This is draft of the first chapter of a novel in progress…Madonna. I hope you enjoy the read.
The moisture in the heated air condensed on the glass door and a sheet of ice glazed the pane, distorting the moving images of cars and pedestrians on the street outside. The door cracked open and a soiled swatch of canvas bag the color of worn plaster snagged in the yawning frame. Then the door gaped and her silhouette, like a fireplug, filled the rectangle of daylight. Mary Cottle waddled along the aisle like a child avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. She pivoted at the center of the bar and rumbled onto a stool, slinging her newspaper carrier’s bag onto the clouded, black Formica surface. Then she sighed.
She squinted across the bar into the large mirror and smiled, a crevice in a hemisphere of makeup so thick it appeared to have been applied by a brick mason. She tugged the stocking cap from her head and her shoulder-length hair, the lackluster shade of highway snow, tumbled down her neck, settling on the collar of her coat. Elbows braced on the bar, ungloved fingers ruffling through her bag for cigarettes, Mary pouted, her mouth a compressed smear of scarlet lipstick. She poked a Marlboro in the center of it all and torched it with a wooden kitchen match. Smoke swelled like cumulus as she exhaled, a breathy expression of relief. She immediately stamped out the cigarette on her heel like a worrisome thought and wiped her runny nose with her coat sleeve. Her eyes watered, the gray irises glazed like the glass door, the tissue surrounding her lids red as she tilted back her head, opened her mouth, shut her eyes and waved a hand before her face. She sneezed. Her head shot forward and her hair shook about her like a cowl.
“Joseph!” she repeated anxiously.
A voice sounded from an open door on the rear of the long, narrow room. Mary wisped her hair back away from her face, snaking her fingers, their skin taut and cracked from the cold, through the gnarled strands like a rake through straw.
“Joseph!” she called again. “I need some tissues. Where are the tissues?”
“In a minute,” the voice snapped.
Joseph paced into the room, wiping his hands on his slacks, then skimming them across his head, smoothing his sandy hair. He strode behind the bar and reached for a box of tissues, which he dropped unceremoniously before Mary.
“Catching a cold, Mary?” he asked.
Mary clutched a wad of tissues to her nose and hacked into them.
Joseph lifted a glass from the stacks behind him and centered it on the bar before her. “You’re early this morning, what’s up?”
“Time’s money, buddy-boy,” she said.
Joseph laughed and stroked his chin, still chapped by the bitter wind following this morning’s shave. The cords of muscle in his neck disappeared beneath the turtleneck of his wool sweater as he chuckled.
“The early bird catches the worm,” Mary insisted.
Joseph raised the bottle of Scotch and poured two jiggers into the glass. Mary rummaged through her purse in search of coins, but Joseph, as every morning, waved off her efforts and muttered some unintelligible words for this repeated moment, his comments long since dissolved into incoherent prattle.
“You’re a dirty bird, Joseph. A truly dirty bird.” Mary toasted him by tipping her glass a quarter inch in his direction and then gulped down a swallow, shivering as though ambushed by a chilly draft. She gulped down another and another until the tumbler bore only a filmy amber trace of the liquor.
That’s right, it’s Thursday,” Joseph said, watching Mary rest the glass easily on the bar top. “Duck day, right?”
Mary nodded, shifting her weight on the stool, bulky marionette severed from its strings. Her blue cloth coat shrouded all but the stool’s wooden legs. She lightly touched the rim of her glass with a fingertip.
Joseph poured another measure into her glass, less than the first, and then set the bottle back in the chrome rack behind the lip of the bar. Mary sipped the Scotch this time, closing her eyes and savoring its warmth as though her mouth was a furnace radiating heat throughout her body.
“So,” Joseph said. “How about a reading this morning, huh?”
“Feeling lucky today, buddy boy”
“Luckier than this fool who tried to rob a grocery in Montana.” Joseph stabbed a finger onto the newspaper spread before him on the bar.
“Another of your stories,” Mary groaned.
“I thought you enjoyed them, Mary,” Joseph chided.
“How bizarre is this one?”
“Tame compared to some of the others.”
“No two-headed Brazilian babies? No boy who shot chunks of metal into his sister’s heart with a lawn mower?”
“You’re blessed with a very fine memory, Mary.”
“Some things have a way of sticking with you, buddy boy,” she said, then sipped from her Scotch. “Where’s the scrapbook?”
Joseph pointed below the mirror behind him. “In the cabinet.” He swung open a low door and removed a vinyl-covered binder, placing it on the bar.
“So what’s this about a robbery in Montana?” Mary asked.
Joseph lifted the newspaper and angled it for better light. “Let’s see. It’s AP out of Billings and I’m quoting here. ‘A man walked into a small grocery store and told the cashier to give him all the money in the register. The woman opened the drawer then stood aside as the man motioned toward her with what he pretended was a gun in his coat pocket. She waited until he turned his back to her and reached into the cash drawer, then she slammed it on his hand and leaned against him, pinning him against the register. The woman did believe he had a gun, proved to be factual when he removed his free hand from his pocket and grabbed for his register hand. The two-hundred-pound woman blocked the man’s attempts to hit her and when he tried to gouge her eyes, she twisted her head, grabbed his fingers and bit them.”
“Wait, there’s more,” Joseph chuckled. “The man’s screams attracted an off-duty sheriff’s deputy who was shopping with his wife. He arrested the poor man, who was taken to a hospital where two fingers of his right hand were amputated. Now he’s filing charges against the grocery store clerk, who of course, is counter-suing.”
“Oh, Joseph,” Mary said, trying to control her laughter and swiping at here watery eyes with a tissue.
“I think that warrants entry into the scrapbook, don’t you?”
Mary nodded as Joseph retrieved a pair of scissors from the cabinet behind the bar and snipped the article from the paper. He arranged it on a blank page and fastened it with cellophane tape, then penned in the date and the name of the newspaper.
“How many entries have you made in this one?” Mary asked, fingering the edge of the book.
“O, I don’t know,” Joseph said. “I haven’t numbered the pages. Perhaps I should.”
“I don’t know why you collect all these weird stories,” Mary said, shivering involuntarily.
“They’re priceless, Mary. They show us at our best.”
“Our best,” Mary exclaimed. “How can you say that? This is a catalog of horrors.” She lifted a corner of the scrapbook and allowed it to fall noisily back to the bar top.
“At times,” Joseph conceded. “But at times not.”
“What’s so un-horrible about a jerk losing two fingers?
“That’s not the point, Mary. It’s the woman’s spirit that’s important, that she wouldn’t let herself be victimized. Because we’re all victims in one way or another. She decided she wouldn’t be. That’s great…don’t you agree?”
Mary gulped the rest of her Scotch and set the glass before Joseph. “You’re an odd bird, Joseph. A truly odd bird.”
“No more odd than the rest of us,” he said, lifting the glass and then submerging it in the steaming sink of sudsy water. He rinsed it in the twin sink brimming with clear water and then lifted it to the light from the fluorescent fixture above the bar…inspecting it. He set it down to dry on a mat of rubber ribbing.
“So, how about that reading? Joseph asked.
“Okay, buddy boy,” Mary said. “You asked for it. She raised the flap of her bag and reached inside. She withdrew her hand slowly and Joseph caught sight of the familiar walnut base, the delicately carved pedestal legs. As Mary rested the sphere on the bar top, Joseph gazed once more at the crystal, slightly larger than a tennis ball.
“Give me a clean bar rag, will you?” Mary asked without looking at Joseph. Her eyes remained riveted upon the crystal orb.
Joseph handed her a white towel and Mary removed the ball from its base, swaddling it in the cloth, polishing it much as Joseph had polished the bar glass. Carefully cradling it in the towel, Mary lifted the base and upended it over the crystal, than tenderly overturned both of them onto the bar top. The crystal gleamed, free of fingerprints. She laid the towel off to the side and Joseph mechanically retrieved it, draping it over a rung beside the sinks.
“Get the light ready, buddy boy,” Mary whispered.
Joseph reached into his pocket and removed a disposable cigarette lighter, flicked the sparking wheel and watched as the butane flame leapt into the air.
“Now hold it behind the ball,” Mary directed him.
Joseph moved the flame until it wavered behind the crystal and Mary bent forward, gazing through the ball at the concentrated light. A crescent-shaped flaw in the center of the ball refracted the light in a prismatic arc and Mary wagged her head slowly, back and forth before the crystal, as colors from scarlet to violet and deep navy blue flared across her face within inches of the crystal, the flashes of color consuming her periphery.
“I see change, Joseph,” she murmured in a trenchant whisper. “So much blue and orange, important changes. How is your life at home?”
Joseph shrugged. “Same as anybody’s, I imagine.”
“Any problems?” Mary asked, sitting up and straightening her back.
Joseph released the lever which fed gas to the flame and then placed the instrument on the bar top. “No more than anybody else’s, I guess.”
“Be careful, buddy boy. Be considerate of other’s feelings and don’t,” Mary aimed an index finger at him, “don’t criticize without thinking, unless you’re prepared to collect some grief about it.”
“Are you sure these changes are meant for me?” Joseph asked.
“Who else could they be for?”
“Hmm…maybe you, Mary. Maybe you’re reading your own fortune this morning,” Joseph teased the old woman.
“You’re going to collect some of that grief I mentioned pretty soon if you’re not careful, buddy boy.”
“Speaking of collecting, what are you hunting today?” he asked.
“Oh, something will develop,” Mary said, replacing the crystal in her bag. “Something always develops.”
“I would have thought you’ve scoured this village ten times by now.”
“Something always turns up that you haven’t considered before,” Mary said. “After all, time makes antiques.”
“I think you generate more antiques than time, Mary,” Joseph joked. “I’ve been down to Metzger’s, and he says you’re responsible for half his inventory.”
“Karl’s a dear, kind man, buddy boy. But he’s by no means my only buyer,” she huffed. Clambering down from the stool and bundling herself in her coat and hat, Mary slipped the sling of her bag over her shoulder and waddled toward the door.
“See you this afternoon?” Joseph called after her.
Mary nodded once, more a sharp snap of her head, as she leaned against the door handle.
Exhaust hazed the already clouded sky, from buses, trucks and cars, as well as from the storm sewers and manhole covers Mary passed as she threaded her way between the old and new structures. For years two civic factions fought a tug-of-war, one retreating in its efforts to preserve architectural landmarks, the other razing and erecting boxes of glass, chrome and concrete. The village gave the impression of recovering from an earthquake. Mary paused before the monochromatic brick walls of the new municipal building, the herringbone pattern of its brick courtyard visible beneath a veneer of salted ice, the trapezium front of the building darkened by its northern exposure. Across the street rested the eighty-five-year-old Leyton Building. Constructed flush to the sidewalk, mere feet from the curb, the structure’s face framed massive bronze doors set below a round horseshoe arch. Along the circumference of the second-story roofline ran gothic ball-flower molding. The limestone walls, dulled by time and exposure, appeared a cream color, and in the stucco frieze above the arched doorway, a trio of playful cherubs flanked by cornucopia bore stains of pigeon droppings. Mary watched her breath escape in a steamy swell, attempting to avoid the sensation of loss she experienced whenever she viewed new structures like the offices behind her. While others detected beauty in the linear simplicity of the building’s design, Mary discovered a depressing sexlessness, an absence of passion and vivacity. Her habit of bestowing gender upon both animate and inanimate objects minimized the depersonalizing frightfulness of day-to-day living, bringing with it a sense of order, however artificially imposed. The Leyton promised protection to passersby like a stately grandfather, casting a caring and kindly paternal shadow, while its cross street counterpart neutrally confronted pedestrians with uncluttered brick planes and smoked glass panes, recessed like hollow eye sockets. Far from deriving any sense of comfort from the building, Mary felt threatened by its presence among the older and more venerable edifices. A recession had temporarily saved the Leyton and her contemporaries from the wrecking ball. Leaving the village frozen in mid-facelift, the two vying factions stonewalled on their efforts to progress or preserve. The result was a downtown district resembling a chessboard upon which the forces of the old and the forces of the new in their hopscotching for supremacy had maneuvered one another into a stalemate.
Mary bunched her buttonless coat more tightly around her body, speculating about the toll of the ambiance levied upon people who labored in the modern structure. Village employees, she could only imagine, must manifest the numbing sterility of their offices, perhaps in a boredom so streamlined as to render each man and woman insensate through the day’s routine. While it seemed hackneyed to explain away the Leyton as a building with character, had Mary a choice as to which location she would prefer as a working environment, she would elect to ensconce herself with the consoling confines of the Leyton. She reminded herself as she slowly started east along the sidewalk, that her work, such as it was, rarely took her indoors. Securing her carrier’s bag over her shoulder, she wove among the icy patches toward the warehouses and the river beyond.
Turning south into the cobblestone alley running behind the row of shops, taverns and restaurants fronting the riverwalk, Mary paused to listen to a distant siren echoing through the narrow roadway. A pair of rusty rails, unused and crusted with snow, bisected the paving bricks and disappeared from her view over a slight rise a hundred yards distant. On the right stood a row of abandoned warehouses, their gray windows shattered, and former business names painted on the walls flaking to the ground. Mary still remembered some of the companies, though the signs were now illegible. Berelli Brothers Coffee. Merchandising. The men for whom they were named long dead, these buildings, their monuments, slowly decaying.
On the left the service and delivery entrances to the businesses on the riverwalk, themselves little more than storefronts and warehouses salvaged through the enterprising efforts of self-serving boaters who loathed docking their craft in view of dilapidated buildings. The riverwalk now constituted the village’s most fashionable area, but the money had run dry and the improvements remained cosmetic, skin-deep, a glittering varnish which only served to disguise the face of the district. Mindful of the dangers inherent in exploring early morning alleys, Mary picked her way along the pavement, poking her head into trash bins and doorways, alert for anything remotely collectible.
The jangling bell signaled her entrance and Mary rubbed her fingers together, the ache spreading through them, lodging itself familiarly inside her joints. Her carrier’s bag, as she waddled down the corridor, clinked with a sound that reminded her of a busboy hauling a gray plastic tub of dishes. The sound made her hungry and she realized she had not eaten for hours. At times these moments of realization seemed more like revelations, and as she contrasted her present ambivalence to food with her youthful cravings for anything to eat, Mary noted not for the first time, how patience seemed to be the single lesson of old age learned through imposition.
Halting in the center of the narrow aisle, she considered the disarray surrounding her. Directly above her head, suspended from nails pounded into the thick wooden beams, half a dozen bent wood, cane-bottomed chairs, their scarred legs aimed at the tiled floor. To her right a shelf of tarnished door keys laid above a bin of back issues of Life, National Geographic and Playboy. On the left stood a rack of vintage coats and jackets, mostly military, some with rank and unit insignias still sewn on the sleeves. Visible through the gaps between the coats was a glass case housing clear and aqua-colored electrical insulators. Metzger once told Mary the glass and ceramic components were purchased by young people for use as candle holders, although he said they sold many as paper weights and doorstops. Others merely placed them upon mantles as decorative accessories. The perfect product, Metzger added…an irresistible item with no practical use, which can never malfunction and which helped foster the image that his shop, far from being a repository of rummaged odds and ends, dealt in bona fide antiques. Mary chuckled at the memory, making her way farther down the aisle in the high-ceilinged space, past the leaning dressers with jammed drawers and the cardboard boxes of rickety picture frames; the tiers of amputee dolls heaped upon one another; wooden and brass coat trees adorned with dusty women’s hats; and to either side intersecting aisles lined with countertops upon which rested the recycled refuse of Mary’s village and its neighbors.
Karl Metzger appeared from behind a rug covering a doorway to a rear room, a steaming mug of soup in his hand. He looked as old as history and equally as frail. An oversized gray cardigan engulfed his body and he wore blue and red plaid scarf wound loosely around his neck. He shuffled toward Mary in a pair of fleece-lined slippers so worn the leather shone like polished wood. He had the demeanor of a man accustomed to wearing glasses, squinty eyes placed closed together in a wide expanse of liver-spotted face.
“Ah, Mary,” he called. “Good to see you. Good. Good.” Mary coughed to clear her throat and then clapped her hands together, trying to stimulate greater circulation into her fingers. The aggravating ache lingered.
“What’s for lunch, Karl? My hunger is a demon and I’m counting on you to exorcise it for me.”
“Tomato, Mary, and there’s always enough for two.” He indicated the rear of the shop. “Come into the office.”
Mary passed into the rear room as Karl held the rug back for her. In contrast to the chaos of the showroom, Karl’s office seemed bare, sparsely furnished with: a blond oak library table against one wall, upon which set a two-burner hot plate and a pot of simmering soup; three wooden office chairs, all unmatched; a metal, four-drawer file cabinet; and a dying asparagus fern in a clay pot draping its brown tendrils down either side. In the corner beside the sink set a cot with olive drab blankets and no pillows. The atmosphere of the room was decidedly Spartan, more so, Mary thought, for the gauntlet of clutter one had to run to reach it.
Karl scraped a chair up to the table. “Sit, Mary. Sit,” he urged her.
Mary gently swung her bag to the floor, the sound of clinking causing Karl to raise one eyebrow in a questioning smirk.
“What have you today for me, Mary” he asked, ladling soup into another mug for her.
Mary lowered herself to the chair, tugged her hat from her head and shook loose her hair. “Doorknobs,” she said.
Karl offered her the mug; she grasped it with both hands, the warmth radiating through her fingers in a soothing wave. She sipped tentatively.
“You know the old Burlington Building?” she asked.
“They’re going to demolish it soon,” Karl said.
“Next spring. Anyway, I got inside this morning and poked around a bit.” Mary sipped again from the mug of soup. “That’s a large building, Karl, but I got lucky right away. On the third floor, in a closet off a bathroom, there was a box of glass doorknobs.” Mary set her mug on the table, leaned over and plunged her hand into her bag. She extracted a glass doorknob, which she had earlier shined with her scarf. Handing it to Karl, she removed another, and still another from her bag, until seventeen polished glass doorknobs lay grouped upon the table.
“Hmm,” Karl muttered as he fingered a doorknob, holding it to the diffused light from the glazed window at the rear of the room. “Very nice, Mary. Very nice indeed. But they’re not glass…they’re crystal!” he slipped off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “A wonderful find. I’ll have no trouble selling them and I’ll give you a fine price for them.”
“Great. Can you throw in a pair of winter gloves, too?”
“You’re a dear friend, Mary. But don’t let it get around that you won the better of me.”
“You’re a shrewd old bird, Karl. A shrewd old bird,” Mary said. “Would you like a reading today?”
“No, Mary. No,” Karl said, fluttering his hands before him. “Life holds no surprises for me.” He paused for a moment, and then smiled broadly. “And if it does, I’m not so sure I want to know about them ahead of time.”
As gusting plumes of her breath dissipated in the heated air of the bar room, Mary marched forward and allowed the icy door to swing shut behind her. Joseph stood behind the bar, his attention focused on the television mounted on a platform suspended from the ceiling at one end of the room. Three men sat at a table near the pinball machines, the colorful lights refracted through the sweat on their pitcher of beer. A young man and woman longingly eyed one another over glasses of white wine in a booth across from the bar. Mary seated herself on a stool and then grinned as Joseph centered the box of tissues before her.
“The usual?” he asked.
Mary nodded as she clutched a handful of tissues from the box, daubed at her runny nose, and then sneezed into them so loudly that the three men at the table momentarily halted their conversation, turning their heads toward Mary. They then resumed talking with low-voiced snickering.
Joseph set a glass of Scotch in front of Mary, who rooted in her bag and removed a tattered coin purse, which she opened to reveal a folded sheaf of bills. Mary peeled off a five-dollar bill and laid it on the bar.
“Good day, Mary?” Joseph said as he ferried the bill to the register and secured it in the cash drawer.
Mary gulped a swallow of Scotch and nodded as she replaced her glass on the bar. “Very good, buddy boy, Very good.”