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Why Did I Ever?by Mary Robison
I have a dream of working a combination lock that is engraved on its back with the combination. Left 85, right 12, left 66. "Well shit, man," I say in the dream.
Hollis and I have killed this whole Saturday together. We've watched all fourteen hours of the PBS series The Civil War.
Now that it's over he turns to me and says, "That was good."
Buy Me Something
I end up at Appletree?the grocery?in the dead of the night. I'm not going to last long shopping, though, because this song was bad enough when what's-her-name sang it. And who are all these people at four A.M.? I'm making a new rule: No one is to touch me. Unless and until I feel different about things. Then, I'll call off the rule.
Three ex-husbands or whoever they were.
I'm sure they have their opinions.
I would say to them, "Peace, our timing was bad, the light was ugly, things didn't work out." I'd say, "Although you certainly were doing your all, now weren't you."
I would say, "Drink!"
Hollis is not my ex-anything and not my boyfriend. He's my friend. Maybe not the best friend I have in the world. He is, however, the only.
Daughter Mev confides in me. Shesays that at the Methadone clinic whenever a urine sample is required, she presents a sample of the soft drink Mellow Yellow.
"You won't get caught," I tell her.
She says, "Some folks hand over Mountain Dew."
"They won't get caught either," I say. "Not to worry."
"If they think you're hoarding your dose, though," says Mev. "You know, like you're going to save it and spit it into your thing? Because who wants to go to the clinic every day? You could never do drugs! If they think that, they go, `Say good-bye, Mev.' And they make you say good-bye."
Nowadays, I don't try to talk. I try to do the talking. So I don't talk. Or, at least, I try not to.
Here I have retrieved from beneath the refrigerator these thirty or forty fur-covered toy mice. These cost me hundreds of dollars over the years and have a street value of many hundreds of dollars. So why doesn't the cat?lying on her side there with her eyes squeezed shut?show any appreciation?
I'm sitting alone in my vehicle, on the street before my place. It's only just after dawn, yet here's Hollis, strolling up, munching from a box of Cracker Jacks.
He stoops at my window and says to me, "uh oh, I hear Marianne Faithful." He straightens, shakes his Cracker Jacks box empty, scrunches it, and lobs it into the side yard. The shirt Hollis is wearing has a pattern of skylarks, I believe they are, depicted on it.
He plants a hand on the car now and drums his fingers. He stoops again and says, "I've been reading an interesting book on John Wayne. You are what, here? Feeling neglected?"
"No," I say, turning to look at him. "No. Nor do I feel hungry for apples, Hollis." I say, "Those are two among the feelings I do not have."
The name I use is an annoying problem. Everyone wonders about it. No one doesn't ask.
My name is Money. I picked it up and kept it and now it's what I'm called.
I say I'm tired of telling how I got the name. Or that the story isn't all that great.
Still Something Missing
"I need plywood," said my son, Paulie, in his sleep. Or I heard wrong. I know it was "need" something.
That was my first day there, at his flat on St. Anne, before NYPD began hiding him.
He looked like this: in white cotton socks and frayed blue jeans, a cowhide belt and a petal-green sweater. His hands in their horrible bandage gloves must've been on his lap and I couldn't see them because he was bent over, with his plate pushed aside and his face on the dining table, and he was all-the-way asleep, with a tiny chip of emerald glinting there in the lobe of his ear.
Days went by and he still kept ignoring all the stuff I'd brought for him. Fine stuff, but Paulie couldn't get in the mood. And he was in something like pain when I finally set each thing out and presented it as though it were for sale. What, could've been wrong with me? Handkerchiefs! I told him about the quality. "Just wait'll you go to use one of these." He was three weeks out of the hospital. I should have ground the things up into bits and shreds in the garbage disposal.
A World of Love
I'm a script doctor, as far as I know this afternoon at three o'clock central time. And I'm due back at the studio according to Belinda who's the development producer or whatever is her job.
She has some hair shirt or other laid out for me.
Belinda is not warm. She's small-minded, mean, picky-petty.
Someday I will learn kickboxing and I will show up at Mercury Brothers and kickbox the stuffings out of her.
For my living room I have forged three paintings and signed them all "Robert Motherwell." The paintings aren't that successful really as I went too fast. They might fool a rich fellow who doesn't expect to see a fake if anyone like that ever comes over here.
I was spurred further to autograph and personally inscribe all my books. My handwriting in them experiences a change or two and can seem manly or decorative or as if I were rushed.
The inscription in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks reads: "Party girl. Bring back my VCR."
I'm fairly proud of the Rothko I forged for my bedroom. Whereas the blacks in the paintings at the Rothko Chapel can look a little steely and cold, my blacks are rich with the colors of hot embers and dark earth.
"Now my throat hurts from screaming at you!" I tell Hollis.
We're in my bedroom, standing before the Rothko, with our feet planted wide apart and our arms crossed.
"What's missing here is a focal point," he says. "Something for our eyes to fix on, finally, and rest upon. Something we end up gazing at."
"It's! A! Copy!" I shriek at him.
Something else that makes me angry is that I got too old to prostitute myself. I wasn't going to anyway but it was there, it was my Z plan.
Nine West, I've never really had great luck with their shoes. They can look terrific but they have sharp arches and hard fucking soles.
Once in New York on my way to Penn Station I had to stop and remove the Nine West shoes I was wearing. I had to walk on in my stocking feet. Barrabus, I think he was called, was with me. My husband then but he wouldn't wait up, wouldn't take an extra minute out, oh no.
"Just keep going!" I called to him. "However eventually, I will meet you there."
That ex I heard was arrested for stealing food. Maybe I only dreamed it. It's what I tell people, anyway.
I call my doctor's office to ask for some Ritalin. His nurse answers and says, "This is Annabelle. According to our records, you're not due for a prescription at this time."
I say, "Annabelle, this is not what it appears."
"Oh?" she says and waits because she was trained to wait and force me to do the synopsizing.
I will take that challenge. "There was a series of mishaps," I tell her. "Some were spilled at the sink or ruined by moisture. Then a vial I use for travel got mislaid and they're gone. I'm out," I say. "Who can explain it?"
But I'm a stupid woman for asking that question. Nurse Annabelle can explain what happened to my drugs.
Without Ritalin I can sustain an evil thought or two, such as: "That there feels like cancer of the esophagus." However, I'm liable to skip over more routine kinds of thinking, such as, "Move up in line here," or "Steer."
So I'm in bed. I'm in bed unless Dr. Rex himself calls to inform me he's written new prescriptions.
More emphatically, I am in bed until.
I notice on the news when they're interviewing people, there's an attractive man in Chicago. His name goes by too fast but I'd know the guy if I saw him again.
Empty Your Pockets
I hate Bell South and so raise my voice and warn their representatives that I will take my business elsewhere.
I mention this to Hollis and tell him of the many new friends I have made?others who were present in the Bell South office, customers who overheard my threat. These are the same people who feel shamefaced, I explain, for falling behind in their phone service payments.
"Well ...," Hollis begins. Ah, but I have my eye on him.
21 Now he and I are watching some men with a ball. No matter the shape or size of the ball, what team or for what country the men fight. The TV is showing men with a ball so we're watching.
"In my head," I tell him, "are the works of John Philip Sousa. And so loud that at first I thought the high school's band was practicing. I went and checked outside. I don't even know the words to `It's a Grand Old Flag.'"
"Oh, come on," says he. "'It's a grand old flag, dunt dunt high-flying flag. Dunt dunt duh, dunt dunt duh, dunt dunt duhhh.'"
There are real and scary sounds from outside my place. They are like a woman running.
While I have the door opened an inch, trying to see what's what, Flower Girl my cat skitters out.
And now the running woman is gone.
I call 911 but hang up when the operator asks whether I'm phoning from a home or a residence.
There's disorder out there under the traffic light. At the intersection, a bread truck has been tipped up onto its nose and then?it would seem?hammered.
Hollis crowds me for a view through the window.
I say to him, "See that girl behind everything? In the pink midi-top?"
I say, "Suppose you were standing next to that girl. You wouldn't reach out and grab her breasts, now would you?"
He takes a drink from his bottle of red vegetable juice. Wags his head, no.
"You'd behave decently toward her and uphold your own personal standards, correct?"
His head moves, yes.
I say, "O.K., then let's start all over at the beginning. Because I still really believe in my heart that men can be educated."
"That's a Roman Meal bread truck," he says, "that got hit. You want me to go see if I can snick us a couple of loaves?"
I Should Be Going
I take a lengthy drive in case there's some music I want to buy.
I drive to Montgomery, Alabama?thousands of miles from my home. It's three or four or five in the morning. All that's open here is a Wal-Mart and the very best music they're selling is an old Michael Jackson single, "Blood on the Dance Floor."
Which, it turns out, isn't so bad. Especially if you eliminate the treble.
The police think it's bad. Their patrol car slows as they ride alongside me. They shine a light, bark a warning. I click the sound down. They surge ahead. I switch the sound up loud again. The patrol car slows, same flashlight, same warning.
I'm tempted but I dissuade myself from going through it all a third time. My excuses are just excuses and they are not good enough.
I get lost driving back and do the same exits and merges for hours and hours. I wonder if an aerial view of me might be fun to watch.
And now I've made an error and there are eighteen-wheelers stopped ahead of me, eighteen-wheelers behind. And not for a great long while will I be released from the lineup for this weigh station.
Could Stand Here for Hours
"You need more than just the bangs cut," says the hair stylist. "You look like Cochise."
And I see in the restroom mirror as I'm drawing on lipstick that I don't want my mouth. I say, "Don't ever use a straw again. Don't whistle. Or whisper. Or say `What,' or `Who.'"
I do know some horrible stories. One story about my son may never have an end to it. Or the story will have an end I don't want to know because it's horrible. Want to or not, I have to wait, wait, wait.
Both my kids have flame-glo hair and turquoise eyes. One summer after they had earned all their college degrees, they found work doing the cake displays in a bakery and we had sweets to eat. That was in D.C. or someplace we lived then.
Mev went on to a job carving wooden forks and spoons. Paulie moved to New York and, I believe, checked skates at the counter in Roller World.
Here now is Mev, on the walkway, her face fired green from the sun through the trees. She's standing lopsided, with her arms raised unevenly in question. She asks, "How is it that with red Rit dye, the stuff always comes out that Krishna color?"
"I'm to blame for that," I say. "It's because you're your mother's daughter."
"Wow," she says and sits down with me on the concrete bench.
I say, "Everybody else gets red."
The thing about Mev is she has twice failed the bar exam.
"You can fail it a third time, though, can't you?" Hollis asks her.
Mev says, "No, see, at this point, even to do that, I'd have to brush up and study."
In Appletree, she says, "There's my friend Margaret, over at the orange juice."
"My friend Margaret that lives near me on Southy. I got that angora sweater from her? The one who does the bookmobile. I waved but I guess she doesn't see me."
I'm looking. I say, "The only person anywhere near the orange juice is ninety-two years old."
"What about it, Mother?"
"Nothing," I say. "Nothing about it at all."
Mev always finds friends and they're always older. They're people who were born at home.
She makes herself a part of things?over in the smoke niche fetching Lucky Strikes for that man, now dragging somebody's Moderow baby crib up to the cashier. Her brother's the same way. I boarded a subway with him once and he went along the car like a porter, seating people and catching parcels before they spilled.
And It's Just My Size
Hollis reads to me from a dictionary: "`Oscillate ... A vibrating motion as things move backward and forward, vary or vacillate between differing conditions and become stronger and weaker.'"
"Huh," I say. "Well, but that describes me."
"Can I just say something?" he asks, and he starts to. So I remind him that permission to say something is not permission to say anything.
Therefore, he decides to write down for me in longhand what it is that he has to say. Or, he would like to. He attempts to. First he must test his pen for ink.
I vacate the room without ever learning if his letter-writing effort is successful.
All We Do Is Argue
"I know what you're thinking," I say to myself.
"O.K.," I say, "What?"
"It's that thing in your hand. You're thinking that it goes someplace."
"Then where does it go?" I ask.
"Well, not up there ...," I say as I'm climbing the stairs.
"So important to you to be right," I say, climbing back down.
Martin, some person I know, has compiled a list of the five hundred best rock singles ever recorded. Number 11 on the list is "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks. Or if it's not number 11, it should be.
Things break. I head for the hardware.
I have to walk past my neighbor who's forever out on the bench here in our yard. The Deaf Lady. She isn't deaf; a little bit, not very. She won't tell me why she's called that. She'll say, "I'd rather not go into it," or, "I'd prefer you weren't involved."
The light out here is weird, the day already fading. The Deaf Lady looks as if she can't locate her doll. "What's the matter?" I ask her.
"Just mistakes I make," she says. "Like I left the kitchen thing burning again. On the what's-it-called? Not the dashboard."
"The oven top. Coil stove. The burners," I say. "But everybody does that. How long did you leave it on?"
"Since the other night, I guess, when I was making fudge."
I scoot her over so I can sit down. "Well, it's happened to me," I say. "Never for days on end, that I recall."
"You want to go somewhere and eat?" she asks.
"O.K., good," she says. "Where do you want to go?"
"Oh, I don't care. It doesn't matter. Anyplace is fine."
She says, "Then let's just go to the city dump and eat rats! All we have to do is catch them."
We end up at the River Cafe on Science Street. Who works here according to their name tags are Toadstool and Paranoid Phil.
My Asparagus Tips Casserole has no asparagus.
"How're you doing?" the two servers ask me.
They must mean with this food.
"You guys are spoiling me," I say.
Across from us is the cashier's counter. There, a girl in a black T-shirt stenciled with the word "Jezebel" is wagging her head at a woman in a muumuu who's sadly, slowly, reluctantly writing a check.
Now a squat fellow appears outside the place and squints at the door menu. He wanders off, comes back, reads the menu some more, wanders off.
Lollipops Are Only for the Kids Who Had Shots
Most of the movie studios have fired me. The William Morris Agency just fired me. Two of their agents on a conference line regretted that maybe they've been holding me back. They've fired me so they won't hold me back anymore.
Now I couldn't be happier because here's what I get to do: Run the bathroom tap water until it's really cold, plug the tub up and fill it to the brim, and then into the chilly water plunge the Umani Fax Machine, the Sukosonic modem, the 1309 Phone Mail System, the beeper.
"Good-bye. Go to hell," I say to them.
Mercury Brothers is about the only studio I have left. Mercury Brothers and their producer witch, Belinda.
There Is No They
"It'll never change," Hollis says, beside me in the car. "No matter how long we sit here, it'll still be a stop sign."
Hollis is a Driver's Ed. instructor. I say, "So this is what it must be like to study under you."
He sips noisily to the end of his lime drink, now sends the jumbo paper cup flying from the car window.
He is just coming up with shit. He says, "At least I made you stop dyeing your hair. That purple shoeshine color or what was it? Remember?"
"No," I say. "And I believe I would."
I would say to this or that ex: "Maybe I didn't understand you or pay enough attention. There was a little bridge or something I failed to cross over. It was on the day you helped me wax the hallway and the little stairs, when you said to me, `The floor will be dry in a minute.' Between the time you said that and when you asked me, `Do you think my pubic hair's such an unusual color?'"
And Another Thing
I have now done Blockbuster. Little Dorrit, Parts One and Two.
I'm pressed up against a telephone pole, nailing it with a poster of my missing cat.
Now I'm bustling off, for I've noticed the Ichabod landlord working in the bushes. He strictly does not allow pets.
Now I'm at the next pole making a loud production of nailing Flower Girl's poster because I know right from wrong and my dealings with the landlord are less important than the swift return of my cat.
Through the window is a lavender sky and a red orb of sun and the Deaf Lady out there with a half-filled air balloon. She's staring ahead, her cheeks flushed, her eyes intense, readying herself to pump up the rest of it.
Inside here is Hollis, and the clock, and the "wick-wick" of the ceiling fan, and the television left going out on the sun porch, transmitting the voice of Paul Newman in Hud.
"Hollis," I say. "On that thing we were discussing. What are my other choices?"
He blows a smoke ring into the reach of the fan. "No others," he says. "You don't get any more."
I gaze at the fireplace, at its yellow-tiled face, at the mantel, with its huddle of red votive candles.
He can never just answer me. If I ask, "How're you doing?" he asks, "Compared to whom?" I ask, "May I tell you something?" and he says, "Still America." That is what I have to put up with, day, after day, after day.
Copyright © 2001 by Mary Robison
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