BY THE WAYSIDE by Jeff Putnam
Chapter Two, Part One
[Original written in 1987, Published in 1992, cut and edited by the author in 2016. Commentary in brackets is to place real people, most of whom are dead, within the narrative. Thus what follows can qualify as a memoir and the author’s ingenious namings and fictionalizations can win him the love and admiration of many readers, or at least a couple]
I might have been back sooner than she expected.
“I’d have hung around longer if they’d have let me touch her, but do you know what it is they’ve got her in? It’s like a big, glassed-in gazebo. It’s a merry-go-round with the parents circling the place, bobbing up and down. The nurses fetch the bundles of fur and mouth words. The parents mouth words back at the nurses. The babies are crying lustily. In sign language they let me know that Nena’s fine. A blue-eyed nurse pointed at her blue eyes. Of course they all have blue eyes now, don’t they? Perhaps she meant, ‘homo sapiens.’ Her color is dark red and she’s got black hair and her swaddling is nun-white. I couldn’t see her very well and I’m not sure they wanted me to see her better. I came away feeling grateful for the nurses. They seem happy with their work, they all have the blush of young motherhood about them, and considering what the noise must be like in there, you have to wonder what it is about life they might not like.”
She knew how much I liked to watch women at work. I was high on Degas and fly-on-the-wall views in general.
“All right, Gordon. Why don’t you get something to eat. This must have been a strain for you, wondering if we were dead or alive on an empty stomach. You’ll want to drink a bit, won’t you?”
“The thought has crossed my mind. I’m too tired to get in trouble, though.”
“I’m not taking any chances.” She held out her hand and I put the keys to the rent-car in it. This was a carryover from our brief time together in the United States, when she’d entrusted me with her sports car. She liked the idea that she could prevent disasters by managing me, though nothing had come of it. Anyway, from lunchtime on people in Spain had alcohol on their breath, and it’s well known that Spanish drunk drivers are skillful and considerate. In other words, I’d have had to leave the roadway to attract attention.
“Take the keys, then, but I guess you know you’re practically forcing me to celebrate in the bars.”
“Take a cab home. You’ve got money. You haven’t got the money for France on you…?”
“No. Do you want me to count up in front of you so you can decide what size celebration I can afford?”
“My mother might be here at any time, you know…”
“You told her! You broke your word. I’d better head for France tomorrow, then. Your mother wasn’t going to show until the baby came home.”
“Please, Gordon, you’ve got to stay until she gets here. Otherwise she’ll think you’ve abandoned me the way the Boches have been telling my parents you’re sure to do sooner or later. She’ll force me to come back to the States with her… .In my weakened condition…Not a word in front of her about going to France to LOOK for work. My parents would never understand how you could leave me at a time like this…”
Elena’s father, Enrique, was a romance philologist…an attorney…a substitute teacher…But the best way to describe Enrique was as an embittered Cuban immigrant. He’d lost a fortune when Castro threw him out, which was shortly after the revolution. He’d made back his fortune in the United States by working as a Spanish teacher while his wife slaved in satanic sewingrooms. This unusual recipe for success was effective because Enrique and family never ate in a restaurant or went to a motion picture or a play or a concert or even the zoo. For decades Enrique and Isabel’s sole recreation was watching the Spanish language channel in their pyjamas.
Since Castro had let him take all his books when he threw him out, Enrique was assured of enough to read for the rest of his life. He already knew some thirty languages and was fluent in five of them (though he never left the city limits of Palo Alto). His wife made all their clothes and cooked when she wasn’t slaving in the sewingroom, so she didn’t have time to read. She couldn’t even spare much time for Spanish TV.
Elena’s folks lived in Palo Alto, California, then, and I’d met them and given them some charming arias before Lena and I left for Spain. I’d liked Isabel a lot. I thought she might have secretly admired me for spending every penny I ever earned in bars and restaurants.
Lena’s folks didn’t approve of us going off to Europe together, but Lena at 34 was almost as old and wise as I was.They were aghast when they found out Lena had got herself knocked up, which news didn’t reach them until Lena was five months gone and we’d already been in Europe for half a year. Lena had informed them that we planned to get married even though we’d never been “anything but good friends who enjoyed sex with each other once in a while,” and that “Gordon and I have decided that our baby was conceived at a hotel in Nice where he was having a reunion with some old friends and we’d both had too much to drink.”
She played down our attraction to each other when she had to answer to her parents. She knew she was infuriating them by taking matrimony and procreation so lightly, but if she’d let her father find out how important our sex was she’d have broken his heart.
Yes, there’d been a reunion in Nice and I’d seen a lot of faces I’d missed seeing, and our glasses had seethed with Belgian ale that I’d missed drinking, but my happiest memory of that night was wallowing in Lena’s body till the sun came to the window full of flowers and made us feel like part of a brochure.
We may well have conceived our child that night because there was nothing habitual about our sex. Sometimes we wouldn’t touch each other for days. It was her doing, I can see that now. Elena liked sex to be total, some would say dirty. Flowerboxes were irrelevant. The floor was as good as the bed. She needed to bore herself for a few days to get ready for one of our frenzies, chirping about linguistic discoveries until they were as dull as the rates and rules that were nailed to our hotel doors.
She was a gifted linguist. No school had ever let her pay tuition in spite of the income from her ranch. Her money, her studies, her parents were all drawbacks where I was concerned. We may not have liked each other much but the yen we had for each other kept us together. Just about the time I’d start wondering why we wanted to keep on boring each other with our different interests and vices we’d have another all-night frenzy and I’d stagger away like a branded calf. Elena, too, was affected. She’d lie crumpled in bed all day listening to the birdies sing, or now that we were in France, street repairs.
[Lena and her parents are dead now. I was finally informed of this by our daughter, whose real name is Nicole. She has told me by email that she wants nothing to do with me but one of the reasons I am reviving this book — besides the fact that it is one of the best things of its kind ever written by an American — is the off chance that I will be able to hold this daughter in my arms again after thirty years apart. Since she was always an infant in the time I was writing about I don’t see how she can object to her portrayal. As for her mother, and her granddad, and her grandmother… I think I’ve made it plain that I admired the last-named and enjoyed her company, even though I do call her at some point a “waddling, overfed bitch.” The whole point of this exegesis is to show how life is improved by fiction and by expressing what others mean to us in inexact words instead of mere pictures that merely cause us to make up stories about what we see. The people in most of my fiction were trying to tell me THEIR stories, with all their possible meanings. I may not have grasped what they were telling me at the time but writing is done in sober solitude, often long after the situations it describes. Nicole, I love you, and I will always love you, and despite all the trouble I’ve caused, and the certain knowledge that there’s little I can do to make anything right, I can only hope that you will understand who I was, and what my world was like, and see that I was not a monster. Frankly, despite all the adventures that were mediated by various talents, I have always been quite ordinary. Yes, there were excesses in the area of food and drink and the love of women’s bodies, but I have always felt that the “artist type,” mostly unknown in the United States — or when known, despised — is a kind of subspecies immediately recognizable to most Europeans. If you somehow learn of this work and can read through it, perhaps you will one day give me the chance to approach you as a living being and not just the main character in a book.]
BY THE WAYSIDE by Jeff Putnam