That winter – when it was still balmy enough to leave open the heavy doors of the vacant lake resort where she was caretaker – she found a blue-checked blanket, a moldy songbook and an old dulcimer in a storage room. She sang old ballads in a rickety voice. They were songs about stalwart men leaving on long voyages and the women who waited, patiently, years, for their return. The women had to pass tests before the men would admit whom they were when they returned. In the songs, the men offered no explanation to the faithful women about why they'd left. Whaling, she figured. Wanderlust. Gold.
By the time she learned the longer ballads, the lake had iced and she put on skates and rounded it slowly every morning. There was no one for miles except an old man she barely knew who lived at the end of the road and walked each night with an interchangeable series of black-faced dogs. Soon the season would clear and others would come and her job as caretaker would end. She had for years worked these jobs, gone from abandoned place to place. She found winter wherever she went. She left no trace. Who would remember how she had stoked the fires and brushed the snow from the chairs and breathed the very loneliness from the air?
She looked up one night to see the old man beside her, a large box under his heavy-coated arm.
Do you know what's in here? He shook the box. The tufts of hair curling from his hat were laced with bronze and his skin was ruddy as if he consumed too much heavy, greasy food.
The old man sighed at her ignorance. Can't you guess? Guess even!
She cast her mind through possibilities. What would someone carry to her over the snow?
Postcards, the man said. He dipped his hand in the box as if it held moist sand. She remembered now leaving the box outside the resort as trash. Someone had collected them for years. The postcards dated back to distant, formal times, when it was more prudent to write a card than to phone.
Some never delivered! The old man said.
The people who had addressed the cards left the resort before mailing them. They were discovered in desks, or behind doors. Each of the cards sat in a little box sent from a man cavorting with a mistress, or a fevered, lonely child. Wish you were here, the cards proclaimed, before the hungry cliché swallowed the words forever.
I knew, the old man began, sitting in a folding chair without invitation, a woman who mailed a service man a postcard and accepted his proposal. Yes, she wrote just that one word–
He stopped and pulled from a knapsack a tiny silver flask. When he passed it to her, she tensed her throat with anticipation but it was only lukewarm apple juice.
–He never gets the postcard though. War. One thing. Another. Moves around what have you. So what does he do? Guess. Guess even!
He never marries.
Oh he marries. He marries some one else. Doesn't love her the same but she's there! Says yes to him right in person. Now some thirty years pass, postcard from the first woman gets delivered! Old marine friend sends it on. Found it in a box. It happens. But guess what that man does. Guess even!
He goes and finds the woman? He leaves his wife?
The old man shakes more snow from his boots.
Nah. That woman – oh she's long dead. Cancer.
And the man?
Pretty soon – well – pretty soon wife is gone and – he's all alone.
This time she was silent. She reached into the box and pulled from its depths a lacy card. A woman with yards of faded red hair. The hair was looped in bewildering ways, like the writing on the card that had tapered to almost nothing. Denver, She made out. Summer rains. Ernest's berry trees.
Strange thing, the old man said. He scratched a place above his right ear. Strange thing. Maybe the man was lucky. Marrying the other woman.
She looked up from the card.
Because the first woman was a fantasy. But the second woman was his life. If he had the first, she'd have become the second. And he had both.
The old man clapped his hands together. He was not wearing gloves
and his hands were raw and chapped.
She sat forward and listened to the wind swipe the lake.
I've been – I've been – fantasy, she said and she laughed.
A bird on the wire!
Once. She pulled her knees under like a teenager.
Once I took any dare.
I climbed a water tower with suction cups–
That'd be something, all right.
–I lived at a beachfront house in the right season. Summer. I took care of children. The children were foreign.
Children. How many children?
At the seaside? Must have been rich.
Oh yes. Yes.
(Four rich children. Two whispering to dolls and sand. The smallest imprisoned in her pinkish crib. Her crying sounds like: paprikapaprikapapkika. The au pair worried about being sent back to icy Vancouver because the child is crying and cannot be soothed and the mother has chided her twice about smoking and the next time will not be indolent warning but will strike at the heart of things like a snake. She wants to stay with this light family and their unpronounceable names. She is sure not one of them has ever owned a down parka or been forced to travel through a smelly underground tunnel to the supermarket. She is sure none of them have ever been to a supermarket.
Besides the parents smoke themselves. A great deal.)
Everyone has had a time, the old man said, taking a swallow from his flask. There was perhaps– He wiped his mouth delicately. – a boy?
No. No boys. The father would come off the landing and wave to me. And I wore a new strapless red bathing suit, just the top, and khakis shorts–
(The khakis carefully mangled to look careless.)
–So few clothes! The old man marveled. He looked down at the layers he wore: thermal shirt, scratchy wool, and thick socks.
It was always hot! She stretched her arms above her head, the ghost of arms that carried children, groceries, and the future. Haven't you ever lived where there was no need for clothing?
The old man shuffled his feet. Beyond him the frozen lake shone in the moonlight like an empty tray of sweets.
Honeymoon, he said. Niagara Falls in the summertime. One night she calls my name from the garden and I come running outside to see what was wrong and she's wearing just a little robe and she takes it off her. She's beautiful in all that warm air and I tell her and she says – thank you. Soft like that. Then she pulls me down to the grass. Warm even in the night.
Both virgins, she said scornfully.
(The father always wears a jaunty little hat with flaps over the ears, striped pants like a sailor and pink-kid gloves. He resembled a painting she'd seen of a group of foreigners standing on a dock brightly dressed like birds. You could tell somehow they were foreign. His pink-gloved fingers fluttered, creative fingers, although all he has made so far are children, four of them, dressed in the colors of quick-dying flowers. When the father is silent she can imagine him returning to her in the evening, lighting a yellow pipe, pulling a book from the mantel and read aloud to each other and – she skipped past, she doesn't have a clue what a foreign man would read – but then night and the time he would remove her scant clothes – or even better, stare at her again the way he has through the smoky little window of the small town cafe, not clear enough through the glass to tell anything beyond pale gloves he once pressed against the glass. But this time the gloves will seem to be breathing, the fingers pulsing rapidly. And she will move her chair from the table deliberately, pushing the table closer to the window with a high-lifted leg. And she will pick up the mug again and cradle it between her thighs. The gloves on the window will begin to trace a slow circular pattern. She'll hike the mug higher. She'll feel the heat radiate through her. The gloves will tap the glass slightly as she tarries, moving the mug down one soft limb, then the other. The gloves will press harder against the glass and she will press her own hand against the glove, then lifting her skirt over the scene she'll places the mug against her vulva and cross her legs tightly three times. Paprika, she’ll call out to the father through the smoke: paprika!
paprikapaprkaparika the little girl cries happily from the house and the father strips off his pink gloves and his shirt and his shoes and gathers up the child, slowly meandering his beautiful body into the shining, welcoming sea. With his daughter. His rose.)
Yes. Virgins. Lovely times, the old man said.
She watched the ground. Swirls of snow layered the old man's worn brown boots. Without any hesitation, it was snowing again. She pulled the blue blanket to her, the thin fibers unraveling from one end.
(The father plunging into the water like he was finding Atlantis and the mother watching from the dock. The mother does not cry out. Taking the pink gloves from the ground and holding them to the sides of her face. Picking a strand of tobacco from her tongue. Very round and sexy, although there is a hint the mother will be fat someday. And with her tranquil lidded features she will look, all in all, like a turtle. But sexy.)
The snow has reached the steps. She would have to shovel the walks again in the morning. So would the old man. She slipped her hand back into the box of postcards. It would take a long time to decipher them with their curly writing and odd punctuation – Shirley – Pearl – Bronson – Willie boy – Ethel, but she had time. She fanned them in front of her and shuffled them like cards. There were so many lives. You could send postcards from anywhere. You could be in Istanbul wondering where to purchase tamarind seeds or in Eau Claire Wisconsin helping old grammy bake black forest cake in an old oven with faulty heating and "an ancient sprocket" or in Napoleon, New Jersey looking for a runaway boxer puppy with brown spots and a "sweet temperament" or in Tampa, Florida sunning yourself on a white hot beach where you burn like "a strip of bacon" or in Portugal helping a young girl with dark curls and "winking eyes" gather up lost apples, or at a sea resort watching a father dream of grown girls playing in calm waters. You could be biting into one of those apples waiting for something to surface from the clear water you'd be thinking nothing would ever again be quite as delicious as that apple and you wouldn't know it you wouldn't ever know it but you'd be right.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/anapol.html]
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