Bravos All Around
She worked in a glow. A nimbus followed her from room to room, but nimbus was not a word she was comfortable with, not a word she could use openly. Words for Fiona had shape and heft. They were tactile rather than semantic. Sometimes she thought she could hold words in her hands. And in her mind she rolled them around as she did when making her wonderful gnocchi; or pushed hard against them like trying to move the armoire from one room to another; or turned them over delicately like flipping crepes. But the one word eluded her, the one about why she was doing all this work. Yet, she believed she had plenty of time to wait for it.
Before too long all things would be ready. Fiona took a break and stood at the entrance and imagined what the first guests would see. No need to rush them immediately to the food. She would avoid excessive formality whenever possible. She gave herself a confident cluck, wishing for Hank at that moment, who would pat her rump. “Bravos all around, Fi,” he would say.
He had just left the apartment to search shops on Lake Shore Drive for something the apartment needed. “Something’s missing here, Hank. Something that will make you look good for all the people who come to honor you.” And before he could protest with a frown, she apologized for making too much of his book again. She knew how to rein in her husband in times like these, with her head on his shoulder.
There was a place just off Lake Shore. He would probably bring home a charming lamp. And he went in the rush of traffic too! She would let him place the lamp, or whatever he brought, anywhere he wanted.
The word was redemption!
Startled, she walked from the foyer toward the chafing dishes, happy the word had finally arrived. But it was not a word Fiona could feel, not firm yet. But there it was and, alas, with no weight or volume. It was bottomless, and she thought of Alice falling headlong down the rabbit hole, ever faster.
* * *
Hank arrived with a beautiful wall clock that was so large he had the doorman carry it up and attach it to the wall. Fiona wanted to test redemption on Hank. “That clock should redeem this gathering,” she said.
“From what, my dear?”
It was times like these Fiona dreaded. Ten pretty good years with the man who wrote books for the sheer joy of it and finally snagged the American Book Award with all the quiet dignity that made Fiona both proud and scared. Her habit of touching her neck and reddening at the temples when she was embarrassed gave her away at moments like these, and she wondered if he noticed. Instead of answering, she turned and presented herself to him fetchingly. And there it came, the pat on the rump. “Bravos all around, Fi.”
She was secure again and ready to do business. Guests in two hours.
* * *
Fiona – forty-one years old with a face and figure finely chiseled from good Evanston stock – was not yet dressed in her evening’s attire when the first band member arrived. She greeted him in what her grandmother called a duster; under, she wore panty hose, camisole and slip to expedite matters when came time to change. The dress would go over her head, and she counted on Hank for the zipper in the back. She didn’t expect the band so early.
Son Hopwood himself greeted her, the tiny bluesman whose band Fiona selected for the evening’s entertainment. Fiona expected Son’s agent, Genero Epstein, with whom she negotiated for Son’s services and with whom she laid precise plans about the nature of the gathering: “Combination book signing, media event, and fete,” she said, after looking up fete and tossing it around for quite some time in her hands and mind so that she had both the feel and meaning down pat. (She used fete and book signing on the embossed invitations.)
“Oh,” she said, touching her neck, “I was expecting Mr. Epstein. But so delighted to see you, Mr. Hopwood. The show stopper himself.”
Son lugged a guitar case – huge beside his tiny frame – and dropped it in the doorway. “For my bass man. I don’t pluck strings, ma’am. Me, I’m the man of dulcet tones.”
Son Hopwood looked around and gave Fiona Ambrado a wink. “Me and Genero know the scene. For these prices, we’re anything you want.”
Son smiled and Fiona remembered him in his yellow suit and hat on stage at the blues club on North Halstead. The memory of that night made Fiona shudder.
“You the one,” said Son, beaming in the doorway.
Several at the gathering tonight would remember that night, and Fiona Ambrado braced herself. The word redemption floated around her head, airy and unspecified.
“The doorman’s helping us right along, Mrs. Ambrado.”
“Very well.” She saw that Genero had done his work. Son Hopwood wore a tie-less tux, and as if by magic, Son said, “Got my tie right here in the pocket.”
She hoped Genero showed up, in spite of Son’s promise of decorum, because even redemption needed a safety net at times. She headed straight for the dictionary. By the time she extricated herself from it, she found that Son Hopwood, unnoticed, made at least two trips back, hauling speakers and guitars which he set by the door. She spent far too much time reading up on redemption – my goodness, five solid minutes on that word. And so many meanings. Fiona’s burdens piled up with each numbered definition, and when she left the dictionary, she was floating, untethered, a craft on Lake Michigan bobbing treacherously toward open waters. She saw Genero enter.
“You’re here at last,” she said. A peck on each check.
“Son’s got the doorman in tow, Mrs. Ambrado.”
Genero’s pungent cologne reminded Fiona, “I must light the Patchouli. Don’t you think it would be a wonderful touch?”
The agent concurred, not knowing what Patchouli was. Until this moment, he didn’t know that the dozens of apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive held such huge living quarters. Across the room he saw the raised platform where his client’s band would be performing and decided the James Brown number would definitely not do. But then he had seen rich people get sloshed and request worse.
“Son will want some sound checks before the guests arrive,” said Genero.
“By all means. That should be no problem. The band can lounge in the kitchen until they’re ready to play.” She had already warned Genero to limit their alcohol consumption.
“Nice digs, Mrs. Ambrado.”
“Well, thank you.”
Son appeared with the doorman, each carrying something heavy. “Good work,” Son told him. “My agent gonna lay some shekels on you.” Genero fumbled in his pockets for a tip. And Son said loudly to Fiona across the room, “Ain’t that Patchouli I’m smelling?”
* * *
Fiona had eclectic tastes, unlike Hank’s, whose most adventurous soiree on the wild side was attending the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute; he lasted to the end, not wanting to embarrass Fiona and her friends by walking out and managed to mask his boredom by keeping the portable exhibit earphones firmly in place, pretending to be engrossed, even after he’d shut off the tape.
Hank had since stayed immersed in his work. His latest book, a biography of the Federal Reserve Board Chairman, won him national acclaim, including the most recent plum, the American Book Award, so that he gave himself little time for much else. Many thought him solicitous of Fiona, if not fatherly (he was thirteen years older), and their friends always saw the couple as appropriately withdrawn, pleasingly rich, and on the verge of becoming enticingly famous. Fiona’s good looks, taste, and Evanston connections were a definite drawing card for Hank.
Then there was the night when Fiona – leaving Hank at home with the galley proofs – and several couples, already a bit tipsy from stouts at an Irish pub on Michigan Avenue, piled into a caravan of cabs and struck out for the blues clubs on North Halstead. By 10:30 the group was in a northside club that was shabby enough to be authentic yet respectable enough to satisfy the white Lake Shore crowd. After a couple of hours and several drinks, Fiona had attracted some interest when she bought one of the club’s T-shirts and, after a quick trip to the restroom, donned it bra-less, cavorting with a full dance card of eager males, some half her age. Son Hopwood, on stage and noticing how the dancers were upstaging him, leapt into the fray, hoping to appropriate the spotlight back to himself. Half her size, with microphone in hand, he cleared a wide swath, and his lightning feet and showmanship recaptured the audience, leaving Fiona frazzled and sweaty. Her T-shirt clung to her breasts. The women of her group were smiling stiffly; the men were delighted. Fiona was giddy and completely drunk.
Since that night, Hank received only veiled references to his wife’s doings (“she had a wonderful time, so free-spirited”) while the caravan of sophisticated friends managed to rerun for Fiona a polite synopsis of the raucous evening every now and then, behind snide smiles that Fiona wished she could burn from their faces.
* * *
Fiona lit the Sterno under the chafing dishes. She heard thumps from the bass followed by Genero Epstein saying, “Check, check. How’s it sounding, Son?”
“Your woofer’s cool and your tweeter’s hangin’ loose,” said Son, standing by the front door, a smile aimed at Fiona. He cupped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry. We cool for the duration.”
Fiona considered for a moment this sudden control she exerted on the tiny bluesman in her own apartment, and since she could not wrap this feeling in words, she delighted in its exquisite texture, as though it were palpable, as though she had the power to manipulate his blues, to make him perform as she wished, to buy back the respect she lost that night on North Halstead. Redemption indeed. She burned her finger on the match she held.
“Oh, my quiche Lorraine,” she said, blowing out the match. She trotted off to the kitchen to begin bringing out the food she spent so many days planning and preparing. “I’m pulling some things from the oven,” she told the band. She planned on feeding the band in the kitchen before putting out the food in the chafing dishes.
* * *
Things worked just right: cold finger food by the balcony’s French doors; hot food in the chafing dishes near the east window; bandstand in front of the north windows; drinks by the doorway’s marble tile, a bartender in red jacket; signing table for Hank in the middle of things; media area for picture taking against the ferns where the large urn sat. People moved, cameras flashed. She invited each of the newspapers, magazines, and television stations at staggered times so that some type of coverage took place continuously. And the guests loved it, not exactly fighting each other for shots but posturing and maneuvering into position.
And Son played the room perfectly. None of the screaming falsetto or histrionics he was noted for. Genero Epstein helped out by telling the bass man to play with a light hand and, at great urging, convinced the drummer to eliminate the mic from the drums. Son softened the ragged blues and offered them to the crowd reverently, with enough edge to make the people wonder if they might indeed be witnessing the real thing. He stood behind the microphone and moved his arms but only barely his body; his eyes and mouth spoke to the people drawn to this short black man in a tux who toyed with them, played on the fringe of a world they didn’t understand but imagined they just might.
There were plenty of corners for talking. Between tunes and during quieter moments of Son’s music, Hank laughed graciously, endearing himself to another partier. Fiona noticed the media people were staying on and melting effortlessly into the scene. She didn’t notice the music getting louder.
* * *
Dr. Janet Overlay arrived early in the evening. Fiona saw her talking to Hank while Fiona chatted with a group from which she couldn’t appropriately exit, so she stood looking at Hank and Dr. Overlay, wondering what they could be saying. Animated was the word. They were having an animated conversation, thought Fiona. Coming up with the word built Fiona’s confidence. She simply must know what they were saying. Fiona wondered if she could safely call her Janet. Surely yes. Still, Fiona pictured Janet Overlay in front of the Roosevelt University classroom, lecturing and directing the discussion.
* * *
The course was titled “Introductory College Readings” (Fiona liked the idea of starting college so late in life), clearly stating in the Roosevelt University catalog it was for students failing to meet the minimal verbal levels on the entrance exam. Dr. Overlay, Ph.D. in Postmodern American Literature, requested teaching the course just this once, because, as she told her Dean, “the upper division students can be so stuffy. Doing this might let in a breath of air for me.” She told her Dean she could relate “to those kinds of students.” She was Fiona’s age.
But as Fiona looked around the classroom the first night, she wondered if she had the same look on her face as the other students. She hadn’t yet gained her fascination with words, so she memorized the people’s faces and stored them away to be described later. Shame, abashment, contrition, chagrin. She learned some of the words merely for the joy of their feel: ignominy (a short word, like pygmy); discomfiture (like a piece of furniture). Each night she returned with new words to pin onto her classmates’ faces. She knew the words applied to her also, but she could control the look on her face, and no one would ever be able to pin those words on her.
And Fiona found words for Dr. Overlay: certitude, aplomb, presumption, overweening, incontrovertible. Fiona applied those words to herself, like putting on foundation makeup, so that when she walked from Roosevelt University each night onto Michigan Avenue and awaited her cab, she was definitely Hank Ambrado’s wife, living on Lake Shore Drive and not one of those students, not really. She sometimes tried her many words on Hank at the most off-handed of times, and, in a playful way, he chided Fiona then sunk back into his manuscripts.
But, undaunted, Fiona attended class two nights a week and delighted in the way Janet Overlay explicated the readings so eloquently; she coveted Dr. Overlay’s words, the handiness of them, the means to an end they surely provided. And some nights, waiting for the cab, Fiona contemplated the beauty of a world where words floated in her brain with such ease that all she had to do was reach and there they were – ready to take her somewhere else.
* * *
She watched Dr. Overlay and Hank talk and smile. The word animated got inside her and burned there. She couldn’t suddenly walk away from the group she was in. She watched Hank throw his head back in laughter, then he touched Dr. Overlay’s arm. Fiona wondered if the music was getting louder. Exactly where was Genero Epstein?
* * *
“She’s one of the most charming students I have,” Dr. Overlay told Hank. “Delightful. I find teaching these remed . . . developmental courses to be refreshingly rewarding. The people bring such innocence and unspoiled academic naiveté to bear on the subject. Your wife is most teachable.”
Hank moved away from the signing table, allowing himself his first drink of the evening. “Developmental did you say?”
“A euphemism, to be sure, but one we use these days nonetheless.”
“Fiona never told me.”
“About the course?”
“About the nature of the course. Why, pray tell, developmental?”
Dr. Janet Overlay entered the phrase Social Gaffes into her mind’s search engine and began scrolling through all possible permutations, hoping to find a subtopic, Graceful Exits. She realized she must meet this head on. She was talking to the winner of the American Book Award here!
“Some students may select down.” Oh, my God. Like trading up for a Lexus. Unfortunate word choice.
Hank drew closer. “She was placed into that level on the basis of low verbal skills, wasn’t she?” he asked. “You can tell me.”
A waiter beside them offered a tray of smoked oysters impaled on colored toothpicks. “Love one,” Janet Overlay told the waiter. She bit into the canapé demurely and chewed too long as Hank twice adjusted his tie, watching her chew.
“Fiona made those,” said Hank. “Good with her hands.”
Dr. Overlay plunged ahead. “She is a searching student, Mr. Ambrado. Not accepting the shallow or superficial. Right now, as a matter of fact, I believe she is tackling a fascinating issue in her writing.”
Dr. Overlay wished she had more food to put her hands on. “We respond to our readings by producing journal-like writing and then hope to do longer writing from that.”
Son Hopwood’s group ended a tune, and the silence forced the partiers to look around and take heed of their conversations. Most applauded, some enthusiastically. “You folks are too kind,” Son said into the microphone. The drummer counted off a cadence and conversations continued a bit louder than before, surrounded by the three-line, twelve-bar comfort of Son’s next tune. His voice was coarser, more honest, and he closed his eyes to forget what he saw in front of him, looking somewhere else for what he needed.
“Longer writing?” asked Hank.
“She’s exploring two short stories by Eudora Welty, an American writer from the South. ‘Livvie’ and ‘A Worn Path.’ Do you know the stories?”
“Can’t say I do.” He stared at her. Two people waited patiently beside him for autographs, but he was occupied with Dr. Overlay.
“Fiona is drawing interesting comparisons with the two women in the stories. They’re both black.” It occurred to Dr. Overlay that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board was white.
“The women are looking for something.” She pondered student confidentiality for a moment.
“Does Fiona think these women found anything?”
“Yet to be seen. I don’t believe Fiona is finished.”
Son took the microphone from the stand and walked in front of the stage, singing. He removed his jacket.
The sun rises in the east and sets down in the west,
The sun rises in the east and sets down in the west,
Hard to tell, hard to tell, which one I love the best.
“My mother,” said Hank, “has a phrase that describes my wife. ‘A go-getter.’ Fiona’s a ‘go-getter’.”
“She wants to succeed, and I’m sure she will.”
“But some things, Dr. Overlay, are beyond her range of vision.” Hank paused. “Maybe my wife wants to be black. An African American.” Then he touched her arm and laughed.
She laughed at this apparent joke or whatever it was, but she could feel the muscles tighten in her face. She looked at Son, who had the apartment’s attention. He still hadn’t opened his eyes.
They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad
Wednesday’s worse, and Thursday’s oh so sad.
* * *
Fiona sensed Genero Epstein was whipping something up, and from his actions, she wondered how much he had to drink. She’d been keeping track of Son’s alcohol intake – not a drop so far – but never thought to monitor Genero’s, who was walking around saying something to everyone. Fewer people spoke to Hank, and more were beginning to stand in front of the bandstand, listening. Fiona talked louder.
Now Genero was on the bandstand, and when the music stopped he walked to Son and said something. Fiona sensed most of the crowd knew something she didn’t. Genero had the microphone.
“Let’s give it up for Son Hopwood, ladies and gentlemen!” Genero lifted his hands to the delight of the applauding partiers. Someone whistled.
Oh, my God! Genero had been drinking!
“We got a gorgeous apartment here,” said Genero, “and we got food and drink to die for. Let’s give it up for the food and drink, ladies and gentlemen.” Applause and one whoop. Someone lifted a plate of food, and several lifted glasses.
Fiona’s face ached as she smiled her way through this.
“But most of all, we got the most marvelous hosts in Chicago. Am I right?” Applause.
Fiona felt as though she were in the middle of Dr. Overlay’s class – something was happening she couldn’t fully grasp.
“Who thinks the honored guest and his lovely and charming wife should grace us with the first dance of the evening?”
Fiona was aware of a general stir around her, a vague commotion, intangible. She and Hank walked hand in hand to the front of the bandstand, which she had placed on the carpet, especially to discourage dancing. No more mistakes like the last time!
And Son said, “Back off folks and give the couple air. Give the lady her dancin’ space. We got a song picked out. These folks are our ‘Pride and Joy’.”
Fiona hadn’t been this close to the music and was startled it was so loud. Son began. Upbeat, guttural.
Heard about love, it was a sight to the blind,
My baby’s love could cause the sun to shine,
She’s my sweet little thing,
She’s my pride and joy
Hank flung her around in rock and roll fashion, and once, during one of her spins, she saw Son on the stage smiling at her. She was unaware of her feet, only of Hank’s hands and arms, as though she were caught in a thicket and couldn’t fight her way out. Then she saw Son again.
Love my baby, long and lean,
Mess with her, you’ll see a man getting’ mean
She’s my sweet little thing,
She’s my pride and joy
Hank was wooden, arms stiff, hands locked into Fiona’s like vices. Slowly she regained some bearing, and she was, again, the hostess, aware. People materialized around them, dancing, and for this she was grateful, providing a cover for Hank’s clomping. He continued tossing her around, his arms like support beams. She was dancing with a building, not a partner.
Love my baby with my heart and soul,
A love like ours will never grow old,
She’s my sweet little thing,
She’s my pride and joy
A pat on her shoulder and it was Genero Epstein. He yelled into her face, “May we cut in on the handsome couple?” Janet Overlay was standing beside him, ready to take Hank on. Genero took Fiona, and suddenly she was gliding, no longer Hank’s mannequin. Genero’s arms were extensions of hers, and she swore she was dancing on a hardwood floor. They dropped hands and danced separately, watching each other for cues, matching each other’s moves, a call and response. Yet she had not the time or inclination to name what she was doing; for she watched the man before her and listened to Son’s music, understanding something unnamable, familiar and foreboding that she knew she must run from immediately.
Mercifully, the music stopped. She saw Hank bowing in mock formality to Janet Overlay, and smelled Genero’s cologne and alcoholic breath. She didn’t care what he was saying because she must be about her business. She thought she would tell Son’s band to take a break and wouldn’t mind a bit if the party broke up. Mission accomplished. Genero Epstein touched her shoulder.
“Superb, my lady.”
His touch reminded her of something far, far away. But she hadn’t the time to pursue that, and she walked briskly from him.
* * *
The crowd thinned out slowly, no one in a rush to leave. Fiona made a point to stay close to the doorway, bidding the guests goodbye.
Kudos. Someone just used that word, and Fiona stored it away for later reference.
“Our doorman can call you a cab,” she told someone.
“That band, Fiona!” a woman said. “We must get out to hear it. Right here in Chicago, you say?”
Son Hopwood still held forth on the bandstand. Her polite scold to Genero had borne fruit, with Son now playing only slow tunes, which often bordered on the indelicate, but he was never ill-mannered, in fact courtly and charming. The dancing nearly stopped except for a few slow dancers on whom Fiona kept a vigilant eye. She stayed her distance from Genero Epstein, while making sure he had black coffee and a full stomach.
Dr. Janet Overlay and Hank talked, and Fiona noticed how they separated themselves from the others in the room. But then Fiona could only be imagining that they had consciously separated themselves, for Fiona thought she might be overrating the importance of little things, now that the party was a success and nothing, absolutely nothing, had gone wrong. She thought of redemption again. If only her mother were alive to see this, to see how her daughter had pulled this one off. Not that Hank’s American Book Award would have been any surprise to her mother.
But she didn’t have time to think about that now. She knew that Hank and Janet Overlay were merely enjoying each other’s company as people at good parties should. It was foolish to imagine otherwise. Fiona saw Hank touch Janet’s arm. Fiona checked the tables for what she knew would be the last time. The food in the chafing dishes was still hot because she had made a point all evening of keeping Sterno burning under plenty of hot water, just below the boiling point. Her quiche Lorraine was especially a success.
* * *
Janet Overlay watched the band break down after the guests had gone. She pelted Son Hopwood and his band with question after question.
“She has gotten herself looped,” Fiona told Genero, who had regained some sobriety.
“You gotcha one drunk broad there, Mrs. Ambrado,” he said.
Fiona marshaled the doorman so that when the time came, he could preside over Dr. Overlay. Hank pretended to help the band break down, but he was trying to coax Janet Overlay away from the band and out the door. He rolled his eyes to Fiona, Genero, and the doorman. At last, she got her coat on, but she wanted to talk to Fiona about Black influences on American culture and music. “A stroke of genius, Fiona, stroke of absolute genius to have these people play their music for us on the . . . it is fitting beyond compare . . . the American Book Award. These people have made American culture what it is . . . The only true American music, Fiona . . . . ”
Son and the band sat on the edge of the bandstand, sipping beer and eating quiche, while Dr. Overlay continued her lecture. Fiona was gracious. She would listen to Janet for as long as the lecture took then she would pay Genero. Son and the band members leaned over in laughter, looking at the people at the door. They would stay as long as the drunk woman talked and the food and beer held out.
The doorman finally shepherded Dr. Overlay out and down the elevator. Time to pay the band. Fiona thought this through without Hank’s help. She would give the check to Genero in the band members’ presence so they would know exactly how much the check was for. She had increased the check rather handsomely over the bands’ fee and wanted them to know that. She would not make a production of it, but would graciously and quietly hand it over, which she did. Son stood on his tiptoes and kissed her on the check. “Women like you make the world turn,” he said. “Any time, Mrs. Ambrado. I’d wear a tux for you any day.”
Genero, still quietly alcoholic, shook Hank’s hand and told Fiona it was a night to remember. Genero left, lugging an amp to the elevator.
* * *
The apartment was quiet. “Let’s leave it for tomorrow, Fiona,” said Hank, looking out at the evening’s dregs. “It’ll keep.”
Fiona was thinking. Something not done. Something missing. She was wide awake and alert to a fault. “It’ll keep,” she repeated.
“Bravos all around, Fi.”
She presented herself rear-ward, ready for the pat. But he had already begun walking to the bedroom, yawning and stretching his arms.
Perhaps they should make love after such a triumphant evening. But Fiona recognized Hank’s bed time routines and saw none of his pre-sex rituals (he was a man of impeccable habits), and she was willing to forgo a post-party romp. Yet, she lacked something to hold in her hand, something to manipulate and touch after the frenzy of the past two weeks in which she touched everything associated with Hank’s party. Maybe the feel of Hank on her, beneath her, his breath – the rhythmic, always gentle strokes – might redeem the airiness and abstraction Fiona felt, now that it was all over and completely successful. She couldn’t bear this. It was like the dizziness she felt when words floated beyond her, words arrogant enough to stay out of reach. She needed their touch and would even settle for their pain.
She walked to Hank’s side of the bed (they had already talked and talked about the evening and agreed on its delights and accomplishments and both said they were too keyed up to go off to sleep) where he sat propped up reading from a folder of papers.
“Janet Overlay tells me you are working on a piece of writing,” he said, never looking up and lifting a sheet from the folder. He placed it written-side-down onto a neat stack arranged on the bed.
“‘Tackling a fascinating issue’ is the way she put it.”
“That’s what you two were talking about?”
Hank continued reading. Fiona had seen him like this dozens of times, but suddenly she was having difficulty reading her husband, as if his face were a page full of words everyone but she knew.
“Telling stories out of school?” she said, careful with her inflection, hoping for a teasing lilt.
“She says you’re writing about some black women. Something about searching. That’s about all she said.”
Fiona’s heart raced, and she could absolutely kiss Hank. And Dr. Overlay too! She walked down the dark hall to the den where she had a small desk opposite Hank’s large one. No need to flip on a light because she knew exactly where her writing folder was. She brought it back to the bedroom and climbed in on her side, folder in hand.
“A long way from being finished,” she said. “But we writers understand that.” He was far from her in the king-sized bed, and she couldn’t reach an elbow to nudge him playfully. Hank said nothing.
“Take a look?” she asked, handing him some pages.
He peered over his glasses. “Well, I’m . . .”
“Of course, it’s still rough.”
She picked up a book on the night stand and pretended to read, while he read her pages.
Eudora Welty’s short stories “Livvie” and “A Worn Path” show the beginning of important things for women with the decline of Phoenix in “A Worn Path” and the beginning (advent?) of life for Livvie in “Livvie.”
Both women are illiterate and poor (indigent?). And both are kind, like Livvie saying yes to Solomon’s marriage proposal because “he was an old man and she was young and just listened and answered.” And Phoenix Jackson was silent (reticent?) and did her duty. They both portrayed similar characteristics of respect to others, like when Phoenix met the man on the road and she did not let him intimidate her. And the way Livvie always respected Solomon.
Ms. Welty’s remarkable use of colors and symbols stand out magnificently in “Livvie.” Cash is a young black man dressed in the colors of spring. And Phoenix holds onto life until when death will finally engulf her. She walks “slowly in the dark pine shadows” like the “chirping of a solitary bird.” Both women are on a journey and searching.
Hank stared at the pages long after he finished then carefully handed them to Fiona. She had a sudden inspiration about her writing and knew she must write it down before the freshness left, even before she discussed it with Hank. By the time she filled a page with her insight, Hank had put his folder away, turned out his reading light and nestled under the covers with his back to her. His breathing was not yet heavy.
“Hank. Hank, what do you think? I know you’re not sleeping.”
“Fiona, I don’t know what to say. I really don’t.” He stirred slightly. “Take it up with Janet Overlay when you see her. She must be some kind of saint to teach that course.”
Her reading light was still on, but Fiona felt the room go dark. She closed her writing folder. Now she was in the hallway searching in the darkness for the den as though she were a stranger in the apartment. She recognized something about the feeling but couldn’t quite bring it to mind, much less find a word for it. It was like she was dancing with Hank a few hours ago – graceless, stumbling on a surface not made for dancing, as though she were trying to dance ankle-deep in the nap of a carpet. She imagined two people watching her dance, and she was powerless to stop their laughing; they were over there across the room touching each other’s arms and laughing open-mouthed at her. Hank and Janet Overlay. She knew they were in the dark hallway somewhere, and she imagined she could hear them. She was trying to think of a word for it.
She passed the den and saw a faint glow in the living and dining areas. It was coming from where the food was served. The chafing dishes. She forgot to blow out the Sterno. She walked in the dark to the chafing dishes that stood at the scene of Hank’s party, pictures of which would be in tomorrow’s Tribune and next week’s Time. Her foot caught the corner of a table holding the chafing dishes, and she heard the hot water sloshing. How cleansing it would be to dip a hand and know pain, not something airy or swirling around her vaguely, as Hank’s and Janet Overlay’s glances had drifted to her across the room. Redemption for her, after all, had been only a word. She needed something with weight and volume.
She walked to the apartment door, imagining Lake Shore Drive below, cars spinning along even at this hour, people in the cars. She opened the door, and as she did the Sterno’s glow illuminated Hank’s wall clock, the perfect piece for the perfect party. She wanted to lift it from the wall, to hoist it over her head and feel a crushing and splendid ache in her arms and back. But standing in the open doorway, she knew the clock would remain on the wall. She patted it gently as she walked from the apartment, closing the door softly. Barefoot and in her nightgown, she headed for the elevator. “No,” she said, stopping for only a second. “I’ll take the stairs.” And she began the long descent.
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