PHILEMON STEED #5

Philemon Steed Photo 8

***

“No, pal. You can’t have that chair. I’m using it, see? Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got my little plastic bag of cigars on it and I don’t want anyone touching the chair, see?  Especially Eurotrash like you. That’s right. I don’t want you taking the chair because you’ve got an accent. That’s right. An accent. And I don’t care where you’re from. And I don’t care if you’re a Muslim or Brazilian or Ahab the Arab. What I’d like to know is what gives you the idea you can have the chair when you just got here, pal? Don’t bother waving the waiter over here. I know the guy. Yeah, believe it or not, I’m actually a regular at this fancy place. Pretty amazing, huh? Shows you they’ll let just about anybody in here. Take you for instance. An attitude without a brain. I mean, you just got off the boat, right? So what if you have a pile of money? I really don’t care. I get the chair, see? Because I’ve been here longer than you. That’s right. Get it? I’ve been here on American soil almost as long as the Indians. Like around 1650. All right? So get it straight. I happen to be using the other chair at my table for Arturo. That’s right. Arturo Fuente is my friend and he’s sitting here. Look, pal. I will put nothing on the chair if I feel like it, okay?  Nothing. So don’t ask me for the chair after you’re already carrying it away with you like you think you can have it just like that. Because you can’t. Because I’ve been here a lot longer than you and I get the chair ‘cause I’ve been shedding blood and scrounging for life like all the Steeds and Barfields and Rays before me. Scrounging, scratching, fighting, and clinging to life here. You’re looking at someone born with a bent pewter spoon in his mouth. So don’t mess with me. You can have the chair when you’ve been here for four hundred years. Now get outta here.”

God, it’s getting worse. I have no more reserve. Zero tolerance. No patience. Nada. There really is no rest for the weary. Or the wicked. Well, at least my hangover is gone. Better get a move on. Mother hates when I’m late—when anyone is late—especially for a meal she’s made.

One thing about Mother. She always scrubs her elbows. You’d be surprised how many people, especially the richest ones, have dirty elbows. We Steeds may have been poor many times over but we’ve always been clean. At least, on the outside.

***

Luzanne Sistrunk Brazil pulled off her control-top pantyhose and sighed with some weariness and a great deal of relief as she sat down on the edge of the bed. Her stomach, bulging forward, relaxed and slightly sagged. She rubbed her belly. The intestines unkinked and her womb shifted. It was good to be home from work. The calves of her legs felt fat and tight in their skins. And even though she had given up high heels years ago, her feet still hurt at the end of the day.

She carefully draped the taupe nylons across the foot of the bed where she had already laid her black slip and her Pendleton skirt. Ten plump white toes wiggled into the carpet as Luzanne removed her red silk blouse.

She stretched and arched her back. Her knees looked fat to her. She stepped heavily to the dresser, its mirror forever reminding her she had borne four kids, eaten too much at lunch, as usual, but was still a good-looking woman.

The wristwatch came off first, its black leather band curling in on itself like a handcuff. Next she removed the plain gold stud earrings. But the necklace with the gold cross stayed on as did the simple gold wedding band.

Luzanne Brazil listened. She paused and listened to her house. For a weekday it was oddly still, especially at 5:30. The Volunteer Fire Department was meeting so Joe wouldn’t be home until 7:30. That meant she had an hour before starting dinner. After band practice, Marianne went to a friend’s house to work on a school project and eat dinner. Jack was gone on a three-day field trip with the Geology Club.

Luzanne listened. Only the grandfather clock in the hall was present. A repetitious clicking spoke of the perpetual cycle that claimed the clock. The eight-foot timepiece had actually belonged to Joe Brazil’s grandfather—a rancher who brought it from Portugal.

Luzanne flopped across the bed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had a quiet, private moment with herself in her own house—a moment that lasted more than a minute. An entire hour of uninterrupted time stretched before her. An hour she could cross like sand, in her bare feet, at leisure, until she reached the shore on the other side.

Luzanne listened again. She thought of her oldest, Helen, who had already been married five years and living over in Fortuna. She would be feeding the new baby now. In a foreign village, Paul, her first son, would be leading his poor parish in evening prayers. Would he be wrestling with himself and his faith as usual?  She couldn’t hear if he was. She couldn’t hear if her grandchild was cooing over the food. She did take note that the clock had already lopped off a precious ten minutes. Luzanne stretched out on her stomach, her head on folded arms, her knees bent with bare feet girlishly free in the air.

As soon as her eyes closed, Luzanne felt like a young girl. She could hear her older sister and two brothers yelling, talking, playing, and fighting. She saw herself—little twelve-year-old Luzanne Magdalene Sistrunk—in her room, door locked, on her knees praying to the statues of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist which adorned her bureau. Suddenly the Sistrunk house was quiet. The other kids had gone outside to play or ride bikes. The house was very still. Mrs. Sistrunk wouldn’t be home until five.

The doorbell rang. Little Luzanne ventured out of her bedroom. The bell rang again. No one else was home. She opened the door and let in Philemon Steed. He’d picked a thistle for her and named it Harry. They automatically went into her bedroom like all kids do intent on play.

Luzanne locked the door behind them. Philemon crawled onto the soggy double bed and laid down, stiffly waiting. Luzanne looked at him and then at the statues. With one huge leap, she landed right on top of Philemon. They tickled and wrestled and giggled and fought over who got to be the boy, who got to be the girl.

She kissed him with all her heart, pressing hard into his perfect mouth and at the same time wriggling about on top of him. Then they flipped over and he was the boy but she could feel she was bigger than him, her teeth were much bigger, her mouth, her head, her face was even bigger than his, and he felt light upon her. She thought she would swallow him whole.

Luzanne Brazil jolted. She was on her back and breathing hard. Philemon. She listened. The house was totally silent, protective, alert— a perfect accomplice. She hadn’t thought of Philemon in thirty years or more. The grandfather clock boomed out the hour. No time to linger now. She clambered off the bed and into the bathroom. In the mirror her black hair was nearly as wild as her eyes.

***

Marsella is a terraced town on the Cuaca

River. Fish no longer swim the waters. 

Children no longer play along the shore. 

The gravedigger in Marsella is tired. 

The priest in Marsella is tired. Ana Garcia

is tired of bleaching muslin for shrouds. 

The birds in their cages are tired. The cats

on the terraces are tired. Marsella is a

tired town on a tired river.

 

Pigs in the yard slowly roll over in three-

quarter time. Dogs running free don’t run. 

Chickens do nothing, too tired to lay. 

Even the cock doesn’t sing.

 

Ana Garcia turns on her radio. Out crawls

music, note by note. The guitar plucks its

way out of the wooden box, then a voice slow

as clotted blood seeps through the speaker.

The song puddles on Ana’s floor, drowning

the dried bougainvillea blooms. Doors to

the terrace hang wearily open. Marsella’s

slow air fondles the furniture. A

lazy breeze flirts with the flowers. But

the hibiscus bush is too tired. And

the jasmine has given up. Nothing is left

to fight against the stench that will come

again from the Cuaca River. Nothing, nothing,

nothing is left.

 

Ana’s wash does not ripple in the breeze. 

The bougainvillea loses some leaves. Poco,

the cat, finds a corner to curl in. Today

the air is fresh along the Cuaca River.

Today is La Dia de Gato. Today is a day

for dreams. Il sueño de gato. Smooth as

powder. The cat doesn’t move. The cat is

in visions.

Ana rearranges her mementos, slowly,

methodically. She keeps an altar of

memories against the plaster wall. Here

she pays homage to each and every moment

of her life. Homage to every moment lived

thus far.

First, fresh flowers. With the

water changed daily. And then, a crowd

of candles perpetually in flames. Candles

of every size and shape. White candles.

Pure white. For the purity of the moment

before it is lived. The purity before it

is seized. That white incessant innocence

of the impending moment, backed up, one

behind another like pop-beads strung forever

or until, at random, the necklace is yanked

apart, shortened, or disconnected altogether,

bead by bead, moment by moment, so there is

no longer a necklace, a continuation, a

connection, nothing but singular moments

scattered everywhere, nowhere, gone forever,

no more.

 

So Ana celebrates and kneels down at her

altar, and the candles burn, and a multitude

of photographs stare back at her in color

and black-and-white, visual rumors of

physical moments that supposedly happened.

There is a painting of the Blessed Virgin.

And a fading old photo of Ana with Marsella’s

mayor, she being his mistress at the

time. Then there is the only known photo of

Ana’s husband, Pedro Bernardo. He never let

his picture be taken because the camera would

eat his soul. But at a party the neighbors snapped

one of him as he embraced Ana. This was a

common moment for the two of them. He was

constantly touching her and reminding her

with affection that his love ran as thick

and as endless as the Cuaca River. Two

weeks after the photograph was taken,

Pedro Bernardo’s head floated onto shore.

 

That is when Ana Garcia died. She died. 

Just died though she went on breathing. 

She died but went on crying, and breathing,

and sobbing, and yet she was dead. But

still inside her was the bead of life, the

pop-bead that just is, until it isn’t.

And her body went on bleeding, month by

month. And her breasts swelled each time,

and her womb busied itself each and every

month getting ready for something that was

no longer there. And when no seed came

forth, the womb sloughed off its intricate

preparations with a huff. Though dead

numb with grief, Ana forced herself to

honor the moments God had given her in the

past. If not for those, she had nothing

but endless days scrubbing bloody muslin

under the stinking sky of Marsella.

To be continued….

Read More by Renee Walker

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