Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Musings, 30 April 2011

Good morning,

A vague ache clings to the spot between my shoulder blades where I store stress. I spent Friday in court, listening to a pair of parents, who formerly loved one another, present their differing views on where the child should reside, and who should control the major decisions in her life. That I represent one of the two gives little comfort; the mere fact of the fight still saddens me. Not even the collapse of the other parent's carefully scripted lies, which came, I note, before she left the stand, unclenched my tightened jaw.

I hear the unmistakable noises of a burgeoning spring, rising above the soft whirring of the air filter in the living room. A determined bird describes its pleasure with the glorious morning; the neighbor's dog sounds reveille. Cars lumber over some debris in the street; steel plates have vanished from our landscape, but litter still occasionally accumulates in the dips and cracks of the aging asphalt. Morning in the city; day 120.

A thousand days ago, a thousand times a thousand, more maybe -- another morning, on a balcony above a dirtier street in a noisier city. I sat on a webbed aluminum rocker, gazing down at a bunch of grubby, cheerful boys kicking something unrecognizable between the two rows of parked cars on the narrow road. Mothers occasionally leaned from their own balconies, cigarettes in hand, admonishing their sons with little enthusiasm and not much result.

My college semester had ended with no fanfare. Memorial Day loomed, and my only plans held no appeal: Yet another backyard barbecue at my parents' home, to which I would arrive late, and from which I would depart early. I clung to the workaday world with glum determination. I held several part-time jobs and one which could have been full-time, had I given it much thought. The three months between my restless contemplation of that late-spring morning and the frantic day of enrollment for the fall semester weighed heavily on my mind.

The voices of neighbor women rose from the balcony below mine. Harsh cackles followed low murmuring. I cast a glance back down to their children, who seemed to range in age from three to thirteen. I could see no little girls, but assumed that some must be lurking on the sidewalk, doing whatever little girls do, in the morning, on Saturday, when the local stations' cartoon fare has played itself out, and impatient mothers insist that they take themselves outside.

Some draw to self-destruction got me up from the chair and pulled me down the inner stairwell of my apartment building, and out the front door. Three faces turned towards the sound of my clumsy exit, and six eyes shifted away, seeking each other before closing, briefly. One of the women took a long, disinterested draw on her cigarette. Another set her coffee cup down on the porch rail, and looked toward the street. Stephen, goddammit, get out of the way of that car, you'll get yourself killed, she hollered, as an old Buick tried to wend its way through the kickball game. None of the players altered his stride. She turned away with less concern than she had held in her rough voice and caught me staring at her. What's your beef, she snapped.

Nothing at all, I assured her, hurrying down the steps to my car. Too late, I realized that I didn't have my purse or keys. I turned back to the building, gazing with confusion, maybe, or entreaty, at the women on the porch. They laughed. I hadn't fooled them. I ran back upstairs, and when I found myself safely in my living room, I shut the French doors that blocked out the noise of their amusement.

As the spring wore out, and yielded to summer, the women's gatherings on the porch below mine became more frequent and lasted longer. Their children and I shared a schedule: Nine months in school; three months out; and the time between discharge and recommencement offered too much liberty. The children roamed further and further from their mothers' lazy domain, straying north to the Park, and south to a little store which sold candy and single-bottle beer in equal measures.

Occasionally, one of the women would hoist her frame from the sunken porch chairs and bellow over the railing, and a bunch of kids would trickle into the scruffy yard, gathering on the cracked cement of the sidewalk that led into the building. When enough of them had gathered, they would get Velveeta sandwiches, or boiled hot dogs on soft white buns. The kids chewed their food where they stood, and sipped Kool-Aid from Dixie cups, before swiping a hand across their catsup-smeared faces, and scattering back out into heat of the afternoon.

On a Saturday night, one of many that summer when I had nothing better to do but show my stupidity, I ventured down to the street. The women had pulled their chairs out onto the sidewalk that ran the length of the street. Someone had jacked open the fire hydrant, and the children of the block ran through the heavy stream of water, pushing each other, lowering their faces to the gush, and screaming gleefully. None of them wore shoes, and most of the boys had discarded their shirts.

I hauled a cold six-pack of diet cola down with me, which I offered to my neighbors. None of them accepted, but one gestured to an empty chair. Sit yourself on down there, she said. I did so, and then I told them my name, and tried to pay attention as they each said theirs.

The conversation didn't go much further for a while. A child would occasionally run towards us, and the women would protest the spray of water that drifted their way in the wake of the child's passage. They smoked, and drank Budweiser, and periodically waved, without much hope, at the rising heat of June. I searched my mind for something to say, and drank soda.

After longer than I care to sit in uncompanionable silence, one of the women directed a question at me. You ain't married, are you?

I thought about lying. But I had lived there for a couple of months without so much as an overnight boyfriend presenting himself at the end of a date, so I didn't think I'd convince anyone. I admitted the fact. They laughed, and the weight of their amusement hung in the air. It seemed to say everything.

The woman, though, thought more should be noted. You're in college, ain't you? It sounded like an accusation. When I agreed that I was, she nodded -- a short, curt nod, the kind you might give if you were acknowledging a convicted felon sitting next to you in jail greens or a bunch of bugs you knew haunted your kitchen. A certain unmistakable wariness arose between me and the women. I began to reconsider my decision to join their group, and shifted in the chair.

Just then, a car slid to the curb, long, low and noiseless. A man climbed from the driver's seat, shrugging himself into a standing position, unfolding his length with an air of self-possession. I had never seen any of the husbands, and I took this to be one of them.

On my left, a woman chuckled. Don't get no ideas girl, she said. My head snapped towards her, and a slow blush rose in my face. I don't know what you're talking about, I told her. The idea that I might be gazing on her spouse with something like lust at first amused her though it shocked me. I studied the man as he strode down to their building without so much as a grunt in our direction. I returned my attention to the woman, and told her that I had no interest in her husband.

My disavowal worsened the situation. What? she demanded. You think you're better than him? You got no man of your own, you gotta work day and night to pay the rent on your cracker-jack apartment, and you got the nerve to turn your nose up at a good man what brings his pay to me and the kids, and works damn hard to do it?

Her companions moved closer to her, shutting me out from their circle. They stared at me, a solid wall of anger. I took in the lines and pits of their faces, the sharp angles of their thinness, the taughtness of their cut-off shorts and the deep plunges of their summer tops. No, no, I stuttered. I wasn't thinking anything like that, I really wasn't.

The women did not break their ranks. The wronged wife turned a corner in her fury and held on. What, you think you're so high and mighty that you could handle him better than I do? You ever seen a man come home so drunk and tired, that he can't get off the toilet or pull his head from between his legs? Retching on the floor, gorging out the beer he filled his belly with after grubbing all day, then climb in bed next to you and want what he thinks is his due? Huh? You think you could live like that? You think we got it easy?

Her venom blasted me, the charge of her hatred for whatever I represented to her. I had no chance to tell her that none of that was true, that I just got lonely and wanted a little company. I had not meant to start a war. I did not want to wage a referendum on the relative merits of our lives. I did not expect that I could win that battle, nor did I believe that she would be assuaged by my defeat.

I rose so quickly that the lawn chair on which I had been sitting collapsed backwards. The women stood, too, surrounding the one whose husband had gone unknowing into their apartment, where he probably pulled a beer from the refrigerator and flopped, still clueless, into a cracked vinyl Lazy-Boy recliner. Out on the street, I stumbled away from the wives of my street, retreating into my apartment, into the solace of my middle-class existence.

Last night, as my husband and I drove through the streets of a neighborhood from which his family comes, where they no longer live, and where I have never aspired to live, I thought about those women. I drew a measured glance across the lawns which stretched a distance that two or three houses in my neighborhood could occupy, and over the tall, locked gates that stood between the grand, ugly houses and the rest of the world.

After our evening drive, we parked in front of my bungalow, and I climbed out of the passenger street. In the dim light, I reflected on the rise of my home's roof, and the pitch of its beautiful porch. I let my eyes linger on the Japanese maple, with its delicate leaves swaying in the evening breeze. I reached for my husband's hand, and walked toward our home, with the satisfaction that comes with knowing that a journey has brought me to my proper place.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.