from THE UNPOSITIONED PARTS
(Chatty Kathy says)
Uh, the weirdest thing…
Siri, Reply to Chatty Kathy text.
(Okay, what would you like to text Chatty Kathy?)
Yeah? On your way back?
Y, C U in a couple
Margo hears someone approach the storefront. Her phone chimes and she removes her headphones, declining to listen to a text. She hears the door hanger jingle and rubber sneakers quickly scuff the welcome mat. Her nibbled fingertips rise to greet the sweaty entrant. So it was the weirdest thing, reports Chatty Kathy at a volume above the hums of the back kitchen and old Coke mini-fridge stacked at the pick-up counter and stocked admirably with local soda and cold brew. Arturo, the owner of this Port Townsend take-out place, has a reciprocal relationship with the local unkempt twenty-nothings: a steady diet of otherwise fungible counter help and couriers who don’t steal from the drawer, arrive the same way that Arturo opens with a relative, well-intentioned punctuality—subject to weather, whim and faulty alarms—and perform nominal tasks at a human rate and closing tasks like miracle whip, smooth with some zip, all in exchange for healthy tips from the loyal lunch clientele and a humane paycheck, which they exchange for: records, coffee, thrift finds, musical instruments, gas and tour money, used bicycles, cell phone bills (for those who cut ties with their parents’ plans), vegetarian burritos, bowling, beer and rent for the makeshift use of a living room, closet, attic or the inherited bedroom complete with milk-crate shelves, roadside end tables, spray-painted walls and a mattress to save them from the night floor. With one eye closed, the things-and-things grow like coral in cultural inundation. With the other eye, though, the things flood every corner of their lives like a wash perpetually alerting the youths to their contours like baptism. Arturo, a rooted vet of D.C. front stoops and dance floors, did not believe in redemption. His vision of happiness derived from the world around us required belief in both good and these kids. To this end he believed that they needed more structures to test their selves against and not so many slogans to lie in and eventually wield against one another, so as a paternalistic social engineer or a person with a sense of genealogy, he simply trusted them but never told them that out right.
So I like felt like I walked into a movie. Kathy’s eyes turned up, And not like onto a movie set, but like I was walking from one end of the frame to the other, she said as she yanks off the elastic holding her ponytail, rolls her spine forward, shakes out her hair and massages the crown of her head. Muffled by her hair and the elastic stowed in her mouth, she sighs, It’s so hot out there.
The counter phone chimes in. One sec.
(a regular cuts her off)
Sure thing, do you want
Okay, a medium classic veg with sticks. County Building, Suite 200. Cool. Have a good
Margo gestures with her upper body to yell, clearing the noise of the fans and ovens. Arturo, we have a to-go medium veg with sticks. Flipping her baseball hat backward, nothing special, she returns, Sorry, I’m back.
As Kathy’s palms guide her hair back up into a green-dye fountain, she closes her eyes and resumes, Alright, so, I dropped off the order at the courthouse. Okay: I am walking down the steps out front, it’s so bright out. (Her shoulders hunch.) I can’t even look up. Everything’s close and white. The sun bends me over. (Her forearm falls from 12 to 3.) And I’m squinting. I can’t think about anything except my eyes. (Her fingertips to pull together but don’t touch.) My whole bodily awareness sucks up and retracts into my eyes. I turn down the alley. The building and the sunlight draw a big slash across the alley. (Hand chop.) Half white, half grey. (Parallel palms point left, then right.) My eyes hurt as they adjust. I look back, and I can’t see the buildings on the other side of the alley. It’s totally blank, not just washed-out but like I can’t see through the sunlight. (Wrists flick like pinball flippers.) When I face forward, there’s an old woman with short, white hair, like a bob (Cut at the chin), standing in the middle of the street. I could see that she’s talking to someone down the street like she’s gesturing to them. Well, maybe I don’t know that. (Open palms.) I don’t know how I knew she was talking to someone. But I know that she is. (Elbows lean on the counter.) You know, I didn’t hear her say anything. (Eyelids close.) (Eyelids open.) I don’t remember hearing any sound at all. Except, when I get to the street corner, I hear the last note from the violin. (Leverage bodyweight onto the counter, feet lift two centimeters.) I see a woman in a fuchsia shirt, standing at the end of the street. She finishes the note, carries both arms above her head—bow in one hand, violin in the other—and bows. (Relax, step back, perform.) In one movement, she comes up, turns around and marches across the street. (Again.) Okay, now, I’m following her. Our steps start to match. She steps left, I step left, she steps right, I step right. I look back. (Again.) And, I expect to see the white-haired woman following along as well, but she is walking away, crossing back into the white light. (Rest.) She has a cane, now, dangling from a hand. (Extend one arm.) She’s holding her arms out, rigid, parallel with the ground. (Perform with head tilted in a thinking position.) And she’s staggering, barely bending her knees, shuffling like a zombie. (Continue.) But it’s like she’s pretending to be a zombie, not like she’s really having trouble walking. (Eyebrows knit together.) She’s not using the cane. (Relax.) Okay, so, I turn back, as I approach the street. (Palms return to the counter.) I expect to see the woman in the fuchsia shirt, but she’s gone, just gone. I look back for the white-haired woman, and she’s gone, too. They had both just disappeared. (Fingertips collect on the counter.) I hear the traffic from the next street. A group of seagulls crosses overhead. I feel the sidewalk press against the soles of my shoes. The back of my knee starts to itch. My muscle memory stops, and I stand there almost in the middle of the street. (Push away into the air.) Then, the electronic scarecrow on top of the courthouse made those terrible sounds, the warning birds in pain. Have you noticed how that alley traps the noise?
Two sharp clangs from the kitchen bell cut Kathy off. Weird, maybe they were ghosts.
Once complete, the performance catches Kathy up to her feelings. A cool blue filtered into her imagination as she closed her eyes. When she imagines an analog of her fear, like a tall ladder for fear of falling, a tightness draws around the perimeter of her chest. Then, if she starts talking about the ladder, for example, she connects this awareness with the sweat on her palms. However, without talking, her hand would not meet her chest. Yeah, maybe. I felt like very exhausted standing there listening to that scarecrow. I wanted to follow them. Like in that half-moment that I thought we were walking together, the woman in fuchsia, me and the white-haired woman all walking in a line down Jefferson Street, I liked that idea. And standing there I missed them. I missed that idea of walking in a line with these women. . . who as it turns out may be ghosts. Like a tic, Kathy lifted herself on and off the counter.
Margo flipped her hat forward again, giving old Chatty Kathy leave to pick up the order. After a couple squeaks from her sneakers, Kathy slides her loose limbs back onto the countertop.
You going to that show tonight?
Probs not, I gotta catch the last ferry. I normally stay at Meg’s, but she’s outta town.
Where’d she go?
Shitfit’s on tour.
Oh cool. Kathy’s teenage-angst-ruminated-into-nonchalance tugged her black T-shirt up to her nose and dropped it in the same unthought.
Margo hears the door hanger jiggle, I heard someone playing violin on the ferry this morning. Seemed strange but nice, and then the door’s exhale.
Point-zero-five percent of the county budget went to the installation of a motion-sensitive speaker. The device produces a two-minute sequence of warning squawks recorded from seagulls in danger. Screeching breaks out at a decibel well above the city noise ordinance whenever the course of a colony of gulls dwells longer than passing over the courthouse. As a symptom of postmodern municipal bureaucracy, wherein both fingers and toes entertain the gag reflex of the body politic but nothing comes up, the digital scarecrow was installed directly atop a resonance chamber, the elevator of the county jail. The sounds of fowl holding patterns funnel throughout the jail, disclosing first-time offenders and frustrating already fleeting sleep alike.
In holding cell one, a girl receives her flats, underwear, sports bra, T-shirt and jean skirt. Roughshod eyes from guards and inmates run her over. The skirt slips on. It’s easy to put her in a skirt. She leaves the orange pile on the floor. They can be the floor’s now. She had slept but woke up after her liver processed the alcohol. A skein wrapped around a steering wheel. Through each door-buzz-clearance, the smell of urine, baked mouth, thrush, tin and athlete’s foot bait her breath. Degraded. The universe couldn’t have made this any easier. She wouldn’t even be tempted by the fear of innocence. Attached. She took a confident step. She put herself in that position. The wind tunneled through the alley behind the jail and unsettled a foreign body odor from her jacket. Her senses stall. A feminine forbearance. She could be responsible, too? A screech forces her to feel again. Her head hurt her. She won’t go any lower. A green-haired girl carries the smell of cheesy bread past her. Her stomach hurt her. There was a lower. Sick now. Vulnerabilities swell in her eyes as her skin crawls off her to reveal the empty that they left. Moving in her boots, her boots weighed more than she did. The green hair leads her out from behind the jail. Unthinkingly she follows the girl like a mosquito, an exoskeleton full of someone else’s blood. She receives a momentary blindness from the sunlight. The green hair vanishes behind a door, and she misses her. A breeze brushes her hair away, stinging her neck, revealing a bruise. Some car horns join the screeching, so in the middle of the intersection, she would need to decide whether to complete the cross or to retreat.
A silver car comes close enough for her to touch, so she does. She needs her skin back. This thought collected some of her other faculties and other simple wants under her fingertips. She wishes her cell phone wasn’t dead, so she could call her roommate. She wishes her mom would come care for her, after all, she’s sick, but that’s like asking to go back in time. For all the gender-equality rhetoric that made her run without fear at twilight, walk to and from the corner store unaccompanied, work the night shift at an independent bookstore, have safe, premarital sex with her boyfriend, spend her money wisely, vote for a man-president based on his platform, inform herself about his platform and not just the women’s issues, apply for college, smirk at women’s groups handing out pepper spray at orientation, fume with contempt at her mom but never ask why she wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers after a certain age, and finally drive to their apartment, walk up the stairs, through the door, say hello without qualm, drink their ready drink and laugh at herself alongside their laughter, notwithstanding all of it, she won’t tell. Her mom won’t come, because she won’t tell until she has a child who will inherit her skin, which at first will feel comforting in her hands but also like a nettle sting, then the child will come to look strange as it leaves her palms and takes her shape, so she will grab it and separate it from her memories of last night until a moment, in the midst of boiling, forces her to explain to the child what she lost, because she understands it still as something of value that was hers and taken, and why she’s so very careful with that child who has her skin that she has been trying to build a safe home for ever since it left. Quickly, now, the survival moment: get out, get out of the room, get keys, get phone, get out of the apartment, get downstairs, get the car door open, get behind the wheel, get the engine going, get away. Get out of the road. There’s one direction and the reverse. A series of survival moments follow this line: back and forth as though there is no history. Every attempted accumulation will slip and fail between her synapses. Every thought foreclosed except that you have a self, you do.
After closing, Margo throws cool water on her face. Grandmother had told her to give herself a splash every morning. Cold water contact with a human face triggers a specific set of physiological responses: The heart rate slows down, so the bloodstream needs less oxygen. This leaves more oxygen for other organs like the heart and brain. Next, the blood vessels constrict, so blood flow eases. This helps the body retain heat. Grandmother enjoyed weaving the workings of the world for Margo. She said, Submerge your whole face, use cold water, during prolonged immersion, circulation to the toes and fingers stops first, children are more likely to survive longer without oxygen under underwater, the slowed heart rate may be a protective response to pressure on the umbilical cord when it cuts off oxygen during birth, but science does not really know why, maybe adults just have the sense to float to the surface, who knows, it’s a natural facelift, too. Grandmother enjoyed the loose ends as well.
Margo’s grandmother was an old doctor who lived alone. Margo’s grandmother gave birth to Margo’s mother shortly before immigrating to the United States. Before that, Grandmother divorced her first husband. Before that, Grandmother had been a doctor in a southern city near the border of Colombia and Ecuador. Before that, she married a fellow medical student. Before that, her family migrated from a cattle village to the city. Before that, she lost her older brother to The Violence, a period of civil unrest that Margo cannot understand. Before that, she fed, watered and sheered a few front-acre sheep and cared for the goat. Before that, she first-loved the taste of guinea pig. Margo repeats to herself, Immediately upon facial contact with cold water, the human body diverts blood from the limbs and all organs, save the heart and the brain, to conserve oxygen. Grasping the rim of the sink, Margo feels the signs of fake porcelain. The moment of disdain makes her feel vain. When Margo first went to live with her grandmother, Grandmother instructed Margo to demonstrate how she bathed. Under the thin layer of grit awake on her skin, Margo answered that she hadn’t thought of it before. Grandmother enjoyed drawing the warm water and scouring Margo’s hands, knees and feet. Handing over the sponge, she teased, Remember to wash all the places your mother tells you not to touch. Grandmother also enjoyed undoing the ends of others. After the bath, Grandmother wrapped Margo’s girl-body with a coarse towel and polished her off with a thorough hand rake down her sides, shoulders to knees. You can do this without me next time, yeah?
A terse knock on the door cinches together Margo’s leg muscles and instinctively sticks her hand to the compact bathroom wall. Margo’s finger cuts the condensation, tracing the wall to the plastic molding around the door. Her palm opens in a slide down to the small knob.
In alone moments, Arturo seems meek to Margo. Once she told him so, but he misheard her, assuming that she’d said weak and laughed assuming she’d meant it as a joke. Sorry, I’m heading out, do you want a ride?
Oh no, it’s nice out and the ferry’s only a couple blocks.
Cool, well, I’ll see you tomorrow?
Um, no, I’m not sure who’s working tomorrow, but I’m off until Friday.
Ah, well, cool, I’ll see you Friday then. Have a nice night.
See ya. Margo hears the buzz from fluorescent lights cut out and the door jingle again.
Tick, tick. Scuff, scuff over the welcome mat. With Margo positioned like this, before you, she seems singular: a girl leaving her place of work, a complementary figure moving through the environment. It’s a failing of this form. While washing the dirt and blood from her T-shirts and underwear, Grandmother explained that women inherit a tradition of fat. She hummed a little between sentences, My feminine moments always feel youthful. I’m jealous you will touch, smell, taste so much. Margo’s summer-bare arms pulled the clothing out of the warm tub and handed each item for Grandmother to wring. Grandmother chose to hang her intimates in the backyard for the novelty of a secret smell, which she shared with herself on occasion by opening the collar of her shirt. Ah, as you do, your choice, your ability to choose, will come from a thing that you cannot give and that another cannot take. You’ll feel this thing by contact with what’s around you. You know, there’s a fatty coating that insulates the path of neurons and enables impulses to travel faster. Just like that, as a girl, you grow in space. Margo handed up the damp laundry piecemeal to Grandmother. Each piece already drying in the basket was pleasantly cool and easy to handle with her small, awkward fingers. During the last months with Grandmother, Margo thought a lot about her body as it changed, rapidly expanding and withdrawing in unpredictable ways under her skin. But, Gordita, there’s a history here, too. You will know. Women are the body. We may live in exile in the world, but our bodies share something. Margo called these speech streams Grandmother’s melting thoughts. Like water bursting from its ice form under a heat lamp and microscope, Grandmother chided, The more you understand you as part of women, the more you will feel an urge to walk, but balanced by an impulse to test a surface before you step. The body gives you this thing, this grounding and guiding ability to feel, smell, touch and hear. Always: A girl must trust that what she senses is not meant for her. Remember: Your body gives you movement, not just the sense of it.
Tick, tick. Inhale, exhale down the sidewalk. In hard times, Grandmother told her, Life is very difficult, very difficult. On the phone last week, she repeated it three times: Life is very difficult. I rode to the next village so many times and was not ever the one who arrived. On tonight’s walk, Margo would tell us, because she wants to tell someone, My grandmother hugged me, like a flood, with her whole body. So, I feel how, how I am from her. All of me dripped from her arms, her warm, weighty arms, the size of my thighs, wrapping me up, folding me into her breasts and the smell of laundry that followed me for days. As Grandmother kneaded more pieces of her into my back, I missed her.
Tick, tick. Step, lift off the fresh tar of the crosswalk. If you were here tonight approaching the ferry with Margo, you could hear the indistinct sounds of a warning gull and a violin.