Subduction, Merridawn Duckler
Originally published in the Farallon Review (2013)
Here’s what I thought I knew: the earth shifts. That solid blue sphere we thought of as the world when we were kids? It’s really more like a big amorphous ball wobbling on insecure plates. Here’s what else I knew of the situation by twenty-two: the center of the earth ball is hotter than anyone can imagine. The ball woggles, the plates shift, out blows the fire and then everything returns to normal.
In 1980, northeast of Portland, Oregon, the city where I was born and raised, where I have lived my whole life, it happened: the volcano Mt St Helens blew. The date is etched in my mind because under a blue-feathered plume, hanging in the sky in the shape of a brain, or less poetically, an exploding cauliflower, I walked step pause step pause to the edge of a corn patch and squinted, like I was curious what a guy holding a bible was doing standing in the middle of a field, and twenty minutes later I was married.
On the way back down the aisle it was as if someone hadn’t assembled a guest list but a dream. There was my old pediatrician, some neighbor from long ago, my fiancées cousins. Darcy sat apart and smoked through the entire ceremony, in the eighties you still could. Ellie, my best friend as well as my only bridesmaid, had supposedly quit smoking. Yet that day she’d fired up a Sobranie while she perched on the lip of the tub in what had once been a hay loft but was now a bathroom until Mom came in and made her leave. My mother found Ellie “bossy” and my sister said she was “picky” and the funny thing is that this exactly describes both of them.
I was holding a lipstick. I had never worn make-up before and it seemed like half an hour before my wedding was a good time to start.
These days, bridezilla’s start color-coordinating their nuptials in the cradle. Not me. I didn’t even want a rehearsal. I thought my beloved and me should just grab each other and roll until we landed at the feet of the ordained. But Mom prevailed and here was a field full of people and Ellie wearing her ridiculous bridesmaid’s hat with splendid poise, thanks to a childhood spent going to church, as they still do in the South.
The man I was marrying was a southerner too. I find they smile more than we westerners. And they have this thing known as breeding. Later I learned breeding mainly helps drunks avoid saying how they really feel and that it doesn’t always work. For example, Ellie never called my engagement a mistake until the night we’d shared my free after shift drink, then had some of what Max, my bartender, called his “auditions,” then downed a couple of rounds bought from a Chez Trieste regular. I knew Ellie was drunk because, when she was, her face a turned rich, malaria red. She said it was a sure sign she had Indian blood, probably from her great-grandmother who had fled Tex-Arkana under suspicious circumstances.
“Ellie, why drink if it’s poison?”
“I might ask you the same. I mean why marry trash?” Tresh. I loved to hear her talk.
“Come on, his fathers a lawyer, just like mine.” My father was, in fact, dead. “How is that marrying down?”
Ellie wobbled forward dangerously on the bar stool. She thought her hands were too big so she’d often sit on them, which gave her a mournful, penguin look.
“Jesus H. Christ, even Dagwood walks the dog.”
This was Ellie’s complaint that night about my fiancée, that he was a slob. I thought it was kind of picky. What was the unmade the bed or overflowing garbage compared to love? He was fastidious about his things, just careless of others. In our little apartment, tuna cans overflowed with cigarette butts. Now Ellie wrinkled her nose. “I mean, seriously, who raised him, wolves?”
“He was raised by one of those black nannies, just like you.”
“Nora, you and me aren’t fit to lick her doorstep. It’s reparation, right? White kids get to see the part of their soul they have forever lost, in the eyes of the black women who raised them.”
But the black staff at my in-laws’ came at nine and left at five and when they met me, they shook my hand in a strong, downward motion. I surreptitiously looked at my palm as they walked away. Empty. No note pressed into it: Save Me. Run.
Ellie stood up and walked with drunken hauteur to the bathroom. The heels of her Frye boots pinged on the beautiful, reclaimed oak floors of Chez Trieste. She was wearing one of those flowered dress/cowboys boot outfits that were the visual signifiers of complex womanhood in the eighties. I’m tough, but I’m sweet. I’ll kick your ass, but aerobicize mine so you look at it. While she was gone, I watched Max, my bartender, dry the champagne flutes.
“You marry me, Max.” I slurred, waving a stir stick.
“Honey, the minute you grow a penis I am your sunflower.” He put his face against mine and I felt the manicured stubble of his cheek press my burning skin.
“Nor-nor, may you marry a rich man with a great, big…”
—he kissed me on the forehead—
In January Ellie and I had made a pact. We’d take any restaurant job as long as we didn’t have to wear a uniform. The idea was to make a bundle in tips and quit in March. I was going to graduate school and Ellie was going to Spain. Her father was thinking of investing in a vineyard near Sienna and she planned to pick grapes, so as not to be such a card carrying member of the oppressive class.
Ellie got a job while I was still filling out applications. I called her for advice about Previous Work Experience. My last employment was making slides for my college art history department; gluing doe-eyed Renaissance Madonna’s into tiny cardboard folders while I filled notebooks with my undergraduate thesis: “Jacobean Death Figures Transformed in the Age of Shakespeare.”
“Should I say Slide Sorter or Slide Clipper?”
“Clipper sounds vaguely sexual.”
“Now there’s some damn good porn.”
“I think I’ll say Art History Department Archivist. Do you think they’ll check? Does anybody check these things?”
“Are you calling from their phone right there? Jesus Christ.”
Ellie’s nanny had taught her to cook, which meant she had an actual skill. She was hired to sell pies at a stand in Saturday Market, then Portland’s chief employer of bitter hippies. Once they discovered she could cook, they moved her to their bakery. The owner was an English woman Ellie and I were pretty sure used to be a man. I wanted to ask about England, where I was planning to go to graduate school. I was swept away by the idea that they owned Shakespeare, the greatest writer the language had produced. He could never be stolen or cheated on, wrested away or bought by the Japanese. They would always have him and not even death would they part.
In the market Ellie worked opposite Darcy, whose pretty hand flipped a crepe maker. One day a fellow named Guy came by, he was a pretty well-known Portland entrepreneur who owned two restaurants and was starting a third. We always said that Ellie’s boss used to be a woman and Guy used to be a human. He walked up to the crepe stand, stuffed Darcy’s tip jar with twenties and led her to his new restaurant. That same week I got hired. It was also at a new restaurant, called Chez Trieste. It sounds very sunny and Caribbean, but in fact means Sad House.
I had kept my part of the pact because the staff at Chez Trieste wore white shirts and black pants, which didn’t exactly constitute a uniform. The kitchen staff had long white aprons like the cards in Alice in Wonderland. Max wore whatever he wanted; he’d been hired before the restaurant was even opened.
The Chez served a Portland novelty, nouvelle cuisine. From opening day, it was a hit. Wide-assed old timber money sat squeezed next to boneless New Wave couples with overly thought out hair; there were snobby hippies and sandblasted Lake Oswego housewives and startled people from Gresham. The owner sat for hours obsessing over the menu. Ellie came nightly, for the show. Guy came, with a pack of people. He made a big fuss over the bill and ended up just dumping his pockets out. It looked like a lot of money, in rolled fifties, but actually it barely covered the tip. My beloved came and Max and I sent admiring looks his way. Darcy would sit at the bar and smoke Virginia Slims, which were designed to help you quit by tasting so very nasty.
Food service is supposedly dirty and demeaning work so I am ashamed to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I felt cosseted and admired. Max took care of me. Max took care of everyone. Chez Trieste was in an otherwise bad area of town and once he had to escort out a huge belligerent seaman straight off the docks, who pointed a long, scary knife when he couldn’t buy Keno. Max wasn’t afraid of anything that could talk. Even the snoots went dumb at a glance from his beautiful, tragic eyes. The only person he was afraid of was his mother. When she came to visit from Philadelphia Max asked me to pretend to be his girlfriend.
I was willing to do anything except take off my “promise” ring.
“I think it’s beautiful,” I said, turning it in the light.
“She’ll be suspicious. I would never buy paste.” Max opened a big jar of onions and extracted one with a long pick.
“The middle stone is real.”
“Yes, but that effect is ruined by the two little fakes on either side. Why would anyone do that?”
I actually didn’t know. My beloved had only recently given it to me, brought back from a trip he’d taken to Vancouver. “To make it look bigger?’
“Darling, not in jewelry. My friend has this ring that belonged to Carol Channing’s mother. It’s a huge, pink diamond and flawless, which is very, very rare. It’s stunning. You would look amazing in it.”
“Max. Promise ring? We said we’d wear them always.”
“Well, then maybe he should keep up his end of that bargain.”
I said, “What?”
Max smoothly climbed up onto a stool and brought down a white column of cocktail napkin squares.
I said, “Why not use Darcy. She’s actually beautiful.” This was true.
“As I mentioned, no paste.”
Outside the door and customers were waiting to be seated. Max selected three chimney glasses and set them on the counter. We used to play this game to amuse ourselves; that we would know what people were going to order before they did.
Working in a restaurant is kind of like belonging to a gang. You are insanely loyal. You sometimes feel closer to each other than you do to your own family. One night the owner called a meeting and we assembled, in uncharacteristic daylight, in the dining room. The news was that he had gone to Jamaica to eat at a famous resort and while he was there the kitchen sustained a grease fire and we now had a new chef. At least I think this is what he said, it was always hard to hear over the wood floors, and the owner, who usually just quietly described reductive sauces, was wildly excited. He waved his arms so hard he accidentally slugged a tiny black man next to him, who he then almost lifted in a bear hug of apology. I was sleepy from working late and it only occurred to me when I got home that this slender person, with a face like a teenager, was Michel, the new chef.
Saturday I did my set-ups and then me and the busboy stood at the bar to wolf down some staff supper.
I took a bite.
My eyes widened.
Max took a bite.
“Oh my living god,” said Max. When Ellie came at the end of my shift I told her to order some food even though she never did. On the way home we speculated why it was that someone could give two cooks the same ingredients and in the hands of one it was perfectly delicious but in the hands of another it was like an instruction from God as to why you had a mouth.
“Grease fire, my ass.”
“Yeah, it’s clearly a kidnapping.” We sat in the car in front of her house, talking. She wanted me to go to Guy’s fabulous house next Sunday with her and Darcy for a party with a lot of amazing food and a lot of beautiful people.
“Maybe I’ll meet a cute guy.”
“They’ll all be married except not to their wives.”
But of course we went.
Ellie said, “Let’s get dolled up.” For me, that meant looking for something besides my backpack to carry car keys and chap stick but southern girls take more care. When I opened the door Ellie was in a low cut black crepe dress, and Spanish shawl, a gleaming tortoiseshell barrette pinning her upswept hair. When we got to the party it looked like we’d both spent hours devising the exact wrong thing to wear. The women all wore slinky acetate dresses in the muted colors of kitchen appliances. The look was so uniform that later we speculated it was in fact just one dress they kept running to the bathroom to share. They spent a lot of time in the bathroom, though why I cannot say since there were mountains of cocaine in plain view on the mirrored tables everywhere.
Ellie and I sat at the fireplace—which had never seen a log in its life—like a couple of porcelain dogs. Women walked before us with a kind of broken hip gait and we smiled at them until one handed Ellie a plate with a cigarette butt stuck in the canapé and said to bring her a blush wine. El upended the plate in a rubber plant and pulled me toward the patio. Since we were being ignored liked children, she thought we should act like children and jump into Guy’s turquois pool.
Then Darcy came out of one of the bedrooms and beckoned Ellie away. I felt two arms come from behind and wrap around my waist.
“Guess who?” said Guy.
I tried to squirm away but his hardened penis pressed against me. It was so embarrassing, like a middle school dance, so I just stopped wriggling, and went limp, hoping he would do the same.
“Penny for your thoughts,” said Guy.
I was thinking that Barthes calls wine the converting substance, able to change states and situations but ever since I graduated I had learned it was better not to quote Barthes.
“You know what you should do?” Guy continued. He had half-walked, half dragged me out onto a little balcony. I had no idea where Ellie had got to. There was a shot glass of tequila on the outdoor ledge and I picked it up for something to have in my hands.
“You should come work for me,” Guy said.
“No, but thanks for the concept.”
“You’re just wasted at Chez Pretense.”
“Who calls it that?”
“Darcy. Now there’s a pistol. Got a head on her shoulders and knows where to put it, you know? You get what I’m talking about? Knows what a head is for, you get me? Whereas you, with this whole little college thing you got going. What kind of superior shit you think you are anyway?” Guy’s voice and the music rose.
“You’re not that special, get it? There’s a million girls just like you so, come on down to earth here and mingle with the rest of us mortals. Think you’re so smart? Well people don’t like it; see what I’m getting at? Seriously, for your own good, word of advice? Smart is for cunts.” He put his hand on my neck and drew my face toward him.
“God, what? Now I’m upsetting you? Jesus, lighten up. I think you’re pretty. I think you’re fucking gorgeous. I’m just trying to tell you, do something with it. Don’t sit around with your head in a fucking book all the time with your little superior friends and your French cooking and come on down and mingle with us mortals. Now how about that job? What are you doing there; you’re some dish washer, right? They stick you down with those wetbacks, what a waste, excuse my French.”
Suddenly the shot glass, which was actually plastic, cracked in my hand. I guess I was holding it too tightly. Guy laughed and wiped the blood off my palm with a napkin soaked in tequila. I wasn’t going to cry. He held up a bottle and I drank. Ellie and I had come hungry. Guy owned three restaurants! We thought there would be food. He took my face in his hands, and kissed me hard and I bit his tongue.
Ellie and I fled. We totally forgot she had driven us, and just began to stumble down the deserted streets, wet as ink under the streetlight spots. She hung onto my arm, even though I was half falling over and said that Darcy said Guy was going to buy Chez Trieste because of Michel.
“It’s crap!” I shouted into the empty street. “He’s still the one!”
The one, the one, the one, we yelled until it became no one, no one, no one. A cab came by and I got in, just as Ellie remembered she had a car. I ran up the stairs to our apartment and told my beloved what Guy had tried to do to me.
He kicked the covers off and a tuna can tower fell down. “Jesus, do I have to explain to you men only want one thing. Are you so naïve? Are you that dumb? And why the fuck are you all wet? Tell me right now what you did!”
In the morning I called him, at his office, and the phone rang the way phones used to ring, long and deep and useless. I’d slept in my dress and where the tequila soaked in; the fabric had stained a perfect hole over my left breast.
By now, Chez Trieste couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to come at night, so they’d started to serve brunch, because of Michel. Max and I worked like dogs, in the sense that we did nothing but run up and down stairs. Brunch meant strange people started to come and the place lost some of its vibe but it was still Chez Trieste; the staff still gathered on Mondays to hear about the week’s menu, drink cult wines and gossip. Someone asked the owner if he was selling to Guy. The owner tapped his glass, like a wedding toast.
“Rumors are flying. People claim we’re about to open a place in Eugene! But it’s only the chanterelle’s talking. One thing I can say with some certainty, Guy Bowen does not need Chez Trieste in his empire. I’d close it first.” Everyone clapped but the rumors didn’t stop.
“Darcy and I could be working together,” I said. We had gone to shop for wedding shoes.
Ellie glanced at me, belle-like. “She’s not at the restaurant anymore. Guy shipped her to Vancouver, which is supposedly the next San Francisco. So good riddance.”
“I thought you two were friends.” I picked up a sandal apparently made from PVC piping. “Is it just me or are all white shoes really hideous?”
“You can’t wear them after Labor Day.”
“You can if it’s a wedding or you’re a Shriner. I’m surprised a southern gal like you does not know this fundamental fashion fact.”
We stopped by the Chez to see if we could wheedle the owner into using his discount for wine for the wedding. Closed, without Max, the bar looked monastic, white walls and a toothless gap of a fireplace. I think three o’clock is the saddest time of day. That’s when you truly know if the plans you made are coming to fruition or never going to be realized. We sat and waited in the empty bar, watching the squares of light cross the oak floors.
Well, not exactly empty; at the other end of the bar was Michel. He smiled and nodded but his English had not improved the entire time he had been at Chez Trieste. Ellie stared over her coffee cup.
“God, you work with some good-looking men.”
I whispered that everyone, black, white, gay and straight had tried to bed him but I didn’t think anyone was getting lucky. In his kitchen the music blaring, night and day Michel slipped between the narrow counters. Once he saw me looking at him and flipped a golden little trout on his spatula and caught it an inch above the black mats on the floor, and grinned. I lifted the lid on something that smelled amazing, like a symphony.
On my last night Max threw me a shower in the bar. The theme was “Regrets, I’ve Had A Few.” Everyone was supposed to bring “empowerments” for my new life as a wife. I got everything from a set of vibrators engraved with my initials to the OED, the big complete edition. “Now you’ll never run out of words, “said Max as we slow danced to pounding reggae. That night the bar seemed full of magic, and at the end of that magic night, I reached into my almost husband’s coat pocket and my hand came back with a pack of Virginia Slims and a match book from a restaurant/hotel where I had never been, it being in Vancouver.
As Ellie sat on the tub, I pressed my bright red lips together. I looked quite a bit like Raggedy Anne.
Below our window sat the former owner of Chez Trieste with Guy. My almost-husband’s law firm wanted them invited, now wildly successful co-owners in a chain of brew pubs, where an all-black staff stood and flipped burgers in snowy white hats. They had Michel in a booth, supposedly managing the place but he was into hard stuff by then, marvelous tiny ear pods in his ears and nothing much left in his eyes. St. Helen’s had flattened with the force of an atomic bomb a hundred times over, ash falling as far as Idaho. Guy Bowen’s hamburger chain had signs on all the doors: Virgins, apply here.
Now Ellie dropped her cone of flowers and blew out the match and threw it in the drain of the tub. Behind her the blue plume hung, a wedding shot to wow my future children.
“What do you think?”
“When there was like that earthquake in Chile or some such, I thought: if you know there’s danger, why not just leave? But here the volcano blew, and I never even thought of abandoning my home.”
“You take everything too seriously,” said Ellie. “It is all a pile of shit, but at least it’s our shit.”
White ash fluttered to earth in a new form of glass. I could see my mom and sister making their determined way across the field to get rid of Ellie.
I said. “I see why people believe in the future. That’s all we have. Or I do.” And later, to drive home the fact, I said it again: I do.
Merridawn Duckler is a writer from Portland, Oregon and the author of INTERSTATE, Dancing Girl Press. Her fiction has appeared in Main Street Rag, Green Mountains Review, Buckman Journal, with recent flash in The Offing, Forklift, Medusa’s Laugh Press and The Southampton Review. She was a finalist for the Sozopol Fiction Fellowship and named to the Wigleaf 50. Residencies/fellowships include Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia, Vermont Post Graduate Conference. She’s an editor at Narrative and the international philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.
Her website is www.merridawnduckler.com and she’s on twitter at @MerridawnD.
Audio from Cleaver Magazine: https://www.cleavermagazine.com/the-spectrum-by-merridawn-duckler.