Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
Rise Up, Ye Women that are at Ease
D. William Shunn
[p.99]The jeweler tapped away at his calculator, frowned, then looked up at me. “Four-eighty-six is the best I can do,” he said.
I slouched back in my chair and drummed my fingers on the glass display case that separated us. I hadn’t expected more, even there at Snarr’s Jewelry & Electronics, but I didn’t want to seem overly eager. “My fiancee said you estimated seven to eight hundred.”
“She told me it was a third of a carat, Mr. Teagarden,” said the jeweler. He was a stout, sandy-haired man in his mid-thirties, which made him about ten years my senior. His face was smooth and peach-colored, without the sheen of sweat that seems to afflict so many overweight people. In fact, he carried himself in such a way that his girth was one of the last things I had noticed about him. “You watched me weigh the center marquis yourself,” he said. “Point-two-eight carats is more a heavy quarter than anything.”
I nodded. “They said it was a third where we bought it. Stupid to take their word for it, I guess.”
The jeweler didn’t respond, only pursed his lips and glanced over the cryptic notes he had jotted down as he calculated, which I had tried to read upside-down. “It’s a thin stone, too,” he said, “slightly yellowish, and there’s a little fracture just below the bow tie. Two-sixty-six is a very good price, and the two-twenty for the setting is even better.”
I knew it was the best deal I’d get anywhere in Salt Lake City, but [p.100]but it still hurt me to hear our engagement ring reduced to such cold figures, see it lying dismembered before me on the rose-colored velvet pad.
Some of that hurt must have shown up in my face, because the jeweler said, “Listen, the setting isn’t something I normally would have bought. We deal in loose stones as a matter of course, so that was no problem, but this setting we usually carry ourselves. We use bigger stones for the side mountings, though, and this”—he picked up the remains of the ring between his thumb and forefinger—“I can show side-by-side with our own settings so the customer sees what difference the size of the stones makes.”
I pressed my lips into a thin line.
“Is four-eighty-six not acceptable?” said the jeweler.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “To be honest, I thought five hundred dollars would be stretching it.”
“Well, you’re more realistic than most. That’s why I don’t advertise the fact that I buy diamonds. People come in with such high expectations, and they end up taking a bath. But better that than letting a pawn shop rob you blind, I guess.”
“I knew I was going to take a bath,” I said, but then abandoned my detached pose. “At this point, the money’s more important than the ring.”
The jeweler nodded, as if to say he understood. “I can’t give you cash, you know. It’ll have to be a check.”
I wondered what kind of customer would object to a check. “That’s fine.”
“And I hope you understand that I have to hold the ring for thirty days— just in case it’s stolen. I’m afraid I am like a pawn shop in that regard, but it’s necessary.”
I shrugged. I actually still owed a thousand on the ring, but as long as I kept up the payments, no one would be the wiser.
“Then let me go type up a check for you.”
While the jeweler was gone, I let my eyes wander around the store. It was large inside, with immaculate white walls and high ceilings. Expensive clocks lined the wall behind the display cases, while shelves of neatly arranged televisions and camcorders and the like occupied the opposite wall. An older man on a ladder was cleaning the fluorescent light fixtures, and only one customer besides myself was in view, a middle-aged blonde woman whose graceful features for some reason put [p.101]me in mind of an Afghan wolfhound. She wore her woolen pantsuit with a casual elegance that I didn’t realize was possible to achieve so early on a Saturday morning, and I could smell her Anaïs Anaïs faintly from across the room. She checked her watch with a stern look on her face, then feigned interest in a display of miniature LCD televisions, as if that would conceal her impatience, fanning herself with a padded brown envelope.
The jeweler returned after a few minutes, and seemed of a mind to shoot the breeze after I had stashed the check in the inside pocket of my leather jacket without looking at the figure. “Getting married soon, then?” he asked.
The question took me by surprise. “Uh, no,” I said. “Kjirsten—the girl who showed you the ring last week—is actually my ex-fiancee. I suppose I should get used to calling her that.”
“And she helped you sell the ring?”
He seemed impressed. “That was certainly good of her.”
“Well, it’s been what you might call an ‘amicable breakup,’” I said. “It’s also been a long time coming.”
“So has the service around here,” muttered the elegant woman, intently studying a dual-deck VCR.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment, ma’am,” said the jeweler with amused equanimity. He turned back to me. “I thought this Kjirsten might have been a new fiancee who wanted you to get rid of an old fiancee’s ring.”
I shook my head. “No such luck. Kjirsten was the one and only.”
He nodded in sympathy. “What will you do now?”
The elegant woman rolled her eyes and let out a sigh that was halfway to a growl, dropping all pretense of patience. A little embarrassed by the jeweler’s indifference toward his other customer, I said, “I, uh, move out. I’ve lined up an apartment closer to school.” I patted my breast pocket. “This will sure make the first month easier.”
“So you’re a student?”
“In music,” I said, nodding. I could have told him all about my band, and the interest a scout for Caprice Records had been showing in my demo tape, but that was when the woman turned on her heel and marched stiffly out of the store, muttering, “Tom can hock his own damn earrings! I don’t have time for this shit!”
The jeweler watched her leave, eyebrows raised. “Huh,” he said, [p.102]with all the interest of a biologist examining the mottles on the back of a tree frog. “You never can tell when they’re going to go off half-cocked.”
I shrugged. I didn’t like being part of the situation that had driven the woman off. “I’d really better be going, too,” I said. “I’ve got a lot of errands to run this morning.”
The jeweler leaned toward me. “I’m separated from my wife myself,” he said with conspiratorial solemnity. “Just this month. I know how it is.” He put out his hand and shook mine firmly. “Good luck to you, Mr. Teagarden. I hope things go better for you from here out.”
“So do I,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.”
On the sidewalk outside Snarr’s Jewelry & Electronics, I squinted in the bright sunlight and zipped up my jacket. It was the last week of February; the air was very crisp and cold, and shrinking mounds of dirty snow still lined the curbs. The downtown traffic was sparse, as were the pedestrians. I started north up Main, with my hands deep in my jacket pockets. The dark brick façades of the shops and the flophouses, all crowded together shoulder to shoulder, were a comfort to me, a reassuring bulwark against the loneliness settling about me like a cloak. The ring had been ransomed away, and now nothing remained to link me with any other human being in this city-nothing but the knowledge that thousands of other people, perhaps even the builders of those shops, had lived and been lonely right here on this street. The smoke-stained sadness of the city protected me.
I had not walked more than twenty yards, though, when I saw the woman from the jewelry store ahead of me, clacking rapidly up the sidewalk in her high heels and trying to flag down a taxi. She must be from out of town, I thought with a superior smile, because any native would know you can’t hail a taxi in Salt Lake. They’re all radio-dispatched, so you have to call the cab company and tell them where you want to be picked up.
Then my smile shaded into puzzlement, because the taxi she was waving at actually slowed down and pulled over to the curb.
The rear door of the taxi opened, but the woman didn’t get in quite yet. She was frantically licking stamps and sticking them on the padded envelope she’d had at the store. She scribbled a few lines on the front of the envelope, then cast about for a mailbox. I could hear the cabbie—a woman also, which you didn’t see every day-shouting at her to hurry it up.
[p.103]Then the elegant woman saw me. She hurried up to me and thrust the envelope against my chest. I had to yank my hands out of my pockets to keep it from falling to the sidewalk. “See that this gets mailed,” she said, with a directness and authority that I no more could have flouted than I could have willed my heart to stop beating. Her eyes were deep violet, and when they released me after a piercing moment I found myself ruing the fact that I wasn’t fifteen years older.
And then I wondered if I really would have needed to be fifteen years older.
The rear door of the taxi slammed shut behind her. As the vehicle accelerated away, I saw that there was another woman in the front passenger seat, and two more crammed in the back along with my new friend. I imagined the five of them in that enclosed space getting on each other’s nerves before long, gouging each other with their nails.
When the taxi had disappeared from view, I continued north, the woman’s perfume still in my nostrils, keeping my eyes open for a mailbox. Half a block farther I passed Wyatt’s Books, Magazines, and Gift Shop, then backtracked a few steps to stand entranced before the display window. The annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated was just out, and perhaps two dozen copies of the magazine were artfully arranged in the window, with a blowup of the cover prominent at the grouping’s focus. There, framed by the sapphire-blue waters of the Florida Keys, stood Vendela (one name only—why does that deepen a woman’s mystique?), the most lovely swimsuit model I had ever seen.
Her body was as perfect as you would expect, clad sparely and reluctantly in a nacreous gray-blue monokini with strips that crossed just below her throat and covered only the upper hemisphere of each breast. With her hip cocked to the right and her hands casually joined behind her head, the line of her body formed a sinuous S-curve as inviting as any untrammeled length of autobahn. Her abundant honey-colored hair was pulled back in a flaxen mass, revealing a face so finely formed that I could see Patrick Nagel weeping in frustration at the deceptive simplicity of capturing it accurately in acrylics. Slightly blushing, with just the right hint of cheekbones, her generous lower lip suggesting the fullness of almost-ripe strawberries, Vendela favored me from the window with an ambiguous and inviting half-smile, but it was the intelligence in her narrowed sloe eyes and unlined brow that captivated me most completely. What secrets did she possess that could [p.104]fill her eyes with such knowledge but leave the rest of her face so lush and innocent?
I find falling in love with pinups grotesquely adolescent, but that didn’t stop me from going inside and buying a copy of my own.
When I emerged from Wyatt’s, the sun seemed to shine a bit more brightly than it had before. I shared the sidewalks with a few construction-worker types, two or three bewhiskered panhandlers, and a group of intense young Latinos. Cars buzzed up and down the street like lonely insects, and the cold air was tainted with the faint smell of exhaust. Clutching my brown paper sack full of Vendela and my padded brown envelope perhaps full of jewelry, I found myself wishing for spring, for the girls who would emerge from hibernation, reborn, with their long, coltish legs and gravity-resistant breasts glorious like the wings of a butterfly after shedding its chrysalis. Ah, winter’s end could not arrive too soon.
I kept to the west side of the street, since the east was still in shadow and would be colder. The only woman I passed was a young cash-register jockey who left the downtown Wendy’s still in uniform, climbed into an old car parked in a three-minute delivery zone, and drove away. (She wasn’t much to look at—so I really didn’t.) I turned east at the corner of Main and South Temple, passing the historic Lion and Beehive houses as I continued up to State Street. Brigham Young had lived there a century before, with a few of his seventy-odd wives. I wondered what things had been like in that home.
There was a mailbox at the next corner, in the shadow of the Eagle Gate—a black metal arch that crouched over the street like a hungry daddy-longlegs—but on the verge of dropping the envelope through the slot I hesitated. The address on the envelope had been hastily scrawled, and it was difficult (though not impossible) to read. After studying it for long enough, though, I managed to convince myself that no uneducated postal worker was ever going to be able to decipher it correctly. I’ll just redo the address and mail it later, I told myself, and with my justification firmly in place, I continued down the street.
It was half a block north to First Avenue, on the seam where the narrow, hilly Avenues debauched uneasily onto the broader downtown streets, then another half-block uphill to my ancient Impala, opposite the 1907-vintage apartment building I called home. I got in behind the wheel, tossing my parcels over onto the passenger seat. Then I just sat.
[p.105]I couldn’t go up to the apartment, not yet. My things were mostly boxed up in anticipation of the move, and I’d just bother Kjirsten puttering around on the one synthesizer that was still set up. She was a certified nurse’s aide, and she worked a double shift Friday nights at the nearby LifeCare Center. She needed to sleep. Besides, if she found out that I’d gone ahead and sold the ring it would only break her heart, which had already been broken enough.
Sometimes it was so hard to know which of us was breaking it off with the other.
I shivered. The loneliness was closing in. There was nothing in this neighborhood of turn-of-the-century houses and apartment buildings to defend me from it, either. The homes all around me were filled with dreams, plans, memories, family histories, and there was no comfort in that. Worse yet, with my car parked facing downhill, the Salt Lake temple rose in all its granite majesty directly ahead of me, just a few blocks away. Kjirsten and I had planned to be married there one day, before economic necessities forced us into a forbidden mutual living arrangement.
I stared at the golden sculpture of the angel Moroni atop the temple’s highest spire, trumpet lifted to his lips to sound a triumphant note I coud not hear, and I wept.
But not for long. I had to keep myself occupied, and my next objective was the credit union, to deposit my check. As I started the Impala, a powerful but quavering female voice blasted me from the AM radio: “And in this our eleventh hour, my sisters, can we ignore the challenge in the prophetic words of Isaiah? ‘Rise up, ye women that are at ease!’ proclaimed that ancient seer. ‘Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech! Many days and years shall ye be troubled, ye careless women, for the vintage shall fail; the gathering shall not come!’ But the gathering has come, my—”
Heart pounding, I fumbled for the volume control behind the tree-shaped air freshener that dangled from one of the heater knobs, then punched the dial over to the CNN affiliate station. At the calm, modulated tones of the newsman, my pulse began to slow. The apocalyptic voice that had scared the bejesus out of me had belonged to Sister Sophia, the octogenarian doom-and-gloom prophetess who terrorized the airwaves with her prerecorded harangue for four hours every Saturday morning on KFSH, the local Christian radio station. Kjirsten must have tuned the station in as a joke when she got home from work that morning. Hah hah, very funny.
[p.106]As I adjusted the mirrors, I caught a glimpse of about a dozen women emerging from buildings near the crest of the hill on both sides of the street. I craned around in my seat to watch, because I had the impression that many of them were young and attractive, and because the walk home from the jewelers’ had suffered from such a paucity of female scenery. There were a couple of old women from the retirement complex shuffling across the street with valises in their hands, and a few haughty middle-aged matriarchs, but the rest were indeed delectable-most likely students or the breadwinning wives of students.
I pulled the car around from the curb in a tight U-turn, then drove precisely at the speed limit past the women as they loaded bags and a few boxes into the backs of two compact cars, a luxury sedan, and a four-by-four pickup. It was an unusual sight, but the strangeness of it didn’t really register with me until later. As I discreetly tried to pick out the ones whom I would most regret never having met, the voice on the radio intruded, breaking my concentration:
“ … and in Washington at this hour, the First Lady is still missing after excusing herself earlier this morning from an informal meeting of the task force on health-care reform which she heads. Secret Service agents on duty at the White House admit that they are baffled by the disappearance, which has mobilized Treasury Department, F.B.I., and N.S.A. forces in an unprecedented manhunt throughout the nation’s capital. The president has refused to publicly fault the Secret Service for permitting the First Lady to vanish, saying, ‘She’s a resourceful and willful woman, and if she wants to stay hidden then I have no doubt that—”
“Damn,” I muttered, punching the dial over to an FM classic-rock station. I was well past the group of women now, and it would be unseemly to linger and look back at them over my shoulder. With the sounds of Jimi Hendrix molesting a tinny electric guitar as my accompaniment, I drove over to the credit union on Seventh South.
On Saturdays the credit union was open for drive-up transactions only, from nine until one. All four lanes were full when I arrived, and the line of cars stretched out into the street. I had to wait half an hour to deposit my check (which time I spent rifling through my new Sports Illustrated), because, as I saw after inching closer to the window, there was only one teller on duty, an unshaven young man with dark hair and an M. C. Escher print tie. “What’s the deal today?” I asked as the [p.107]canister with my check, deposit slip, and driver’s license whooshed into the tube.
“The tellers didn’t show up this morning,” said the young man through the crackling speaker. “Then the replacements they called in took off around ten-thirty. Then they got me up out of bed.” His tone made clear his displeasure—and his hangover.
But something had clicked in my head, finally, and I felt a cold rime stealing across my heart. “Were they all women?” I asked, knowing the answer.
The teller nodded vigorously, then put a repentant hand to his head. “Yeah. Goddamn bitches. Oops, sorry.” His apology for the crudeness was grudging, though. He opened my canister, and his eyes widened as he withdrew my transaction. “You’re Reggie Teagarden?” he said. “Of Teagarden?”
“That’s right,” I said, pleased although I wished he would hurry things up a little. “Teagarden” was what I called my musical outfit, the same method acts like Van Halen or Dio had used to christen themselves (though my music owed considerably more to jazz than metal).
“Wow,” said the teller. “I heard you Thursday night at the Pie. Same night my girlfriend dumped me, actually. But the music was great—kinda like Miles Davis meets Elvis Costello.”
“Thanks,” I said, but as soon as I had my receipt I sped away, leaving his accolades hanging. I had things to check on at home.
I ran one wheel up onto the curb in front of my apartment building, grabbed my magazine and the elegant woman’s envelope, and raced up the stairs. Laverne, the toothless old souse who lived upstairs from me, was missing from her accustomed smoking place next to the ashcan by the mailboxes in the lobby, but I scarcely noticed. On the second floor I fumbled for the right key, then burst into the studio apartment I would no longer share with Kjirsten.
I threw my parcels down onto the neatly made bed, then turned in a quick circle. Everything was the way it should have been: the couch, the television with its tin-foil antenna, the potted tree, the Ansel Adams print on the wall, my Ensoniq sequencing keyboard, the carefully labeled boxes that compartmentalized my entire life. In the narrow kitchen, a week’s worth of my dirty dishes were stacked up on the counter, while Kjirsten’s few were neatly resting in the drainer. Nothing seemed to be missing but Kjirsten herself.
Back in the main room, I spotted the Post-It note stuck to the white [p.108]keys surrounding middle C on my keyboard. The words were tiny, written in a careful, cramped hand:
I hate to have to leave like this, but things are at last at their end. I want you to remember that you were the best of all possible men, and that everyone was jealous of me for that. You always treated me with respect (even if you didn’t respect my mind), and in a curious way I did love you.
I almost wish things were different, and that we could have said our farewells in person, but of course that wasn’t allowed. I’ll think of you often, and I hope you won’t mind that I took a few photographs from your album as souvenirs.
For a few moments all that sank in was the fact that her i’s were dotted rather than topped with their customary small circles. But when I had digested the note, I grabbed the padded envelope from the bed and tore it open, Privacy Act be damned. A pair of ferociously huge diamond earrings tumbled out onto the bedspread, followed less eagerly by a creased square of paper. My hands trembled as I unfolded the note, which was scrawled in the same hasty hand as the address on the envelope:
We’re gone and we’re not coming back. You’ll know what I mean by the time you read this. This experiment in servitude is over and we’re on to greener pastures, washing our hands of you. Try not to starve to death in front of your damned TV.
Anyway I know you ransomed your soul for these baubles so they’re the only thing I’m returning. I tried to sell them so I’d be sure you’d get a good deal but there wasn’t time.
Time for you to stand up and be a man. Have a nice life, you
I couldn’t decipher the last word (or phrase), and there was no signature.
I sat down heavily on the bed, but before I had a chance to gather my thoughts the phone rang. “Hello?” I said.
[p.109]“Reggie?” It was my father, thirty minutes up the freeway. “Reggie, you haven’t seen your mother anywhere, have you?” He sounded desperate. I had never heard my father sound desperate before.
“No, Dad.” Somehow I couldn’t manage to put any emotion in my voice. “She hasn’t been here.” I paused. “I don’t think she will be, either, to be honest.”
That was when he broke down. “Oh, God, Reggie, she’s gone, she’s gone, and all your sisters are gone, too. I don’t know what I’m going to do, they’re gone …”
I hung up when it became obvious he wasn’t going to stop crying, and then I decided to take the phone off the hook. I mean, who can sit there listening while own his father has a nervous breakdown?
I lay back on the bed, feeling a bitter aloneness that was only a foretaste of what was to come. All over the city, men must be reading notes like the ones in my hand-hell, all over the country, all over the world. I tried to picture my mother actually abandoning my father, my grandmother abandoning my grandfather, my aunts abandoning my uncles, Demi abandoning Bruce, Annette abandoning Warren, Mother Theresa abandoning all her beggars … and I felt like crying again myself, because they were scenarios I found all too easy to imagine.
I looked at Vendela, printed so sharply on her glossy cover stock, and her smile was no longer one of come-hither-no-stop-right-there ambiguity, but instead a baldly contemptuous smirk.
That was all we had to warm us that night, all we’ve had any night since—the contempt radiating from the pages of Sports Illustrated and Playboy, from the lurid covers of Cosmopolitan and the indexed mysteries of the Victoria’s Secret catalog (or, for the less cultured among us, from the grainy half-tones of D-Cup and Shaved). It reflects right at us, like a hostile communique bounced off a distant satellite.
Our women have vanished, and it doesn’t look as if they’re coming back.
Of course, a few of them did stay behind, or missed the boat, or whatever. No one can get them to talk, though. They won’t tell us where the others went, or how they got there, or even why they left—although the why isn’t all that hard to guess.
Things are in a state of anarchy. There’s rioting, sniper fire, blood running in the gutters. Pretty exciting stuff. We’re mostly fighting over the women who stayed behind. I gave up the earrings a few days ago to save my life; the guy who took them thinks they’ll help him get a wife.
[p.110]He should know better.
Between skirmishes, I’m writing music like a madman. I miss Kjirsten terribly, and there’s a passion in me, a fire, like I’ve never felt before.
I wish it had been there when my songs might still have meant something.