Saturday, 18 October 2014

Fiction Editor's 3 Favourites - What is Reflected by Susan Rukeyser



The third of my three favourite stories from my time as Fiction Editor at The View From Here is 'What is Reflected' from Susan Rukeyser. There's no order to my three choices - I like them all as much as each other. I chose them because I could still remember, with each one, how I felt after reading the story for the first time.  

I chose this one... just because. Just because I was gripped from beginning to end.


-------------------------------


There’s a secret in there.

In fact, there are several. Each wrapped in plastic and stacked inside the commercial freezer humming against the far wall. It’s an old, horizontal model, the kind with a glass top. Printed across the front: Freezing in the Goodness.

***

I secured Mac with some of the bungee cords my husband left behind. I said, “Think about Jazzlyn.”
“Who?”
“My friend. The pretty one. The young one.”
Ah yes, he remembered.
I shut my eyes and hoped he’d do the same.
When we were done it was dawn. Bands of light poked in through the vent near the ceiling. I remembered the things he’d said to me earlier, before I got him thinking about Jazzlyn. Suddenly I felt every one of my fifty-four years. A weariness flooded me, and a shyness that was more like shame. I retrieved the blanket bunched down at the foot of the bed and covered myself.
Overnight, it seemed, New York slipped from summer to fall. The shed’s concrete walls intensified the cold but Mac didn’t mind. He fell asleep, his breath deepening to snores. He was still tied up and happily spread-eagled, his big belly resplendent. In the pale light, I could see the hair thatched at his chest and groin was quite gray.
All over me, I felt his stranger’s fingerprints like bruises. He hadn’t given me one compliment. I was sobering up.
Next door, I heard the security gate roll back as my neighbor arrived hours before the gallery opened. He liked to get in early to make calls to European clients. That space has been leased by one gallery after another since the 70s, when I inherited the building from my Dad. In the 50s, when the SoHo cast-iron district had deteriorated to a neglected maze of vacant buildings, my Grandpa Pioter saw an opportunity. A former textile factory, the building was crumbling and stood beside an empty lot that invited all manner of crime. He bought it. He fixed what couldn’t wait and rented to artists, mostly. He moved into one loft himself. Grandma stayed in Brooklyn.
He left the building to Dad, and when Dad was dying of throat cancer, Dad willed it to me. I was still just a teenager but he made me promise, “Keep it so long as your mother is alive.” When she died the next year of breast cancer, I took it to be an uncharacteristic display of devotion. Maybe she couldn’t bear life without him. Maybe she couldn’t bear losing her reflection in his eyes.
I barely remember selling the building. I was nineteen and grieving and dazzled by the big check laid on the table in front of me. They were buying up the whole block, they told me. The buildings and the empty lot, too. I told them I needed to keep the old loft, I had to live somewhere. I told them Dad built that shed on the empty lot. The shed stayed, and stayed mine, or no deal. I watched their shiny shoes beneath the table as they tried to talk me out of it.
I didn’t know what I was signing over. I didn’t know how wealthy that building could’ve made me, if I’d just held onto it.
The neighborhood is still full of artists, of course. The younger ones stride past me, exhilarated by ideas and turpentine fumes. To them I’m just some middle-aged woman. A little rigid, maybe. Vulnerable. They don’t know my history here. What I’ve seen. The art I make.
Mac breathed heavily and wetly. I didn’t recognize those lips at all.
He shifted around and then with a snort he was awake. His unfocused eyes took me in. I was a stranger to him, too. Then he smiled.
“What was her name, again? Jazzlyn?” He chuckled, more of a wheeze, and told me to untie him.
It said a lot about him, that he assumed I’d do as I was told.
My husband left behind more than bungee cords. He left all his drywalling supplies, some rope, and a metal box containing an assortment of tools including his father’s leather-handled hunting knife. He wanted to move to south Florida, he said. He was done with walls and with the city, too. He wanted an open horizon. He wanted to buy a fishing boat and run tours. He invited me to come along but I knew he was done with me, too.
“I’ll untie you soon,” I purred into Mac’s ear, like he was in for a good surprise. I got up from the bed and walked to the laminated shelf my dad put up to hold his Ludlum paperbacks. I wrestled it off its brackets and brought it down across Mac’s skull. I worried maybe I’d swung too hard, but he kept breathing. A purplish lump rose from his cheek but I don’t think I even broke his nose.
It’s been ten years since my husband left. I imagine him living in a nice bright Florida condo, beige wall to wall and a view of the Intracoastal. I wonder if he’s happy, now.
Sometime in all those years he must have remembered his daddy’s hunting knife. He must have decided he’d rather sacrifice it than deal with me one more time.
We wouldn’t have lasted, we were all wrong, but I miss him. Some days.
I saw the knife lying there, in the metal tool box, sharp as ever. I ran my fingertip along the blade. It won’t hurt you if you touch it right.
Instead of the knife I chose a black marker. I went back over to the bed and studied Mac like he was a sketchpad. I drew stars around Mac’s nipples. They puckered reflexively. I drew an angry face on his stomach, making his belly button its nose. See, I do make art.
I understand when the shed gets tagged with new graffiti. Inside some of us, the chaos builds. You have to release some now and then.

***

“You know that old lock won’t hold,” said the young woman who appeared beside me one dark evening last winter, as I wrestled my key out of the shed door. Her name was Teeny, she said. Her face was clean and bare, her hair a yellow tangle. She was an artist, I knew immediately. Distracted by the world’s beauty, she didn’t have much time for her own.
Backlit by the streetlights, Teeny’s hair looked like a halo. I haven’t been to church in forever but I still recognize signs.
             “People wonder what you have stashed in here,” Teeny said. “Antiques or whatever.”
“Not all old ladies collect antiques,” I said.
Teeny laughed, a relaxed, friendly sound I don’t hear much these days. I figured she was from upstate, maybe a dairy farm. She was no city kid.
“So what are you selling?” I asked. “Locks?”
“I do metalwork,” Teeny said. “I need to get my stuff seen,” she added, blushing at the ground. “Right now I’m working with steel tubing. I have this idea to design custom security gates for buildings around the neighborhood. I like your shed, how the graffiti makes it something more. I already know what I’d put here,” she said. “They’ll look like sun rays. Or an embrace. Maybe knives. Something dangerous that keeps you safe.”
Maybe Teeny spent her childhood summers following a blacksmith from barn to barn, watching him bang red-hot horseshoes against a portable anvil. Whatever her story, she was far from home. I snuck a look at her hands. Lean, bony fingers, filthy nails. If she was my daughter I’d get her a gift certificate for a manicure at the medi-spa. I’d tell her to ask for Jazzlyn.
“I have a guy who gets me cheap steel tubing,” she said. “You’d just pay for materials.”
Teeny said she was hoping to get some press for her installation. In any case she’d get photos for her portfolio. Then she and a friend were leaving town, off to California. They planned to sublet a workspace near the beach. The details seemed blurry. I wondered if her friend was a man.
“The gates stay, though, right?”
“All yours,” Teeny said. “Promise.”
I am the ghost of my young self. I was never beautiful, so in my face there is no tragedy, just disappointment. But whose face doesn’t have some of that, fifty years in?
I inhabit a place the young don’t think they’ll ever be. A place they don’t want to be. I’m invisible to most of them. I try not to take it personally.
Teeny saw me. She looked right at me as she teetered on that icy sidewalk, breath pluming into the night as she waited for my answer. Of course I told her to go ahead. We shook hands and I noted the strength of her grip. Teeny would make her art, release some of her chaos. Buy a hope-soaked ticket to California. I’d have security gates I didn’t really need. There was nothing in here worth stealing. Nothing but secrets. Several, sealed up tight.

***

I pulled nylon cord tight across bungee cords already holding Mac’s ankles and wrists. He bled a little but I wasn’t worried; that old mattress had seen worse. I did consider a more drastic measure. I even drew a dot in the center of Mac’s palm and got out a hammer and a long nail. I’ve lost my faith but I was raised Catholic and sacred images still have an effect. Imagining a nail run through Mac’s hand was too much, even for me.
Dad wired the shed for electricity, more or less to code, when he ended up living out here. He gave Mama the loft to be alone in. Years before he’d built the shed for her. In 1965 he rented a cement truck because he’d decided to build Mama a study. That’s what he called this place, a study, as if he intended a wood-paneled office with velvet chairs. It was simply a place, apart from our building, where Mama could go. He meant it to be a kind gesture, romantic, even: He understood, she wasn’t like other wives. For her it didn’t come naturally. She was a loner. He loved her anyway.
I was only about six at the time. I knew none of this. I’ve filled in blanks. I’ve figured it out.
The windows were already in place when Mama came tearing out of the building. Pointing at my dad from the sidewalk, she screamed, “A prison! My husband thinks he can put me in a prison!”
Everyone on the street stopped and stared. Dad sighed.
By the time Dad moved into the shed, he was retired from the hardware store. My brother made his escape years earlier. He moved upstate, to the Adirondacks. Something to do with trees. I’d have left too, but Dad asked me to stay. I enrolled in beauty school.
“The mirrors,” Dad explained.
Mama filled the loft with them. She drove out to Long Island for antiques, to Brooklyn for flea markets and New Jersey for overstock bargains. Sometimes she’d even head up into the Hudson Valley, searching out yard sales. She wanted each mirror to tell its own story, not just hers.
Dad brought in a bed and chest of drawers, a hot plate and a mini-fridge for the beer Mama wouldn’t let him keep in the loft. She said beer bloated and aged a face faster than anything. She was right, but I still drink it.
I took one out then, popped the tab and took a long swallow. Mac was still out but I didn’t know for how long and I had a lot of work to do. I was thirstier than I could remember being.
Maybe Teeny vandalized this shed, with the others. The layers of paint overlapped, the colors shifted with the seasons. I wonder sometimes if more color is what Mama needed, not her own face reflected back from infinite perspectives. 

***

That night in 1965, after Dad got Mama calmed down and settled into bed, I joined him in the kitchen. “Mama’s too sad to cook,” he said. Still in his overalls, Dad heated three TV dinners, one for me, two for him. Mama didn’t eat much when she was sad.
Dad said, “My grandfather came from Poland. Do you know where that is?”
I told him I’d learned it on a map but maybe forgot.
“Once, a long time ago, he told me a story. He never shared it with anyone else, not even my parents. Just me. Now I’m sharing it with you. My grandpa Pioter, your great-grandpa, met a young woman as they stood on line for inspection at Ellis Island. He was there with his brother, they’d all just arrived.
 “Like him she was Jewish and tired of war. Tired of waiting for more bad things to happen. For two years she sewed and mended dresses for rich girls, saved her groszy in a can. Her parents were both dead and her brother in prison, so she sailed here alone. She was pretty, Pioter said, dark hair braided like rope, skin so pale it reminded him of winter back home.
“Pioter said his bowels were sick from the crossing but he didn’t let on. His heart thumped through his coat and he loved her already. But the officials were suspicious. They pulled her out of line and told her to follow them. She was a young woman traveling alone. Too pretty.” Dad looked down. “Pioter lost track of her, but then, finally, as he and his brother were about to leave, he saw her sitting on a bench. The lapel of her coat was marked with chalk: LPC. ‘Likely to become a public charge,’” Dad explained. “An inspector stood nearby and she said in English, holding up her hands: ‘Worker’s hands, see? I am a seamstress.’ The inspector frowned. ‘Be grateful they don’t think you’re a whore.’ 
“Pioter almost stopped. He told me he wanted to stop and sit down beside her, push aside that braid, whisper some comfort. But his brother had a hand on his elbow, steering him towards the exit. And Pioter worried if he made a scene they might send him back to Poland. He couldn’t go back, not then, with jobs waiting for them at their cousin’s tile company on the Lower East Side, and a real fiancĂ©e for Pioter waiting in Brooklyn.
“So he left. He didn’t stop. He watched his shoes walk out the door.”
Dad looked at me, as our dinners began to smell good in the oven. Turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes. I was hungry and wanted to ask how much longer, but I knew Dad wanted me to pay attention.
“Shame is harder than grief,” Dad said. “It only gets worse.”
The beautiful seamstress was why Dad wanted to build Mama a place of her own. Her sadness made her mean and she pushed him away, but Dad remembered Pioter’s story, told to him only. (As if it was fair to burden a boy with such a terrible secret. Didn’t Pioter realize it was terrible?)
Dad would not leave Mama behind.  
He said, “The day my grandpa Pioter died, a withered and sharp-tongued old man, he told me to help him put on his boots. He said they were the same pair he wore when he landed at Ellis Island. They still had Polish dirt in the soles. Some things he took good care of.”
The turkey and mashed potatoes weren’t as delicious as I thought they’d be, but I ate them up anyway. The next day Dad bricked up the study’s windows. “We’ll call it a storage shed. No need for windows.”

***

With the marker I outlined the bags beneath Mac’s eyes. Mac was still out cold but I told him, “They can remove these, you know. Outpatient surgery. And Juvederm would plump these out,” I added, pushing the marker deep into the furrows framing his mouth. “Botox would erase your frown,” I said, digging into his brow. “I can’t believe you didn’t know.”
I crawled up and down his body, drawing slimmer contours at his waist, beneath his chin. I circled his wrinkles, his sags and old scars. I circled the tufts of hair on his shoulders and the bald spot on his head. Then I put down the marker and, yes, I got the hunting knife. The blade was curved, for separating an animal’s pelt from its meat. With quick strokes I sliced off the moles polka-dotting his torso. The ugliness fell from him easily.

***

“Mirrors on every goddam wall?” Dad yelled, over the thump of my mother pounding another picture hook into plaster. She and Dad argued a lot, not just about mirrors.
“Be quiet,” Mama said. “You know I have trouble keeping track.”
She had coppery hair twisting down to her bosom and eyes that shifted from brown to green when she was melancholy, which was often. She had high cheekbones like a statue, I thought. Her lips were dark as cherry juice.
Mama hated being told she “still” looked good. Or good for her age. She remembered what it was to be a real beauty, a pink-cheeked blossom to be admired. She remembered faces turning when she entered a room, that taste of power. As a girl I watched her at her vanity, applying cucumber cream in slow circles. I thought, “I’ll never be that.”
Listen, it’s just fact. Some of us are born with a tin ear, a deviated septum, a black heart. I’m plain-featured and dumpy. Better burdens than some.
As Mama’s beauty wilted, her glances at mirrors became urgent. “Proof I’m here, at least,” she said with a tough laugh, frowning at her reflection. “I’m a storybook witch,” she said. “I’m here to contrast with beauty.”
 “So take the damn things down,” Dad grumbled, getting up from his chair. “So don’t look.”
Dad bought the freezer off the owner of a deli going out of business. He fried up steaks on a hotplate, alone in a windowless storage shed that could’ve made a nice study. 
Mama said, “I won’t have meat in the house. He knows. To me it smells like death.” Even frozen solid out here in the shed, she said she could smell it.

***

Mac saw me right away. When Jazzlyn and I stopped in for a drink after work, as usual she was quickly surrounded by young men flushed with testosterone and beery confidence. Jazzlyn is a striking beauty with skin like caramel, blue eyes and freckles. Her cheeks and lips are plump as a baby’s. Everything about her is ripe.
Those boys didn’t see me. Mac did. He sauntered over and I took him in: Fiftyish, big. Large wire-framed glasses. No wedding ring, although that wasn’t a deal-breaker. A weightlifter’s bulky upper body with skinny legs. A man who can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time, I thought with dismay. But he had enough of a belly that I wouldn’t feel too self-conscious about mine.
Mac bought me a vodka-tonic and leaned in too close. “I’d ask if she’s your daughter but you’d probably call me an asshole,” he said.
“Probably,” I said, sipping my drink. It wasn’t always like this; some men pretended to flirt. I said, “Jazzlyn and I work together at a medi-spa.”
“Oh yeah? I’m a trainer, so I guess we’re kind of in the same field. Self-improvement, right? I compete,” he added, flexing his bicep in a way I knew I was supposed to admire. Instead I took another sip of vodka. The cheap tonic left a bitterness on my tongue. It probably wasn’t always like this for Mac, either.
He said, “Some of my clients are getting that outpatient lipo, you hear of that? They say it don’t even cost that much for a chin.” He stroked a finger under mine, along my slack jawline. I wanted to be the sort of woman who would stand up and walk away.
We both knew Mac would rather have Jazzlyn but couldn’t. We both knew he could have me. His finger stroked a need in me that only built higher, the longer it was ignored.
He leaned in close: “God, your friend is hot.”
I tried not to look at my reflection in his glasses.
The medi-spa used to be a salon that did a few facials and brow waxes in the back. The new owners brought a dermatologist on board and sent us to workshops to learn how to assist with chemical peels and injectables. Botox to relax muscles, electricity to wake them up. Blue light for acne, red for age. Cold therapy to shrink, collagen to plump. Electrolysis to banish hair under arms and between legs, Latisse to grow eylashes so long clients laughed they had to trim them to wear glasses.
We were expected to take advantage of our employee discounts. But I had at least twenty years on Jazzlyn and the other girls. With me, gravity was insistent. Lines cast shadows. Things drooped. Time was having its way, as it does.
I was put on probation. They asked, “Are you aware of the size of Jazzlyn’s client list?”
Mac asked if I had a place we could go. I brought him to the shed. I didn’t want him in the loft. I sucked in my belly as we undressed in the dark.
“Prickly,” he said, running his tongue from my knee to my hip.
He was heavy but I liked it. He smelled like a stranger. He ground his mouth on mine as if he was angry. He rolled me on top of him and kneaded my waist with his hands. He said, “My church has Zumba every Thursday. Weight Watchers too, I forget what day. Good health is a blessing, trust me, I’m a trainer.”
“So you said.”
“I could get you in shape.”  
Sometimes being seen is worse than being ignored. Sometimes even a plain-featured, dumpy woman reaches her limit. Sometimes the chaos inside builds too high. I sprang from him and fetched the bungee cords from where I keep them under the bed. Before he knew it, I had one of his wrists secured to the bedpost.
“Bossy,” Mac said with a smile.
“Think about Jazzlyn,” I said.

***

Mama thought meat smelled like death and maybe we had that in common. I tried not to think about that while I worked on Mac. I tried not to see him as blood and meat but rather a sum of disappointing parts. Like he saw me. Like my new bosses did.
I took another slurp of beer and lifted one of Mac’s eyelids. He was coming around. I exhaled slowly. It always helped me relax, releasing a little chaos. Mac insulted me, but certainly I overreacted. What made me so sensitive all of a sudden?
Morning light pulsed through the slats of the vent. By now the traffic and birds were going. I just wanted Mac gone. I wanted to be alone.
When Dad was dying, he said, “Remember what I told you about your great-grandpa Pioter?”
I didn’t, until he reminded me.
“He should’ve married that young seamstress on the spot,” Dad said. “People did that at Ellis Island, sometimes. Engaged couples separated by an ocean finally met and exchanged vows before leaving together, before being allowed to leave. Maybe Pioter thought Americans weren’t the types to believe in love at first sight.”
Dad spoke too rapidly, unused to conversation. By then Mama didn’t speak to him much. She didn’t do it on purpose; she simply didn’t hear or see him. It wasn’t angry silence, more like disinterest. Or exhaustion. Or boredom—whatever it is that ruins marriages.
“Pioter should have married that girl on the spot and kept her safe as those damn boots of his.” Dad said. “Take care of what I’m leaving you, okay? Hold onto it.”

***

I’m an invisible woman, never beautiful and worse by the year. But I know how to get a man out of my bed. As Mac stirred, moaning as he woke, I looked through his wallet. I found his license, wrote down his home address.
I found an employee ID for a gym called Faith N’ Fitness. The logo was a cross turned into a cartoon man flexing muscular arms. Mac wouldn’t want me talking to them. He’d keep his mouth shut for his own sake. What little damage I did to him would heal.
“You won’t tell anyone,” I said.
Mac groaned and started to pull at his restraints. “My fucking head, what did you do?”
“I know what school she goes to,” I said, holding up the photo I found in his wallet, tucked behind credit cards. It was him, cleaned up and smiling, standing with a neat blond wife behind a gangly, big-toothed daughter in a high-school basketball uniform.
“You stay away from my family,” he warned, pulling harder at the cords at his wrists and ankles. He squinted from pain. The purple egg at his temple was ugly, but nothing permanent. He looked down at his naked body, at the tiny smears of blood, the black marker outlining each flaw. “What the fuck? Let me up right now. Give me my shirt.”
“I know your address, Mac. I copied it down from your license. I know your real name is Michael. You don’t want this to go any further.” I found some Band-Aids and stuck them anywhere I saw blood. “Keep your mouth shut and so will I.”
“This is assault.”
“But you’d have to explain about the cheating,” I said. “To your wife and your job.” I held up his business card. “To your daughter,” I added. I didn’t feel good about that. I wouldn’t ruin things for Mac unless he forced me.
I offered Mac a beer but he refused.
Slowly I unwound the bungee cords and rope. I started with his ankles to see what he’d do. He lay still. I helped him sit up. I poured some beer on a rag and tried to scrub off the black marker, but he slapped my hand away. His palm still had a big black dot. He reached for his shirt and quickly pulled it over his head. He seemed calmer once he was covered. He pulled on his pants and sat back down on the bed to tie his sneakers.
“Fat psycho bitch,” he muttered.
Next time, who knows? Maybe I won’t mind the smell of meat.

***

I didn’t see the gates Teeny made for me until she revealed them on installation day. She told me to trust her and I did. Who knows why: maybe just because she saw me. She needed something from me that I could give. Maybe because she didn’t seem to notice her own beauty. Maybe I just liked pretending she was my daughter.
            Teeny took lots of pictures. She sent me one—the one I pasted at the top of this story. She never knew the secrets I hid behind those gates.
To this day, Mac hasn’t told. He probably thanked God for getting him through his ordeal. He probably thanked God for his neat blond wife, and for the man he saw reflected in his daughter’s eyes.
Mac left me a few drops of blood to remember him by. They make me think.
I’m a lapsed Catholic but I understand the relief of confession: I kept Mama’s mirrors. Every single one of them. I told my brother I sold them and I gave him his share. I wrapped each one in plastic and stacked them out here in the freezer.
Sometimes, when I’m alone and Teeny’s gates have me locked in tight, I open the freezer. I run my fingers over the mirrors. I don’t take them out; I’m afraid they’ll shatter. I know I should unplug the freezer, but I worry a thaw might bring out the stink of death, all that long-ago meat. So I keep it cold.
Teeny and her gates got a write-up in the Times. She left for California, left behind this city with its history and secrets. My gates stayed right here, like she promised.
I’m okay, alone with Mama’s mirrors. I think of all the women considering their reflections, going back countless generations. Women punished for too much beauty. Women mourning the loss of its power. And women born plain, wanting an explanation.
I think of my mother, pulling at flaws, searching for proof of herself in mirrors because she couldn’t find it elsewhere. Now the proof is safe with me, wrapped up tight.
No one is invisible, not really. We’re each reflected in someone’s eyes, maybe forever.

###




Author's note
: By chance I passed this fascinating SoHo doorway, a tourist in a city that used to feel like home. Of course I had my camera so I took a snapshot. The low concrete structure seemed defiantly out of place. The gates screamed for both attention and privacy. I imagined an explanation for them which became “What is Reflected.” The real designer of these gates and the building’s inhabitant is Hadar Metal Design. I am grateful for the inspiration.


About the Author:
Susan Rukeyser writes stories because she can’t stop. Believe it, she’s tried. Most of them are fiction. Her work appears in PANK, Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Metazen, Foundling Review, The Mom Egg, and elsewhere. She won the 2011 Hippocampus Magazine Contest for Creative Non-Fiction. She can be found here:
www.susanrukeyser.com



Image: (c)
Susan Rukeyser