17 Peacock Ladies at the Caf'e Gertrude Stein
“He’s giving up cockfighting for you?” Emelina’s eyes were so wide I could only think of Mrs. Dynamite’s husband watching Miss America.
“I guess. We’ll see if he stays on the wagon.”
“Codi, that’s so romantic. I don’t think J.T. ever gave up a thing for me except cracking his knuckles.”
“Well, that’s something,” I said.
“No, it doesn’t even count, because I terrorized him out of it. I told him it would give him arthritis or something.”
Emelina and I were eating chili dogs at a roadside diner on 1-10. Loyd’s pickup, which we’d borrowed for the trip, was parked where we could keep an eye on it. Piled high in the back, individually wrapped in dry-cleaner bags, were fifty peacock pi~natas with genuine peacock tail feathers. We were headed for Tucson, prepared to hit the streets with the biggest fund-raising enterprise in the history of the Stitch and Bitch Club.
The project was Viola’s brainchild, although she shared credit with Do~na Althea, who had opened up her storehouse of feathers. They’d held two all-night assembly lines to turn out these masterpieces, and really outdid themselves. These were not the likes of the ordinary pi~nata, destined to meet its maker at the end of a blindfolded ten-year-old’s baseball bat. They had glass-button eyes and feather crests and carefully curled indigo crepe-paper wings. These birds were headed for the city, and so was the Stitch and Bitch Club, en masse, by Greyhound. Our plan was to meet at the bus station and take it from there.
I was surprised when Viola asked if I’d come. She said they needed me, I knew the city; you’d think it was a jail break. But Loyd was doing switch-engine time in Lordsburg and it was Christmas break, so I had time on my hands. I begged Emelina to come too, and spend a few days in Tucson. I needed to walk on flat sidewalks, risk my neck in traffic, go see a movie, that kind of thing. J.T. could stay with the kids. He was home on thirty days’ probation from the railroad, for the derailment that was officially not his fault. The railroad moves in mysterious ways.
Emelina hadn’t gone anywhere without a child in thirteen years. Out of habit she packed a roll of paper towels in her purse. As we drove out of Grace she gasped for air, wide-eyed, like a hooked fish. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she kept saying. “Turn the truck around. I can’t go.”
I drove westward, ignoring my hostage. “What, you think J.T. doesn’t know how to take care of his own sons?”
“No,” she said, staring at the center line. “I’m afraid I’ll come back and find him dead on the kitchen floor with a Conquerers of the Castle arrow stuck on his head and a fistful of Hostess Ding Dongs.”
By the time we hit the interstate she’d decided it would work out. The boys could go to college on J.T.’s life insurance.
“Oh, they won’t pay if it’s murder,” I said gravely.
She brightened a little. “I always forget. He’s the one that wanted so many kids.”
It was mid-December, fourteen shopping days till Christmas, and by afternoon it was clear and cold. Twenty-two women in winter coats and support hose took the streets of downtown Tucson by storm, in pairs, each cradling a papier-m^ach'e pi~nata in her arms. No one who witnessed the event would soon forget it.
Emelina and I and the truck were more or less set up as headquarters. We parked in front of a chichi restaurant called the Caf'e Gertrude Stein, for the sole reason that it sported an enormous green plastic torso out front and the women felt they could find their way back to this landmark. As soon as they sold their birds, they were to head back for more. Emelina and I held the fort, perched carefully in the midst of our pyramid of paper birds.
A man in a black fedora and glen plaid scarf came out of the caf'e and gave us a startled look. We’d not been there when he went in. “How much?” he asked.
This had been a much-debated question; apparently the Greyhound driver had threatened to stop the bus if the Stitch-and-Bitchers didn’t quit yelling about it. Ultimately we’d been instructed to try and get what we could.
“How bad do you want it?” asked Emelina, saucily crossing her legs. Monogamous as a goose, and a natural-born flirt.
A small crowd of homeless people had gathered on the other side of the street from where our truck was parked. It seems we were by a good margin the best entertainment of their day.
“Fifty dollars?” the man in the scarf asked.
Emelina and I looked at each other, cool as cukes. “They’re made by hand,” I said.
He handed us three twenties and Emelina forked over a plastic-wrapped bird. Its tail bobbed gently behind him as he made his way down the street. I mouthed the words, “Sixty dollars!” and we collapsed against each other.
“They’re made by hand,” Emelina said, eyebrows arched, in perfect imitation of an Empress of the Universe.
Miss Lorraine Colder and Miss Elva Dann came back to the truck almost immediately. They’d enlisted a bag lady named Jessie, who owned her own shopping cart. When Miss Lorraine explained the threat to the homes of Grace, Jessie cried for a little while and then rallied her wits. They were able to pack half a dozen pi~natas into her cart, and the trio of women set out to sell them all in a single foray.
Norma Galvez, in the meantime, lost her partner at a crosswalk and had to be escorted back to the big green naked lady by a bicycle policeman named Officer Metz. In a conversation that lasted only five blocks she’d acquired an amazing number of facts about this man: for example, he had twin daughters born on Christmas Day, and wore a hernia belt. She told Emelina and me these things when she introduced him. Officer Metz was sympathetic, but did ask if the ladies had a vendor’s permit. Mrs. Galvez, a quick thinker, explained that we weren’t selling anything. We were soliciting donations to save our town. Each and every donor got a free peacock pi~nata. In the interest of public relations she gave him one to take home to his twins.
By five o’clock we were out of birds. As it turned out, Emelina and I didn’t make the best sale of the day. While too many peacocks went for only ten or fifteen, Do~na Althea haggled one elderly gentleman up to seventy-five dollars. When the transaction was completed, the Do~na allowed him to kiss her hand.
By the time they were back in Grace on the last evening bus, I was later informed, the Stitch and Bitch Club had already laid plans to come back in ten days with five hundred peacock pi~natas. There would be only two deviations from the original plan. First, each pi~nata would be accompanied by a written history of Grace and its heroic struggle against the Black Mountain Mining Company. To my shock I was elected, in absentia, to write this epic broadside and get it mimeographed at the school. (Miss Lorraine and Miss Elva had retired.) Second, the price would be fixed at sixty dollars. Some argued for seventy-five but the Do~na overruled, pointing out that she couldn’t be expected to kiss every damn cowboy in Tucson.
Emelina and I let ourselves into my old house. Carlo was expecting us and had left the key under the usual brick. The neighborhood seemed even seedier than when I left. There was some demolition going on, with cheerfully nasty graffiti decorating the plywood construction barriers. Our old house with its bolted-down flowerpots stood eerily untouched, inside and out. Carlo had let all the plants finish dying, as expected, but beyond that he’d made no effort to make the place his own. He seemed to be living like a man in mourning, not wishing to disturb the traces of a deceased wife. Or wives.
“This is creepy, Carlo,” I told him when he got home late that night from his ER shift. “Why haven’t you moved things around? It looks like Hallie and I just walked out yesterday.”
He shrugged. “What’s to move around?”
Emelina had gone to bed, trying, I believe, to stay out of our way. She’d kept asking me if it wouldn’t be awkward for us to stay with my “ex.” It was hard for her to understand that Carlo and I were really “exes” right from the start. Having no claim on each other was the basis of our relationship.
I’d stayed up watching the news so I could see him when he got home. He slumped down next to me on the couch with a bag of potato chips.
“That your dinner?”
“You my mother?”
“I should hope not.” On the news they were talking about an ordinance that banned charity Santas from collecting donations in shopping malls. The owner of a sporting-goods store was explaining that it took away business. Rows of hunting bows were lined up behind him like the delicately curved bones of a ribcage.
“You look exhausted,” I told Carlo. He really did.
“I sewed a nose back on tonight. Cartilage and all.”
“That’ll take it out of you.”
“So what’s creepy about the way I’m living?” In his light-green hospital scrubs, Carlo looked paler and smaller than I remembered him. No visible muscles.
“It looks like you’re living in limbo,” I said. “Waiting for somebody else to move in here and cook a real meal for you and hang up pictures.”
“You never did either of those things.”
“I know. But it’s different when there’s two people living in a house with no pictures. It looks like you’re just too busy having fun with each other to pay attention to the walls.”
“I miss you. We did have fun.”
“Not that much. You miss Hallie.” Being here made me miss her too, more tangibly than in Grace. On these scarred wooden floors, Hallie had rolled up the rugs and attempted to teach us to moonwalk.
“How is she? Does she ever write you? I got one postcard, from Nogales.”
“Yeah, we write. She’s real busy.” I didn’t tell him we wrote a lot. We’d revived an intensity of correspondence we hadn’t had since 1972, the year I escaped from Grace and Hallie came into a late puberty, both of us entirely on our own. This time she was over her head with joy and I with something like love or dread, but we still needed each other to make sure it was real. We had to live with an odd, two-week lag to our conversations. I’d be writing her about some small, thrilling victory at school, and she’d be addressing the blue funk I was in two weeks ago when I was getting my period. It didn’t matter; we kept writing, knowing it would someday even out.
“How’s your father?”
“Oh,” I said, “deteriorating. Forgetting who I am. Maybe it’s a blessing.”
“Are you sleeping these days?”
“Yeah, I am, as a matter of fact,” I said, evasively.
“You haven’t had that eyeball dream?”
I’d never been able to explain this to Carlo’s satisfaction. “It’s not really an eyeball dream.”
“What is it, then?”
“Just a sound, like popping glass, and then I’m blind. It’s a very short dream. I’d rather not talk about it if you don’t mind. I’m afraid I’ll jinx myself.”
“So you haven’t been having it?”
“No, not for a while.”
It was kind of him to be interested. He gently squeezed my shoulder in the palm of his hand, releasing the tightness in my deltoid muscle. Not that it applied to us anymore, but people who know a lot about anatomy make great lovers. “So you’re getting along okay there?”
“As well as I get along anywhere,” I said, and he laughed, probably believing I meant “As poorly as I get along anywhere.”
“I’ve been giving some thought to Denver,” he said. “Or Aspen.”
“That would be a challenge. You could sew the faces back onto people who ski into trees.”
“You want to come? We could ski into trees together.”
“I don’t know. I’m not really thinking too far ahead right now.”
He took my feet into his lap and massaged my arches. He had the famous hands of a surgeon, there was no denying it, but I had no sexual interest in Carlo. I still had a slight hope he’d come up with the perfect plan for the two of us that would make me happy and fulfilled, but even that was fading.
“What else could a modern couple like ourselves do in Aspen?” I asked him. “Besides ski into trees, and try to spot movie stars snorting coke in hotel lounges? Aspen sounds kind of fast-lane.”
“After Grace, it would be, yes.”
“Don’t make fun of my country of origin.”
Carlo looked surprised. “I’ve never heard you defend it before.”
“It was a joke.”
“Well, what about Denver, then. Not so fast-lane.”
“Denver’s nice.” I felt the familiar tug of a brand-new place that might, this time, turn out to be wonderful. And the familiar tug of Carlo wanting me to go with him. I’d seen Denver once. It had endless neighborhoods of sweet old brick houses with peaked roofs and lawns shaded by huge maples. It would be a heavenly place to walk a dog.
“Would you ever consider getting a dog, Carlo?”
“They have four legs and say ‘woof woof.’”
“I’ve met this wonderful dog, in Grace. He’s half coyote and he’ll sit for five hours in the back of a pickup truck waiting for you, just because he trusts you to come back.”
“This sounds serious.”
“He’s a good dog.” I realized I hadn’t thought about Loyd all day, which I viewed as an accomplishment. This must be how it is to be alcoholic: setting little goals for yourself, proving you can live without it. When really, giving it all that thought only proves that you can’t. My mood suddenly began to plummet; I’d felt elated all afternoon, but now I recognized the signs of a depression coming. If I timed it right, Hallie’s letter addressing my last depression would arrive on target.
“Shoot, look at that!” Carlo dropped my feet and jumped to turn up the volume on the TV. “That’s you!”
It was. I yelled for Emelina but the spot was over by the time she showed up in the doorway wearing one of J.T.’s shirts, looking stunned.
“You were on the news,” Carlo explained excitedly. “They said something about the Peacock Ladies and then they said something about Southwestern folk art, and they showed you two standing up in the truck, and this old lady in a black dress…”
“Do~na Althea,” I said.
“…holding up the pi~nata, and another lady and a cop…”
“…and I didn’t hear anything else because we were yelling.” He stopped suddenly, looking embarrassed by his enthusiasm. He and Emelina hadn’t officially met.
“Oh. Carlo, Emelina. Emelina, Carlo. An old friend from a previous life.”
I didn’t say which one was the previous life, and which was the present. I didn’t know.
Hallie, what I can never put a finger on is the why of you and me. Why did you turn out the way you did? You’re my sister. We were baked in the same oven, with the same ingredients. Why does one cake rise and the other fall? I think about you on your horse, riding out to the fields in your gray wool socks and boots and your hair looking like the Breck Girl gone wild, setting off to make a new world. Life must be so easy when you have dreams.
I read in the paper that we’ll be sending another 40 or 50 million to the contras, so they can strafe little girls and blow you up with your cotton crop. It hurts to know this; I could be a happier American if I didn’t have a loved one sending me truth from the trenches. You’re right, we’re a nation of amnesiacs. I’m embarrassed. It’s an inappropriately weak emotion. You risk everything, while I pay my taxes like everybody else and try not to recall the unpleasant odor of death.
My life is a pitiful, mechanical thing without a past, like a little wind-up car, ready to run in any direction somebody points me. Today I thought I was a hero. We sold fifty peacock pi~natas to raise money for the Stitch and Bitch Club, which will somehow save the town of Grace. But it’s not my cause, I’m leaving. I have no idea how to save a town. I only came along today because it looked like a party and I was invited. Remember how we used to pray to get invited to birthday parties? And they only asked us because we were so grateful we’d do anything, stay late and help the mothers wash the cake pans. I’m still that girl, flattered to death if somebody wants me around.
Carlo asked me to go with him to Denver or possibly Aspen. Carlo’s still Carlo. He wants to know why you haven’t written. (I told him you’re busy saving the world.) I almost think I could go to Denver. Carlo is safe because I don’t really love him that much. If he stopped wanting me around one day, it wouldn’t be so terrible. I wouldn’t die.
Hallie, I realize how that sounds. I feel small and ridiculous and hemmed in on every side by the need to be safe. All I want is to be like you, to be brave, to walk into a country of chickens and land mines and call that home, and have it be home. How do you just charge ahead, always doing the right thing, even if you have to do it alone with people staring? I would have so many doubts-what if you lose that war? What then? If I had an ounce of your bravery I’d be set for life. You get up and look the world in the eye, shoo the livestock away from the windowsill, and decide what portion of the world needs to be saved today. You are like God. I get tired. Carlo says “Let’s go to Denver,” and what the heck, I’m ready to throw down the banner of the Stitch and Bitch Club and the republic for which it stands. Ready to go live in Denver and walk my dog.
I went out at dawn, alone, to mail my letter and prowl my old neighborhood. I kept trying to believe I felt good in this familiar haunt. I’d brought my city clothes: a short skirt and black tights and stiletto-heeled boots (the sight would have laid Doc Homer flat), and I walked downtown among strangers, smiling, anonymous as a goldfish. There was a newsstand four blocks down where I used to go for the Times or the Washington Post, which Hallie and Carlo would spread all over the living-room floor on Sunday mornings. Hallie would constantly ask us if she could interrupt for a second. “Listen to this,” she’d say. She needed to read it all aloud, both the tragedies and the funnies.
I ducked into a coffee shop that had decent coffee and wonderful croissants. As I sat blowing into my cup I realized I was looking around to see who was there-a habit I must have picked up in Grace, where you looked at people because they were all identifiable.
A man at a table very close to my elbow kept looking at my legs. That’s another thing you put up with when you’re tall-men act like you’ve ordered those legs out of a catalogue. I crossed them finally and said, “See, look, I’ve got another one just like it.”
He laughed. Amazingly, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. I’d forgotten how the downtown scene could be-people cultivating weird-ness like it was a disease or a career. He had a neatly trimmed beard and was extremely handsome. “How Emma Bovary,” he said.
I smiled. “You seem to have lost your syntax. Perhaps you’re in the wrong place. The Caf'e Gertrude Stein is down the street.”
“Well,” he said. “Well well well. Perhaps you could provide me with some context. Do you have a name?”
“Cosima. It means Order in the Cosmos.”
“Cosima, my love, I’m in desperate need of order. If you have the New York Times in your bag there, I’d be willing to marry you.” I had the New York Times.
“I’m not in the habit of marrying strangers,” I said. I was suddenly disgusted with what I was doing. I’d go anywhere Carlo wanted, I’d be a sport for my students in Grace, I’d even tried to be a doctor for Doc Homer, just as I’d humiliated myself in the old days to get invited to birthday parties. If I kept trying to be what everybody wanted, I’d soon be insipid enough to fit in everywhere. I grabbed my bag and stood up to go. I told the man, “You don’t have the slightest idea who I am.”
The second night in Tucson I slept like a child, so drenched in sleep that when I woke up I didn’t know where I was. For a minute I lay lost in the bed, trying slowly to attach the physical fact of myself to a name, a life, a room in a house within a larger place. It was a frightening moment, but nothing new to me, either. So rarely in my life did I truly surrender to sleep that it took an extra effort for me to pull myself out. It felt like slogging on my elbows up a riverbank.
Carlo wasn’t in bed with me, of course; he’d skirted the awkward issue by saying he had a weird shift and might as well sleep on the sofa and not disturb anybody. But he’d had plenty of opportunities in the past to see me wake up confused. He always claimed there was something wrong with the electrical current in the temporal lobes of my brain. He said that explained why I couldn’t remember parts of what I’d lived through, and remembered other parts that I hadn’t. I was attracted to easy answers but mistrusted them too. Carlo’s specialty was the nervous system; he tended to think all human difficulties were traceable to neural synapses gone haywire. And I feared-no, I knew-what was wrong with me was more complicated than what’s wrong with a badly wired house.
Carlo was already gone but left a note, saying to think very seriously about Aspen. It sounded like a joke, put that way, but I folded the note and stuck it in my suitcase. Emelina was cheerful at breakfast. She’d sensed the previous day that my mood had turned black and blue, but she was intent on our having a vacation even if neither of our hearts was really in it. We’d gone to the movies and eaten at McDonald’s, which by Grace standards is the high life. We ordered Happy Meals; she was collecting small plastic replicas of impossible-looking vehicles for her boys. We had enough now to go home.
On our way out of town she insisted that we stop at an obvious tourist trap called Colossal Cave. It was colossal by no means, but a cave. We stood a long time in the dim entry while the guide in a Smokey Bear hat made small talk, hoping for a bigger crowd. There were only seven or eight of us. It must be hard to give your whole spiel to a group that wouldn’t even make a baseball team or a jury.
“So when’s Loyd get home?”
“Friday,” I said.
“That switch-engine deal gets long, doesn’t it?”
“It never seems to bother you,” I said, although I had an acute memory of the night I’d glimpsed them making love in the courtyard.
“Mm,” she said.
“Then again, Loyd might be making the whole thing up. He’s probably got a sweetie in Lordsburg.” Emelina looked startled. “I’m kidding,” I said.
“Don’t say stuff like that. Knock on wood.” She thumped the side of her head.
“Well, it’s occurred to me to wonder why Loyd wasn’t married or anything when I came along. If he’s such a hot item.”
“No. Seeing somebody, but not that serious. Definitely not married. He was once, awhile back, for a year or two, I think. No kids. He didn’t tell you?”
“I never asked.”
“Her name was Cissie. She didn’t deserve him.” Emelina peeled off her Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt (actually John Tucker’s). It was cave temperature down there, only 55 degrees but much warmer than outside, where it was predicted to drop below freezing that night. A woman near us was wearing a mink coat.
“I wasn’t about to leave it in the car,” she said to us, without provocation.
Loyd had never mentioned even a large personal fact like a previous marriage, whereas this woman in mink felt compelled to explain herself to strangers. That’s how it is: some people are content to wait till you ask, while others jump right in with the whole story. It must have to do with discomfort. Once while I was waiting to file off an airplane, a grandmother came down the aisle carrying a doll in one arm and a little boy in the other, and she actually took the time to explain to us all as she passed, “The doll is his sister’s, she’s up ahead.” I could relate to the urge. I remembered all my tall tales to strangers on buses. I was explaining in my own way; making things up so there would be no discussion of what I was really.
At last our guide spoke some encouraging words and the little crowd followed him down into the cave. As he walked he told us about an outlaw who’d ducked in her to hide his loot, back in the days of Jesse James, and apparently had never come out. This was meant to give us a thrill of fear, but it seemed more likely that there was a back door somewhere and the bad guy got away with the money. That’s how things go. I still believe Adolf Hitler is living in the South Pacific somewhere with sanded-off fingerprints and a new face, lying on a beach drinking mai-tais.
Emelina hadn’t seen a cave before and was very impressed. There were delicate stalactites shaped like soda straws, and heavy, hooded stalagmites looming up from the cave floor. She kept pointing out formations that reminded her of a penis.
“You’ve only been away from home three days,” I whispered.
“I didn’t say it looked like J.T.’s,” she whispered back.
The sound of trickling water was everywhere, even over our heads. I shivered to think how many tons of rock and dirt were up there above us. I’d forgotten that caves were not my favorite thing.
The highlight of the tour was the Drapery Room, which was admittedly impressive in size. The guide pointed with his flashlight to various formations, which had names like Chief Cochise and The Drapes. The walls and ceiling glittered with crystallized moisture.
Then, for just a minute-they always have to do this-he turned off the lights. The darkness was absolute. I grabbed for Emelina’s arm as the ceilings and walls came rushing up to my face. I felt choked by my own tongue. As I held on to Emelina and waited for the lights to come back on, I breathed slowly and tried to visualize the size of the room, the distance between myself and the roof that I knew was there. Instead I saw random images that didn’t help: Emelina collecting the little fast-food cars for her boys; the man in the caf'e who’d suggested I marry him. And then while we all still waited I understood that the terror of my recurring dream was not about losing just vision, but the whole of myself, whatever that was. What you lose in blindness is the space around you, the place where you are, and without that you might not exist. You could be nowhere at all.