Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Observation is Nine-Tenths of Possession

by David Vardeman

I saw this prostitute in church once.
How did you know she was a prostitute?
You just do, you know? I’d seen her around downtown now and then. On Sundays. Usually always on Sundays. I’d go to my parents for dinner and then afterward I’d drive down Second Street to the Second Street bridge, and she’d be at the bus stop by the YMCA with her shoulder bag. She rested one of her hands on the shoulder bag. The hand of the arm of the shoulder it was over, usually. Or sometimes the other hand of the other arm, crossed over, resting on it.

It’s hard to know what to do with your hands, Dale. When you’re waiting like that, I mean. I ought to know. Like, I had to be in a play once. On a stage. And I didn’t know what to do with my hands the whole time. It was agony. It would have been nice to have one of those shoulder bags to put over my shoulder to rest one or the other or both my hands on.
What did you play?
Juliet’s nurse.
Well, you had hips, didn’t you? You could have put your hands on your hips, couldn’t you’ve? That’s what God gave you hips for, isn’t it?
To put my hands on when I played Juliet’s nurse and felt totally awkward the whole time on stage? God, for a better reason than that, I hope. I mean, what if I’d never even played Juliet’s nurse? Then I’d have had hips for no reason whatsoever according to your theory of hips.
Look. I have no theory of hips. I’m just trying to say if I’d been the director I’d’ve tried to help you out of your awkwardness by saying like, “Use those hips, why don’t you?”
I should never have been on stage in the first place. I wasn’t cut out for it.
What do you mean you’re not cut out for it? You’ve got hips. Of course you’re cut out for it.
That’s like saying anybody that’s got a shoulder bag is cut out to be a prostitute.
No, it’s not like saying that. Anybody that’s got hips can act. That’s a true statement. Anybody that has a shoulder bag can be a prostitute. That’s a false statement. You see the difference? True statement, false statement. Big difference.
Well, OK. I should have done more with my hips. Why didn’t the director see that?
He was a poor director. Get a better director next time.
There won’t be a next time.
Why not? You’ve still got hips. And probably more hips now than when you played Juliet’s nurse. But that’s beside the point. I was talking about something entirely different from your banging around in “Romeo and Juliet” decades ago.
You were talking about a prostitute, weren’t you?
I was trying to, and then you went on a binge about acting and how your arms felt superfluous when in fact the first thing they teach you when you walk into an acting class is, “Forget you have arms.”
So people without arms make the best actors? Is that what you’re saying?
It could be, but then I’d really rather tell you about my experience with this prostitute.
You had experience with this prostitute?
How far away from a prostitute can you be, Dale, and still be said to be having an experience with her?
The first few times I was about forty feet away and moving rapidly.
You never slowed down?
Did you honk? Or wave?
Good God, no. I didn’t want to give her any ideas. I didn’t want her to think I was interested.
But you were.
Not in that way. Distantly only. I mean somewhat obsessively, yes. But only obsessively in the sense that this happened beginning maybe thirty years ago and the last time I saw her was maybe twenty-five years ago, and I’ve never stopped thinking about her.
Well, I don’t mean I think about her constantly, but, yes, periodically, I’d say. Continually. It’s a continual thing. I’ve never forgotten her in other words. I’m still thinking about her to this day and, as a matter of fact, am trying to tell you about her right now. In fact, I spend more time thinking about her than I spend thinking about most anyone from that period of my life or from the two periods following, right up to today. So, can I get on with it? Did you get good reviews, by the way?
My reviews were dismal. They didn’t mention me at all.
At least they didn’t take me to task for not knowing what to do with my hands. They didn’t write, “Abigail Finch, startlingly incompetent as Juliet’s nurse, single-handedly ruined an otherwise brilliant production by not knowing what to do with her hands. She seemed not to realize she had hips. One wishes desperately she’d had a handbag.”
It was the director’s fault.
Don’t worry. I never think about it these days. I haven’t thought about it in maybe twenty-two years except for a little bit each day when I’m in one of those situations, you know, where I’m talking to someone and I suddenly notice he’s looking at my hands with an expression of bewilderment on his face. What are you looking at? Don’t look at my hands, Dale.
I wasn’t looking at your hands.
Yes, you were. You were. If you weren’t looking at my hands, why did my arms suddenly feel longer than my legs?
So you can see the difficulties a prostitute has to surmount. I mean, just standing there for no purpose. Well, not for no purpose. But at least not for the purpose she’s trying to appear to be standing there for.
Like waiting for a bus. Outside the YMCA.
Yes. So can I get back to talking about my experience, or lack thereof, with this, let me call her my, my prostitute?
Be my guest.
All right.
Who’s stopping you?
Anyway. And she would level her gaze at you as you were, as I was driving by she would level her gaze at me like two cannons aimed at me…
And that was supposed to attract you?
Like a hunter sighting through the cross-hairs of his rifle.
Sounds menacing.
There was an element of menace to it, yes. And something feral. There was something feral about her posture, her hardness, her need, her distrust. But she herself was under the gun, like. She had three seconds at the most to get the message across that she was available for immoral purposes, and not the usual immoral purpose of getting on a bus. She had to make it plain in a hurry. She had no time to waste. She stood there perfectly still with her head thrust forward and her jaw jutted out and her eyes grabbing at me and trying to pull me in. She had three seconds to make an indelible impression. There was an explosive desperation to it that I’ve never forgotten. On those hot lonely suffocating Sunday afternoons with the streets so quiet and deserted. And maybe just a little bit of trash blowing in the gutters in a filthy breeze that wasn’t any relief at all. And me, full from dinner, complacent in the afterglow of wholesome companionship, the love of my parents taken for granted, heading home past that corner where she stood in the glaring sun making all the impression of a fist slung out at any male passerby. Like a punch thrown at lightning speed. Those black hard eyes. It’s a wonder they didn’t shatter the windshield, that’s how fast and hard they came. Pow! And I was gone, trying to make the next traffic light before it went red.
You saw her there every Sunday?
I don’t know. It seems like it. Probably not. But thirty years on it seems like it. Maybe it was only three times. But remembering her on one occasion seems to serve for every Sunday from thirty years ago. Because I don’t remember specifically anything that happened on any other Sunday.
All your Sundays were nothing but driving by and seeing that prostitute for three seconds staring a slow down at you and shouldering her bag.
Yes. That’s all that’s left from thirty years ago. Seeing her for three seconds every Sunday. Or on three Sundays that serve for every Sunday.
She knew what to do with her hands.
She wasn’t worried about her hands. She was using her eyes. Her powers of concentration. She was trying to will me to slow down and stop and pay cash. Other than at the bus stop those Sunday afternoons I saw her three other times. Once I stopped in McDonald’s on the way home one of those Sundays and saw her sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee. She was staring straight ahead out the window like you do when your thoughts are far away from what you’re actually looking at. Lost to the present. Lost to the place where you are.
What do you think she was thinking about?
She had very mannish large strong-looking hands. And the nails were painted red. She had all of her fingertips on her cup. The fingertips of both hands were touching her cup. And then I left. The next time I saw her was after I’d moved to Frankfort. Some friends and I came back to Louisville one Saturday evening to go to a street fair. There was Zydeco music, and people danced in the streets. And I saw her. She was with someone. A nice enough looking guy. Kind of countrified, maybe. He was a lot shorter than she was. She was built like a strapping farm boy up from Bullitt County. Did I mention that? And her companion for the evening was this little June bug of a man in a Western shirt, pushing sixty but thinking twenty. They were walking along in front of my friends and me. She had her arm hooked in his and was holding that same arm with her other hand.
Like the shoulder bag situation.
Kind of. And she was giggling like a school girl.
Yes. They came to the door of the restaurant he was taking her to…
Was it a nice restaurant?
Yes, it was. All the restaurants in that area were nice.
Not cheap?
No. Good restaurants. Nice clientele. In fact, I worried she might stand out when I saw them going in there. But the thing I remember most is that her companion stopped to let her go first in the door, and when he did he made a little bow to her, very cavalier, and swept his arm forward regally and said, “Ma’am,” and guided her by lightly touching her back with his hand. And she dipped her head to acknowledge the honor of being treated with deference by a gentleman and gave her right leg a frisky little playful kick and went on through the door he held open. And my heart was glad. It was glad because she was being treated kindly by her date for the evening who seemed like a nice fellow and was treating her like it was a privilege for him to be out with her and like they were silly teenagers out on a first day. I didn’t say a word to my companions. What would it matter to them that I’d known the woman who’d just gone into that restaurant for years as a prostitute who stared at me every Sunday afternoon?
They might have cared.
Do you care?
If you do.
I do. But I’m not sure why.
Don’t worry about why, Dale. Just do. Care, I mean. Do care.
Well, obviously I do. So, OK, that’s settled. I do care. For better or worse. Richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. I do care. God help me, I don’t know why I care. I cared then, and I care now, and I don’t know why, but I was glad to see her there on that street several years after I’d stopped seeing her at the bus stop. I was glad to see her with a man who was behaving like a gentleman with her.
At the start of the evening.
At the start of the evening at least. Who was treating her like a lady. I was glad to see she was charmed by him and was trying to be charming herself. And it was genuine. It wasn’t an act or a part she was playing. She was genuinely delighted to be being treated like a lady he was proud to be out on a date with. He was taking her to a regular restaurant, not a dark dive. There were linen tablecloths and linen napkins and candles on the table in that restaurant.
And you care about all this.
I do. I certainly do.
Don’t get upset.
I’m not upset.
Yes, you are. You’re upset. I can tell.
It’s been a long time, that’s all, Abby. It upsets me that it’s been such a long time. So, then we went on down the street toward the Zydeco music and the street dancing. And then time passed. More time. I still came to Louisville on Sundays. Well, every other Sunday by then, to my parents’ for dinner. I’d go to the cathedral downtown for services and be out to their house by noon. In the afternoons I didn’t take the route I’d taken those Sunday afternoons years before. I was living in Frankfort by then and not right across the river anymore
So you didn’t know if she was still at her regular bus stop?
No, it would have been out of my way to go that route and see.
Still, you could have once.
I should have. But I didn’t. But, there were other things going on in my life, and I just didn’t. But, listen, the last and final time I ever saw her, except in my head, that is, because I see her quite often still in my mind’s eye and wonder about her, I was in church one morning there in the cathedral downtown. I’d just come back to my pew from communion. I always sat way in the back on the left side. I looked over to the right side directly opposite me, and there she was. She’d come in late while we were all heading up the aisle to communion. She was on her knees on the kneeler. She had a white lace doily thing on her head and white lace gloves. Her hands were folded on top the pew in front of her. She was crying. She’d been crying for some time and was still crying when I saw her. The black mascara was streaming down her cheeks. Her lips were puckered up and moved like she was praying to herself, well, not to herself, but to God, but you know what I mean, so she wouldn’t disturb anyone. She looked around distracted and fearful every now and then, when someone went by. She never looked at me. I looked at her. I stared at her like she’d stared at me for three seconds all those Sundays I drove by. I don’t know what I would have done if she’d turned and looked directly at me like Jesus did Peter when he betrayed Him. I should have gone over and asked her if everything was all right. I should have gone over and asked her if I could help her, if she needed something. She needed consolation. She needed someone to talk to. She needed someone to ask her why she was crying. She needed not to be ignored
You didn’t ignore her, Dale.
Yeah, but I did. I walked out of the church that day and never saw her again and never stopped regretting I didn’t talk to her and never forgot her nor never will. She doesn’t know I’ll never forget her.
Well, maybe she wouldn’t care you haven’t. Maybe she’d want something else than to never be forgotten.
I should have reached out to her. I should at last have asked her her name.
You did all you could do. You went about your business. Anything you could have tried to do to ease the woman’s heart would have come to very little.
I’ve prayed for her since.
I prayed for her today.
OK, so right now this makes me wonder if there’s someone out there who remembers how bad I was as Juliet’s nurse and has thought about me ever since for like twenty plus years and has even occasionally seen me and said to himself, “Oh, my God. There’s that woman who was so bad as Juliet’s nurse. I’ll never forget her.” And maybe he’s religious and he even prays for me, like, “Dear God, in your infinite mercy please keep that woman who completely ruined an otherwise flawless production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ from ever appearing on stage again.”
Has anyone ever come up to you, a stranger, say, out of the blue, just some random person and said to you, “You do realize you have hips, don’t you?”
No. No one’s ever done that. Not that I remember anyway. Then again, people are generally shy about marching up to you and pointing out you have certain body parts. Like you were shy about talking to her.
Well, I wouldn’t had to have alluded to the fact I suspected or knew or heavily surmised that she was a prostitute. I could have just gone up to her like I would have gone up to any crying person and said, “Hey, now, what seems to be the problem?” She wouldn’t need to have known I had some history of thinking about her a whole lot and of not wanting her to be a prostitute.
Like my stranger wouldn’t need to make it known he wanted me not to be an actress? It was easy for me to stay off the stage. It was a humiliating experience, Dale. But certainly far less humiliating than the humiliation of being a prostitute. I never went back to my humiliation. But she went back to hers every day. For years, apparently. I can’t imagine being caught like that and having to live out your most degrading experiences day after day, for years. Once in a while having a nice lonely little man take you to an actual nice restaurant where they have white tablecloths where everybody stares at you and knows what you are and thinks you don’t belong there because you stick out like a sore thumb like you stick out like a sore thumb at church and people feel you don’t belong there either and for years afterward will talk about the time they saw a prostitute in church like you never belonged there in the first place when in fact the place exists because of and for you first and foremost and you belong there more than anyone else does which is why they all walked off when Jesus said, “Let whoever is righteous among you cast the first stone.” So I am saying, Dale, you should forget you ever saw here there and stop going around telling people you saw a prostitute in church when in actuality she belongs there and is as much or more a part of the place than any priest or any communion-ite is. You might as well stop wondering what ever happened to her like there was some further place she was going after that, some aftermath, some punch line, repercussion, fallout, and you might as well face the fact that she’s still there, on her knees or not, walking around admiring the statues or the stations of the cross or the baptismal font, maybe, broken, consoled, gladdened, home at last, in company with God, Who’ll, you know, kind of take it from there because He has to because people are so ineffectual and tend to go their own merry ways after a minute or two or a night or two. I mean, it says a broken and contrite spirit God will not turn away. And so He didn’t and so she belongs there and will end up there. That’s what you need to know. If you remember her there, she’ll certainly remember herself there too and go back and keep going back in her mind and heart even if not always in her body. She’s wherever she is with God, and you’d better allow her that, Dale. It’s not up to you. It wasn’t on that day, and it hasn’t been since. What would your cheap little attention have meant? She already had God. She’d already won His heart. How arrogant to think it was up to you or that you figured in the equation at all. You’re so arrogant sometimes. It drives me up the wall.
There, Abby. Just then. I mean, you did so many expressive and interesting and strangle-ish and tear-him-from-limb-to-limbish thing with your hands. Great job! If you could draw from that well when you’re on stage, you could be great. If you could learn to get up there and somehow not freeze. I definitely just saw potential in there right then if you could harness it.
Maybe she’s praying for you, Dale. Maybe she’s praying for all the tongue-tied brutes and voyeurs in the pews.

1 comment:

  1. This is really good. I loved the characters and the way he saw the woman as more than just a prostitute.
    It was like he could see and feel inside someone else.
    He's a great writer!