Friday
Jan142011

Hoarding

Michelle Latiolais




She now understands the Cat Woman, a staple of every neighborhood, the woman who lives alone with a dozen cats, or two dozen, the house sending up a reek that can be smelled from the sidewalk—this is a person she understands something about now, when perhaps she hadn’t before. She does not like cats, has never liked cats, but widowhood redefined companionship, and so she has bees now, and mice, and possums and rats and squirrels and spiders, and she will not spray them into oblivion, or allow them to be sprayed into oblivion. She understands these new populations in her life, their industry, their nocturnal foraging, their quick and precise retreats into the undergrowth.

Beatrix Potter had depicted a widow: "Mrs. Tittlemouse was a most terribly tidy particular little mouse... ." Now she too was tidy and particular, and she understood a little how others thought of her, as she too had been taught to hate old women, and getting old, and rats, their long gray tails like a grandmother’s thin gray braid, and like a possum’s tail... but now they were all her great, busy company, and some nights she stood on the threshold of the back door, watching the huge garden spider spin from the eave of the garage to the branches of the hibiscus, and the irregular lace gleamed in the pale light and she thought that perhaps she was a happy madam at the approach of night—at the approach of work!

And through the late evenings, as she reads, the possums move beyond her bedroom windows, their footsteps slow, significant. She will laugh sometimes and think "Are they chasing skirt out there?" She had first heard that phrase from a sheriff in Colorado one summer when she was six or seven. During the night there had been a prowler around the cabin, and her beautiful mother and her brother and she had listened as the footsteps crunched the pine needles, the slow progress around the back to where her mother’s window was, and then the quiet for a long time; the giving-up or the talking-out-of or the gathering-of-a-plan-for-the-next-night ensued and the footsteps continued past the side windows and down the path through the pines to the dirt road along the stream. "I think I know who it was," the sheriff said to her mother the next morning, crushing his cigarette under the toe of his boot. "He’s a real skirt chaser. He saw you at the gas station and asked around."

 

The prospect of running out of something seemed painful to her, quietly disastrous, as though too much else had run out in her life and so at least the cupboards might remain full. She was aware and yet not so much aware, because each day she needed some chore to do, or used the chore to get herself out of the house, to put herself among people, to somehow make herself feel busy, and she was busy, a professional, and yet that was it, she was busy professionally, a most terribly tidy professional, and what she did not have was a personal life. But just possibly, if the refrigerator were full, someone might come to dinner.

She was not much of a shopper or a pack rat, but this new quiet imperative set in, and well before she ran out, she stocked up again, coffee beans, for which she walked several blocks to a street of shops, to Graffeo’s, and coffee filters. She would finish a box and buy another immediately, even though there were three more boxes in the cupboard, and tuna and capers and olive oil—to run out seemed some event she was staving off, keeping away from herself, and she went on eBay and found more Ball Mason jars, the old blue ones, and ordered them up and filled them with beans and lentils and grains, teff and amaranth and spelt. Rices, too. Who knew that when she needed there to be so many different kinds, so many different colors of rice, there would be? Himalayan red and Korean black and jasmine and basmati, and this in brown or white, entailing more blue jars, her larder full and detailed—

She walked the aisles in the store where she bought crackers and cheeses, and she pulled boxes of cheese straws off the shelves, both kinds, Parmesan and Cheddar, a good supply, though she had never opened a box just for herself, ever. Maybe they would come if she laid in provisions. Was that it? Preparations. For guests, should they drop in, guests on their way to the museums or the theater, the opera, provisions for that possibility, the chance that people might come, might visit, drop in, have a cheese straw, a glass of wine. The good high spirits of greeting, of being together after so long, such a thrill to see people, the world coming in at the gate, "Oh, did you hear..." and "Oh, that’s a riot," and "Oh, this tastes so perfect, a little bite before Lohrengrin; the set’s supposed to be magnificent," but it took them so long to come, and then most times they didn’t come, and the delightful provisions, the French cookies, the fancy crackers, sat high up in the cupboard. Now she suddenly knew what her grandmother had been waiting for, prepared for, a visit should someone have the time for an old woman, and she knew—suddenly she knew at the age of forty-seven—why the cookies were stale, so perfect, and stale.

 

 It seemed important to have supplies, sugar and flour, ten-pound sacks, and boxes of matches; she bought sets of pot holders from the small hardware store that sold the doubled terry-cloth ones, and the larder had cans of tomatoes for sauces, and clams and olives, jams, jellies, honey. Someone looking might think, Good, I’ll survive here with the widow for a while if there’s a major earthquake! But if the earth moved, she’d be alone, she knew that because, you know, the earth didn’t move when you were a widow, and she would laugh a little at this. She knew she’d be alone, and that there wouldn’t be any gas for the stove and that her supplies were not of the kind recommended, but she wouldn’t spend a penny on dehydrated food or any of those items manufactured and marketed for calamity. She hoarded comfort, and if the other came, it seemed more familiar than not, and how much different would her life be anyway, all moved into one room, her bed piled with all the quilts in the entire house and the front door bolted and wedged with a chair and the windows, which were no longer windows but gaping holes, covered over with cardboard. For a time there might be the quiet hiss of the gas, but she would go to the source and shut it off, and she knew the shut-off for the water, too. She knew not to make it worse, not to open the valves, but, rather, to close them off—and she moved her hand, incanting, "Righty tighty, lefty loosey." She knew all about closing the world out, shutting it down, occluding access.

Conversely, she’d known for some time that if she wanted any kind of a social life, she would have to make it, that invitations extended her way were few, and then, because she was out of practice socially, she wasn’t ever quite sparkling enough or important enough to invite again, or often. She didn’t have much anger or consternation over this, though she was sad too often now, and not much given to laughter as she once had been. Once, laughter had been a currency to her, something she cherished and banked, sounds she loved hearing, and so sometimes now she extended invitations just so that she could hear laughter in the house. She ordered lamb shoulder from her butcher and bought Israeli couscous in the one store where she could find it, though still it wasn’t the right kind; she reduced vin santo down in a small pan

and mixed it with oil for the salad; she baked a chocolate cherry torte. There would be lamb stew with garlic and baby lima beans, and this laddled over buttered couscous, and a salad with asparagus and toasted almonds and sliced grapes. She was ready for them, had pulled the cork on a Burgundy and had laid out bunderfleisch with little onions and cheese straws—no one would starve, she used to say, and people used to laugh to hear her say it, knowing that no one had ever left this house hungry—she used to be so proud of these things, and fully aware, too, that people maybe went home and said snotty things about her, about the food, but maybe not, too; she was the unreliable narrator of her life now, or just quietly, dazedly witless about it. She didn’t know; she just didn’t know. She wanted people here, wanted to hear conversation and laughter, but then, it was so hard to do everything alone, and even before people arrived, she grew worried, and then more tired because she had not been the entertaining one, the one who told stories and made everyone laugh, and so could she feed people and keep the conversation going if she had to? And then sometimes a friend would come join her in the kitchen and would ask how she was, "No, really, how are you?" and this question was so hard to deflect because it was someone asking who cared and who wanted an honest answer, but she was setting out the salad on the plates or making sure the couscous didn’t overcook, and so her answers could only be perfunctory or a little bit blithe, a sampler motto or a bit of pioneer wisdom, the "one day at a time," "do what you can," "lemonade from lemons" kind of verbiage that she was grateful for, the sentences she could do chin-ups on as her feet dangled in the black well.

How was she?

But the salad just right and the parsley chopped or the couscous forked with butter—these were all bars she could sustain herself from, too, chin-ups, the chore that allowed her to lift herself, to do something that might actually result in someone being fed a good meal—an action with a result, the opposite of anything she might do in response to death, death with its mute pervasive brutality everywhere and nowhere.

The front bell rang and they stood behind the wrought-iron gate and called through the courtyard to her and she was happy to see them with their flowers and their bottles of wine and their expectant faces, and she was delighted to see them and exhausted—

 

At a meeting of her book group, an iPhone got passed around the table with a program on it—an app—that distorted people’s faces, a miniature fun-house mirror, and when it was handed to her, she glanced briefly and passed it along. Her face was already a distortion to her, her entire life a distortion, and wasn’t there a book to talk about, but really, truthfully, she did not care about the talking so much as she just wanted to be there within human company, but then she didn’t want to be there, either, and who needed hand-held distortion when one’s entire heart was amorphous?

 

Maybe she could say to people when they asked her how she was was that she wanted to laugh.

"Say something funny!"

Could she respond like that? She wasn’t sure. Sometimes, when she’d invited people and they were coming, she’d start worrying, and she’d collect a few topics in her mind to bring up, or funny things in the news, but then it seemed it was yesterday’s news and it wasn’t as funny to them as it had been to her, or they knew what they thought already and she had to catch up, or admit that she hadn’t heard that part of the story, and so how she was was out of it, behind the times, side-lined. Just this morning, the BBC News informed her that the prudent Swiss had developed a condom for teenaged boys, sized for teenaged boys, and she had laughed, thinking that would be one hell of a thing to try to sell, condoms for the small penis! She didn’t envy the advertising agency that got that gig! The newscaster in his immaculate British accent went on to talk about these specially sized condoms called "the Hotshot," and she’d laughed again, thinking that was a pretty brilliant name with a beautiful double meaning, and maybe even a triple meaning, though she doubted teenagers knew what a "money shot" was, but maybe so. It was interesting what younger people knew these days, interesting how much pornography they’d seen, though even then, knowing what a money shot was as opposed to having merely seen it a hundred times?

She hadn’t known the phrase until she was in her late twenties, and he had taught it to her—they were graduate students together—and sure enough, watching the films, there was always the money shot, the white ejaculate across the breasts or the ass or streaked across pubic hair.

He had been reading a book whose title after the snake eyes read Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible," because every English department in the country suddenly had Porn Studies, and he regaled her one early morning, telling tales of the bachelor party the evening before where there had been an unsettling amount of analysis as the films played, and she had been delighted. No one made her laugh like he did.

 

So she tried it out in the front room, wine poured and people settled and cheese straws and crudités offered. "Did you hear what the Swiss have come up with?" and after telling that part, she tried what was the funny part to her, the marketing nightmare, but it all fell flat and she sort of had to explain that she didn’t think men, young or old, were going to line up to buy something that underscored the reality of their small penises, and one of her guests, a high school teacher, said she didn’t really think young men worried about penis size anymore. "Oh," she said, "really?" and she heard Samuel Johnson’s comment in her mind: "He was not only dull himself, he was the cause of dullness in others."

 

And so she would lose her nerve and everything would seem so hard, and in the mid-day light nothing would be moving except her bees, but then she’d push herself and the nail driven into the rubber strip hanging off the garage door went in easily and straight and held, and she would deride herself and say, See, stop thinking everything’s a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians—the garage door is fixed. But it took a lot of talking to herself, too much, and if she hadn’t had Oscar to clean the house or Daniel to tend the garden, her house would tell on her, would say, See, she’s going downhill, and fast. She liked the expression "keeping up appearances," and certainly she’d been raised within a version of that, not that you cared what other people looked like, or what they had, but that you carried a standard all your own and exemplary. Her brother used to tease her, claim he wasn’t taking her antiquing with him because she "looked like a million bucks" and no one gave him good prices then. Of course, he was out-and-out shameless in his bargaining and she always ended up feeling sorry for the dealers, thinking they had to make a living, too! But she didn’t look like a million bucks any longer, if she ever had, and her appearance was a struggle, too, her hair graying so around her face and the various dye jobs so obviously what they were, no matter what they cost. She let more and more time go by between trips to the salon. What about just letting it go gray? was an incantation starting in the fifth week, and then in the sixth, and she liked these soft gray days, but sometime during the eighth week she relented and called and made an appointment with the surly Iranian man whose wife did her hair. On the phone he would say, "Yes, yes, I know you," and that would be it. She knew it would not be so difficult for her if he didn’t answer the phone, or take the money afterward. When it was time to pay, he left his couch and the two television screens at the back of the salon and came to the front desk. He quickly palmed the bill she handed him for a tip, did not smile, and mumbled a "Thank you" so resentful, it startled her the first time she heard it. Part of her resistance to having her hair done was wondering if her tip ever got to her stylist, his wife.

 

She drove a lot, living in Los Angeles, and she heard on the radio one day the results of a study done on whether or not old people smelled or began to smell more as they aged, the body undergoing some chemical process or degeneration. Did this aging process smell? No, was the answer researchers had found. No, older people did not smell more than young people; it was all a myth, rubbish, the noses of the young making something up. She shook her head inside the glass-and-metal capsule of her car—she shook her head. We smell of longing, she thought; we smell of desire; we smell of how unseemly these desires are at our age, and she struggled with herself a bit, said, You’re not really old. Not really. But she was, too, in many respects, and what did it matter the age, the number, because her heart was weak and painful in her chest, and then she argued with herself some more, said, The heart’s a metaphor, but that wasn’t true anymore, either. Scientists—bless them—had found cells in the heart, cells with memory, they theorized, because heart-transplant patients were somehow taking on the characteristics of their heart donors, suddenly wanting to ride fast motorcycles or eat buckets of pasta, something they had never cared for before, a dish their heart donor adored. Of course the heart had memory cells—this was undeniable; the heart was a great hoarder—and every time she thought of him, hers would seize and ache.

 

In the mornings, there was the mourning dove making her—or perhaps his—quiet quivering sounds, and she said, "Hello, how are you this morning?" and she waited, watching this perfect smooth football of a bird roost in the mint... and then she’d say, "I know, me, too," and they were quiet together, the dove settling even further within his—or her—feathers.

And in the mornings, too, the squirrels knitted, and she watched through the mullions of the dining room window their perfectly dexterous hands work back and forth, to and fro. Oh, she thought, if I could only get some yarn into those active hands, a pair of tiny needles, what fine scarves they would wear and how superior the hats as they leaped along the elm branches, the knitted pompoms flying beyond—

Occasionally people coming into the front courtyard would comment on her squirrels, how tame they were, how interested, and she would say, "Oh yes, those are my knitters," and she did not explain. Nor did she explain how he had died when people asked who did not know. She did not attempt to describe the blood-brain barrier, what got past, what did not, what drug set up a competition and prevented what was necessary for a brain’s health. She did not explain what pharmaceutical scientists knew but kept to themselves, pacing, alone, proprietary in their lifeless laboratories.

 

She thinks always now about the tall black man dressed in slacks and a beautiful V-necked sweater of fine thin wool, his elegant stride as he moved down the sidewalk. She watched

from her kitchen window, which looks out on the street that divides Beverly Hills from Los Angeles. She watched the look of disgust build on his face as he saw the parking ticket on his windshield. He pulled his money clip from his front pocket and peeled off a bill with his long fingers and threw it into the bushes. He stood for moment gazing down the street, looking into the distance, and then he crossed the grass apron, pulled the ticket from beneath the windshield wipers and got into his car and drove away.

Had she really seen what she had just seen?

It took her a few moments to pull on clothes, sweatshirt, jeans, Dr. Scholl’s, but then she passed out the side door of her house and down the stairs and across the street and sure enough, suspended in the hedge was a one-dollar bill like a tiny hammock. She left it there, of course. She wasn’t touching his voodoo or mojo or gris-gris or whatever badness he paid off, but she amused herself crossing the street back to her house thinking, Yeah, if it had been a one hundred-dollar bill, would you have left it to do its hexing? But she would have. She had enough New Orleans in her, enough Martinique, to know you didn’t mess with charms like that, with responses that called out the obvious bullshit of the world. You want to fine people fifty bucks because they left a car for ten more minutes on a city street, then great, let’s call your greed for what it is. Here, have a little more, you greedy fucks. Sure, she’d leave it there if it were a thousand dollars!

The one-dollar bill in the hedge across the street lasted for a day. After all, there were gardeners and children from the various schools filing past, but for her, standing in her kitchen window, leaning against the sink, having her coffee, or pulling herbs and garlic from the basket on the sill—she knew the lucre was still there, suspended, torn into sturdy strips and woven into a nest by the birds or the squirrels or the possums, a hedge against the world’s nastiness, and she took her lesson, too.

 

 

 

From Widow: Stories. Copyright © 2011 by Michelle Latiolais. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: http://www.blpbooks.org/. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.