A Private Play

A version of this story appears in the 2004 edition of Oh Georgia! A Collection of Georgia’s Newest & Most Promising Writers.

A Private Play

Kimber: Light and Possibilities

I had been scrubbing Edith Turner’s toilets for eleven years. Not that it’s important, but that’s what I was thinking as I backed my ’65 Ford down the long gravel drive. The pickup was loaded with mop, broom, Oreck and magic solutions of vinegar and lemon rind, and her rusted-out side panels announced my profession in a fancy curly-q design compliments of my ex, Jason, the artist/lumberjack I’d dated for two years. Never mind that he used the letter “K” from my name Kimber to also spell Klean. I hadn’t been dating him for his large vocabulary.

Thursday was cleaning day at the Turner’s, and the last week of the month was “special chore day”. Usually, Miss Edith assigned something like wiping the baseboards or cleaning out the refrigerator, but this week she said it would be something different and that she’d show me once I got there.

When I started my business I had a really weird Monday client—a crazy witch lady up in the woods. One Spring, she insisted on re-stuffing her goose down pillows with hair from her pink-dyed poodle, Bob. Another time the old bat had me play Chimney Sweep in all three fireplaces. I didn’t bring anybody any luck, and I sure didn’t kiss her, but I blew black snot for a week. Not that Miss Edith was anything like that lady in the woods—I’m just telling you about the joys of my job.

Miss Edith was waiting on her front porch when I turned the corner. I could tell she was excited by the way she jiggled around up there, like when she won the John Deere X595 tractor for Mr. T., God rest his soul.

She wore an Aunt Jemima kerchief around her head and red gingham garden gloves—though planting season was at least five weeks away. Miss Edith didn’t look bad for sixty—even up close. She had a little extra around her middle, but was trim by New Hampshire standards, and she had all her teeth. She stood still long enough to wave to me, then went back inside. I unloaded the Oreck, pulled my hair back and tugged on my $2.79 yellow gloves from Tru-Value.

This was the part I liked the most. The moment just before the cleaning. There was something inside me that craved order—a gleaming, spacious countertop, a tidy living room with the magazines forming a perfect fan and the remote sitting just so. I secretly adored the smell of bleach and used little blue toilet fresheners as sachets in my underwear drawer. But I wasn’t one of those crazy people who have plastic on their furniture and silly doilies everywhere. No, I believe in using what you got and keeping it nice. I once saw a TV show where the lady wanted to see vacuum tracks in her living room. No one was allowed in there, like it was some kind of Ethan Allen museum or something.

I stepped into Miss Edith’s kitchen and almost fainted. The big, white-tiled, farmhouse dinette was gone. A shiny glass table with two black iron chairs sat in its place. I wondered how that would hold up to the banging of the grand-kids when they visited, and where she had stashed the old table, because if she didn’t want it— well, I sure could think of a few uses for it at my place.

See, that was the thing with these folks who didn’t clean their own houses, they didn’t know squat about recycling, either.

“Miss Edith! What have you done?”

The beautiful honey oak cabinets had been painted a shiny latex white that hurt my eyes.

“Do you like it? I’m redecorating!”

The simple brass pulls were now chunky silver things that looked like pickles and dog bones.

“Uh-huh. I can see that.”

“I was watching those TV programs, and I figured if those pea-brained Southerners could do it, well, so could I. Besides, it was time for a change.”

It may have been the tone in her voice, or the way she ran her eyes over me, but I knew she was talking about more than new paint and a kitchen set. I looked at my reflection in her shiny new Frigidaire. Did she mean I should change my “Bikers for Christ” t-shirt or the blue suede Earth shoes I‘d rescued from the dump? Maybe she meant I should throw out my maple veneer banquette with under-the-seat-storage.

“Let me show you what I want to do in here.”

Miss Edith led the way, her heels tip-tapping down a newly-bare hallway. What did she do with that nice shag carpeting? And where did she get those red and black ladybug shoes?

“This.”

‘This’ had always been “the family wall”. You know, every house has one, a place to hang that $50 picture of little Jimmy in his nicest shirt, his hair combed with spit and Dippity-doo. Why do Moms send their kids off on picture day looking nothing like they do the other 364 days of the year? It’s like putting a suit on Grandpa in his coffin when we all know he only wore baggy pants and stained undershirts.

At least the wall was still the light blue I remembered, except there was a lot more of it and about a million holes where a million hooks had held thirty years of memories— along with a foot-long scrape where the couch used to be. On the other side of the room were three pieces of new furniture wrapped in thick plastic. Someone had torn a corner and I could see swatches of purple, yellow and red. I’d never seen those colors put together before, except in a kindergarten finger painting by Rory O’Doul. And everybody knew Rory wasn’t quite right in the head.

Now that the room was empty, I noticed a new smell, with something funky underneath, like cat piss and old-man breath. There was a black stain on the hardwood floor from something that must have seeped through the wall-to-wall carpet a long time ago. Miss Edith handed me a sledgehammer and snapped a pair of goggles over her eyes.

“Well?”

I held up my yellow-gloved safety cop hand, and checked behind the wall. Damn, she was serious. The living room was empty, too. Certain spots on the floral wallpaper were brighter than the rest; I could see the outlines of her past. I ran my fingers over the shapes, remembering the dusty eucalyptus swag, the chipped oval mirror and the fake Monet in its swanky gold frame.

I walked back around in time to see Miss Edith raise her sledgehammer. She looked like Martha Stewart on acid—some kind of maniacal Miss Fix-it, I don’t know what—but she pretty much creeped me out. Here I was standing in an empty room holding a sledgehammer, with full permission from the owner to swing away, so what did I do? I knocked the whole damned thing down. And it was fun, too. We hooted and hollered, even yelled a few names while we bashed through drywall and framing. The wall wasn’t supporting anything, and once it was down we had a hard time figuring out why the hell anyone would have put one there in the first place. Now the room was perfect. Just like this. Well, it would be, once we got rid of the debris. And then it would be one big, long, open room full of light and possibilities. I brushed off my sledgehammer and set it down lovingly.

It was probably another week after that before I heard Miss Edith mention Don. That was after she told me to call her, Eddie. Eddie! Can you imagine? This sweet old lady who reminded me of my own Ma, and here I am calling her a name better suited for a refrigerator repairman or a dog.

Bujnowski: Fire and Favorable Chance

I told Sandy she ought to go down the road to see what Vicki and the kids was up to, cause the men were coming and it was gonna be a long one. She’d given me a peck on the cheek and a little shake of the finger telling me to behave, then blew me a kiss over her shoulder like she’d seen them do on the Dating Game years ago. I watched her leave and figured I still loved her, though I hardly told her anymore, then I dragged the cooler of beer out to the field, popped one open and waited for the boys.

Joe was the last to show up, and since he had the burn permit and the whiskey, we waited on him. Our talk grew as dry as our mouths and we slipped into gossip like a bunch of crows around a tire-tracked opossum.

I said, “She came to the store last week looking for a side of beef. Usually it’s chicken breasts, just the breast, no rib, you know? But last week, she wants half a darn cow.”

“Darn? Did you say, ‘darn,’ Budge?”

The guys around the fire yukked it up, repeating, “Darn,” and “Gosh darn it.” And “Golly gee.”

“Yes, Joe, I said, ‘darn.’ I told Sandy I’d try to stop cursing. It ain’t easy, ya know.” I added an armload of branches to the burning Goodyear radial.

“Fuck it ain’t,” Whitey said. This set them off on a bout of knee-slapping laughter, and inspired curses.

I shook my head and took a long pull on the whiskey before I passed it to Whitey. It was a great night for a burn. The rain had soaked the ground and surrounding trees, so fire hazards weren’t an issue. Besides, as the only male members of the Rindge Volunteer Fire Department, we were properly trained to aim hoses and stamp out stray fires.

“Gimme a hand, here.” Joe pulled a small sapling into the clearing. Its branches swept the ground behind him like a huge broom. We had half an acre of brush to burn before sunrise. Me and Whitey helped Joe throw the hemlock on the fire. It went in spitting and sparking with most of the smoke going up into the sky. Course, we’d all smell of it. Never could wash that fire smell out. And a real man wouldn’t want to.

That was what New Hampshire was about. Men being men, and women being, well, it was true the ladies around here weren’t much to look at, but they were handy in the kitchen and I didn’t know one that couldn’t skin a deer, gut a fish or snow-blow a driveway. Shoot, Dave’s wife even laid tile and ran wire. Yeah, it was good up here. Just one thing had been bothering me, and that was the old lady buying a whole side of beef.

“Why would she want that?”

“Who?”

“Want what?”

“The beef,” I reminded them. “Miss Edith.”

“You mean, Eddie, don’t ya?” Richie said.

I looked over at the squirrelly guy in the shadows. Richie was wearing his orange hunting cap, and had the flaps hanging down. With those bags under his eyes and that droopy mouth, he looked like a fluorescent coonhound.

He said, “She sent me all the way to Nashua just to get paint.”

When Richie told one of his stories, it could take days. You’d get the beginning of it one morning at the gas station, another part the next night when he stopped by for a cold one, and if you remembered to ask, you’d hear the ending on Sunday in the church parking lot. Usually by then, you’d forgotten the whole point, and even if you had bothered to remember—it wouldn’t be too funny anyway. The man wouldn’t know a punch line if someone served it to him on a silver platter with a sign saying, “This is the punch line.”

“Yeah, so?” I said, to keep him talking.

“So? It was white house paint.” He downed his Bud, pitched the can in the fire, scratched himself, then continued, “I had to paint the shutters red. Eddie said it’s some kinda Chinese fungus thing.”

“Betty?” Whitey said.

“No, ya dumb f-”

“Hey!” I cut Joe off and turned to the old man. “He said, ‘Eddie.’ Where’s your hearing aid, Whitey?”

“Must of left it at home, but I’ll tell ya, there’s something I didn’t forget.”

“What’s that, old man?” Joe said. “Your diaper?”

We all laughed at that one and then Whitey said, “No, this.” And he leaned over, raised his right butt cheek off the patio chair cushion and let one rip.

“Holy Mary, Mother of—that’s disgusting!” Joe waved his hand in front of his nose. “You been eating that venison jerky again?”

Whitey smiled.

I took this opportunity to drain my lizard. Standing there under the pines, hearing the frogs peeping and the crickets chirping, all was well with the world. In the morning, the wives would send down bed-headed kids with thermoses of coffee and foil-wrapped cinnamon buns to check on us and the smoldering embers. Some mornings you’d see ducks fly in over the pond, and if you were real lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a young bald eagle or a blue heron. Rindge was a nice place to raise a family, though times were changing, what with people moving in from California with their fancy foreign cars and girls starting to wear make-up and low-cut dresses they ordered from some secret catalog.

Changing, like that lady, Edith—I mean—Eddie. She used to be one of my favorite customers, always placing the same order, and waiting real quiet, so you’d hardly know she was there. Guess her husband was a good enough sort. Never ran into him much, them being Catholics and all. But, I’d see them every Fall at the big meat auction and a few times out to dinner in Peterborough. Back then, when Turner was alive and Eddie was still Edith, she dressed regular in jeans and button-down shirts or skirts and brown dresses. And she had real hair, like my wife, Sandy. You know, bangs in the front and a little past the ears. Normal.

Not anymore. Now, Eddie looked like something you’d see on that MTV. Her hair was shorter than mine, and kind of whitish-purple, and all of her clothes were tighter than before and bright as a neon bar sign, so you could see her from real far away, like she was trying to keep from getting lost in a crowd.

I was still thinking about that when I came back to the fire. The boys had loaded on three big logs and were rolling a stump down a ramp they’d made out of tires and branches.

“Okay, let it go,” Joe said, and the guys jumped back as the stump crashed into the bonfire, sending flames and sparks seven feet in the air. The fire was really cooking now, so we moved our chairs back another four feet, keeping the cooler of beer safe behind us.

I looked deep into that fire and figured I had a favorable chance of keeping my wife away from crew-cuts, hot pink pantsuits and Chinese fungus. The Bujnowskis were a hardy bunch, and stubborn, too. You wouldn’t catch our women wearing make-up and push-your-tits-to-your-chin brassieres. No sir, not while I had something to say about it.

Teena: The Glow of Well-Grounded Hope

All us girls were still trying to figure out who this Don guy was. I mean, if there was a new young stud in town, I would know. Not that I’m looking for anyone right now, but I am plugged into my community. Not only as Head Beautician at The House of Beauty, but also as the Treasurer of The Rindge Women’s Club, a Score-Keeper at Methodists Do Bridge, a founding member of EIOL, (English is the Only Language), and a Pampered Chef Consultant. Yes sir, I had all the bases covered. Honey, if walls could talk, they’d say, “Hi, I’m Teena.”

Tonight’s Pampered Chef party at The House of Beauty was just a glorified gabfest. One that involved food, kitchen products, and ladies wearing clothes considered inappropriate for canning, planting, or changing the oil in the Buick. Of course, you were expected to buy something, and the more White Zinfandel I served, the more reasonable it seemed to shell out forty-five bucks for a gel-filled, potato salad bowl with a snap-tight lid. Five more of those would put me in the running for the PC Winter Retreat in Panama City. Get it? PC goes to PC.

“Teena, love, is this the potato masher or the egg slicer?” Marsha Banks said, in her put-on British accent.

They’d left London when she was three, but Marsha still had England in her heart—and on PBS. She’s the kind of woman I hoped to never become, one who uses lipstick like a crayon and fights age by denying herself prescription lenses, dentures and hearing aids, so she goes around with her bad teeth and painted mouth asking lampposts to repeat themselves. Laverne said last Christmas Marsha gave her a box of #9 spaghetti wrapped in birthday paper, with a Hanukkah card addressed to Darling Myron. I hate to think what Myron got.

“Actually, that’s a hair crimper, Marsha. Why don’t you join us over here for the demonstration? Tonight we’re making Lite Meatloaf Extraordinaire with this package of low-fat crescent rolls.”

The ladies were sitting in a semi-circle in front of the pink House of Beauty hair dryers, balancing order forms and appetizers on their knees, holding half-full plastic cups of wine and checking out each other’s footwear.

Jane Bauman said, “I heard she met him at Bingo Night,” then pointed to Kitty’s shoes, “Are those Mootsie Tootsies?”

Kitty nodded and raised her foot to better admire the pink-stiched moc, and said, “Kimber says she’s got Mr. T’s old workshop turned into a beer storage room. Must have ten or twelve cases of imported beer down there.”

“Imported?” Marsha held her cup out for a refill. “Oh, my.”

“Yeah, and in bottles, too,” Alice Reinhart added.

“My Budgie says she’s got the Old-Timer’s.”

“Too much tin foil,” Jane said, which made all the ladies nod and tsk-tsk, as if they knew exactly what Jane was talking about.

“I believe she’s too young for that,” Marsha said, “Perhaps it’s the change.”

“The change, Marsha? Edith went through that ten years ago! Remember? You two are the same age.”

“We are not. I’m only fifty-seven.”

“Fifty-seven, my patoot,” Mrs. Johnson muttered over her Joyful Jambalaya.

The teasing was good-natured, as if by doing that we could avoid saying what we were really feeling—something between “good for her!” and “why not me?” I guess we all had a little of that under our skin that night, and when Edith—the new Eddie—came in the door ten minutes later, we must have looked like deer in the headlights of an eighteen wheeler.

Never in all my days at the salon had I seen someone so gorgeous, even after they left my chair, and I have done some wonders with the ladies of Rindge, let me tell you. Forget about winter, it was too cold to care about how you looked. Customers need me most in the summer. They come in suffering from sunburns, black fly and mosquito bites, sporting green pool hair or the local well water mineral deposit head of orange. Shoot, half of us end up looking like Bozo the Clown. I figure there are only about sixty days of the year I can safely look in the mirror and think, Hey, not bad.

But Eddie, now she was something. To me, she looked like one of those mature models in the Spiegel catalog. The kind who’s lounging on a sailboat, with one hand on the head of a freshly-groomed golden retriever and the other waving at you in her striped boatneck tee and white flat-front capris, her legs tucked perfectly beneath her. She looked just like the Mom you’d be proud to have pick you up at school, would have even hung back and let her park and get out, walk up the sidewalk with that model’s gait, those steely blue eyes and big wide smile. All the boys would look—even Principal Tate—and everyone would think, Teena’s going to be a knock-out, just like her mom.

But life wasn’t like that. Life was more like running through the line-up of cars to jump in the backseat of an old station wagon, then cringing as the car rattled past the cutest guy in school, with Mom in her stained Gold’s Gym t-shirt and black leggings, tapping her chubby fingers on the wheel and singing all the wrong words to “Having my Baby.”

“Hello-oo,” Eddie called.

Her smile showed teeth whiter than I remembered and she smelled great. Not just great, but curly-headed-clean-baby great. We were drawn to her like moths to a lantern, some of us bumping up against her, like maybe the good luck would rub off and we would be as gorgeous, happy, and in love as Eddie. Then everything would be all right, orange hair and all.

She stayed for a while, trying the samples and laughing at my jokes. She made us feel good about ourselves, the way she would ask about family or if the boat was in the water and she even invited me to tour her re-decorated house when I came by with her PC order in four weeks.

“Will Don be there?” I asked.

The whole room went quiet.

“Well sure, Sweetie. Sure he will.”

She dropped her check and order form on the table then waggled her fingers at the open-mouthed ladies of Rindge. “Bye now.”

We watched her drive away in the brand new car, a topless silver Japanese jellybean with two shiny balls hanging from the rearview, swinging in the breeze.

Edith/Eddie: Enlightened by Choice

It all began eight months ago at a Christmas Open House in Peterborough. The snow fell outside in a country postcard way while people inside filled themselves with Hot Toddies and good cheer. She stood alone on the widow/ugly girl side of the room, wondering why she had bothered to come and wishing she were dead, or at least living in San Francisco.

Edith had never been there, but imagined it a place where you could be whomever you wanted to be, live however you wanted to live and cloak yourself in fog twice a day. And then she saw him bend over to pick up a piece of cracker that had fallen out of his mouth and landed on Marsha Banks’ authentic Royal Monarch tapestry. Whether it was the broadness of his back or the way the tips of his ears turned red, he reminded Edith of a boy in a backseat long ago. A boy who had kissed her and told her to call him, Don.

And when he glanced around the room to see if anyone had witnessed his faux-pas, Edith looked right at him and winked. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d winked. But damn it—it felt right—and something might have happened then. He might have smiled at her, or winked back. He might have even walked across that room, thrown down his cracker and taken Edith in his arms, kissing her again just like that night in the backseat of his father’s Chevrolet. Somedays, Edith remembers it that way.

Looking back now, she guessed it was the kind of relationship one would categorize as “adoration from afar”. Not like a teenage girl kissing a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio every night, sliding under the covers naked with his eyes on her, and only her, even though anybody could buy him for three bucks at the Wal-Mart.

No, it was more like a private play. One she, as Eddie, was performing for the people of Rindge. As if Edith had been handed the script, and shown where exactly out of the ashes of the second act, she would emerge. Eddie—born of a wink, nurtured on fantasy, sustained by faith.

Of course, she knew that the man across the room was someone’s husband. She knew he would never leave his wife and marry her, never sit in the living room Eddie had designed for him, never drink the cases of Heineken in the basement. She understood completely that clearing out the garage to make room for his truck was unnecessary, and buying season tickets for two to the Boston Pops was frivolous and foolish, but she also knew he was a part of her.

He was there behind her eyelids when she went to sleep at night, and if she squinted her eyes and pulled at the corners of them a bit, she could see his face in the swirls of the ceiling. He was the part of Edith that took chances. He was the Eddie that got on a plane to San Francisco and never looked back.