Pete's Blog

A Short Story

She was nubile, perhaps not as nubile as she once had been. But a man could give her a baby if he wanted to. She was dressed simply enough that he had to look at her feet to determine her status and, yes, leather shoes. She was a respectable married lady and once he raised his eyes again he saw she had the rings to prove it, flashing out their warning from under the long sleeves of her plain denim jacket. Beware! As the people in the terminal began to file down the 100-yard gangway to the ferry slip a young woman's back caught his eye in front of him. This one was truly nubile, not yet married. Her hips and upper thighs were firm, her walk steady and vigorous, her back straight. Older women might copy her jeans and low shoes (themselves a copy of every other girl her age) but the flirtatious modesty of her clothes above the waist - sheer overshirt, a long camisole underneath to protect her midriff, bra straps signaling out from under that - could only succeed for a girl. A woman, a woman who had married, honeymooned, nursed, never sent such mixed signals, however free from convention she might be. The girl vanished in the milling crowd walking the ramp onto the boat without his having seen her face, but the back, the walk, the waist tells as many secrets as any part of a woman, and he felt he had known enough for now. Sitting in his usual seat in the bow he opened his briefcase and got out a New Yorker, the quiet but desperate attempt to maintain some sense of the East in this boom-town on the Pacific. He opened it to a page of drawings, the twenty young (under 40) fiction writers the editors thought showed us the way forward. The drawings had obviously been done individually (whether live or from photographs it was hard to say) and then arranged together to look like some sort of panel or dais. He had no idea where (academia, "little" magazines) any of these writers came from. He recognized none of the names but that was no surprise. The pictures seemed jealous of each other, aware that what would be the Big Break for a few would be the High Point for most. Who will it be? they seemed to ask. Who do I kill to land on the proper side of the divide? He began to read. Perhaps because he was no longer young (under 40) all the stories seemed to him exactly the same. In their attempts to render the minutest of thought-processes in what passed for real time, the authors jettisoned all conventions of plot, character, storytelling. Forget about the timeless power of myth. Their voices were hushed, subtle, what was supposed to be ironic detachment coming across instead as a dreadful fear of making some kind of mistake: fumbling the repetitions, perhaps, or showing the characters too much tenderness. The one story in which things seemed to actually happen was an updated slave narrative whose author might be Black (capitalize?) although the images on the picture page were all simple, stark line drawings so you couldn't really tell. She might be Jewish. His arm ached when he lifted the briefcase and stood up to walk off the ferry. He was aware of the cotton balls taped into the crook of his elbow and, under them, the holes left in his skin where the nurse had tried and finally succeeded taking his blood for yet another test. Why was his heart behaving in this strange way? he had wanted to know. No one could tell, really, at least no one he could afford to see. He would write a story in this fashion: so intense in its courtship of "real life" that it shot right through the confines of autobiography, barely gazed at memoir on its way past, and entered fiction by a hitherto undiscovered door as if stepping out of a bandbox or, better still, springing fully armoured from the brow of Jove. He would write everything that happened and everything he thought about it right up to the moment of his death. It sounded very Beat (Salinger had just died and he wondered if the '50s might return to importance) and transcendent and it might even allow him to steal a march on that phalanx in the New Yorker. Stranger things had happened. Here again on the gangplank was the truly nubile one, seen in profile this time. Her bust was indifferent and the skin across her cheeks had some rough places, but the baby would clear that up. Look at her walk. But then a prize to eclipse all others: a working woman in her early thirties leaning against a railing in bright lavender stockings, pushing buttons on a phone. This was no Island wife. You could watch the fruits of feminism turning to ashes in her mouth as she stood there, childless at her peak. She would have plenty of experience and the desire to show it off, but at the crucial moment she would still be capable of surprise, could still find that inexhaustible place where his desire for her would be enough and all else would follow. She would break just like a little girl. He kept walking, as he always did. She could do better than him, until she couldn't. He'd heard recently that in 35% of cases the first symptom of heart disease was sudden death. He, of course, had had symptoms for years now, which by logic must be a good sign, even if the episodes, while milder than in his drinking days, came with increasing frequency. Today he felt good. He was walking. His heartbeat was solid. He was breathing easily and his head was clear. Let's concentrate on that. Along the pedestrian walkway leading from the terminal to the downtown streets where he would find his bus he came up behind a pair, their clothes more or less the same, the one on the right somewhat taller. It was only on coming abreast that he saw, as he had so many times before, that they were mother and daughter, no doubt on their way to a happy day at Nordstrom's. The elder's Mother Courage face looked out grimly from under the expensive highlights, the willfully youthful clothes he could see now hanging like the flags of a defeated army on her bent, bitter frame. But the daughter was a pip, rosy, smiling, stylish but unglamorous, the shirt cut not too low, the camisole beneath showing only a hint of cleft, a tasteful, tasty, just-virginal-enough girl, a true pip. He felt better. At the bus stop he found the usual array, perhaps fewer crazies than usual. His route to work lay through a neighborhood of social-service agencies so he had learned to harden himself against the smells and voices of the street. It always got better after a few blocks. However, the only remotely threatening figure at the stop was a young black (Capitalize?) man whose clean clothes reassured. He wore an athletic jacket lettered "Wolves" across its back against the harbor breeze (the day's light clear but pale) and a fierce expression. Growing up where he must have grown up you need a fierce expression. His bus came. There were fewer seats than usual, so he elected to sit beside a young Mexican (Filipino?) man who didn't seem to have been in this country long enough to grasp the concept of moving over to make room. Sitting next to a woman was out of the question, of course. Women by themselves on the bus seemed even more than usually aware of the unspoken theme. Passing Macy's he enjoyed again the carnival procession of its busy sidewalk, well-dessed, attractive women parading among the bums, hippies, cops, crazies, and shouting teenagers. They seemed to feel they were doing us a favor, these women, by just being here; and, of course, they were. It would have been a lot easier to stay in their suburbs and shop in the mall, but "street credibility" is important, it really is, not just to roughen up the surface of your glamour, to distress it like a pair of jeans, but to show the flag, like those schoolteachers who went South after the Civil War to teach freed slaves to read. Writing is hard. He wished he had started sooner in life, the better to be used to the grind of it all by now; but when he'd had his vigour other, more strenuous activities occupied his days. Now that no woman would have him and he had time to look around, he lacked the stamina it turns out is required to organize these briefs into sentences, no matter how many technological breakthroughs mediated between him and his computer. Besides, where would all the ones and zeros go when the electricity ran out? He saw the bridge at the bottom of the hill, beyond that his stop and the store where he worked. It was warm on the bus. He was suddenly faint and -30-

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