Friday, March 18, 2016

Short Story: Out of the Pen

Out of the Pen is a short story that first appeared in the American Women's Club Amsterdam publication Tulip Talk as a three part series.

Part One:

Marguerite passed her time waiting for little Tulipe by ordering a coffee in the café overlooking the murky green water in the canal on the Singel.  Gazing out over the small public square set upon the bridge, she observed a group tourists gather around, obviously chilled in their selection of overenthusiastic spring apparel, uneasily admiring the bronze statue of Multatuli.  Bravely, they showed insignificant appreciation of the importance of this unheard of man, as well-bred and shorn sheep herded together by the good intentions of their guide’s panting introduction to Max Havelaar. The statue’s flamboyant hair immobile in the spring breeze, the moot influence of Max’s creator upon colonial mannerisms was steadfastly put forth in the best light possible by one of the city’s self-appointed experts. The information was unlikely to ring any bells.

Tulipe wouldn’t be let out of school for another hour. Marguerite, jobless, had offered to pick up the child on Wednesday afternoons.  It was unfortunate, Marguerite thought, that Tulipe’s southern, Altantic, mother when new to Amsterdam, had become so resoundingly enamoured of Dutch culture before Tulipe’s birth. The girl’s father would have preferred Sophie, but he was overruled even in the choice of the second name, and no one in his family responded to anything that even remotely resembled Mata Hari. Tulipe’s Bostonian father was reduced to fondly calling his daughter ‘Tutu’ when in town, on occasion when he was back from his frequent business trips. One of these business trips happened to have coincided, unfortunately, in the week of Tulipe’s birth and therefore, to his regret, he was not the person who registered his daughter at the city hall.  His mother-in-law had done the honors. Athough Tulipe was only seven, her father had firmly resolved not to ever buy her pearl earrings and turned a blind eye to any trending hype about Dutch icons.

Seated on her brown café chair, the type of brown chair that makes one understand that one is in a brown café in Amsterdam, Marguerite adjusted her sweater sleeves, reviewing the topics she might contemplate during her hour’s wait. Indecisive, her attention was drawn to a man in a discussion with the proprietor of the café.

“What are you,” the proprietor was asking in stumbling English, “Some kind of poet?” He wiped his hands on his apron and turned away from the counter to warm a pitcher full of milk.

After a hint of a dry laugh, the man let out protest, “It’s to promote art.”

“So you are telling me that I am supposed to give you a free coffee for a poem?” The proprietor’s broad back was indignant. “New kind of turd tourist,” he muttered under his breath as he closed the steam spigot. The customer, in his opinion, looked as though he could afford to buy a cup of coffee.

Above his thin grey turtleneck, the poet looked around the near empty café. “Suppose,” he negotiated with the proprietor, “I give you a free poem and the poem pays for the lady’s coffee.” He caught Marguerite’s eye and smiled.  He was looking at an attractive woman in her late twenties, wearing a green cardigan sitting alone at a table.  To him, she looked more receptive to the arts than the proprietor.

Marguerite felt her spine contract slightly, but on the other hand she liked poetry and after all she had an hour to kill.  She raised her eyebrows.

The poetry man saw the woman raise her eyebrows. The proprietor saw the woman raise her eyebrows at the poetry man. “What the hell,” he thought over the empty tables, “It’s spring.” He set Marguerite’s cappuccino down in front of the poet. “Okay,” he said “It better be a good one. She looks like a classy dame.”

The poet drew a notepad from his jacket pocket with one hand and reached for a pen with the other. His hand brushed the front of his grey turtleneck as he did so, a slight variation of an Arabic greeting, thought Marguerite romantically from under her eyebrows.  She watched him write swiftly. He paused from his task, looked sideways at her and said, “My name is Giovanni.”

“That’s a nice name,” she said slowly, “Do you need my name for the poem?”

A pause. “No.” He continued to write, his dark head leaning over the notepad.  He handed the notepad to the proprietor who took the poem in between his large hands, holding it up to the light and squinted at the words. “It doesn’t rhyme.” He said finally and waved the man away.

Giovanni picked up the coffee and the notepad and brought them to Marguerite. His hands asked whether he could sit at her table, his gesture friendly and elegant.

The proprietor appeared at their table. He folded his hands across his barrel chest and looked straight at Giovanni. “Are you going to order something else?” He asked, his voice indicated that he expected custom. “This establishment is a one poem per century only kind of place.”

Marguerite read the poem.

As I gather your attention

Grain by grain

Into the ring of my embrace

The price is but a poor one,

Both supple and green.

Would you distain my gift

Or worship it

So quickly digested

So slowly paid.

Marguerite read the poem again. One word caught her eye. It was uncanny, Tulipe had been accused of purloining a ring from her mother last week, and despite threats and bribes, the ring not been made to reappear.

With a satisfying thump of heavy tableware the proprietor set down an espresso in front of Giovanni.  They had 43 minutes left before Marguerite was due in front of the school.  Giovanni reached for the sugar.
Part Two

Wavering in the classroom watching for Marguerite to appear, Tulipe trailed her jacket behind her on the ground.  Tulipe had a funny way of standing about, her shoulder blades jutted out away from her back. Although she was solidly built, Tulipe always seemed a little angular to people who observed her movements. It was in the way the back of her head rotated on her neck, her habit of standing on one leg, the other knee bent, the slight bulbous quality of her buttocks suddenly growing out of her thighs. Tulipe’s inharmonious physical mannerisms were overshadowed by her intellectual qualities.
Tulipe expected Marguerite to be slightly late; Tulipe knew that Marguerite’s first priority was not being on time to take overly good care of Tulipe.  Marguerite, although somewhat scatter brained, had a lot of irons in the fire.  Tulipe wondered which one was being heated that afternoon. Tulipe’s teacher turned to her and said, “You’d best be going, there is your nanny.” Tulipe wasn’t sure Marguerite was her nanny. Tulipe felt more like a nanny for Marguerite. Tulipe’s teacher didn’t really like the child oddly posing as a heron in front of her despite the gourmet cupcakes Tulipe’s mother made on any occasion for the class.  Red velvet was a weakness of Tulipe’s teacher. Maybe it was the name, but she felt seduced every time she heard the words roll out of the American woman’s mouth. Tulipe’s teacher imagined herself in a Ric Rac festooned apron on a Wisconsin farm in the springtime looking over a clump of bluebells from a whitewashed porch holding a plate of a dozen moist cupcakes or merrily waltzing down a New York street with a massive cup of coffee to go-go and a giant vanilla frosted cupcake in a brown bag swinging past the brownstone houses, focus on the muffin. Tulipe’s teacher, recently broken up with her boyfriend, the best one she had found so far and was sorry to see his back of receding, was thinking of getting away from Amsterdam.

Marguerite appeared lightly flustered.  There was a blush across her nose, the blush that slowly grew when she was in the process of thinking up lies. Tulipe never lied. It was a point of principle with her, but circumstances being what they were in the world, Tulipe had learned not to tell the truth, neither willingly nor too often.

“We’re late!” announced Marguerite incorporating Tulipe, “Your mother is waiting for us. She’s planning to take you to the shoe store this afternoon.” Tulipe decided that Marguerite’s priority at that moment was being alone in Tulipe’s house while her mother shopped for new shoes and Tulipe tried to wrangle the fanciful shoes she favoured out of her mother’s wallet. Part of the reason why Tulipe was always standing on one leg lately was because her shoes were too small.  “You’ll never find it.” Tulipe thought sincerely.

“Aren’t you lucky,” the teacher said to Tulipe while she was really thinking of cupcakes, “New shoes!”  The teacher wanted new everything in her life but mainly, at that exact moment, all she consciously knew was that she wanted a fair amount of baked goods, sooner than later. 

Marguerite had come to Tulipe’s mother aid by way of the expat reading club. “Where were you?” Tulipe asked. The blush lingered on the bridge of Marguerite’s nose. She couldn’t decide to lie or not to lie to the child.  This was the problem with Marguerite, she could never quite make up her mind, and when she did, she often deluded herself into thinking the opposite had happened. Had she had coffee with Giovanni? Since when did she decide that having habitual afternoons with strange men was a habit? Was it a habit? No, she didn’t often allow herself to engage in conversations with that many strange men. Did she? Had this happened once? Or twice? She tried to think. How bad was the situation?

Near the house Tulipe announced, “I got to pee so bad my eyes are floating.”  Tulipe had a number of southernisms that were new to Marguerite’s non Southern ears. Marguerite was raised in Cleveland.

“Tuhleepuh!” a voice called out above the steep entrance stairs, “I am madder than a wet hen right now!” Tulipe’s mother blocked the landing. “You tell me right now missy did you take my ring?”

Wedged in her too small shoes Tulipe stood knock-kneed in front of her mother. The little girl flats were pink and sported a ragged white flower on the outer side. The sides and the toes were scuffed bare, the elastic strap frayed. Tulipe’s shoulder blades stuck out behind her definiantly, she dropped her jacket on the floor.  She tried to move around her mother.  “Not so fast there.” Her mother drawled. “Don’t try to be slick with me, you’re not pig snot on a radiator you know.”

Marguerite stood behind Tulipe trying to figure this last one out. How did pig snot get on a radiator? Did this often happen in the South? Was it actual pig snot, or did it mean something else? Come to think of it, it didn’t snow in Altanta, did it? Did they have radiators in the south? Did they keep pet pigs in the house? Do pigs need a warm environment? How much snot does a pig produce? Marguerite was of no help at all, as a matter of fact, she wasn’t highly focused in general so it was of no surprise to either Tulipe or her mother that Marguerite stood numbly in the hall looking a little pained.

Tulipe, sunk a little lower on her knees, squeezing her thighs together, her white socked heels bursting against the back seams of her tired shoes, regretfully opened her long slanting mouth, and talked.

Part Three
“I don’t know why,” Marguerite confessed. Giovanni sat across from her, they had moved from the café on the Multatuli square. The poem ruse had worked several times at various establishments, but they had grown tired of the game, and had chosen to sit that morning in De Jaren instead.  De Jaren, a spacious café with a waterfront terrace, was near empty on the Thursday morning.  Giovanni enjoyed Marguerite’s company, she was always game to be led astray.  He wondered if she consciously understood this about herself.

“You are looking for security,” he suggested.  He had ordered tea instead of coffee; the weather was inconceivably splendid. It was the type of morning that one hardly believes has arrived, the flat blue sky opened up as if a witch has cracked a hazelnut apart with her bony fingers, rendering the flaking pinkish haze into water colour hours where borders are smudged and horizons expanded, and all one thinks about is how to take advantage of the cloudless day and rebottle the moment.

Marguerite looked troubled. Why had she told him? But then she told him everything since she’d met him.  They happened to be on the same train coming back to Amsterdam from Haarlem.  She’d been to see the art exhibition Sympathy for the Devil: Temptation’s Calling and found him, trim and handsome, on the intercity train trying to check his email with the inadequate free WiFi offered by the Dutch rail system. True, she didn’t know that many people and she was lonely. The book club had been a filler for time while she networked to gain employment. The ladies had chosen to read “A Bloodsmoor Romance” but there had been more discussion about wine and the baked goods selection.  Tulipe’s mother had brought banana cupcakes with honey cinnamon frosting, and two bottles of rosé. “Martha Stewart’s,” she announced flapping her frazzled gold cardigan across her thin chest. “Recipes are tried and true.”  Everyone agreed the cinnamon was subtle, but made a big difference.

“Security,” thought Marguerite. “I needed some security.”  She wondered if her desire to be claimed by a man, a ring on her finger, stemmed from her need for someone else’s security. 

“Mama,” Tulipe’s scarlet mouth had articulated mournfully, “I found your ring in Marguerite’s make-up bag.”

Tulipe’s mother recoiled. The ring had been her grandmother’s engagement ring when she’d been linked to the celebrated Savannah poet, Beaufort Charles Paardehaar. Mamie had never returned the ring when it had appeared he’d gravely insulted her with his allusion to her beauty in his famous sonnet, “Faux Bois Locks and Deficient Stocks,” but wisely kept it after dissolving their engagement publically in the Savannah Morning News Obituary Section. Old Charlie Horsehair’s ring in Marguerite’s make-up bag? Marguerite had a make-up bag? Tulipe’s mother inspected Marguerite’s face carefully. A dusting of green eye shadow graced her eyelids, the lips were naturally pearly pink, the cheek smoothed by a lick of concealer.  The ring was a fake, the family had assumed, until it was proved that it was actually a Conquistador emerald. “So I hid it in the box of Christmas ornaments. She’ll be gone by then.” Tulipe explained jerking her head towards Marguerite.

“Why did you take it?” Giovanni had asked Marguerite.

She hadn’t planned to sell it; Marguerite had wanted to keep it, love it, wear it yet it was not her possession. She gazed at Giovanni. He’d become her friend, and not her lover. She’d proposed once to him wearing a backless and sleeveless shirt, her hair loose, swinging a leg provocatively and he’d retorted that he didn’t allow himself to be misled by random temptresses. “In the right environment you’d glorify any man,” he’d said lightly smiling at her.  Marguerite thought that he was ungrateful, after all it was her poem she’d lent him to be debonair.

As I gather your attention

Grain by grain

Into the ring of my embrace

The price is but a poor one,

Both supple and green.

Would you distain my gift

Or worship it

So quickly digested

So slowly paid.

“So what,” Tulipe’s mother finally worded her answer to Tulipe, “Were you doing in Marguerite’s make-up bag?”

Marguerite’s nose blushed, “I told her she could use my eyeliner.” Released from her confinement by the lie, Tulipe made a beeline for the toilet.

Tulipe’s mother appraised Marguerite slowly, “Fresh batch of High Hat Cupcakes waiting in the kitchen,” she finally stated with great politeness and much indifference. “Poets,” she thought ruefully, “Always making a mess of things.”

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