Archive for the 'Storytime!' Category

Tattoo

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Her arms were strewn with tattoos.

He thought she was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen.

Somehow, even in his boring khakis from work, he talked to her for twenty minutes.

That jawline killed him. The cheekbones. Her skinny, muscular frame.

He’d always said “You talk to a girl as if you want to hear what she has to say, she’ll at least be nice to you.”

There was no “as if” with this one. And this was better than nice. It made him think he had a chance.

She laughed when he made a joke. She leaned up and talked in his ear when the music got loud.

To emphasize a point, she put her hand on his arm. His heart thumped.

But she would not tell him her name. She made him guess.

He started far afield: “Melodia? . . . Agnes? . . . Ethel?”

She laughed at that, and he died a little inside to see her soft lips spread wide over dazzling teeth.

She was all the wrong things for him: too young, too pretty, too wild . . . all the things he wanted.

What could she see in him?

Even as he enjoyed it, he dreaded the moment’s demise.

She excused herself to the ladies’ room, and he knew that was it.

He looked around the club, but couldn’t find his friends.

Outside he was neutral and sober. Inside he shrugged, or tried to.

“What does a girl who looks ready for roller derby want with a stiff like me?”

He felt a hand on his arm and jumped. He looked at her smile again, and his heart thumped again.

He noticed a tiny star tattooed on the back of the hand that rested on his sleeve.

“I have to go,” she said. “But it was really nice talking to you.”

She presented a tiny piece of paper, inscribed with purple ink.

On the paper, her name and . . . a little star.

“Violet,” he said.

She smiled — “Bye” — and then lost herself in the crowd.

He looked at the paper with a trace of a smile, but then he frowned. What now?

He turned the paper over.

On the back, her number.

Photo by Amy Palko.

In Madrid

Monday, June 13th, 2011

In Madrid, his arguments with his wife became quieter but more taxing.

On vacation together, they did not have the children or their jobs to distract them.

They walked around the place, looking at art, drinking coffee, eating wonderful food . . . and wondering why they could not get along.

On the third morning, he decided to go out by himself while she was still sleeping. He was about to leave the room when he stopped himself and thought, “She at least deserves a note to know where I’ve gone.” He took the pad of hotel stationery from the table and wrote by the light in the bathroom.

“Out for a walk.”

He paused for a moment, frowned, and then added, “I’ll bring you breakfast.”

He put the pad on the floor where she would be sure to see it, then silently let himself out.

He walked for a long time, up and down the boulevards, through the public parks. With no guidebook, no itinerary, and no interest in seeing yet another historical building or artistic masterpiece, he felt less like a tourist and more like himself.

Under a sort of bridge, he stopped to look at a huge abstract sculpture suspended above the pavement. It was apparently made of the same steel-reinforced concrete as the bridge, and might even have been a fragment of the bridge, had it not been so precisely shaped and put into place.

Behind him, two birds of a species he didn’t recognize started screaming. These were not songs or calls, but screams such has you would hear when a blue jay tries to scare off a cat. They kept it up without a break, so loud that he started walking toward them, thinking that he might shoo them away. He saw that the two of them were indeed screaming at a cat, which had found a gutter with an overhang where it could retreat. It had the carcass of another bird on the ground between its front paws.

He looked at the two birds, still flapping around and screaming, and said aloud, “I don’t blame you.”

He walked a little farther, until the birds were out of earshot, and then found a bench where he could sit down. He stared at the traffic, at the teenage boys walking by in their painfully stylish clothes, at the overcast sky.

In a moment, a propos of nothing, a sentence formed in his head:

“She’s not the problem.”

It was like he had taken a key that had always been in his pocket and fit it into the lock of a door that had always been in front of him.

“She’s not the problem.”

He flushed to think of how they had argued, how he had gone on the offensive. It would take work to repair — if it could be repaired. But that door inside him was open now, at least.

If she wasn’t the problem, what was?

In his mind, he took out another key that had always been in his pocket and went looking for its lock.

Photo by Amy Palko.

At the Fountain

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

On Saturday, Carl bought the makings of lunch from a little grocery store he had found and carried it with him in his messenger bag as he walked through the city. By the time he was hungry, he found himself in a public park near the castle. (He still didn’t know the names of many things like streets and parks.) He sat down on a bench, listened to the water flowing in the big fountain there, and ate his sandwich.

He was beginning to breathe easier in Edinburgh, feeling that it was more normal for him to be there. Though he did not enjoy the history of it — and the new start it represented for him — any less, it became a little less like a dream each day.

The weather was gorgeous, and the park was full of people strolling, jogging, pushing baby carriages, or eating picnic lunches. After he finished his sandwich and ginger beer, he pulled out a book to read — a cheap paperback of Walter Scott’s Waverley. He had read Ivanhoe as a boy, but he thought he should read more from the man whose monument he had passed en route to the park.

He was reading the first chapter and eating an apple when he became distracted by the legs of a woman runner who had shot past him and was now circling the fountain. Her figure was good enough that he watched for her to come around the other side of the fountain, but when she did, she saw him looking — and he realized that he recognized her.

She ran up and stopped in front of him. “It’s Cary Grant, isn’t it?” She was breathing hard and covered in sweat.

“Yes. Is it . . . Sarah?”

“Very good. Your pratfall partner from the library.”

“I don’t think Katherine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell ever ran like you.”

She waved a hand. “Their loss. Here, I’ll join you.” She sat down on the other end of the bench. “What’s that you’re reading?” She reached over and turned the cover of the book so that she could see it. “Oh, my, you really are playing the part, aren’t you?”

“What part is that?”

“The Visitor from Abroad, Eager to Understand Our Curious Ways.”

“I just thought that if I was going to be walking past that ornate monument up the hill so often, I might as well read some of his books.”

“Ornate, is it?” She was still panting lightly.

“You wouldn’t call it ornate?”

“I would call it hideous.” She leaned over, elbows on knees.

“Please don’t feel you have to linger on my account. You probably want to finish your run.”

“Oh, I’ve run far enough. And I’ll have to run home again, anyway.”

“Where’s home?”

She pointed west. “A couple of miles that way.”

“So you run here and back? That’s five miles or something?”

“A damn sight more, the way I do it. It’s 2.2 from here, but that will be my cool-down. I’ve already done seven.”

“That explains why you look so fit.”

“Thank you.” She had caught her breath, and now she looked over and gave him a smile. “Do you mean that explains why you were watching me run by?”

He felt abashed, but with an effort he held her eye contact and smiled. “You caught me.”

“Oh, I’m flattered by the attentions of a younger man.” She winked at him. There was something both unsettling and attractive about her extreme forthrightness.

“I was told that the Scots are often blunt in expressing their views.”

She laughed. “Oh, we are, as you may come to regret.” She pointed at the empty bottle of ginger beer that he had set on the ground near his feet. “Too bad you finished that — I could use a drink.”

“Oh, I have a bottle of water, too.” He pulled the bottle from his bag and gave it to her.

“My knight in shining armor. Straight out of Ivanhoe.”

“I’ll have to remember to keep a water bottle handy for other damsels in distress.”

She took a long drink from the bottle. “This damsel has two lectures to write for next week, but doesn’t want to.”

“You’re teaching media studies this term?”

“This is a more general course in modern Russian culture. I could do it in my sleep, though that’s officially frowned by the Faculty of Social Sciences.”

He grinned at her joke, and she grinned back at him.

“So, Carl the Visitor from Abroad:”

He could hear the colon at the end of that phrase. “Yes?”

“I find myself at loose ends for what to do tonight for supper, and I’m bored by the prospect of eating in. May I repay you for the kindness of this bottle of water by taking you out to eat?”

He smiled. “More of that refreshing bluntness.”

“Does ‘refreshing’ imply ‘Yes, I’d be glad to join you for supper’?”

“It does.”

“Good. Then let me be blunt about something else . . .”

“Okay.”

“I’m 34.”

“Okay.” He shrugged and added “Is that a problem?”

“Is it a problem for you? I take it that you’re about 22.”

“I’m 24. I stayed on for a master’s degree in the States before I came here. But, no, it’s no problem.”

“Are you sure? Because I like your looks and you seem to have a brain in your head.” She cocked her head to one side. “This is me flirting with you, in case it’s escaped your notice.”

He smiled. “I picked up on that, yeah.” He shrugged again and did the best Cary Grant impression he could, which wasn’t very good: “I was eyeing your legs for a reason, you know.”

“Just my legs?”

This time he did the Cary Grant voice better: “No comment.” He gave her a smirk that he hoped was both sly and friendly.

“See, you do have a brain in your head.” She stood up. “I’ll pick you up in front of our library at 7:00. Look for a dark blue Volkswagen. Do you like French food?”

Mais oui.”

She sized him up for a moment. “We’ll get along fine, you and I.” And then she ran off toward home.

~ ~ ~

Previously: “Secret Window

Photo by Amy Palko.

Mileage

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

It was such a cliché, worrying about what everyone else would think at the 20-year reunion. But he did.

No wife anymore, no kids ever, his own little business down the tubes a few years ago. All he had to hang his hat on was a good head of hair (Facebook had shown him how many of the guys from his class were bald now) and the fact that he was in shape.

His idea of “in shape” actually went far beyond anyone else’s. He took pride in it, not that he would ever brag. Running wasn’t something he did for vanity, or even for the sake of being fit.

At the reunion, people said things like “Man, Gary, you look great. You run marathons or something?”

He said, “Actually, yeah, I have run a couple of marathons. Running keeps me sane.”

What he didn’t say was that he’s finished Western States six times, Hardrock four times. He’d run Badwater once and, on his sole trip to Europe, the Ultra-Trail de Mont Blanc.

He didn’t want to spend the evening explaining to people why his marriage failed and his store failed, yet he managed to run a hundred miles at a time through the Sierras, Death Valley, and the Alps.

He ran for himself. Instead of bonding with other guys over football games on Sunday or rounds of golf on Saturday, he had been up in the high country in Colorado, running on trails better suited to elk or mountain goats. He bonded with himself.

“So how much do you run? Like, in a week?”

“Oh, I run pretty much every day. A couple of runs each week would be ten miles or more.”

His Saturday-morning run averaged 41 miles. He kept all of his mileages in a spreadsheet.

“Damn, bro. That is something.” His buddy Abel, who had sat next to him in trigonometry all those years ago and was an insurance salesman now, took a swig of his Bud Light and slapped his own full belly. “I just did my first 5K. You think I could work up to a marathon?”

“I did. I started with some hikes in the woods, and just went from there.”

“It’s a long way from a hike in the woods to a marathon, man.”

Gary shrugged. “It was just stubbornness. It wasn’t any special talent, believe me. I’ve seen the talented marathoners and . . . I ain’t that.”

They shared a laugh, drank their beers, and switched to talking about Abel’s kids. His daughter was just about to have her quinceañera. “That is going to set me back some, bro. You can’t half-ass that thing, you know?”

“I’m just amazed that you have a fifteen-year-old daughter. I haven’t even gotten started.”

“You’ll get there, bro.” Abel surveyed the room. “Maybe you’ll have your first kid when I’m running my first marathon.” Gary laughed and nodded, and they clinked their beer bottles in a toast to each other’s ambitions.

“Okay, man, I gotta go talk to some of these posers. Some of these people are my clients now.”

Gary raised his drink and nodded again, then stood there on the sidelines of the party with one hand in his pocket and one holding his nearly empty bottle. He rocked on the balls of his feet a little, surveying the room for anyone else he’d like to talk to.

He let his gaze wander over the kaleidoscope of people in the ballroom. He had thought of his high school as pretty homogenous, but time and fortune had taken them in so many directions. Besides the pictures mounted on the “In Memoriam” display, there were showoffs and boors, modest successes and modest failures, the uptight, the abrasive, the drunk, the gaunt, and the obese. Some of them wore their lives for all to see, whether with a Rolex on one arm and a trophy blonde on the other, or with fake boobs, bleached hair, and a permanent sunburn. Others carried their histories, better and worse, on the inside.

What Gary had so much of was not something to show off, like money or status or a big job or a hot wife. His achievement was private, and it was only superficially related to running 3,800 miles per year.

What he had was a superior ability to suffer.

Photo by Amy Palko.

No Title

Friday, June 10th, 2011

He had been awake a few minutes, staring up at the Wedgwood blue ceiling. He had no idea how the design had been made. Plaster? Porcelain? Spun sugar? Given its intricacy and beauty, he would have believed anything. In any case, he could barely believe that someone lived in this house and slept in this room, here in the middle of London.

Actually, last night at the party she had made it clear that she didn’t live here anymore:

“We shouldn’t go back to my place — my roommate’s there with her boyfriend. But we can go to Mum and Dad’s. They’re out in the country for the weekend.”

The bedroom had about as much space in it as a squash court. The summer morning was beginning to light it through the gaps at the edges of the curtains.

“Good mo-o-orning!” The sudden arrival of her voice, sweet as it was, made him start. He blinked his eyes as she bounced into the room carrying a large china mug. “I let you sleep in a little bit . . .” She set the steaming coffee on the nightstand, then went to open the curtains. “. . . and I didn’t want to disturb you, but I’ve already had too much coffee and I’ve got a full day booked. So I decided I just couldn’t wait any more.” She bounced into a sitting position at the foot of the bed. He wondered whether she had already combed her hair, or if it always looked this good first thing in the morning. “My eyes just popped open an hour ago, so I tiptoed out of here. But now I’ve brought you coffee.” She pointed to the nightstand.

He smiled. “You have had too much coffee.” She giggled.

He sat up, picked up the mug, and drank. It was good.

“Do you take cream? I didn’t know.”

“Sometimes I take a little milk. But black is great.”

“I could get you some milk?” She looked like she would launch herself off the corner of the bed at the slightest signal from him. He was trying to figure out if she really did have that much caffeine in her veins, or if . . . well, maybe she had a crush on him. She certainly didn’t seem nervous, just energetic.

He shook his head. “You could sit there and keep looking pretty.”

She batted her eyelashes at him. “Aren’t you a charmer? I didn’t know Americans were so romantic.”

“We’re not. It’s just me.” He winked at her and took another sip of his coffee as she laughed.

“Were you always like this?”

“Only since I was twelve. Before that, I was mostly interested in LEGOs and dump trucks.”

“I think I like you, Martin. Do you really go by ‘Martin’?”

” ‘Martin’ in the City. ‘Marty’ back home.”

“I like ‘Marty’.”

“Then please call me that.”

They sat for a moment with little smiles on their faces, sizing each other up.

“Here I am quizzing you, and you’re not even awake. Do you have any questions for me?”

He thought about that as he drank more of the coffee.

“Did you grow up sleeping in this room?”

“Ah, yes, I did. Home sweet home. Though there used to be a lot more posters of footballers and rock singers.”

He nodded, looking around the room, but he couldn’t imagine it with posters on the walls. He frowned.

“There’s something else?” She looked at him curiously.

“I . . . well . . .”

“What is it?”

“Forgive me, but I haven’t been here that long — in England, I mean.”

“That’s all right.”

“It’s just . . . is your family . . . I don’t know what I would say, ‘aristocratic’?”

“Ah, yes. I forget that you Yanks have no idea about this stuff. It’s archaic as all hell, but, yes, we are titled. Dad sits in the House of Lords.”

He chuckled.

“What?”

“You’re right — I do have no idea. So, please pardon a stupid question, but what is your title? What should I call you?”

“You should call me Jenny. But my title is . . . ‘Silly Girl’.”

She smiled and he laughed. “Somehow I don’t think that’s how they announce you at a fancy ball.”

“But they should!” She leaned over and poked him on the leg — very playfully, he thought, for a woman he knew so little. “That’s about all I’m good for — silliness and girlishness.”

He set down the coffee. “Trust me when I say there’s a lot of womanliness in you, too.” He moved toward her.

“Ack — don’t say that!” She feigned horror and covered her ears. “You make me sound like my mother.”

“I didn’t say ‘matronly’ . . .” He chuckled again and risked reaching over to grab her by the waist, pulling her toward him. “You’re a girl at heart, but you’re all . . . woman, too.” He nuzzled at the shoulder peeking out from under her robe. She tilted her head to the side to expose her neck. He kissed her there.

“Mmmmm.” She let him continue for a bit, then took his face in her hands and kissed him for a long moment. But she did not let him proceed. Still holding his face in her hands, she looked him in the eye and said, “I could stay here all morning. You understand? I really could.” He nodded. “But unfortunately I have someplace to be. So I need you to forgive me, but I have to kick you out in about five minutes.”

He sat back, nonplussed.

“It’s not to put you off.”

“Okay.”

“No, I mean it. You’re a nice boy. I want to see you again.” She put her hand on his leg. “Just not right at this moment.” She opened her eyes wide and gave his leg a slow squeeze. “Handsome boy.”

He smiled at that — though he wondered how often she had said it before. She seemed to know what she wanted and how to get it.

“I’ll just get my clothes, then. I’m sure I can get a taxi outside.”

“Of course.” She stood up beside the bed, leaned forward, took his chin in one hand, and gave him a short, firm kiss. “You’re a good bloke, Marty.” Although she had the other hand clutched to the lapels of her robe, he noticed that she wasn’t trying particularly hard to hold it closed. The glimpse of her chest made his heart thump.

“I try.”

She noticed him eyeing her. She stood up tall, pursed her lips, and slowly pulled her robe snug around her, cinching the belt tight. With a gleam in her eye, she said, “So, Martin Warren, what’s your title?”

Several answers flashed through his mind, each to be rejected it turn: “Citizen” was too political and arty; “The Duke of Earl” wasn’t much of a joke, and it might be lost on a non-American besides; “To Be Determined” was too vague; “Untitled” was pretentious, lame, or both; . . .

Finally he said, “Handsome Boy.”

And, oh, how she smiled.

Photo by Amy Palko.

Secret Window

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

It turned out that Carl, much to his surprise, was given a shared office in a distant back corner of the Modern History Department. Hypothetically, three other postgraduates (as he was learning to call himself) shared the office, but apparently none of them rose as early as he did. (He was also learning that 9 a.m. was to Britons what 8 a.m. was to Americans.)

He took an empty desk next to a window that overlooked a tiny courtyard garden. Most of the panes were translucent, like the privacy glass in a restroom window. But the pane in the center was transparent and showed the flagstones and bushes of the courtyard. If he leaned far to the right, he could see a mature tree in the opposite corner.

When he had been a boy, his sister had loved the book The Secret Garden. At the time he had thought of it as a “girl book,” so he never read it. But now he wished that he had. Here was his own secret garden.

In some way he couldn’t put words to, he felt like the life he was supposed to live was opening up for him at last. For as long as he could remember, he was the fish out of water: in a small town on the Great Plains, at a massive state university in a corn-fed college town. He had enjoyed his life so far, made friends, had lovers and lovely experiences with them, and most of all had marinated himself in books. But the setting had never really been right, even when it was pleasant.

Here was his proper setting, with a secret window that let him see out into a little private space, but that somehow let the light in for that private space within himself.

(That was the way he thought, more often than anyone would have believed: trying to place poetic meaning on the most mundane things of his life, trying to build a grand narrative out of whatever intellectual or psychological materials came to hand. He was not an intellectual for the sake of social posing; he was afflicted by it.)

The perfect light from the little window fell on his new legal pad. To him, who loved notebooks and fountain pens to the point of distraction, its A4 size was a delightful novelty. He looked at the few words he had scattered across the page:

  • window
  • self-examination
  • physical setting
  • worldview
  • illumination
  • enlightenment (?)

(That question mark reflected his caution, even on a page that no one else would ever see. He did not want to go too far.)

He started to draw some arrows connecting the words, and in a couple of minutes he had also sketched the nine-paned window in the middle of the page. He looked at the nib of his pen for a moment, thinking about nothing in particular, enjoying his moment.

From somewhere outside, he heard a door bang shut. He looked out the window, and by leaning far to the right, he could see a middle-aged man, bearded and paunchy, strolling and lighting a cigarette. He took a long drag, lifted his chin, and exhaled a long plume of smoke as he came into the middle of the courtyard, framed perfectly in the center of Carl’s window. The movements of his hands as he smoked were surprisingly elegant for such an inelegant man.

Carl put down his pen, folded his hands on top of the A4 pad, and watched the man smoke.

~ ~ ~

Previously: “In the Library

Picture by Amy Palko.

Cobwebs.

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Possibly they should have hired a cleaning crew to tidy up first. Now Walt and his sister had to sort through the detritus of a lifetime — their father’s — while also fighting through layers of dust, rust, cobwebs, and mildew. That’s what Walt was thinking after he had spent no more than a couple of minutes looking through his lately departed father’s garage.

Really, it was the detritus of two lifetimes they had to deal with, since Dad had never let them clean house after Mom died. Dad was prickly about his possessions: He wanted his books to remain in a certain order on the shelves, even though the order wasn’t logical even to him. He wanted his favorite coffee cup returned to a certain spot in a certain cupboard; two inches to the right or left wouldn’t do. Suits he hadn’t worn in thirty years had to remain where they were in the closet, in a particular order. And so on.

In particular, he wanted his “collections” to remain undisturbed. Standing in the garage, Walt could survey many of these collections at once: a pegboard covered in antique wrenches, a shelf cluttered with dozens of old oilcans, a huge jar bristling with scissors, one corner of the garage dominated by stacks of hubcaps as high as his chin. They were the tip of an iceberg that he and his sister, Lynn, now had to shatter and melt. (She was currently going through the suits in the bedroom closet upstairs, determining what was salvageable.)

Dad had needed more care in the past few years, though he didn’t want it. Walt and Lynn told him again and again that they wouldn’t put him in a nursing home, but he really should have been in assisted living. He stubbornly resisted, even when it was obvious to everyone — though unspoken by everyone — that he could no longer keep himself cleaned and fed each day. Finally he let them start sending a nurse twice a week and a housekeeper once a week. Both women were competent and kind, but they were frustrated much as the children were, because their client gave them very little ground to do anything for him.

Walt reflected that he might have done more for Dad, if he hadn’t been in such a breakneck stretch of his own life: kids growing up fast, bills to pay with more to come, the troubles and preoccupations of work and marriage. He had called his father at least once a week for many years, but, living two hundred miles away, hadn’t seen him as much as he wanted.

His father had always talked about “carrying a bag” throughout his career. He had supported the family as a corporate salesman, though Walt always thought that Dad tried too hard to sell the “career” angle to anyone who would listen. What Walt remembered was a string of jobs that ended after a year or two, invariably after Dad had run aground of quotas that were “unreasonable,” or yet another boss who was “a bastard.”

For two seconds, standing there in the garage, Walt let himself think that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The garage had a low-ceilinged alcove at the back. In it was a workbench and a tattered easy chair where Dad used to sit and listen to baseball games on the radio when Mom wanted him out of her way. There was also a closet that Walt had not opened since he was a boy. Now that he did, he saw that it housed his father’s best collection — his Gretsch guitars — laid out flat in their cases on the shelves.

He pulled out the cases, propped them up by the workbench, and sat in the easy chair to give the instruments a look. There were five in all, including one jet-black bass, and they were all in good condition, though badly out of tune.

Once upon a time, his father had been quite a player. He never traveled to perform, but for years he brought in extra money playing on the weekends at weddings and honky tonks. He had taught Walt to play when he was about ten years old. For a while during Walt’s brooding adolescent years, playing guitars together was almost their only means of communication.

Walt let himself think about that for maybe half a minute.

Then he thought of his own Les Paul, his pride and joy, resting spotless in its case in the back of his closet. When had he last played it, or tuned it? He had been meaning to get guitar lessons for his own daughter Emma, to sit down and play some with her, but so far that had remained an item on his to-do list, not a real thing.

He put the last guitar — a glossy burgundy-colored number — back in the case and latched it. Now, at least, each of the grandkids could have their own guitar. He sat there for a minute looking across the workbench, staring at the handles of the old pairs of scissors jammed into that ugly oversized crockery jar, thinking about nothing.

He got up, walked across the garage, and opened both of the bay doors to let in the fresh air. Then he pulled on a pair of canvas gloves and started to work.

Photo by Amy Palko.

In the Library

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

He began to find his way around the campus, which really meant finding his way around the part of the city where the University had grown up alongside everything else. He didn’t want to look like a yokel, so he tried not to crane his neck too much as he took in everything — the buildings, the streets, the people with their accents. (It amused him, the reactions he got from shopgirls and waiters and the man at the bank, when he opened his mouth to speak. Now he was the one with the accent.)

On his third morning in the city, armed with a freshly laminated student ID and a reading list, he made his way to the library. He felt like a kid coming into the living room to see the presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

Now he did crane his neck. As an undergraduate in the States, he had sought out the best reading rooms and quiet corners of the libraries on campus. But the other bookpeople among the student body — there were quite a few of them even in that cowtown, simply because the population was so large — often got there ahead of him. You learned to arrive early if you wanted the table for one behind the chemistry reference books in the corner by the window. But this library was all quiet corners and perfect reading rooms, so much so that the patrons seemed to take it for granted. Everywhere he looked, he saw what he wanted: wooden bookcases with glass fronts, old books, polished chairs, comfortable tables with good light, beautiful decorated ceilings, and high balconies with yet more books. He felt like he had stepped onto the set of a movie where they had not yet brought in the cameras and the lights.

He reflected that this had all been built by a culture that invested in books even while ordinary people fought cholera and scrabbled for their daily bread. True, it had been like that at places in the colonies like Harvard, too, but this trumped Harvard. This was genuinely Old, in a city with an actual castle that had been used as an actual stronghold against men bent on killing and plunder. The historian in him wondered if some of his ancestors had been among those plunderers; he knew that they had been among the scrabblers.

Still looking up at the ceiling like a tourist in a museum, he backed into someone. He winced to hear the little cry and the sound of a hundred papers falling to the floor. He flushed bright red, wheeled around, and starting picking things up hurriedly as he said “So sorry — clumsy of me — let me help . . .”

Then he and the woman he had stumbled into bumped heads. Now they both let out little cries. While he sat on his haunches rubbing a spot above his temple, she sat down on the floor, put her hand to her head, and laughed.

“Now this really is like a scene from a romantic comedy,” she said.

He looked at her for the first time — a handsome blonde woman in her early thirties, with blonde hair already going to gray. He stood up and offered her his hand, both to pull her up from the floor and as a peace offering. When she was standing, he said, “I’m Carl.”

“Sarah,” she said, and they shook hands properly.

He surveyed the remaining papers still scattered on the floor, then looked her in the eye with mock gravity. “May I help you collect your things?” His tone and timing worked, because she let out that throaty laugh again.

“Yes, you may,” she said. Her accent told him that this was home to her. “But why don’t you start over there?” She pointed to the farthest edge of the pool of papers, and now they both laughed.

He set his shoulder bag down on a table and quickly collected her papers. Half of them seemed to be in Russian. When he put them in a stack on the table, he said, “You study Russian?”

“I teach Media Studies — but, yes, in the former Soviet Union.”

“Very interesting” was all he could come up with. He had noticed her trim figure, lingered on it for half a second too long, and then couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“And you, Carl?”

“Excuse me?”

“What do you study?” He thought he detected something playful in the way she held his gaze. She had caught him looking.

“Ah, early modern history. Early modern Germany.”

“Then you must like this early modern room we’re standing in. Very different than where you come from, no doubt?”

“I had just been thinking that it looks like a set from a movie.”

“And then you and I reprise a scene from Bringing Up Baby. You’re having quite a cinematic morning.”

He smiled. “I love Cary Grant movies.”

She gave him a look that might have been skeptical, but that he hoped was sly. After a moment, she said, “Well, then. Welcome to the movie of you life, Cary Grant.”

Photo by Amy Palko.

~ ~ ~

Previously: “Cobbles

The Kids

Monday, June 6th, 2011

“Look at them,” she said. “They know things are going from bad to worse, but they’re out here at the farm, so they want to go exploring.”

He nodded, then said “Do you think they realize how big a deal it all is?”

“I think they do.” She took a step closer to him and put an arm around his waist as he leaned against the fence railing. “I mean, when it’s all the grownups can talk about, they have to know something.”

He put more of his weight on the fence rail and looked away to the mountains. “I’m just glad you shut the TV off, that first day, until the kids were in bed.”

“Yeah, they don’t need to see that. They can’t live in a bubble, but — I mean, Chloe’s only seven. Why expose them to that much . . . confusion?”

“I remember having the same conversation during 9/11.”

“Not with me?” Her forehead creased as she turned to look at him.

“No, we had barely met. . . . This was with a woman I knew at work who was especially freaked out about it, and now her son was freaked out about it, too, and I think he was having to climb into bed with her every night. Nightmares. . . . Yeah, that’s right. He must have been about Danny’s age, just a little guy. He had sat there with her, watching the replays of the World Trade Center, all that day. She kept him home from school, I think. And now she was complaining about how ‘the terrorists had succeeded’ in terrorizing her five-year-old.”

“Huh.”

“And I said ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t have let him watch the buildings come down on television.’ She didn’t like that.”

She pursed her lips. “Would you?”

“I wouldn’t expose my kids to that. I thought she brought it on herself. Or, brought it on the kid herself. How hard is it to turn off the damn television?”

She put both elbows on the railing and looked toward the children again. They were receding toward the crest of the hill. “Yeah. This is something different, though.”

“Is it really . . .” He searched for the words. “. . . the end of the world?” He turned his face to her, searching for her reaction.

She shook her head softly. “I don’t know. What are you supposed to think, when all of those science-fiction movies finally come true?”

He put his arm around her shoulders. “Do you think we’re safe up here?”

“No.” She held onto his hand. “I think we just have each other. . . . God, that sounds corny.” They both laughed.

He squeezed her tight and kissed her on the forehead.

She looked back out toward the children, who were waving from the top of the hill. They were doing as they had been told, keeping themselves in sight, if only barely. Their parents waved back at them from the fence.

She pulled his arms around her and leaned into him. “How do we figure out what to tell the kids?”

He watched the children follow the ridgeline off to the north, staying in view as they hiked toward the top of the next hill.

“Like anything else, I guess,” he said at last. “We ask ourselves ‘What do they need to know, and when do they need to know it?’ Use our best judgment. And hope it works.”

Photo by Amy Palko.

Cobbles

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

He spent his first two days in Edinburgh walking the cobbled streets of the city and trying not to gape. His cosmopolitan tastes and the dreams of intellectual sophistication that went along with them seemed to be reaching fruition all at once, in the form of this city of gray stone and bookshops.

That first morning, he found his lodging at the University with no problem. He was confused at first when the matron who filled out his paperwork and took him up to his room introduced herself as Mrs. Warder. He thought she meant that the name of her job was “warder,” since it seemed to him that the British had archaic, charming names for nearly every office in the University, with “Hebdomadar” at the pinnacle of them all. But in fact her title was “house steward.”

The room was small, but he had a good view of trees, rooftops, and green hills beyond. He chided himself for holding onto the romantic notion that the light was of a different quality here than it was at home.

By the afternoon, he had his things stowed away in drawers and cupboards, and had even found a store selling posters so that he could decorate his walls with Van Gogh replicas. He also met some of his hallmates — Astrid from Germany and Davy from York. He hadn’t realized that the floor would be co-ed, though he was especially happy of it since Astrid was funny and good-looking, with a broad smile and fine skin.

That night they joined a few others from the hall for supper, walking many blocks to a Pakistani restaurant that one of them knew. He sat at the outside of the booth, which put him in a position to flirt with the waitress, who must have been the daughter or niece of the reserved, traditional couple who apparently owned the place. The waitress was far from traditional: she had short hair brilliantined across her forehead in a style that evoked Josephine Baker, but wore tight jeans and a Pretenders t-shirt. The fourth time she came to the table — when they were all plowing through what might have been the best chicken tikka in the history of the world — Davy made a crack about “life on the chain gang,” which brought an eyeroll from the waitress and groans from everyone at the table.

In an aside to the waitress as the rest of the table hazed Davy, he told the waitress that the boy from York needed practice. He should have at least gone for a line like, “If I get a tattoo, could I be your tattooed love boy?” The kohl-eyed waitress laughed at that and shone the full sunlight of her smile on him. Even as he realized he might never see her outside the confines of the restaurant, he exulted. He knew, all the way down, that he had made the right decision to come to Edinburgh sight unseen.

The next day, jet-lagged, he wandered the rooms of the National Gallery, standing for half an hour within arm’s reach of a Rembrandt self-portrait for which he had no words. Later, he felt the shock of Sargent’s “Woman in White.” He had seen it many times in books, but not until he rounded the corner and saw that dark-haired woman staring at him down the length of the room did he understand why it had caused such a scandal. Later, he sat in a cafe and ordered one cappuccino after another from the fair Scottish girl tending the counter as he savored each page of the curriculum for his graduate program. He thought he was in Heaven.

And yet . . . cosmopolitan tastes and humane studies, there in that old European city, could not free him from his own doubts. Perhaps in time they would. The greatest luxury he had now — more than the bookstores, the coffee houses, the view, the pretty girls, the Rembrandt — was the time he needed to think. He hoped he would use it well.

But he doubted he would.

Image by Amy Palko.