Michelle Chan Brown
K.'s breath is rank, but she sucks on an orange lozenge, so perhaps later, after, we will find the café with the handsome waiters, drink, kiss. K. is preferable after one and a half snifters of liquor; her precision, the little affectations that convey to the world that she is well-constructed out of nature, not vanity, not fear—these slip. She begins to use her hands, to speak of her mother's subtle punishments, her father's terrible, looming beauty. She allows herself to be infantile, emphatic. She blows the stray curls out of her pink face, her lashless eyes. Poor K., slurping glass after glass of milk at dinner while her mother autopsies the pork cutlets and her father talks low on the telephone to—who knows? Poor K., knees chubby under the skirt of her uniform, her lips greasy and spotted with breading as she smiles at her mother! I am overwhelmed, in these moments at the cafe, when she upsets the spoons and Prince Waiter smirks in our direction, by the urge to kiss her neck, to bury my head inside her, savor how poorly she grooms in the hidden places. The patches of hair on her vagina are shaved into the shapes of obscure countries. She always wears a slip, bone-colored polyester posing as silk.
On the way to the square, we pass a gypsy boy, tiny inside the legs of his squatting mother. Her face is rouged and dirty, repulsive and fine-boned. The gypsies are becoming a real problem in our city. Someone should be informed. K.'s father, the deputy (three wins, by a landslide), considers himself a humanitarian, but really he is lazy, as most photogenic males are, and if a compassionate posture brings him the hot lights of the press cameras, then let our best blocks fester.
Besides, we—the citizens—have our own concerns.
K., for example, received the results of certain tests by mail last week, information involving her breasts. Her mother, serving ham frittata to us during an interminable Sunday brunch, wore a blouse with a ludicrous floppy ribbon around the collarbone, intended to distract from the twin absences above her waist. K. tells me her mother no longer considers herself a woman. In this instance, K. says, she cannot blame her father. To be anything but cold would be to deny biology, his life-force, his virility, which K. admires.
The gypsy boy hurls himself at K.'s feet. Her shoes are very pretty, kitten-heeled, with bows over the toes. This is an example of the earlier "constructions"; they do not really suit her. The gypsy boy wrings his hands and then gestures like a master of ceremonies, as if to say—this world! This world! The movement is theatrical and sad. His mother picks between her few teeth with the sharp edge of a breadstick. In the baseball cap in front of them are a few curled notes, a palmful of change. K's sharp elbow: Please, we should really—don't you have any—. Her need, her reliance, creates a pleasant sensation. I pull out a crisp bill and hand it over slowly, savoring, applying a little pressure on the edge of the paper so the gypsy boy has to pull. His mother makes rapid-fire signs of the cross. Her fingernails are painted red.
A crowd has already gathered in the square. Little girls eat soft ice cream and little boys pull at their shorts. Their parents' faces register shock, fatigue. A three-piece band has been hired for the occasion; the virtuoso harmonica player blows against the dominant melody of the city anthem. K. is relieved we are not late. K. wonders if there will be a charge this time—there will not—and if the organizers will take credit cards. K. never uses cash, although she is terrified of debt, and concerned that, if her parents ever divorce, she will be responsible for her mother's medical bills. She has some investment, thus, in the preservation of the marriage, although she has contempt for her mother, for "putting up with misbehavior."
In the center of the square, the statue of our city's founder, astride his horse, appears to be newly buffed. His long calves, the thick rope of his braid, the gun in one hand and the basket of cherries in the other—symbolizing our affection for violence and fertility—all gleam. The cobblestones are liberated of their usual chaff and cigarette butts.
K. comments that the space has never looked better. "Remind me to compliment my father," she says. She wonders what she will wear at our next appointment, a lavish lakeside fete in honor of her mother's birthday. K. is dreading this event but frets instead about gifts, guests, and attire.
Before she can become too enamored of this boring tangent, the band begins the most traditional interpretation of the anthem, a sign that the audience should order themselves for the main event. K. is hungry, she says, she doesn't know what's come over her lately. She pulls a small bag of smoked almonds from her purse. Later, unfortunately, she will have almond skin between her front teeth, which will prove distracting in conversation. I will not have the heart to tell her.
The bandleader climbs up the riser and requests that we sing along. He is a well-loved figure in certain households. In addition to his work as a musician, he also hosts a popular program on cooking for the home. On a budget, of course. These days, many of us are having a tough time making ends meet, which is why free events like these are such a blessing. He raises his conductor's wand and we sing. We sing lustily; we are not ashamed of our tone-deafness, our limited lungs, in service of this powerful song. There is a certain section of the song, the bridge, where the words are less intuitive. In a large crowd such as this, the cheating that occurs in this section is obvious. But never mind.
K.'s sweet voice is lost among the chorus. When she was little, K. has said, she wanted to be an artist—an actress, a poet, a sculptor of metal, even a costume designer—it didn't matter. Now she has turned her attention to public service, and reads biographies of martyrs and suffragettes during dead hours at her father's office, where she responds first to his many letters. Dear Father of K., Are the garbage collectors on vacation? I appreciate their hard work, but the rats in our alley have grown very large. Dear Father of K., I am enclosing my son's transcript, which I think you will find compelling evidence for reconsidering his current status (unadmitted) at the state university. Dear Father of K, In February, the aides at your state-run facility switched Grandma Helen's medications, and now she doesn't know us . . .
At first, K. tried to personalize her responses. She felt truly sorry for her fellow citizens, the quantity of dead fish in the river, the shortage of beds at our nursing homes. But people complain so much, K. says, as if they don't realize that everyone has troubles. She even wrote this, to a gentleman who disagreed over the amount on his tax refund. But if you respond, she says, they just write back again and again. They think you have given them permission to get things off their chest. K.'s nerves started to flare, at night in her apartment, thinking about those letters. Little sores developed on her scalp—had she scratched them? She stopped going to the salon. No more French braids for our Friday nights. Once, drunk, she lifted her red hair from her shoulders and hunched forward. "I will do this only if you promise not to talk about it." Scars, like the footprints of a lizard, led from her spine to the crown of her head. Between the strands, some still oozed yellow-gray pus; some were cross-hatched dead skin. One was dark with blood. She held her hair up a few seconds longer than necessary. Prince Waiter blew cigarette smoke onto the street. It is a fine place, the café, with crimson felt chairs and fake-marble table tops, expensive oversized pastries that all taste of cream and sugar, no matter what is ordered. It was no big thing, really—her scars.
She cannot broach the matter with her father, wrecked himself by the upcoming fundraisers, his insomnia giving him crows' feet that might not play well in the polls. Her mother is, of course, out of the question.
This is what she came up with: Sir and/or Madam, ("Dear" would invite too much intimacy, she decided.) Thank you for your concern. Please direct all further inquires to internal affairs. Remember: your voice is your vote, and all the universe is contained and cultivated within. The family has recently turned to the spiritual texts of an obscure guru, S., as a way of understanding the unrest in the home. Even now, a slim volume of his self-published second text peeks from the top of her soft leather bag.
At the end of the song, a line of children from the best district school emerges from the crowd. They have the uniform attractiveness of their age, though some are overfed or unkempt. Their small faces shine with solemnity. They are in traditional dress, and the garish primary colors of their blouses should have outed them immediately, but someone—their teacher—engineered their entrance so it seems mysterious, incidental, and profound. The teacher, K. says, was her teacher (second grade), for of course K. had attended this reputable school. The teacher, to her credit, wears her adult-scale traditional dress with grace, down to the birch crown in her gray hair. The teacher, Mrs. W., is beloved especially because she is ageless. On their name days, all of Mrs. W's students receive vouchers for ice cream, even during the summer. As a schoolgirl, K. shared her name with another student, the opera singer K. K., whose tragic disappearance on the set of her historical trilogy you are familiar with. K.—my K.—suspected that, because of her father's prominence, she would not receive her gift, as the other K. came from a poor family, was a superior student, and was far more "deserving" than K. The name-day came; the voucher, with Mrs. W.'s splendid handwriting, materialized in the mailbox. K. cannot recall what flavor she chose.
The other, less prestigious school succumbed to budget cuts. The building, boarded up, is an eyesore. Children who do not receive acceptance letters help out at home until they are of age.
The children weave in and out of the crowd. Their hands brush our forearms. Their fingers are hot and damp. They are likely nervous. K. notices that plastic-wrapped packets are making their way down the rows. Inside, thoughtfully, are disposable opera glasses and bottles of water with a company logo. K. tells me, with not a little pride, that she arranged for the sponsorship, a project beyond her duties at the municipal office. She hopes, she says, that her efforts will not go unrecognized, as she is not the type to boast.
Finally! Out of a sudden vapor of dry ice, K.'s father. Hale, bronzed even, though the telltale line of foundation between his jaw and neck is visible, even from a distance. He keeps his speech short; his advisors, K. tells me, have insisted that audiences, especially anxious citizens, perceive verbosity as impolite. K. says his toasts at private events have grown longer and longer.
K's father comments on the beauty of the day, the strength of the community. He acknowledges that there is discomfort in new forms, radical "ways of doing," but without rupture, growth is impossible. He alludes to butterflies, volcanoes, the planetary system. He quotes the guru S. K's face flushes. Her perspiration smells sour. Sometime it is difficult to tell with K. whether she is smiling or grimacing. As he speaks, the children form a half-circle in front of him.
The prisoner is wheeled from the periphery. Like most of them, he has refused food for months. His lips are edged with dried blood and white flecks. Children, if they oversleep, come to school with such mucous. Veins braid up his calves, and his ankles are so thin—have they used handcuffs for his legs? And for his hands? Difficult to tell, as they are pinned behind him.
K's father announces that the children will now lead us in prayer. People retrieve leafs of paper. Reading over shoulders makes her nervous, K. whispers. But it is an old prayer, more familiar to us than the city's anthem, and as we begin to speak together, strong and sure, K.'s eyes brighten. She knows these words. Her mother may have whispered them to her, urging her out of the dark closet where she pretended to be hiding from soldiers.
The sculptor of the statue chose to render our founder with mouth open, as if he were in mid-sentence, claiming victory. People say things went wrong once the last son passed, although he was largely considered weak-minded, profligate. The old residence is near the square; every year, groups of schoolchildren and seniors tour the rooms, eyeball the rugs and spoons from the old grand dinners. Every child wants to touch the tureen or the bedding, but not even K., when she was little, was permitted.
The bones of the prisoner's chest are Christ's bones, from the old triptychs.
In minutes, the event should be over, though it is difficult to predict the outcome, given the variable is human, and his particular reaction to the given circumstances is uncertain. Our city is third to do this; we have always had a bit of an inferiority complex. Our capitol launched the first—well, you read the news. Our city has only the palace, the hills, yellow in the summer, and the salty fish with digestible bones. K.'s father reminds K. that much of the city's sense of identity—of purpose, even—rests, then, on this.
This is a test. K's father has predicted dark times ahead, and K., with her fragile, artistic temperament, will need a partner of a character. What do they mean? A person is capable of anything, the teachers say. A moral education is the process of dressing up, seeing what suits. Or perhaps not. It is good to have moments like this, and rare, where the response will determine the outcome of your life.