The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold
By Kate Bernheimer
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2001 Kate Bernheimer
All rights reserved.
The Saltmarsh Tale of Lies
I want to tell you something, so listen. I saw two bathers flying. They flew with their breasts turned heavenward and their backs faced hellward. The first wore a striped bikini, the second a plain pair of trunks. Once I saw a bird in a shake at the boardwalk's fancy ice-cream stand, and then an anchor and some dune grass swam across the bay just as gracefully as you please. The anchor was surprising but dune grass is more lovely. Four girls in eyeglasses tried to catch a rabbit that lived in the mansion lawn. The first girl was sad, the second girl was afraid, the third girl was insecure and the fourth girl was just plain mean. Do you want to know what happened? The first saw the animal and tearfully told the second, who ran away to tell the third, who tried in vain to catch the rabbit. Shut up if you don't believe me. This is all in the country by the sea where a lobster chased me to a field of windflowers enclosed by a wall. Inside I saw a cow, who had gotten there by leaping. There are greenflies and black-flies and dragonflies there. So open the window and let the lies out, I say.
Brown paneling and a low ceiling trapped darkness here. The bedroom's only window faced a dead-end street, lined with oaks and maples. The Golds had filled this unremarkable nursery with several fine items for their young girls: the wood rocker with scratchy red upholstery; the white crib painted with dancing elephants and monkeys; and the stiff fur plaything, a seal on wheels, larger than Ketzia at this age, that sat in the middle of the room, waiting to carry her through toddling days. It presided over a kidney-shaped brown shag rug.
Meredith—or, as the family called her, Merry—Ketzia's older sister, lay on her back on a small cot next to the crib. Above Merry's bed hung a monkey, suspended from the ceiling by a spring attached to its head. The monkey sprung toward the ceiling and down again as Merry kicked the bottom of its feet with the bottom of her own. "Monkee-kee, Monkeekee," Merry said. "My Monkee." It had a rather sickly smile, giant ears and denim jeans.
Ketzia lay in the crib on her stomach, arms twisted, hands palm-down by her sides. Pressing a cheek into the pale pink blanket that would later be known as "Sniffy" due to an unfortunate "accident" with Mrs Gold's bottle of expensive perfume, Ketzia launched two green eyes about the room, noted the orange sheer curtains and the light coming through them—tossing shadows of suburban leaves on the wall—and perhaps, though we can't be certain, the stolid gaze of her sister Merry who looked away at once upon meeting Ketzia's eyes.
The Star Pennies
I'm going to tell you something. for a long time I was so poor that I only had one room to live in with a small cot to sleep on. This room was on the road of oracles. You could hear the cars go by through the thin motel door. I did have some real things in storage at my parents' house—a brass bed, an automatic drip coffee maker, a woolen pea coat—but I was too old to go home. And my husband and I were no longer together.
I was tired a lot of the time. I was in a warm place that on the map was always orange, sometimes lined in red. This is on the television, and in the paper. I spent my days walking the desert under the hot sun in a cowboy hat Adam had bought me downtown in another state. We saw the swans that day, and a pigeon ate peanuts off Adam's shoulder while I screeched with fake terror, nearby.
I managed to keep myself fed. I was too proud to ask Adam for money. Money should not pass hands that way, though one must give it to strangers. My parents had lent me so much over the years I was finally too embarrassed to ask them for more. I had learned my lesson well.
I walked down a hot, six-laned speedway every blazing morning to a shop where two teenage boys gave me a plastic bag full of bagels. They did not sell all the bagels every day, they said. "We have yesterday's bagels for you," they said. The boys wore shirts of many colors with bursts of white naked fabric throughout the colors.
Pumpernickel, garlic, sesame, raisin, a wondrous kind called everything.
I'd walk west on the speedway, past the road of oracles to a red-rocked hilly place called the monument. Then I wandered up and down dried-out riverbeds. Thorny plants were all about and when the sun set and snakes came out onto the thin-shaded sand, I'd walk east to the road of oracles and leave the desert behind.
Back at the motel I would pass by the office and lower my chin in a kind of greeting. I entered my small motel room through a door that was never locked and felt as though made of cardboard. The manager had given me a cheap monthly rate. He knew I got my money selling plasma. He mostly let rooms by the hour and had a place for me.
As part payment the manager could see me through a glass window that was shady and grey, though I could only see myself. Inside, everything was dark and seemed like a photograph negative.
Each evening I would strip and wash my body head to foot with soap the manager, with his biker's t-shirt and beautiful hair, left on the sink for me daily. This soap was wrapped in white paper and you could smell the soap through the paper when you entered the room from the road. I would hang my brown dress—so delicately flecked with tiny pink roses—in the bathroom, so the steam could straighten all the small wrinkles. I'd pull my hair back into a tight, wet ponytail and face the mirror, dimming my expression and shrinking into my body. Then, I would lie on the bed in my pale slip and let hot tears burn lines on my cheeks. But only for a moment.
Taking a deep breath, I would try to imagine an erotic scene that might save me. I'd stretch my body out so my hands brushed the pressboard wall and my feet dangled in the hot desert air. Lying flat, I would wait for someone to come. I barely slept that entire year, there was so much to hear inside my head, and out. Inside was the waiting game. Outside, coyotes sang. At first I thought I was hearing a gang of weeping children come to cover the earth. Soon their howls sent words and I knew what they meant.
I started to call Adam from the motel desk every morning to tell him. I knew we would not be together, which made me ashamed, so I'd hang up as soon as I heard his voice. Every day I did this, but by winter's end, that first season of no food or money and only me to walk and weep, I was so weak the telephone seemed too heavy for my hand. Yet still I would call. I'd go into the office where the manager would hand me the phone without a word, his head tilted back, mid-dream. I would dial the number and let the receiver thud down to the counter, then leave for my walk. I guess the manager hung it up later, upon waking.
In spring I called for the very last time. I was so hopeless I had decided the whole world had forsaken me and it was only a matter of time until the real end. An owl with a snake in its mouth had flown by my face one dawn, darkening my skin. Telling Adam of my troubles was beside the point, now the true end was on its way.
I continued to walk the desert floor daily. With my stale bagels and in my floral dress and western hat, which I kept quite clean despite my despair, I made a pretty picture for many gaping tourists. "A native," I would occasionally hear one whisper. This struck me as hysterical, for it's all a terrible mistake. Still, I knew much about the desert and I tried to communicate all I knew with my eyes. The end is coming, my eyebrows warned them, heed the prickly pear. If the prickly pear has bloomed, find cover!
One pale day I walked farther than ever. It was the hottest time I had ever known in the desert. Even my bones felt the sun. Everything was dead, dried up in the vast oven of sky and earth. I came upon a man poorer than even myself. "I'm so hungry," he said. His skin looked made of wood. I let the plastic bag fall from my hand and watched as it landed and melted onto a rock. My head burned so, the burning felt cold, and I felt a solitary ice cube melt through my skull. I walked from the man and my bagels.
Soon I found a child resting near a spiny ocotillo. "My head is so cold," the child said. "Mine too," I answered. "My head is so hot, it's cold." She just stared. I took the leather hat Adam had given me and placed it on the child's head. She reached her hands up and felt along its band, patterned with colors and made of bird's feathers. The child leaned against the ocotillo. "No!" I cried, because the ocotillo is like nails. She fell asleep, apparently unharmed. I bid farewell to the hat and the girl.
Farther along, I saw another child. He had no shirt and small circles under his eyes. "Take my dress," I told him. "It's made of rayon, a fabric they say is fine as silk. You can wash it when the monsoons come just by standing beneath a cloud." The dress swept the desert floor as the boy walked away, the dress covered his hands with its long flowing sleeves.
At last I came to the deep saguaro forest, with its angular cacti, tired and old. The sun no longer slapped my head. It was so dark that when the last child asked me for my underslip I thought, what does it matter, no one will see me in this dark. Stepping out of the pink slip, I remembered how I used to vacuum in my underwear while Adam slept. I said, "This slip is from a special shop. There they sell only lingerie. My husband bought it for me, he picked it out for me." This was a lie, since I'd bought it myself at Val-U-Village, which was across from the motel. It cost one dollar.
As I stood there naked with nothing left, I looked toward the flickering lights of the desert city's limits. And I thought of the people who inhabited the place, in their kitchens and bathrooms and garages and yards. I didn't know what they were trying to tell me with the lights that turned on and turned off. They made a pattern I could not yet discern. Why were so many people flickering lights for me to read? All I could tell was that the end was surely imminent. As I lowered my body to sit on the ground and receive it, all the trailers and houses went dim. Then the dimmed lights became stars, and those dull amber stars rose to the sky and then fell. I crouched on the ground, trying to gather the stars, which glittered darkly like jewels, or like pennies. I held some in my hands and found my way through the night.
Back at the motel, on the narrow but clean cot, I lay down for my first good sleep since winter. I put the star pennies under my pillow for luck.
When I woke what I believe now to have been many days and nights later, I did not understand where my dress was, and why my cheek was pressed into what seemed to be gravel. The manager stood above me, lifted my cageling arms into one of his grey-black t-shirts with an eagle on the back. He gave me some leather pants to wear. The pants were so heavy on my legs that I understood how we are all animals.
I let myself be sheparded into the motel office, where I took the phone and called Adam. When I heard Adam's voice rise toward me, I wavered and almost fell down. The manager spoke into the phone for me then, eyeballing me kindly for the very last time.
In my room I changed into a new pink dress, which the manager bought me at Val-U-Village. It had an elastic waist and sleeves like wings and it opened between my legs when I walked. I peered into the one-way mirror.
Back in the office I sat on the counter and slung my legs toward the manager, who stroked them. I turned myself toward the door. I fingered the money Adam had wired, and the dress, soft as light, and watched for the sunflower cab.
Mrs Gold readied the outfit for wearing: a velvet dress, cotton tights and patent leather shoes as shiny as beetles. Ketzia gazed upon the preparations, which already found her in ruffled underpants. Downstairs on the kitchen counter sat a perfect birthday cake, marshmallow-frosted and topped with a single candle in the shape of a heart. "She hasn't stopped smiling since she was born," Mr Gold said to a figure in the hallway, invisible from the room, who cast a long female shadow over the changing table. "She smiles, but never talks." A woman's whisper: "Is there something wrong?"
As Mrs Gold wrestled a giggling Ketzia into the new rose-colored dress, Merry watched on, her mind on the presents downstairs at Ketzia's chair by the wooden kitchen table. She patted Ketzia's forehead with a heavy hand. "Little Ketzia," she said, putting her nose against Ketzia's own and pressing it down. "Little ugly baby," Merry said under her breath. Then, twisting thick braids onto her face like a mustache, she slipped out of the room. "Honey?" Mrs Gold called. But Mr Gold was gone from the scene. Ketzia stared at the ceiling, upon which shadows crossed.
Putting on a record of cartoon singing chipmunks, Mrs Gold spun Ketzia in circles. This was Ketzia's favorite game: when let go, she'd stagger toward the fancy wallpaper, recently installed by Mr Gold's confident hands. The paper featured ballerinas in pink gauze tutus that flared out from the wall—a brand new textile fashion. Looking closely, one could detect strands of gold and silver woven into the paper which made it sparkle in light.
Ketzia, aware of the special fabric of her rosy dress and especially excited, spun toward the dancers, brushing against the wall again and again sent careening by her mother. She fingered the pink tutus, touched them with awe and with fear, as she touched everything, and as she would later a thin sliver of cake, the only one salvaged from the garbage pail's bottom where Merry's jealous tossing had put the confection.
Ketzia touched the girls on the wall without making a sound. "Good Ketzia," Mrs Gold said, watching with a distracted frown. "Good little one-year-old monkey." She took hold of Ketzia's arm and spun her again, spun her around pretty hard.
A Riddling Tale
For a short but rather confusing time when I was younger, my sisters and I turned into flowers. We were left to grow in a window box all day, and only my sister was allowed inside at night. She had strong leaves and many blooms, like us all then, but hers were stronger, and more many. My mother kept her by the bedside to sleep, and returned her to our box for day.
One morning, as my older sister fixed the crystals for my mother's coffee before going back to the box, she said "If you come pick me this morning, and let me inside for the day, I'll never leave home for some man."
And so later my mother went to the window box and pulled her from the roots. After that, my sister wasn't a portulaca.
Here is a riddle for you. How did my mother know which one was my older sister, if we were three identical ground roses among the wandering jew? That riddle is easy to answer. My older sister had been indoors all night and had no dew upon her. She stood out in matte-red dullness.
An other riddle is harder to answer. My older sister married just one year later, leaving me and my little sister with my mother and her moods. Why?
Hester helped the two girls swaddle into red snowsuits with hoods. Outside, they scraped ice into big plastic bowls. Ketzia held a spoon to her tongue where the metal stuck dryly. The snow was white, not grey yet from traffic. It was still coming down. When Ketzia looked up through street lights, the flakes looked like ashes glowing.
Back in the kitchen they slathered maple syrup onto the slush from a bottle the shape of a buxom woman. Fishing for maraschino cherries from a narrow jar, Merry exaggerated her mouth in a pucker. Hester—Mr Gold's favorite sitter from an agency downtown—cleared the plates with a laconic gaze. Ketzia noticed how Hester's long legs in lime cable-knit tights matched the lime of her cable-knit sweater. She watched as Hester crossed one thin leg over the other in a languorous motion, much like an octopus or bird. Under the heavy padded jacket and with a slight cold, Ketzia began to sweat.
"Stop that breathing noise," Merry admonished. "Stop that noise." Hester lit a cigarette and turned the pages of a fashion magazine. Ketzia padded out of the kitchen behind Merry, into the wood-paneled den. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold by Kate Bernheimer. Copyright © 2001 Kate Bernheimer. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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