Monday, June 8, 2009

Chapters One and Two

(Fabulous bookcover by talented photo-artist Amy Munoz.

The Stairway to Heaven

Chapter One

The Stairway to Heaven

*A month past Christmas, the year is nineteen-seventy-three. Paul McCartney and his wife Linda are busted for marijuana while inflation hits 6.16%. Watergate hearings have started in the U.S. Senate, a gallon of gas costs thirty-five cents, abortion becomes legal and my most excellent resumes are in the mail, putting me way ahead of the other graduating teachers.*

I stand mid-center in my two-room bedroom apartment and pan the area, disgusted to the bone with the accumulation of library books on ‘How to Write a Winning Resume’, drafts of my resumes, marked-up drafts of resumes, my unmade bed, grimy laundry and half-eaten pizza. Even my fingers are ink stained from attaching the new striped ribbon to the roller of my Smith Corona electric typewriter.

It’s time for a break. I leave my blonde hair in the messy ponytail, apply basic makeup, grab my suede jacket and head out to meet friends at a local bar where we sit at a back table eating peanuts and drinking. Pounding tunes from a jukebox and carefree laughter electrify the air.

Groups of college kids saunter in and I feel the sharp wind arrive with them. I am nursing my usual drink—a Tab soda pop, when he slides his lanky body in between the front door and doorjamb, entering alone. Wow, is all I can think. Wow. Wow. Wow. Waves of chills careen through my entire body in the form of goose bumps. This man is, as they say, tall, dark, and movie star handsome with a great smile that shows off his perfect teeth. The two top buttons on his white shirt are left open, revealing just enough of his chest hair to make it interesting. Oh yeah, he wears dark slacks and a tweed jacket too, a stark difference to the sloppy jeans and t-shirts everyone else wears.

Mister Perfect saunters over to our world, I mean table, and just like that sits right down without being invited which I find totally ballsy, yet so appealing. His magnetic powers are strong, rendering five gabby girls totally speechless. He talks to everyone—except me. I take this as a sign of something, so I act like I don’t care much and even consider leaving since I might as well be a piece of furniture. Then it happens—we make eye-contact. My heart stops for a beat of a second while I stare into his icy blue eyes. I feel drawn to him like a magnet to a refrigerator door.

“Is anyone here a senior?” He looks around at us.
Hands rise. I put mine halfway up, just above the table line.
“Congratulations to you all. I hope everyone finds job satisfaction. We all have our niche; our own little spot in the world where we belong. Remember this; the most important aspect to any profession is to know how to get along with others—how to make people agree with you.” He smiles a cocky smile. I find no fault in it.
Truly, his words are smooth as silk. Dad calls men like him slick talkers; that he is. Not only that, but he smells good too—fresh—like winter air. I can only hope I look dazzling with my shoulder-length ponytail and lips that never leave home without gloss. Now I wish I had worn something other than my bell bottom jeans and day-old sweatshirt with a faded UW Whitewater logo branded across my chest as though I’ve just come from an all-day study session.
“I am a first-generation tractor salesman.”

He speaks to me! I am totally delighted. His readjusts his chair until it’s angled in my direction. His face is gorgeous and open. A dazzling smile sets on his perfect lips.

"I've never heard of a career choice put in those terms," I giggle pathetically as though I were still in middle school. I shake my head at the same time releasing the clip from my ponytail. My hair swirls around my shoulders. He notices.

"Are you really an angel?" He touches my hair as though it was made of spun gold.
For the next hour he impresses us with his salesmanship stories of selling more than three specialty tractors to farmers in the county just this week alone. One of my friends drinks too much and says she needs to leave. The others take her home, but I stay. By the stroke of midnight, I am the only female left standing, er, sitting with Mister Perfect. He doesn’t seem to mind that my sweatshirt is covered in peanut shell remnants. He finds me “brilliant,” “creative,” “intelligent,” and also “beautiful.” Never before have any of those words been pinned on me. I have always felt ordinary times three—that is, before MP walked into this particular bar in College Town and made me re-evaluate my entire soul.

The corner bar closes. He walks me back to my place where we say goodnight on the steps leading to the building’s front door. MP seems shy, respectful. There is no fire-rendering scorching kiss, just a sweet peck on my cheek with the promise of tomorrow—I will see him again. What a wonderful person, I decide, closing the door to my apartment. Okay, so I want a scorching kiss, but hey, the peck is nice. My mother would certainly approve. The thought occurs to me I might have bad breath. I cup my hand over mouth and when I inhale, I smell peanuts.

I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, listening to sleet pelt against the window, knowing that by morning there will be layers of ice sealing it shut. On this side of the window is my desk and all my school books, my transcripts, and my letters of recommendation; everything I am proud to call my own. In the midst of academic excellence I target a goal of the personal kind—to be kissed by Mister Perfect. I better get my lip gloss ready.

I roll onto my side and think about his lips, wondering if he uses them as an artist sculpting his masterpiece with an easy stroke and detailed precision, or if he presses hard like a jackhammer tearing up cement. The thought keeps me awake for hours. Well, maybe not for hours. Maybe just until about two-thirty when I fall asleep but it is the first thing I think about in the morning while brushing my teeth.

*These memories are burned into my brain cells. I circle these compulsive images like a predator stalks its prey, remembering each one in isolation. They are etched and absolute. Years later, knowing now what I didn’t back then, I have often considered the repercussions of choices. Had I stayed in that night instead of going out, if I had gone to the bar on the other side of town, if I had been the one who left with my drunk friend that night, then the next several chapters would never have happened, and today my life would be at a different place.*

Chapter Two

What’s Going On

*When I was twelve, I worried that I was going to grow up to be ugly. My eyes turned almond shaped, like my mother’s. My lips were narrow, seemingly frail, dotted on either side with dimples that resembled parentheses. I feared my nose cast a shadow. My arms and legs were gangly. My body was budding in weird ways. Boys began to look at me peculiarly as though they were waiting for me to ripen. *

Today Mister Perfect drives over in his shined-up Grand Prix—with his grubby laundry. I stand at the door, pouty-faced because I am thinking, What a jerk.
“Get your laundry and follow me to adventure.”
It’s then I notice those icy blue eyes of his hold a mischievous quality. There is definitely a drawn-out lingering smirk plastered on his face. I narrow my gaze at him and feel a smile of camaraderie tugging at the sides of my mouth. In a nanosecond I decide to play along. “Okay,” I tell him coyly, amazed at the feelings he stirs inside of me.

“Good.” He turns on his heels and heads back outside where I imagine he’ll wait.
I pull out a dresser drawer and transfer a stack of clean, neatly folded clothes into a little suitcase. No way am I about to put my soiled clothes on display for him to ogle. Humming—I lock my apartment door behind me and take two steps at a time down to the street. The day is brittle and gray. Snowflakes float in the air, giving the feeling of being inside a snow globe.

MP is feeding coins into the meter where his car is parked when I approach him. “We're not taking your car?” I ask, my voice catching in my throat. Already my ears are branded red from the gnawing wind.
“Do you like Coney dogs, Mari?” he asks in a philosophical sort of way like my answer is somehow important to him.
The thought of eating ground up left over parts of an animal’s innards wrapped in cornmeal and deep fried in oil gags me. Seriously. But since I was raised to be polite I can still answer truthfully, “Never had one.”
“Ever been on a train?”

I open my mouth to answer affirmatively. There are lots of good things I can relay about my train traveling experiences but a bus is pulling up to the corner and he doesn’t wait for me to respond. MP spins about, kisses me on the forehead and hurries to catch the bus, leaving me behind. I stand there worrying he will get on the thing without me. I am wrong. He makes the driver wait and then waves at me, hollering, “You better hurry, Mari! This is the gateway to our adventure!” He sweeps his arm out until it is fully extended, reminding me of a scene from a black and white movie.

I take a deep gulp of air, swallowing hard and begin my tip-toe ballet across the frozen sidewalk. Impatient faces stare from the windows. I wave, trying to look friendly, trying to keep my balance, trying to not embarrass myself by falling. Never have I been any good at navigating across slippery surfaces of any sort much less running on ice. I hurry as quickly as I can, slipping a bit, shifting the handle of my suitcase from one hand to the next, doing my best to maintain poise and I make it to the bus without landing on my backside and without making the driver late for his stops.

All is well as I make it inside the heated bus. Then it lurches forward. The propelling motion shoots me down the aisle like a marble causing me to flail my arms, knock people in the head with my suitcase and scream, "Whoa!" My jet propulsion is broken when I slam into an immovable object—but the football player barely notices my impact. I peel myself off him and there, seated calmly at the back of the bus, I find MP. He asks me if the football player is my boyfriend since we had an intimate conversation.

"Saying 'excuse me' isn't much of a conversation, intimate or otherwise," I let him know and then I watch the buildings pass as the wheels roll us over snowy streets. MP kisses my cheek and I look up at him. He winks and I melt as fast as the ice on my shoes.

“What’s this all about?” I ask, unable to keep from releasing a smile, feeling positively giddy, loving my life and taking it out on my elfin-like suitcase by hugging it against me.
“This is about having a ‘best day’. We’re going to hop the train to Madison and wash our clothes at a Laundromat.”

He is cheerful.
I am puzzled.
“And what’s wrong with the Laundromats right here in town?”
“You’re too practical! Dream a bit, Mari.”
I bristle because I want to be a dreamer, too.
“Some look at the world and ask, 'Why?' I look and say, 'Why not? I ask you Mari, why not go to Madison and wash our clothes?' What's the holdup?"

I don’t want to answer but I am prodded into giving one because of the way he is looking at me. His self-confidence makes me feel silly and immature. "Ohm-mm," I hum, holding onto the one-syllable word much too long. "No holdup."
"Good. Right next door is a Coney dog joint; best in the state!” He holds out his arms as though he were taking a bow. There is no applause. I am wondering if I should just go ahead and clap for him but don’t.

At the back of the bus, the heater isn’t work so well, in fact, it’s freezing here. My toes are numb. I want to ask MP why we aren’t taking his car to Madison—a simple question, but I press my lips together instead, deciding to wait and see how the day unfolds. After all, if this is a true adventure then I have to be ready for whatever comes. I want to impress, so I decide to stop being a cynic.

The bus comes to an abrupt stop and the backdoor automatically folds open. The wind barrels inside and whips my hair into my eyes. Three men and a boy exit onto the sidewalk. The next stop belongs to us.

The station is at the end of a crowded street that dead-ends a few blocks from the lake. A blast of smoke rises from the under-girth of the engine, spreading horizontally over the tracks. We buy our tickets and then board the train, sinking into the seats. A man with a briefcase rummages through it; out comes a watch he straps onto his wrist. A mother holding a young child on her lap stares curiously out the window, as though deciding what the day will bring.

MP leans over and whispers into my ear. "I’m going to tell you something but I don’t want you to answer. Not now, not today, but someday. Okay?"
I nod.
"We belong together."
I feel the joy rising on my face, my breaths comes in short spurts. MP reaches for my hand and holds it tightly. He has a key and has put it into my heart. If he turns it, and it opens, I will belong to him forever. I must admit, it's scary to feel like this so quickly.

An hour later, I discover there is a catch to this adventure. I’m doing the laundry alone, both his and mine. It’s hot in the large room, and I’m becoming hot under the collar—excuse the cliché—but I am. MP sits across the way, far from the rumbling machines, on one of the orange plastic chairs by the front windows. I imagine its cooler there but it’s just a hypothesis since I’m trapped in the back by large, heated machinery.

Relaxed, one leg crossed over the other, he pages through crinkled magazines that have been read by hundreds of other customers over the years. I hear his laughter crackling and popping like clothes spinning in a drier.
“What’s so funny?” I raise my voice to be heard above the din.
He rattles the movie magazine in his hand. “It says here that Love means never having to say you’re sorry—crazy. Saying you’re sorry is the foundation of a good relationship. Don’t you think so, Pretty Girl?”

I shrug. By now my joy has faded like old blue jeans. Ten dollars and seventy-five cents is what it cost me to wash and dry our clothes. Added to it the price of the train tickets we split, coming to Madison sets me back in grocery money, one week’s worth. I pause from folding his T-shirts to look at MP. He is distorted, floating in my tears. I want to ask, “Why didn’t you pay for my ticket to Madison? Why can’t you wash your own clothes? Is this what you call adventure? You're no tractor wizard if can’t you do better than this.” But of course I don’t say anything, I just wash, dry and fold our clothes in silence, holding back a heap of disappointment, all the while wanting to go home. Finally, I sit but my plastic chair is yellow. I chose a different color on purpose, away from him. MP sees me and moves down next to me. His arm goes around shoulders and he tucks me into his side.

“As soon as this load is dried, we’ll be done.” I remain stiff.
“Good! I’m hungry for a Coney dog; how about you?” He sets the magazine aside.
I don’t face him; rather I watch him out of the corner of my eye. When I tell him I’m not hungry, I lie. The real truth is I am famished but don’t want to pay for anything more. My parents pay for my education but food and living expenses belong to me.

I drop my gaze to my lap and begin to twist the edge of my sweatshirt between my fingers, saying nothing as my mind tries to adapt to the fact I am being used. Trickles of sweat start down my face. It’s steamy hot in this place despite the brittle cold and ice I see through the window. However, it is a bit cooler here by the windows. My hypothesis is proven.

A couple walks in and starts their laundry. The man appears to be a Viet Nam vet. He has one leg and uses the crutch as though he is learning to walk all over again. He wears an old army jacket over jeans; one pant leg is pinned up. I try not to stare.
The young woman's beautiful hair falls down her back like a shining cascade of golden waters. It goes to the middle of her back and appears almost as a cloak. I watch as she nimbly clips it up on her head before stuffing a machine with sheets. She falters for a moment to look first at MP and then at me. She smiles before going back to her wash. I suddenly envy them and don’t know why.

Our laundry is done. MP has clean clothes and mine are clean yet again.
We sit at a small table at the Coney dog joint. One of my chair legs is shorter than the rest so it wobbles every time I move, an added irritation. He eats. I don’t. He squirts mustard on the length of the dog, and then adds a line of onions. I watch every bite of the Coney dog MP takes. He makes slurpy chewing sounds. Not attractive. A bit of mustard falls on his shirt. I stare at it, wishing I could lick it. My hunger is making me think crazy thoughts. There is no more jingle in my pocket but plenty of growl in my stomach. I try to envision the inside of my refrigerator and want to go home.

Thankfully, an hour later we are back on the train. I watch the lights go by outside the window and suck in my gut, trying to forget the wonderful smells of the Coney dog and how tasty it looked in the golden fried batter sleeve. I was completely surprised by how much I yearned for it. Today I learned two things: flattering words of affection cannot always be taken seriously; and, when one is very famished, any food will look tasty—including ground-up pig innards wrapped in cornmeal and deep fried.

Later, we are back on my street, standing in front of my building. His shined-up car is right where he left it but now there is a parking ticket under the wiper. I slap my hand over my mouth to hide my smirk.

“Pretty Girl, I had a good time today.”
I watch as he tosses his ticket into the trunk like a Frisbee, followed by his clean clothes that I washed, dried, and paid for. The trunk is slammed shut.
“Goodnight,” I say softly, holding my suitcase with my rewashed clean clothes by the handle. I am on the top step about to go through the doorway and into the building when he yells at me to wait. I stay but I don’t turn around. Right now my hands are shaking and I can’t tell if it's from anger, hunger or the bitter cold.
I hear MP’s footsteps rushing up behind me. I don’t want to be kissed. I don’t want to be touched. I want to erase this day.

“I almost forgot. Here.” He shoves something into my pocket.
When I get inside my apartment, I turn on a lamp and set the suitcase next to the couch. I reach into my pocket and pull out a one hundred dollar bill. Is this a big tip for the laundry girl or his way of making things right again?

*Almost forty years later, I have become an artist, painting the gaps of my life with the things I previously fought hard to forget. As I remember, it explains the person I am today. To this day I hate the tang of mustard but I still love the color of blue.*