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Here are stories about damaged women whose scars, literal and figurative, bear testament to the loves they've lost; about contemporary men unnerved by the messes they've made of their lives; about disrupted families, ...
Here are stories about damaged women whose scars, literal and figurative, bear testament to the loves they've lost; about contemporary men unnerved by the messes they've made of their lives; about disrupted families, separated by physical and psychological abysses. Cheuse's narratives display an edgy vitality underneath their surface gloss.
In "The Mexican Maid," a recently divorced numbers-cruncher in Washington, D.C., drifting aimlessly on the singles scene, has to confront his demons when he finds his maid dying on his living room floor.
In "Midnight Ride," an aspiring filmmaker listens to the ticking of her biological clock as she rides horseback beneath L.A.'s freeways and over the city's methane-producing garbage heaps.
An extended reverie of life's pivotal moments, "On the Millstone River: A Story from Memory" brings together fragments from a life, loosely linked by bodies of water or liquid—oceans, rivers, the Dead Sea, snow, milk baths, the "Y" pool—and by bodies of women—foreign, married, divorced, old, young, wives, daughters, mothers. This piece is a powerful reflection on the mystery of time and experiences and their effects on human sensibility.
The Mexican Maid
It never occurred to Birnhaus that he might clean the apartment himself. Immediately after Sara's departure he had dabbled at dishwashing and in the three months since then he'd changed the bedsheets a few times—as many times as he had had other women in the bed—but that was about it. His heart wasn't in it. A thick crust of toothpaste and sputum built up on the rim of the sink in the master bathroom and dust gathered in the bedroom like sea wrack at the baseboards and around the bottom of floor lamps, table legs, chair legs. When one night Birnhaus waited for a video to rewind he unconsciously ran his finger across the top of the VCR and noticed the deep stripe he had drawn in the dust. A few evenings after that, while reading in bed, he dozed off and let the book slip from his grasp and when he reached down to retrieve it felt something round and hard under his fingertips. This turned out to be a turd deposited there who knows when—it would've had to be some time before Sara left—by Gingerbread, the rust-colored mostly poodle his ex had brought to their marriage.
The milk curdling in the refrigerator, the mildew on the shower curtain, the mountain of newspapers that had grown next to his desk, the overflowing trash baskets, none of this had as much of an effect on him as did that single dog souvenir beneath the bed. Hispassions about the split-up had calmed a bit. Probably a month or two before, he would have called Sara and shouted at her until she slammed down the receiver at her end with the same rage that had driven him at his. But things had settled.
Chuck Johnson had told him they would, he of the many affairs and no marriages.
"How do you know all this stuff?" Birnhaus said to him one night over the crashing waves of voices at Paolo's.
Johnson, a few years younger than Birnhaus but with a lot less hair, sipped his tequila and looked around the crowded bar.
"Do I know that within the next ten minutes in will walk a woman with an incomparable body who we'll figure to be twenty-two and who'll turn out to be just over sixteen?"
"You don't have to be Nostradamus to figure that," Birnhaus said. "You just have to have been sitting at our table last week."
"Last week you were carrying a bigger torch for Sara than you are now. Everything runs down, Lucretius tells us. It's the nature of things." Johnson belched. He took another sip of tequila and flashed Birnhaus a grin.
A woman walked in, two women, in fact—or girls, as Birnhaus pointed out to Johnson without much glee—and they talked to them awhile and, since the bartender didn't make a fuss about it, bought them drinks.
But Birnhaus's heart wasn't in this either. A twist of Johnson's elbow in the wrong direction sent some liquid splattering across Birnhaus's shirt sleeve, something he would have laughed off when Sara was around. Now all the accident did was make him think about the pile of other soiled clothes back in the apartment, and of that hardened memento left behind by his former dog.
Later, at home, alone with the eleven o'clock news, he tried again to face up to the mess that surrounded him and rushed into the bedroom and with a series of yanking and jerking motions stripped the filthy sheets from the bed. Voices in the other room startled him, and his heart stopped racing only when he remembered he had left the television set on. He opened himself a beer, not a terrific idea since he had been keeping up with Chuck Johnson all night at Paolo's, and sat awhile after the regular newscast to watch a group of broad-faced, dark-haired Middle Easterners discuss the disastrous events in their part of the world with a calm and coolness Birnhaus wished he could maintain when thinking about his own life.
That night he slept badly, only for a few hours before awakening to find himself burdened with an erection he promptly dealt with, christening the newly spread sheets with a thick and sticky hosing of salt-perfumed sperm. Then he lay back in the odd greenish glow of his digital clock and waited for the buzzer. Birnhaus didn't have to be Nostradamus to predict that some time or other he would lift himself out of this funk. But when? When?
The alarm caught him dozing, dreaming even, or so he thought, having in his mind the fleeting memory of a walk through a seaside resort with some unknown woman, something he knew he hadn't done recently in his waking life. The conviction built in him as he showered and dressed for work. Something—something was going to have to change.
This sensation stayed with Birnhaus most of the day, during which he performed as a kind of sleepwalker the particular labors that had brought him a reasonably large amount of cash each year since he had left business school. At lunchtime, instead of grabbing a bite to eat with Johnson or one of the other men in the office, he stayed at his desk, fiddling with numbers on his screen. It was odd these days how nothing soothed him so much as playing his fingers across the keyboard, odd and rather ironic, since it had been Sara's great lament that he couldn't ever figure anything out.
Figure what? he'd say.
Figure it out, she'd throw back at him.
When everything fell apart and Sara and Gingerbread left for L.A., Birnhaus dabbled a little at figuring things out in a series of Saturday morning sessions with Dr. Gorbo, a psychologist with an office on a lower floor of his building. The location was obviously convenient and such sessions were covered in his health plan. But it wasn't long before his late Friday nights with women or even just drinking with Johnson at Paolo's won out over his desire to learn exactly what it was he needed to figure out.
"Get a little jazz in your life," Chuck said to him that night when they started at Paolo's and then met two women and walked over to One Step Down. A trio played souped-up ballads and got people tapping their glasses on the tables.
"I'd rather have a little Debussy," Birnhaus said, "or Satie. Yeah—Satie—"
A blank look unfolded on the face of the girl nearest him. Only a few weeks before, this would not have fazed him. He would have been encouraged that this woman—or girl—with streaked blond hair and a look of innocence painted over her already innocent, or was it ignorant? face, would not care much for knowing anything beyond the moment and the color of her hair and nails. Even a few weeks before, Birnhaus himself was still not much for talking except for the sort of conversation that pushed you along toward the time when you stripped away her clothing and yours and tore breathlessly to a climax.
"I'm not feeling so good," he said, offering a weak smile to his date and her friend. He set his drink down and pushed his chair back from the table. "I'm sure Mister Johnson here can keep you both happy."
"What's that supposed to mean?" said the girl with the painted face. Her voice was pettish and as she licked her lips to close off her remark Birnhaus felt a great rush of pleasure at the thought that he was about to make his exit. But in the next instant her look that seemed at first so scornful turned into a sort of smile and her tongue peeked out, lizardlike, from between her thickly made-up lips in a little lascivious farewell, leaving Birnhaus to ponder all the way home along shadowy streets broken only here and there by lamplight just what might have transpired between him and the girl if he had stayed.
No television news for him that night, no reading in bed. He dug through some of the CDs Sara had left behind to discover the Satie he was thinking of and played "Gymnopedies" loud enough to hear it in the bedroom when he threw himself into the soiled sheets and fell into a dreamless slumber. When he awoke early the next morning he found himself once again engorged with lust and ready to relieve himself even though he had vowed not to the night before.
There was only one thing to do, he decided over his coffee, in order to break up the logjam in his head and give himself some peace. So after the coffee he passed up pedaling a few miles on his exercycle, found some clean clothes amid the huge pile of unfolded laundry overflowing his dresser, and took the elevator to the second floor.
When he stepped into Dr. Gorbo's waiting room he discovered a short, wide-hipped woman with a crinkled, nut-brown face and long dark silky hair that seemed to belong to someone twenty years younger. For a moment he thought she was a patient. But then she smiled at him, revealing several gold teeth, and bent to retrieve the plastic lining from the wastebasket at the far side of the sofa, holding up for inspection the bundle of crumpled papers and used tissues as though it were a prize.
A door opened and from the inner office came the black, stick-thin Mrs. Keen, Dr. Gorbo's secretary. Within a few minutes Birnhaus had arranged to see the psychologist again and to have the Mexican maid come up to his apartment to clean once a week.
Señora Claro brushed her hair from her wrinkled face and thanked him profusely when he wrote out her first check. Her breath was tinged with spices Birnhaus could not identify—cloves? saffron?—and he knew from then on when she had been in his apartment even before he saw the sparkling surfaces in the kitchen or noticed that the pillows had been carefully arranged once more on the sofa before the window, the lingering traces of those same mysterious spices tempering the astringent odor of cleanliness she left in her wake. Her English, as it happened, was good enough so that he didn't have to strain that first time when giving her instructions about the front lock—since Mrs. Keen gave her such a good recommendation he didn't hesitate to present her with her own set of keys—and though she said she would have to come at odd hours in order to fit him into her schedule it scarcely mattered to Birnhaus because of his own long days.
The one time in the next several months he came home early, he opened the door to sniff the by now familiar odor of her spicy presence and found her huffing and puffing as she straggled to pull the sofa away from the wall so that she might clean behind it. As he put his own weight into the labor, he graciously ordered her never to try that again, and then laughed with her as she held up the woman's scarf that she found on the rug beneath where the sofa had stood.
"It was my wife's," he said, but in truth he didn't recognize the scarf.
"It's uh-very beautiful," said Señora Claro, catching her breath after the laughter.
Birnhaus couldn't be sure if she was praising the scarf in order to pay him a compliment about Sara, or if she merely liked the scarf.
"Please take it," he said, folding her hand over her discovery.
"Oh, no, señor," said the Mexican maid, but it was clear she was accepting it as a gift.
Hiring the maid or seeing Dr. Gorbo again—Birnhaus couldn't have said for sure which of these decisions made him feel better about his life until one Saturday a few weeks later when he awoke with that same young blond girl in his bed whom he had skipped out on that night at One Step Down. Janine was her name and she was twenty-three, which gave Birnhaus a full ten years on her. He should have gotten dressed and gone downstairs for his appointment, but instead he dawdled in bed with the girl and then dozed off, dreaming that same dream again about walking with the woman by the seawall.
Janine had gone by the time he awoke. A shopping trip with her girl friend so-and-so, her note told him. In an odd new way, Birnhaus felt happy she had left, although he admitted to himself she wasn't much of a presence when she was with him, not being much more than her body and her makeup and her youth. Into the bathroom—and he was pleased with how clean the commode and sink and shower stall showed under the lights. Something pricked at his toe just then and he bent down to retrieve a barrette Janine must have dropped as she was making her escape. He stared at it and then dropped it into the plastic-lined wastebasket beneath the sink.
A few minutes later he called downstairs to apologize to Mrs. Keen for missing his appointment and asked to reschedule. There was a sternness in the woman's voice he didn't appreciate, until she changed her tone to ask how Señora Claro was working out.
"Fine," he said, "just fine."
And it was true, she was working out splendidly, vacuuming and scouring and dusting each week so that Birnhaus came to look upon himself as a man who lived in cleanliness rather than amidst filth and debris. Now and then—miracle of miracles—he even stopped off at the supermarket on the way home and picked up some ground beef or chicken thighs and cooked for himself, feeling free to splash about with sherry and oils because the señora would be in within a day or two to clean up the mess.
"You were right," he said to Chuck Johnson one night at Paolo's as he raised a glass in his direction.
"About what?" Johnson flashed a foolish grin at the gift at his side.
"About fucking everything. You're a genius. Bald—but a genius."
Johnson gave him the finger. The girls laughed. This was the way things went for months. They drank a lot and then later in the evening went their way two by two, Johnson and his girl to his place, a fancy little efficiency over near Dupont Circle, and Birnhaus and his girl, first Janine and then a secretary named Kara, a freckle-spattered redhead from West Virginia, to his fresh-smelling quarters.
The season changed, which meant that now and then they might have to take a taxi to avoid the cold rain, and once or twice Birnhaus even cranked up his old BMW which was parked most of the time in the garage below the building. The city, he had concluded long ago, was meant for walking and taxis and now and then a Metro ride. He and Sara had taken an occasional weekend drive into Virginia, but somehow Birnhaus wasn't moved to travel anymore, not, at least, with the girls he was going out with these days.
He talked of Sara once in a while. At a session with Dr. Gorbo before he let the therapy thing slide again, he put it this way: "I hadn't been thinking about her, you know? and then one night I was reading in bed, yep, I still stay home a few nights alone, reading, watching a movie, maybe, so anyway, there I was, and I turned a page, this was in a spy novel by Robert Littell, somebody you really ought to read, an old school pal of mine turned me on to him, anyway, so I was reading and that was when I remembered falling asleep with a book one night a few months after Sara left, and I woke up, you know how you sort of snap yourself awake? and I reached down for the book, it fell under the bed, you know? and I touched this hard thing, a turd from our old dog, a little doggie souvenir, and the other night I was in bed again and like I said I turned the page and I remembered that other time ... and that was when the thoughts of Sara came back to me. Can you believe that? because I was remembering finding that dog turd? But I don't find shit like that anymore, oh, yeah, a bad pun, I didn't mean it, but anyway I have this woman who comes in to clean, the same woman cleans this office, as a matter of fact, Señora Claro, and she does a great job. I love coming back to a clean apartment. To tell you the truth, Sara just never got the place all that clean, or how else do you think that dog turd stayed there under the bed? ... I miss that dog now and then, you know. When Sara left I felt a little sting about her going. I don't think she felt anything. According to her, she was just beginning to have a hard time with me when she packed up and left. That's how Sara always did it. Trouble coming up, she splits. She learned it from her father. He abandoned the family a couple of times and came back and left again before he died. But that's Sara's family, and I should be talking about mine, right?"
Yet he scarcely ever did speak of them, dead father, mother remarried and living outside Minneapolis, while the sessions with Dr. Gorbo continued, which was only for a few weeks more. As it happened, work began to pick up, three or four turns he suggested that the company take proving to be enormously successful and distracting him from the vague unease that had sent him to see the psychologist in the first place. And then a new woman turned up, too, a Jewish girl from New York, a friend of a girl Chuck Johnson was going out with, and she took the train down to see him several weekends that winter.
It was the night before one of those weekends that Birnhaus came home to a dusty apartment. The following Monday the mess he and the girl from New York had made was still there when he returned after dark. Another two days went by and he began to get antsy about Señora Claro's absence. By Saturday morning he was feeling annoyed. He wanted to call Dr. Gorbo's office to ask about the Mexican woman, but of course he didn't want to speak to Mrs. Keen. He decided to let it slide one more weekend, but the place was getting so filthy—and he had grown accustomed to the opposite state—that he lasted only to the middle of the week.
Mrs. Keen was merciless with him on the telephone, as he knew she would be, explaining with ice-cold precision that Señora Claro had developed a heart problem and gone in to the Washington Hospital Center for a catheterization. No, she didn't know when she would be back to work again, though she supposed it would be as soon as possible.
"She supports all of her sister's family down in Mexico," Mrs. Keen said in a voice that Birnhaus could scarcely hear without wincing. "So I'm sure she'll be back just as soon as the doctors tell her it's okay to work again."
All right, all right, Birnhaus was thinking, but at least she didn't bring up the subject of another appointment, and then they had finished, and Birnhaus found his finger, nearly unbidden, punching out another number.
"Hey, how's the pup doing?" he said when Sara came on the line.
"Norm," she said, "what a surprise. But I can't talk to you right now. Can you call back tomorrow?"
"Sure," he said, trying to keep his disappointment to himself. Seated as he was at his desk, he immediately began to fiddle with the keyboard, but then he set it aside and called Chuck's extension but the line was busy. He was tempted to call Mrs. Keen again to see if she had Señora Claro's home number, but then Chuck himself wandered over and they made plans for the evening. Chuck had an appointment with his dentist just after work so they decided to meet at Paolo's later on.
At about seven o'clock Birnhaus came home to find his door open a crack. His heart pounding from his initial fear of burglary, he peered inside, and after listening carefully, pushed the door a little further and stepped into the apartment only to discover Señora Claro standing at the kitchen sink wielding her sponge. Birnhaus stood a moment and talked with her, trying to calm himself, pleased to be inhaling once again the familiar odor of cloves and the other spices the woman chewed. He inquired about her medical problem and learned that she had been been catheterized and that it would be necessary for her to go back again for further scrutiny within the month.
"And have they put you on a special diet?" Birnhaus was staring at her throat and it was only then he realized that tucked into the top of her plain white blouse was the scarf he had given her.
"Oh, eh-yess," she said, showing him her gold teeth in a smile. "Es-special diet. No meat, no fat." There was a little tremor in her voice, and it might have been her normal way of speaking or it might have been born of fear at her condition.
"They eh-think I need an operación," she said, her brown face crinkling into a leathery but pleasant smile as she resumed her wiping of the kitchen surfaces.
Birnhaus wrote out her check, and after a brief pause wrote a second check, which, he explained when handing it to her, was to help her with any untoward medical expenses.
"Gracias," said Señora Claro, pausing to stuff both checks into the pocket of her brown polyester pants.
"I'm going out now," Birnhaus said.
"Sí," the woman said.
"And remember," he said, pointing to the sofa and making a pushing motion with his hands and arms, "no moving furniture. Capeesh?"
"Sí, Mister Birnhaus, I won't eh-push." She showed him those teeth again in a smile.
So Birnhaus left for his rendezvous with Chuck Johnson, feeling celebratory now that the maid was back.
"What's with you tonight?" Chuck said after a few drinks, though Birnhaus could hardly find the words to explain. And within the hour he was too drunk even to try. So they decided to put their energy to the best possible use and call some girls.
Janine had her answering machine on and didn't come to the telephone. The redheaded, freckle-faced girl from West Virginia was at home but already in bed.
Johnson finally hit the jackpot with a call to a new girl, a black secretary from his part of the office. Her name was Delly, and she and her roommate were just sitting around watching a movie and though they didn't want to come out, they invited the two men over for a nightcap.
"It's a different life-style," Johnson said in the cab on the way over to Adams-Morgan. "It's passed down from generation to generation. Their ancestors, see, were kept up real late toiling in the fields, so staying up late just became a way of life in America."
Birnhaus was trying to catch his breath, because his heart was racing uncharacteristically fast and he was pondering this bit of social interpretation when they reached the apartment house where the two girls lived.
But it turned out to be three girls.
"Our cups runneth over," Johnson said, putting his arm around Delly as soon as they came in the door.
Birnhaus thought Delly was cute, her skin the color of mahogany, not much different from that of Señora Claro. And she had a pert, Indian-like nose, and a great smile—no gold teeth—he wondered why he hadn't noticed her before in the office. Beside her the other two girls seemed dark and drab despite the brightness of their bathrobes and hair ribbons and smiling faces.
Chuck ordered a couple of pizzas and they ate these with a large quantity of beer and watched the last half of Pretty Woman, laughing and talking. Birnhaus sat on the sofa with Delly, and enjoyed it immensely, especially, toward the end of their stay, when he conjured up the little fantasy about what might happen if and when he asked Delly out for a drink.
The nip on the ear she gave him just before he and Chuck went out the door was all the incentive he needed to decide to ask her out for lunch the next day. The problem was that by the time he got a cab and went home and took the elevator to his floor he had forgotten her name.
What was it? he interrogated himself as he took out his keys and unlocked the apartment door.
The living room lights were ablaze, a welcoming touch left by the Mexican maid, and the air was filled with the odors of cleansers and the familiar scent of her spices. Birnhaus smiled as he went for the telephone, hoping to extract the black girl's name from Johnson before his friend fell asleep.
"You asked her?" Chuck said at the other end of the line. His voice was blurred, as though the connection were made under water or he had suffered a stroke.
"You're not pissed, are you?"
"I'm pissed," Johnson said.
"It's just for lunch," Birnhaus said, glancing around the room and admiring the tidiness of it all.
That was when he noticed her, wedged between the television set and the wall, crumpled into a jackknife position, as though she had been bending over either to pull out the plug or put it in when the attack came upon her.
"Señora!" Birnhaus cried out, dropping the telephone and rushing to her side. He knelt and tried to turn her body toward him.
She was very heavy. Remembering some vague instructions from a course he had heard about but never taken in college, Birnhaus with some effort pulled the woman away from the wall and turned her on her back in the middle of the rug. He clumsily undid the clothing around her chest, tearing at the scarf, pulling open her cheap synthetic blouse. Her brown chest was nearly as flat as a man's and only the dark fleshy stubs of her nipples gave him pause before he began massaging her with his palms, pressing hard with his thumbs.
He heard a squawk and at first thought it was the woman, until he remembered the telephone and lunged toward the fallen receiver.
"Chuck," he said, "call an ambulance," and then raced back on his knees to the woman's side. Leaning close to her mouth he breathed in the faint familiar odor of her spices and, nearly gagging, pulled back for a moment before dipping his head toward her again, using his fingers to pry open her cold, unyielding lips, then pressed his own against hers.
Taking a deep breath, he blew in, and pulled back as he pressed down on her chest. And then with a breath he dove toward her lips again, tasting beneath the layer of spices a bitter sip of oily food and a harsh dab of tobacco. Was she a smoker? How could she do that to herself when she had such a terrible heart condition? Blowing in, pressing down, blowing in, pressing down, these thoughts raced through his mind while he labored above her inert body.
He couldn't have said how long this went on—breathing, blowing, pressing, breathing, blowing, pressing, as though he were some grotesque mother bird and this woman beneath him the nestling he was feeding mouth to mouth—but then he heard the sirens in the street below, and something caved in within his own chest, and he paused in his work above the body, panting, weeping, groaning, and somehow at the same time savoring in his own mouth the spices the woman had chewed, the meals she had eaten, the cigarettes she had smoked.
There came a pounding at the door, and as if that were the signal he was waiting for, Birnhaus collapsed onto the woman even as his gorge rose and he spewed forth his own late supper and all the beer and—it seemed—all of the drinks he had drunk at Paolo's, all of the meals he had taken there and at other exotic restaurants, and all of the smokes and the hors d'oeuvres and the snacks and desserts, and candy and medicine and syrups and toppings and the saliva of a thousand kisses, from his mother's to those on the lips of every woman he had ever tasted, this wretched acid gush of waste that flowed down over his shirt and poured onto the prone body of the Mexican maid, sloshed over her chest and neck, and left an indelible stain on the rug beneath her.
At least it seemed as if it would never come out. After the paramedics left, Birnhaus walked in circles around the stain for what seemed like an hour, and he suddenly dashed into the kitchen and went digging beneath the sink for cleansers and soaps and sponges and brushes and went to work on the mark on the rug. Wetting, washing, scrubbing, staring, studying, and then beginning the cycle again, he spent the last of his energies of the day—or night, for it had been night a long while now and was edging up on the deepest part of itself, when blackness is compounded on blackness and, in this part of town, the air is still and no birds sing. When he flung himself onto the bed, the last image he held in his mind before going under was the outline of the stain. Nearly circular, but with ragged edges, it might have been the circumference of some exotic country on a map in a yellowing geography book.
Someone from the police called the next morning—on the telephone, not in person, because they had too many homicides to deal with these days, the woman said, and they were stretched thin enough to have to telephone rather than make a trip out into the field over a death by heart failure. He repeated his story and the woman seemed satisfied.
"We'll get back to you if we find we need any more information, Mr. Birnhaus," she said by way of farewell.
Birnhaus stayed at the telephone, first calling the office to say he would not be coming in today. Then he tried dialing downstairs but got only the answering service. His heart was beating fast and his breathing seemed a little troubled, his nose stopped up. Was he coming down with something? That was a possibility. Or could it be all the dust in the apartment that was stopping him up? The señora, may she rest in peace, had not finished her work. He wondered how he might go about finding someone else to clean for him, and then hated himself for the thought. But in the elevator—not a long ride, though longer than it usually seemed—he couldn't help but wonder about a replacement for his cleaning woman.
I'll ask Mrs. Keen, he decided, since he had to break the news to her anyway. If she wasn't in yet, he'd just sit in the hall and wait.
Sniff, sniff, he tried to breathe normally through his clogged nostrils. Nothing doing. Sniff. Snuff. Sniff.
He had some questions for the doctor, too.
|The Mexican Maid||3|
|Man in a Barrel||35|
|An Afternoon of Harp Music in Lake Charles, Louisiana||113|
|On the Millstone River: A Story from Memory||165|