothes. Vanity? Yes. But when so much else was stripped away from a man–when vigor was gone, when so many of his friends were dead, when wrinkles clustered, why not indulge his vanity? He'd never done so. As a history professor he'd dressed like all the other birds in the flock, and a colorless bunch they were too.
“You'd take a thirty-two, I’d say.” The clerk his hand between the racks pushing away all the other sizes as if they were offensive to him.
Mr. Isaac bought three suits: a dark blue, a light gray, and a blue and white striped seersucker, he thought. “Dacron and cotton,” said the clerk who was full of information about exotic blends. Mr. Issac also bought five shirts to go with his new suits. All of them were mixtures of something or other.
He was particular about the collars. “I like them soft, not floppy though.” The clerk displayed them against the suit coats, slapping down each folded shirt authoritatively. One was blue. Mr. Isaac accepted it. He selected five ties, stripes and small paisley prints. “No blooms. I draw the line at flowers. You're young enough for them, but I'm not, decidedly not.”
He paid his bill with a check, adamantly refusing to start a charge account. Since Kate's death he'd spent money only on groceries, household bills, occasional cabs, insurance, taxes, his yearly medical examinations, and a few things for his grandchildren. He had plenty of cash. Now he wondered at his carefulness. For years, especially when the boys were growing up, thrift was a necessity. Later it was a habit. Until today frugality was one of the ways of accepting loneliness–he'd gone on as before, looked after himself, and asked nothing from anyone. Perhaps his self-sufficiency, a characteristic he might have admired too much, had added his isolation.
He felt at least ten years younger when he left the store carrying a bulging sack. His only regret was he couldn't have the suits until the tailor was finished with trouser alterations on Wednesday. When he got outside in the sun he glanced up at the clock on the university's tower. It was almost noon. He started to a taxi stand on the corner. A screech from a transistor radio assaulted his ears, a primitive wail from an electric guitar. Would his grandchildren, growing up with such sounds, ever have to learn how to waltz? Could he teach them to? He stepped under the projecting awning of a women's shoe store with a window displaying rainbow-colored shoes. What color were Rose's shoes Sunday? He hadn't noticed then. He would notice next time. Waiting at the taxi stand he traced a diminutive waltz step on the pavement, an old man fidgeting, someone might have thought. Light-headed, hungry and precariously joyful, he knew he was dancing on a street corner at high noon.
The dog nosed at the sacks then ran under the bed and stayed. He was too deaf to hear paper crackling. Perhaps he smelled the clothes, smelled something new and fled. Everything else in the house was old. Mr. Isaac coaxed him out, fixed himself some lunch, and deviating from his usual schedule for the second time that day, went to his study to write to his sons.
I received your letter dated March l7, and am delighted to know your research is going well. As for the teaching, though it is, no doubt a strain to lecture in another language, you are to be congratulated for attempting to do so. The year in Mexico City will also be good for the children. They have probably learned a lot of Spanish by now.
My situation here remains much the same except an old friend Rose Davis has moved back here from France. You may not remember her. She has a son Phillip about your age. He lives in Dallas, and his daughter is living with Rose until May when she graduates from college.
Mr. Isaac stopped. Entangled in generations. Well, out with it!
When Melrose, the granddaughter, leaves I am going to live with Mrs. Davis. We are both old and both live in big empty houses. Hers is emptier than mine because she brought no furniture back from France. I will take a few pieces from here. If you and Margaret want any of this furniture, let me know, and I will have it shipped to Tulsa. It can be stored till you return. I will make the same offer to Kenneth and Sally.
As I do not want to worry with renters, I will sell the house.
Let me hear from you as soon as time allows. My best to Margaret and the children.
He read it through, carefully tore the letter into neat squares, and began again, this time neglecting the amenities:
This is to let you know I'm selling the house and moving to an apartment in June. Write to me if you want any of the furniture, and I will have it shipped to Tulsa and stored there until your return. This place is far too large for one person. I'm weary of rattling around in it and tired of taking care of the yard.
My love to you, Margaret, and the children.
He could be devious if he pleased, and after all, it was none of Ted's business whom he lived with. Sociologist though he was, Ted was only forty-three; he would understand his moving in with Rose as an old man's folly. And Margaret might let her children call her by her first name, yet she was a wife.
He sent approximately the same letter to Kenneth and Sally in Palo Alto. Somehow it was easier to write Ted first; probably it was because he was the furthest away, the one least likely to interfere. He did not anticipate any repercussions. Both sons were university professors. Though both had their summers free, neither liked hauling their families back to Austin simmer there in 1OO degree heat. He'd gone to Tulsa to spend last Thanksgiving with Margaret and Ted and to Palo Alto for a surreal Christmas with Kenneth's family. While his mind was ready to accept Santa Clauses in bathing suits and the scent of roses in bloom, he'd arrived to find instead dark gray rain blowing across dark green hills and the acrid sour smell of soggy eucalyptus trees. He sat in front of a fire most of the time telling his two grandsons all he knew about cowboys and Indians. The damp wind and the boys' war whoops drove him back to Texas. Perhaps he would return for a visit in the summer. He certainly had a traveling wardrobe now, not that he could actually see himself hand-washing his clothes. The drip-dry idea was ridiculous. The sound of anything dripping, faucet or suit would keep him awake all night.
The week passed uneventfully as usual. Then he began wonder if Rose's invitation was serious. Suppose she often said such things capriciously?
She'd asked him. He remembered the laughter in her voice when she said, “Why not stay with me? I’ll put a sign on the wall saying 0LD FOLKS' HOME, and we'll sit here and be cranky together.”
He demured. He told her she ought to decide wanted an old man around.
“I don't want a gigolo, and I don't want just another old lady. That might be worse than any old man. I like my sex, but I prefer live with the opposite one. We ought to get some young people too, have a ménage a trois or a quatre.”
He sat there all locked up, knowing what he wanted and too scared say so. It was easy to write to his sons, easy to decide what to do, almost impossible to voice his decision. His existence had narrowed so–the house, the grocery, his part-time job at the museum on Saturdays. It had been a great deal wider when he was twenty-five and Rose was eighteen, when he was her professor. Now she seemed to be his teacher. Her world was less cramped, less hedged about with custom. Even her house was larger.
By Wednesday, unable to stand his own silence anymore, he called Rose.
“If I'm still welcome, I'll move to your house when Melrose leaves.”
“Of course you’re welcome. I need someone here, Theo.”
“I would like to share expenses, and you must charge me rent too. That’s only fair.”
“Why should you pay rent? The house is already paid for. You’ll be staying in what would only be an empty room otherwise.”
“Rose, I insist. It’s a matter of pride.”
“All right. But it’s not like you were moving to an institution.”
It took him ten minutes to calm her. Still that was easier than the conversation he had with Kenneth Thursday night.
“Dad, what's this about moving to an apartment all of a sudden? I thought you hated apartments.”
“Yes…well.” Though he could lie on paper, was much more difficult on the phone.
“Well why are you moving to one?”
“For all the reasons I told you and Ted.” They had been conferring. He could almost hear the sound of Ted's voice coming through the wires from Mexico City to Palo Alto. “Did you get a strange letter from Dad about selling the house?” That's what he would have said.
“Dad, are you feeling right?”
“Except for creeping senility, I'm fine.” Kenneth was inclined to pry.
“I've always liked that house.” He was inclined to hold onto things, too. Kate wanted to get rid of his rock collection when he went to college. None of them were identified or labeled. They were just rocks that Kenneth happened to like the looks of. He had insisted on putting them in boxes in the attic. They were still up there with his electric train, his old yearbooks, and all the letters he'd received from girls. Did Kenneth want him to remain as custodian? Was every old person required run a private Smithsonian containing the relics of his children's past?
“I'll ship anything you want, but you'll have to take care of the charges.” Mr. Isaac had a welcome vision of movers heaving out boxes of rocks.
“No Dad. I may want something, yes. I only meant I liked the house.”
“I'm tired of it. I intend to move.”
“Have you picked out an apartment? Can we help you? Sally says she'll be glad to come to Austin and–”
“I appreciate the offer, Kenneth, but Sally has enough to do. I can find an apartment. I’m looking for one now, and I can move. I'm not feeble. I'm just a little slow.” He laughed. He was almost beginning to enjoy himself.
“Well, we thought being uprooted might–”
“I'm not being uprooted. I’m transplanting myself and in the same town I've lived for most of my life.” What he really needed to say to his son finally came to him. “Don't worry, Kenneth. Even old people need a change. I'm just providing myself with one.”
Mr. Isaac put the receiver down, heard a gratifying final click, and said to the night, “Whoosh!” Whirling slowly around, he stopped the swivel chair, stood up, and moved across the carpet to the light switch while humming “Tea for Two” unconsciously. Then he heard himself, and for the second time that night he laughed aloud.
Saturday Mr. Isaac wore his new gray suit to the museum. Ricardo was waiting for him on the front portico and followed him inside as soon as he opened the door. Mr. Isaac showed no surprise. Last Saturday the boy had happened into the Elizabeth Ney by accident when playing in the surrounding park. Once he came in he seemed fascinated by the work–plaster casts various European and Texas dignitaries mostly. Shabby looking lot on the whole, laughable to eyes accustomed to Epstein and Moore, still a nineteenth century sculptress couldn't be denied in a state as young as Texas. Ney deserved some notice. The museum had been her home; it had become her monument. Working there every Saturday, Mr. Isaac saw that she suffered more from neglect than from derision. Few people were interested in what she'd done. They had forgotten or never learned she'd turned the mighty into stone.
Ricardo looked up at him. “My father, he says I should come with him, but I don't this morning.”
“Where was your father going?” Mr. Isaac turned on the lights in the north studio.
“He goes to cut grass for people. I help him some.”
“Your father does yard work?”
The boy tensed his hands into fists and hit them together. “You got a yard?”
“I’ve got a friend, a lady, who needs help with her garden. There are fountains and all sorts of flowers.”
“Are fish in the fountains?”
“I doubt it.”
“Goldfishes eat mosquitoes.”
“Do they?” How many things he didn't know still, how much Ricardo already knew–Spanish as well as English, his way all over town on a bicycle, how to rid pools of mosquitoes.
“Every fountain must have goldfishes. Next Saturday I bring my father and the fishes. Okay?”
“All right.” Mr. Isaac gave him Rose's address. ”I can't be there as I have to come to the museum, you will like Mrs. Davis.”
“I like the flowers. I don’t like the grass.”
“Well you can't have all the flowers.” Mr. Isaac turned go upstairs and check on the latest abominations that had arrived for the art show–the directors' most recent attempt brings people to the museum. He was stopped by a shout from Tim in the back. Mr. Isaac couldn't hear exactly what he was saying, but it was a complaint of some kind. Tim liked an audience for his troubles.
He stood with his hands on his hips before a large crate. “Look here. I got this thing to undo, and it says 'Glass Fragile' all over it–Say, you got a new suit.” Tim laid his hammer top of the box and came over to him. “That's sure a good looking suit.”
Mr. Isaac thanked him. Foolish how a little praise from Tim made him feel so good. 0ne new suit or three didn't make him a new person, yet praise from a kind-hearted man gave him an almost childish pleasure.
“And a new tie, too!”
Tim grinned then began prying nails out of one side the crate. Ricardo stepped around him to the opposite side.
“You hold it steady now, and we'll find out what's in here.”
Mr. Isaac left to turn on the lights in the west studio. Overcast as it was that morning the figures all took on a ghostly appearance, especially Lady Macbeth wringing her hands in mid-air. She and Prometheus were the only literary characters Ney had attempted. Miss Ney had frozen her in the “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” scene. It wasn't a bad idea to try, but under bright light her permanent anguish seemed overwrought, Fredrich Woëhler, prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, gazed indifferently toward the tortured lady. The green streak running down one side of his lean nose only served to increase his hauteur. A German chemist, he had been one of Ney’s best known works. How he had discovered her, or exactly how the Munich Polytechnic Institute hand chosen her to sculpt his head, or how the cast had arrived in Texas, Mr. Isaac didn't know. He marveled at the ability of anyone discover anyone else. The tenuous strands connecting one person to another, how insubstantial they were, yet how tough and elastic. He had known Rose's parents, had her briefly for a student, admired her beauty and her spirit, supposed she was gone forever, and found her again.
“Mr. Isaac, come see what we got!” Ricardo was calling. “It's a box, a glass box with a pink man dancing. You got to come see.”
He didn't think he wanted to but Ricardo kept insisting, so he went out to them.
Tim was laughing. “I don't know. I don't know why he—“
Ricardo jumped up and down as excited as if it was a gift he'd just opened.
A square glass box firmly attached to an iron stand and on two sides pictures of a Negro man—pink. At right angles on the other two sides the man was reflected in bright green. Mr. Isaac didn't know what to think. He'd never confronted anything like it.
“Whoo-ee!” Tim shook with laughter. “That fellow's color blind all right.” He was sitting on part of the crate, his head thrown back.
“I like the colors,” Ricardo said.
“So do I, boy.”
Mr. Isaac stopped frowning over the box and looked at them: the Negro man in his white jacket, white on black; the Mexican child, his yellow tee shirt against his light brown skin; himself, gray on white. Then he looked again at the pink and green Negro dancing. It didn't matter. Their color didn't. He had never believed it would matter in the end, someday after all the suffering was over, when the wars were fought, the marches finished. Sometime…years after he was gone, a man's color would no longer determine his life, but this artist broke the barriers now, broke them laughing.
“He managed to get it here just in time. They will judge the pictures this afternoon.”
“Do you think he'll win?” Tim asked.
Mr. Isaac agreed that “Man Dancing” should win. He and Ricardo stayed past closing hours that afternoon waiting for the jury to decide. They promised to call Tim, though he said his phone was “on vacation” which meant he hadn't been able to pay his bill. The phone went on vacation often.
“You can call next door. Those people will get hold of me.”
Mr. Isaac started to offer to pay Tim’s bill, then checked himself. He'd offered before, and Tim said he'd rather owe Bell Telephone than anyone else he knew.
The jury arrived at five and spent an hour and forty-five minutes making up their minds. There were three judges: a young man who was head of the art department of a nearby Catholic college, a woman painter of some distinction who lived in Austin, and a museum director from San Antonio. Mr. Isaac would have liked to have heard every word they said. The temptation to eavesdrop was so great he confined himself to Miss Ney's old kitchen in the basement where made himself a cup of tea. As soon as was ready he escaped into the adjoining dining room. Perhaps it was cheerful when a fire was burning. Now it was simply cold and empty. Stone walls with tiny barred windows at ground level might have made Miss Ney feel safe. He felt imprisoned and was glad Ricardo kept running down from his post at the bottom of the stairwell to repeat muddled phrases and impressions.
“Somebody, the San Antonio man, I think, says,’Not much!’ The lady she likes the picture of the old tire. The other man walks around and around.”
Mr. Isaac sighed. He was as impatient as Ricardo. They met the Jury at the bottom of the stairs. “Man Dancing” won first. The depressing picture of a flat tire was second, and a still life of some lemons was chosen third.
They dialed Tim's neighbor who went to get him. When he came to the phone he spoke first to Ricardo who reported, “He says he don't believe us. I told him ‘Man Dancing’ won, and he says, 'How could a pink nigger win?’”
“Ricardo's right, Tim.” Mr. Isaac shouted then took the receiver. “He's right.” Tim was saying something to his neighbor.
“He thinks I'm crazy, Mr. I. He don't understand about that picture. I been trying to tell him–”
“It did win.”
“How much does cost? I wish I could remember. I never saw a picture I wanted to buy in my life, but I sure would like to buy that one.”
“Three hundred and fifty dollars, I think.”
“Humph! That’s more than I owe Bell Telephone.”
“Perhaps the museum will buy it. Sometimes galleries keep permanent collections of pictures, just as we have Miss Ney's things.”
“Well, it's her place. I don't see no pink black man getting in there for good.” Tim's voice was mournful.
“You can never tell what they'll decide do here next.”
“That's true, Mr. I.”
Before he left Mr. Issac put an envelope containing a check For $350 and a note saying he wished remain anonymous in the Voluntary Contributions box by the door. On front of the envelope he wrote: For The Museum's Purchase of “Man Dancing.” He did it for himself as much as for Tim. It was peculiarly satisfying to be an anonymous benefactor. It would have been more practical to give Tim the money. He wouldn't have taken it as a gift and if he had, his conscience and his wife wouldn't have allowed him to spend it on a picture. Three hundred and fifty dollars would have gone to the telephone company, to doctors, to department stores. He and Tim needed the picture more than any of those people needed their money. It was the first modern thing that either one of them had liked. He debated about telling Rose and decided against it, Better to remain completely anonymous, to have a private Joy, much more rewarding than a private sorrow.
He would see her that evening. “My Fair Lady” was showing at one of the theaters near the university and within easy walking distance of her house. It was her idea, the first time she'd been to a movie since returning to the states. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been. He used take Kate to musicals. She liked them. He didn’t particularly because most of them seemed vapid. Since “My Fair Lady” was based on one of Shaw’s plays, it should contain enough of the original vitriol to be amusing.
He found he'd worried needlessly about amusing Rose. As a returned expatriate she found novelties everywhere. After years of walking about Paris she could not make up her mind if she missed the surge of traffic or not.
“It's so calm,” was her first reaction. Then, “Maybe it's too calm. I miss the feeling of achievement after crossing a street.”
They cut through a small park near her house, and she wondered at the lack chairs. Twilight drew in around them.
“It doesn't last long here. I’d forgotten. In Paris the spring and summer evenings are much longer. There's no gabble of conversation in the streets, only me complaining like the French do when they’re in another country. Oh, I have become hard to please!”
Walking down Guadalupe she could not help but notice that houses had been replaced by cheap restaurants and small businesses. A giant figure of a man in a red shirt and blue trousers, his feet planted wide apart, glared at them from the roof of an open-walled shed. A sign stuck in the asphalt read, “Car Wash.” The man, twice as large as the building he straddled, had a square-jawed smile more forbidding than beckoning.
“Even if I had a car I’d never drive it in there!” She tilted her head back and stared up. “He makes me feel like a pigmy! Isn't that the most terrible smile?”
“Yes, but you should see some of the other figures around town. There's a monstrous termite that revolves twenty feet above the corner of Enfield and Lamar, and on Congress there's a grotesque steer, also turning. Every time I go past it I hope a small boy with a B-B gun will use for a target.” Ricardo might do it. No, it wasn't a thing to suggest to a child, destruction of property. English common law had made respect for private property a virtue, and Adam Smith had justified free enterprise by defining it. No point in taking up a B-B gun against all of that. He sighed quietly. Rose heard him anyway.
“Why, Theo, what's the matter?”
“I was plotting the overthrow of the government.”
“What’s the first thing you’d do?”
“Oh, I don' t know. I was thinking I’d send out bands of young boys to shoot holes in things…a sort of old grouch's program.”
“I don’t know what I’d do myself. I lived through most of the fourth Republic and the return of DeGaulle. I couldn't help but think of him as a nation saver. Generally I’m in a muddle about politics. Thomas used try to comfort me by saying no one made as great a muddle as the French. He was in England during most of World War II as a member of DeGaulle's army. Sometimes his point of view was rather English.”
Thomas…so that was his name. When he saw her again for the first time he'd asked what she'd done all those years abroad. She'd answered her direct way, “I lived with a man loved. He's dead now, and I've come home.” But why had she chosen to speak of Thomas now? Maybe it was because they had been talking about politics. No matter. She had to say something about him eventually. There was no canceling out those years. His familiarity with grief made him certain of hers. It took people at the strangest times, with no warning. You could be looking at a kitchen door or walking down a street. Memory keeps no hours.
Rose turned her head to stare at the passing cars, but she refused to cry. In a moment she looked over at him and said in her normal voice, “I'm sure I'm insufferable, complaining about America so. Somedays I think have too much to remember.”
Mr. Isaac smiled. “Better too many memories than too few.”
The entrance to the theater was flooded with light. Posters advertising “My Fair Lady” promised song, dance, romance while intimating gaily, renewal, forgetfulness. Mr. Isaac, collecting his change from the ticket seller, looked down at Rose's shoes beside his. They were pink, pink as the flowering peach blossoms in bloom now. Yes, of course, they matched her dress. What marvelous frivolity! Forgetting his timidity, he took her arm and guided her through the door to the lobby as if he were leading her into a grand ballroom.
Copyright 1982 Carolyn Osborn.
Carolyn Osborn is a former newspaper reporter, radio writer, and English teacher at the University of Texas at Austin. She is now a rancher and writer living in Austin. Her stories are published in literary magazines such as The Antioch Review, Georgia Review, Witness, and Southwest Review. She’s had three short story collections published: A Horse of Another Color, (Univ. of Illinois Press); The Fields of Memory, (Shearer), and Warriors and Maidens, (T. C.U. Press). These include prize stories awarded by P.E.N., the Texas Institute of Letters, and the 1990 O. Henry Awards.