Jessie van Eerden
It’s not such a big world anymore, that’s what they said, and I made fun, I said the globe does fit in your hands, but to me the world always felt large and I wanted all of it for myself. Elizabeth got the Internet on her computer; she read the news from fourteen different countries, could tell me the weather in London; the world’s as small as this screen, she said. Esther could lie in the clover and swear she felt the pulse of children and mothers on the other side of the earth, straight through the middle, through all the lava and tar. How could the world be big when she could feel the heartbeat of anyone as if she held them in her arms? And Ron Malynn, my husband of fifty-six years, Ron said it was the transportation systems: the interstate highways that Eisenhower laid out, I-81 right over our town, Lace, Virginia, and anyone from California could zoom past overhead; then the flights, hop a plane for anywhere, like our son the newsman does, but Ron never flew anyplace, he never set foot out of Virginia.
They’re all three dead, and only now am I the one saying it, that the world is not big, it is small. All places are one place, collapsed and brought into a circle. If I had to say what it looks like, I’d say it’s a circle around a bullfight; all the world is that bull in the center of the ring and I am the bullfighter, maybe every person is, in their own vision of it. Of course, this is nonsense beyond an old woman’s feeling, but I don’t know how else to describe the way it feels to want the world—for my greed is still great—when that world will not be had.
My rest is fitful, I do not really sleep anymore, just catnap, so I am often in the bullfight, in that big circle that is, in truth, a small, small circle. I feel the hot breath of the bull on my face, and I smell the metal tang of the ring through its nose. The world that will not be had.
What I mean is, it is upon me, my lifetime, my fate, this world, and each time I’m in the center of the ring I think I’ll win, it will all be mine, but I don’t. I was a hungry young girl and I am a hungry old woman. The bull charges me, then escapes me, and in its eye, a gleam; maybe the world is so small it’s the very eye of the bull. In its eye there is the soap, the turkeys, there is Jimmy Flax without a face.
It may be that what I want is someone to get me out of the ring—and maybe that means I want forgiveness, or death—but there is no one to do it. It’s true I live here with my daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter; they are right in front of me in this big house, a nice house that Ron and I bought, the kitchen he repapered for me in a red apple and birdhouse design, the house in which I was twice unfaithful to him; there were infidelities for both of us. I live in this same house with them; but, if there is an other side of the world, they are on it; they know nothing of the eye of the bull. For me, here in my nightdress and old-woman, blue skin like paper, fitful and hungry at night, in the center of the ring: all the world rushes at me. It is soap, it is turkeys, it is Jimmy Flax without a face.
I am not out of my head. I can explain such a world as this, even if I cannot claim it for my own and make its outcome something other. Do not think me demented, as Esther Nash was—a sweet demented girl from childhood, we knew it even then, in the Forties. I can explain, and I can begin with Esther because it was she who brought me to meet Jimmy Flax at the county fair in Ridley.
We were fifteen. Esther had a hum and a giggle and a sigh, that was her way; she flopped at her pretty neck like a doll, and she had Jimmy and me meet under the bleachers where the marching band was playing. Elizabeth Maslow shunned boys but came with us to see the python snake in the Marvel Tent, and she got Esther to go with her. His thick hair went in black waves over his head, his face like a book I could read over and over, and strong arms, I could picture his arms and chest under his shirt the minute I saw him, and I could also tell he was penniless, the dusty smell of him, his thinness despite his muscle, a white shirt worn by many brothers before him, shoes too, for I had three brothers and that was also the way it was for us. We were poor, and the year I was fifteen, that was about the time I started to hate it. Jimmy didn’t speak under the bleachers, nor did I. There was just brass and drums out on the field; we put our heads close together to look through the seats, through people’s legs, at the blue band uniforms out there in rows. I was a well-shaped girl, and I could tell that, when he wasn’t watching the blue band, Jimmy Flax could picture what was under my clothes too, the curves beneath my dress. Never in my life had I wanted to be touched by a boy’s hands so badly, and his keeping-apart, his not touching me, was like warm water poured over me. We started to go together and we were steady for the summer.
That was also the summer I helped Janey Drummel make her soaps for a quarter a batch. Because this was around the time I began to understand that we, the Turners, were poor, I recognized that Janey Drummel was too and that she had no quarters to spare, but gave me work anyway, because the task was too detailed for her stiff hands and because she had sugar diabetes and her eyes were going weak. And because she was kind, and I did not like her kindness, for I knew I would not be so kind were I in her place. She gave me a quarter and, each time I entered her dismal kitchen, she gave me a kiss on my neck, below my earlobe; she was a small, bowed-forward woman, stooped over. I could smell the cold beets she ate, and their bitter greens, and the pinch of Skoal pouched in her lower lip. I could smell the iron in the water heating in large pots on her stove, and I pressed my heel into the yellow linoleum that had a little give to it because of its black scarring from the coal and ash that coughed out each time a log was laid on the fire. And she was cold even in summer and I knew the bruises on her backside went wide and far, down onto her thighs, a dull violet, because she pressed so hard for warmth against the stove.
When I came on Wednesdays and Saturdays to work for her, the kiss she had for me, on my young-girl neck below my earlobe, it told me that we shared a secret and I did not want to know that secret, the secret of poor people.
Janey Drummel made soaps for rich women in Lace and Ridley. She bought cheap cakes of plain Ivory soap, and she collected Jackson & Perkins rose catalogs. My job was to cut out the pictures—yellow roses, peach, deep red, white—for she could no longer cut carefully around the small pictures. I filled her cigar box with cut-outs of roses, the real versions of which we could never order. They were blush tea roses and floribunda, with names like Champagne, Cornelia, Duchess, Scent from Above, Always and Forever. Janey Drummel took a pan that smelled of corn and burnt oil and she melted the paraffin till it gurgled on the stove. She squinted and took a wet rag and moistened the top of each Ivory soap bar and applied a catalog cut-out rose, then dipped the surface, barely, into the hot paraffin to make a soap picture, its rose bloom sealed in place, a pretty bar of soap to sit at the sinks of wealthier women.
One of those women was Lora Gibson whose husband had gotten rich drilling gas wells, and they lived in the mansion once owned by the Laces, Loren and Harper Lace for whom our town was named. Along with cutting out roses from the catalog, I made Janey Drummel’s deliveries for her. At summer’s end—it was almost September and cold too early for that time of year—I had to make a delivery to Lora Gibson, a basket of ten soaps for how many bathtubs, sinks, wash basins, lovely throughout that house? Janey Drummel gave me a kiss, gave me a quarter. Jimmy Flax said he’d walk me, and he held my hand, and I was feeling my youth, the way you do on such a cool day, but there was a gnawing hunger inside me, and I didn’t confuse it with my body’s burning for Jimmy Flax’s hands touching me in the dark, no, it was something else, something he could not satisfy. It had to do with those soaps, my bouquet in the basket that smelled, not of roses, but of cheap Ivory and of flecks of snuff and of wax. We were fifteen and it was cold and the birds stirred; we saw a turkey hen in the woods, though it was too early in the year for turkeys to make themselves known. We were fifteen and Jimmy was talking of marrying me, how we’d build a lean-to off his parents’ house at first but then get our own, and he would have a cordwood business, he thought that was the best idea, and maybe Janey Drummel would let me take over her soap picture business. The hunger in the pit of me turned sharp as a blade toward him, unkind. He said, The world is ours, Edna. That was the difference between Jimmy and me, he wanted for nothing, he thought he already had it all. I was greedy for everything and knew it would never yield itself to me, to my hands smelling of Ivory, paraffin, dull scissors, holding that basket.
I went alone inside the Gibsons’ mansion with its pillars, its sure brick, its high ceilings. Lora Gibson came to the door in a silk robe, it was afternoon, she glinted for all the gold dangling from her ears, around her throat. Her daughter Bea, my age, sat there bored, her feet up on the table in perfect little slippers, and beside her sat some boy I did not recognize. He was older, his eyes metal-green, his hair thin and limp and gelled like older men did their hair and it made him look even older than he was. Miss Turner, said Lora Gibson, these are lovely, I love handmade things, come in, my daughter Beatrice you know from school, and this is my nephew Ron Malynn, he’s come from Roanoke to work for Mr. Gibson in the office. Ron stood up and, like Jimmy, he looked at me as if my dress were not there, head to toe, and though he was not handsome, I was glad for the cold that had made my body, my breasts, so alert. Unlike Jimmy, this older boy had no simplicity in his face, no clearness that let you see deeply, read deeply; he had shoes shined black, uncracked, worn only by his feet, his gray trousers pressed so that, when he stood, they fell in a swoosh at the cuff, like Lora Gibson’s silk. Watching me, he walked to the archway in the hall and stood, hand in his vest pocket, and I thought, Some stand in the archway and fill it up, and some stoop, bend their backs, cower and serve, and I would be the tall, vast, straight one, like this crisp unlikeable boy. We both knew what we wanted. I had found a greed that matched my own. I would not be Lora and Bea Gibson, I would be finer, Harper Lace herself, in the archway.
Mrs. Gibson gave me a whole dollar, and it shamed me.
Outside, I could not find Jimmy Flax. It was as if he’d read my thoughts, already saw me turning my back to him and his plans for us, so I started walking along the road alone, walking tall, then taking the path through the woods that we’d walked together earlier. I came to the rise that was hill enough to hide the woods’ floor ahead, and all at once there was a flock of turkeys filling the air, flying and squawking, maybe fifteen altogether, maybe more. They burst from among the trees, wild, a wide wingspan like that of a more majestic bird; they whipped fine young branches back so that the woods shivered, such a spectacle, feathers drifting down, birds above me, over me, over the rise into other trees, and here came Jimmy waving his arms and running behind them, scaring up this flock of turkeys for me. His face a beautiful book I could read cover to cover, beautiful pages, each one. The last turkey lighted in a tree and he laughed, Edna, how rich we are, he said. I wept, I put my Ivory hands to my face, my hunger so keen it cut, and I ran through the woods so fast that Jimmy couldn’t catch me. I ran and ran and never gave Janey Drummel the dollar; I threw it in the weeds.
Ron didn’t wait for me to graduate high school. We married when I turned eighteen in the October of my last year and I didn’t finish, which enraged Elizabeth who would be valedictorian of our class, and which broke Esther’s heart because she felt the breaking heart of Jimmy Flax. But I was intent, I married Ron Malynn and got a fine house and dresses and shoes and scarves and silk robes.
And Jimmy disappeared. It was Esther who told me, a year later, what happened to him, and because she was the way she was, crazy as a loon, I wrote to the newspaper office in Youngstown, Ohio, asking them to send me a newspaper, and I found out it was true: that Jimmy Flax had fallen in with thugs, he’d collected debts for them and had made good money, he was a high roller, then something went wrong and he was found in an alley in Youngstown beaten about the face, unrecognizable, his face, gone, his face.
That is the world as it rushes at me, that bull with barnacled horns and such heat in its body, all of time and space a gleam in its black eye. No, do not think me demented, for that is the world that leaves me starved in my nightdress, in my restless rest, until one of these nights when its head will lower and it will charge and it will gore me, in the center of the ring, my blue, old skin run through at last, and they will not throw down real roses, long-stemmed, from the bullfight stands, no, they will toss down the cut-outs from the Jackson & Perkins catalogs, they will shake them out from the overturned cigar box, Champagne, Cornelia, Duchess, fluttering paper, light, too many to number.
A West Virginia native, Jessie van Eerden holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, and other publications. Van Eerden was selected as the 2007-2008 Milton Fellow by Image and Seattle Pacific University for work on her first novel, “Glorybound” (WordFarm, 2012).