Wednesday, June 28, 2006
I have trouble falling asleep at night. My wife always suggests warm milk, but I can’t stand the taste of cold milk. And milk looks unnatural in a saucepan, all stretched out. You add to that the chilling image of my mother’s nipple and the fact is I just don’t like warm milk.
But I was in Starbucks the other day with my wife and I was feeling a little exploratory. For the first time I noticed all the foreign-looking names up there on the beverage board. I asked a few questions and had the nice, smiling young lady at the register go through the words with me, explaining the differences between espresso and coffee and steamed milk and scalded milk. The people in line behind me must have been very annoyed. I know my wife was. She hates it when I – what does she say? – “Put your hands in your pockets and raise your chin up like you’re the hot crap who knows everybody.”
I asked about the drink at the bottom. “That’s a Café Au Lait, sir,” said the nice, smiling young lady. I laughed. I turned to my wife and put my arm up like a matador. I yelled, “Olay!” and she rolled her eyes like she wouldn’t mind being run through with a sword. The girl laughed. I kept it up, “You guys are serving body lotion now? What is this, Starbucks Bath and Beyond?” “You’re funny, mister. It’s scalded milk and coffee at a one to one ratio,” she said. “It’s very popular at a café in New Orleans called the Café du Monde. But they brew the coffee with chicory root. We don’t have any of that, so I could put in some cinnamon for you.”
I pulled my chin up a little more. “Is that so?” The young woman leaned in real close over the register. Her hair fell over her eyes and I could see a bit of her boobies hanging out of her apron. She practically whispered to me, “It’s also called a misto.”
It seemed a very awkward situation indeed and I needed to get out of it. “Oh, I dunno, I can’t drink all that caffeine. I’d never get to sleep. I’ll tell you what, though. I’ll go home and think it over.” She looked surprised and asked me if I wasn’t going to get anything. “No, no, just browsing today.” As my wife huffed her way to the car, I stopped to fill out a customer survey card. Under service I checked “Legendary.”
Driving to the grocery store after Starbucks, I felt I had to defend myself. “She didn’t say ‘mistress,’ she said, ‘misto’!” “Of course she didn’t say ‘mistress’!” my wife shot back, “You’re the one who doesn’t know what decaf is!” It was then the epiphany struck. “Eureka! Misto!” I undid my pants. If ever I have something to remember, an errand to run or a message to give, I’ll reach down under my gut and undo my belt buckle. This way, when someone tells me my epidermis is showing, that errand will float up to the top of my brain, I’ll pull up my pants, and go deliver that message.
I was whistling while I walked down the you-grind-coffee bean aisle with my customary gallon of cereal skim. I take it upon myself to say “Hello” to those I pass in grocery aisles. I was about to greet this one woman and the cutie-patootie in her cart when she screamed and I fell flat on my face with my pants around my ankles. Ah yes! I remembered: put one and one together! I could use the warm milk to get me to sleep but I wouldn’t have to taste it because of the coffee and the coffee wouldn’t keep me up because it would be decaf! I picked up some instant and, although I didn’t want to keep my wife waiting any longer in the car, I just had to get some sugarless whipped cream to go with.
I spent all evening in anticipation of bedtime. When the clock struck eight and my missus had disrobed, by God the milk was on the stove. And once milk and coffee began to steam, away I went dripping the milk into the java, watching each strand and rivulet creep down my glass, stirring until a milky way could spin without me. I have to tell you, it smelled fantastic--and so completely new. I took the mug up to bed with me and got all under the covers with it. The first few sips were strange, but halfway in I couldn’t remember what I was drinking, it tasted so good. I know it’s just milk and coffee, but it came off as chocolate. I thought to myself: “I wonder what chicory root is,” and, “Do we have any cinnamon?” “No!” said the other side of the bed, “be quiet!” “But it’s my misto, it’s so…” And I fell totally asleep.
The next morning, I woke up earlier than I ever have, but rested. The gentle misto that lulled my lids shut turned my sleep into espresso--packed, locked, and shot through with steam. Downstairs, I found the sun in places I didn’t know it knew, coming in through the patio doors and onto the kitchen table. I was sitting there looking at the spotlit bowl of fruit when I noticed a sort of round hollowness in my chest, like my torso was an empty jug, and for some reason the feeling made me want to wrap my arms around the table and pull it into me. It would have been impossible then, but the challenge would be even more gratifying, I thought, if the table were bigger. I pulled out the extension my wife was always nagging me to put in so we could have more guests over (don’t ask me who). I opened up the tops, slid in the spare. “Well, that’s different.” I breathed in like I was hugging the table.
Saturday morning, Mr. Nibbs was in his armchair gathering information. Not a wise man, Mr. Nibbs, but nevertheless a man who knew a great deal of information. Most people, including the wise, are content not to know most things. They do not know, say, the physical stats of every unborn child born in the last quarter century, or which relics were ransacked in the second tier of the Christian Crusades; and their not knowing does not impede them from enjoying the basic pleasures of life--say, a bleedless-gum tooth-brushing session. Untrue for Mr. Nibbs. He knew what happened if it happened.
Mrs. Nibbs was returning home from the mall that same Saturday morning. The mall is an unhappy place for Mrs. Nibbs. It seems that no matter what length she goes to prevent a shoelace or a dress hem from entering the gears of the escalator, something creeps in and ruins her day. For Saturday’s outing she took the extra measure of buying Velcro shoes and that seemed to do the trick. She even ran up the escalator, showing no consideration to the women and children who happened to be in her way since, as she reasoned, the less time spent on the infernal invention the less chance there was for embarrassment. But she ran up the down escalator. Once she reconciled the disparity between the distance of her object and the exhaustion of her legs, she simply stopped, filled her face with blood, and rode down.
Mr. and Mrs. Nibbs took a walk together in the afternoon, after Mrs. Nibbs had calmed down over an Edy’s lunch and Mr. Nibbs had finished the Britannica B’s. Mr. Nibbs had heard of a lodge a couple of local beavers were building and since he had spent much of the morning admiring the crepuscular habits of the aquatic mammals, he decided that Saturday was as good a day as any to walk with the wife down to the lake and see the new digs. “It’s very impressive,” said Mrs. Nibbs. “Fine craftsmanship,” said Mr. Nibbs, “although two more weeks of fine craftsmanship and there won’t be any forest around here, just a big beaver mansion.” “Is that so bad? I’m happy for them.”
Looking over the lodge, both Nibbs were filled with images of beaver china and beaver furniture, both entertained the desire to attend a beaver luncheon at the beaver home, though both were too embarrassed to admit it to one another. They walked silently back to their own home where it was already getting to be time to tidy up the kitchen and read the Evening Post, to prepare dinner.
It’s not my fault I was named Tina. Don’t blame me for Tina. I’m flat-chested, I have thin lips, and I’m brunette. To you, I can be Edith.
My parents have men over ripping up the carpet in my bedroom and putting in hardwood floors. It’s about time, I’ve begged for this for months. It’s my Christmas present. It’s June. My parents have rented me an apartment to stay in until my room is put back together. They’ll call when I can come back.
There’s a high school nearby, thank God it’s not the one I graduated from, and I run a good racket picking kids up from the cafeteria and taking them out to eat. I park in a lot next to the school’s. I lean against my car and wait. Kids come running out of the cafeteria ducking down low with a jacket thrown over their heads. They pay and we go to Hardee’s.
It used to be three or four kids a day, groups and double dates. But it’s gotten to be just this one kid, Jeffrey. “I’m running out of quarters, I can’t pay you today,” Jeffrey says. “You have a cafeteria,” and I lean intimidating. “Pleeease!” It’s those eyes. I take him to Hardee’s.
Things loosen up when he doesn’t have to pay me. He starts getting personal. “Is Edith your real name?” he asks me. “Yes. Is Jeffrey your real name?” “No.” He asks if I like going to the movies in the daytime. I tell him I only ever matinee. I shouldn’t have been that honest. Our relationship moves swiftly out of Hardee’s and I say goodbye to afternoon daylight for the summer.
The call comes. The floors are in. “Mom, Dad – Jeffrey will be enjoying the floors with me.” Jeffrey takes quickly to his new bedroom, sliding wall to wall in his stocking feet as I move in my books.
Jeffrey and I mosey downstairs Christmas mid-Day. There is nothing under the tree. “We gave you hardwood floors!” is the rent’s sorry defense. “So?!” “You said it was your Christmas present!” The camel is on the floor but no amount of writhing will fix his back. I turn to Jeffrey to escape whatever the next straw will break. “Jeffrey, do you know what an Amtrak is?”
Jeffrey gets the upper berth and I the lower. New Year’s Eve there’s a party in the dining car. Jeffrey has been promising to kill the lights at midnight and murder Mrs. Pearl. She and her husband, that’s Mr. Pearl, are spending their eighth honeymoon slowly crossing the country, the same way Jeffrey and I are spending our young adulthood. They stay in the compartment next to ours and keep us up every night shouting gin rummy scores and reminiscing very loudly.
Jeffrey conspires, “I’ll pull her skirt down and empty a bottle of aspirin up her” – “She’ll scream!” I reason. “I’ll whisper in her ear, ‘Don’t scream.’”
The lights do go out at midnight and it’s true, I never see Mrs. Pearl again. But Jeffrey never says anything. I think he’s disappointed there’s no investigation, no detective, and Mr. Pearl doesn’t stop reminiscing at the top of his lungs. I learn these sorts of dis-appointments really wreck Jeffrey. “It can’t all be matinee,” I reason again. Luckily, the coast comes and wipes away the train melee.
I’ve never been to the West and neither has Jeffrey, but he seems to know exactly what to do. He opens a briefcase, one he’s never opened before and that I’ve always been a little curious about. It’s full of movie magazines, Flick and My Idol.
Jeffrey gets us an apartment with a sea view. It’s carpeted. “Are you going to audition?” I ask Jeffrey. “No.” There’s even more need on the coast to fight the gentleman’s club connotations of my name with heavy scarves and trench coats. All the kids at the local high schools already have cars and already go out to lunch. There’s not a lot for me to do.
Jeffrey should be bored, too, but he’s not. After one unemployed month, the drive wells up inside him and he takes a bus to the offices of My Idol. He walks straight into the studio and sets himself in front of a fan. The issue devoted to Jeffrey’s face is framed and displayed above our fireplace.
H. Xerxes-Heidegger conquered Asia Minor with an understated glance. Everything he ever did was to achieve a royal boredom. “Build me a palace!” he shouted to native peasants. “And one with mirrored floors and freshly-scented towels at that!” The palace was built and a lounging decade later he considered city drainage.
Neil’s history teacher splayed his hairy hands on Neil’s desk and leaned in close to his face. “What did I just say?” said the teacher. “Xerxes…royal boredom…freshly-scented towels?” was Neil’s unfortunate reply.
Out on the streets again. It’s only so many times a week you can get kicked out of school before believing you’re the savior. Neil was stomping down his old Main Street grounds and into the usual haunts for the eighth time that week. He ordered a mocha with an understated glance.
No such luck. Fictional conquistador Neil was not. He gave it the necessary words and was whisked to sugary caffeine intellect. “Perhaps the disgust,” he thought to himself, “I see in other people is better left in dreams. Would I day more easy if I didn’t project ugly?”
The thought could not pass unnapkined. A woman in front of him, a woman glamorously concerned with each part of her appearance save for her prosaic tomboy haircut, was blotting a napkin over her frappe lips. Neil snatched it out from under her. “Better you dribble!” He rolled ballpoint on napkin: “Would I day more easy” - the napkin tore. “Mother!”
A boy the girls think is delicate and shy and caring and horse-hung behind that apron approached Neil’s table. “That woman there,” Apron Boy gestured to Frappe Lips, “asked me to ask you to leave.”
Out on the streets again. Something Neil had heard of from family and flyers flew past him, one of those “critical mass” bicycle gangs. Most were a wash of neon and thigh, but lagging behind like a lonely hippo befriending gazelles was one cyclist pulling a two-wheeled canopied carriage. Neil thought fast, jumped inside it.
The cyclist didn’t seem to notice the extra weight, which was great because Neil nearly sat on the cyclist’s two year old. “Hello. Sorry about that. Are you related to the driver?” “Gaflgglbph.” Neil’s knees were encroaching on his eye sockets, but still he kept up the small talk. “Do you know where we’re going?” “Mucktkklbush.”
With the caffeine and the newfound friend, the potential for mind-gorging conversation was high, but like H. Xerxes-Heidegger, all moved to ennui; the plastic flap of window beckoned, conversation aside and harmless staring instead. He followed the mass deep into the South.
Two or three ugly things passed by, but Neil remembered the intent of the torn napkin: “Perhaps the disgust, etc.” And when the gang stopped to eat in Atlanta and they found poor Neil copping a ride and they called the police to drive him away, Neil thought twice before throwing the two year-old over a bridge. He thought twice, then threw the two year-old over a bridge.
There was more harmless window-gazing on the police ride home. Neil was learning to be happy.
Noah had a creationist science teacher hell-bent on deposing coastal idolatry. Each hour was a pulpit plea for disbelief in retreating icecaps and stem cells and peace in the Mideast. Nevertheless, the creationist science teacher spent one period insisting on the evolutionary purpose of body hair to protect salient features of anatomy. He pointed to the brain and the eyebrows and the feet of Hobbits as examples. He might have pointed to the pubics as well. The teacher was an activist lawyer during the summer and it was his great ambition to rid the world of pornography via subpoena. Nether-hair, he believed, was pushed out from skin to underwear by the hand of God in order to obscure what a lens could otherwise record.
Doubt grows on the young in follicle form. The students did not ask how hair could possibly stand up against a well-heaved rock. Nor did they point out that their creationist science teacher, with his ever-widening monastic cap, doubtless had little left to protect. But Noah, at the hirsute age of fifteen, had his intelligence armed to the death with doubt. He would not be captured by the cannibals inhabiting the island of ignorance that is the Midwest. He marched right up to his public school library that day and asked for a book on Global Warming. Had he arrived five minutes later, the book would have been thrown out with the others deemed illegible by the state. The plump librarian at the helm fished the book out of a box marked “Science” and Noah took it back to the farm.
He spent the weekend in the field curled up on freshly baled hay reading the new book. If he had read it indoors his mother would have seen and thrown it into the fire. She was not an angrily religious woman, but she knew Noah’s sensitive imagination could be easily inspired to turn against him. But was what happened in the field Noah’s creation? Looking up from his book with furry, furrowed brows, he could swear he smelt saline in the air. Though there were plenty of decaying field mice around, what he heard was not the call of a vulture. He squinted looking up and saw a seagull struggling to catch a thermal.