Laurel and Stewart

Laurel

Laurel stands at the corner sink, her apron untied and her slippers on; stands with heart bowed and head haloed by the circular fluorescent light above her. She is quietly weeping. Dishes from dinner are still not done; the laundry is still not done. There is a button in her apron pocket. The mending is still not done; tomorrow’s lunches are still not done. She is undone.

Laurel’s Playtex gloved hands plunge deep into the hot soapy dishwater, retrieve a greasy plate, then a cup; wipe and rinse. The ten-thousandth dish. The windows over the sink fog and rivulets of water run into the frame and on the sill, ruining the caulking and painting she did in the fall. The girls are bathed and sleeping, an hour or more.  His dinner sits plated on the Formica tabletop, wrapped in tinfoil, cold as death.

Laurel starts; her breath is taken from her, as if it were she who had just flown from the cold night into the window. As if it were her neck broken and she who lay there dying in the snow on the window ledge. As if it were she who had mistaken the light and warmth of her own kitchen as being attainable. The moment of sudden movement and the sodden thud has passed and she stares at an imprint on the glass, a wet imprint of the sparrow that had tried to flee the frigid dusk into the light of the kitchen. Ah! Well, she thinks, it’s for the best.

Laurel sees, for the thousandth time, the blue ceramic plaque that sits on the shelf between the windows, sees once again its painted mortised borders. Implements of a happy kitchen; a hearth afire and in the center of the hearth, and over the mantle and the fire below,  a printed poem: “Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I’ve no time to be a great saint by doing lovely things, or watching late with Thee, or dreaming in the dawnlight, or storming heaven’s gates, make me a saint by getting meals, and washing up the plates.”

Laurel can see a lot from the kitchen window: the mocking moon, the unfinished garage. She can see the failed flower bed, the sandbox half buried and softly outlined in snow, the clothesline canted with icicles; across the yard and into the neighbor’s window she can see Blaine settling into his lazy boy for an evening of Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.  And she can see there is to be no more ‘dreaming in the dawnlight’ for her, there is to be no more ‘doing lovely things’. She can see the boxed oil paints in the basement. The stacks of sketchbooks. The letter from Miss Costigan at the Detroit Art Institute: “Laurel is an unusually talented illustrator. It would be the institute’s loss to see her leave.”

Laurel knows the Ford’s headlights will sweep the driveway when he pulls in. She shall see that from the kitchen window, steamed as it is. And he will come in, and stamp the snow from his feet on the linoleum floor, and ask “What’s for dinner?” And she will say “its right here, let me heat it up for you… how was your day, do you love me, do you love me, can you let me go?”

Stewart

Stewart is not worried about getting home in time for dinner. He knows when it is time to do business and when it is time to play house. Stewart watches Paul, Cookie and Jack as they drink and smoke and drink and reel off to the pisser, disappearing in the fog of cigarette smoke, elbowing their way past the crowd at the bar and then reappearing at the table. They are not his friends. They are customers. He knows how much his business and his family depend on them. He knows what pricks they can be. Demanding. Threatening. Disloyal. Powerful.  There is a purchase order in his pocket that absolves them for this.

Stewart loosens his tie. He listens to their stories. The stories he will tell Laurel. He edits and anthologizes. Stewart replaces ‘cocksucker’ with ‘bonehead’; ‘motherfucker’ becomes ‘jerk’; ‘cunt’, gal. Some are irredeemable. He considers the order in which he will tell them. Stewart will sit and eat re-heated meatloaf and tell her these stories. She will sit and listen, apron folded on her lap. Stewart will show her the purchase order he has received. He will not understand then that what he sees in her eyes is not adulation but hope given over to shattered wonderment at what she has become.

The little Formica four-top fills with empty brown longnecks and Stewart keeps buying rounds. Three Dutch and a Coke; three Dutch, three shots of Kessler’s and a Coke.  Three more shots of Kessler’s. Another round of Dutch. And a Coke. As the verbal violence and ambiguous laughter assaults his spirit, Stewart reaches into his suit coat pocket and touches the folded purchase order.

The waitress reaches over his shoulder to deliver shot glasses of Kessler’s, bottles of Old Dutch, and a Coke. Placing the Coke in front of him, she asks “What else do you need?”  Her breasts touch his back, and she stays there for a long moment. She doesn’t have what Stewart needs.

Stewart does not know that the crush of the waitress’s breasts against his back as she serves the drinks is one offer of fate. The purchase order in his pocket to supply Goods and Services for The Marblehead Quarry Operations in the amount of Thirty-eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-eight dollars, dated this 18th day of December, 1959 is a document of propitiation. The desperate fidelity that Stewart will leave the Sportsman Bar and Grill with and go home  is fate’s offer denied. The devotion of the two little girls who kissed him goodbye this morning is grace.

Stewart waits for a signal; waits to be guided from within as to the precise moment to leave.  He waits to shake on his overcoat and step into the falling snow. He reaches under the table and pushes his heavy wingtip shoes into their overshoe rubbers, snapping their back over the heel of his wingtips with a practiced pull.  He knows swirls of cigarette smoke following him out of the bar will mingle with the mist as warm air from the crowded bar hits the winter evening. He waits in satisfied anticipation of the fresh, cold air; of the long drive home through the indifferent night. The bawl of the jukebox and Cookie’s parting shots will fade as the door shuts. The snowy night will offer only silence at first as Stewart stands there on the sidewalk, smiling. A car will creep down the street and stop for the light at the corner. The illuminated sign above his head will creak as it swings in the winter wind, and send him home.

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