31 5 / 2012
Old men break my heart. I don’t think this will change as I get older. I can see myself as a seventy-five year old woman still looking upon a man my same age the way a mother gazes at her newborn son upon first hearing his desperate, singular cry. She imagines a pain only she can put to rest. This is what I see in the face of every elderly man I encounter in the grocery store, or the library, or waiting in line for coffee. There’s a tenderness I project upon them, a warm innocence.
The same is not true of old women. I assume they are severe and carry rulers or wooden spoons. I half expect them to tell me my skirt is too short, or that I’m wearing too much mascara. I live in these assumptions, not wanting to know the details that will shatter my generalizations. But the cat I think, the cat desires to know the truth.
The cat is a dignified stray, impeccably groomed. She is a petite calico with a patch of orange below her right yellow eye. Three of her paws are white and when she washes her face, it appears from afar that she is wearing white gloves. She sleeps belly up in the flower bed, as if she’s sunbathing. I laugh to myself, as I watch her from my kitchen window, sometimes I’m so distracted I wash the same glass for five minutes straight. Long enough I hear a squeak. The suds swell between my fingers, soapy little clouds I’m slow to rinse off.
I have no cat of my own. No children. No husband. I have the shiniest glass tumblers you’ve ever seen, though, and a heart that falls apart at the sight of an old man with a curved back, a walker, a straw hat, and a crumbling, pitiful remnant of a voice.
This man is Charlie and the cat has set her sights on him. If it were any other neighbor, I would be jealous. After all, how many nights had I tried to make the cat my own, opening cans of tuna, leaving a trail of cat food right through my open sliding glass door? How many times had I called her in just for her come to an abrupt stop as if an invisible barrier kept her out. I believe the tangible loneliness of my home had become so thick, so heavy, it took up all the space in all the rooms, and the cat could not come in, not even with as small as she could make herself.
No, it was Charlie she wanted, not me. But Charlie, although noticeably amused by her charm, did not invite her in. He would speak to her, and she’d offer up a strange, laughable attempt at a meow. I would watch and grin, and Charlie would laugh a little, but not too much, or else he’d start to cough, and not be able to stop.
“She really likes you!” I finally said one morning.
Charlie turned to me, confused, a little startled. He nodded, but it was obvious he didn’t hear what I said.
She danced between his legs, rubbing up against his calf, then did the same thing to the metal legs of his walker. It was as if to her the device was an extension of Charlie, and every piece of him deserved her adoration.
“Get now,” he said first gently, then again, but this time with the slightest tilt and nudge of his walker, a small threat to show he meant business.
He was only about two feet from his door, and I called out that I could open the door for him, and I walked towards him, and the door, and the cat, and I hoped I could get there in time, hoped that there was something he needed from me, something I could give him, maybe cook him soup, or help him find the remote, or read him the paper. I hoped that I too, could become a petite calico. I watched the small cat with her tiny grace, run between his legs, ready to sprint inside the moment the door slid open.
Instead I froze. I stood watching Charlie slide open the door, watching the little cat lift one paw, and carefully creep forward into a place where she would not need to shrink, but she could stretch, and blossom, could fill the spaces I had yet to uncover.
28 5 / 2012
I forget sometimes that my father was once young and that inside him
somewhere, is a Montana farm boy climbing trees and falling off horses. I
forget that inside him are all the same ribbons and coils that made him,
him. I tell my daughters about Grandpa, tell them how he climbed a water
tower when he was three, tamed a stallion when he was barely five. I tell
them how before Grandma died, Grandpa pedaled a blue ten-speed six miles
a day at age seventy-five, and that he went back to school at age
seventy-eight to earn his GED. My daughters don’t hear much outside their
ipods, don’t see much beyond the abbreviated texts that beep every two
minutes: OMG! LMAO. FML! I touch my four fingers to my belly fat. I take
note of the bumps, the cellulite, the stretch marks that remain even
thirteen years after having carried my twins.
I forget that none of us ever really overcomes loneliness, that it
follows us, and gropes our backs with its sticky fingers. I call my
father to remind him we’re together in this cold, gray vacuum, and that
of all things, it’s our sadness that binds us, not our DNA, not our
family history. But when I hear his fragile voice drowned out by the
television, (Jeopardy, I think) I stop. My father takes his pain on the
rocks. Figuratively speaking, since my dad has never touched a drop of
alcohol. In fact, other than television in the evenings, my father has no
crutch, no vice to dull the senses. His Love has died. He is alone. His
heart beats slower every day while the blue body of his bike collects
rust and other damage.
I forget that everyone has a right to say when they’re done. That
is, without the help of self-pity. I wonder how dad will say goodbye.
Will he be taken overnight like mom? Or will there be other signs, the
giving away of property, final words of advice? I try to decipher the
long pauses over the phone. He clears his throat and I imagine tears. I
feel my neck and throat sink into my heart. But then dad asks, “How old
are the twins?” I look over at my girls, and they’re as clueless as I was
at their age. They won’t know their Grandpa until he’s long gone, and by
then he’ll be nothing short of a legend, the mythos of our family tree.
“Thirteen,” I say, and I tell him, “Tell me who you were at thirteen
dad.” It’s better I think, to talk about the distant past, rather than
this thing we cannot process, cannot accept. His stories take us
somewhere that’s easier to breathe. The words “I love you” are like an
unopened letter or an unpaid bill. But still, I feel us fighting it,
fighting the shadows together.
21 5 / 2012
** This short story of mine was previously published in an anthology by Girl Child Press called “Just Like a Girl.” It has also been posted on A Word With You Press. It is my tribute to my hero, and one of my greatest inspirations, outsider artist Henry Darger.
The Conscience of Spiders
by Kristy Webster
Before I was a woman, I was a spider. My footsteps were silent. Cold, dark places were my home. I took what I needed and left the excess. No one told me what I was. I was born knowing it all, my purpose, my strength, and my prey.
Eventually I tired of the basement’s dank, moldy laundry. I wanted to nest in a higher place, to know the world at a distance, guarding my solitude with anonymity. That is how I came upon the old janitor.
He was called Henry Darger. I spun a web inside his apartment window. Other curious spiders joined me and Henry’s quiet audience grew. His apartment never knew day from night, and no one knew him but us.
We watched him glue portraits of baby-faced girls to watercolor landscapes stretched across the walls, the floor. Henry painted his heroes the Vivian Girls–little girls with penises who fought off monsters and men in military coats. We his spider daughters argued amongst ourselves. Is he a deviant or an innocent? Some decided he was the pornographer gone mad in his isolation. Others like me decided he was a child, clueless of the rules. The only undecided Daughter of Darger silently crawled across a wet painting until she reached the face of an unfinished pig-tailed girl, and blossomed from the child’s mouth like a tiger lily.
Henry’s thick, coarse, and charcoal stained hands are unspoken evidence of invented magic, places lit by his imagination. That’s when I envied the dreaming. Henry, in your dreams do the little girls defeat the evil monsters in the Glandolinian War? In your dreams have you spotted me, your protector of secrets?
Henry’s life took place on pages, tens of thousands of pages. But sometimes words were spoken into the deceivingly empty apartment. One year Henry cursed God for the snow, cursed the church for leaving him both fatherless and childless. These are moments I was tempted to reveal myself, but I knew Henry was a maker, something more than an ordinary man, capable of creating his desired company. I was superflous.
In Henry’s room, there were no empty bottles of liquor or wine, no excess articles of clothing strewn about the room. And in the thousands of pictures piled, stacked and sometimes scattered, there were no traces of Henry’s past, only the traced, drawn and painted faces of his little girl heroines, the pilars of his blooming story.
Henry is a snowflake in hell. My capsule of a body carries the hot poison that could melt him. But I want him to finish and I want the little girls to steal the waves of grass back from the dragons and soldiers. I want to know that the littlest beings can show the Giants the secret places they’ve been missing.
Thousands of water colored pages later, our Henry dies in his sleep. Not on his mattress which was buried in pages, but in his chair, at his desk, still in navy-blue janitor overalls, his hands and head resting on his latest collage of the Vivian Girls, who’d claimed the final victory.
People enter his sanctuary, our sanctuary. Strangers interpret the old janitor’s room. A woman in a pompous yellow hat calls him a recluse. The word rings true, resonates with me. I am the same. I spring towards the yellow to become a star atop the woman’s hat. I am invisible, her worst fear.
Little did I know that once I released my venom into the woman’s skin, I’d be caught and killed and this would be my last life as a spider, a small, unnoticed predator. If I had known that I would be reborn as the very same thing I poisoned, would I have let the strangers interpret our Henry’s works without interference?
In my new body I am a clumsy mess. Now gaudily visible I can no longer disappear into cracks, or make homes of windowsills and curtains. Even houses won’t conceal me.
Though I’m a woman now, I sometimes remember having been very small, and having hung from high places. In my home the smallest, most hidden places take precedence and I welcome silent visitors. The venom of my new existence is Time. I wait for the next rebirth. I ache for a transformation to be once again a selective danger.
14 5 / 2012
My mother told me about a young woman who had a son but no husband. The father was gone. She worked as a maid scrubbing caked mud off lobby floors. She picked up wrappers left behind by children. She carried two buckets of water at a time, up six flights of stairs. Her black hair turned white and straw-like in just a few years. The skin on her hands turned so translucent you could see the blood pulsing beneath the surface. The woman’s body aged so much that passersby believed she was the boy’s grandmother.
My mother told me that this woman worked herself into an old lady, so her son could go to college. She imagined him as a doctor, a business man, a school teacher. She imagined him never immersing his hands in buckets full of Clorox Bleach and hot water. Never scraping gum from under tables, never eating slices of orange off the floor left behind by hurried crowds.
When the boy became a man, the mother took out a schoolbook from many years ago, that she never learned how to read. Inside, she had carved a space where she had stashed the money she’d bled for all these years.
“This is for your dreams,” the mother told him, with tears in her eyes.
He grabbed a few bills from the top, to make sure they were real.
“My dream,” he told her, “is to wander the world, on my own, with nothing but my shirt, and hat. My dream is to dig my hands in the soil, and make my own way. My dream is to walk circles around the world, until the day I find my father. Then I will rest.”
The son put the bills back. He closed the book. He kissed his mother on the cheek, put on his hat, and walked out the door.
The woman threw the cash in the stove. She collapsed and cried so hard, her tears flooded the kitchen floor. The empty book floated to the surface. The woman reached out just before going under. Her wrinkled hand fit the carved out space as if the two were made for each other. Black letters appeared on her fingers and palms, grew into sentences, then paragraphs, and lastly, pages. She still couldn’t read the words. She didn’t need to.