Pearl and Al
Five pm in a town the size of a side plate. A woman, with a neck like a fat old thigh and ankles like necks, is cooking. The kitchen is blue. Blue like a Blue Willow cup — cracked up a bit and not washed quite right. Ringed coffee stains on the inside and dribbles on the outside. The room’s like that.
The man in the room — now he’s sort of blue too (but paler than the walls) and not a blue that says he’s cold either. He’s just sitting at the beige Formica table on a stool too small for his stretched out behind. He’s looking dead but he is breathing — like a kid sucking hard through a straw at the end of a milkshake.
She’s got a whole clang of pots out and it’s a big cooker she’s got too. Six elements all on high — boil the snot out of it! Just like iron the snot out of it and for two heaving old bodies they do have well-pressed clothes.
There’s just rattling pots and milkshake breathing.
Until she speaks.
‘There’s plenty of food here Al — lots of extra for hash in the morning.’ And her voice has a crust to it — like pastry on a winter pie.
‘Looking forward to breakfast.’ He says. Al speaks like he’s sniffing his last bowl of oatmeal.
‘But this isn’t breakfast now, you know that don’t you Al?’
‘I know that Pearl.’
‘Good, just so long as you know Al.’
‘Yes I know that Pearl.’
He doesn’t blink very much, Al. Most people do it about every nine seconds but he’s at about every twenty.
‘...It’s not breakfast yet Al.’
So it’s just after five and she’s mashing the potatoes — going at them like they’ve done some wrong. If she had a tree and a bit of old rope she’d be hanging them right there in the wide blue kitchen. And Al would be giving every one a farewell blink and a straw sucking dirge.
There’s a big old rug in that kitchen, the sort made of rags. Pearl made it in the seventies when she took up ragging after the kids bolted — Marilyn and Rach in their patched-up jeans. And the rug’s pretty much all blue too. Al had worked at the electric company for thirty years by seventy-two and there were a hell of a lot of worked to the warp overalls to be doing something with. She’d torn them all up into inch-wide strips and sat with the electric wives ragging. The red flecks are all the embroidered Al’s from the breast pockets. One of the wives had kept the buttons on some of her strips, but they’d all been hoovered off by now.
Al has strained himself up — he’s standing on the rug.
‘Right then. Kids’ll be here soon eh!’
He blinks — a couple of times.
‘No Al, there’s just us.’
‘They’ll be here soon; I’m going to get spruced up.’
Al steps off that rug and onto the tiles he’d laid — around the time of the ragging.
‘Didn’t do a bad job with those tiles, eh Pearl?’
Pearl is all done with the potatoes and she’s stirring up mustard sauce. She’s at the tricky bit where the roux turns to lumps if you don’t keep stirring. She could let it lump up and talk to Al — tell him no one’s coming, lead him back to the table and get him all settled before supper. That’d take how long? She lets him go. By the time he’s got to the bedroom he’s not going to know what he’s doing there anyway — and he might come back. Or she’ll go down there with his supper on a tray. He’ll be thinking of sleeping and wonder why the hell he’s getting supper in bed — is he sick or something?
She drains the beet water over the roux and keeps stirring.
It’s eight years since she’s cooked food, put it on the table and had it all make sense to Al.
The window above the cooker is running with water. There’s a puddle on the sill like an accidental pee. Pearl wipes it up like all the others.
‘I need you down here.’
The ankles don’t want to shift, don’t want to ache all the way down the passage or keep her steady while she picks up whatever it is Al has dropped.
Pearl is looking at the sill and holding the cloth like it’s a dead rabbit. She’s biting her lip on account of there being a bit of a digging in over her stomach — where the fuller-figure hose elastic cuts in — but she’s not going to buy an extra-full and that’s for sure!
‘What’ve you done Al?’
‘What is it Al?’
Around her stomach there’ll be a puckered, near magenta line by bedtime — looking like someone’s drawn up a thick old gathering thread. The marks might have faded to pink by the morning. And Al will say ‘That sore Pearl?’ And she’ll say ‘It’s nothing.’
‘Something’s wrong up here!’
‘Come and see.’
Pearl drops the cloth.
‘Alright Al, I’m coming!’
And she gets herself out of the kitchen and into the passage with her ankles bawling her out — ‘Leave him you fat old fish — it’ll be nothing!’ Past the bathroom with its dead peach walls and chipped up linoleum, stopping by the closet to close her eyes and count to ten. Opening them and seeing the rubber plant needs a dust.
Then she’s there at the bedroom door. Al’s bent in close to the mirror. His forehead like the dirt track out front and his two front teeth showing square as houses through his open lips. He’s wearing just his underpants, socks and a fresh shirt.
‘Pearl I think there’s something wrong with the mirror.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s all wrong.’
‘What’s all wrong?’
‘Have a look.’
Caught in a chipped out wing of the butterfly mirror is the face of her husband. His image blurred by his own groping finger prints. Smeared prints that marked out a route around his face; his nose, cheeks and mouth as he’d dug around for himself — the man eight years gone.
‘See what I mean — there’s something all wrong with it.’
‘It’s just a bit old I think Al.’
‘There’s plenty of old mirrors around and they don’t look like this. It’s more than just age Pearl.’
Pearl touches her husband’s hair with her mustard sauce hands. Pale strands break between her fingers. Hair she’s cut for sixty-two years with clippers he’d found at the garbage dump. He’d said — ‘There you go Pearl, saved a dollar and now we’ll spend it. Get your green dress on we’re going to the grill!’
It’s a painful rise onto her toes to get her nose up by his neck. There’s a smell like the electric company still there. A sort of a blue-spark collar buttoned in close and whispering — ‘I worked hard, didn’t I Pearl?’
‘You did Al.’
‘I did what?’
‘You did right to call me — there’s something up with this mirror. We’ll take it down — tomorrow.’
Pearl gets her nose back down where it should be.
‘Right we need your grey suit Al, and that tie the girls got you last year — haven’t worn that yet.’
‘Didn’t think I’d get to.’
She’s hauling through the hangers and it’s a good looking wardrobe interior. Everything pressed flat as Louisiana and just right on crochet-covered coat-hangers — which she’d got right into after the ragging. Al’s blinked about five times and there’s his stuff laid out on the bed.
‘Do you reckon the girls’ll like me in that tie?’
‘Yes.’ She says as she turns her husband to face her. ‘I do.’ As she taps his elbow — reminding him to lift that arm up and out into the sleeve. It’s a long push from the armhole to the cuff for the arm that screwed connections and laid cable from Sioux Falls to Minneapolis. That’s more than a hundred miles and nothing left of it on the limb she’s working down the sleeve.
Pearl hands him the trousers while he sits on the bed. Al raises a foot at a time into the trouser legs, pulls them up as far as his knees then waits for Pearl to haul him up by his shoulders. And he pulls those trousers up and zips his own fly. Pearl does the button and belt.
Al leans his back against the bedroom wall while Pearl shuffles his good shoes over with her calloused toes. She holds them firm with the side of her foot and Al pushes in.
The shoes have got a little big so his feet go in pretty easy.
‘The tie now Al.’
The tie’s a real silk one, from China, but bought in Cleveland. Sent up last birthday with a nice card and a bit of money too.
‘Rach and Marilyn, eh Pearl!’
‘Yep, Rach and Marilyn!’
‘Two good girls there!’
‘Sure are Al.’
And Al remembers Marilyn on Prom night with her eyes like his and smelling of 4711, while he’s threading the Cleveland tie’s fat end over, around, up and through. Thinks of Rach and her big old Caddy coming home one Christmas, sees her washing the dust of 600 miles off the paintwork, while he’s tightening the knot.
‘It’s a long drive out here Pearl.’
‘It is all right, yep it is.’
And Pearl is thinking about that Cadillac too — the way Rach got that dust off of it before she even came inside.
‘Get that green dress on then Pearl.’
‘Jesus Al, what’re you thinking! It won’t go near me — that’s if I’ve still got it!’
‘It’ll be fine girl.’
Pearl thinks of the Caddy and the dust and the long drive out. Six hundred miles is nothing. Nothing. Jesus if Rach drove a mile a day she’d be here in two years (unless she drowned in the Mississippi) and what’s two years!
‘Sixty-two years sure is something isn’t it Al?’ Pearl says as she’s turning away. ‘I reckon that dress might be in Rach’s old room — just you hang in there OK?’
‘What’s sixty-two years Pearl?’
But she’s out in the hallway and he didn’t ask it very loud anyway.
There’s a bit of stuff in Rach’s old room. Lots of craft things; macramé books, knitting projects, fat quarters, embroidery silks and a garbage bag near full of inch-wide strips — ready to rag for twenty-five years. And Pearl just knows it’s in there — the green frock. Strips of it winding through kitchen curtains she’d sewn straight after the honeymoon. Twined with Rach’s Rolling Stones t-shirt and the prom dress Marilyn had looked so good in but ruined with a dropped cigarette. Up against surplus overall strips and stretching yards of too-small garments — that’s where the green frock is all right.
‘Pearl, Pearl what’s going on?’
‘I’m all ready in here.’
Pearl is standing with her hand on the bag. She is twisting the plastic — tight as she can around one of her fingers.
As tight as she can until it hurts too much and she’s got to get it untwisted now or she’s going to lose that finger!
She’s shaking at the bag and her finger’s gone grey and cold.
‘I’m coming Al! I’m on my way!’
The ankles are moving and her and the bag are hanging in above them. Limping, dragging and hurting. The ankles, Pearl and the bag are at the bedroom door.
‘Pearl, what am I all ready for?’
While the damn bag pulls on her finger like a fishing line with something big and old at the other end. Some stinking catfish that isn’t going to give up — that doesn’t know the more it pulls the more it’s hooked.
Like the fish she’d hooked last fall. She’d pulled until she farted — watched him racing silver and blue by the boat. Could smell him cooking, see him on lettuce with lemon. Could taste him, had eaten him even — her belly fuller than a sated ‘gator. There she was in the boat with adrenalin pumping through her fat old brain. A chemical noise screaming ‘fight!’ while it surged past quieter voices murmuring something like ‘let the fish go.’
But that fish wasn’t old out of luck and when he was so close she could’ve kissed his lips he let go of the hook. Just swam off and not even hurrying.
‘Pearl! What am I ready for here?’
‘Well whatever it is I don’t want to go, Pearl. I just don’t.’
‘You don’t want to go Al?’
And Pearl sees that old fish heading back to where it’s silent and deep — while the garbage bag gets loose on her finger. While the quiet blood returns and the unravelled edge of a home-sewn trouser suit lies down with the bag.
‘I don’t want to go either Al.’
‘Anywhere Al, anywhere. ‘Cept to the table eh — it’s supper time Al.’
‘Whad’ya mean — didn’t we eat yet? No supper yet?’
‘That’s right — none yet.’
‘Well! Well. Is it still too early then Pearl?’
‘No, it’s about time darling.’
And Al follows her down the passage sucking his milkshake.
Pearl opens the cupboard with her new hurt finger, bends to the shelf for the old white plates — and her ankles are at the end of the night not the beginning. The food’s in the microwave and heating fast — nuke the snot out of it. Just like blow the snot out of it and Pearl reckons they just about have.
Al’s behind spreads back over the stool in the blue kitchen.