She shouldn’t be here. If she was the kind of woman who used common sense with a creative twist to solve her problems she’d be blocks away, on the train, headed to the house with its verdant shutters and two cats snoozing on the windowsills. Bernard would be lurking about even though next door, waiting for her to run up the three steps to her front door so he could rant or gossip or cry on her shoulder. He found her manner and words reassuring, she imagined. Mariana felt his loneliness shifting between aggravation and a bleak reminder of her pull to wounded creatures. But never said so, except to Tater and Gawain. Pitiful, she was already a cat lady at thirty, yammering her secrets to each fluffy, noncommittal countenance. They had to listen–or pretended to.
But it was Friday night and here she sat, staring not at the goblet of wine but at the round paper coaster beneath it. It reminded her of her own boxed and forgotten coasters, then of doilies, those lacy white decorations that adorned her grandmother’s mahogany buffet and chests of drawers and side tables. She closed her eyes and saw the shadowed rooms, how the dust lept up as she passed through an errant stream of light. How her nose took her to the kitchen where everything reflected the truths of “Cook of the World” and “Bread is Love of Life.” Those words of praise and gentleness were embroidered in bright floss, framed at the far wall by the swinging door. She had made them at eleven years old for Christmas gifts. She, Mariana, was daughter of her grandmother’s wayward daughter named Delilah. Delilah made it big then forgot to visit but was the one who paid for her mother’s needs until her clutch on life released its grip, thus providing relief for that ardent but “too ultra daughter”. That’s what Grandmother Cort called her when angry: “My too ultra (rich, risky, artsy, out of control, irreverent, fill in the blank) daughter. My missing daughter.”
And after all was said and done, Mariana got the house, the one she hadn’t yet returned to this evening. Oh, there was more but it didn’t matter, it was not and could not be her grandmother.
She got over the worst grief since time passed on and with it, the random tsunamis of suffering and technicolor insertion of memories that had seemed the glue of her identity. Mariana missed Grandmother Cort in the way that one misses steady, friendly heat during chill weather or the swing and fall of living voices. They had grown apart while she was in college, then Grandmother Cort had called on her two years ago and she had returned. Her own mother she missed very little (she was across state, five hours was rather close). The feeling was mutual.
But most of all she longed to be sitting in her living room with a whole bottle of wine. Or two or three. Here she was anonymous. No one cared if she drank or if she looked smart or who she was related to. In this corner bar just off 11th Street and Hay she was nobody of interest, certainly not known as Delilah Cort’s kid, the artless offspring of an ecologically focused, famous performance artist. Diving through flaming hoops beneath a gigantic red and purple moon that emitted plaintive calls of dolphins. Human hair jacket worn to a fundraising party to save foxes and wolves. A six-foot tall and long sculpture of shells and stones, seaweed and driftwood that floated down the Columbia River, then was sunk and returned, dissembled, to the ocean.
It was all very titillating and thought-provoking and like an echo it had always boomeranged off Marianne’s life. In self-defense, she became a middle school English teacher. The students were more interested in the latest teen pop artists, their touchy complexions and sports. And, too, their inner problems and possibilities. They wrote what they felt and it didn’t feel so intrusive or demanding as her mother’s ideas. Her mother’s headlining life.
“Another?” The bartender with the cleft chin and soul patch held the attractive bottle of chardonnay at an angle, teasing her with more.
He smiled and poured. He knew her by now, though not by name yet. She had been coming off and on the last couple months.
“Want to order any food yet?”
Marianne shook her head. The idea wasn’t appealing even though her stomach rumbled beneath voices and clinks of ice in glasses, the traffic’s crescendo and decrescendo. It was only six. She would eat later. Now she was thinking and sipping wine, only relaxing and releasing…something.
A small, compact man hopped up on the bar chair next to hers and plunked down money. The bartender, returning his nod abruptly, poured a whiskey neat and moved on. The man tasted it, licked his lips in appreciation, drank it down, then waited until the bartender poured another. This time he looked into the glass as if divining something of surprising interest.
“So. I see you in here a few times. I say to myself, ‘Why is she here when she doesn’t drink enough to count for much but she doesn’t eat a meal and talks to nobody? And she gets tipsy sort of fast. And all alone.’ That’s what I think. And I have obtained no answers yet.”
Marianne looked at his squat glass, then at the hands holding it. They were average sized, broad-palmed, and stained by something woody brown. She sipped her wine and sighed. They tried to get her to talk and then she had to leave. Sooner rather than later, she just wanted nothing of it.
The man turned to her. “I know you, you know.” He chuckled, either at his sentence or what he meant.
She studied him now, wondering if he was another teacher and she just hadn’t noticed yet–it was the start of her second year at this school–or, worse yet, a student’s father she had met at a conference.
“Yeah, every now and then, in comes this lady who has a pleasing air of mystery and she has a couple of drinks and then slips out the door with nary a smile or glance at others.”
Ah, a man who would be a poet, perhaps. Was he talking about her or generally all women who did this? She unfortunately blushed and caught a glimpse of them in the bar’s rectangular mirror. He was decent to look at, neat haircut with even features. Unremarkable in a crowd except for height, the lack of it. She sat many inches higher. Maybe his eyes counted, as they were lively and large under thick eyebrows.
“Well, I like a little wine after work. Once a week or so. I’m not a big drinker, that’s all.” She turned the goblet stem with manicured, tapered fingers.
“Oh, she does speak.” He holds out his hand. “Then I’m Daniel Unger, virtuoso furniture refinisher and dedicated patron of Hay Street Bar and Grill.”
It wasn’t as if she had never met a guy at a bar, hadn’t had some flings and even an earnest boyfriend, once. But she wasn’t up to it. Somehow turning thirty months ago had felt like a gong banged inside her head. She was still reeling from it, her mother swooping in and taking her to L.A. for the week-end, acting as if it was a rite of passage requiring a doting and madly extravagant mother, something she had never been but that Mariana foolishly was still open to. It had failed to much amuse Delilah or her “uptight” daughter. Mariana had gotten very drunk and high and then sick and shouted that she felt like she was trapped inside a Fellini film, no, much worse as it had her mother in it and Mariana couldn’t find a way out. Delilah provided that via the return ticket, of course. Luckily.
But she did awaken at home on that next Monday morning thinking it was time to reassess. What needed to fit in the big blank picture window called her life? Meanwhile, the fusty smell of smoke–cigarette and cannabis–had stunk up everything in her suitcase. She washed on a twelve minute hot cycle, then hung her clothes in sharp fall sunshine and wind. She had lost her favorite tattered volume of Theodore Roethke’s poems which she loved to read at night. Her burgundy high heels had gotten scratched. One (new from Delilah) topaz earring landed in a gutter as she scurried to catch a cab–she felt it fall off, too late to stop. What else did she have to give up?
The unsurprising fact was, her brilliant, wild mother would always come and go. What more was there, now that she had her grandmother’s beloved if creaky house; a fair career launched; and a few, okay, two good, sociable friends? What could she make of this lopsided life?
All of that only made her want to drink again. To long for big, sumptuous gulps of wine.
“Ah, right,” she extended her hand limply, “Mariana here, nice to meet you but I’m leaving now.” She grabbed her purse hanging on the chair and began to rise.
“Oh, don’t depart now–please.” He sounded so hearty. Undaunted. He tossed back the whiskey. His eyeballs glistened. “I’m not looking for more than conversation, Mariana.”
“I’m not looking, at all, I’m afraid. I just like my wine and then I am done.”
She rose and stood towering above him. She was tall next to most people. Next to him, she was a leaning tower of a giantess. His gaze rose to meet hers, as if he might try for a better look at an interesting flag flying in the wind.
“Okay, say I just thought you might be smarter than the average person, and I wondered it someone like you knew anything about William Blake or operatic arias or the meteorological status of the coming winter months–anything, in fact, that might interest a more fully thinking person. Because most of these folks–” he swept his arm around the room–“they just aren’t liable to converse. Like that.”
Mariana sat down and slumped over her goblet. She beckoned the bartender for another go at the chardonnay and knew she had detoured into quicksand. Or maybe that happened when she entered the Hay Street Bar and Grill, she wasn’t yet clear.
“You have a way with words, Daniel Unger, very savvy.”
“I am hoping you do, too, Mariana….” He tilted his head and waited her to offer up a last name.”
“Cort. Teacher, owner of cats, power walker. Unwed.”
“Ms. Cort. Hmm. Cort. The name rings a bell. Teacher of what? Metallurgy? Calculus? The history of theatre?”
She grabbed her drink and let its voluptuous taste settle, then soothe her throat. If she kept this up, she would get home very late and this Daniel would know all about her or she wouldn’t get home, at all.
“I teach eighth graders English and I love it but I’m still a neophyte. I do appreciate Blake but not like Rukeyser and Levertov, even Mary Oliver. A ton of others. I am interested in weather patterns as they specifically affect my small corner but sometimes am piqued by trends globally— as we all at least should be.” She put her chin in her right hand and leaned on the bar. Gave him her full teeth smile. “I enjoy opera once every few years. I do love ‘Carmen’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’.”
Daniel had turned to face her. His mouth fell open, wordless. His back straightened. “Alright then. A live one!” He shook his head and pulled a mock look of dismay. “I’m sorry, that sounds terrible! I meant my hunch was right. I think I’ve finally found someone I can engage with!”
His thin-lipped, open smile was infectious but somehow off-putting. Mariana didn’t want to be the lucky number on his bingo card, even a remarkable card. She didn’t want to have to entertain anyone, swap light intellectual fact-findings. The thought of her cats, yes, her tawny and white cats, was now magnetic. Her kitchen, still embraced by the spirit of her dead grandmother, was calling to her to make scrambled eggs with hash browns. She had papers to grade despite feeling a little drunk.
More than a little. Feeling the prickling of shame at the reality: that she was unable to get past this Friday without stopping in and ordering the drink and putting it to her lips and swishing it around her mouth and savoring every stinging-sweet bit of it. And ordering more. Knowing that she would soon be taking her own bottles home and forgoing the goblets altogether each night. Once again.
With some effort, aided by Daniel’s warm, confident hand on her forearm, she stood up. His brow creased into furrows and she knew he was more than a few years older than she, well-built (short, true, but irrelevant) and muscled or not.
“You know, I have work to do tonight…I’m really not much of a drinker, not a jolly one, and…and I do need to get home to my little family.”
“Family….Cort. Cort. Say, wait a second, are you by any chance related to that Delilah Cort, the great performance artist? Amazing woman!”
She wished she could toss a drink in his face but it was gone and so she nearly gave him her mother’s phone number. But that would be unkind, wouldn’t it. She shook her head, the room swaying a bit, things slowing down. “No, don’t think we’re related.”
“Well, huh, I sure do wonder about you. Alright then, nice just meeting you and safe journey home. See you next time?”
His expression looked like he was used to disappointment and she thought they might have had a few laughs, even some stimulating moments. She wanted to tell him all would be well but it wasn’t.
“Sure,” she agreed, “ditto. Goodbye Daniel Unger, good furniture making.”
“Refinishing!” he called after her.”On Hay and Bueller!”
Outside, the October air blasted her with a tangy, frosty breeze. Maybe it was the wine, but she stood there and thought of orchards and frost on apple tree leaves, the land her mother had cultivated but rarely even saw due to her constant touring. The thought of the perfect, silver-faced moon sending its light down to shine all over those forgotten, sweet red apples made her throat swell with tears. She got out her phone and dialed.
It took him six rings to answer.
“It’s me. Can you come get me? Yeah, right, that bar I like and you call a den of thieves. Honestly, tell me, why that? It’s a nice little grill, too! No no, no food yet. Seven thirty already…really? Well, I dunno, maybe three. I think?” She lowered herself on the curb between a BMW and truck. “Yes, Bernard, yes, I know, call before not after!” She covered her mouth so she wouldn’t cry out. “I’ll be here, in front. Honk your horn loud, okay?”
She leaned back on her hands and looked way up. The sky was like a crystalline, midnight blue platter of delights. She imagined the adventures of Orion and Cassiopeia unfolding on the infinite arena of heaven. Angelic presences dancing as if perpetually joyous. Did they do that or was it all a story her grandmother told her to keep her safe? She imagined she saw her now, looking down her significant nose over the top of glasses, and her eyes were just sad. It has really come to this? she said to Mariana and Mariana closed her eyes to be better unseen by her and the heavens. I want to write poetry, she told her, I do. As she’d always told her, but to what end? It was another chardonnay she wanted now.
Mariana knew, of course, this wasn’t the place she was meant to be, sitting between a bar and the street, evading a real life that needed her participation, both feet in. But it was hard! Being the kid of a famous person who gave her love to art. Being the granddaughter of a generous-hearted grandmother who tried so long yet somehow lost her own child in that very trying. Being a teacher of youth who wrote of unspeakably awful and bracingly beautiful things. Being alone, alone with this and more. Even having two cats who could walk away from her if someone else fed them better and let them curl up on her or his lap. Wouldn’t they, now?
Being an alcoholic who had four years sober until she fell under Delilah Cort’s spell and gave in, then gave away her recovery for a few quick hugs, a rush of regrets from the woman who never knew what power mothering held.
And the off-chance she would be seen and loved for who she, Mariana, actually was. Maybe she didn’t know yet, after all. Maybe it wasn’t all that late to find out, either. How could she know these things? Now the sidewalk felt frozen to hands and legs. She could lie down, sleep here all night.
His hand on her back felt like a hand she knew. She squinted at him. He was big and dumpy; his broad face was puffy as a soft roll and he smelled like earth and greenness because that is where he lived, in his garden. He limped terribly because his back was bad. He was so much older now. But he was always there. Would she never be grown up and right-minded enough to manage her life well? Yes, he had said. Yes. If he could do it half-crippled by arthritis, cranky, unmarried again and too fat, but still sober after thirty-five years, longer than she had been alive–well, then, she could do it, too.
“Mariana. Come on, girl. I’m double parked. I’ve got some stew on. I’ll bring bowls over; you can add bread and butter. Strong hot tea. I’ll make a fire. We’ll sit with Tater and Gawain like your grandmother and I did. You’ll start over. Tomorrow! Get up now.”
She heaved herself up and looked toward the open door, light from the car’s interior illuminating the short distance, Bernard close enough to catch her but not so close he would push her forward. She took a sloppy step and then another, the moon and stars humming in her head, his labored breath forming a bright fog that hovered about them.