Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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Notes from Daily Life
by Summer Brenner

It is past eleven o'clock, and before the police officer can introduce himself by name, I say, "You're kidding," denying the possibility of any further trouble with my teenage daughter who was arrested only a few months ago for loitering in a city park after city curfew. She was required to complete thirty-two hours of weekend community service raking leaves and scrubbing graffiti-littered surfaces that her friends had put there in the first place. Those drinking got double the time, and the juvenile officer was prepared to mete out equal punishment to all the kids until I asked him how he could think that indiscriminate sentencing was possibly just. After the community service and two weeks as teen staffer at a real peace-and-love summer camp, things between us have improved. Her demeanor has sweetened, her attitude matured. Communication is open and strong. As I redefine the rules, she increasingly conforms. The new school year is starting well, and she has committed herself to good study habits and a willing participation in family activities. The police call is a blow. Expecting the worst, I immediately ask the reason for his call with an angry intonation that issues out of my own mother's intimidating mouth. The officer explains that my daughter's friend Hannah Holtz has left her parents a suicide note, promising to kill herself by four that afternoon, an hour long since past. My horror is replaced by relief followed swiftly by faint amusement. I tell the officer that Hannah's note is almost certainly a sick prank. I venture to add that she and her parents engage in a clinically sadistic relationship. I hear about it from my own daughter. Hannah's father, an orthodontist, often calls me to track down his offspring, rave that our girls are mingling with gang members in dangerous locales, and report that my daughter has been dropped at his house by a dark boy in a late model car. Then he rhetorically asks who I think can afford new cars besides drug dealers? Dr. Holtz and I used to acknowledge each other as the most concerned parents of this coterie, but I have now tired of our alliance. He deliberately tries to scare me, and his ravings are always the same. Since starting high school, my daughter has adopted an entirely new set of friends. I used to say that I preferred the new crowd's wildness to the bitchiness of her former circle, but I have revised my view to a general dislike of most of them, new and old. Hannah is an exception. She has decent manners and when directly addressed, looks me in the eye. She has the reputation of being funny. Obviously smart, she is also daring and desperately bored. I confirm to the officer that I saw Hannah downtown at six o'clock, two hours past her deadline [sic], when I dropped my daughter off to meet her. Hannah was cheerful and smiled at me in her usual manner. I recall that in the past week her father had stormed a video store where a twenty-one year old Mexican clerk worked who had taken Hannah out. Holtz threatened to have him arrested and deported. In retaliation, Hannah told her parents that she was pregnant with his child, although she had only known him a week, and Mrs. Holtz became hysterical, convinced not only of the pregnancy but the certainty that Hannah had AIDS. For months Hannah has been forbidden to touch her brother's food, and her mother went nuts over the blood from her daughter's paper cut. The Holtz house is located in an expensive neighborhood, and their high taxes no doubt underwrite the costs of their frequent calls to the police. Both Hannah and her parents place emergency calls weekly. The latest incident involved a scissors attack by Mrs. Holtz, and in spite of Hannah's wound, the policewoman sided with the mother's story of self-defense. I suggest to the policeman that I beep my daughter and then call him back if she has any news of Hannah. I punch in the seven digits, wait for the piercing beat, punch in seven more, hang up, and wait. It is not long. My daughter and friends, Hannah included, are at a convenience store on their way to a friend's house in a risky part of town. I swallow my sigh, insisting that Hannah call her parents to let them know she is alive. My daughter informs me that they will all be sleeping at Emilia's and promises to be in by midnight. Meanwhile, I can now go off to sleep assured that the police have been kept from my door, that my girl is snugly tucked away, and that out of spite Hannah has probably eloped with the Mexican video clerk. The next morning I learn from Mrs. Holtz that she still has not heard from Hannah. I suggest that she telephone Emilia's house, and later in the morning I do the same, where a half-dozen sleepy girls are at least accounted for, all except one. My own daughter's whereabouts are unknown, and I am told she was last seen at midnight getting into a late model car on Sacramento Street, assuring her friends that she would get her own ride home.

      My friendly Korean dry cleaner wants to know why I suddenly look so good. The spring in my step? the color in my cheeks? the luster in my eyes? I am bashful to admit my good fortune. Already it's a burden. Already I have been met with skepticism and envy. But the answer is obvious. I demure and then confess that I have fallen in love. June's broad, pretty face lights up as she assesses my weight, my figure, my gait, my skin tone, and a shower of additional compliments issues forth. She is happy for me. With great embarrassment I take my leave. Weeks pass, and she continues to be happy for me, to comment on the changes as a sign of a true, unflagging affection. Months pass, and still her enthusiasm does not wane. Whenever I bring in or pick up, June inquires about wedding dates, his rapport with my children, or if the rush on the silk blouse coincides with travel plans. Finally, I realize that I have made a mistake. I am weary of repeating that things are "still" going well. I am bored with her flattery. I find her nosy, intrusive, presumptuous. I want to take back the privacy of my life, but it is too late. I try another cleaners, but the results are unsatisfactory. I return to June, where I appear always pressed for time. I try to look less happy. My gait is deliberately unsprung, my shoulders stooped, my eyes cast down. I toss my soiled sweaters across the counter, let my eyes drift impatiently to the clock, anything to indicate that I cannot linger, anything to avoid an exchange more basic than starch. My impatience works. For at least a month, we resume our business. Then on a slow afternoon when I am neither hurried nor annoyed, when I have let down my impersonal guard, June leans across her countertop and whispers, "Don't I deserve to be loved too?" Our eyes meet sympathetically, as we travel into the common human arena of pain, loss, disappointment. Regretfully, I see that my happiness has been a constant by which she charts her own unhappiness. Her voice is plaintive, as she asks me again. Then flings her head of thick-cropped hair to the back of the shop, behind the glass partition, where the plastic-wrapped garments hang, where the magic pulley is at a standstill. I spy the silhouette of her husband at a heavy pressing board, June's husband of twenty years, father of their three children. He wears an aggressive, hang-dog look that says he has strayed and looks forward to straying again. His presence lacks any authority, and although once gainfully employed as a civil servant, it now appears that he works in the laundry as his wife's assistant. A flushed rage fills June's face as she confides to me that her husband has betrayed her, that he is unfaithful and ungrateful, that he flaunts his affair, that his lover calls him at home, that he beats their children, that she would divorce him and seek love too if there were a way to prevent the state from giving him fifty percent of the business that she has sacrificed to build. Then there is the question of disgrace, and although their daughters are almost grown, the son is still young. June's face is full of questions and complaint. She wants me to assure her that if she dives off the board into the empty pool, water will miraculously appear. She wants to know that what worked for me will work for her too. I pat her hand, admonishing myself for my little boast of happiness. The next few times we meet I try to look particularly worn-out. I am tired with a full-time, demanding job, a full-time, demanding teenager, and now despite its profound loveliness, a full-time, demanding relationship. It is my turn to pester and inquire about her marriage and business and legal affairs. Our talk does not concern my fullness but rather her void, her depression and distress. She wears stained clothes and barely combs her hair. I see that she has given up trying. Being attractive, even to customers, no longer means anything to her. When she is unavailable, her husband waits on us. His flattering remarks to me are more lavish than his wife's. I find his courtesy loathsome. His attention to women contains unspeakable insinuations. June's story has only proven what I already sensed about the man. He is weak, weakened by indulgence while his wife works like two dogs. He wears an ingratiating smile and once had the audacity to pull a fallen hair from the front of my sweater, his hand grazing my breast. After several years of patronizing their dry cleaners, I have refused to learn his name. He is intolerable. Meanwhile, my sweetheart insists on using another nearby establishment. He finds June and her affairs repulsive. He has neither interest nor sympathy in her plight, a by-product of eighteen years in Manhattan. Then one day I persuade him to try my cleaners. The moment we arrive at June's door, I spill soda on his already soiled camel-colored suit. It is not a catastrophe, but his annoyance with my cleaners is doubled by the suit's additional stains. As we pass into June's place, I feel him bristle, his hairs stiffen on the back of the neck. He is nearly rude. I show June the stains, as well as the solid, manly inspiration for the new, refurbished me. She tries to be especially friendly and cheerful, but her attempts go unreciprocated. I see that he strikes her as cold and disagreeable, and as we leave, it is obvious that she doesn't think I got much of a bargain after all.

      Two of my daughter's friends are over. Allison is seated on the floor, her feet propped up on the side of the desk which currently holds two turntables, amplifier, headphones, and a dozen old LPs. My daughter is learning to scratch. Leah is on the bed, smiling wistfully. She has a sweet, docile face which is in no way weak. Last month she tried to commit suicide by taking all the prescription medicine in the house and cutting her wrists with a fairly dull knife. Now she's on anti-depressants. My daughter was very attentive during the convalescence, listening frequently to Leah's account of her own war story. As a result, they've become close again. She's very lovable, and I am glad to see her. She knows I like her. Allison is a calculating girl. I like her too, but she is jealous and exacting. Now that my daughter has both a boyfriend and a renewed interest in art, Allison makes her feel guilty and neglectful. Allison is being courted by a modeling agency, and although not a raving beauty, I can see the potential of a lithe, piquant style. I ask about the modeling, and she tells me that she can't afford to finish her portfolio. The photographs cost too much, and her mother is out of work. She's worried that she'll have to pay the bills this month since her mother was laid off. She wants to start a plant business, Allison says in disgust, she's out of her mind Allison thinks her mother should get a job like the old one. I think a greenhouse makes sense. They own a house inherited from Allison's grandmother with a large backyard. And the mother probably wants a chance to do something else. Allison is angry. She doesn't want to pay bills with her own money. She doesn't want the burden of a dependent mother. She wants to be a model and drive around in a new car. She wants to escape her mother's crummy life. She starts to tell me about Shirley, her mother's friend, who lives at the house, pays nothing, and has started to take in twenty bundles of laundry a week. Allison thinks her mother should kick Shirley out or at least ask her for rent, but dismisses this as a possibility. At first, I can't tell whether she thinks her mother is too timid, too kind, or too dumb, but actually, she thinks her mother is back on drugs. I'm surprised to hear the implication of a chronology since my daughter spends so much time at their house. Allison says that when her mother starts to talk about plants and gardening, she's incoherent. I suggest that since they own their house, her mother can borrow the money to start a small business. Allison looks bitter and despairing. Smooth and piquant disappear. She explains that her mother already took out a $40,000 loan to bail Johnny out of jail. Johnny, I have met. He's the live-in boyfriend. He came to the house once to pay Michael for a computer search he made on the whereabouts of a young son whose mother took him away. Michael found their last known address in a trailer park outside Asheville, North Carolina. I have never seen a more broken face than Johnny's. Doesn't he have a job? I temper the none-of-my-business question with concern. Allison shakes her head. Apparently, he hasn't worked since he got of jail. Her mother was in too but only for three days. Allison turns to my daughter with a note of surprise, You didn't tell your mom? Of course, she didn't, I want to scream because then I wouldn't let her go to your house. Allison yammers on. She's volatile and talkative and crams the details into short, breathless, disaffected sentences. Almost a year ago, after months of surveillance, the FBI came with a warrant to her house and put guns to everybody's head. They suspected Johnny had a crank factory in the basement. He's back on it, Allison says expertly. She can tell because it makes him mean, and he and her mother fight now all the time. Maybe her mother's back on it too. Allison doesn't understand why her mother doesn't kick him and Shirley both out. I regard her porcelain, closed face and recall that when I first met her, she was a skinny, stringy girl with thick brown lipstick. Furtive, closed, and cold. I didn't like her then, but now we often embrace. When she's over, she shows me the progress of a pustulant rash that took months to get attended to and reports if she recently fainted. Her colorless skin makes me think she's anemic, but the family doesn't like doctors. She tells me if she's read a book, what her grades are. Her mother didn't go to college, but she has plans. I can tell that plans don't go very far with her. When I helped her on a history paper, we spent an hour discussing grammar. She's ignorant about sentence structure, but she's a smart girl, above all, shrewd. She is mostly on her own and probably wants to get rid of the pieces still attached. No wonder she likes to party. School can barely compete with hard drugs and penniless adults. Leah has curled into the pillows on the bed. Maybe she's consoled by the hard-luck stories of her friend. Although she didn't know her father and her last boyfriend abused her and her best friend killed himself playing Russian roulette, at least her mother has a job, and her grandmother is rich. It astonishes me how comfortable my daughter is listening to these stories. She adores running back and forth across town, from mansion to slum, and in the big houses on the hill the stories are just as sensational. I look back on our funny fragmented life, the years we shared a bedroom in a motel-style apartment which I actually liked. Our vicissitudes must strike her as ordinary by comparison. She says that sleeping together was really ghetto. To me it felt simple and cozy. It was a way to keep her safe, but I can't keep her anymore.

      My neighbor Saraswati is from Madagascar and has told me painful stories about her childhood, most notably that her well-to-do mother taunted her with the sobriquet black chicken and because she was darker than her brothers and sisters, treated her like a servant girl. She left home at an early age and traveled to India where she met her American husband in an ashram. I believe they are Hari Krishnas, although his head is never shaved nor are their faces marked by clay-colored lines. Her husband is blond and silent, neither friendly nor unfriendly. He is studying for a doctorate in theology and spends long periods of time in Pakistan. Saraswati, her guru-given name, informs me proudly, He is a very good husband. Weekdays, evenings, weekends she operates a day-care center in an immaculate large two-story brown shingle house. Dark, vivacious, pretty, and small, Saraswati has a penchant for gab and in the late afternoon may be found energetically sweeping the street with a small, handleless broom volubly reporting the latest neighborhood incident. This morning, she confides to me, a couple stopped by her fence at a devilishly early hour to admire her roses. Her tall tangerine rose trees are prize, her yard perfectly trim, her sidewalk spotless. As she speaks, images of dawn strolls admiring lovely city gardens roll through my mind until my reverie is abruptly interrupted by Saraswati's eyes wide and wild. Her head bobs, her dazzling 28-karat gold earrings jangle in the sun, and her low gentle phrases pitch into violent, high, strident shrills. She thrusts her face into mine, They had a basket and a pair of shears. She then reports that she yelled at them, cussed at them, and called the police. By now my sympathy has shifted to the flower thieves who fell prey to Saraswati's watchful eyes and bottomless wrath. I wonder if she is crazy. She is always calling the police, and her stories invariably unfold in the same way, starting with a pedestrian description of an ordinary event that suddenly exploded into a series of crude and repetitive curses.
      Last spring after an international terrorist was arrested, local news crews appeared on our street seeking the concrete bunker behind Saraswati's house where the alleged culprit had lived twenty years ago. The reporters were refused entry, and several hand-printed NO TRESPASSING signs appeared on Saraswati's fences, gate, and front door. She told me that one reporter was so outraged by her lack of cooperation that he threatened her sexually, made vile gestures at her crotch, and shouted obscene epithets from the middle of the street. As she spoke to me, she was obliged to rapidly repeat each vulgar curse while her two tiny slack-jawed daughters clung to her Indian-print skirt. I watched them watch her. She sounded like gangsta' rap. Finally, she lowers her voice in my ear and points out the young black hipsters who recently moved into the apartment next door. She says, They are dealing drugs from their car. She has already called the police.
      The next time I see Saraswati, I wave, grin, nod, but am too tired to walk over and listen. It is difficult to discern between her acumen and her paranoia. However, wave, grin, nod remain sufficient foundation for friendship and soon after, she calls to ask if I can drive her to the hospital when she goes into labor. Her very good husband has been away in Pakistan for several months and is not scheduled to return until after her due date, and she may not be able to wait. A brief time passes, and then one evening she telephones with the news that she is in labor and will call me back. I prepare to go to the hospital, but when I see her next, she has already returned home with a new boy. It is only a few days more before she is sweeping the street, watching the neighborhood, and reporting suspicious activities to the police.
      When she see me, she throws her arms around me and enthuses to my mother who is visiting from Georgia, Your daughter is my very good friend. Then she hugs and kisses my mother too who is not an affectionate woman but is moved by the spontaneous embrace of this vivacious, exotic woman. Saraswati insistently ushers us into her house. The painfully neat living room is stuffed with plush velveteen sofas, vases of large artificial roses on waxed mahogany tables, and wall hangings of Hindu gods. The incense is suffocating. My mother exclaims over the decor although I know in her snotty heart that she finds it tacky and tasteless. The beautiful little girls flit about the hallways like fairies while Saraswati orders them in French to settle down. The lovely little baby lies sleeping in his crib. All the children are fairer than black chicken, and the boy is fairest of all. Saraswati hands me the infant, and mother asks his name. Marvin, Saraswati beams as if she said marvel. My mother has few inhibitions, a lifelong characteristic aggravated by age. Marvin? She is incredulous. You named your baby Marvin? Unrelenting. You must think of something else to call him. Saraswati appears neither offended nor hurt but is relieved to speak frankly about her mistake. She humbly admits that since he was born, she has discovered that Marvin is a heavy name. It is, however, her father-in-law's name, and he is a very good man. Then she tells us the baby's middle-Sanskrit-name which we hopelessly stumble over. Later, I mention to my mother that her comments about the baby might have been indiscreet. I recite verbatim and mimic her tone of incredulity. Marvin? The baby's name is Marvin? Her giggle is sinister as she repeats her lifelong imperative about being honest. I look at her with the knowledge that her honesty is confrontational and distorted, evidence that she is smart but cruel. Its range and scope used to make me shudder, and I recall that during girlhood her frequent, almost tragic lament was my swarthiness, a word that she could barely bring herself to utter. No doubt it was her Southern genteel version of black chicken and prompted me like Saraswati to go far away and never return.


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