Bed and Breakfast (by M. Bae)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A college dropout returns home.

Submitted: August 03, 2012

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Submitted: August 03, 2012

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Lizzy’s sitting on the porch reading about the expansion of Sahara desert in an old issue of National Geographic. Fifty kilometres every year. The oases are drying up and people and animals alike are migrating in droves. The writing is cautionary but the photos are breathtakingly beautiful. Sunlight slipping down the dunes. Elongated shadows of men and camels forming a huge caterpillar. So what if the whole world became a desert? There too will be beauty. There will always be beauty even when no one’s there to look at it. No. Because no one’s there to look at it and reduce it for human comprehension. Consumption. There is beauty that far outlies the smallness of our sensory organs and that is called the sublime. How sublime, then: a world bereft of pupils, of photographs and paintings and imagery. Of eyes that look and want always. Imagine blindness. Senselessness. Selflessness. Is it possible? Lizzy closes the magazine.

Lizzy’s been home nearly two months and only last night she told Oma she’s not going back to school in September. She never saw Oma get so riled up. Her face all steel and ice. I lost interest, was Lizzy’s explanation. I feel like I learned all I can. No one dares to say anything new or different and I’m sick of it. I wanna come home for good, Oma.

Oma didn’t buy it. She’s always been able to smell bullshit a mile away and Lizzy knows yes, she’s full of it. So the only remotely worthwhile skill she acquired in studying liberal arts is foiled by perceptive grandmothers too, along with a great many number of other things. She told Lizzy that she was kicking her out come September, school or no school. Lizzy can only hope that in a month Oma will soften her resolve and let the matter drop. She can neither go back to school nor tell Oma why she can’t. She can but she can’t. Not after what she’s done to Harriet Cavell. Lizzy can’t bear the thought of Oma loathing her too. She just wants to suffer quietly in the comfort of her childhood home.

And it’s not as if she’s freeloading. She wakes up at six every morning to set up the ‘continental’ breakfast of cereal, buns, and coffee. Goes on a grocery run to a farmers market two hours away every Saturday. Picks up coupons from local businesses and displays them at the reception. Takes in reservations. Puts up internet ads. Scouts the competition in the area. She’s been pretty much running the whole show except the books. She knows she’s throwing herself into work for reasons other than work itself but still. She’s more than earning her keep. Besides Oma’s getting old and someone’s going to have to take over this place when she—when she—she’s the only family Lizzy has ever had and the closest thing to parents. 

There are two families staying at Arabel’s Orchard but one of them is leaving before noon. And here they come, dragging their luggage down the stairs. A six-people family from Arizona. The Chapmans. The couple has that look of permanent exasperation. Two teenage boys, one prepubescent girl, and a toddler. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. But why do they do it? Lizzy caught the oldest snooping in the laundry room few nights ago. He can’t meet her eyes, now.

“Thank you for staying with us,” Lizzy waves them goodbye from the porch. The little girl waves back manically as the family loads up the car. “Drive safe.”

Oma fixes sandwiches for lunch and they eat in silence. Tomatoes, chicken breast, lettuce and of course mayo. The other family’s gone out to see the canyons today. Following up from yesterday’s geysers. They’re a Jewish family from New York. The Feldmans. On a year-long vacation of crossing the country coast-to-coast and visiting all the National Parks that lie in their path. They’re more than halfway done now from what she can gather. They’ve been here three days and they’ll be gone tomorrow. Which will pretty much mark the end of the tourism season. She both dreads and looks forward to the quiet fall months in this house. If only Oma will let her stay. She must.

Lizzy takes care of the dishes. “Oma, will you please talk to me?”

 “No, Elizabeth, I won’t so long as you are lying to me.” No olive branch just yet. 

The Feldmans return well after sundown. Lizzy is getting dressed for bed when the headlight illuminates her dark room. By the window she watches the family stumble out of their Cadillac. Something’s off. One of them is being carried in by the other two. Liz calls Oma and heads downstairs just in time to get the door for them.

Joseph Feldman is a lean, balding man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Ethel Feldman is a smallish woman with a delicate but somewhat mousy face. They’re sharing the burden of a tall, lanky, hawk-nosed boy with a big mop of brown hair. Their son Paul. He has a cast on his right leg.

“What happened?” Lizzy asks.

“Just a minor accident,” says Joseph Feldman. “Just a little twist.”

“He sprained his ankle,” Ethel says. “Chasing after some stupid bird.” The reddened eyes and dried tear tracks betray her high castigating tone.

 “It was a Chestnut-sided Warbler, Mom,” Paul says. His voice is surprisingly calm. “Do you know how rare they are? I had to try and get a good—Ow!” He screws up his face as his foot gets caught against the steps. He’s too tall for his parents.

Both Lizzy and Oma are taller than the elder Feldmans and between the four of them lifting and pushing they manage to carry Paul up the stairs and in the bed without any further yelp of pain. The Feldmans thank their hosts.

“Will he be all right to travel?” Oma asks.

“We’re going to have to head straight to New York tomorrow,” says Joseph. “Ethel, we should see if we can find a flight for you and Paul for tomorrow.”

“No way!” Paul protests. “You guys are not cancelling the trip on my account. You waited years for this.”

Ethel and Joseph exchange a look.

“Guys, look. I’m serious. You should keep going. I’ll stay here a few extra days—” He shoots a pleading look at Lizzy and Oma. Oma gives him a nod. “And catch up with you in Iowa or something.”

“But honey—”

“Please, Mom. Dad. I’ll be fine.”

“Mrs. Kooning,” Jospeh asks. “Will that be all right? Could my son stay here a few more days?”

“It’s not a problem for us. We’ll look after him.” Oma puts her aged hand on Lizzy’s back.

“Then it’s settled,” says Paul.

“I think we can all use a cup of tea,” says Oma. Everyone agrees. Lizzy heads down to the kitchen and starts the percolator.

The departure is a tearful affair. Paul has to practically shove away his mother as his father watches the scene from the doorway. With plaintive shoulders. For reasons she can’t quite acknowledge the whole thing reminds Lizzy of the black-and-white clips she saw in an American history course this past spring. Parents at a train platform seeing their sons off to a war in Europe. Fathers with their taciturn nods and mothers crumpling their worries into wet balls of handkerchiefs. The mild embarrassment of kids witnessing their parents’ emotions in public and in broad daylight. No one’s yet heard about the trenches or machine guns or mustard gas. The train speeds away with so much youth. Stretching the parents’ hopes like an elastic band. Now as then Lizzy holds back tears. She walks the Feldmans to their Cadilac and sends them off with good wishes. They ask her again and again to take care of Paul.

Heading back into the house, Lizzy looks up and sees Paul’s face in the window. Looking out for his parents like a lighthouse, feeling the lingering warmth of their love in their very absence. It’s a luxury she can ill-afford. Ordinary as it is.

“So you like birds,” Lizzy says in the evening when she fetches Paul his dinner of turkey sandwich and garden greens.

“I’m sorry?”

Paul’s got a shabby beard going. He has thin delicate lips from his mother and deep-set grey eyes of his father. It’s not a handsome face. It might even be an ugly face. But his hawk-nose somehow pulls all the disparate features into a pleasing whole. Like a peculiar chord immortalizing an otherwise ordinary song.

“I said, you like birds.” Lizzy hands him the plate.

“Thank you—yes, yes I do.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you like birds?”

“Why does anyone ever like anything?”

Lizzy takes a seat in the bedside chair.

“I’m asking you.”

Paul shrugs. He takes a bite of the sandwich and swallows. “My mother got me started.”

“Your mother?”

“She works for the Central Park Zoo, you know.”

“Now I do. What does she do?”

“She works with the volunteers.”

“Doing what?”

“All sorts of things—giving directions to people, picking up trash, teaching kids about the animals…”

“And she likes birds, too?”

“Not exactly. She doesn’t hate ‘em. She’s more of a… reptile person.”

“So how did she get you started on birds?”

“You ask a lot of questions. Most people stop at “My mom works at the zoo.””

“Hey. I’m just trying to give you some company while you eat,” Lizzy says. “If you don’t want to talk—”

She gets up half-heartedly and Paul gestures her to sit back down.

“I was a problem kid, you know?”

“What?”

For a few long seconds Paul studies the sandwich. Long index finger tracing the cliff of dark rye and white turkey exposed by his teeth. 

“Well, not the kind that joins up with a gang or anything.” He waits a beat. “But I stole. From my parents, from other kids at school, from grocery stores and newspaper stands and people on subway trains—”

“So I should hide our silverware.”

Paul chuckles. “I don’t anymore.”

“What happened?”

“You know, I don’t really know. I don’t know why I was such a thief. It was a kind of obsession, I guess? Like a tick. You do it without really thinking, because the opportunity is there. Reflex. I went through four therapists in two years. Hundreds of hours of community service. Picking up trash, scraping off gum, painting over graffiti—you get the idea. One day, I think it was Saturday—I was fifteen, by the way—my mom pulls me out of bed in the morning and drives to Bear mountain. Have you ever been to New York?”

Lizzy shakes her head.

“You’re missing out. Anyway it’s about an hour away from the city. A big state park. Lots of trees, obviously. We get there and go on a hike. I’m just humouring her because she’s been especially moody about my stealing. I got caught lifting a comic book. And a week before that, I got in trouble for skipping community service.”

He takes a sip of water and another bite out of the sandwich.

“For the first little while we walk on a trail, but then, maybe an hour into it, we go off trail. It’s amazing how fast you can get lost in a forest.”

“She deliberately went off-trail?”

“Yes. And we got totally lost. No cell phone signals. Just birds and insects and trees. Tress make a lot of noise, you know. And mom doesn’t care that we’re lost, she just keep walking. Eventually I call it quits. I sit down on a rock and refuse to walk anymore. So then mom turns back and she has this look on her face, I’ve never seen anyone so mad and sad at the same time, and she starts yelling and dragging me with her and the next thing I know is we’re both on the ground wrestling. Like, actually fighting.”

“Your mom? I can’t picture her doing such a thing.”

“She may be small but she’s crafty, trust me. And this was before I had my growth spurt—I used to be a runt. Anyway we’re fighting and crying and yelling and eventually we both tire out and end up just lying there. In the dirt and the leaves. And then—”

Paul looks Lizzy in the eyes and strikes a grin.

“Then what?” Lizzy plays along.

“A hummingbird.”

“A hummingbird?”

“A hummingbird. A red-headed hummingbird appears out of thin air and hovers above us for the longest time. Drawing tiny circles, shifting back and forth. Wings just a bright blur. I didn’t know what it was called yet but I knew it was something special. We knew it was something special.”

 “And…?”

“That’s it.”

“That’s the whole story?”

“What did you expect?”

“How did you guys get out? I mean, out of the forest.”

“Oh, it turned out we were only two minutes away from a trail.”

“So you stopped stealing after that.”

Paul nods.

“And birds?”

“A productive and reputable hobby that keeps me active and in touch with Mother Nature.”

“You’re eating a bird right now, you know.”

“I have little sympathy for birds that can’t fly.”

“What about penguins?”

“I cut them some slack. They live in goddamn Antarctica after all.” 

Lizzy laughs and is surprised by the sound of her own laughter.

“I’ll be back in a bit for the plate,” she says getting up. “And thank you for the story.”

“Anytime,” says Paul. “Oh—could you by any chance get me a cup of coffee?”

“Now? Isn’t it a bit late for coffee?”

“Hey, I’m from New York.”

“All right.”

“Make it black, please.”

Lizzy finds Paul to be a surprisingly good conversationalist. He deals out his New York anecdotes with both love and irony. Always beginning with a certain affectation he can’t sustain throughout. He’s too aware of his audience and of his own inexperience. So all his stories end with a touch of inconclusiveness, lacking in finite meaning. Like a book with its last chapter ripped out or an essay without a thesis. Begging the question, So what? But this rub amuses Paul more than it shames him, and that makes it worthwhile for Lizzy. The shy, semi-colon smile he puts on at the end of each story. The kinesis in his face that says hey, there must be more to these words than we’re capable of understanding right now? The face of a believer.

Though they are not at all alike Paul reminds her of James Cavell. Professor James Alexander Cavell. Jim. JC. That’s what he wanted to be called whenever they were alone. I don’t want to you treat me as your professor, he said the first time they were naked with each other. I may be old but I’m still a boy inside, Lizzy.

It’s such a cliché what they did. What she did. Falling for him like that and getting carried away. Lizzy knows it. Knew it even as it was happening. The thought was in her head each time she rode the bus to their weekly rencontre at a motel an hour away from campus. He thought it risky to be seen together in his Buick. She thought him prudent. Protecting both of them. What they had. She didn’t yet know that he kept a journal—no doubt a prelude to his inevitable literary autobiography—and kept it honest as well as unhidden. Idiot. But love makes one blind.

JC loved books. He would say again and again how each book to him was like a person. A friend, foe, a bit of both sometimes but always a lover. In class he would recite passages from Joyce or Woolf or Ezra Pound in his baritone sing-song voice and quietly sigh after each moving phrase. Lizzy would imagine that sigh running through her hair. What it was like to be adored like a book by a distinguished, intelligent man in a beautiful leather jacket. As if her body were a draft of a poem. Waiting to be read aloud, given breath.

She was more than a little disappointed by that love when it came her way. People aren’t books. Flaws more fatal and loveliness more undeserved. But she persisted. There was a kind of thrill in being kept a dirty secret, a vicious sense of empowerment. In being a hostage to an ageing man’s lust. Once he couldn’t wait for them to get back to their motel room and had to fuck her in the men’s washroom at Wendy’s. Bent over with her skirt hiked up and panties pulled aside. Reckless feckless. His sperm sluicing down the toilet in white mucous circles. No, people aren’t like books at all.

But her disillusionment was nothing compared to what Harriet Cavell found when she dared to crack open her husband’s journal. After one too many weekend research trips to municipal libraries. She tracked Lizzy down in her dorm room. Begged on her knees. I love him, I love him, don’t take him away from me please I’ll die. Lizzy was getting ready to go out for the fall concert. All made up for Vivaldi and Rachmaninov. Mrs. Cavell on the other hand looked like a woman from Euripides. Either a Fury or a Trojan. All Lizzy could say was sorry. Actually, she’s not sure if she ever said it out loud. But she meant it. She withdrew from her 20th Century Literature that evening. But in the days following, she heard through the grapevine that Professor Cavell was shot, though not fatally, by none other than his own wife. No one knew what they had argued about. Lizzy packed her bags and left.

Three days from his injury Paul’s well enough to hop around on one foot using a crutch. Today he joins his hosts in the kitchen for the modest lunch of chicken soup and biscuits. Lizzy notices that he’s shaved off the beard. Might have brushed his hair too, though it’s hard to tell.

They chat about the weather and the news. About the upcoming election. Paul is a registered Democrat. Even though his parents are independents. So is Lizzy. Oma tells him that she hasn’t voted since 1960. The assassination of JFK also killed off any interest she ever had in politics. A young immigrant girl from the Baltic coast in pursuit of modest American happiness. Oma shakes her head the way only an old woman can. People are the same everywhere, whenever. Paul tells a story about a performance artist whom he saw recruiting volunteers at the steps of NYPL to re-enacted the assassination. In Brooklyn of all places. What was the point? Did it end up happening? As usual Paul doesn’t have the answers and the conversation fizzles out. Lizzy sees that the mention of JFK and his abrupt death has dimmed Oma’s mood. Remembrance of things past.

“So I was thinking,” Paul says to Lizzy after the meal. Handing her his empty bowl and plate. “Maybe you and I could go out for a walk in the orchard?”

“Oh.”

“It’s just that I’ve been stuck in the house for three days—no offence, Mrs. Kooning.”

“None taken,” says Oma, shoving a big Tupperware of leftover soup in the freezer.

“It might be a bit cold,” says Lizzy. She’s beginning to blush.

Paul blushes also. “Oh. I thought, maybe…”

“Maybe. Let me finish cleaning up first.”

“Okay.”

Paul hobbles back to his room.

“He’s a nice boy,” Oma says when he’s out of earshot.

Lizzy starts on the dishes and Oma joins her with a drying rag.

“Yeah, he is.”

“My mother was a Russian Jew,” says Oma. “Well, her father was a Jew. Her mother only half. So Jews won’t say we’re Jews. But we have some of their blood.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about this family,” says Oma. “We’re a secretive bunch by nature. Especially the women. In the old country, in my time, that’s how women kept themselves out of harm’s way. That’s how we were taught. In my village we had secret signs only women knew. We could tell each other things without men ever finding out. “I want to send my daughter to America before my husband sells her off to some wife-beating oaf.” “Send her to Norway first, then England. Don’t send her via Lithuania.” That’s how I came to America. Now your dad—”

Lizzy’s hands come to a sudden halt in the hot dishwater.

“Now he never really understood that about your mother. There were too many little secrets for him.” Oma lets out a big sigh. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taught your mother the way I was taught. But I didn’t know any other way. He added up all the little secrets and saw a story that wasn’t true. Damned fool he was! Being smart can make you so stubborn. There was no way you could make him listen.”

“Is that why he ran off and got himself killed?”

The edge in her voice takes Oma by surprise.

“Elizabeth. That’s not—he never meant to—”

“No. I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

Tsk. But Oma relents. “All right. But when you’re ready you can ask.”

“Fine.”

“And take that boy out for a walk.”

Lizzy nods. She unfurls her fists under the layer of grease and soap. The grandmother and grandchild go on washing the dishes, the half-spoken bond taut between them like a trapeze rope.

The orchard is her mother’s namesake and just under an acre. Too large for the pair of them to keep up and too small for it to be commercially viable. It hasn’t been looked after properly since Opa passed away some fifteen years ago and the rows of apple and peach trees have been left to their own devices mostly. Lizzy and Oma have thought about turning it into one of those u-pick orchards but decided correctly that there weren’t enough local populace who would be interested. Tourists who come for the geysers and canyons and volcano and grey wolves are unlikely to feel compelled to spend an afternoon filling a bucket with peaches.

They walk along the divide between the fruits. The smell of live apples to their left and the faint sweet rot of peaches plucked by gravity and left to die on their right. The air clings a little but the mountain breeze keeps things fresh. There may be a thundershower. The fine hairs on Lizzy’s arms are abuzz.

She slows down for Paul. He’s struggling a little with the uneven ground but manages to keep up.

“I think there’s going to be a thundershower,” Lizzy says.

“Did you check the forecast?”

“No, but I can feel it.”

“Hmm.”

They walk some more. It is a nice day afternoon for a walk. Cool with their jackets on. Not yet cold enough for long johns. They reach the end of the plantation and continue into a copse of fir and willow trees.

“So you grew up here then?”

“Yeah.”

“With your grandmother?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Just the two of you?”

“After Opa passed away, yes.”

“What about your parents?”

Lizzy stops for a moment, barely, then keeps walking. “They both died when I was young.”

“Oh,” says Paul. “I’m sorry.” The condolence comes late, clumsy, sounding like an afterthought. But Lizzy understands the delay.

“It’s all right. It was a long time ago.”

“Mind if I ask—”

“I do.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

They run into a wind-fallen tree. Lizzy helps Paul up and over. He shakes off the debris from his pant-legs.

“When are you leaving?” Lizzy asks.

 “Day after tomorrow. Should we turn back now?”

“Not yet. I want to show you something.”

They arrive at a clearing. A tall willow tree marks the center. Under its pockmarked shadow lies a weathered wooden bench. Half a log supported by four stumps. Surface cool and a little soggy. Made for a child and too small to hold two grown bodies. Lizzy gestures to Paul and they sit down anyway. Knees touching.

“My dad was a war correspondent,” she begins.

“He was killed in Bosnia. He left before I was born, while mom was pregnant. I never saw him.”

Paul shifts his bum a little.

“My mom fell into the canyon when I was three.”

“Was it—” Paul can’t bring himself to finish the question. Lizzy looks up. At and through the fine veil of tendrils and foliage.

“Who knows. Oma says she didn’t take his death too well.”

“I’m so sorry.” Paul’s voice is strained. He shifts again in his seat. Like the thundershower she can feel his wanting to reach out to her. He’s a nice boy.

“When I was little I used to pester my grandparents about where my parents were all the time. One day they took me out for a picnic. Just after a thunderstorm. The air was so fresh it hurt to breathe.”

She takes in a deep breath. As if to illustrate the point.

“We came here. To this clearing and this willow. Oma and I sat on a mat eating apples we’d picked on our way. Watching Opa working on this bench.

“Then Oma told me that when women in my family die, instead of getting buried in a coffin, or incinerated into dust, they become trees. You put their feet in the ground and the root takes hold. Just like that. She said there was a forest of full of women in her old village. And this one—” She lays her hand on the bark. “She convinced me this tree was my mom.

“I used to come here whenever I felt sad, even after I was old enough to know what Oma said was a lie.”

“I—”

She kisses him before he can say anything. On the mouth, their noses clashing. Awkward and breathless. Then once again on the cheek.

“We should go back now. It’s getting cold.”

Lizzy gets up abruptly and starts walking. Paul follows suit, his face aflush. Cheeks the color of a Gala. They make their way back to the house not saying anything. Only the rhythmic thump of Paul’s crutch trailing behind her.

Paul leaves the next morning. Oma drives him to the Greyhound platform in the spare car. While Lizzy is at the farmers market. She comes back to an empty house and finds a note in her room. Slipped under the door.

Dear Lizzy

Sorry I’m leaving without a proper good-bye. But if I don’t go now I’m not sure I ever will. And I don’t think my parents will be very happy to be paying for my bed and breakfast indefinitely, you know? (Ha-ha!) They think I should be a lawyer. I think I’ll make a shitty lawyer but I should at least try. Probably.

Anyway. Thank you for everything. Can you write me sometime? My address is on the back.

Paul

Lizzy considers the address for a moment. New York, New York. She tries to picture Paul in a tie and suit holding a briefcase. It suits him. Must do something about the hair, though. Then, haltingly, she folds the note into a paper plane and sends it out the window. Toward the orchard and toward the willow grove. She is ready to tell everything. When Oma gets back. She will stay or she will go. But it will be her choice.

The sky cracks open in the distance. Here comes the rain. She was right.


© Copyright 2017 elphyon. All rights reserved.

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