by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
17) Alone Again
I knew it was coming and it did: Carlos is gone. He’s gone but he’ll return. Even if five days is not long enough to establish a routine, let alone what it felt like—a lifelong ritual involving our entire beings—I am have absolute faith. Carlos will come back and we’ll return forever to the world we so effortlessly made together.
All morning long, I tried to ignore the impending rift. Before, after; then, now. Totally within the moment, I recalled an aphorism about not knowing what you think you know and vice versa. Carlos commented that it was too cold for clouds to form. I answered that that was a myth, cold doesn’t affect clouds like that. The sun, though, was blinding; the sky excruciatingly blue; the els and buses running on schedule.
I spent the morning absorbed in details—details were all: the smell of coffee, the wiggly activity of customers, the sound of crockery knocking together, the way my hand looked on the countertop, and oh a hundred other things at once. My life was the same now as ever. And whatever happened—happened. Using all restraint, I tried not to try.
And yet—there was no ignoring the crystalline air outside our doors being too sharp to breathe. Or the rock-solid, six-foot-high snowdrifts rising every several feet. Paul from Mystic made it through the alley, though.
And Louie Duvall’s man triple-parked in front and dollied the flour in through the restaurant. Even old Mr. Downey and old Mr. Hedlund trudged their way in today, and shook their heads at the way I do business: letting delivery men in through the front. Tsk, tsk.
At noon, Carlos whisked off his apron and I knew: He was leaving. Busy checking Louie’s order, I fiddled with the paperwork. “There’s supposed to be no charge.” My voice was anxious to attract Carlos’s attention, draw him to me.
He was zipping his jacket, hoisting his backpack. A nasty chill leapt from my nerves to the pores of my skin.
Had Carlos brought his backpack down at four this morning when we flicked on the lights and beat on pans, rushing out Mason and Roger?
I would have noticed. But I would have noticed more if he’d darted up at some point to fetch it from the apartment. yet there it was dangling from his gifted, gloved fingers. He had his jacket zipped, his stocking hat on his head.
Louie’s driver was saying, “Relax, man,” and pointing to the “ppd.” scrawled at the bottom of the page.
If Carlos waved or nodded at me, if he mumbled, “Later,” I was aware only that as the alley door bounced shut behind him, the air turned bleak. Everything went flat, everything looked fake. And from then until now, it’s been all I can do to force myself to go through the motions—“Hi, good to see you. What can I get you folks?”
18) Lard Logs
I think if I weren’t writing this down, I would have lost my mind by now. Carlos is still gone; he did not come back last night, or the night before. I can see now how ridiculous it was for me to expect him to. But expect it I did: every time Mason or Roger turned or coughed downstairs, I listened for the next sound, which I was sure would be that of a lock turning, a door opening, Carlos in the kitchen, up the back stairs. Sounds that never came.
By Saturday afternoon I’d recovered from Carlos having left for a while After all, the man had to go home. Put on fresh clothes, check his mail, check his phone machine. And by eight that next evening, serving college kids coffee and brownies to fuel their resumed studies, I was telling myself it was good he’d left when he did. After five straight days and nights, we needed a short spell to take stock of ourselves, clear our heads. Carlos had trusted me to understand the situation tacitly—and I did. (And I’m still telling myself this—with one slight alteration: that what happened during the storm was so earthshaking we need an unspecified amount of time, rather than a short spell, to take stock, etc.)
By nine o’clock last night I was absolutely convinced he was on his way here. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, that’s long enough. Carlos was going to show up any minute. To get myself ready, I closed the shop early. A picture was stuck in my mind of myself posed nonchalantly in the narrow arch between entranceway and bedroom as Carlos rushed to explain where he’d been.
Mason and Roger tapped on the front window.
Letting them in, I said, “One false move and you guy’s are on your butts in the snow. No, fuck that: one false thought, if you guys still have thoughts.” One of them mumbled something at the floor. The one I think of as Mason clutched his crotch and winced.
“All right, all right, I said, furiously, “But hurry.”
Then I stood outside the men’s room, holding the door open and yelling, “Come on, come on, Jeez.” I made sweeping motions with my hands. “Wash up and let’s go.” Then I kicked the air near where they lay their heads.
Upstairs, I took a long shower. If Carlos should arrive while I was in the middle of luxuriating under the spray, he could just wait on the landing until I was done. Twice while drying myself, I thought I heard him there. Half-naked, I opened the door and peered down the chilly dark—empty—stairwell.
Oh well, better really if his first glimpse of me was while I was busy, fully clothed, hair dried. I put on an ironed white shirt, a sweater vest, and jeans that were tight before the storm.
At ten-thirty I was happily finishing Friday night’s wine. He’d arrive in an hour or so, which would be perfect—there’d still be time for him to circle the floor in my robe, iron balls chiming in his dexterous hands. At midnight I was still telling myself he’d come any minute. At one and two I was listening to every creak, every rustle and sigh. At three I was praying. Preparing myself for four, when he’d arrive for his shift downstairs, turn on the lights and the radio, as if nothing, nothing, nothing had ever happened.
I promised myself I’d wait until seven, as I always used to—before the snow. But at five when he still hadn’t come, I raced downstairs and rushed the bums out. No food, no bathroom. I screamed curses, berated their mothers, and locked the front door behind them. Then I turned on the fryer and started a huge batch of cake donuts. In twelve years Carlos has missed work three times.
At six-thirty I sold eight large cappuccinos to go and a dozen of my inferior donuts. Unlike Carlos’s, mine made grease spots on the white paper bags before I’d even finished ringing up the sale.
What if something terrible had happened to him? At the cash register, I had a cinematic vision of myself behind the wheel of a car. The speedometer was stuck at the far right; the brakes did not exist. And I had to fight the impulse (as a customer had entered) to throw my arms up over my face. . . I sold an old man a cup of Lipton’s and a plain cake donut and then hurried back to the kitchen, where I found Carlos’s unlisted number scrawled in a tiny, ancient address book tucked among the old ledgers. Twice I dialed the number but hung up mid-ring.
I made four pans of brownies, because my brownies if nothing else are as good as his. The third time I dialed, a man trying to sound like a woman (or vice versa) said, “This is Venus. How may I help you?”
Then Stephanie burst in, cursing before she’d even gotten her coat off. Where the fuck was Carlos?
“Like I’m supposed to serve your lard logs and—hope people tip out of pity?”
Where was Carlos; where was Maggie?
“Isn’t Maggie,” I asked Stephanie, “supposed to waitress with you?”
“That’s not what she does. Maggie the waitress; what a laugh.”
19) Be A Man and Ask
A dismal omen: the first customer this morning was an old woman with shoe polish in her hair, who handed me a dollar (sixty-two cents short but I couldn’t bear to quibble) that was translucent from age, as soft and warm as living tissue. Then after a slow, dreary day, at 8:00 PM, with the shop empty—relief and fury. He appeared!
Breezed in with the voluptuous, beautiful Maggie Townsend, on his arm. I watched from behind the swinging door at how she slid out of her ankle-length coat, wiggled in her low-cut dress, and squirmed in her chair. And from where I stood, Carlos the militant ascetic, Carlos the nonpracticing homosexual, seemed oddly flushed. His attention horribly, peculiarly riveted. Stephanie’s big block-shaped backside obscured my view. As if she knew. Or not as if—of course she knew! Blonde hair bristling, she asked if they wanted my “artery cloggers?”
Then as Carlos’s covert operative, she stepped far enough left for me to see him ease himself free from his leather jacket and smooth an Irish sweater over his chest. He was telling Maggie that he couldn’t recommend anything except maybe my brownies. I watched him take off his fleece stocking cap.
His hair was loose, clean for a change, and to tell the truth, beautiful. He reached for the girl’s pale, plump hand and pressed it to his mouth.
And I clutched the doorway. Maggie leaned over the table, pressing into it as she whispered passionately. A second later, the vicious Stephanie caught me watching them, and with a snide grin, flapping their receipt. “Pellegrinos, Malcolm. No ice. No brownies.”
I had six carrot cakes baking. Vaguely aware I was hyperventilating, I began crossing the room to take them out of the oven, when I felt his breath on the back of my neck. He touched my shoulder, traced a line down my spine to my waist. If I hadn’t bitten my tongue I’d have moaned out loud. As it was, my traitorous body shuddered with unmistakable, horrible, pleasure. “You can always tell a true saint,” he whispered, “by how long and how hard he resists.”
I wheeled around, confused and desperate. Because the words were his, the breath, the touch—but the voice was Stephanie’s! And it was she who was standing there, grabbing my belt loops. She narrowed her mean little eyes, released me abruptly, and said, “Go on. March on out there, Malcolm. Be a man, and just—ask.”