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Duet

by Pamela Erens

GEORGIA AVENUE on an afternoon in mid-September! Pennants panicky in the rough wind outside the newest commercial establishments-a drugstore with a banner blaring, "Take Hoyle's Vitamin Capsules for Everyday Vitality!"; a shop whose window is crammed with new, used, and broken radios. This is a land of men in hats and coarse sleeves, of cigar ash ground into showroom floors by lady assistants in great heels, of spit gobs shining in the slant light on the sparkle sidewalks, of errand boys-not boys at all-with grins full of gold teeth. This is not a place for children! This is not a place for mothers!

All the same, if the two of them are to succeed, if they wish to triumph, there is no choice. This is where anything in the world one might need (anything, that is, besides love, family, God), is obtained, sorted, and put in its place; is ordered, tagged, sold, accounted for. This, the girl knows, is the work of men: to classify, file, calculate. To bestow names: Frigidaire, Murphy bed, therapeutic formula. How the girl hopes that someday, although she will never be a man, they will let her file, alphabetize, add numbers in svelte double columns.

Her mother clamps her hat against the wind, smashing the blond puff above her forehead, a desecration that will make her weepy and angry all through tonight's dinner-maybe all the way until bedtime. The girl, because it is exciting to imitate her mother even when she's angry, brutally clamps her own hat, although she knows this wind is a coward wind, and will not dare take her hat.

The wind continues its tattoo: rat-a-tat-tat. The wind whines like a violin.

Her mother, in a cream-colored dress printed with tea roses and tiny cream-colored fabric buttons up to her breastbone, passes through the entranceway in one courageous burst, and the girl hurries in as the door swings back at her.

Her mother is tiny; even the girl knows it. She knows it would be better if she saw her mother as a warrior queen, a mama lion like the other mothers at her school, who come in with their painted eyes and large hands and tell the teacher: No, my Nancy won't be saying The Lord's Prayer with the Christian children; or, Henrietta should not be made to finish her lunches. But she has seen the fact of it: both of them side by side in the mirror at Woodward and Lothrop, her mother almost visibly crumbling beside her daughter's upthrusting shoulders, chin, forehead, nearly swallowed by her daughter's rich brown expanding eyes.

"Bad nutrition," her mother has explained. "The bones got stunted. The limbs didn't grow." But the daughter knows that this is not the whole truth, that her unstoppable increase has something to do with a power inside her, a power her mother has never had. Her size is an entitlement, a reward for her greater strength, courage, purpose-maybe even greater goodness.

The men behind the counter do not seem to notice her mother's stature. They do not shift their cigars into the side-pockets of their mouths and smile, just a little, as if amused at the manifold forms nature sports with. They behave as if someone perfectly legitimate, a lady, a shopper, has just walked through the door. "Hallo!" one of them cries, jumpy, a very fat man who makes tiny nervous waving movements with his fingertips and chin, looking as if he is just barely airborne behind the counter, his stout toes skimming the black-and-cream-checked linoleum. There is a second man, too, also quite fat, who calls out Guten Tog!, and the girl knows that he has made a terrible mistake. Her mother grows rigid under her soft, shapely dress, her lipstick deepens a shade. Her mother knows Yiddish perfectly well, murmurs it under her breath in the kitchen when the broiled chicken goes dry. But she pretends not to know it, and she turns away as if struck when anyone gazes at her with that look that says: Now there's a face with the old country all over it.

These men are twins! Twins born fat, wearing matching thin burgundy cardigans with wide yellow ties, looking equally uncomfortable about the neck. Behind them, shelves packed top to bottom with phonograph albums, the slender spines facing outward, the printing barely visible to the customer, just a low pleasant hum of naming: Mussorsgky. Chopin. Rubenstein. Horowitz. Also Bing Crosby, the Andrew's sisters, Sinatra.

Then, because her mother is tiny and because she would not in any case wish to rumple her dress, one of the men grips the girl around the middle with two pillowy hands, and she is flying into the stratum where the music lives, all the names momentarily tilting sideways as the man grunts basso. She is seated with her back to her mother, her legs kicking free. She is aware of the grittiness of the linoleum counter beneath her, but not surprised: This is what it is like in places where men are; they do not wipe up after themselves. The cigar in the man's mouth has disappeared but it has left its cloud behind. The cloud travels slowly away from her as she watches, drifts toward the more spacious precincts of the store, where teenage girls with cinched waists, smelling of rose water, dart their heads over the low partitions of the listening booths to attract the attention of peacetime-idled boys.

"She heard it on the radio," her mother explains.

"Which station?" jokes the other man, the more talky one, the one who bludgeoned her mother with Yiddish; the other, the one who lifted her up, is more silent, and sad. He has been thwarted somehow; he thinks he has no right to speak.

They wait. It's true: silence sometimes says more than words! The silence acknowledges what they all can see, that a girl of ten has no business searching for things on a fast-moving street, a street with pennants and spit, with errand boys baring their teeth-things it will take not one but two grown men to find for her. On a fast street, yes, where newspapers strangle in the curb drains, gurgling forth details that are still supposed to be kept from her: murders, car thefts, tribunals avenging the war slaughter of millions.

In the silence some girl laughs over the sound of "You Make Me Feel So Young" and a boy answers her in low tones, urgent, coaxing. Even now, ten years old, it is one of the things the girl knows: how it will end. The boy will win the laughing girl, then cool to her, and she, who at first did not need him, will dwindle for the lack of his love. The talky twin leans forward, kindness corkscrewing effortfully in his face. And-as if she were Lily Pons, flower of the Metropolitan Opera House, who has been Lucia di Lammermoor and Madama Butterfly and Mignon, who has been twice married and has even appeared on television-he waits, adjusting his tie, practically breaking out his Junior Mints!, for her to sing.

Hark the herald angels sing! … And Señor Don Gato was a cat / On a high red roof Don Gato sat … and If you've ever navigated on the Erie Canal-during music period at school, as Mrs. Howarth nods her wattled face, the girl's voice circles and rises with the other girls' voices, flows into the mass and is dispersed, just like the molasses her mother folds into her flour batters, staining them slowly a deep purple. She has never thought about her singing voice; it has simply been part of this general conversation of voices. And sometimes, in the thrill of this harmony, she finds that at the end of class she has an embarrassing desire to embrace one of the other girls, hold her and not let her go until they have exchanged some token that says: Friend.

"Sing for us, shayne Madele," urges the talky twin.

The duet sung by Lakmé and Mallika in Lakmé is introduced with an alarum of oboes, French horns. The girl has imagined a procession of women, diminutive, delicate, strolling with their parasols in a garden. A garden near a castle, medieval times, late summer when the castle's pageantry is folded up inside. The women are somehow Chinese. The girl does not know the opera's name, or the names of the characters. She had been listening to the radio; her mother had called to her, emphatically, from the kitchen-all was lost. But she does know that the two women who sing are in love. In love with their friendship, with the gentleness and goodness and delicacy of women. Their ladies-in-waiting are just as genteel: light-hearted, good-humored, able to find delight in a stalk of straw or a butterfly. They are speaking, in their song-voices, of the breeze and the grass, of their idleness, of lawn games, of the sun off their umbrellas. The girl sees that she must begin from the beginning. She must convey the entire scene: the sun, the day's warmth, the gorgeous fragility of the entourage, before she can even attempt the first solo.

The men's faces grow dusky, concerned. The quieter twin claps his hand silently, irrythmically, against the tweedy tube of his pants leg. One shoulder rolls backward, twitchy. The talkier twin seems to grow deeper into the ground. His entire middle becomes heavier, his hips sink like dewlaps. He drops the lids of his eyes.

Her mother's hand rests heavily on her shoulder, and the girl knows she would give anything to leave right now. Her mother does not like strangers, does not like stores run by fat men and stocked with hundreds, thousands, of items, items only minutely distinct from one another, items one has to ask for, maybe even exchange some small talk over. Her mother does not like small talk. The world, she has said, should be as simple as pie: you sew a button on a dress when one needs to be sewn, you cook fish or meatloaf because you need to eat. She does not understand this other business: the talking, the smiles that say both, "Give me something" and "If I owe you…?"

"La donna è mobile," guesses Tweedledum, apologetically.

"Idiot! No, the Miserere-Leonora's part, of course," says Tweedledee, and now it is a game: "Una voce poco fa!" "Habanera!" The talky one clutches his belly as if in pain, chokes out: "The Valkyries! Those damn Valkyries!" "Musetta's Waltz Song," replies the other reproachfully. "Did you put out that cigar?" demands the talky one suddenly, and the quiet one stares: "Yar, I put it out, Maxie. How would I not put it out?" "Well, you're no housekeeper," says his brother. "No housekeeper!" the accused responds, indignant. "And you who never puts powder in his reeking slippers!"

WHAT IS NOISE to some is silence to others-the silence of the withdrawal of interest, in which hope can hear itself breathe. The girl is ready to begin again. Her voice comes out with more force now, but this time she also hears her squeaks and skids, like a needle running off its disc. Or like the squirrel that got stuck in the tree outside her window last month, its tail pinned by a bough flung sideways by a late-summer storm. Which, because she knew better than to bother her mother over an animal-her mother is afraid of animals-she listened to cry for three evenings and nights, until, sometime during that third night, there was death or a rescue, because when morning came again, the creature was gone.

The song flees from her, curling its slender fingers, beckoning. She catches its bright tail, shakes it; it quivers free; she lunges forward. The tune rises up on the gusts flogging the shop window, drops, shudders, runs ahead and then turns back like an uncertain child. The girl is tiring, her voice flags, she pushes along. Sing! Sing! Sing! Sing! Sing! The notes are like puzzle pieces that the picture on the box proves fit together: if she turns and fondles each one long enough, with enough patience, the picture will come together. Beauty is the spoil of those who insist.

The talky twin-but perhaps the quiet one had it figured out long ago and was waiting for his brother to steal the victory-slams his hand on the counter and cries, "Ah! Viens, Mallika!" He is exhilarated, as if a personal problem has been solved, such as a lost invoice or a case of indigestion. He sweeps the girl off her seat-his hands are harder, more calloused, than his brother's-and now she is behind the counter, where children do not go. She sees compartments filled with letterhead stationery curling at the edges, bills written out in spiky script, pencils neatly lined up with their "2"s all facing skyward. There is a smell here of burlap, old glue, pencil shavings, and, oddly, peaches. Did one of the twins file and then forget an old pit?

"Please," says her mother, as if nothing has been settled, as if their servant is not right now on his way past the flirting teens to pluck the recording, as if perhaps these two strange men are planning to overcharge her because she speaks Yiddish, or because she pretends she doesn't speak Yiddish, or because she is under five feet tall, or because her dress has fabric-colored buttons, or simply because they are twins.

The quieter twin reaches behind the girl's shoulder and pulls out a lollipop-its cellophane corners droopy, a thumbprint of dust on its face. The wrapping, the girl finds on the way home, won't come off: she works diligently, in a fever of indebtedness, but the invisible shards stick everywhere. Her mother holds her package, a paper bag that when it has been emptied will be carefully refolded and added to a stack under an unopened gift box of cordials, where it will never be used again.

The wind whirls them in ever-tighter circles away from the commercial district toward Emerson Street, where home is: two stories with a beech tree outside that squirrels sometimes run up and down, and where a little creature may be saved from a drawn-out painful death by, say, an eagle winging over the state of Maryland or even-for she knows that as He sweeps His face slowly over the face of the universe, covering China, Russia, and South America, He must necessarily at times light on her very own neighborhood-by God, whose heart is pained by the suffering of the small.

Her mother (the girl can see by the way she walks ahead, swinging her handbag with relief), will let her play Lakmé all afternoon and even past bedtime, because she herself loves to shut the door of her bedroom and put on Rigoletto or Madama Butterfly until long after the errands are supposed to have been done, or the coffee date at the Willard Hotel been kept, knowing as she does what the girl is just beginning to suspect: that one need not emerge to survive. In her mother's dimly lighted room, heated almost to choking, the voices of fastidious maidens and fearless queens swell and wail, fall and expire, singing their complaints in many languages. n

Originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Boston Review

 



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