The Dirty-Minded Maid
“If you wish to find freedom, wake before all others”
From drowsily abed my eyes disengaged from mind watch out the window the Big Dipper rotate against the clock. When it occurs to me that its bowl will skim behind the roof ridges and demolish nothing, I stagger downstairs, belly hurt, collywoggled by last night’s brooding indulgences of the solitaire.
I listen to each note and time stretches out. I am sailing to Finnegaeum, language my own, this tattered coat upon a stick waiting for soulclap, but then what other than song in this mortal dress and louder sung, this dying animal costumed, the golden boughs of Byzantium commending all summer long whatever is begotten.
I am composer, quill in hand, seconds or minutes between each note, the beauty permanent, traced by this Phrygian, Babeled by those finicules of finaglism that would wriggle past God’s obstacles, decalouged in heaven a harlequin pose — how pretty. Worse, though, beauty is, though how does one argue when the orangutans are enfranchised?
Faith says she doesn’t mind. The music does not wake her. And if worries do, then the sound of the music I play informs her of some other concerns, some beautiful. And how beautiful it is, proper tragedy, and why?
I dreamed last night that I came into my room to find the dirty-minded maid and her helpmate friend engaged in wild sex with clean-cut men-boys pudgy. “Are you upset?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
And a conversation ensued. Does God want us to have wild sex? The maid thought yes. I said that if there is a God, He probably doesn’t. He probably wants us to fuck like the Amish.
“So that’s why you are upset?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s because you said you were going to do my laundry and didn’t and now haven’t time.”
Against the season’s swelter of miasma air, I work in the amber light of an unoccupied, unfinished home, pointing a stone fireplace. It is peaceful work, patient work. Ninety degrees, but the mortar sets up very slowly in the febrile air. I keep working, mixing more mud. The acrid scent of the mortar seasons the damp of everything. It’s taste on my tongue is other than pleasant, but I like it. I wash the stones with sponge and never wear gloves. The cement and lime in the mortar are caustic and curl my fingers into white claws. Tiny burns open on callouses softened. I am punishing myself, a psychologist would say. I don’t think so. There is nowhere to go, no one to see, nothing better to do. This is freedom, ruined hands the price. All my life, it seems, I have been here, in the yellow glow of lights inside the homes of others, longing to have such mine, but suspicious of it. My thoughts here are razor like, hard as nuts, without need for justifications or rationalizations. My ruined hands, too coarse for booty, they feel like the truth. The air turns rose, day and light rays stretched to their ends. I sweep the stone and mortar dust from the floor and look from the kitchen and through the rooms to the fireplace at the far end. The mortar between the stones is yet wet, an uncured dark gray. Darkness threatens, but I sit on an overturned five-gallon bucket for coffee, a cigarette, a study of the scene perfectly true there like a knot in the gut. The floors are plywood, all the wood fresh, raw. A Christmas from now a young family will celebrate. Like ghosts I see their smiles, their sweaters, the luster the wood will have, then. I wait for the mortar to set up enough to brush in its texture. This is where I live.
The light grays, says I am finished, and I think of Faith at home, red toenails on her pink couch, how when I walk in the door, if my eyes linger on her face, on the puffs of sag at her jawline, around her mouth, she will look away half a degree more frail every evening I see her, frightened, almost, to look up.
I go into the big dark bar at John Casey’s, thirty seats long. A couple of shits have just walked out on a forty-dollar tab. The barmaid is in tears. She has to cover it. I study her for a bit and think of the economic avalanche that this could start. I know how these things work. You suck it up and go on and in two months they’re shutting off your electricity and you can’t figure out how it happened. I get sad over America, leave a forty-dollar tip, leave, go home for my rooms and books.
Dina is at the tail end of a headache. That was amazing aspirin, she tells me. What was it?
From the three-seat bar at the near end of the long sitting room with three white couches and a wall of pink silk curtaining a bank of French doors, she has my drink without my asking, ashtray too. I sit at the bar and studiously, courteously, avoid eye contact.
I scratch my beard, stone dust falls on the bar. I run my fingers through my hair. More stone dust.
I will not engage her. I will say nothing. This is instinct. I will, however, surreptitiously observe her, everything about her. Can’t help it. She watches me as she fixes herself a drink and sits on the stool far from me. On the seat between she places her purse. Her purse is on the large side and nearly full. Her life takes unexpected turns.
She’s from Byelorus, not sure she wants to tell me anything. She’s in her mid-twenties and thin, thin and round, in the Slavic way. Her hair is thick and dark and short. She has soft, subtle features, no freckles, no age. She wears glasses, a silver necklace, a tight t-shirt red and purple and pink. She is on the short side, though, like a Playboy centerfold, until you’re close, close enough to sniff in her scents, Pine Sol and perfume, a hint of sweat, a hint of snatch, she’s bigger than life, other than life.
“A hundred men,” she says, “have eyes of poet, but only one sees.”
Her mouth, smallish in repose, widens brightly.
“A client tell me is poet and want me to clean his house in nude for hundred extra dollars. Do you think?”
It is a lovely smile she has, warm and tolerant. If she ever has on any make up I cannot tell. She is lightly tanned, a very Slavic face, round, almost plain, a bump on the end of her nose.
God told her to come to America when she was eighteen, but not like that. It was through prayer, the abasement of the self, the ego, every fine thing about oneself, the only kind of religion I understand in my heart — old Catholic, Byzantine, Orthodox. I think of her a girl in a Vitsyebsk church praying next to big pillars, dark parts in the church, a thousand small red candles before Mary on the left and Joseph on the right, gold, robes, stained glass, gruesome, graphic and stylized stations of the cross. I understand. God is a shepherd and raises his flock knowing there is the occasional slaughter. He doesn’t get to close. He doesn’t name his sheep. They bleat out, I am Paul, I am Ruth, I am Sarah…
She reaches for my hand and lightly feels the skin of my finger tips. “Sandpaper,” she says.
“I think it bad.”
Her new helpmate comes down the stairs. The purse is removed and the seat taken and possessive kiss is given and received. I am introduced to Mary, and Dina makes a round of drinks, and Mary looks queringly at me. I nod it’s okay. “He is a stonemason,” Dina tells her. She says it with pride. Mary and my fists meet, bash, like baseball players. She is a tall, wiry, hair full, swoopy, cut up high, falling across her eyes; baggy pants; walks like a little boy wanting to be a fighter.
Mary says she is not finished with the master bath. The last of the laundry is almost dry. The guest bath is a sty. She finishes her drink and pauses on the first step, turning to Dina, who freezes.
“You use guest bath, Tommy?” Dina says when Mary is up most of the stairs.
How did we get here? Dina asks later, meaning sitting next to each other, boozy, leaning into each other, leaving.
There are two distinct essences of true romance, I say. It is dark, our mouths are close. She is afraid of the impending kiss we are falling towards. There is innocence, I say. Rebirth in the eyes of another. The rush to a happy ending. Our lips are so close, mine whispering move hers. I am kissing her with words. You build a dam against the past and live in the valley unchanging forever and ever. The water rises behind you unseen. Then there is the other essence. You leave your dim rooms to go into the evening and pause at the door, a tightness across your chest, the gray sky black-streaked. The wish for sunlight, hayfields, daisies, aprons — is a wish against your own life. Say a poem of your own devising. Make it true or untrue, just so one more step and the river runs. You cannot kiss without a broken heart. You cannot see God any other way.
There is no air.
Her words are of cheating, sexual fidelity. “You have cheated, Tommy?” Her mouth outextends her lips by a centimeter maybe, and I study those thin corners for signs of that downward turn such mouths are prone to. But there is none and in the firm straightness I see that optimistic will that would bid a tarrying sun to rise on her gloomiest mood. She has to go. I have to go. We talk. She calls me Tommy again. “What is love?” she asks.
She goes for the stairs and climbs them like she’s wearing shorts, short and tight shorts. It’ a vibe thing. I can tell. She pauses. I want to follow her upstairs, but can’t. It is bad manners to follow a young girl upstairs.
Plans for the dinner party have gone awry.
Faith and I are tooling around in her Jaguar, arguing. Love exists, I say. It is something separate and like truth and beauty and Plato’s spheres. We see shadows of it only. Faith says I do not believe that. And I don’t, but I argue for it anyway.
She is elegance and refined culture personified. She did it herself, left rural Mississippi at seventeen for New York City, but she is older than me, seven years most of the year, eight years for its end, if she is telling the truth. I catch her before her mirror, pulling her skin taut. Surgery is coming, though it goes against her grain, her principles.
She has just gotten her first rejection, from Random House, via her agent.
“Did you like it?” I ask.
“No — it was awful.” Her agent says she needs to rewrite. A lot of work, she says, as if the very thought of rewriting was not only vaguely offensive but unconscionably wearying.
I tell her about Dina and me.
“Twenty-seven years old, Thomas — what are you thinking?” she says.
I smile. “Love exists,” I say, “something separate –”
“Oh, Thomas. And a lesbian, too.”
Home, she has me sit on her white couch, has my hands in hers. She wants to talk.
I tell her about my trip up into the bayous that noon, to Jeffries – how much I enjoy the place and the people. “Cynthia gave me a birthday present,” I say. “A tree ornament, for Christmas. Her mother made it out of wood.”
“It was. I don’t need anything else for my birthdays. That made me very happy. You want it? I think it’s in my pocket here.”
“Will you make love to me?” she says.
Dinner the following night was beef filets in a puddle of Bordeaux sauce, each topped with a glob of Béarnaise. Odd combination, I thought, but very good, and I must have been happy, because I had desert, shared with Faith a German chocolate cake with drizzled orange sweetness on it — and that was beautiful until she beseeched like a puppy, “Mmm mmm,” and opened her mouth so that I would with my dessert fork give her a bite to savor.
And everyone had a final drink and went back to their hotels and homes and I let Faith go up the stairs alone and stood on mossy bricks of the courtyard telling myself to go in, go to bed with your books, but I pour more Scotch into a glass, return to the bricks. The air is chilly, wet and still. The people are out on Magazine Street. I can hear them moving and searching in the moonlight from two blocks away and would go there if there were something to be got. Instead — a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, splayed in a chair, head tilted back and looking at the moon and the stars — I count the days in my life, backwards from this point, and forward, too, to the end, and compare mine against all the days in the universe and then think of sunlight and daisies.
Wednesday night the moon goes toward full above a warm wind chasing litter and bums down the street I don’t know where. The big buildings of downtown are near. You can feel their gravity, how the earth tilts that way. I am in shadows, seated on the sidewalk, back against brick, forearms on knees, longneck beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, waiting for Dina to ditch her girlfriend. Expectations, though, left my life sometime back.
I sit on the sidewalk, sip at my beer. That moon shines on all that I know, on every step of my life. It is the color of old asphalt, the moon is, but against the black sky it is silvery. It is flat because the rims and walls of craters in the center cast shadows and on the edge they catch light — and every artist knows that is not how to make the illusion of a sphere. I hope Dina does not ditch her girlfriend. I hope she does not return. I wish for her daisies and sunlight and long for my rooms and books.
“Tommy,” I hear.