Several Women Dancing: A Novel (2002) — click to order
Boston or romaine, I wondered. Boston or romaine or both . . . standing in doubt by the fresh-produce counter in the supermarket, overwhelmed—as I usually am—by the profusion of vegetables to choose among: varieties of lettuce, broccoli, parsnips, cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas, radishes, carrots, zucchini, celery, a confusing welter of leaves and roots and seed casings, all of which complement, better or worse, an equally confusing range of meats and fishes and fowl, the mix of which I usually get wrong, finding myself each week standing before them in a state of fresh indecision, running through computations and recollections of which taste combinations pleased my palate over the last seven days, holding two small onions while musing distractedly, trying to recall whether I have a surplus or dearth of them at home, staring absently at a tangle of bean sprouts and wondering how many days they would survive should I lose my appetite for them between now and the time I prepare my dinner for today or tomorrow or the next day, settling in my mind whether the cucumber at home has reached a point of decay sufficient to warrant its replacement with another or, indeed, whether I enjoy cucumbers enough to warrant my ever purchasing them again at all—these deliberations or ones like them coursing through my brain this one particular day when I stood debating, oh, not the relative merits of Boston or romaine or both, but the advisability of steaming string beans or sautéing snow-peas with my fillet of haddock, or perhaps whether or not I would want to include mushrooms in the salad I might assemble mid-week (it being summer and I being partial to salads mid-week in the summer) (unless it was winter and I was considering the most prudent quantity of potatoes to purchase for mashing and covering in hot gravy, to accompany the roast I’d bought to comfort and warm me against the chills of the season), when I saw her there, summer or winter, fall or spring, her, there, amid the tiered rows of produce—vegetables and fruit—there in her rich furs or shorts and halter-top or light coat or jeans and windbreaker, looking not like a goddess with power to make me cringe and beg for a favoured glance or stand proud and erect when granted some small, unsolicited attention, not a Black Satin doll of imperial bearing and forbidding presence, but a woman buying vegetables, a girl who looked no more certain than I about the prudence of having chicken share a plate with fried onions or an omelette with a baked potato, a lady, moreover, who had a little garland of tiny pimples sprouting on her left temple, covered up some with a coating of makeup, but visible nonetheless—a person, simply: human and vulnerable and present and approachable. Certainly approachable. Men approach women in situations like this every day. I have done so myself on innumerable occasions. There’s nothing to it. Simply glance across the counter spread with apples or oranges (it was such a counter, set in the middle of the aisle, that she stood at, on the other side from me) and say “Are these good for baking?” (if apples) or “Would these be the best for juicing, do you think?” (if oranges) and away you go, launched on a little pond of conversation that can grow with remarks on the weather to a small lake, and from there expand through a wealth of topics to a sea, an ocean, the two of you sailing happily about on it until it’s the most natural thing in the world to say “You like Bartók? But they’re playing his second piano concerto just next week at the symphony! Why, I believe—yes, I do . . . I have a pair of tickets” (you don’t, but that can be attended to that afternoon at the symphony box office—a mere trifle) “I’d be delighted to have you join me . . . if you’d like,” and there you are, a week later, sitting in the symphony, her with a rose you bought for her, leaning her head on your shoulder with a dreamy smile on her lips. So I asked: “Would these be the best for juicing, do you think?” (my heart in my throat) and she looked over, rather casually, and replied “I don’t know anything about juicing onions” (I was holding a large red onion), at which, of course, I laughed and said “No, I meant the oranges,” to which she replied with a blank look, a hint of suspicion around her eyes, and the flat remark “These are apples.” I was wondering how to get from there to Bartók, when she eyed me now with open suspicion and began to move pointedly off towards the frozen food department.
The shopping-cart I’d picked up on entering the store had a reluctant right front wheel and a left rear one in need of oil, so that my progress was accompanied by an annoying little duet of scrapes and squeaks, not that I paid it any heed, my peregrinations through the aisles being undertaken in a state of preoccupation, looking less at the rows and stacks of canned and packaged foods than at the ends of the aisles where I might catch a glimpse of Black Satin—which I did, once or twice, each time a thrill coursing through me, a weakening of the knees, a drop of the stomach, as though her presence before me created an absence within me—my course through the store being dictated not so much by my gastronomic needs as by my calculation of when she would arrive at the check-out counter, so that I could be there immediately or soon after, following her out at a discreet distance, but near enough to notice her consternation at her car door, where she stood, grocery-bags on the ground, searching through her purse, trying all the pockets of her coat and jeans (if it was winter or fall or spring), and finally peering through the window, doubtless at the sight of her keys dangling from the ignition, at which point I appear beside her to announce that I’ll get a wire coat-hanger from the store and have her inside her car in seconds, though of course it’s more like minutes, during which I eradicate any bad impression that may have been created by my awkwardness at the fresh-produce counter—not by any direct allusion to that unfortunate scene but by simple force of presence and proficiency in the task at hand and purity of motive: to help someone out of a jam, which she obviously appreciates, talking warmly of this and that, revealing an interest in music, Bartók especially, at which point I go to mention that his second piano concerto is on at the symphony the following week, but suddenly recall that I have no idea of the symphony program for next or any other week and instead mumble something about having a fair collection of recordings of Bartók works—concerti and other orchestral pieces—and then realize that this may sound like some sleazy pre-proposition and so fall rather silent, leery of making a bad impression, and besides I need to concentrate pretty hard on where the tip of the wire is going inside her car, which is a late-model import with no knobs on the push-locks, which means I have to hook the handle to get it open, which I finally do and she’s inside in a trice, thanking me and saying, “Maybe we’ll bump into each other at a concert someday,” and I approach the check-out counter, making my way through and paying and walking out the door wondering why there’s no sign of her and then realizing that the cashier is calling me back to pick up my purchases, which I’d left behind and which I retrieve and carry to my car, finding my keys locked inside and seeing Black Satin pull away in a late-model import.
This is a story, a double-layered story, a story with two levels, a double-layered story with two levels, a story that does indeed have two levels, this one, this story, this double-layered, two-levelled story—a two-storeyed story, I guess you could say—and the first level is this that you are reading. You are reading the first layered, levelled storey of this double-layered, two-levelled story, this one, this story that you’re reading—if you’re even reading it, if it’s even a story. You are reading the first storey of this double-layered, split-level story. This. You are reading this split-level storey, this little suburban story, and this reading you are layering with levels split and this two-storeyed layer is a story you are reading with two levels and this is the first level you are reading—the first level, which is just as well. It’s just a well left in front—or is it behind?—that suburban split-level house you are storying with these two layers stuck, this story stuck that should be stuck, this Tory tucked into two layers. It’s Whigging him out of his little suburban split-level house that’s about to be eaten up; it’s not going to be there for long. This little split-layered house is about to be levelled., this story is about to be levelled, this house this Tory’s Whigged out about’s about to be out, about to be a story about to be a house, about to go about, to abut a house about a bout, the bout the house is about, to a bout, to a boat. This Tory has a boathouse. It’s a house about a boat, a split-level house about a two-layered double-storeyed house that has a Tory in it. There’s a Tory in the house that’s about the boat. The boat’s about the house and it’s so nice to have a house about the man. The Tory is a man and it ist gut ist gott in him, he is a man about a house that’s in a story. He’s about the house; he’s about the boat; he’s a boat the house is about. He’s the captain of his own household and he holds his house. He’s the captain of the ship of state. This Tory is the house the ship is built on. He’s in shipshape, this captain of the story in the house is what he ships his shape, he keeps the shape in ship-state, he’s the captain of his own fate, and his fate’s his house, his little split-level suburban—yes, suburban little ship. He’s a little ship, a little captain of his own split-ship state of his true grit. He is a gritty little Tory. It’s a nitty little house, a nitty-gritty story house, a ship of a house, a boat state in his split-state ship-level two-grounded double-layered level of a two-by-four built house in the suburban ship, ’cause it’s so nice to have a ship about the state he is the captain of his fate and of his hate, he is the householder heist das haus this Tory of a Whig that grits his teeth and holds his house. He tried his level best, his double-layered level best, his split-storeyed double best, level-layered hut in the butt of the state in the super urban home, his happy little superb an’ split-level home upon the waters where it rocks the ship of state that’s run a double-layered super-levelled ground-floor plan, the ship of state aground upon the double-layered level of the two-floor plan, a ban upon the double-levelled, two-ship state. The Tory gritting Whig has gout, has got his gout und gott is out upon the two-storey plan of his third floor in that little suburban split-level house in the boat of state the ship-house is lost on who has got the key to the boat-shaped ship-house he states his cause as lost in this Whig-headed Grit whose Tory is a lead one, the lead story in today’s paper, how the split-level house is a house divided and a house did not divide the great ship of state, the state we’re in, the house is quite divided. This is a story about not a Tory but a Whiggy little flit, a Gritty little Whig, a household word, a boathouse in shippy shape, a houseboat in shapey ship. This is a story about a house shape in shippy boat, a two-levelled, double-storeyed, shape-shipped house in the superb an’ little household that’s split into two, and he’s the captain of it with his shippy state, and he is in this two-levelled double-layered, bubble-shaped boat that’s a story. It’s his story. It’s his Tory-tainted tale of how the ship became a house divided against itself. It was a house, it was a ship, it was a state to be in, and he was in a state. He was a captain of his own ship of state and he ran the show from top to bottom, till he bottomed out and sank his ship, his house, his boat, his storeyed houseboat, storied boathouse, shaped, shipped, split, levelled, and sunk.