Hillary Keel: Whales

Fall '12 TOC

 

I finger through my shoulder bag. Inside are the red grammar book, my lesson planner, and the file of language-activities. I pick up my copy of Orlando from the chair, glance at the cover drawing by Paul Hogarth and toss that in the bag, too. I am still half-asleep but consider the fact that I might read on my way to or back from the lessons. I've overslept. No time for breakfast. Quickly I bounce down the staircase, check my reflection in the mirror – the new gray hairs, my beige skirt – then grab for my keys and lock the front door and gate on my way out.
 
It's May. The day is sunny. On the street I notice a neighbor I never see pull open Venetian blinds from a third story bedroom inside the art nouveau house. Is she ill or does she just never use public transport? Maybe it's a man, but I have the feeling it's a woman. It's 9 a.m. Three people are waiting at the tram stop. I cross the street to join them next to the embankment. A warm breeze blows on my face and fully awakens me. The language of Orlando is with me, in my shoulder bag, pushing against my ribs as I fish through the bag for my ticket. Delicate foliage on young birch trees planted along the embankment flutter. A gate slams shut with a metallic clang and I recognize the man coming out of the 1960s house: a hairdresser, now owns a chain of shops and has a surveillance camera at his front gate. The tram arrives in a quiet rumble on the tracks and breaks with a rubbery squeak. I climb aboard, Orlando in my bag:
 
"He loved ... to feel the earth's spine beneath him; for such he took the hard root of the oak to be."
 
Seated, I hold my shoulder bag on my lap but don't open it. I unconsciously press it against my chest as the tram passes a grocery store and the deserted hotel asking myself, Where do the destitute sleep at night? How long will that new Hungarian bistro manage to stay open?
 
"He felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to."
 
My own heart looks for attachment – was it the book? would there be something else? —and I watch a bag lady climb aboard (at the stop by the park), her hair white, her body obese. She exudes an unpleasant odor, takes a seat diagonally across from me, pulls pieces of lettuce from one of her shopping bags and stuffs them in her mouth.
 
"The old bumboat woman sat there in her plaids and farthingales with her lap full of apples, for all the world as if she were about to serve a customer, though a certain blueness about the lips hinted the truth."
 
A lady shopper gets in at the next stop – I recognize her, she's usually riding a bicycle – all lotioned and pressed, in a skirt, blouse, and white pantyhose. She must be going into town today. Errands to run, maybe to the doctor's? The lady shopper, always looking her best, gets a whiff of the bag lady eating lettuce. She flares her nostrils and shows disgust, then glares directly at the oblivious bag lady, whose wrap-around smock is coming undone and whose house shoe dangles from her naked toes. Why so disapproving? I wonder. Don't we all have some things in common? Aren't we all from the same source? Won't we all end up in the same state?
 
" 'All ends in death' Orlando would say, sitting upright, his face clouded with gloom."
 
The tracks take the tram slightly uphill, then downhill, then around a curve. It stops again, the door squeaks open and I get out, leaving the bag lady and the lady shopper behind. I walk up the street to a bus stop underneath a railway bridge. Last time I was here it was in November. I remember how I sniffed the air that day. An old man smiled at me and said the air smelled of snow. I smiled and agreed, enjoying the smell of snow in November and then the bus ride, its high springy seats and its route. I had never taken that bus before.
 
Today the air smells of grass and gasoline. The shoulder bag is at my side leaning on my buttocks. Back in November I was still naïve, unaware of little pitfalls. Today I'm no longer ignorant. I'm enlightened. My boundaries have been opened wide, possibilities of new routes lie ahead, but which way to go? Into the bus. I like it in there, the seats, the ride is bumpy but buffered – a pleasant vibration – as I ride through the blue collar district lined with apartment complexes where Turkish kids play basketball. I watch one boy get in carrying a ball and blowing pink bubbles with his chewing gum.
 
"The gipsies have no word for 'beautiful'."
 
An airplane jets across the sky, a crane lifts iron beams onto a building under construction, cars race along a beltway that connects the southern and northern tips of Vienna and my bus approaches a factory bus stop.
 
The factory itself is a drab orange. I come here four times a week to help workers improve their English. (One man, a Serb, couldn't even count to ten. I fixed that and we had a great time at it as well.) I think of Orlando, bouncing against me as I walk: A book about the past and the future. A book with an overview, not just the simple present or the simple past. I look down the street and see trash bins by the factory at the end of a parking lot. I remember standing there in a snowstorm last January. After the lessons I had to scrape snow off the car, thick starry flakes like cake decorations. Then I drove over to those bins, parked and tore up a letter including two photographs of a young woman in a bathing suit on a white sandy beach under palm trees. I'd looked at them before the lessons in the factory parking lot as I sat in the car in diminishing light. Snow piled down covering the windows. I took a second glance after teaching before tearing them to small bits and throwing them into the bin. I hadn't carried Orlando with me that day, hadn't even read it yet.
 
"For the philosopher is right who says that nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy."
 
Now the words bang against my thigh as I push open the factory doors:
 
" 'All ends in death,' Orlando would say, sitting upright on the ice."
 
I hear the familiar hum of the remote control forklifts transporting cardboard-boxed televisions, video recorders and the brand-new DVD players along tracks in the factory floor. Men and women in white work coats carry clipboards through the hall, receiving orders, inhaling cigarettes with dreams of pleasure at the back of their minds.
 
"... for illusions are the most valuable and necessary of all things, and she who can create one is among the world's greatest benefactors..."
 
I'm mainly here to amuse these people. I help them feel better. I walk down the hall and note the barbed wire fence against the blue sky through the broad window, listen to scratchy announcements over loudspeakers and examine a coffee stain the shape of a whale on the polyester floor in the meeting room I enter. What do we all have in common? Where will we all end up?
 
"Did not heaven itself, or that great frontispiece of heaven, the sky, indicate the assent, indeed the instigation of the heavenly hierarchy?"
 
I move over to the flip chart and test felt markers to make sure they work. I doodle something that turns out to be a whale spraying water from its spout on the right hand corner of the paper. The ashtrays are full of cigarette butts and I move them from the table to the windowsill. Sunrays beam through the row of windows – maybe I should close the blinds? – and pull on a cord to close them half-way. I get out my activity file and page through it, open my notebook to where I have written, "Tuesday, May 6, 2000." Orlando stays in the bag. The men will be here any minute.
 
I remember the day last January, that week, the month I couldn't look them straight in the face. I looked sideways to close something off. Now glad they needed me the day of the snowstorm and realized what they had done for me, too. But why this place? What exactly connects me to them?
 
"For there, winter or summer, year in, year out, the clouds turned and tumbled, like whales, he pondered, or elephants, rather; but no, there was no escaping the simile which was pressed upon him from a thousand airy acres; ..."
 
The day of the January storm I entered the room with the coffee stain on polyester, my heart filled with hate I had never thought myself capable of – with an askew gaze in my eyes. One man, the Serb, looked at me laughing, spoke Viennese German with a Balkan accent, "What have you been up to? Hey, have some candy. Have you brought us this storm?" and for a moment I had to grin.
 
Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
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