500 Mosquitoes an Hour
RHO is at the kitchen sink, peeling furiously away at a carrot when she draws her first blood of the day, and, of course, it's nonmetaphoric, and her own. A sudden blossoming of color in the drab plot of one ordinary afternoon. So she watches herself spilling out across a trembling forefinger as if in a hurry to be gone, a hollow red staccato in the brushed-steel bucket of her sink. For a time she is simply a wide pair of mesmerized eyes, lost in the facts of the moment and, strangely, no longer present to herself. But the spell breaks, the cut is plunged into the aerated stream of her Puraflo faucet, the finger wrapped in a floral blue paper towel, The show's over.
It's late Friday in late summer in Wakefield Estates, where the shadows are long and the light is perfect and the sky a photographer's fantasy of absolute blue typically apprehended only on film, too blue to be arching in inhuman grandeur over this engineered community of pastel houses and big friendly trees.
Inside the polished kitchen soft northern light arranges itself evenly, democratically, among the fixtures and furnishings, the appliances and the apples, each discrete object contributing its own subdued reflection of snug solidity, charmed ease, tasteful harbor. It is a good place to be. The peeler is flashing again, metal blade in a whittler's blur, strips of orange vegetable matter stuck to the window above the sink in random crisscross like an entire box of desperately affixed Band-Aids. Behind her the routine clunk of fresh ice cubes dropping in the Kelvinator, and on the Formica counter at her elbow the Sony portable coolly irradiating her body with the problems of today's women: VIXENS BEHIND BARS: GIRLS WHO HAVE KILLED THEIR LOVERS. Rho barely notices, absorbed as she is in the physical task at hand and a mentally punishing recapitulation of the futile chase after self-respect which constitutes much of her so-called "working day." She'd almost quit again. For the second time this month. What was happening here? Accumulation, she thinks, that's all, just the dispiriting accretion of nine-to-fives, of petty betrayals, minor sarcasms, slights, injustices, and plain rudeness collecting like refuse under a rotting wharf until one blighted morning all the fish are dead, there's no place left to swim, and if sweet alert Lou hadn't recognized the sniperlike narrowing in her eyes and hustled her out past Mickey's smirk and the confused management team, she just might have released a sampling of the words grown slow and secret as fungus behind the professional exterior she'd had to retouch almost hourly for the past nine months. These were the words of disclosure, the ones to prompt an awful unveiling of the second self. She and Lou had fled to a corner of the cafeteria behind the ailing ailanthus, the bad joke of the company. The tepid coffee tasted like chlorine and the abstract neo-avant lithograph on the opposite wall kept somehow reminding her in a distinctly unpleasant way of the physical baseness of the body. It wasn't a thought she was supposed to have--she regretted the admission--but maybe she just did not like female bosses. And Lou, whose boyfriend's most recent message to her machine had been "If I hated you any worse, I'd be doing something more than just leaving you," had instantly agreed, saying me neither, they go completely Looney Tunes once a month. So at least there had been the release of laughter. The tears came later, alone in a stall in the women's room, the only one, it turned out, with no paper.
Then the wit-gathering, the brave soldiering on to after five, the obligatory traffic jam, the polluted lungs and mind, hunting food supplies at the local supermarket, where amid the day's carnage she actually experienced, while wheeling her wobbly cart down the broad buffed aisles, a small detonation of pure happiness. It came inexplicably out of nowhere and was gone by the time she got home, a psychic comet in elliptical orbit from that parallel universe her real emotional life, the good one, seemed to inhabit. Would she ever even begin to assemble the time and the will necessary to piece out the meanest portion of the puzzle that was her existence in this world? What was so damned difficult about comprehending middle income, middle of the road, middling middleness?
The vegetables are lined up like good little soldiers on the cutting board, though the peppers are slightly wrinkled, the lettuce browner than she remembered, and each time she tries to slice a tomato--injured finger held awkwardly aloft, away from spraying juices--her hair keeps falling forward into her face, obscuring her vision; she tucks it behind an ear, off it falls, the left side having been crudely chopped last Saturday by Sylvester himself of famous Sylvester's, a reminder with each turn of the head of some basic asymmetry. On the Sony an X-ray tech from Bedford Falls is describing how her husband comes home from his plumbing job, packs away the flank steak and boiled potatoes, and settles down in front of the tube wearing a chiffon cocktail dress, black nylons, and a pair of stiletto heels. At the commercial Rho discovers the cucumbers in the back of the refrigerator are frozen solid. Is there time for a quick dash to the Feed 'n' Fuel? The clock on the wall, a fanciful twist of wire and brass most visitors don't even recognize as a timepiece, is telling her that if she leaves right this minute . . . but a famous actress confessing that her famous mother used to beat her repeatedly with an English riding crop sets Rho off on an unscheduled tour of the Mood Museum, guilt thick as dust on all the exhibits, even the newest wing, where the paint's still wet and the descriptive plaques hopelessly inadequate and the curator the same creepy figure in black who liked to skulk underneath her crib and whisper horrors to her in a language no one else could understand . . . so there won't be any cucumbers in the salad and she's sure the Hannas won't mind.
Rho glances up to check on the twins and there, just beyond the carrot-splattered pane, in remarkable close-up, is a large bright lemon-yellow bird perched in regal isolation atop the feeder, and she looks, she is looking dead on, she doesn't blink, but the bird is gone, a trick of bad editing. Amazing. Too quick for the children to see and probably just as well. The inevitable round of questions about pets and cages, freedom and death. Brother and sister are squatting side by side in the sandbox Wylie hammered together the summer they all went to Nice, to the place like in the American Express commercial, the year of the big promotion, a fabled time in the family chronicle. Identical blond heads are bent in consultation over a serious arrangement of plastic blocks. Daphne sits watching from a nearby swing, youthfully lean body dawdling between the chains, the basketball shoes on her feet blindingly white and apparently several sizes too large. Her long black hair a hood of dark flame in the enfilading sun. She's the Averys' daughter from over on Termite Terrace, and despite the finger-scooped peanut butter jars, the bottle-cap ashtrays tucked discreetly under the couch, both Rho and Wylie like and trust her, they've known Daphy since she was six, and she's even recently completed a two-week course in which the conscientious baby-sitter is taught such essential tasks as how to bathe an infant, prepare a simple meal without fire hazard, and find the numerals 911 on either a dial or push-button phone. And the girl is also, for Rho at least, a touching facsimile of her own mysterious adolescence, her distance from which seems to vary daily, those fierce piebald years she chooses, against all reflection, to preserve as singularly enchanted.
Now Chip, she sees, has found a cracked water pistol she could swear she's already thrown out twice and is holding the pink gun to his head as if to hear a delicate ticking or the roar of the sea. His sister is banging the flat of her spread hand into the bottom of the box, mashing her sand dough into cookies the way Mommy does. A moment framed, even as it occurs, with the halo of future nostalgia.
She knows it's Wylie an instant before the phone rings. She knows why he's calling. The meeting ran late. The client didn't show. The traffic's bad. She wants to get ugly with him but the prospect of any further emotional expenditure deflates her, she can actually feel her body sagging into the wall. Pick up a cucumber, she tells him. Fresh. And limes, more limes. And don't for once forget the charcoal. I love you.
Time to inspect the house. Well, the plants need watering and the three days' growth of fuzz wiped from each of the several television screens. She throws the comforter over the unmade bed, replaces the towels in the bathroom, gathers up Wylie's magazines--Easyriders
, On Our Backs
--she can't keep up with his interests, whatever they are. The living room is white with black furniture and she can't decide if she likes it as much as she's supposed to. The day the decorators left, Wylie lounged about on the cream couch the rest of the afternoon, wearing an evil pair of sunglasses. Even after she'd laughed--and longer than the gag required--and night had come on, he refused to take them off. He never knew when to stop. Baby pink and dripping from the shower, he'd once chased her, wet towel snapping, through the house, skidded on one of his own puddles, and knocked himself out on the oven door. What a struggle it had been pulling a pair of briefs on him before the paramedics got there.
When the phone rings again, Rho takes it in the spare bedroom, the air still faintly medicinal, faintly evocative of Mother herself. It's Betty, who shared a cube with her at Fleischer and Fleischer until Rho left about a year ago for these fresh-looking pastures of now defoliated opportunity. As long as they've known each other Betty's been in search of an identity beyond her famous silver earrings. Today she wants to alter the spelling of her name to Bette but is worried about embarrassing mispronouncements. Rho suggests she change the last e to an i. Betty says she'll think about it. By the way, did Rho hear that Natasha finally quit, as promised, as rumored, with no savings, no parachute, the only safety net in that girl's life the one she'll be wearing over her chestnut bangs working the french fryer at McDonald's. Beneath the jokey manner there's a genuine chord of wonder and anxiety. Rho wants to tell Betty she nearly quit today, too, but she hesitates, the moment is gone, and Betty is rambling on through an intimate catalogue of Natasha's other woes: the buck-toothed lover boy who sleeps around without even bothering to clean himself off before coming home to her, the blue bruises on Natasha's arms and face, the not so subtle hints that Natasha herself has been testing other beds in other rooms. This is why Betty works. She gets up, drags herself to the office morning after grim morning just to keep up with her stories. Perhaps one day her colleagues in accounting will have a story to trade about her. Perhaps there's already a story in play about Rho. She refuses to imagine details.
After she hangs up, she remains seated there on the edge of the high antique bed, the bed she was born in. Mother watches from the gold frame atop the peeling bureau, the eyes in every color photograph of her ever taken a set of burning red stones invisible to normal gaze, only the lifeless camera capable of revealing clearly and consistently her true demonic nature. On the scratched mahogany table beneath the window squats a crude peacock carved from cheap pine with an unsteady hand and, leaning against the burnt-out lamp, an unfinished paint-by-numbers canvas of a bug-eyed cow Mother bought at a Kmart in Mason, Kentucky, on her last and final visit to Cousin Dewey's. "You know," she complained, "I don't believe they put all the right paints in this box." The disorientation came on a week later. She grew frightened by the motion of her mind. In darkest night she clawed herself awake from suffocating visions of sweaty walls and iron doors. By the end she was eating Kleenex and twisting her dry colorless hair up into a headful of reptilian dreads. She looked like an old demented white Rastafarian.
But Rho isn't supposed to have bad thoughts today. She'd promised herself. She wasn't supposed to be the Wicked Witch of the West at work either, arriving with one too many cups of coffee riding her nerves and a vague crankiness she could best attribute to "VCR hangover. The night before, she and Wylie had watched, for reasons hopelessly irreclaimable now, three rented films in a row, his choices of course, all fitting into the current shoot/chase/crash cycle of his rigorously limited viewing habits. In the first the good guys caught the bad guys but contaminated themselves horribly with badness in the catching, in the second the bad guys got clean away, and in the third the good guys were really the bad guys all along. This visual extravaganza was then capped by a dream that troubled her sleep and stuck to the bottom of her day like a wad of someone else's stale gum. There is a house and in the house is a living room that looks exactly like theirs, furnishings, decor, the stark absence of color, unused ashtrays in all the right places, except the house seems to be located on a spectacular beach somewhere, melony light reminding her of California, although she's never been there. She is upstairs lying between black satin sheets in a king-size bed, snoozing her way through a different dream . . . the one of this life, perhaps. Downstairs a tall shirtless man in white pants stands in dark silhouette at the glass door opening onto their redwood deck and, in this universe at least, a white deserted beach, an empty blue ocean. Is the man Wylie? She can't tell. And her attention keeps tracking back to the glass table exactly like theirs and yet not, and the dark object placed there with such compositional skill: the inescapable, indispensable gun. It's a loaded .45 caliber automatic of military issue, hardware expertise she did not possess in waking life. Nothing moves. This is the loneliest room in the world. Is a scene about to begin or has one just concluded? Who is the man turned indifferently away from our scrutiny? Whose gun? What's happening here? Why do these questions disturb her? Her hair falls into her face. She decides to start the party early.
Excerpted from Going Native by Stephen Wright. Copyright © 1994 by Stephen Wright. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.