Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Butternut

By: K. Harvey


He looked at the blot on the brick wall that resembled a girl with yellow hair. She was smiling, as young girls do, half shyly. Her face was thin, it was almost skeletal like a corpse, like a dead woman, but with the yellow hair of a very young girl and the shy, inviting smile. He looked at the blot on the brick wall as the sky was becoming dark.

His father owned the funeral home in town. He had seen bodies. He had seen them in their coffins at night with the lids propped like traps. He had seen them naked on the prep table. He had seen them with terminal erections, when the blood rushes to the male genitalia after death. He was not afraid of bodies. ‘You got to go sometime,’ the old men said. He believed them. The blot made him think of the girl he wanted. She was a girl he would not be afraid of. He did not know any girls like her, but she was a girl who smiled half-shyly.

He walked away from the brick wall, away from the public library, down Second Street to Main Street. He turned right and walked in and out of the magic circles in orange on the sidewalk squares from intermittent streetlamps above. They had just come on when the sky went dark. He had missed them coming on. He remembered a painting he had seen called ‘The Magic Circle.’ Its was of a dark Spanish girl with black hair. Her feet were bare. She was surrounded by a circle she'd drawn in the sand, standing in it with a cauldron and a fire with a pillar of smoke rising. She was gorgeous and dangerous, but with the same inviting look. He remembered that the circle in the sand was incomplete, that the space between him and the girl in the painting was open. But all around she was protected by the magic circle from the demons she conjured, from the toad and the black crows and Death as a skull half buried in the sand. He did not believe in demons. He had seen bodies. They were kept from decomposing for a little while by chemicals.

He reached the Butternut Diner on Main Street near the center of town and pushed the greasy oak door aside. The door was as old as the building, which was almost as old as the town. It had been a feed store, now it was a diner. The small space was populated every night by men who did not love their wives but were not drunks and did not go to the bars. They went to the Butternut Diner instead. Their farmers’ hands had worn the oak door smooth and left green discoloration on its grain, like the first night the lake freezes in winter. Wake up one morning and it’s out there, in the middle of the lake, beautiful and dangerous. These men went to the diner until it was cold enough to sit in their ice fishing shacks on Big Butternut Lake staring into a circle in the ice.
He pushed the door aside and heard the familiar sound of the silver bell on the fishing line above the door. No one looked up. He did not look around. He went to the small table in the corner and sat with his back to the wall. Except for the white plastic ashtray, the table was empty. He leaned back from it, letting his butt slide forward to the edge of the chair, and pulled a box of Camels from the waistline of his jeans. His parents didn’t know he smoked. He kept the box there because it was invisible under his shirt. Soon she would come with his coffee. He came to the Butternut for the coffee, which masked the smell of tobacco on his breath. He lit a cigarette and felt the rise in his blood.

She came. Her seductive movements were unmanned by the haste of her waitressing. The black name tag was pinned over her left breast and it caught the light from the slow ceiling fan. Carlotta. He read it as she came over to him. She did not take the notebook from her apron.

“Eggs and sausage and hashbrowns?” She asked. Her accent was restrained, or reserved, and her fingernails were blood red as she set a gray porcelain mug on the table and filled it with coffee.

He smoked, and said, “Not tonight. Just hashbrowns tonight. And toast.”

“Wheat?”

He nodded, “Thanks. And some water please.”

She moved to the bar and he watched her shape, marked by the black apron tie and the pale pink skirt and the black everything else except for the skin of her calves. She was not more than twenty. Her eyes were dark, and her lashes were daubed with mascara like a burnt forest. She came with the water. She looked at him with her fingers on the glass on the table. He looked back. He had seen bodies.

They conversed in a friendly way, passing the time which she did not let on that she had. As he answered her he could hear her smiling. The sound came smoothly through her nose, above her lips which turned and stretched and rounded syllables dropped like hailstones on his senses. Her lips wet themselves on her teeth as her accent perverted the air that passed between them. Soberly he was drifting towards panic. The sweat beneath his hairline cooled in the mellow ceiling fans. He was bouncing his cigarette continually on the plastic ashtray, watching it. He wasn't saying much. A shudder took the muscles that surrounded the pounding organs in his chest and he knew she could hear it in his voice. She could hear it with her ears withheld behind black hair, full black hair which smelled when she pushed it away from the tree line of lashes. She leaned against the table, the fingertips of one hand spread on the wood tracing a circle, or a cage with the palm of her slender hand as a roof and the beating of her pulse in her wrist a continuous music. Her hand was like a tiny cathedral with pipe organ fingers. He had seen dead bodies, but hers was living, and he was afraid of this even more than dying because death would not laugh at him.
He had told her that he wrote poetry. “Oh,” she said, “that's nice. And what do you write about?”

“Anything, I guess. Whatever I’m thinking about.”

“About girls, then?” She smiled, a soft sound through her nose. Then she said, “Could you write one about me?”

“A poem?”

“Would you?”

“You mean now?”

“Why not.”

“I could, I guess.”

“Well will you? And then when you’re done you can read it to me. I think I will like that.”

He nodded.

“I am off at eleven. So you have until then. Do you need a pen?” She handed him the pen from her apron. “See you at eleven.”

It was forty minutes away. He lit another cigarette and wrote on a napkin. At first the pen made holes in the napkin.

“No no, not here, not here,” she said when they stood outside the Butternut on the deserted street in the yellow light from the windows of the diner, him with the napkin in his hand and her hand was tightly in her pocket and the other touched the color on her lips. “Let's walk to the lake.”

It was only about a half mile from the diner on the edge of town. On the west shore of Big Butternut, where the main road out of town passed close to the water, were three public docks. Two were simple platforms stretching into the water on either side of the boat landing, resting on a pair of algae coated tires at their ends. The third was new, built by a local church out of redwood planking and floating on buoys that were fixed to the lake floor by chains. This dock extended ten feet past the other two and was in the shape of a cross. It had railings all around it. A light with a green shade was fixed at its end. It would be deserted at this time of night and in this season.

As they walked together they shivered. The first snow had all but melted in the persistent sun of early winter and a breeze carried to their mouths the clarity of the night. The air was empty. He held the napkin in his fist in his pocket as they walked. They reached the dock and their footfall on the empty boards and the swish of water beneath them distracted him. He counted every step to the edge of the dock, to the green light at the end of the dock. They looked together at the lake in the moonlight. He stood near the light. She was in his shadow.

“Now,” she said, and sighed and leaned against the railing of the dock, “now you can read it to me.”

“'Darker than void, she is more black than non-existing.
She is turning back against the movement of the bull.
A foreign crowd is shouting,
Tongues she doesn’t understand,
Sung like chaos ringing in the star-arena.
The bull comes forward in a rush.
No hush moves the crowd,
And she must turn more deeply than The Earth
It seems: to right and left, her chin and breast...'”

His hands turned and wrinkled the napkin, as if to hold it in a better light. He saw the breath of her warm smile drift in frost in the clear air. She waited for him to continue. Her breath was green catching the light. He hated the poem. He hated it as though it were laughing at him, and not her.

“'...Redeem the beauty of theft;
Twists and turns that outmarch rhythm,
Outshine stars with raven bars
As her hair paints black the million crowd
And, blind, they throw their roses at their target
Flirting alone in the dirt of the stadium.
She loves and leaves when the bull is dead.
Loves, carries off its gory head,
Its body pouring red into the dust and roses.'”

She stood with her face bent towards the water, as if she would reach her hands in and splash it over her eyes and cheeks. As if to wash the green off. “I think I understand. The bull is a lover? It is a good poem. But not about me. I think it is not about me. I thought it would be sweeter.”

“It doesn’t mean anything really. Sorry.”

“No, but who is the bull? And the crowd? It is very dark sounding.”

“I don’t know. I guess I think Spain is romantic. That’s what I thought about when I thought about you.”

“No. Not Spain. I was right that the bull is a lover, but there is only one body in the arena, loving itself, right? And they throw roses. You don’t know much about Spain. My mama was born there, but she came here when she was four. She doesn't remember it very much.”

“I just thought it up because it sounded cool, I guess. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Carlotta turned away from him as if she were very angry. She exhaled sharply into the air like she was cursing. “Means nothing,” she said, “’Cool’ means nothing. Only ‘cool’ means nothing.”

“You asked me to write it,” he said, irritated.

“Yes I did, to write a poem about me and to be sweet. But you had to catch me, like a fish. With a little silver hook. You have to be so smart and make your little hole, your little circle in the ice instead of swimming. I see them here, they catch the fish and put them back in. I can be poetic too. Now you know, I am poetic too. But no, it's my own fault. We should go home now. And I'll see you all the time at the Butternut and it won't be bad, okay. It won't be bad like that.”

She was almost crying. Crying at his poetry. 'my witch,’ he thought of her, ‘my little witch.’ He thought it to see what it was like to think it. He moved out away from the green light towards her, leaning out of the circle of light towards his shadow on her. He touched her coat. He heard her feel him touch her.

But at the moment his fingers touched the wool coat, felt the sting of the tiny wool fibers, or at the moment the thought of her dark lips, her dark eyes and tongue, her hips and back and her dark fingernails, was it then that the sound came from the lake like the swish of the water under the dock but it was not under the dock. It was in the water and then on the shore. They turned and saw a figure, curled, balled, dripping green water silhouetted and catching the light from the dock. In the shadows of the shore white fingers were in the freezing mud gripping. A heaving chest blew clouds into the light of the streetlamp and scraped on the back of the man’s dry throat. The dry throat, and every wet sound that it mingled in, stopped his heart, and his hand from pulling Carlotta’s neck to himself. He stopped and forgot about it. Then they walked on the dock back to the shore, tip-toeing, and they walked in and out of the circles from the streetlamps, watching over their shoulders the stranger who had crawled from the freezing lake and now sat huddled in the mud waiting for the warmth to move and save himself. They got back to town and separated. They both heard the noise of the ambulance, but they were far apart by then. Someone had found the man. The man hadn't seen them leave. He had been trying to stay alive.

He ran trembling to the public library, where he knew his parents would not drive by, and lit a cigarette. He felt his body reacting while his mind convinced itself of amazing calm and blamelessness. But the thing he had conjured was in him. She would not forget. She was maybe laughing even now. She might laugh at him later, but without smiling, refilling his coffee in the Butternut Diner. He hated the poem. He finished his cigarette and took a piece of gum from his pocket. He rubbed and sugar and the spearmint smell from the wrapper into his fingers. He remembered how when he was young he threw butternuts and even hours later he could smell their smell on his hands when he tried to sleep and it kept him awake. But then he would throw butternuts until he could not find any more because of the snow.

1 comment:

Tony Gonzalez said...

There is a really interesting pace to the early sentences in this piece.

I'm talking about the portions before the paragraph beginning "They conversed in a friendly way, passing the time which she..."

In those early portions I get this sense that all of them end on sort of this "down"/unaccented tone. Like: tada ta da ta da, ta da ta ta da DUH. repeat.

Then it really picks up and becomes more varied or something.

Good stuff throughout, although I might also say that if the whole write-me-a-poem came sooner I may have been more definitely and immediately hooked (if I were a reader who wasn't also curious as a friend).