November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Sarah Sarai: Fiction


Napoleon on the ‘N’ Page


Sprawled on a Salvation Army Thrift Store couch dusty enough to hide advancing troops, Vina turned to the ‘A’ page of her address book, Anne Adams, a late-in-life dyke with a cleavage like heavy gears rolling, four children and conservative relatives frowning down both aisles of forsaken vows.  Her ex-husband avoided his children who reminded him he’d been left for a woman — although every so often he complained about his children being raised by a lesbian.

Vina looked at her legal pad with an uncertain eye.  Her plan was to profit from her friends’ problems, her thought being she had the advantage of distance.  So.

So.  There was Anne, once-unclaimed daughter of Bilitis’ overflowing womb.  Anne’s current lover was pouty and possessive.  Anne said she strayed.

“Honey, I want to watch The L-Word, I don’t want to live it.”

“I hear ya.”  Vina sighed.

The medium-tip Bic left splotches as she wrote:

Anne:  job, relationship (former), relationship (present), in-laws, kids, money.  Bad people picker.
The husband:  Anti-woman?  Too proud.  Luck of the draw.

Vina smiled.  Was she writing student evaluations?  Her attention wandered from the pad to a dust bunny under the coffee table, and it hit her, not the dust bunny, tenacious and fragile enough to have its own set of problems — a memory of fellow teacher Joan Czery who was always borrowing money.

She skipped over the ‘Bs’ to the ‘C’ page of her address book.  Vina and Joan’d had dinner after school at Taix on Sunset.  Vina taught History, which was nothing but problems, and Joan taught Science, which boasted it could solve the problems. They’d eaten early— poulet in a wine sauce and a basket of sourdough rolls served with sweet butter squares so cold, they alone could have defeated Napoleon’s army on its famous retreat from a numbing Russian winter.  As usual, Joan borrowed fifteen bucks.  Vina fought her irritation and, as usual, paid the bill.

In the tiny parking lot they ran into Ramona Martinez.

Vina thumbed over to the ‘M-s.’  Ramona and her boyfriend had fought; Vina was creeped out when the boyfriend snarled, ‘Now, Madam,’ and Joan’s hand almost clamped his shoulder when the couple locked eyes and stormed into Taix.

That night the President delivered his state of the union address.  Joan phoned Vina and the two watched with the sound turned off.  “That was funky,” Joan said, “with Ramona.”  She dropped the phone when her cat jumped on her head but rescued the receiver.  “You know what I mean?”

“Like fighting was an appetizer?”

Ramona quit her job a week later; the principal had to hustle to find a replacement Social Studies teacher, social studies being a discipline striving to understand the problem.

Joan:  $ stuff
Ramona:  unhealthy relationships, quitter, mystery element

Vina flipped to ‘H’ for Hubert, Latice Hubert who lived near the May Co. at Wilshire and Fairfax, where Vina shopped sales — her most recent Christmas coup being matching chartreuse-fluff bedroom slippers for her three nieces.

Vina squinted at Latice’s barely decipherable phone number, penciled in.  She’d met Latice at an art gallery in Venice, with bad Ralph, who’d been a major problem..

She and Ralph went to Latice and Tanya’s — the lover — moldy apartment after a few rounds of Irish coffees at Mulveney’s.  Conversation slogged along reasonably until Tanya received a phone call from her bar where the bartender had tussled with a drug dealer; things had gone from bad to fucked up.

Tanya’d ordered in a stiff, arched tone, “You’re coming with me, sugar,” and “Don’t you ditch me now.”

‘We have guests!” Latice yelled.

Ralph apologized because apologies were the best way to smooth take-off for a flight out of there which he and Vina, did, fly off, speedily, stopping off at Fatburger’s for two greasy bags of food which they slammed down at their apartment while they watched the old Cagney movie where he crams a grapefruit in Jean Harlow’s face.

Enough with Latice and Tanya.  Of Ralph, more later, except, all right, Vina’d recently lay down the prosthetic arm of the law and ordered him to leave.  And he did just that:  Left.  Ralph was gone, she’d asked for it.  There it was.  “Free to be me,” she said to a quivering dust bunny.  “Whoever the fuck that is.”

On the K-page was Nancy Katona, a friend since high school.  Nancy had created one problem to obscure another.  She was divorced, with the perennially complicating factor of kids; kids were perennials.  Nancy confided, “I got so tired of being the one who did wrong,” with her husband and later affairs, “the one accused,” so she drank and bloomed in girth.  “I got sex out of the picture.”

Nancy:  Food.  Booze.  No sex.  Bad skin.

Vina didn’t think for a second it was Nancy’s size that mattered — she was pretty and a great cook. But in drinking and eating so much she’d developed food allergies and ezcema and was now physically uncomfortable.

Vina was nowhere near a solution to this being alone thing.  If her former neighbor Al Zemo hadn’t moved, she’d unpack her feelings with him.  She leafed over to the ‘T’ page because she once thought his name was spelled Tzemo and subsequently cross-referenced him by writing ‘Al, See T’ in the Z’s.

“Really, I think I’m a lesbian,” he had told her.  “With all the constraints and ridiculous concepts everyone has of gay men, my God.”

A month ago he’d moved to northern Cal and rented a cottage in the back of a house owned by a woman named Meg.  There were redwoods all around, the only companions Al thought he’d ever need, but he had to go to the house to shower.  Meg’s boyfriend eyed him with suspicion and her handsome devil of a brother had a key.  Get this, Al wrote.

The brother is a Freudian slip-in-motion.  ‘I’m your landlady’s sister,’ he said to me.  I waved it aside, you know good-old-me, while the guy backtracked in fear and blindness.  Meanwhile, his woman, a strong girl, smiled bullets.  Eeek.

Vina turned to the second page of mauve stationery, a real letter.  Al was retro.

He’d written that Meg the landlady’s stereo was lifted.  She was pissed the thief’s dog fouled her carpet, and she knew it wasn’t Pepsi’s shit because she locked Pepsi in the service porch when she was gone.  She’d come home and smelled something, shook out the rug and there it was, wet and smeared.  Her brother had two dogs.

I didn’t leave the bungalow womb of Echo Park for this, my friend.

Crazies were drawn to nice Al in some perverse cosmic balancing act.  It had happened in L.A., too.  Vina sighed.  Oh, Al.  She again consulted the aging address book with its cover of peeling black leather and saw she’d missed Polly — on the P page because Polly was Polly, and that was that.  She lived in a Reseda mother-in-law in back of a three bedroom, had issues but wouldn’t admit them.

Polly:  Denial

A month ago she stopped by on a Saturday afternoon to sip ground Colombian with half and half out of ceramic mugs from Pier 1, and after a rant about California’s karma regarding earth, wind, air, water — quakes, Santa Anas, smog, and the drought —commiserated with Vina about Ralph. “And don’t you let him back, sister!  That no-good Ralph!”

Who was on the ‘B,’ for Boy with a ‘d’—‘Boyd,’ page.  Why had Vina asked him to leave?  His lies had become ridiculous; her susceptibility undiminished.

An in-town roadie to a rock band working clubs in Glendale and the Valley, bad Ralph told Vina the band had a gig in Puerto Rico.  Who would invent Puerto Rico?  It didn’t even occur to Vina, but when bad Ralph’s mother was hospitalized and his brother phoned, Vina discovered the group hadn’t left L.A.  Ralph had gone to Mexico for R & R.

Before Puerto Rico there’d been Colorado.  Ralph didn’t invent Colorado, but simply chanced on it when skiing in the Sierras, on the cheap, where he made friends and gone with them to Aspen so when Vina phoned to find him at a lodge in the Sierras on a Saturday night after her car caught on fire, no one in the expansive California mountain range knew where  Ralph was.  He’d slipped out to a new state as easily as a teenager slips out on a weekday night.

Me:     Too vulnerable.  Bad people picker.
Ralph: bad bad bad bad bad.

To avoid Polly, Vina slipped inside for Al’s latest letter.  She could diss bad Ralph, but Polly shouldn’t.  Guess what, she read, her voice so loud Polly winced..

The landlady’s thieving and devilishly handsome brother had moved in with Al.

I always forget to see that the process itself helps things unfold.  You find out more about the situation as you go along, things keep changing and soon it’s a different set of problems.  Someone said we don’t resolve problems, we outgrow them.

“Isn’t Al wise?”

Polly didn’t think so.  “I don’t have any problems.”

“You know I sleep with women now.”

“So?”

“Well it’s not a trivial admission.”

“But it’s not a problem.”  She muttered something Vina didn’t catch.  Vina was convinced Polly pushed away sensitivity.  Her force field had blazes of her name:  arrows, poison darts of autobiography whose trajectories said ME and I and POLLY.  She used to rant about her husband Fred in the same way she presented herself.  She was ME ME, I I, and Fred was HIM this and HIM that.

HIM HIM HIM.  And when Vina finally met HIM he was just a guy, Fred, wearing jeans and a checkered shirt, coming to her apartment to hook up her stereo.  Just a guy.  Not HIM, not any more than she was SHE or I or ME.  Fred’d left POLLY.

“You wanna go to a movie?”

Vina suggested another day.  Polly left to catch the matinee rate.

“Ah, shit.”  Vina threw her address book to the floor.  A dust bunny skittered.  She ripped pages from her yellow tablet, broke her pencil in two.  She knew, even if she didn’t know in so many words, that she couldn’t know in any words.

Two months later, Polly stopped by with a pound of organic Kenyan coffee beans.  Vina shared a new letter from Al.  The old girlfriend snapped her fingers like a genie and Meg’s brother was gone, Al wrote.

Now I’m stuck in another stupid apartment and really alone but, hell, we’re all alone and that’s the human or inhuman or un-human condition.

“I’m not alone.”  Polly bristled.

“Yes you are, Polly, and So am I.”

Polly clenched her fists.

“Though I like my new girlfriend.”

The women stared at one another.  Somewhere pages ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ ‘H,’ ‘T’ and ‘Z see T’  and ubiquitous bad Ralph sighed, from somewhere on the island of Elba.

About the author:

Sarah Sarai’s poetry collection, The Future Is Happy, is published by BlazeVOX [books]. Her fiction has appeared in Storyglossia, Fairy Tale Review, Stone’s Throw, Tampa Review, South Dakota Review and others. She divides her time between NYC and http://my3000lovingarms.blogspot.com.