Wednesday
Sep142011

Glass


By Sam Savage

 

 

Coffee House Press
September 2011
210 pages
978-1566892735


 

We stood side by side in front of the aquarium, while Potts talked about the proper way of feeding the fish—strange deviant goldfish with short egg-shaped bodies, bulging eyes, and long drooping tails. They swam diaphanously back and forth. Climbing on a stepstool and inserting her arm up to the elbow in the water she demonstrated the correct method of removing algae from the glass with a little scraper she had purchased just for that, for me to be able to do that in case the algae becomes too much for the snails to handle, while the fish darted frantically this way and that. They did not dart, actually. Their thick bodies and overdeveloped fins made impossible anything as swift as darting, or as graceful as swimming either; they jerked themselves forward, looking like bright tadpoles trailing scarves. When she had asked me if I would water the plants, weeks ago that must have been, she did not say anything about fish; I would remember had she mentioned fish. She had written out a page of instructions about the plants and another about the fish and posted them on her refrigerator with magnets. We faced the refrigerator and read them over together—she read them aloud, and I followed with my eyes, nodding, I mean, not that we read them in chorus. I could not understand a word. We walked around the apartment, Potts in front with short quick steps, a toy that had been wound up and let run, chattering about the plants, and I a few paces behind, straining to listen, bent. Being taller than Potts I couldn't help noticing a bald spot on her crown, a salmon-colored circle the size of a half dollar on the apex of her dome. She must have developed it recently or I would have noticed before. I could not stop my mind from drifting to it, wondering what it was a symptom of and whether I ought to mention it to her, in case she had not noticed yet, or not mention it, in case it was something she was doing to herself, neurotically tugging, for example. I paused to peer into the rat's cage—not a cage, really, just an ordinary aquarium with a wire lid, like the fish tank but larger—a terrarium, properly speaking, or perhaps a vivarium. It looked empty at first, until I noticed the depilated tail protruding from a white PVC tube lying on its side in the wood shavings. "Nigel's asleep," Potts said. She tapped the wire top of the cage. Nothing moved. "He had a busy night." "I am not taking care of the rat," I said. She brightened: "Oh no, dear, a friend from the Rat and Mouse Club is taking him over to his house. Nigel loves meeting new rats." The plants needing the most water she had placed in the bathtub, filling it entirely. I can spray those with the hand shower, she said, and demonstrated the correct method, spraying water on the floor. Even with so many in the tub, there were still plants on every surface, on tables, windowsills, the back of the toilet, the counters in the kitchen. As we drew abreast of each one she told me its name and an anecdote or two, about the store she had bought it from, the time she had almost killed it with too much fertilizer, and so forth, soliloquies delivered while staring fixedly at the plant in question, as if addressing it, never up at me. It was impossible to listen to her. We ended the tour in front of a titanic fern, feather-like fronds erupting in a fountain from a large pot of shiny black ceramic, the tops reaching almost to my shoulder. This was, she said, Arthur's ultimate present to her, purchased on the last day that he still felt well enough to get about, and it, she explained, in addition to regular watering in the usual way, would have to be misted twice a day. She brandished a plastic spray bottle. "Important, important," she said, wagging the bottle like an admonishing finger. It was her idea to carry the plant up to my place—to spare me trips up and down the stairs, was how she put it, though of course she was thinking that I am unlikely to remember to spray it twice a day unless I am tripping over it. I am not a practical person, I am sure she knows that, and I am not oriented to nature. She gave me a geranium once, many years ago, shortly after she and her husband had moved here. I set it down someplace and forgot about it until several weeks later when I was dusting in my bedroom and noticed a pot full of dirt and twigs on the dresser. Clarence and I never stayed anywhere long enough to have plants, besides cut flowers, except at the end, and at that point no one bothered. We might have not bothered by then because of the wallpaper in the last house, which was alive with flowers. The wallpaper, that is, was alive with them; it was a flower pattern wallpaper. They were yellow roses.

 

Leaning into the fern, dipping our arms up to the shoulder in foliage, we grasped the curved lip of the pot, one on each side, and hoisted. It was extremely heavy, the ceramic was slippery, and we had to set it down every three or four steps on our way up the stairs and hold it in place with our knees to prevent it tumbling back down the stairway, while we panted above it. Potts is shorter than me by a head, and each time we lifted the pot the fronds rushed into her face and knocked her glasses crooked. With both hands clinging to the pot she had no choice but to leave them that way, dangling from the tip of her nose, until it was time to pause again, and twice they fell off into the thicket of fronds, forcing us to stop while she searched for them, parting the fronds and peering and squinting as if hunting insects. At the top of the stairs we turned and maneuvered the plant through the doorway, with me backing in first. I could not right off the bat think where to put it, and I did not want Potts hanging around while we talked it over, so I suggested we just plunk it on the floor by the table, tilting my head to indicate the table with the typewriter, and I said plunk in order to convey the impression that I did not care in the least where it went. It is still there, on the floor next to the table. My elbow brushes against it when I operate the carriage return lever, tickling, and I have to pause and rub. Several of the fronds seem to have become broken on the way up the stairs—they are hanging sharply down like the wings of a crippled bird—or else I broke them pushing past to get to my chair. I am going to have to move it someplace else. It is one thirty in the morning. It has taken me two hours to type Potts up. In the silent interstices that open periodically in the midst of the clatter of the keys (I am tempted to write "thunder of the keys"), when I pause to think before going on (or before going back in order to bury something beneath a chain of x's), I notice how quiet everything has become, where "everything" I mean the city, or at least the portion of it beneath my window, though earlier someone in the street was shouting "Martha" again and again. I want to explain about the silence: it is the silence of a roaring, a roaring that goes on all day long and for some parts of it all night as well—roaring of compressors on the roof of the ice cream factory, ocean-like roaring of traffic on the Connector, amalgamated cacophonous roaring of people and cars mingled in the street below. I am so accustomed to it that I don't even hear it most of the time, especially in the colder seasons, when I have the windows closed, as they are now. I hear it when it stops. This is not at all what I meant to do. I intended just to mention Potts, notice her parenthetically, so to speak. "Edna, in passing, dropped a few words about Potts, a neighbor" is how it was supposed to be. I thought I would use the encounter with my neighbor as an example of the sort of thing that can happen in the blank spaces. It was not a good choice; I can see that now. It thoroughly fails to convey the depth of the tedium that defines those places, that, in fact, constitutes their blankness. I made it happen too fast, for one; and for two, even though lugging the fern up the stairs was quite taxing in a physical way, it was not boring in the least. Thanks to Potts's glasses it was even comical in a feeble way. In fact and for the most part nothing happens in the blank spaces, and when a blank space goes on and on for years, so long it would take thousands of blank pages even to hint at how long and tedious it is, an hour with Potts cannot even begin to convey it, and I don't know why I keep saying tedium, when it is actually much worse than that.

 

I am at my station early this morning. The sun is not yet above the roof of the factory, but the buses are running and the street is already choked with cars, as I can tell by the noise, and the compressors are hard at work. If I were to open the windows now, I would have to wear muffs. By "station" I mean my table, of course; I could also call it my post or even my outpost. I am on guard here, finger on the trigger, meaning the keys, in a final stand against melancholy. I am tempted to say final desperate stand, as in Custer's Last. I have propped the photograph against my coffee mug, where I can look at it while typing—the one of Nurse and me that I was about to discuss when I became distracted by Potts, among other items. Seven spins ago that would be. I did not type anything yesterday or the day before that, those being the blank space above. Nurse is wearing a long plain dress with big puffy pockets in front (the pockets are a different color from the dress), while I am in a short dress with ruffles and no pockets that I can see. The photo is in black and white, so my dress looks white, though I remember it as pale yellow. I have a large bow in my hair, which looks black, but it might have been dark blue or maroon—the ribbon looks black, that is, my hair was auburn, and I don't recall a bow. Neither of us is smiling. We stand next to one of the tall hedges that bordered our driveway at home, some of them carved in European fashion into the shapes of animals. My father designed them, but the actual bending and clipping was done by a gardener on a tall wooden ladder, my father shouting instructions from below. The animal in the hedge beside us seems to be a bear. In fact the bear is pretty much at the center of the photo, with Nurse and me standing off to the side, so perhaps I should not have said that the photograph is of us—it is of the bear, and we are just in it. Behind the bear is the house we lived in, a big brick house on a hill—you cannot see the hill in the picture—with several very large chimneys, which you can see, that come up along the outside walls, and a cupola on the roof, which you can only see the top of. The cupola had windows on all sides. With its six or eight sides (I have forgotten how many exactly) it resembled the top portion of a lighthouse, but it was only up there for show and did not connect to any stairway or door. I recall standing on the lawn with Papa and asking him to take me up to the cupola, and I remember him saying there was no way into it. The bay windows of this apartment remind me of the cupola, of how it might have looked from inside had I ever gone there. An expensive garden with statues, several fountains, and, as I mentioned, hedges shaped like animals surrounded the house. I was very small, when one day walking in the garden with Nurse we found a dead mole. We showed it to the gardener, Nurse pointing to it with the toe of her shoe (she wore black shoes with laces, as did the maid and cook, because they were servants, I thought, since Mama never wore shoes with laces), and he picked it up and stuffed it in his pocket. For some reason that is the clearest of all my childhood memories: whenever I think of those times for very long the mole is there. An iron fence made of tall black spears guarded the perimeter of the whole of it—house, garden, coach house, and so forth. Later, when I would show people pictures, I would tell them the fence was there to keep the animals from running off. Except for kindergarten and measles I don't remember much that happened in my life until I was five, when I was attacked on the sidewalk near our house by a large brown and white dog. Luckily I was rescued by the postman, though my dress was nearly torn off me. And once during a storm I tried to walk from my room to my parents' room on a narrow ledge that ran around the outside of the house beneath the windows, and I slipped and fell into a box hedge, from which Mother's driver rescued me, carrying me into the house in his arms, and to this day the odor of wet foliage brings with it a pleasurable feeling, an ever-so-slight giddiness and excitement, which I think might be due to the connection with being rescued in that way, though I don't recall why I wanted to go to my parents' room or why I didn't use the door.

 

Papa was a handsome man. He possessed a large blond mustache and an imposing chin, and he jutted as he walked—if you were in his way you would probably want to get out of it. It was, I imagine, this imposing and jutting way of his that had put him where he was, which was on top of the heap. Mama was a lovely woman. She possessed wide-set gray eyes, an upturned nose, a sumptuous bosom, and a difficult personality. She was given to nervous spells and vapors, read Vogue in French, and did not much enjoy me when I was little. Papa was given to accumulation and when not supervising rolling mills and smelters enjoyed golf, shooting pheasant, the New York Herald Tribune, and gadgets. He occasionally, as I recall, enjoyed me on his knee, where we played horsey, starting sedately and finishing in a gallop that threw me onto the floor once, causing my head to bleed. That is, I believe, my earliest memory of Papa. He was a genuine type of sportsman, by which I mean he did not pursue his sports merely as an aspect of something else the way Clarence did, when he, Clarence, would pursue certain sports in order to be able to write about them later, going down ferocious rivers in a rubber boat, shooting large animals, and jumping out of an airplane once, for example.  Being handsome, lovely, and rich they ought to have been happy, I suppose, but they were not. That is the mystery of Mama and Papa. When I look at photographs of the two of them together in the beginning, when Mama, especially, was quite young, and think of how it all turned out, it seems almost impossible. Our house had a splendid dining room with a mahogany table at which twenty guests could eat with their elbows out, though guests were very rare, due, Nurse said, to Mama's nerves. At meals Mama and Papa would observe each other from opposite ends of the long table, and Mama's gray eyes would fly angry silences at Papa, who would catch them in his enormous mustache. Their marriage was a tall column of pain, like a fluted vase. Balanced precariously on the fricative point at which Mama's personality met Papa's chin, it was always about to fall over and smash. I was not encouraged to speak at the table, or maybe I chose not to speak for fear of being the one to knock the vase over. Whatever the reason, when I think of those meals I am struck by the silence: I sit in a carved and gilded chair, in the gulf between my parents and at a great distance from each, arranging my food into islands and oceans and stirring the oceans into whirlpools, while the back of the chair stabs me painfully in the shoulder blades. When I told Clarence about this he said that it sounded like something out of a movie, by which I think he meant sumptuous and posh, but also, perhaps, not quite real. Despite her nerves Mama enjoyed going to parties much more than Papa ever could. Thinking about it now I imagine that her nerves might actually have prompted her to go to parties, in order to relax, if Papa had been getting on them for a while, as despite his best efforts he could not stop himself from doing, in the same way, I imagine, that I could not for the life of me stop myself from getting on Clarence 's nerves, and vice versa, that being, I suppose, in a general way the mystery of people being together, being close together in the same house for a long time, though "the same house" in the case of Clarence and me was a series of different houses, one after another over the years, growing bigger and bigger and then smaller and smaller, but always together in them anyway. When we were first together we typed in the same room, at the same table in the place we lived in at the outset, which was my apartment in New York City, but later we typed in different rooms whenever we could, if we had other rooms, and if they weren't too cold, as they were in France. We had a lot of writer and painter friends in those early days. We were convinced that every one of us was going to become famous, though no one ever did except Clarence in a way. The way he became famous was among people who read hunting and adventure stories in magazines and noticed the name of the person who had written them, the same people who later bought his novel. I had written most of one book before I met him but had not shown it to anyone, and then I tried to write another, which was not as complete, though the writing was better, and when I showed parts of that one to people they failed to understand it at all; they wanted to know what I was getting at. When we lived in Philadelphia we typed on different floors, meeting for meals and having friends over or going out every night, and we read to each other what we wrote. I tried to write novels but I could not make them go, though Clarence still read me his, and I made suggestions and typed up what he wrote, and that was the period when I began to rewrite constantly. We told each other that we were in it for the long haul. More and more we talked only about people who were in it for the long haul.