My dad. Business and money. The rulers by which he measures his worth. Lost both many years ago and he was done, in a way. Tells stories of the heyday: business triumphs in the 70’s, drug addicted business partners in the 80’s, the Chinese pattern maker with the violin prodigy son. Tears in his eyes when he describes Armando, a worker like his own blood. Stole. Got caught. Went down on his knees. Begged forgiveness. Tells the stories like a defeated twentieth century conquistador of New York’s garment center, glory faded.
My mother. Sipping a lemon drop martini. Stupid drink. Claps her hands. Tells everyone at the bar, giddy, “It’s the first day of my daughter’s first job.”
Was the sort of job they understood. A desk. A phone. A computer. Health insurance. Needed some new pants, new shoes. Wasn’t my first job, though. Not by a long shot. I’d had dozens. Weren’t there to see them. Never asked about them. Still, they don’t know. I corrected them. Said, “It’s not my first.” Brushed it off. Drank the drink, floaty bits of lemon and tiny slivers of ice. Told everyone, her first job, her first job.
Never thought it’d be this way. Little case, little computer. Holding coffee, watching elevator numbers tick down to L. Never imagined the bosses. Their mood fluctuations that impact the quality of my day. Unwelcomed intimacy.
Performance reviews, self-assessments, time management seminars. Human Resources. Resources for humans, who do nothing but make human lives difficult. Act like they have things to teach. Teach to be more false. Peel the humanity away. I sit. Dream through it.
A twit with big breasts, too-tight sweaters, sensitivity training, narrow in the hips. Says, “Maybe we can meet.” Thinks she has something to teach me about life. I put my head back. Laugh with my whole self. Get myself in trouble. Can’t laugh in HR’s face. Get another talking to. Want to say to bossman, I could fit her whole life’s experience into my back pocket. Don’t know how to say, I don’t belong here. Just let me be.
Think they can tell me something about life. Think they have ideas about how I can be better. How I can fit better into their world. I fit as well as I want. Which isn’t well at all. Which is fine by me.
Think of my mom. Her first job, her first job. Like it’s a good thing. Mom and Dad can tell people. Feel proud. Can see me as a woman, sitting at a conference table. Means something to them.
Dad, now, eighty-one. Looks to his future, over which he holds little sway. Adds little impact. Fades into his brief tomorrow. Regrets that his legacy will not be enough. Thinks of his legacy all wrong. Thinks of the bank accounts. The choices. Poor sales. Wrong palms greased. Could have done it differently. Could have done it better. Regrets his parenting. Laments his business choices. Says, “I failed at being a father” then tells me how he could have been a better businessman.
And me. Fifty years younger. Sitting in a meeting, at a desk. Looking like a respectable citizen, and in there, knocking around, is my book. I have characters. So real they pop up in dreams alongside old friends, eating noodles, telling jokes. I have plot. Pacing and intrigue. I have suspense and hundreds of pages of ideas, and I crumble a half dozen times a day because of the worry. The waking-worry. The I’m not good enough worry. The do not enter sign to the fulfillment of my own legacy that this book, and all the books to follow, won’t pack that turn of phrase punch in the gut that flings girls into womanhood. That beckons the eye back to read the sentence again. That makes someone say fuck it, and pack a bag. I double over thinking they won’t have that. Close my eyes. Try harder. Lacking that, if I do, will be my great failure to my art.
Still, there’s email to return. Make it real because my job, it touches real people. Not so many that I can’t conceive of them. Not so few that it feels irrelevant. A few hundred quirky souls. I think of them to make it real. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not.
I didn’t think it would be like this. Not in college. Then it was hours in a sunny studio. Threading the loom. One thread at a time. Eight, nine, ten hours at a time, threading a loom, time slow as can be. Weaving and weaving. A friend, sitting in the window. Reading Steppenwolf for the first time.
Sewing, stitching. Mixing dyes for silk. Busting into dumpsters for valuable trash to turn into art. Backbreaking hours spent over steaming pots with silk inside. Bent over printing tables. My hands, blue for weeks. The skin on my fingers cracked from urea, water, dyes and friction on wool, cotton, linen threads. Held up my hands and smiled. Art made my fingers blue and bleeding. I wished they’d stayed blue forever.
And before that. Eighteen. A bus down the east coast. Clocks stopped for years, then a big gong and time ticked again. Time, all the sudden, rushing like it had somewhere to be. Greyhound buses on Thanksgiving weekend. Old ladies. Unsolicited twenties, slipped into my palm while I slept. The power of the kindness of strangers busted its way into my heart. Made me smile in my sleep.
Virginia, somewhere. A bus station, in the middle of the night. Tall tin ceilings and long wooden benches. My bag for a pillow on a cold tile floor. A man bought me a sandwich. Said, “Looks like you need it. People did it for me.”
Then, when the bus was too full, gave my seat to a man. He looked urgent. Said, “Don’t you want to get to your people?” I said, feeling like it was true, feeling happy that it was true, “I don’t have any.”
South Carolina, somewhere. Snow turned to cool winter sun, north became south. A bus depot. No doors, no windows. Everything open to the air, because it never got too cold for that. Crowded and bustling. Holiday travelers waiting for rides. Little girls checking me out, scooting closer and closer to where I sat on my single suitcase. The bag that held every last thing I had. They played in my makeup. Broke my lipstick, and I laughed. Told them to keep it. I was the only white person in a place bursting with people. Felt so out of place and at ease. Thought maybe while I slept the bus had leapt over the ocean to another beautiful continent full of children and laughing women. And I remember feeling, finally, like I was gone. Really gone. And I knew, in that moment, that I’d love the deep south forever. Owe it my gratitude. Each mile away, feeling more like myself. Feeling like a person I could really become.
Live-in nanny. Solved the no home problem. Five kids. Saved money. Taught the baby to walk. Made the others snacks to eat after school. Listened to top 40 songs in my room on an alarm clock radio. The father owned strip clubs. Tuesdays, managers met in the kitchen. Bounced the baby on their knee. Discussed vibrators versus dildos in front of nine year old girls.
Sly, the security guard. Wore a fedora with a feather in it. Rocked a gold tooth. Lived in a room in the basement. Called me up one time. Said he left something on the toilet. Would I get it. Slip it under his pillow. What is it? You’ll know it when you see it.
It was a gun. Big, silvery black gun. Cold and heavy. Carried it scared. The tips of my fingers, far out in front of me. Then held it proper. Pointed it at a window. Closed one eye. Turned it over in my hands. Felt its weight.
Pawn Broker. Took jewelry, Versace dinnerware, mink coats that hung next to power tools. A diminutive mousy thing. Pulled her jewelry off. Slid it across the counter. Came back in three days, a big wad of bills. How’d you get it? I’m a pool shark, she said. Showed us her notebook. Full of addresses. The pool halls where she’d fooled men into thinking they were better than her.
Kept guns everywhere. Hidden. Learned to test the quality of gold. Learned to shoot in the country. Woman said, “Aim for that tree. Don’t shoot my horses.”
Lousy waitress. One of the very worst. Forgot the lime with everyone’s diet coke. Didn’t much give a shit about the aioli on the side.
Fucking and talking. Smoking dope with strange people in strange living rooms in a plastic city. Rusty chairs on back porches while the rest slept. Underwear and a tshirt. Cigarette smoldering while sun turned earth alive. Watched a flower open to the sky. Made me feel like I could make it.
More kids to look after. Crazy parents. Nice parents. Different sorts of families.
Answered phones in a flower shop. Wrote little poems for love struck dummies who didn’t know how to say what it was they wanted to say.
Scooped cat shit, one box after another in the clinic. Drove a dozen dogs at a time three miles back and forth. Gave an old orange cat his diabetes shots. Scratched his ears how he liked till he stopped growling. Held a golden lab in my arms while the doctor put him to sleep. His people didn’t want to watch him die.
The vet’s kids. All three of them at once, nice cute little blonde kids, in the bath together. Showed them how to blow bubbles in their hands with soap. Convinced them it was real magic, for real, and that they were each magicians, too. They figured it out. Screamed, because they never knew they were magicians before.
Drove around. Hot as hell. 86 T-Bird I was so proud of. No air conditioning in the godforsaken southern summertime. Cooking on the highway from the heat of everyone else’s exhaust.
Years later. Different town. Taxi driver. Up at 5am. Pickups in the projects. Mothers, younger than me, pregnant with two kids or three. The backseat masturbator. The old man whose daughter couldn’t bring him to the doctor. Two young girls. Finishing their night on the street. Brought them home. Asked how their night had been. Giggles. Smiled, all of us. Each wondering about one another’s lives. Wondering how we got to where we were. Feeling glad to have landed in one another’s company for a few minutes.
And now, women all over – nail salon, ferries. They use language like “media” and “marketing” and “RFP” and “branding”. Beautiful, smart women. Finding ways to feel important by using fake language. Fake words to describe meaningless tasks that are equally meaningless everywhere. But I know what they’re talking about. I know what the fake words mean. They have a place in my life, however small, and I’m beginning to feel a little seasick from owning them and rejecting them at the same time.
Mom with her silly drink. Dad with his stern-faced approval. Doesn’t ask about my day. Asks about my salary. Wish I could pull the screen down and play the reel. See those kids there? Made them think they made magic. Those girls in my cab? They knew I was their ally. Did you know? I once taught someone to walk. And there was this woman. I drove her to the airport. Cried because her daughter, she always had problems. Couldn’t reach her. Couldn’t get through. And I said, everyone has their own path. I said, She’ll get there. I said, She’ll be okay. And the woman hugged me. Told me she believed me. Swallowed tears.
Never knew the families I knew, though. Never saw the flower shop. Never saw me wet-nap the steering wheel in my cab. Clean off someone else’s night shift. They celebrate the wrong things. Lament the wrong things. All mixed up, those two.
HR girl thinks she has something to teach me. I laugh. Wonder what she looks like naked. Think maybe that would be the best she has to offer. Wish I knew how to compartmentalize the things I do for money, and the things I do for life. Don’t, though.