Wednesday and the Whole World

Fiction by Liesl Nunns

NunnsThis morning I meet with Deborah, and so I take the number 18 bus and I sit beside a man with a sleepy Huckleberry Hound smile. I know him just as Huckleberry. We never speak, but I know that he knows me and that, to him, I mean ‘Wednesday’. Deborah’s practice is in one of those converted Kelburn villas, and also houses a physiotherapist and a naturopath. She drinks jasmine tea and she wears the sort of jewellery that tells you that she has travelled widely. On days that aren’t Wednesday, I take the number 3 to Lambton Quay, where I work as a sales assistant in the Kirkcaldies homeware section. It is because of this that my father has arranged for Deborah. He thinks that I am lacking direction and am in a rut. He is an accountant, and I have never seen him take the bus.

When I take the number 3, I sit three rows back from Mrs Apple-Eater. Five, if I’m lucky, and she sits up beside the woman who sometimes origamies little orange squares into boxes or birds. This week, Mrs Apple-Eater changed her routine. I had wondered if it was a one-off, but yesterday she had, as usual, sat three rows in front of me (because the origami lady wasn’t there). She still had the pink bottle of Johnson’s baby lotion in one outer pocket of her backpack, and the Black Caps drink bottle in the other. But there was no morning apple, just like there, inexplicably, hadn’t been on Monday. Moreover, she had pulled out a tin foil parcel, revealed an egg and lettuce sandwich, and proceeded to blow my mind by eating it. The sandwich was somehow even less breakfast-appropriate than an apple, for one thing. But mainly, had Mrs Apple-Eater suffered some kind of emotional trauma over the weekend? Was she in gastric distress?

Apple-eating done?

What caused these discarded cores,

Mrs Egg-Eater?

Except that I couldn’t think of her as Mrs Egg-Eater, even after the words were written in my notebook, so I wrote another.

Cold eggs? Cold bread? No.

Acceptable breakfast fare

means scrambled, toasted.

Irritation by crunching had been replaced by irritation by odour. And the irritation of not understanding why. Mrs Apple-Eater is a fascinating torture to me. I try to focus on the fascination, and to identify-acknowledge-shelve the irritation, because no doubt Mrs Apple-Eater is a nice enough person outside of early morning public transport.

*

Last week, Deborah asked me about my role models and I told her again about Evie. And she nodded through a polite interval then clarified, ‘What about professional role models?’ Evie was, actually, a professional. Six-time World 5-7-5 Champion. She has been my hero ever since I was thirteen, and my English teacher suggested I might do my poetry project on the haiku. Mrs Edmonds. She said that my unique turn of phrase might ‘flourish’ in that particular artform; it remains the nicest compliment that anybody has ever paid me.

Deborah had suggested that I use this past week to reflect on role models that I personally know in my own life, whom I admire or whose ‘path’ is applicable to my own. She also reminded me again to practise identifying, acknowledging, and shelving distractions as they pop up. I sense in her voice that, at this point, she knows that we are nowhere. It is not Deborah’s fault. She is on her own path, the one my father is paying her for.

*

Role models. In a way, I do admire The Banana Eater, who manoeuvred her awkwardly squat and wide body past Huckleberry and me on the number 18 this morning. She likes to sit up the back, to be closer to the teenaged boys who like to head-lock each other and swear. She gives them the stink-eye and I can sense her pleasure at hating them.

It is unfortunate that Mrs Apple-Eater and The Banana Eater are called Mrs Apple-Eater and The Banana Eater. I am not so much worried about the possibility of confusion, because it is only me who knows and I am unlikely to mix them up. (And I would like to point out that it is not because they are both fat that I identify them with eating, since I can hardly control what is fascinating about others’ behaviour.) No, the really unfortunate bit is neither name is entirely accurate as a moniker, for reasons already explained as far as Mrs Apple-Eater is concerned.

I have never seen the The Banana Eater devour said fruit. When I discovered her, she was actually publicly announcing herself to be in opposition to an unknown banana-eating fiend, and all others of that ilk, by way of sellotaping a decree to the shelter wall at the Karori bus terminus:

“Dear Banana Eaters. Do not throw your skins onto the footpath. Someone could insure themselves.”

And so–logic be damned!–I thought of her as The Banana Eater, because ‘Banana Eaters’ were too good as proper nouns to abandon. Which is perhaps ironic, since the multiple infelicities of the rest of her chosen wording had surely proved an impediment to others taking up her cause. From where I had stood, I had a perfect view of both the sign itself and the determined face of the vastly unimpressed (Anti-) Banana Eater. Others could see too, and a blanching spate of acting-like-I’ve-not-noticed broke out across their faces; which was a shame. If it weren’t for Deborah expecting me that day, I would have liked to have lingered on to catch the next bus and, between crowds, to have secreted that wonderful piece of literature amongst my belongings.

Banana Eaters!

Don’t throw your skins on the ground.

One could be insured.

I agonised over whether a change to Might get insured [sic]! would add a metapoetic touch or not. Evie liked that sort of thing, but I am not completely sure I get it. I also contemplated a grim juxtaposition between skin-shedding and eating, but I’m no shock jock.

I know that The Banana Eater has a job, because she has one of those workplace swipe cards on a lanyard, often draped over one giant bosom. I presume she is doing well in that job because she certainly owns a lot of shoes and because her take-charge attitude with the fruit litterers points to managerial experience. But I do not feel that The Banana Eater’s path is applicable to mine. Hers is an angry path, it seems.

*

My Professional Role Model. Evangelina Seven Pentasyllable, born Eve Pendleton in Portage la Praire, Manitoba, on April 8th, 1969. Her American father coached volleyball while her Danish-Canadian mother offered lessons in the art of ikebana. Often her father’s temper got the better of him and another contract ended, at which point they would just pick up and drive to another town, any town, even after their duo became a trio. Her Japanophile mother had instilled in Evie the beauty of the minimal, the perfectly-arranged. That is what drew her to the haiku. In her 1989 Fall issue interview in Poet’s Quarterly, Evie said, “I can see its specific details even though I cannot see the whole world. And when I see that specific detail, I feel my world is whole.” She earned winnings at haiku slams and championships, and became a legend amongst the haiku fraternity(/sorority). She died of a drug overdose in 1997, but that bit is not the bit that makes her my role model.

I believe that I am the only sales assistant at Kirkcaldies with a lifestyle coach and goal consultant. (Deborah.) Despite this dubious honour, I know that my line manager, Kerry, does not see a long and glorious career shaping up for me in that fine retail establishment. She doesn’t care for the way I like to arrange the homewares. The cushions and vases and clocks and salad servers.

Ikebana is a useful discipline for the student of the haiku. It is about finding creativity within structure, the elaborate within the austere. It is physical and mental. And it can be done with cushions and vases and clocks and salad servers, if those are the branches and blooms of your workplace. The true artist adapts to what the moment holds. Adapts and savours. Ikebana is not, however, considered a useful discipline for the ideal Kirkcaldies sales assistant. Kerry reminds me that a customer wants to find an item easily, and that we want to sell items easily. Sculptural displays that explore fragility and balance do not facilitate us all reaching our goals together, it would seem, because others’ goals are not about the moment, they are about the next one.

Deborah told me, in our first session, that goals can be the little building blocks of our lives, as well as the superstructures. She invited me to give myself a little goal a day, and a slightly bigger goal a week. She invited me to keep track of those goals in a notebook.

*

Goals. I know what Huckleberry’s goals are. He wants to lose weight and meet a lady. The weight thing is working. There is slightly less of Huckleberry than there used to be, and we have just moved out of an awkward time when he was still wearing his now-loose-fitting older clothes and into a pleasant new era of clothes that fit. He feels good about this, because he slouches less, and because he watches the Irish girl less furtively. He wants to catch her eye now. I am contemplating changing my standard choice of seat, in the hope that she will sit next to him one day. She wears leggings a lot, and always carries a gym bag. I like the thought of Huckleberry and the Irish girl going to the gym together and coming home on the number 18 bus to make a quinoa salad. Deborah would call that ‘making healthy choices’. But I don’t put on weight, even if I eat Burger Fuel, and I’m not very interested in romance, Irish or otherwise.

My goal today is

-I’m sorry, what I meant is-

my goal today is?

I like the punctuation gimmick. I tuck the notebook back in my bag and mentally wish Huckleberry a good day as we pull into the Kelburn shops.

*

Deborah is standing outside her office when I get off the bus. She is a few houses away from me, standing in a huddle on the footpath with the physiotherapist and the naturopath. I can see her holding both hands to her cheeks, staring down at the ground and nodding at the things they are saying. The semi-circle of their bodies together make an audience of the building. I think they must be arguing over whether to paint it, but then I notice the broken window.

The naturopath spots me standing there, holding back, and murmurs something to prompt Deborah’s attention. I watch Deborah put on Her Professional Self. She kindly pretends not to be flustered, not to wish I didn’t have an appointment this morning.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “We’ve had a break-in, and I’m afraid it’s rather thrown our routine this morning.”

She confers with the others quickly, checking with them that they’re happy to wait on for the police, and then suggests to me that we go have a coffee and ‘our chat’.

I don’t know whether it is the changed setting, without its familiar cues of structure and purpose and status, that has thrown Deborah, or if she is upset about the break-in. But she is awkward as we navigate what to order, who is to pay, and where we are to sit. I find the change refreshing and think this will be our best meeting, but when we finally sit facing each other, I can tell that Deborah’s heart is not in it. She completely forgets about my role model assignment and stammers out some questions about my week.

“Did they steal anything?” I ask.

She looks at me blankly. “I’m sorry?”

“The people who broke in to your office. Did they take anything?”

“Laptops. An iPod and speaker. They broke things, mainly. Trashed the place.”

I balance my fork across my water glass. Then a teaspoon through the spokes of the fork.

“That happened to my Dad’s house once.”

The salt shaker on the other end of the fork.

“Did they find out who broke in?”

“Nah,” I shrug. “I don’t think they cared too much really, the police. They could see Dad had loads of other stuff, and it was just meaningless things he could replace. TV, golf clubs, fishing rods, you know.”

“Replace, maybe.” Her lifestyle consultant voice kicks in now. “But they would have meaning to your father. He had worked hard for them. He would have valued them, I’m sure.”

I shrug again. “I guess so.”

“Well, today I lost things that I value. That I treasure. Bits of art I’ve collected in my travels. Memories of things I’ve done and places I’ve been. Places all over the world. Things I’ve worked hard for.” Her voice wobbles.

Tealight candle on top of the salt shaker. That’s quite a tricky one.

We sit in silence for a bit. She seems agitated. I consider suggesting she try balancing her own forks and teaspoons. It seems like it would do her good.

“So, how are you going with your daily goals?” She finally asks, in a tone of concession. Conceding to her duty, to having to take in an interest in me. I know she’d rather leave me to it and get out of here, and I feel badly for her.

“Quite well, I think.” I take out my notebook. “I’m writing things down all the time.”

“May I. . .?” She gestures to the book, pleasant surprise in her voice. Pleasant surprise on her face. It quickly settles back into the previous look of agitation.

“These are just haikus, aren’t they?”

I don’t understand the word ‘just’ in the sentence. “They’re building blocks.”

She looks at me. She waits.

“They’re specific details.”

“They’re supposed to be goals.”

“Yes,” I nod, “that make up the superstructure. The whole world, where our world is whole. Like all the bits of art from all the places you’ve been.” 

She bursts into tears. Ragged and messy crying that makes me tip over the ikebana cutlery in my hands. Two sugar sachets fall in her coffee.

“I don’t have time for this.” Her words are bubbly with snot and anger. She picks up her handbag and leaves. It is the right decision, and I am happy for her. She has chosen her path, and my father will have to accept that her path, too, is a disappointment to him.

For a moment I sit feeling sorry for my father, who cannot identify-acknowledge-shelve all the irritation that his love for me produces. The branches and blooms of my life, the creativity within the structure, are not balanced together in a way that he can savour. I wonder briefly about setting him up on a date with Kerry. I like the thought of them together, admiring the healthy choices they make with the cushions and vases and clocks and salad servers of their home.

There is still tea in my teapot (sheltered from the debris of falling ikebana sugar sachets), and so I sit for a while in the first of my new Wednesdays. Next Wednesday I won’t need to get the number 18 bus. I won’t be able to cheer for Huckleberry’s romance, nor The Banana Eater’s revenge. It makes me sad, but only because somebody should appreciate those moments. I’ll find other people in my new Wednesdays, but will other people find them?

Evie once wrote, in an open letter to the World 5-7-5 Championship judging panel of 1994, “Thank you for the honour that you have once again bestowed on me with this year’s title, but I cannot help but resent you: my fellow competitors keep expressing their joy for me, but I have nobody to feel happy for, only everyone else to feel sorry for. The more I win, the less I understand what winning is.”

An elderly man in socks and sandals creeps along the sunny side of Upland Road, carrying a newspaper like a baby. He stops and looks around him with a creaky twist, before scratching his back against the corner of a phone-box. I know that he is enjoying it, because his tongue pokes out a little. I add him to my treasures, Old Man Scratchy, and watch him amble slowly on into his day. I take out my notebook and cross out the last entry.

My goal today is

-no, what I mean to say is-

today is my goal.

 

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About Liesl Nunns

Liesl Nunns completed a doctorate in Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford in 2011. She co-edits a literary journal, Headland, and her work has been published in Southerly, Hawai'i Review, Two Thirds North, Takahe, Print-Oriented Bastards, Ember, Terrain.org, and Hippocampus Magazine. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

Liesl Nunns

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