From Rune to Ruin: An Alphabet (Excerpts)
When confronted with Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” he said, “If Thoreau doesn’t like this country why doesn’t he leave and go back to Africa or Iraq where he comes from, so he can live an uncivilized life and not pay taxes and get his tongue chopped off.” This was not considered a valid response, and he received a zero. He argued in class that laws should be obeyed no matter what. To which his teacher said, then we’d still have segregation, and women wouldn’t have the vote. Bewildered, he stopped going to school altogether.
At his mother’s, where he often stayed over the weekends (although he would rather not have), he stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning watching television. He kept thinking, guiltily, that “I should go to sleep,” but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the screen. It promised to entertain and delight him, any minute now, but inevitably, there was “nothing good on” because she didn’t have cable. He watched “BeastMaster” and “She Spies.” In the morning he helped his disabled mother get out of bed and into her wheelchair, helped her shower in the wheelchair-accessible bathroom, and wheeled her to the grocery store and the pharmacy where she had a bout of incontinence. As it was not an infrequent occurrence, her inconti- nence in public places, he was not shocked—just sad and scared, familiarly. He’d clean her up as best he could and get her back home to bathe and redress. He pushed her quickly, ignoring her protests if he went too hard over a bump. He stared straight ahead avoiding the curious glances of strangers. By Sunday afternoon he couldn’t wait to leave. His eyes burned from sleeplessness and television. He was exhausted by his mother’s needs. With joy, he met friends at Mel’s Diner for fries and a shake on Sunday night. They talked about a movie that opened the night before that he hadn’t seen. “It was a spiritual battle,” the prettiest girl, Antonia, said. He began to write on a napkin with his left hand. “You’re left-handed?” she asked. “I’m ambidextrous,” he said. All eyes were on him. “Cool. Can you do everything with both hands?” He nodded his head. Another girl twisted her arms, impossibly, behind her. “I’m double jointed,” she said. Her contortions upstaged him.
Oriane left me a bag filled with detritus, pens, phone numbers, and bottle caps she had picked up at the end of her shift. Pinned to the bag was a note in which she enthused about my frugality and reminisced about a grandmother of hers who never threw anything away. Although I had asked her to save anything she found for me, I responded coldly in a short return note. This led to a day of unhappiness.
Iwas afraid she would have her feelings hurt. But I was more afraid she saw me as a saver.
It was resentment I felt, because she spoke her mind about how she perceived my qualities when I so often kept my mouth shut about how I perceived hers. I wanted her to see me a certain way. We only saw each other briefly everyday, as our shifts technically did not overlap.
The next day after my shift I waited for her behind the boiler. I watched her put on her apron, goggles, and helmet. I had washed my hands and put lotion on them. I rubbed my soft, greased-up hands on my dry cheeks. The movement of my arms startled her. She turned around and seeing me, she said hello. I shook my head and walked away coldly, to make her understand that she should not assume things about me.
Iwanted, and in wanting naively also expected, her to stop me as I slowly walked away. I longed with all my cells for her to understand this walking away I was doing, to feel regret, and to pursue a reconciliation. I walked slowly away, shaking my head accusingly, to indicate my hope for atrue communion, but she just watched me without responding. I should know by now thatto want something is not enough to make it happen. No matter how much I radiated disapproval and turned my back, she did not call out to me in her kind and curious voice.
In the office Jeff said, Why don't you like Oriane? I do like Oriane, I said. I signed out. He said, Well, Oriane thinks you don't like her. I sat down.
Iwould explain to Jeff that I was trying to teach Oriane how to be a person I could safely show my real self to. I would tell him that I needed to rebuke her; there was no other way to make her see how much I valued her. I needed to know that she saw me the right way. I searched for the words. I would speak to him about this. But Jeff said, I'm going out for acigarette.
He climbed the spiral staircase to the ground floor. I walked back to see if I might clarify things with Oriane. I could see her looking up, one strand of dark, loose hair curling around her neck, catching things in her net. She had the best shift. There were more people walking around dropping things through the cracks between the hours of 6 P.M.and 2 A.M. than any other time. During my shift I usually only caught one or two nets full. Oriane always caught a good five or so nets, which is why I asked her to be on the lookout for me, for phone numbers on scraps, bank pens and the like. She noticed me and said I've just netted a good coaster for you. Thanks, I said, but it's not necessary, I don't need you to save me anything.
As I said that, I felt dizzy and syrupy in my throat. It was the feeling of pride and a lie at the same time. She just glanced at me. Well, OK she said. I won't save anything for you. Only if you want to, I said. I don't need you to.
Iwalked home. When I got home I spent about the next few hours crying in my bed, and then I worked on my small tower, which is a sculp- tural collage made of the things that Oriane had been saving me.
It is the pointed, skirted shape of a certain structure I've seen in a recurring dream, where I am in the basement, working, and I am walking under the cracks with my net and then the landscape changes. I am in a place where there are unfamiliar structures, towers, high walls made of jade, and other hard green and blue things. People wander around here with no purpose. There is nothing to pick up, nothing to take, nothing to collect and nothing to say. One simply wanders through this place, seeing structures, which, even if you wanted to, you could not take apart. There isnothing to look for and nothing to find.
Jeremiah is called "Jare" which is short for Jerry, by his friends, and he is called Jeremiah Donald Mason on his BC. (Birth certificate.) He is fond of his name Jeremiah, he introduces himself to women as Jeremiah, but it is better, among men, that he be called Jerry, for Jerry is a name that designates male camaraderie, whereas Jeremiah is vaguely a fairy.
Jerry Maya is another way of spelling Jeremiah.
But the middle name of Jerry is Donnie, or, Donald,not Maya.
Jeremiah's auntwhose husband, now deceased, was named Donald calls Jeremiah Donnie, as do his cousins and siblings. Donald- cum-Donnie is a family name.
He is, then, variously called Jerry, Jeremiah, Donnie, and sometimes Reginaldby his grandmother Pegasus, who goes by Peggy, and some- times mistakes Jeremiah for his younger brother, Reggie: Reginald Conner Mason.
Reginald is called "Reg," pronounced "Rejh," or "Reggie" pro- nounced "Rejji," not "Reggy," as in "Peggy."
Reggie, Jerry, and Peggy were peaceably seated in a diner on a Saturday morning, enjoying watery scrambled eggs, cold toast, and tinny, rancid orange juice, commenting on the viability of the tourist's outfits, rigged out, or not so much, for the snowy landscape.
“That one’ll get frost bite.”
"In those boots? Yep Peggy. Those are nothing but booties. Disco booties."
"Wouldn't warm a cactus."
"Those boots are slippers."
"Those boots are socks."
"Those boots were made for a store window." They turned their attention to the rest of her garb, but before they could comment, the woman whose boots were the object of Peggy, Reggy, and Jerry's disparagement came up near them to the counter, to pay for a jar of homemade marmalade, and so the three Masons grew quiet, and listened to the exchange.
The woman had a mane of brown hair with streaks of white and pur- ple, a luxurious dark green wrap with gold threads, a wrap-around skirt, tights, and the aforementioned pixie boots. She said to the clerk, "What a marvelous shop you have here," to which the clerk said, "thank you." The woman looked happily around. The small, crowded store had the idio- syncratic variety of stock bespeaking a town that has lost its industry and has lately begun to rely on tourists, a locale newly favorable to artisans, moneyed, spiritually minded, rootless youth, and older, cultured "foodies." Cheap household goods, rock posters, chewing tobacco, hard-boiled eggs in a jar, air fresheners, bullets, lottery tickets, and generic foodstuffs shared shelves with handicrafts, Buddha statues, small baskets, local, free-ranging meat, essential oils, a few self-help books, and organic jams.
"Planning on skiing?" The clerk asked.
"Oh no. I don't ski."
"Well you sure aren't dressed for the weather. We do sell hats and the like." The clerk gestured to the back of the shop. The woman turned to look. Various woolen and fleece garments lay folded on two pine shelves, mittens lay in a basket, and socks, earmuffs, and hats hung on a wooden rack. A poster of a kitten hanging by its front paws from a branch was tacked to the back wall above the sweaters. Under the kitten were the words, "I'm hanging in there."
"Too perfect," the woman said with a smile, "but thanks anyway, I'm planning on spending most of my time indoors. I'm here to write." She smiled at the Masons on her way out, giving Reginald an extra look.
Reginald said, "Seems like a nice lady." Peggy and Jerry did not respond.
The following Saturday Reginald saw the woman by the side of an untraveled back road. He was driving his grandmother's 1982 Jeep Cherokee. She was talking on her cell phone. He slowed down and pulled in front of her 2006, leased hybrid.
As he approached, she smiled at him saying into her phone, "you know what Joelle? It's OK. I think I'm about to be rescued as we speak. I'll call you back later." She clicked off her phone and put it in her orange hemp shoulder bag. She said, "Hi there again. I remember you! It's so kind of you to stop. I have a flat tire." "I can see that," he said. She held out her hand and said, "I'm Felice." "Reggie," he replied, shaking her hand. Felice said, "I stupidly let my AAA card expire. I used to know how to change a flat tire, but I've forgotten." Reginald walked around to the back of the car. "Got a spare?" She opened the trunk and he got out a new, shiny red jack, gleaming lug wrench, and robust spare tire. He got a dirty block from his truck and set about changing her tire. She watched him at first and then said, "You know, Reggie, I'm fucking freezing, and I have to go to the bathroom, do you mind if I shit in your truck?" Reggie stared at her. "What?" She laughed. "I'm just kidding. Do you mind if I go sit in your truck though? I'm not dressed for this weather." "Go ahead," he said. He watched her as she walked away. She was wearing the thin-skinned boots.
After he fixed her flat he got in the truck with her. After he fixed her flat he got in the truck with her.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Does it matter?" She reached for his hand and put it on her knee. "I guess not." He leaned over and kissed her. His grandmother wore Charlie perfume. Whatever fragrance Felice was wearing, it made him feel pitiful. The various fabrics she was swathed in were unfamiliar, he'd never touched anything that soft. Her rust-colored face was delicately lined with wrinkles, faded here and there with sunspots and freckles. Reggie felt her tongue slowly sliding over his teeth. She gently tugged and bit at his lower lip. She wriggled onto his lap and seemed to scamper all over him even as they were confined to the narrow cab of the truck. Before he knew what had happened he'd come and she had driven off.
He napped and drooled. Jerry and Pegasus had come looking for him. They rolled up next to him in Peggy's Buick Century. Their heads were identically turned, leaning over and looking at him. They honked. Heopened his eyes. It was dark. He looked over and saw them.
"What happened to you, fool?" Jerry asked. Peggy was silent, her glasses reflecting light. Reggie put his key into the ignition and started his truck. They drove off ahead and he followed them home.
Miranda F. Mellis is the author of the novellas Restless and Cutaway (Calamari Press, forthcoming, calamaripress.com). Her writing has appeared in various pages, including those of Context, American Book Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Cabinet,McSweeney's, The Believer, The Kenyon Review, and the Pocket Myths series. She teaches writing and literature (most currently at California College of Arts). Raised in San Francisco, she was once an aerialist in the tiniest circus in the world, The Turnbuckles (Sister Spit Tour, '98). She is a cofounder of The Encyclopedia Project (encyclopediaproject.org) and the chamber-noir trio, My Invisible.
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