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XIV. Temperance (to be cont.)
2003-11-02 - 11:47 p.m.

XIV. Temperance

Reereereereeree! Still closed eyelids wrinkled further, mixing senses in a futile attempt to ward off sound. No lashes close over the tympanum, which beats its djembe at the slightest whisper of vibration. A wave unfurls, an unseen butterfly wing, and somehow its unseen yet lovely geometrics transform into reereereeree!

Morning thoughts. These are what inspire accountants with shorn hair to spontaneously grow waist-long beards, wrap themselves in white sheets and kidnap good blonde Mormon girls to be their teen polygamous brides. The mixture of receding dream and encroaching consciousness can be compared to a tasty mixture of Red Bull and Stolichnaya, psychologically speaking. Half-lost in the Otherworld, the simplest thoughts suddenly reproduce themselves like fractal dolphins on one of those ridiculous hippie posters. The same one I had decking my grad school room, spiraling rainbow creatures frozen mid-dive. And as the alarm went reereeree, I reverently pondered the waves of energy beating against the drum of my inner ear, and simultaneously forgot how to move my arm to turn the damn thing off.

Reereereeree! My socked feet made furrows in the cartoon-sheathed pillows, while I half-hid my head under the blanket, ignoring the streams of sweat. I must go through life ass-backward, to wake up every morning with my footsoles against the headboard and my brain under the window.

A miracle shrugged its way into the room, and somehow a human wrist emerged from a garish cartoon-print comforter and slapped the black box. Mmmmraaaaaaawww came the replacement noise. Saucer-wide eyes glared accusingly, calling my bluff. I ignored this round of feline poker and slid back under the tent of the sheets. August's accusing yellow light poured through the dusty blinds, resting on the broken slat, calling my bluff along with the cat.

I rested my head on the pale, soft inner skin of my arm and imagined what it would be like to be loved, to awake encircled in arms stronger than mine, to awake with kind half-closed eyes along with the hoarseness of crows. Like a good casting director, I have someone in mind for the part.

***

In a brown robe resembling a monk's cassock, he waltzed his way into our coven circle, wide baby-blues hidden behind a pair of elegant John Lennon frames. At his side stood a dark-haired woman in a short goth dress, with black-and-white striped fairytale witch stockings and buckled shoes. From behind black plastic cat's eye frames, she cast pointed glances at half of the lounging Witches dangling their legs off of the covenstead futons and sofas. The female half, I realized later.

I offered a smile, catching the light on my glitter-smeared lipgloss. She didn't lift her eyes and instead picked carrot sticks one by one off a paper plate he held in his hand. A parrot perched on a metal bar, ready to bite off fingers, I mused, fussing with ruffled sleeves.

But I noticed him noticing me from the first. Curled in a little ball, as much as my vinyl pants would allow, I pretended to pick at the popcorn strands on Lady Olwen's Yule tree. I squinted my eyes behind my frames, an unseen sign of warding, and I forced the neurons to fire on the paths of memory. Step by step, I retrod the costuming of the tree, ornament by ornament as the inner circle giggled and joked. Standing on a footstool, Lord Otter put the star at its apex, a long thin spire of blue-painted glass, ascending from a globe with the crinkled depression of a starburst. Snatches of conversation, pieced together from that night two weeks prior, when I stood with a wan smile, trying to immerse myself in the ridiculous hot cocoa joy of the reborn sun. Or the preparations therefore.

Because then, curled on a sofa near the tree with his eyes tickling up and down my ribcage, I knew. Even then. There was something in the way that girl's eyes dragged over each set of breasts in the room, as if the nipples were ready to shoot torpedoes at an enemy sub at any given moment. Something. A melted creamsicle; a perfect orange, ready to fit in the palm, but with a white continent of mold on the other side. Something sweet that had been shat upon and plowed into manure.

Out of my eyecorner, I saw Silvermoon casting one of her prominent eyeballs his way, only to frown when she saw the girl. And then Silvermoon turned, wetting her cherry-red lips as she turned to that henna hairjob of a Sancho Panza, and uttered something deliciously snide. I couldn't hear it, but the expression inked the sentiment, albeit not the words, on their rice-floured gothic faces.

Sour grapes, said the fox.

But in that one minuscule second, he strode over, nearly dragging the girl with the piebald socks, still plucking carrot stick by carrot stick.

"Hi, I'm Christian," he beamed, a contagious smile spreading over an Irish face. "Olwen tells me that you've just finished your masters?"

"Oh, two years ago," I returned, my smile springing to life with a giddiness I could not seem to duct tape and strangle. "It took a while, because I worked a full-time job the whole time."

"Yeah? What do you do?" Those blue eyes sparkled supernaturally. The reflection of faux lava lamp lightstrands dazzled, haloing his irises. The smile was Ebola, and soon spread to my mouth, which seemed hellbent on dropping wide open and emitting a stream of drool.

Crunch. Crunch. The nameless girl delicately put a phallic-looking orange segment between her painted lips.

"Oh, I'm a journalist. A reporter for the local daily," I said, and waited for the inevitable flinch, the warding-off-against-telemarketers-and-press sign. He didn't give it.

"Really? I have a master's in political science. Right now I'm an aide in a state senator's office downstate," he said, and then dragged the girl to sit on the sofa. As he sat beside me, a whisper of sandalwood snaked its way into my nostrils.

Shit. He wears sandalwood.

"Ever think of going back to school?" he asks.

And somehow, against my better judgment, the words leak from the dyke of my mouth. With giddy hands, I piece it together: yes, I know my master's in women studies is useless, but I know a great deal about multivalent oppressions. I have several applications into graduate school because I, in my third decade, feel an overwhelming masturbatory need to pen the letters Ph.D. after my name. Not this year, but next, I assure him. Oh, I grew up a Wiccan; my mom was a solitary. I have a fondness for Muenster cheese and have been known to dress myself entirely in red saran wrap for parties. No, I don't do polyamory or public sex, but I do appreciate an innovative sex toy.

Yes. It was a veritable case of logorrhea; perhaps I require diapers for the mouth. But the gleaming, Yule-light-reflective stare didn't change, and no party went running for the Adirondacks. The girl with the piebald socks excused herself in a half-heard voice, in search of the can.

"It's our first time here," he said. "I just moved from California. I got hooked up with a Wiccan group out there. They taught me how to do candle magic."

As he spoke, one of his broad-palmed hands touched my knuckle. An unseen wave blew through the hairs on my neck nape, a wind through wheatfields.

"How did you meet Lady Olwen?"

He shrugged, a sinuous gesture. His dirt-brown cassock rustled. And then, the nameless girl with the striped witch-socks reappeared, standing in a door-frame strung with gold garlands, glittering in the half-gloom of the house.

Her repainted lips trembled and sparkled in the light, water after a cast stone. Words poised there, unuttered but pregnant. He shrugged, smiled at me, and rose.

"I'll see you," he said. The lava lamp light glittered greenly from his teeth.

The screen door opened, slammed. Taking off my glasses, I palmed my tired eyes and then glanced over to the altar side of the room. A plaque of Hecate half-hid above, the shadows from the altar candles dancing over her three faces.

Old Woman, Lady of the Crossroads, I muttered in my mind, small words hammering bright through the dark. Send him back to California. Send him back to California.

Her plaster face set in a half-smile, animated by shadows and knowing, but her arms held their serpents helplessly. Her bittersweet amusement welled wordlessly within me, a melted creamsicle.

***

Yes, I know who I'd cast, but I don't have that high-backed director's chair or the bevy of sexy interns. Yes, I am too fearful to grasp, to reach out with my ink-stained fingers, too fearful to be like the maples and the neighbor's oak, the bean plants reaching greedily and lazily for the rain. Parched earth, the webbed mud cracks of August. The dryness makes it way up my throat, to my storm-gray eyes, the desert of not-reaching.

I don't reach because I am tired of hailstorms, of rejection, of that cayenne pepper in the eyes that comes with the "oh, you're sweet but I'm definitely not interested." Why take such risks? I made my choice decades ago, trading art for love, accomplishment over human connection. And what have I earned for my choice? The inked syllables of my name, a byline, a Celtic harp spinning music at a touch. A lot, I think.

A fly buzzed, wedged between the windowpanes. The high-pitched whine did more than the scream of the alarm or the cat's meow. Echoing pots banged from the kitchen, as the designated Insane Housemate had an a.m. meltdown.

Tiptoing to the tuna can, I scooped food in Squashblossom's bowl. He uttered a half-hissed meow and dove in daintily. At my back in the kitchenette, James experimented with new expletives. Squinting my eyes to ward off sound, I made the coffee. It burbled.

And so did he.

"Aren't you going to ask me what's wrong?" James barked. His black curls hung down, while a piece of orange cat fur had caught in his goatee. A ragged shirt with stylized hemp leaves achieved new levels of disheveledness, caught on his hair-coated gut. Luckily, my sans-spectacles gaze was coated with a lovely cinematic blur that obscured the details.

"What's wrong, James," I sighed, not quite lifting my tone in question. Bastard.

"These pots!" he squealed, holding up a vaguely circular mass of silver. Burp burp burp, Mr. Coffee exclaimed with such an annoying degree of perkiness that I felt like putting my fist through the red smiley-face that I, in a fit of late-night inebriation, had scrawled on the coffee pot.

He scratched a nail on the inside of the vaguely circular silver mass, scraping something. I remembered: couscous.

"There's still crud in these pots." He slammed it back down on the dish rack. "You should wash them again."

"James, I've been washing the dishes myself for weeks. You promised to do them, but you didn't. I needed bowls." Trying to keep my tone level, I fished in the rack for a coffee mug. "And I washed the floor the other day too. You never wash the floor."

Somewhere, in a third world country that resided only in his mind, an unforeseen air strike punched holes in a hospital. Quickly, the ragtag desert troops amassed to fend off the conquistadors.

"That's because you don't do a good job." His pink lips thrust out, bubbling sails over the black goatee. "If you did a good job, you wouldn't have to wash the floor again. You'd wash it once and be done with it."

Pouring the scatological liquid into the chipped black cup, my teeth made deep imprints on my inner lip. Breathe. Count backward from three. Sip. Savor. Let the thoughts float as leaves down the stream, oak leaves disappearing beneath the dark surface.

As he rattled on in red anger, I floated with the leaves of my mind. The stream was oddly shadowed and black, the night of the otherworld. Squashblossom delicately munched, oblivious to the hastily-cast darts of human rage.

Over the stream, his sky lunged scarlet, but never marred the stream. And the scarlet stream became my blood, enlivened by morning caffeine. And somewhere, a new harp song sang, a lyre to Orpheus, and then

"And another thing. That fucking cat pissed on my W-2s."

The words prickled, rose thorns on the skin. Wincing, I loudly slurped the coffee.

"Where were your W-2s?"

"On my bedroom floor."

My nostrils flared, scenting for the ammoniac reek of uncleaned litter. Ah, yes indeed. Smells like a meth lab in here. Time to change.

I padded back to my bedroom.

"Then maybe you should've done your taxes," I slamdunked, and closed the door against further imprecations, which crested and slammed against its cheap pine. The cat delicately swatted the bottom, and I let him in.

"... you think ..." followed, but I quickly swatted the words to the floor with a glossy-covered tome of Greek mythology, and made sure they were dead. Lifting the harp from the floor, I pressed its wood against my chest and ran my morning-rosy fingers over the nylon strings. Pure sound: the antidote for words.

***

The wheels sucked in the navy edge of my hippie skirt. Drawing my breath slowly in through circled lips, I negotiated with the rolling chair. Before I could parlay for the release of the captive cloth, the phone shrieked until its service end was pressed to my ear.

The chief. So sorry I couldn't return your call yesterday. (And I'm Marie of Romania.) Yes, we can verify that the giraffe belonged to an elderly gentleman in the next town over who is, unfortunately, pushing up daisies in the local boneyard. No, I can't give names. No, I certainly have not heard anything about starving lions or cannibalistic birds of paradise or perverse rhinos that enjoy looking at schoolgirls' panties. An animal rescue group is coming out tomorrow to take care of the problem; no, we can't give you the name, since that would be supplying information to the public, and the Good Lord put me on this green earth to keep such a heinous activity from happening. No, the giraffe is a peaceful vegetarian; it's no danger to anyone, and it's being kept in a secured area.

"The Willow Grove condominium complex?" I offered in polite amusement.

Yes, some of the residents there have received official instruction in caring for the African mammal. No further information available. Have a nice day.

Thus released, I began to re-enter negotiations with the pullied terrorist that had kidnaped the trailing end of my skirt. Again, the phone sounded just before the release deal was sealed. A Willow Grove condominium dweller, Mrs. Ahmed. Her voice lilted, spiced with strange accents, turmeric and cumin coating her words along with a dose of healthy English tansy.

"Well, the real problem is the children. They're bothering the poor thing."

"What do you think of the giraffe, Mrs. Ahmed?"

"Well, I think it adds panache."

On Sunday morning, Mrs. Ahmed padded over to her heavy velvet curtains, and unveiled the back glass door. And there it stood, a dream in yellow and orange, lowering its tame head to her door. She fed it salad greens, and praised Allah for this minor miracle. With her braceleted hand, she waved her husband to hurry, and bring the videocamera. Sally achieved her 15 minutes of giraffe fame, sans feather boa.

"You wouldn't happen to be one of the residents taking care of the giraffe, would you?" I attempted, hoping that passive-aggression would, as usual, achieve my aims.

Turns out that she was. Via the copper wires, a local wildlife official ("oh, that man with the rather high-pitched voice. I forget what his name is") instructed the stalwart world-traveling homeowner ("my husband's firm took us to Zimbabwe for a while, so I was familiar with giraffes. A lovely people, the Zimbabweans") in a basic primer of giraffe care. And hence the housewife becomes the Hussar, defending sensitive Sally from the onslaughts of monstrous children and even more monstrous media.

Brenda had wandered over, a styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee in her big palm. Her blonde poodlehead bobbled over me. "Get her picture!" the pink lips whispered broadly. "We need art!"

Mrs. Ahmed attempted to decline; turns out, the anti-giraffe homeowners association may be plotting revenge, especially as Mrs. Ahmed decided against the cherry red door so popular in the regulations. Brenda punched the air, and made hand-gestures that would do a drunken umpire proud.

"My editor's pressuring me. Can we ... please? We didn't get a good picture of the giraffe yesterday."

A sigh.

"I'll ask my husband."

"Good, I'll send someone then."

Click. A caffeinated stare drilled into the back of my cranium. I turned, the caught skirt revolving around my waist.

"Yes, I have the follow."

A coffee-sour wind emanated from the big woman's mouth. Ug ug, Big Woman, Woman Chief, she crack men skulls, Kemosabe. (Kemosabe means shit, I hear. Montezuma's revenge.)

"Get it done." She slurped out of the non-biodegradable landfill-killer. "They need someone to do a round of cop checks. Steve's stuck in court on the arraignment." Another slurp. "Do it," she cast back over her shoulder as her continental ass wiggled out of view.

I've never seen a human drink so much coffee in the course of a day and survive.

Most of the other reporters have been known to compile elaborate plans to off Brenda and dispose of her body in a distant pine forest, among the pale sand fire roads. Frankly, I'm more inclined to compassion since, in my attempt to become a neo-Pagan boddhisattva, I'm inclined to wondrous foreign feats of mental masochism. The ruddy-faced Nordic behemoth had been married thrice and divorced thrice, although the final hasn't compiled its necessary load of dotted I's and crossed T's. Shaken by skin-twitching neurosis, she had the build of a linebacker, fortified by enough caffeine to cause convulsions in laboratory rats. A land of volcanos and mudslides, lacking even a crater lake to serenely mirror the heavens and spread into liquid calm.

Sauntering to the back door, cell phone to ear, she howled at husband number three in a convulsive, rapid-fire staccato. Machine-gun words. Crackling static white-noise words.

"I told you I can't go tonight. What did I tell you? That I can't go tonight. Did you hear that? What did I tell you?"

Mercifully, Janus, two-faced lord of doors and politicians, blocked her trumpet voice with a thick pane of plexiglass. My fingers clutched the now-torn edge of my navy-blue hippie skirt. I sighed.

A stream, black, reflecting nothing. The leaves sail down, oak leaves browned by autumn, that constant mid-tone brown, the brown of lucky stones. The leaves are your thoughts. Your thoughts float down the dream. Your mind is the streambed, far below; let the leaves float by lightly on the surface. You are the stream, the water, its bed; let the leaves float down to the sea, to Mother Ocean.

Except some inevitably end up slimed beneath the surface, caught in the weeds of the bed, staining the water brown with tannin.

Old Woman, my mind muttered habitually, but the prayer stalled, a decades-old rusted out Aries. Too tired for faith. Temperance: the virtue of the bone-weary who don't have an excuse yet to loll about in the mud at the bottom.

My hand grabbed the receiver and dialed the first of the numbers.

***

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