|Up: Then to New York||[Related] «^» «T»|
Thursday, June 29, 2000
By Paul Ford
I took myself out to dinner, and we sat down and he interviewed me.
“Why do you want to do this? The Web site, these self-interviews?”
“Motives represent an impossible situation. To answer would require a working psychological model. No one has one, yet.”
“Fair response, but remember that the brain is already an excellent simulation engine. It's better at simulation than computation, which is why people believe so strongly in angels. Speak generally, and you'll get somewhere.”
“Okay. Let's start on Court St, in Brooklyn. I walked south towards home, with plastic shopping bags from Key Food divided between my hands. I felt good because I had helped a tiny woman get dried milk from the top shelf in the second aisle from the right, one over from the frozen and fresh dairy.”
I stand behind these ladies when I go to the register on weekdays. The young, impatient women working checkout, wearing mandatory smocks and nicely-cut hair, will look at me and smile, shake their heads, and shrug their shoulders. I cock my head to the side, shrug, and smile back. But I don't mind the wait. I like looking at old men and women. I imagine the hats they wore. 50 years ago, the sound of their hard leather shoes on the same pavement that my rubber sandals are walking on today.
Their lives are now portioned among funerals and eating and the maintenance of their fragile bodies. They take 2 hours to make supper; they attend mass at St. Mary of the Sea, a few blocks from the market. With their neighbors they discuss osteoporosis, different kinds of cancers, the cost of all things, the violence of adolescents, and the complex lives of their 40- and 50-year-old children .
When I saw this old lady at Key Food, reaching for the milk, I thought of the linoleum in her kitchen, which her husband glued down, on his 65-year-old-knees. He was recently retired. His stomach fell out over his pants; he sweated through a white T-shirt. Black hairs poked above the back collar of the T-shirt.
By 9 that night, when he had finished tapping and groaning and affixing, he invited her in to see what he'd done. She left the television and padded out to the little kitchen, and looked down over her small belly to her brown slippers, which cut a sharp outline against the light blue shine of the tiles. "Looks good," she said. "Not too bad," her husband said. "Better than before." They went in to watch TV and leave the glue to dry.
The next day she woke up to his gurgling breath. He woke as she closed the bathroom door. Later, she put on a pot of coffee, bought ground from Damasio's (the market Key Foods would replace). As the coffee perked, she and her husband negotiated the kitchen furniture back from the small living room. She took one end of the wooden kitchen table with him, and once that was in place, she brought in two of the four matching chairs, with their turquoise, padded, plastic backs. And now in the course of things, I have come to her, and see her arm raised and still, inches away from the prize of milk.
She waits for her arm to grow, or for the the milk to fly into her hand. Neither happens. In the span of seconds, in my eye, her husband is dead, his heart pausing one day and not starting again, six or seven years after he put down the kitchen floor, which in truth he never put down. But still--
She sat quietly on the edge of the bed when they came back to the house after the funeral, feeling ashamed that she hadn't helped cook; no one would let her help. The house was solid with living bodies.
In weeks, the smell of the house changed. His breath and body slowly washed out by the open Brooklyn windows, out to the Buttermilk Channel and into the East River, and every month, she felt less of him. When she washed the blankets they'd spent their last few nights in, and put them into the closet for summer, they blankets took on the scent of laundry soap and cedar. Their bodies and the sweat they'd produced had defined the territory in which she lived for 52 years, his mix of cheap cigars, wool sweaters, and oily sauces, his solid physical self. It was flying out the window, moving the curtains. His clothes, dropped at Goodwill, took more of him away.
Every morning when she enters the kitchen, all creaks in her bones and from the floorboard in the small hallway, she thinks she remembers him laying the tiles. The memory has a significance to her. Some mornings she forgets to remember him, but she doesn't know this; she's sure she thinks of him every morning. She wakes up by 6 or 7 and enters the kitchen to make a half-pot of coffee with the "new" coffeemaker, a white machine with a glass pot and red digital letters to announce the time and the state of the coffee, bought four or five years ago to replace a clumsy aluminum percolator.
I came slowly up the aisle. When I was one foot from her, I said, "I can get that for you." She said, "I'm not tall." "This one...this one...this one?" I asked. She nodded at the second brand of dried milk. "I'm not tall," she repeated. She did not say thank you, but she smiled without showing her teeth and took the milk.
I went to the register, and there was no one in front of me. I paid with two $20 bills and took my $15 change and left. My shoulders were out and my neck was back. I am a huge, tall man, so I sailed like a galleon down to 9th St. I said, "hey, sir" to my barber, short and Italian, who stood in the doorway to his shop, like a Hopper painting. He smiled back to me. I went past the Italian groceries, the fruit and vegetable store run by a Korean family, the chubby, adolescent daughter behind the counter, the son fiddling with the grapes, and on past wine stores, video rental shops, bars, tanning salons, past the mafia social clubs with their windows painted black, groups of white-haired men sitting on folding chairs outside. I had some ravioli in the bags, and some limes. I had some frozen mixed vegetables and baby carrots and oatmeal, and a bottle of soda.
As I walked past P.J. Hanleys, which insists that it sells Harp Beer and that it's the oldest bar in Brooklyn, and then past the new Italian ice stand, where a hand-drawn sign on flourescent paper shouts "YOUR NEXT," I thought that a dialogue with myself, separate from the other sections of this, might be an entertaining way to break down some of the things I've been doing into reasonable, observable parts, to play with ideas that I don't fully fathom, and to wander. As I reached Sparky's, the bar a block or two down that encourages dogs to come, I felt better about the idea; it would give the site a personal feel that I'd been missing, and would give me a chance to play with self-expression without the personal taking over. I keyed the front door, then the second front door, came up the stairs, my legs pumping without thought, the plastic from the bags now biting into the inside of my fingers. I noted that my neighbor's light was not on, and keyed into my apartment to put the groceries away.
“That's an awfully long answer, and it still doesn't explain--”
“But do I need to explain? If someone is bored, they can click off and never read again. And this kind of writing is fun; it comes quickly. I've already done the work, prepped the plot, developed the characters in the course of my day. All I need to do is put a bit of it down, just a few quick pieces.”