Angels Carry The Sun
FIRST BYLINES: In many respects it’s easier to publish an established, even an award-winning writer, than it is to publish someone for the first time.
Finn liked white-bread sandwiches. In June I forfeited all my free cafeteria lunches to sit with him during his quiet lunch breaks in the classroom.
“Eleven more days of class,” I told him. He sat at his big teacher’s desk; I sat on a chair pulled up aside it, watching sunlight from the window slant across his amazingly hairless arms.
“And you’ll forget all about me,” he replied. He was beautiful, all dark locks and blue eyes.
He couldn’t possibly mean that.
“I would never forget you,” I murmured.
“You say that now. Just wait until you find someone who entirely dazzles you.” His hands rested on the dark green desktop pad. In one he held a pencil by its tip while the forefinger of his other hand absentmindedly stroked it.
“I can’t even think of anyone else.”
“You will, Flora.” He laid the pencil down.
For some reason I remember with absolute clarity the stratification of roast beef, cheese, and mayonnaise in that sandwich as he sat there eating and I sat there wanting him. It was almost over for us.
His wife is a seamstress. She has a little tourist trap boutique down in Croyville where she sells her own designs. Pink pillbox hats, leopard purses, diaphanous blue gowns, light as air; her shop has the feel of an enchanted attic. She has a flair for color combinations and vintage styles. The tourists adore it. I even used to stop and admire the stuff in her windows myselfbefore I realized who she was and recognized her as the deserving recipient of unmitigated loathing. It’s too bad. Her dresses are pretty. But given the situation, it just makes me hate her more. I even hate her name. Letitia. Otherwise known as Lottie.
* * *
When Mary Shelly was nineteen she wrote Frankenstein. I’m nineteen and all I do is lug a vacuum cleaner and plot seduction. And the vacuum’s clunky. One of its wheels is twisted and it won’t roll right. The seduction hasn’t always rolled right either but it’s a work in progress and it’ll get better. I wrestle the vacuum back into the hotel linen closet to accompany stacks of Soft Petal bath bars and cans of lemon furniture polish and return to the stillness of the upstairs hallway with a rag to dust a corner table.
The afternoon gold of August beams through windowpanes, dropping diamonds to the carpet. To my right, guest room doors line the hall. The hallway is vacant except for me. I reach the end and stand in a checkerboard of light, dust rag in hand.
Voices come from behind room 16’s door. A girl’s rises like a wind-battered kite, while a man’s stays low, a mooring string.
“I’m sick of this.” The girl’s shrillness has not yet broken into the realm of actual yelling. “Why don’t you just tell her? You said you wanted to wait until after Christmas. Well it’s many moons since then, and you still haven’t told her!” A pause, then “What if I were pregnant? Would that change anything?” Something thumps against a wall, a loud, defiant sound, followed by sudden tears.
I think I know who they arebusing breakfast in the dining room this morning I saw them sharing a table overlooking the river. A dark-haired, thirty-something woman and a slightly older man with silver strands in his hair, sipping mugs of coffeehe tight-lipped and implacable, she searching his face for answers. As breakfast ended with the last of the clearing away and wiping up of coffee rings, they had stared dismally out the window at the beautiful, unheeding river, which was jungle green and carrying little flecks of sky, a comfort to me, not them.
“Amanda, please. You’re not pregnant. Calm down. If you can’t contain yourself enough to keep your voice down, the entire hotel will know our business.” His voice gathers sentences like folds of cloth, loosely at first, then tightly at the end, into a ball.
I strain to hear but all is quiet. Perhaps she has slipped out the back door to be alone by the river. Given my own situation, it’s all too easy for me to empathize with her frustration. I imagine that in a suicidal desperation she’s thrown herself into the river, allowing the churning water to sweep her body away, to harness it with twigs and bark, to mark the tattoo of a wet leaf upon her brow. She’s considered it, maybe, like me. I bet my situation is worse than hers though. Her lover may be married, but they’re closer in age than Finn and Ihe can’t possibly be her high school English teacher.
The dark-haired woman is probably just lying face down across the bed while the salt-and-pepper guy sits in the corner wicker chair in that red polo shirt of his waiting for her to snap out of it. During my cleaning rounds I leave Hotel De La Fleur matchboxes in all the guests’ ashtrays. Earlier this afternoon it repulsed me how quickly the little flowered matchbox in room 16 had been replaced by a mound of ashes and butts.
The smell of smoke creeps under the door into the hallway. Very close to the door now, I hear the man take an accentuated, staccato drag.
* * *
I hesitate outside 16’s door while the argument continues, afraid that one of them will burst out the door any moment and catch me eavesdropping, but too curious to tiptoe away.
“Do you want out?” He exhales his smoke. “It’s at your discretion.”
“I don’t want out. I want you. Just you.” Her voice is a water-saturated whine, as if she actually has returned from the vast, unceasing torrent just beyond the patio and has kept some of it with her.
“If that’s what you want you will sink like a stone,” he spits, “It’s a package dealI’ve got kids. There are more variables here than just you and me.”
“You’re so selfish. I’m a low ranking fourth.”
“You knew the situation when you got into this.”
“I knew I loved you.”
“Well, maybe you should rethink that.”
“You don’t rethink a feeling, you callous bastard.”
“You need to get a grip on yourself. I’m going out.”
I hear one of the easy-slide drawers of the dresser slam shut and the sound of a newspaper thudding into a can like a blunt punctuation mark. They have a love triangle with dented sides. The smell of smoke is stifling. I have to get away.
* * *
The dining room is a long porch lined all the way down with windows overlooking the river. I vacuum crumbs from among a forest of wrought iron table and chair legs. The afternoon refreshment crowd has left behind torn packets of sugar, empty iced tea glasses, and vanilla wafer crumbs mostly in the vicinity of the buffet table. At least the downstairs vacuum is better behaved than the upstairs vacuum. I glance at the river. A moving mosaic of murky browns, greens, and sky reflections, the Delaware brims its banks from recent rain. It courses by, carrying shattered branches, sodden leaves, brown twigs, crushed dragonflies, dreams of love. The enormous beauty of the river coupled with the absolute silence of its current makes me think of how loud the creek behind Finn’s house is. I envision him lying nude in the moonlight on the wicker couch on his front porch while the Pocongecan Creek rushes by, a channel of nocturnal music.
If Finn were mine I wouldn’t have to vacuum this crumby brick floor. No, we’d take our breakfast buffet and a la carte dinners here with the New York weekenders. At dinner, pheasant-laden tables would have candles lit like fireflies, while outside the pedestrian bridge would unfurl itself like a cabled web. I’d press my feet against his, eyes shining.
Okay, cut the crap, I tell myself... this Finn thing is over. It’s O-VER. I’ll be starting college in a matter of weeks. It’ll be a whole new life. There’s no turning back. So although I’ve just mentally lit every one of the virgin-white table candles, now I have to blow them all out. Poof. Poof. Poof. All out. Romance dispelled. I have plenty of other things I can think about after all. The Rest of My Life is always an option. And of course, let’s not forget crumpled napkins and cookie crumbs. Let’s not forget vacuuming.
* * *
All summer my mother, Nora, has been giving me rides to and from the hotel. I wait for her at a picnic table on the towpath and look out over the river flowing by in its afternoon tree-juice color, all greeny-brown. She’s late again. The road is behind me but I know it’s her when she pulls up; I can always tell by the tootling sound of our Volkswagon. It’s a Bug, the color of a ripe juneberry, with a white butterfly she painted hovering on the fender. She’s the starving-artist type. That’s why I got the free lunches at school.
“Hi.” I wedge myself into the junk-filled car. There are hay bales in the back and it smells like summer.
Mom starts talking right away. She hardly looks at me or acknowledges my presence. She just starts blabbing. Nothing stops her. I shove her Ball jars of beans and cabbage over on the seat until they hit an astrology book by the parking brake.
“Those two boys in my chemistry class are at it again, cheating on their assignments, and they’re so blatant about it, flaunting it like it’s a big joke. Jeff was practically simpering today when he said what a hard test it was. She just overlooks everything they dothey’re under her wing. They don’t really know how to work out the problems and they should know this stuff for their major. They’re going to be nuclear physicists.” She still doesn’t look at me as she pushes the shift through the gears and the car fills up with wind. I look out the window.
“Maybe she doesn’t really know they’re cheating,” I say, defending Mom’s professor. Mom is a serious student who works hard at her community college courses. But sometimes it seems that ninety percent of her commentary on the human race is negative. I should know; I’ve known her all my life.
“Oh, she knows, all right.” Mom is vehement. “She looks the other way while they copy. And she’s always rescheduling tests if anyone whines even the tiniest bit. It punishes the people who are actually prepared. And when I suggested we spend more time in class going over the homework, she completely ignored me. She doesn’t like me. When I ask a question, she’s patronizing and tries to make me look stupid. And her left headlight is out. So I know she thinks I’m supplying drugs to the campus.” Mom thought anyone whose car had a headlight out was sent by the narcs to keep an eye on her.
Outside the car, the late afternoon light has deepened to a heavy, soporific gold. From the foot of a mountain, a cornfield grows to the edge of the road. Among its green shafts and tasseled ears, dark hollow spaces shift shape with slight changes of the breeze, hiding places.
“I stayed late at the library Thursday night, the night it rained so much. She was right behind me as I pulled out of the parking lot and her left headlight was out. She thinks I’m a dealer.” She squints her eyes accusingly.
I don’t think Mom has ever trimmed her hair in my lifetime. A chestnut tendril of it in front of her ear escapes her ponytail and twirls in hectic circles in the wind. I follow the twirling down to the constellations of freckles on her arms, and that galaxy leads my eyes to her hands: spatulate, flat-nailed, palelike the rest of herwith ringless fingers. No one ever married her.
My dad, Jack, lives in Massachusetts. I don’t remember a time when he ever lived with us. He always tells me, “Flora, you are a survivor.” The letters he sends me are like styrofoam life preservers thrown over the edge of a big boat.
“We have to make sure we lock the door at night because if word gets back to Jim Beam that she thinks I have drugs, he might try to come here.” My mother thinks her alcoholic ex may come and cause trouble over a delusion lost to anyone but herself. As if he really cares.
“Okay, Mom.” I give her one of my disaffected you’re crazy-but-I’ll-humor-you looks.
She steers the Bug down our long, forested, gullied driveway, trying not to bottom out at the end. She, my sister Alice, and I live on a mountaintop; in some parts of the country it might be called a hill, but in Pennsylvania, it’s a mountain. Our house overlooks a lush field, twisting trees, a deep valley with an orchard that blooms pink in spring, and distant mountains spreading out along the horizon in blue symmetry. The river is obscured, tucked like a thin ribbon into the lowest stretch of land below. In the morning when I’m getting ready for work, mists rise from the river like angels carrying the sun in their arms. If it weren’t for the house, which Alice and I refer to as “this hell-hole” or “the snake pit,” the place would be perfect.
The house is basically a multicolored cinderblock Lego with a tar roof. Very Cubist. Nora just used whatever paint she could find in any of the junk cars or outbuildings when it needed touching up. So it’s blue, pink, brown, and beigeand dark and crumbling and an eyesore. One hippie tenant of the past left a large, round acid painting peeling itself into psychedelic decay next to the tool shed. The painting is one of the first things you see when you approach the house. We enter from the back door and pass it on the way. It’s caught my glances through four years of high school as I walked past it, through weeds or snow, on my way to and from the bus stop. Good morning, undulating magenta sunburst; good afternoon, dreaming alligators.
When Mom and I push through the paint-chipped gingerbread of the screen door into the kitchen, Alice is talking on the phone with a friend. There is a pot of tomato sauce simmering on a camp stove and a box of spaghetti on the table. Alice is a pretty girl. She doesn’t look at all like me. Her hair is straight and blond, her eyes light blue. She looks like the girls in magazine ads. My hair, under favorable, brightly lit conditions, is auburn. It’s also a frizzy, uncontrollable mess. My eyes are green, my complexion not the hottest, and sometimes I think I have a pig nose. So much for the beautiful heroine. And Alice is more popular at school than I ever was. She gets more phone calls and she has dates. She’s not shy like me and she would not even consider a teacher romantically.
“No, I want to wear my black dress,” Alice says into the phone. “I’m going to meet him down at The Double Scoopwe’re going with Jan and Greg,” she continues. She’s setting up some kind of date.
“Oh my God, she’s hanging out with the Brady Bunch now,” I say spitefully. Alice hangs up the phone.
“How was work?” Mom asks her. She sounds truly interested. Alice is working at the local ice cream joint, The Double Scoop, this summer.
“A cop pulled someone over out front today.”
“Oh?” Mom says.
“Yeah, everybody was watching to see if he got a ticket while they ate their cones. One of his blinkers was out.” Alice answers.
“One of his blinkers was out?” Nora looks down at her pale hands and frowns.
“He just got a warning,”
A pause, then, “Jan takes good care of her car, doesn’t she? I don’t want you driving around in a dangerous car.” Jan is Alice’s friend from The Double Scoop. Alice rides with her to work.
“Yeah, her dad takes care of it,” Alice replies, “Oh, Mom, can you help me make a flower garland for my date Friday? I want to wear it with my hair crimped and freak everyone out.”
“Sure, what kinds of flowers do you want? Asters and goldenrod are out now.”
“Oh yeah! That would be wonderful!” Alice opens her eyes wide so we can see the sky in them. She knows that when Nora expresses herself artistically, it always turns out great. Like when she made that giant stuffed Volkswagon pillow with a matching eight-lane superhighway comforter for Alice and me when we were little.
“You’ll look like a fairy.” Mom’s eyes sparkle as she beams at her favorite child.
Mom clatters the pan of sauce off the stove and the three of us sit around the cluttered table eating while Alice chats on about a boy at school who got a brand new car for his birthday. I get up to take my dirty dish away. Our kitchen sink, which happens to be in the bathroom next to the shower, is monopolized by a soaking load of Alice’s laundry, so I just set the dish to the side.
“I got a washboard for us.” Mom says proudly. It pokes out of the sink like a greeting from the last century, “Lewis and Sons” in letters the color of dried blood across its corrugated face.
“I see it.” I am not impressed. Why doesn’t she just take us to the Laundromat? It’s not that expensive.
I pick my way through the obstacle course of piled magazines, full recycle bins, bureaus with drawers open with clothes hanging outlike little boxy dogs with fleshy tonguesand make my way to my loft bed in the other room. I hoist myself up and in and lie back, facing the truth of the ceiling insulation right above me. Alice’s bed is under mine and Mom’s is against the opposite wall. I’ve wrapped a sparkly Christmas tree garland in coils around one of my bunk’s support beams. I always try not to step on it when I’m climbing into bed because Finn gave it to me. It was collecting dust in his barn because it’s hot pink.
Lying on my side, the room spreads out below like a cyclone in a matchbox: aqua cinder block walls frame the cement floor full of dirt and grit and trampled laundry while overloaded shelves sprout from the walls like the fungus that grows in the shower. Through the window the backyard is quiet. Only Alice’s chirping and Nora’s quiet responses come from the other room.
The fading light of dusk glints in the Christmas tree garland. Outside, our donated pony, Star, given to us by a girl who mistakenly thought she was a pony-person, stands by his crooked little shed watching the day disappear. Blue from a pallet of night brushes the flowers of the rose of Sharon tree, the furry cedar branches, and the low, impressionable sky. I feel a little happy to hear the voices of Nora and Alice rippling along quietly in the other room, but very much sad at having to leave my one and only love. I long for his sweet darkness, the softness of his hands, the sinking of his stone inside me.
The sun is gone and it’s dark outside. It’s dark in the room as well. I lie back against my pillow and open my hand on the sheet, palm up, to catch whatever hovers in the atmosphere: thoughts of Finn, sinking stones, whatever might flit by in the dimness. The room and I grow dark together.
* * *
A light with a pocked and dented aluminum lampshade is clipped to the bookshelf above Nora’s bed. Mom sits on the bed poring over her astrology books in the last hour before sleep. Alice is at the other end of the room by the door that leads to the bathroom, folding laundry and stacking it precariously, as is her custom, this time on the school desk next to the woodstove. I have descended from my bunk and sit on her bed writing in my journal. Alice walks through the bathroom and into the kitchen; I hear her yanking the handle of the old fridge door and poking around for a bedtime snack. The door slams closed. Nora looks up at me with an expression both critical and concerned.
“Did you sleep with him?” she asks abruptly; her eyes drill-press me like one of those shop machines at school.
I pretend I don’t hear her and stare down into my blue-ruled composition book, as if there is something very engrossing there, and not just a clean new page. I’ll just ignore her; maybe I’ll get up and join Alice in the kitchen. We do have peaches.
Well, just because she asks doesn’t mean I have to answer. I decide to stay right where I am. I poise my pen over my paper carefully, wearing as inscrutably sweet an expression as I can possibly muster. I’m sure I must look just like the Mona Lisa. Are there any daughters out there who actually tell their mothers things? Perhaps so, but I do not count myself among them.