Friday, April 11, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Nine: A Little Bit at a Time


They drove to Port Townsend through beautiful farmland valleys, bathed in rare February sunlight. Shawn ambled the old brick storefronts of town, Tacoma tucked into his shoulder, the smells of grilled seafood and saltwater taffy filling his nose.
            Port Townsend’s north-south bearing offered a clear choice of sides: sunny or shady. Shawn and Tacoma joined the 80 percent who chose the former. Tacoma was most interested in curios and furnishings, determined to liven up her drab apartment. She stopped at a framed print, a Japanese girl in traditional white makeup and kimono, reclining on a settee.
            “She’s just gorgeous, don’t you think?”
            “I’ve always had a fascination for Oriental women. They have a kind of serenity that American women don’t.”
            “Especially Pennsylvania women,” said Shawn.
            Tacoma gave him a punch in the ribs. “Just for that, I’m getting it. And I’m making you carry it.”
            They bought ice cream cones and took them to a used bookstore. Tacoma went straight to Russian literature.
            “I never got around to telling you – that memorable night we met – but I was a Russian major in college. Omigod! Look at this.”
            She pulled out an old book with black leather binding and gold Russian letters.
            “Nikolay Gogol,” she said, flipping the pages. “My God, that smell! They should put that in a bottle and call it ‘Old Books.’”
            “Speaking of the night we met,” said Shawn. “What were you looking so anxious about?”
            “Oh! I was looking for my friend Terry. It was her idea to go to the open-mic that night, but then she got stomach flu and was too busy throwing up to call me. She’s all better now.”
            “Send her my thanks.”
            “Sure. Ouch! Thirty bucks.”
            “Little rich forya?”
            “It’s just that I’ve read it in English already. Seems like kind of a waste.”
            “Let me get half of it.”
            “Oh, well, I didn’t mean to...”
            “Don’t worry. I’ve got a nice painting job right now. Just so long as you read some of it to me.”
            “Oh,” said Tacoma. “So you’re one of those, are you?”
            “One of whats?”
            “Some guys get off on women who speak Russian.”
            “No kidding!”
            “So say something.”
            “Yeah, that’s kinda fun. What’s it mean?”
            “How’s it hangin’?”
            “That the Bronx translation?”
            “Nah. Picksburgh – where we take the ‘T’ dawn-tawn ‘n’ eat pirogies ‘n’ pop ‘n’at. What’s so funny? They really talk like that.”
            Shawn was trying to fight a laugh. “Not that,” he said. “I was just thinking of one of my sicker fantasies.”
            “Well! You’re gonna have to tell me now.”
            “Okay. Having, um... relations with a woman while she speaks to me in a language other than English.”
            Tacoma cultivated a wicked smile, her eyes tick-tocking back and forth like a retro cat-clock.
            “Wha...?” asked Shawn.
            “Shto-NO-vava,” she said.
            “Shto-NO-vava,” he repeated.
            “Good! We’ll teach you more later.”
            Shawn hated backtracking, so he had worked out a loop, across Whidbey Island and back through Seattle. They waited in the ferry line for 45 minutes. Tacoma read him a chapter of Russian, then stretched out to rest her head in Shawn’s lap. Once on the ferry, they climbed up top to watch a bank of clouds drift over the Olympics and drown out the sun.
            They drove up Whidbey to Deception Pass, where a high bridge joins the island to the mainland. They walked across to watch the wild currents below, then hiked to a beach of smooth stones the size of coffee coasters. Shawn stood and watched the water, which flowed left-to-right in front of him, but right-to-left on the far side. He found a good stone and winged it sidearm. It left a dozen dimples and sank, fifty feet away. He felt hands wrapping him from behind.
            “You’re good at everything, aren’t you?”
            “Just try me.”
            “I will. What the hell is that?”
            She stared at the top of a Douglas fir.
            “Bald eagle,” said Shawn. “They’re so thick around here, you gotta beat ‘em off with a stick.”
            “And there’s another.”
            “Just past the first one, up and to the left.”
            Just then, the two of them took off in tandem, cruising over the water to the meeting point of the currents. The larger one dropped, dipping its claws into the water but coming up empty. They returned to their treetops, unfazed.
            “Can I breathe now?” said Tacoma.
            “No,” he answered. He did something he’d never thought to do, peeling back her fingers like the petals of a flower and kissing the palm of her hand. Her smile drained all the light from the overcast.
            “Thank you,” she said.

Drifting the dark stretches toward Seattle, Shawn was feeling drowsy. Tacoma saw him shaking his eyes, and ran a finger along his shoulder.
            “Here,” she said. “I brought something for entertainment.” She pulled a cassette from her purse and slipped it into Shawn’s deck. What came out was Tacoma’s voice.
            “So tell me about Vaudeville, Grandma.”
            What came out next was the voice of a charming witch – the one who feeds you candy right before popping you into the oven.
            “Oh! It was wonderful. Heeeh! You never knew who was gonna be big someday. I was on a bill with Allen and Burns one week, and they had this good-looking tie salesman who was always tagging along. His name was Archie Leach. Years later, his name was Cary Grant.”
            The Tacoma on the tape let out a squeal of laughter.
            “Mind you,” said Grandma. “I was no big deal, showgirl mostly, one time a magician’s assistant. But I was a stunner, honey, and I got invited to a lot of parties. One time I went to a big tuh-doo at the Carnegie mansion, and there was this big palooka following me around. I tried to shake him by going out to the garden, but there he was, right behind me like my freakin’ shadow. So I just told him, flat-out, that I was a good Italian girl, and if I was ever gonna sacrifice my virtue it wouldn’t be for an ugly mug like himself. Hah! He stomped away, and I never saw him again. Well the next day, my best gal Trudy informs me that I have just put the damper on Babe Ruth! Well! I don’t care how many run-homes a guy hits, if he looks like that he can just forget it.”
            Tape Tacoma let out a generous roll of laughter, while live Tacoma whispered footnotes. “I recorded this just before I left Pittsburgh. Grandma was pretty sick, and I just wanted to make sure I...”
            “Gracie Allen introduced me to Flo Ziegfield once,” said Grandma. “And Ziegfield invited me to New York for an audition, but my mother she... she...” She finished the sentence in a plaintive cry. “She wouldn’t let me!”
            Tacoma hit the eject button.
            “I’m sorry. I forgot that was coming. All my stories end up at Flo freakin’ Ziegfield. And that seventy-year-old bitterness, it don’t get better with age, honey. YOu see, my mom had a lot of problems when I was twelve, so I went to live with Grandma. She did a pretty good job, I guess, but when I got back from college she still insisted on running every five minutes of my life. That’s why I left. Change of subject? Please?”
            “Even better,” said Shawn. He spotted a rest area and pulled in. They took their respective pit stops, then met at the water fountain. Shawn pulled her to a picnic bench, away from the lights.
            “Well,” said Tacoma. “What could you have in mind?”
            Shawn gave her a long kiss, then said, “But that’s not all. Do you know Orion?”
            He pointed behind her to the southwest sky.
            “Oh! Orion.”
            “Wanted to show you a little trick I learned in Boy Scouts.” He turned her around and extended an arm over her shoulder.
            “See the foot down there? That’s Rigel. Rigel is Arabic for ‘foot.’ Go figger. Now the head up there? Sorta reddish? That’s Betelgeuse. Now. Start at Rigel, then head straight through Betelgeuse until you hit something.”
            “Little star there?”
            “Nope. Go further.”
            “Two big stars.”
            “Right! That’s Castor on the right, Polux on the left. The twins of Gemini.”
            “Now. Go back to Betelgeuse.”
            “Then straight through the right-hand shoulder and...”
            “Bright star!”
            “That’s Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus. If you keep going you’ll hit the Pleiades. Now! Orion’s belt, right to left: Mintaka, Alnilam, and... Alnitak. The Arabs call them ‘the golden nuts.’”
            “Like to meet a man with golden nuts.”
            “I could’ve expected that. Now! Follow the belt right to left and keep going.”
            “Nother bright star, right... there.”
            “Righteous! Any guesses?”
            “That Starship Enterprise.”
            “Sirius. The Dog Star. Canis Major. Brightest damn star in the sky.”
            “Woof! So Orion is like a big roadmap to the stars.”
            “Yep! Ready for the freeway?”
            “One more kiss.”
            It wasn’t as hard to stay awake after that, and soon they were pulling up to Tacoma’s house. She asked him in for coffee. They climbed a side stairwell to her apartment and walked a long hall to her room. She had a large window overlooking the front yard, and a ceiling that angled down at either side, giving the room a cozy geometry. Tacoma hit a button on her stereo, and turned to him with a smile.
            He seemed to remember something about coffee, but didn’t mind, standing and wrapping an arm about her waist. The stereo played a country ballad with a distorted edge – a lazy strum, a woman’s voice full of bending. They swayed together, well-matched, and Shawn turned to kiss her cheek. He realized it was a breakup song, full of goodbyes and closing doors.
            “Who is this?”
            “Mazzy Star.”
            “Never heard of her. But I like.”
            “I’ll make you a tape.”
            She offered to give him a neckrub. He sat on the floor as she perched behind him on her futon, digging into his shoulders till he was all rubbery. When he offered to return the favor, she removed her blouse and bra, revealing generous milk-white breasts.
            It seemed too casual to be an invitation. Even if it had been, he wouldn’t have taken it. Because this was how you fell in love with a woman, a little bit at a time. He sat behind her and lay his fingers across her shoulder blades.
            She turned her head half-around and asked him to pull her hair – then asked him to pull harder. Once he reached the desired torque her eyes squinted in pleasure and her smile rose up in the blue light of the stereo.
            She asked him to stay and sleep, which he did, surprised at his ability to hold his charges. She kissed him awake at sunrise, whispering of bagels on the counter, and the long-awaited coffee.
            Sometime in the night, he woke in a plane of moonlight, peered across the bed to find her high cheekbones, placid eyelids, a study in blue-white marble. He put his lips just close enough to her forehead not to wake her, then sat back to watch her slow ocean breathing.

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