Where Was I

by Jenny Wales Steele

Steele_WhereWasI_imageRumormonger. Six letters. Ends with p. Gossip. I pencil it into the crossword, now let the finely sharpened Ticonderoga-Dixon spin laxly in my hand. I sip my coffee. Simply, unhurriedly, I sip my coffee. There is no alarm clock, no lecture to whet, no faculty brouhaha. There is only the slow lope to the market as the coffee brews, the trek back with the newspaper, and now the sitting. I indulge, I loll in stillness, ensconced in the pit of morning.

Shed. Four letters. Starts with m. A noun? No. A verb. Molt. I jot it in. Granted. Seven letters. Fifth letter is w. I think, Allowed. I think, Yes, I’m allowed anything now. It’s what Christina said yesterday. I’m allowed anything, Mother. Those tiny barbs on the phone. As if we never allowed her anything.

A five-letter word for check. Ends with b. Curb. An eight-letter word for lackadaisical. Ends with ess. Listless. A lovely word, how it fits in the mouth, not a sloppy word, it demands articulation. I say it out loud. Silly old woman. I say, Listlessness. Even better, with its hiss. A word I should have used with the Dean of Humanities as I turned in my terse, pert letter. Behind his round specs, he blinked blankly at me. Fool, twerp. Motes drifting in a sheet of light. The smell of potted violets and his ham sandwich lunch. I pivoted on my heel and walked out. The end of splendid academia.

I finish my coffee and go inside for another cup. I ease the screen door shut, not letting it slam. How I hate when a door slams. I pour coffee and pad back out to the deck, my flip-flops snicking. Another lovely sound. Snick, snick, listless. I settle again into my Adirondack and I breathe. The tang of pine. The gentle lapping of the lake. My entire history within me, in this body that has always been a delight, clad now in khaki shorts and a sleeveless top. I touch the slope of one breast, I touch a clavicle. This, here, now, me. I am a beautiful woman, if graying now, if not so lithe.

A seven-letter word for witchcraft. Starts with s, ends with y. Sorcery. I write it in and jut my chin at the sun. Witchcraft, that old song I always loved. That boozed sorority girl at a college dance, in pearly silk, my chignon coming loose. I twirled into Henry. Oops. Hello. I’m Ellen. Our eyes locked. Our souls, too. In an instant. It does happen.

I lower my gaze to the lake, its blue-black surface with hardly a ripple. On the opposite shore, at a wooden jetty, a young man is setting out in a rowboat, alone. He is lean and sinewy, shirtless, pale, with chestnut brown hair. An aura of murk about him. A story in him. A narrative.

And in me, too. It had all been so straightforward until suddenly it wasn’t. My strictly contrived self, my tenure at the university. My life with Henry, my maddening, charming husband. A year ago, his heart sputtered out and he widowed me. As he exhaled his final breath, I had only one thought: Vermont. It meant a cabin in the little town where we vacationed. It meant selling the house and getting rid of the accumulation. All of it sold in a whoosh. I imagine our things scattered around Boston: cutlery, lamps, the antiques, my library, Henry’s collection of cast iron banks. All of it is other people’s now. Someone is looking in my teak-framed mirror, a mirror that had held only my face. Someone is flinging a line with one of Henry’s fishing rods. So, too, the house is someone else’s. Proud colonial with a façade of classical columns, with gorgeous floors. Someone is sanding away the nicks in the jamb of the pantry door, where with a knife we marked our children’s heights. All traces of us vanishing.

Severance, hasty and fine. It isn’t a sour grapes kind of situation. Words I heard the other day. No, not sour grapes, only, after I lost Henry, an escape. Someone said, Won’t you miss it? No, I said, not a bit. But it’s not true. I miss flashes of it. Bicycling to school with a satchel of texts. The urgency of spilling Keats, Yeats, Donne into ears accustomed only to slang and uh. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. Whispering poems, making my students lean towards me. There were moments. Now I seek balance and serenity in this genteel wilderness. Keen mercy. A seven-letter word for bedlamite. Third letter is n. Lunatic. The c fits neatly with the c of curb. A four-letter word for fuzzy fruit. Second letter is the i of listless. Kiwi. I pencil it in.

I had a going-away party, a bash in June. Friends, dear old friends. The children were there too, Kevin and Christina wordless, Amy with words cached in her mouth. A catered party in the almost empty house. I had to rent folding chairs and tables. Cater-waiters prowled with trays of hors d’oeuvres and flutes of bubbly. My guests mingled and yawped and the bare hall was cacophonous. They circulated around me. Look at you, Ellen. What a hell of a woman. You’ve toughed it out. And now a dramatic amscray. They wanted a speech. A flourish of literary allusions and bawdy quips. No doubt I dazzled.

A six-letter word for imitate. Starts with p. Parody. I sip my cooling coffee. A six-letter word for Florence museum. F in it. Uffizi. Ah, the Uffizi. It’s here in my memory, so vivid. It crowds an entire cluster of synapses. Not a cloud in the sky that morning in Florence. Italian sunshine. It had an essence to it, as if it were ancient, culpable, not a candid, guileless American sky. Henry and I stepped out into this sun. Titian’s Venus of Urbino in me. Botticelli’s Primavera. There too was a poxed, tattered child, a character in an etching of the Plague. I tossed shiny lire into his tin cup. We were tra-la-la-ing through Italy after we sent Kevin to a military academy. It was meant to end months of carping. Henry, my love. He had a Polaroid camera and he snapped a shot of me and he flapped it as we strolled away, and as we entered a narrow via of boutiques, my image emerged. Not an unhappy woman.

The Uffizi. When I think of it, it links to Kevin, our blade of a son. He caused no scene at my goodbye party, but there was fury in his eyes, a villainous squint. The tough guy slouch, the oily reek. The harm in him and no tenderness. He phoned recently. I was sauntering in the forest when my cell chirped in my pocket. I paused in a brake of ferns and hesitated, but the blood tug was too strong. Mom? Kevin is in Miami of all places, has become a partner in a customized t-shirt venture. But I need a touch of cash, Mom. Said with casual supplication. So I sent him money. It’s easier than trying to unknot the hurts.

I scan the lake again, watch the rowboat as the young man oars it deftly across the placid water. I wonder about him, about his hurts. So hard to pinpoint someone else’s hurts. My children’s. All those analytical nights after a tantrum. All those seething meals after a squall of blame. But they’re not all wayward, I murmured to Henry in his hospital bed, as his hand slackened in my hand. Amy’s settled. She has Alan. They’re trying again, though the doctors advise against it. But Henry shut his eyes, was caught in the quagmire of ancient memories. We failed them, Ellen. Another hurt.

A five-letter word for swindle. Final letter is k. Trick. So imitate with a p isn’t parody. It has to end with t for trick. Parrot. I erase, flick rubber crumbs away with a pinky, and pencil in. A scarf of breeze furls my neck and I tilt an ear towards the garden gate, thinking the breeze will cause the hinges and latch to squeal. But I fixed that. They had become loose and the slightest gust pulled at them, made them cry out. I studied this yesterday and sallied jauntily to the hardware store, giddily smug, suddenly a do-it-yourself zealot. I fixed it. I did. Then as I sat back on my haunches, my cell chirped. Christina. Hello, sweetheart. A throb of music in the background, a metallic wail. She was in her loft studio. Christina! That din! You cannot create in that din! I shouted, thinking, But that’s why she called, to get me to chastise her. In my mind, her studio. After Henry’s death, I took a brief trip to New York to visit her, to attend a solo exhibit. Her studio is chaos and fraught, her abstract canvases, hundreds, in slanted heaps against the walls. Shelves are strewn with supplies: tubes, bottles, brushes. And she has a trestle table: on this is her tactual art, books made of scraps of burlap and sailcloth, with bent and corroded nails and screws stitched or epoxied to them. Her work is uncommon, of prickly angst, and I fathom it, deeply, truly, though she says, No, no, you don’t. Then there’s the music, an irate bleat. Please, Christina, I can’t hear you. An abrupt bump, abrupt silence. What did we discuss yesterday? Some subject that led her to say, I’m allowed anything, Mother. I conjured her at an easel, her raven-black hair in a sloppy ponytail, in holey jeans, eyes lined blackly, daubs of paint on her skin. My beautiful daughter scorning her beauty. I tucked my cell into a pouch of my tool belt, inspected my handyman’s dandy job, thought, and think now, This I fixed. Other things, no.

A six-letter word for mode. In the middle, th. Method. A five-letter word for pretend. Starts with f. False? Feign? I’ll come back to it. I think of Christina again and of Kevin too, how they were always trying to outwit their parents. Maybe they have outwitted us. Me. Those adorable scoundrels! Hardly out of toddlerhood, they made an alliance, an us-against-them pact. It was amusing until it wasn’t, until it became secrets and lies, truancy and theft. I said to them once, I am an eminent scholar and your father is esteemed in finance. I said to them, You cannot be so incorrigible. I said, You cannot be so feckless. But this only kindled the flail, the audacity. We shipped Kevin to a military academy, figuring to diminish his influence on Christina and hers on him. Kevin boiled, fuck you, because he couldn’t cajole, fuck you, I mean it. Christina was sharply sullen and silent but for the slamming of doors, slam!, and she sunk her gloom and jest into art. And there’s Amy, the eldest, the angel, never in the fray, shy and studious. She’s at a distance now, all the way west in Seattle, at a distance in her heart too, bitter, sad. How I rushed to the crazy jangle of the phone in Henry’s study. An eerie midnight, the hoot of an owl, a cold gasp in the marble hearth. We lost it, Mom. Her. A girl. All the blood, Mom. Buckets of blood.

The what ifs of a child. Or of ourselves. I hear Henry’s voice, what he said often. All of the what ifs are in the rear view mirror. It’s sound, smart, but I glance back. What if, at that symposium, I had let that flirtation lead to a hotel, a bed, a tryst? What if I were unfaithful? What if I had packed a suitcase and abandoned Henry and the children? I was ravishing.

A pair of orioles alights on a perch, a shallow box of plywood secured to a deck rail, and they peck at the birdseed. A six-letter word for peril. A z in it. Hazard. A fuzzy fruit, four letters. Kiwi. And so a five-letter word for pretend that starts with f is feign, the i fitting with kiwi. The orioles fly away, swoop to the lake’s shore, ascend with syncopated flaps to the branches of a tall pine. I follow this, now let my eyes drift across the lake to the young man in the rowboat. I was once in a rowboat with a boy. This comes to me now, a shard in the debris of memory. My hand on the boy’s knee. Laughter under a soft gray sky. Mooring in a hidden alcove. A blanket under a willow. Take and yield. So long ago.

Wail, five letters. Ends with ent. Lament. A five letter word for hunt. Middle letter is a. Chase, trail, track? I’ll skip it. A six-letter word for prawn. Starts with sh. Shrimp. As I pencil it in, it makes me think of a funny thing. Sunday, I was dawdling at the marina, having a root beer float, and there was a couple there, fortyish, middle-management types. They were sitting at a rickety little table, sharing a shrimp cocktail, but turned away from one another. Nothing between them, nothing, not a smidgen of love. And then he looked directly at me and said, It’s not a sour grapes kind of situation. I smirked. Of course it wasn’t meant for me. But it was funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but odd, a notification, caution. This couple’s Vermont vacation, planned for months, to escape their cubicles, to have that moment at the picturesque marina. Now they’re home. It will come to the woman, unbidden, as she doodles during a dull seminar, as she has a bubble bath, as she laces a shoe. It isn’t a sour grapes kind of situation. Other people.

I tap the pencil on the crossword. A four-letter word for chess piece. King. No. Rook. The k fits with trick. A four-letter word for sudden impulse. Starts with w. Whim. A seven-letter word for jumpy. Also starts with j. Jittery. The word came to me during my going-away party as Amy, a bit boozed, yanked my elbow and slashed me with, What Kevin and Christina got away with! It’s my turn. I’ll become incorrigible. I’ll become feckless. It was out of character. That had been a theme in my lectures. The great books, I said, pacing in front of my classes, are about characters who act out of character. And so, too, Amy that night. A jittery, other self.

Hungry now, I rise and go into the cabin. Nutty whole grain from the local bakery, textured orange jam. It’s always enough, the simple act of making toast, of lowering the levers, of uncapping the jam. Ordinary and poetic. The comfort of enough. I imagine my children making toast, maybe in this exact same moment, and there is no calculation, no judgment. Only toast. Kevin, in Miami, about to peddle t-shirts, but first, toast. Christina, about to mix a palette of colors, but first, toast. Amy, about to monitor her ovulation schedule, but first, toast. It’s nonsense, of course, this coincidence of my fancy, but it soothes.

Out the window I glimpse the young man in the rowboat. He has reached this side of the lake, has hauled his boat onto the pebbled shore. He assumes that he’s unobserved and he pisses splashily against a pine, seems to weigh the heft of his donkey-ish penis. As the toast pops up, I flinch, as if caught. Donkey-ish? Naughty old girl. Turn away. I blade the jam across the toast, but I look again. He has knelt into the pebbles and is wiping his eyes with the knuckles of his thumbs. Another shattered heart. We all row out alone.

Out on my deck again, eased into my Adirondack, I munch. Scrumptious. With a brisk tap of the pencil, the tip now blunt, I work to the end of the crossword. Jumpstart. Credo. Blot. Ducts. Skeleton. Magic. Patrol. I slap the finished crossword onto the table, plop the pencil after it. And now my day begins. Yet already, in these lazy hours, I’ve cruised the Uffizi, stepped into Italian sunshine, tossed coins into a vagrant child’s tin. I’ve flirted at a symposium, allowed a sexy hint breathed into my ear. I’ve twirled into Henry. I’ve lain under a willow. I’ve rushed words to my students and romanced them. Always the lingering sense of elsewhere and other times. Where have I been. Where was I. Rowing out alone.

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About Jenny Wales Steele

Jenny Wales Steele's fiction has been published in The Ampersand Review, Sou'wester, juked.com, cleavermagazine.com, Quay, onethrone.com, among others, and she has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. A native Arizonan, she now lives in Tucson.

Jenny Wales Steele

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