Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Two Girls For Every Boy, by Mary Biddinger

They lied to you, and they lied to me, and they lied to the store clerk that nobody needed a gun around there, to every housewife in a long skirt who lingered too long at the front window, not checking her hair but adding up the dimensions of the property for rent. They lied into their own mouths and then they swallowed it. Back then such things were possible, the same way a carload of losers could unload and unload until half the school was on the lawn and everyone tangling to the point that limbs couldn’t be identified.

Imagine a job behind a counter with three dusty mini fans blowing up-skirt and still that did nothing. All local girls learned to make a potholder on a small plastic rack. It was a rite of passage, the girl with the most even potholder weave assured a life that involved crying over the wrong size plastic bags or a sudden desire to drive a car into a grocery store. The girl with the second-most-even potholder weave was guaranteed a place at the bottom of a ravine somewhere out of town. After that, they stopped awarding ribbons. It was unseemly. Everything was. The way a girl would have to lie about thinking armpit hair was sexy on a man. The photographs mandated by Town Hall, everyone lined up as if in a family reunion, except the few sent to stand behind the library and eat shaved ice out of paper cups.

One day a man just wanted to destroy a bathroom, and who could stop him? When he was a boy his grandfather took him fishing in all the places where it was forbidden, and he thought of this when he decided against bailing the toilet before shattering it with a sledgehammer. It was an upstairs bathroom, and outside the window he noticed a pear wedged in the gutter of his neighbor’s bungalow. This was not his favorite body shape on a woman, so he ignored it completely and wondered how much the antique tiles could fetch at a swap meet. Only he was not the type to attend a swap meet, and this word was not in his vernacular, but slipped into his mouth somehow like somebody’s pinkie, a faint taste of lime on it.

His favorite body type on a woman was the type that kept falling from the trees every mid-April, and he would have to sweep her up and burn her, and even when she burned she was the same shape, which was somewhat like the song the lady downstairs played on her piano in 1978 when she had too much vodka on Wednesdays, only halted when the cabbage started to boil over and the whole building became a crypt. When she wasn’t issuing from the trees, the favorite worked at the liquor store, proud of the gradual glaze she was impressing upon her corporate-issue polyester apron. She made a point of ringing up all of his items incorrectly, to be playful. When she saw his car pull into the lot she’d start warming a penny in her hand. As a transfer student from upstate, she had never learned to make a potholder on a rack. Sometimes the penny got pretty hot.

The new toilet was in the living room. They had lied to him about it. It wasn’t supposed to be some modern low-flush contraption, but in reality they didn’t make them any other way. As a child he tested his demons by accompanying his father to the hardware store and doing his best not to try out the floor model toilets, projecting a stream onto the wooden floor below. That floor looked like the one they ripped out of the historic one-room schoolhouse when somebody spread a rumor about radon. All of the mothers got out the nit comb, not knowing what else to do. Of course it was a lie, but the gas station built in its place had both men’s and women’s restrooms, where sometimes a veneer of blood would shimmer in the toilets of both at the exact same time. Nobody considered this to be a miracle.

He most despised the shape of an eggplant, and would make no mention of it, but it existed. Sometimes it was the color of a birthmark on a cheek, or a wine stain on a wall in the stairway. His neighbor had a variety of vegetables in his yard, but no eggplant. If you followed the same alley north, you’d reach the commercial district, and not that he considered romance in terms of plumbing, but there was something majestic about certain external fittings, even if his favorite type was the opposite of a standpipe. Once in a while, she who was not a standpipe stepped out the back of the store for a cigarette, because isn’t the favorite always doing something with mild peril, like dropping her new purse into a fountain? The favorite would have her own catalogue of imperfections. She’d tell lies sometimes. That she was from somewhere other than upstate, and had an uncle who was her exact twin. That she had no idea how to define the word finials.

At this point the woodgrain pickup truck filled with losers stopped circling the block and halted in front of an ice cream joint blocks away. Still, in his mind he revisited the martial arts of his youth. The favorite teetered near the standpipe, in the way that favorites are always about to tumble into something blunt. On his way down the alley he’d passed the real estate office, its humble offerings scanned daily by so many potential housewives. Some day he would take his whole house apart, and then leave it. Perhaps he would sell the best brass embellishments to an antique dealer, because something had to be saved. That pear would grow no tree in the gutter, and the oaks wouldn’t come back in April. They would be long gone and goodbye.

Mary Biddinger walks the line between good and evil in Akron, Ohio, where she writes, edits, teaches, and takes pictures of inanimate objects. Her photographs interrogate everyday items in the hope of finding their hidden motivations and passions. She has a particular interest in standpipes, tissues posed like swans in the grass, and traffic cones that have trouble hiding their excitement. You can find more of her pictures (and words) athttp://wordcage.blogspot.com.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Naming of Things

We walk slowly.  Buying time. The studio is not far from here.

We are huddled close under one umbrella, shoulder against shoulder, hands stacked one on top of the other, gripping the handle. Rain is tapping and tapping just above our heads.  Henry, her English pointer, is in the lead, nose to the ground, pulling hard against the leash. We have been talking about family.  Heritage. Names. The naming and not naming of things. Testing our own resistance.  

"Counselor of Wolves," I say, "My name means counselor of wolves."  I can tell she has raised her head up from watching the sidewalk to look at me. 

"It fits," she says, still looking at me, still thinking about what I have told her.

"My dad had a book on the origins of Anglo-Saxon names," I continue, without looking up, answering the question that always follows at the announcement though she has not yet asked. "On hot summer days, my sister and I would to go down into the basement and lie on the floor in my dad's study to read to each other from his books.  Once, we looked up the names of all our friends and wrote them down and memorized them.  When we saw our friends the next day we called them by the meaning of their names.  We didn't tell anyone why we did it until the next day and we showed them the book. I don't know why I still remember that."  We walked in silence for a few more yards. "We tried to teach ourselves Latin, too."

She laughs.  I smile.  "It's true," I say, after a brief pause.

"I know it is," she says.  And I know she knows by the way she says it.  In earnest. It catches us both off guard that we have managed to come this far so fast. She laughs again, to break the silence.  To take our minds off what we've both been thinking.

She's been bottling things.  Mostly beetles.  A "friend" of hers sent her a bottle of Paris air for her collection. She keeps it in her purse.  She has her hand in her purse and is holding the bottle now.  I can hear her rings rattling on the glass as she moves her palm over it. A dream deferred, of sorts.

She stoops down to eye a beetle Henry is sniffing at on the sidewalk before us. She hands me Henry's leash and gets down on her hands and knees and nudges the beetle with her finger.  It takes a couple of steps away. The giant mandibles jutting from its head are menacing looking.  I stay standing. She rises to her feet, fists punched to her sides. 

"Still alive," she says, unable to mask her disappointment, eyeing the beetle intently, as if it might roll over on its back if we watched just a little while longer. She is considering taking it with us. But we have nothing to carry it in. I can tell she is thinking about the bottle in her purse.  

She's obsessed with Joseph Cornell. Compartmentalizing the world around her. It is a way to feel safer in the world.  To see how easily it fits in little jars. Her studio is lined with them.  The windowsills.  The shelves.  The desk.  The chairs. She's even begun to line them against the walls on the floor. Most of the jars are clear.  Some are light blue or light green. We stopped at a garage sale just a few blocks earlier.  She eyed some old mason jars but bought none.

Looking back behind us, in the direction of the sale, she fights the urge to take the beetle with us, and with the wave of her hand, she brushes the thought off, as if to say,  It's just as much about the jar as what's inside.

She turns to look at me, the rain beginning to mat her hair down.  She is smiling.   We are smiling.  I nod my head to the side, to usher us forward. Henry, anticipating my move, tugs on the leash, pulling my arm out before me.  She looks back down at the beetle then back at me. She pulls the jar from her purse, unscrews the lid and holds the jar upside down to let the air out, shaking it after holding it inverted for a second or two, to get every last drop out. 

She squats down, placing the container before her prize and nudges the black creature forward into the jar. I am amazed at her boldness. I always have been.  She holds the jar up for me to see, then fastens the lid, glancing at me for my reaction.  I am peering into the jar, turning my head one way, and then the other, watching the beetle try to climb the slick glass walls.

"Shall we?" she asks, slipping the bottle down into her purse. She takes Henry's leash in one hand and my hand in the other. It is the first time we have walked like this. "You don't think that was cruel?" she asks moments later, addressing my silence. She is looking at me.  Waiting. 

"No," I answer, after a moment's pause.  "I do not." Her hand relaxes in mine.  She swings our arms the rest of the way. 

When we reach the studio, we hang our wet things over the radiator to dry. The heat emitted is low because of the time of year.  She lifts the jarred beetle from her purse and sets it on the floor.  No signs of life.

The rain is finally letting up, the sun drifting cautiously across the floor to where we stand. Henry shakes himself dry, then sprawls his wet body out on the cot against the wall, urging us to rub his belly. And we do. Our hands touching Henry, our eyes fixed on each other.

"We will soon drift off the edge of the map," she says, nodding matter-of-factly, prophetically. "We will be insatiable."