by Linda Sillitoe
[p.54]Marly liked to wake with the city, meaning that on weekends she slept late. Monday through Friday the traffic began to roar past her window about seven a.m. By seven-thirty it had penetrated her consciousness. She relished the terrain between sleep and wakefulness, traveling it in both directions as her dreams turned gradually to thoughts, or the reverse.
As voices and snatches of radio music seeped through her window, she let her consciousness flow out through the same cracks until she became one with the rousing world. No need for her to rush about personally, for she entered the morning indirectly.
Gone were the days of alarm clocks that shocked her from one state into another. Ninth grade had been the worst for alarm clocks, but high school hadn’t been much better. In ninth grade her parents insisted that she, like her siblings, take early morning seminary to study the Book of Mormon. In high school she could take seminary during the school day. Still, classes began early enough that even a girl with Marly’s casual approach had to arise early to be organized and present before the first bell rang. In college Marly simply avoided registering for any class that met [p.55]before nine. Then, as the classes seemed less and less relevant to her life, she stopped registering at all.
On Sunday Marly relished the early peace. She lay in bed pondering the week, or the book she had read herself to sleep with the night before, or the evening ahead with Paul. She thought a sexual fantasy a fine way to start any morning, for then she could slide through hours of ordinary living before the glow ‘wore off. Once up, she’d put on water for tea, feed Lennon, and take a shower. This Sunday morning, her pleasure was dulled by the ache of worry. The whole family’s conversations and actions seemed, in retrospect, like a tableau of barely controlled panic. She breathed deeply and resolved to think about it during church rather than let it ruin her morning.
She no longer felt guilty contrasting her slow mornings with the pace her family kept on Sundays: best clothes, church, Sunday dinner, visiting or visitors—a hectic day. Caitlin and Jake didn’t go to church often any more, Marly knew, although the others pretended they did. Nevertheless, the twins would be up making demands of their mother. Jake spent a lot of time in his study with his towers of books, an activity the twins found boring.
Children, church, or both were what her siblings chose to do with their lives, Marly knew. And they received all the kudos that carne from following the approved social plan. While she maintained affection for both church and children, she intended never to let their clamor enter into the calm center where she lived. She loved every inch, every shadow of her apartment; every item in it had a purpose. During one Sunday sermon it dawned on her that the chaos that invaded Eden was an infant. Its parents discovered the consequences of sex, new knowledge, or both, and became weary as well as wise.
Barbara had finally quit trying to line Marly up with men but still encouraged her to attend a singles congregation. Marly [p.56]answered that she met plenty of men at the library. She smiled slyly, preparing her breakfast, for many of those men wandered in from the streets. Often they showed symptoms of mental illnesses or addictions. At one time many of the older patrons had been hospitalized, but when drug treatments became available, doctors gave them prescriptions and set them free. Now they haunted the downtown public library, the malls, the parks, the streets. Most of these unfortunates tended to be quiet, conversations with their inner voices kept to mumbles, blank stares relatively inoffensive.
If someone became agitated, Marly was often the staff person summoned. Emmajean, her supervisor, froze; Bryce, the art curator, tried to whisk the offender out the door; and Bernice, at the reference desk, would pick up the telephone and call the police. Usually Marly could quiet Clarice or Eileen just by listening and nodding; she would hold Jorge’s gesturing hands. If nothing worked, she would ease them gradually toward the plaza north of the library, walking with them until they relaxed. She didn’t mind, although Emmajean predicted that Marly would die an ugly, public death some day when one of her “little friends” jumped her.
Marly tried to explain her theory that society itself was crazy. These unstable people merely expressed the incongruities, anxieties, and damnable contradictions that everybody felt but most stifled. Bernice shrugged. Then Marly thought about all the homeless drifting through the city as if it were an urban camp ground. Maybe, in some way, everyone was homeless, and would be, until everyone had a home. The officially homeless tried to bring that message to the rest, but few understood.
On Sundays, when Marly walked to the brick chapel several blocks from her apartment, she stuffed dollar bills, folded singly, into her pocket to distribute to the people scattered along her [p.57]route. As organist, she had to arrive early. This Sunday she walked swiftly, dressed in her favorite sweater, the color of burnt sugar, and a wool plaid skirt, burgundy tights, and low-heeled shoes. The fact that other young women wore sheer pantyhose and push-me-over heels to church didn’t bother her in the least. She brushed her hair until it shone, then slipped a sage green ribbon through it. She tucked her music inside the leather folder that Barbara had given her for Christmas several years back. Thus armed, she slipped through the ward officers and members, gathering in the chapel, and went directly to the organ.
The organ was old and tuneful, and Marly loved the feel of its worn keys and the way her hands lifted exultant notes, spewing the colored waves of sound above the harried, contemplative, or drowsy heads of the congregation. The hymns always seemed to her the most essential part of the service, the simple core. The words sang in her head, but what mattered were the harmonies that flickered with the soft, luxuriant patterns cast by the huge stained-glass window at the chapel’s far end.
One other thing she liked was looking out over the congregation in between the musical numbers. She found this urban congregation entertaining. Wealthy yuppies mingled with low-and middle-income people who lived along the crowded courts inside the huge inner city blocks. Educated and even pedantic speech mixed with the ungrammatical and colloquial.
From the stand she liked to concentrate on the congregation. During a church service people revealed themselves in the most astonishing ways. As everyone hushed during the sacrament, shades of indigo or violet appeared around some people’s heads. Children cast a goldish light. She only regretted that she couldn’t watch effectively while they sang.
Since childhood she had observed a wavery light around people, plants, animals but had learned early not to mention it [p.58]much. At one time, Caitlin had been able to see that glow, too, though, so far as Marly could tell, Roger and Barbara never had. When they were alone and still little, Caitlin would discuss the “lights” with Marly—how Dad’s light flashed red just before he yelled at them, or how Mom wore a rainbow when she sang in the ward choir, but her light later faded to gray.
After Caitlin took biology, physics, and chemistry, she began to correct Marly on everything. The little patterns Marly saw in the air, Caitlin explained, were just dust on the surface of her retinas. And the halos around things were either sunlight or artificial light refracting as it hit a surface. Or, possibly, some lights were illusions of energy. Either way, Caitlin said, Marly’s eyes produced the phenomenon, not the plant or the person. Theirsecret talks ended by the time Marly was seven or eight years old. She doubted that Caitlin remembered them.
Nick Fazzio was the first person in a long time that Marly had mentioned her “funny films” to—the snippets of people and events she saw in her head occasionally. She’d never even found an adult term for the flickering pictures that later came true. As a child, she’d tried to explain them to her mother, but her mother became upset and called the pediatrician, who said Marly was watching too much television. Once when the family had visited Canyonlands in southern Utah, Marly recognized the camp ground. No one believed her because none of them had ever been there before—but Marly had seen that specific place in detail in a funny film.
Not even Caitlin experienced the funny films. Even as a child, Caitlin had been intense and Marly dreamy. In fifth grade Cait had befriended a classmate who’d been in and out of the reformatory, much to the awe and trepidation of his peers. Marly kept her distance. The boy was frequently angry, made no friends, and the teachers finally stopped trying to hide their dislike. Marly [p.59]could only remember his nickname—Stinkybones. More than once Marly had seen Caitlin pacing back from the older grades’ recess with Stinkybones, her dark head inclined toward his scruffy blond one.
Barbara treated her sister’s friendship with scorn, dropping intimations of scandal. Marly once waited outside Caitlin’s classroom while she held a private conference with the teacher. When Caitlin walked out, she’d hugged Marly hard, red spots burning her cheeks, and then they walked swiftly home without a word. Not long after that, Stinkybones was gone—placed in a foster home, someone said, transferred to another school.
Was that the difference between Caitlin and herself? Marly wondered, warming up the organ. Caitlin intervened more, while Marly observed and accepted. Caitlin had learned to see only what could be measured and reported. Still, her intensity continued, and sometimes it led her into dark corners. Her aura is shot full of holes, Marly thought suddenly, with a shock that told her this sudden insight was true.
Marly had found books in the library that explained auras. Some explanations sounded almost as scientific as Caitlin’s denials. People were measuring auras these days, photographing them, reading them. Some of what Marly found didn’t ring true, and she suspected the authors made it up. Enough, however, was so close to her own experience that she finally forgot the theories and continued her own ways without worrying. Still, most of the people Marly knew didn’t see what she saw at all, or if they did, they ignored it.
Oddly enough, going to church lay at the center of all this. Despite her self-protective instincts, Marly felt responsible to relay information sometimes. The current bishop was young, and Marly instinctively trusted him. He seemed to like people as she thought the former bishop had not. She had tried once to tell the [p.60former bishop that Neville Landson was troubled—the cloud that engulfed him was inky, almost without a break—but the bishop had stared her into silence. She learned that Neville was the bishop’s brother-in-law. Two weeks later Neville was found dead in a motel, a revolver no one knew he owned at his side. Marly played the organ at his funeral. The bishop had conducted the service, which was brief since suicide was unforgivable. Even with Neville dead, the bishop never acknowledged her warning. Marly decided that she needed to find a more acceptable way to make suggestions.
Within a month after the funeral, she had tried to send a note to the bishop to say that Joyce Perez desperately needed encouragement. Joyce was working two jobs, trying to raise her three children on her own, and her aura was faint and leaky. Marly had seen the deacons pass notes to the bishop, who would open them discreetly.
So she reached for her purse, found a small notebook, and wrote a few words. Before she could signal a deacon, she felt someone staring at her. It was the bishop’s wife, and her stare did not appear friendly. Marly folded the note and put it with her notebook in her purse. After the meeting she talked with Joyce, who said she needed to get help from the bishop but was afraid to approach him.
That had been Bishop Jones. Bishop Laurence was another matter. Now Marly simply made notes during the meeting and each Monday typed them at the library. She then folded the unsigned page, placed it in a legal-sized envelope, addressed it, stamped it, and posted it. Almost always she spotted changes the next week in the ever-fascinating kaleidescope of the congregation, and in the behavior of the bishop toward the people she had identified. The bishop was always friendly toward her when she [p.61]walked up on the stand, but she could tell he hadn’t a clue that she was his informant.
Today, of course, her own aura was probably a bit dim. She was worn by puzzling about Roger. The family was fasting and had met last night for prayer. Robyn’s pain and her children’s confusion rippled through the family as they knelt, underscoring everyone’s fears and doubts. When they rose from their knees, the room seemed empty.
Also, Marly had received an odd call late yesterday afternoon from Nick Fazzio. He hadn’t any more information to tell her about Roger. She got the impression that he hadn’t done much more on the case. But he suggested she have a chat with Caitlin.
“Why?” Marly had asked. “Do you think Caitlin knows this woman?”
“No,” he’d said, “I know she doesn’t. I showed her the photograph. Actually this is none of my business. I just think Caitlin could use a friendly ear right now, and yours looks like the friendliest.”
Even more confused, Marly thanked him for his concern. She had called Caitlin, who was in the process of fixing dinner for Robyn and her children before the family gathered. Caitlin sounded efficient and busy, but twice in their short conversation she used odd words that sounded similar to those she wanted but had different meanings. She did that when she was exhausted; she became what she called “word-poor.” Marly gathered that for a writer word-poor was not good.
“What about lunch sometime next week?” Marly asked. “We never do that any more, even though we’re both downtown.”
“Okay, sounds great. I’ll give you a call. Or you call me at the magazine.” Of course there hadn’t been the chance for even a private word at the family prayer session.
With all this going on in her family, Marly turned inward [p.62]rather than outward. The sacrament came to her, she took a scrap Of bread, then returned to her reverie. When she closed her eyes for the prayer over the water, she saw what she needed—something more like a home movie. Her family was dancing, her parents at the center of a snowflake shape, their arms tight around each other, eyes closed,’ moving slowly to the music. Barbara, Fred, and their children all linked hands and circled in a sliding step, trying to match their movements exactly. Jake had a daughter clinging to each hand, twirling to the beat. But Caitlin danced alone, her arms waving to the music as if searching for light. She turned toward her children, but her feet-something was wrong with her feet. Then Marly saw that hands reached up from the ground and pulled at her ankles, keeping her mired. Robyn, a baby in each arm, spun in her own tight cycle and Roger—there was Roger!—lifted his knees high but out of rhythm, as if stepping over thorns and snakes. His eyes were closed. He was alone.
Marly blinked and opened her eyes. A deacon stood before her with a tray of tiny cups full of water. She took one, tipped it, and swirled the water through her dry mouth. She thought of returning to the vision and dancing among them, but the impulse made her feel overwhelmed. Well, she resolved, this week she would go to lunch with Caitlin and talk about dreams, and she would call Robyn and volunteer to babysit. That was enough for one week. Still, she wished she could talk to Roger. If he wouldn’t call Robyn, might he call her?
When she played the closing hymn, she felt half refreshed and half determined. She had no idea how the ward members were doing this week. The bishop would be on his own for now, just as she was.
She walked home quickly, scuffing the leaves along the sidewalk, relishing the breeze that scrubbed the city streets. Since [p.63]there was not much traffic on Sunday, she breathed the air deeply, enjoying the leafy odor. She would fix her hot tomato drink with shrimp and celery before Paul came over. Every Sunday night Paul’s wife took their children to see her parents. Paul usually made some excuse, then came to Marly.
Marly smiled and walked faster though her thighs felt weak as his one-sided smile came clearly to mind. “I can only smile like this for you,” Paul had told her last week when she commented on its lopsided nature. “On the tube, I have to smile like this,” and he stretched his cheeks back into a grin that resembled a black Howdy Doody. She curled into him, laughing.
“I’m the coffee in their cream,” Paul Everett said sardonically on the night they became acquainted. As he said it, he’d poured the contents of a paper packet into his coffee. He was discussing the local television station where he was a weekend anchor.
Marly smiled at him, not saying “mocha,” though she thought it, for his skin was a pale brown. She knew color wasn’t precisely what he meant, any more than saying she was white meant how light her skin really was, how it never tanned. No, color meant not color but race, culture, everything that went with it.
“Not many men read fiction,” she said that first evening—or had she said it earlier when he’d asked her for a new novel they hadn’t received yet? “Especially by women.”
After work they had gone to a cafe across the street for coffee and continued the conversation. He said, “The women have fresh voices. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t read women isn’t keeping up. Especially black women, but then maybe I’m biased.”
“I’ve been waiting for Alice Walker’s new book,” Marly said. “She’s been working on something that sounds wonderful.”
[p.64]Paul nodded and drank. The server brought Marly more jade tea and Marly sipped it slowly. Paul knew all about Alice Walker, she soon found. She couldn’t take her eyes off his hands as he talked, the gold wristwatch, the long, narrow fingers, one with a gold wedding band. She was delighted he had asked her to go for coffee. Now she could anticipate seeing him again in the fiction section.
“Where’s your car?” Paul asked as they left the cafe.
“Don’t have one. The bus stop is right here and it’s not very far. Just a few blocks.”
“You can’t take the bus at this hour,” he said, looking stem. “I’ve kept you too late. Let me drop you.”
She took a breath to protest, then worried he would think that she assumed he was coming on to her, or, worse, that she wouldn’t get into a car with a black man. Besides she wanted to prolong their conversation. She followed him to his car.
He drove at a relaxed speed, following her directions, and pulled up in front of her apartment building. A warmth had connected them in the cafe and it was thickening now, becoming almost visible. So would it dissipate? Suddenly she felt nervous.
“Thanks for the ride,” she said quietly. “The front door will still be unlocked. Good night.”
“Any time,” he said, and now his voice sounded formal as it had when he first asked for information. “Good night.”
She reached for the car door handle but took hold of the window winder in the dark. “Right here,” he said, reaching across her. His hand brushed hers, as she smiled and swung her legs outside. After the front door to the apartment building closed, she heard his car accelerate. Smiling she walked up the stairs and unlocked her door. “Married,” Barbara’s voice whispered from somewhere below her, “and he’s black.” Her door opened.
[p.65]“A new friend,” she announced to a meowing Lennon, who buffed Marly’s pant legs. She found some canned chicken and crackers and sat down on the purple brocade cushion opposite Lennon for a private celebration.
They were friends, Marly thought, unlocking her door now. He’d continued dropping by the fiction section in the evenings, and their coffee afterward had extended to pizza or a sandwich. Then one night, as he drove her home, he’d pulled up a few yards short of the apartment building and parked under the spring trees. They were deep in conversation, but Marly finished her sentence abruptly as her mind went blank. She moved toward the door.
“Don’t rush,” Paul had said. “I’ll walk you over in a minute.” She leaned back, so content she could think of nothing at all to say. Finally she said good night. “Good night,” he answered easily, but his arm encircled her as she reached for the door handle, and she found herself turning toward him. Time slowed—like before an auto crash—then stopped before he kissed her, and then they both lost time. His skin under her hands was smooth, his hair soft and thick. She felt buoyant in his arms, incredibly alive as if her skin sang. How amazing to feel his mouth covering hers after watching it shape words so many evenings; how wonderful to suddenly have confirmed by his hands and his mouth everything she had wondered and felt.
When they paused for breath, there was still nothing to say. “You okay?” he asked after a minute, and she smiled at the smile in his voice. What now? Marly wondered. How did the scenes in the novels continue from this point?
“I just—I just really enjoy being with you,” she said lamely.
“I like being with you, too,” he said. “More than anyone for a long, long time.”
“I’d better go in,” she said. He kissed her again, then pulled [p.66]the car forward into the pool of light outside the apartment door. He took her hand.
“I can’t promise you a damn thing, Marly,” he said.
She looked down at her thin white hand wrapped by his broad brown one. “Look at this moment,” she said, “just this one. Isn’t this astonishing?”
Their hands gripped, turned, gripped again. “Astonishing,” he said, his eyes shining into hers. Again they said good night.
After that evening eighteen months ago, he dropped by regularly, promising that, no matter what, they would remain friends. Those infrequent Sunday evenings made Marly feel wealthy beyond measure. She asked for nothing more than what she had.
Now, as she chopped the celery, Marly hummed the closing hymn she had played at church. She sang, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” to the dusk leaning against her window, then hummed into the twilight, drawing Paul toward her.
The telephone rang and Marly knew instantly that it was Robyn, not with news but needing to talk. Roger’s absence edged like glass chips along everybody’s nerves. Of course she could tell Robyn about her vision of Roger dancing, off-rhythm and stepping above obstacles, but Robyn would brush it off-or she would wonder why she hadn’t found such inspiration at church. No point, really, in telling her—no proof. But soon the doorbell would ring, Marly would excuse herself, and Paul would be kissing her. Later, with a turn of his head and hands, his mouth would become demanding.
Clearly she was rich enough to squander some love over the wires. She picked up the receiver and said hello to Robyn.