M.C. Schmidt ~ A Famous Woman

The cab dri­ver wouldn’t drop her where she’d asked to go. Not so prop­er a lady, and not at this time of night. When she addressed the mat­ter in his native Marathi, how­ev­er, and pulled from her wal­let a bill that she fold­ed into a crude jet shape and flew through the win­dow of their Plexiglas par­ti­tion, his con­cern for her safe­ty began to soft­en. Her des­ti­na­tion, she’d told him, wasn’t a spe­cif­ic place. Rather, it was a spe­cif­ic kind of place: “I want to go where there’s blood on the side­walks.” Eventually, after refusal and acqui­es­cence and then an extend­ed peri­od of qui­et protest in which he seem­ing­ly sought every stop sign and red light that might delay his deliv­ery of her, the dri­ver deposit­ed Veena at the dark east end of Marathon Street.

She walked for twen­ty min­utes, chic in a design­er blouse and crop pants—clothing deliv­ered to her in a month­ly fash­ion box whose sub­scrip­tion ser­vice real­ly was that rare exam­ple of invalu­able Western excess. Down alleys and the spaces between shut­tered shops that were too nar­row even to be called alleys, Veena walked, until she stum­bled upon the kind of scene she’d imagined.

When she saw the boy, she stopped. Veena, hid­den in the dark space between street lamps. He, advanc­ing and retreat­ing in the buzz of those lamps’ glow, in and out of the light­ed arc at the base of a tenement’s porch steps, unaware of her, com­port­ing him­self with a car­riage of approx­i­mat­ed confidence.

That he was unim­pres­sive was her first thought, cagy in a way that belied some­thing more fun­da­men­tal than youth, though he was cer­tain­ly young. It was secu­ri­ty that he pro­ject­ed. Station, even. The uncon­scious tell of one who has some­thing to lose. Affluent boys cer­tain­ly didn’t risk their futures by ped­dling on after-hours streets, but in the tough­ness he affect­ed to hide his fear, he told the truth of this rich coun­try: that even the low­est rung of this society’s lad­der was insu­lat­ed with rights and pro­tec­tions. In her career, Veena had wit­nessed gen­uine pover­ty. She’d seen boys younger than this one, hard-eyed and moti­vat­ed to risk machine gun fire by the base under­stand­ing that to not do so was to guar­an­tee sur­vival as impos­si­ble. Young traf­fick­ers she’d known in Morocco, to name only one case, mov­ing drugs and elec­tron­ics and dish soap with a fatal risk in every trans­ac­tion, the gal­lantry of each tiny hand extend­ed for pay­ment, their actu­al lives endan­gered sale by sale.

On the side­walk, the boy attract­ed a client. Veena stud­ied the taut­ness between them as the client approached, the way they played in uni­son against that ten­sion like prac­ticed hands on musi­cal strings. It was gen­uine­ly art­ful, their sec­onds-long trans­ac­tion. When it was done, the boy fol­lowed the client into the lamp­light, a sin­gle step for­ward like some wife in a long-ago sit­com advanc­ing to the door­frame that was her world’s ter­mi­nus to wave off her hus­band on his dai­ly jour­ney into what­ev­er lay beyond.

From her wal­let, Veena pulled a twen­ty, crum­pled it into her palm then hung that loaded hand at the end of an arm, casu­al and dis­creet. She man­aged a sin­gle step for­ward before draw­ing the boy’s atten­tion. She halt­ed. What was it Bachman had called her? A pro­fes­sion­al voyeur? Well, yes, now that she found her­self so hes­i­tant to approach this boy, she sup­posed she would have to allow him that. She’d spent her life in prox­im­i­ty to dan­ger­ous char­ac­ters, far more so than this American teenag­er. But only ever as a wit­ness, pas­sive as a win­dow cur­tain. She felt the sink­ing doubt of a sports writer who was sud­den­ly passed the ball, a sup­posed expert now charged with demon­strat­ing their pur­port­ed author­i­ty. For all the decades she’d spent inter­pret­ing the lives of oth­ers, she felt the unex­pect­ed pan­ic of hav­ing no agency in her own.

What’re you doing down there, skulk­ing?” called the boy’s husky voice.

It was expec­ta­tion that hur­ried her toward him, a kind of per­for­ma­tive response to his scruti­ny that might just as like­ly have led her to turn and run the way she’d come. In a few steps, the bill fell from her palm. She stooped, retrieved it, palmed it again, and con­tin­ued for­ward. Sidewalk and cork heels met to steadi­ly applaud her com­ing fail­ure. After all her imag­in­ings of this moment, she’d come to see too late that she wasn’t equipped to han­dle it. It should have been obvi­ous, fool­ish woman. She’d nev­er pur­chased drugs in her life, after all, and hadn’t been high in ages. Not since Yemen, where her morn­ings were spent with female con­tacts as they cul­ti­vat­ed Celastraceae leaves, join­ing in with them in the after­noons as they sat in a semi-cir­cle chew­ing the qat that result­ed from their labors. This was the sub­ject of her fourth and most suc­cess­ful book, pop­u­lar because it was mis­un­der­stood as a cock-eyes fem­i­nist man­i­festo rather than the sober ethnog­ra­phy she intend­ed it to be, focus­ing as it did on these women’s forced entry into the once exclu­sive male hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry ritual.

I don’t know what you think you doing with that,” the boy said as she shut­tered to a stop, his eyes indi­cat­ing the hand that held the twen­ty. He was hand­some close up, dark skin and a broad beau­ti­ful mouth and eyes that tipped down toward his nose. They were eyes built for cry­ing, she thought in the flo­ral prose she’d per­fect­ed over thir­ty years of writ­ing, weight­ed down at the points of their large tear ducts as if over­full and des­per­ate to spill, eyes that were wast­ed on a face that aspired to be as hard­ened as this boy’s face aspired to be.

I,” Veena began.

You need to keep walk­ing, lady.” He stood for a moment, pea­cock­ing, then stepped away from her, up onto the low­est porch step, seek­ing author­i­ty through height and shad­ow. Instead, the motion affect retreat, a reminder to Veena that he was mere­ly a child and that she was not as inef­fec­tu­al as her doubts would have her believe. Those doubts that had over­whelmed her in waves since Bachman’s broad­cast, her pub­lic excoriation.

Here, now,” she said, rais­ing her hand to indi­cate her intent to buy. “Just give me what I came for.”

He’d start­ed into a fret­ful pac­ing on the dark step. “And what was it exact­ly that you come for?”

This she didn’t know. She’d come for what­ev­er it was that bro­ken peo­ple used these days to anes­thetize that part of them­selves that whis­pered fail­ures and regrets. “Let’s just do this,” she said by way of deflec­tion. She took a step for­ward and the boy stopped his pac­ing, freez­ing in a broad-legged stance as if pre­pared to tack­le her should she con­tin­ue to advance.

Who you buy­ing for, com­ing here dressed like that?”

That’s none of you con­cern,” Veena said.

Bullshit,” the boy said, incon­gru­ous­ly. He stepped down to the side­walk and stood very near her, bend­ing and then rais­ing his body to make a show of look­ing her over. “What you want it for?” He pro­nounced this last word as ‘foe,’ one of a mil­lion grace­ful dialec­ti­cal sub­ver­sions that Veena had come to appre­ci­ate in the lan­guages of the world’s impov­er­ished peo­ple, the econ­o­my of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as she’d come the think of it.

She stared at him for some long sec­onds, mean­ing­ful­ly, into his tilt­ed eyes. Finally, she said, “I want to die.”

Those love­ly eyes widened, nar­rowed. “You want to,” he began, then com­plet­ed the thought with a puff of breath blown indig­nant­ly toward her. “I ain’t try­ing to help no old lady off her­self. I don’t want to be an acces­so­ry to none of that. You go and get your mis­guid­ed ass on out of here, grandma.”

My mon­ey,” Veena said with an imme­di­ate des­per­a­tion in her voice, “is as good as anyone’s.” She raised the twen­ty to him and the boy reached and cupped her hand and pushed it away. She pulled her arm back and then threw the bill at him, hit­ting him in the space between his nose and lips, just as a siren from the street blurt­ed a sin­gle bleat and a spot­light flashed on to illu­mi­nate the ball of cash as it arced down to land on the side­walk between them.

The boy didn’t freeze or jump with alarm. He sim­ply fled in steady, deter­mined strides, long gone around a dis­tant cor­ner by the time the female offi­cer joined Veena on the sidewalk.

Solicitation. Only a crime because of that damned crum­pled twen­ty. A woman of Veena’s stand­ing could fight it, of course, pre­sum­ing she could ral­ly her instinct for self-preservation.

In the back­seat of the squad car, she rest­ed her cheek on the uphol­stery and closed her eyes. Grandma, the boy had called her.

A few years pri­or, when she was still respect­ed in her field, long before Bachman pub­li­cal­ly tied her to war crimes, an eth­no­mu­si­co­log­i­cal col­league had told her this: Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were specif­i­cal­ly respon­si­ble for redefin­ing age in the Western world. According to his the­o­ry, when Veena was twen­ty, forty became the new thir­ty. At thir­ty, she was thir­ty, but con­tin­ued to be until after she turned forty. Now that she was six­ty, the rock­ers had made eighty the new six­ty, which meant by sim­ple extrap­o­la­tion that she was forty again and there­fore too young to be a grand­ma and so that lit­tle punk could just go fuck himself.


Veena, I trust you won’t think me out of line for point­ing out your good for­tu­nate that I didn’t pass this off as a joke. I mean, my god, what are you play­ing at?”

Give it a rest, Oscar,” Veena said, tak­ing pos­ses­sion of her wal­let and hotel room key from the intake offi­cer. “And before you get the itch to judge me—remember, I once saw you drink whiskey from an ath­let­ic cup.”

Upon being processed and deliv­ered to a dent­ed, old-fash­ioned wall phone, it had occurred to Veena that, with­out her mobile’s address book, she knew the num­ber of not a sin­gle con­tact she’d made in the dig­i­tal age. So, with only the trun­cat­ed hes­i­ta­tion that her cir­cum­stance allowed, she reluc­tant­ly dialed a num­ber from her past and wait­ed in Holding for Oscar to arrive.

He owed her this any­way, she rea­soned. In 1979, when they were grad­u­ate stu­dents, Veena had loaned him $300 that had nev­er been repaid. Later, it had been Oscar who intro­duced her to Charles Sayer, whom Veena ulti­mate­ly mar­ried, lead­ing him to the erro­neous belief that they were square. Factoring the debt now, with forty years of inter­est, and the steep penal­ty she applied for her even­tu­al messy divorce from Charles, Veena esti­mat­ed that what Oscar owed her was well above the tri­fle the city was ask­ing for her bail.

When they were on the side­walk in front of the Market Street police sta­tion, he insist­ed they share a cab and, once in the cab, that she accom­pa­ny him to a base­ment bar called The Midnight Room. It was, after all, “the only island of light in this god-for­sak­en neigh­bor­hood you’ve forced me to come to.” She accept­ed his invi­ta­tion, and allowed him to fur­ther chip away at his long-stand­ing debt, one fire­fly and water at a time.

Oscar had got­ten old and fat and tenure had ren­dered him pompous. It took two amber ales to soft­en his pro­fes­so­r­i­al blus­ter to a point where she felt capa­ble of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with him. “Forgive me for being dense,” he said, “but how is it that a woman of your…renown…gets arrest­ed for solic­i­ta­tion? I’m assum­ing my con­cern is justified?”

It’s com­pli­cat­ed, Oscar. How’s Beth?”

Happy. Happy and sin­gle. We divorced two years ago. I’m with Anne now.”

Oh,” Veena said with a super­fi­cial smile, “Anne. Let me guess: red-headed.”

Yes!” Oscar cheered.

And I’m inclined to say twen­ty-three, but time has passed, and I have to give you some cred­it for mat­u­ra­tion, so I’m going to go with—twenty-six?”

Oscar slapped a hand on the table. “Twenty-sev­en! Twenty-eight this fall. My god, Veena, it should have been you.”

Yes, if I were the age I was when we met and you were your age now.”


Veena raised her glass to him in iron­ic salute.

Let’s not fool our­selves,” Oscar said, “you wouldn’t have had me then. I wouldn’t have been a prop­er fit for such an exot­ic beauty.”

You were no prize,” Veena agreed.

Yes, well, time has a way of chang­ing per­spec­tive on these things—for one of us, at least,” he said with good-natured def­er­ence. “So, tell me, Vee: what brings you to the slums of New Jersey?”

Veena thought for a moment, draw­ing dia­monds in the sweat that had formed on the side of her glass. “I came to end my life,” she said.

With a closed mouth, Oscar emit­ted a deep, slow, sat­is­fied chuck­le that grew into a full-bod­ied laugh. He reared back against the faux-leather that cov­ered the booth seat and knuck­led tears from him eyes. “Oh, dear, dear, Veena! Newark is no place to die! Live, yes. Get lost, cer­tain­ly. But die here and this city will step on you and,” he searched the air for an end to this anal­o­gy, “not even wipe you from the tread of its shoe.” He took a long drink from his amber ale then replaced the mug on its coast­er and con­tin­ued to stare into it. With a somber­ness that read to her as per­for­ma­tive, he then asked the ques­tion she’d expect­ed since he’d arrived to col­lect her: “This is a reac­tion to Bachman?”

She shrugged, enact­ing a per­for­mance of her own. “Haven’t you heard? Lately, I only exist in rela­tion to Bachman.”

To be hon­est with you, it left me torn.” Quickly, he looked up and met her gaze and clar­i­fied, “Oh, no! Not about you. His accu­sa­tions are absurd. Bachman is a pro­pogan­dist, an oppor­tunist. I only meant that I was torn that a man like Bachman—a muck­rak­er for whom, it needn’t be said, I have no respect—was actu­al­ly edu­cat­ing his view­ers on Orientalism. In prime time, no less. Of course, he quot­ed Said near­ly word for word, but that’s split­ting hairs.”

Not a fan of Said?” Veena asked to shift the focus from her­self, then pre­pared for an ama­teur lec­ture from a psy­chol­o­gy prof on the sub­ject of her expertise.

Oh, good heav­ens, girl! His the­o­ries were inter­est­ing thir­ty years ago, but too much has changed since then. We’re a more sophis­ti­cat­ed and enlight­ened peo­ple than in Said’s day, and the impe­tus of his argu­ments have become out­mod­ed. Still, I feel it’s appro­pri­ate to rec­og­nize Bachman for the effort, such as it was.”

I have no issue with Bachman,” she said soberly.

Well, you should!” Oscar bel­lowed. “He’s a slan­der­ous pig! The way he used his nar­row log­ic to impli­cate you, to attack your reputation—you should sue for defama­tion of char­ac­ter! Not that any­one gives cre­dence to the opin­ions of that rightwing whore. Forgive me,” he added for this slur.

Veena fin­ished the last swal­low of her Firefly then con­sid­ered the pale, reflect­ed stars of light in their tabletop.“Remind me, Oscar,” she said, final­ly, “how did you pay for your doc­tor­al studies?”

Oscar bris­tled as if offend­ed by the per­son­al nature of this ques­tion, but was too proud of his élite stock to refuse an answer. “Well, it was paid out­right. You know that. I had the good for­tune of com­ing from a fam­i­ly who could afford the invest­ment in my future.”

Yes,” Veena said. “And do you know how I paid for mine? With a grant. And do you know who offered me a grant in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties to study Middle Eastern anthro­pol­o­gy? A char­i­ty called the Strasberg Trust. And who would you guess fund­ed the Strasberg Trust? Texaco. Naturally.” She paused before sum­ma­riz­ing her point: “One of the biggest oil com­pa­nies in the world paid for me to become an expert in the most oil-rich region on Earth.”

I fail to see the rel­e­vance,” Oscar said.

What do you think they were they mak­ing an invest­ment in?” she con­tin­ued. “I knew it, even back then. But because I knew, I felt that they couldn’t get me. That they couldn’t have me. I thought that I wasn’t real­ly in bed with them because I saw what they were after and I thought I was work­ing against it. All these years, I thought I was doing good work, Oscar. I let myself believe that I was mak­ing my own agen­da, that I wasn’t par­ty to any polit­i­cal games. I didn’t let myself see it. But the truth that even a shill like Bachman could see, is that all I’ve done for all my life is to help oil inter­ests plan which regions to exploit and which regions to avoid, which gov­ern­ments to overthrow.”

Nonsense!” Oscar said with a dis­mis­sive toss of his hand. “You make it sound as if you had no agency. You made choic­es, and those choic­es brought you suc­cess in your field. You did good work that was with­in the rig­ors of your dis­ci­pline. Your schol­ar­ship was mis­used by the neo­cons. So, what? So have hun­dreds of oth­er schol­ars. Piss on them! It doesn’t make you com­plic­it. No mat­ter what the Bachmans say.”

The death toll is esti­mat­ed to be in the thou­sands,” Veena said. “And those are only the offi­cial num­bers. It could be in the many tens of thousands.”

The American gov­ern­ment does what it does, and it would have found jus­ti­fi­ca­tion whether you’d writ­ten those papers or not. We depose lead­ers with anti-cap­i­tal­ist agen­das. We part­ner with vio­lent regimes will­ing to foment mil­i­tary coups. You need me to tell you this? We chase oil like a horny frat boy chas­es tail. And the deci­sions we make in that chase are equal­ly poor and the out­comes, equal­ly regret­table. It’s been our way since time out of mind, and I don’t see any rea­son to place that bur­den on your shoul­ders. Period, end of sto­ry.” He lift­ed his tum­bler to his lips and wait­ed as the dregs ran toward them.

Three years ear­li­er, Veena had spent six weeks trav­el­ling with a small band of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who became the sub­ject of three essays pub­lished in the jour­nal, American Anthropologist. They were pow­er­less when she’d known them, too small to pick the fight they so des­per­ate­ly want­ed. Twenty-four months after she pub­lished, how­ev­er, the group was at the fore­front of an uprising—armed and aid­ed, it was spec­u­lat­ed, by first world actors. After a pro­tract­ed strug­gle, the dis­si­dents seized con­trol of their gov­ern­ment, and Veena’s writ­ing found its way into a dossier on the desk of the American pres­i­dent, one that ulti­mate­ly informed his deci­sion to strike them mil­i­tar­i­ly. Certainly, the American gov­ern­ment had eyes on this group long before her schol­ar­ship, but if their name was known to any U.S. cit­i­zen out­side the DOD, DHS, or CIA, it was like­ly because of Veena.

She real­ized dur­ing a pause in their con­ver­sa­tion that her body was start­ing to numb. The Fireflies had begun their work on her fin­gers and toes.

Oscar raised his hand to sig­nal a pass­ing wait­ress. “Two more, my dear. We are past due.”  The wait­ress nod­ded. There was a muf­fled tone from under the table and Oscar respond­ed by pulling a mobile phone from his pock­et. “Anne,” he chuck­led, before hunt­ing and peck­ing a mes­sage on the phone’s flat screen. The mod­ern look of the device made his fin­gers seem par­tic­u­lar­ly old and imprecise.

You’re tex­ting now,” Veena said.

With his atten­tion still on the phone, Oscar said, “I’m a mod­ern man, Vee. We must move with the times lest we be buried by them.” The final words of this response were drawn out, as he reread his com­po­si­tion. “She wants to know when I’ll be home. Misses me,” he mused.

Isn’t that sweet. Afraid of the dark?”

Infatuated. I’m a hard habit to overcome.”

The ever-increas­ing legion of ex-Mrs. Boses might sug­gest otherwise.”

Extraordinary women, all. Your log­ic is unfound­ed.” The wait­ress replaced their dead glass­es with fresh drinks. With an apprais­ing smile at the look she’d intend­ed as aloof, Oscar said, “So, you came to New Jersey to die, but instead you fum­ble a drug buy and get arrest­ed. It doesn’t take a man of my pay­grade to see that as a cry for help.”

I didn’t plan to get arrest­ed, Oscar. I meant to pull it off.”

Consciously, of course you did. But let’s imag­ine that stun­ning brain of yours qui­et­ly arrang­ing these events with your well-being as its pri­ma­ry con­cern. Let’s con­sid­er that it knew pre­cise­ly what it was doing. Perhaps even to the point of being saved by an old friend in the city where you first met him.”

She couldn’t be sure, not in her cur­rent state, but Veena believed she saw a flick­er of desire in Oscar’s eyes. “I think you’re wrong,” Veena said. “After all, it’s get­ting to be time you went home to tuck in your wife. Then I’ll be alone again. There’s plen­ty more trou­ble I can get myself into.”

But, after Oscar fin­ished his drink and grudg­ing­ly left her, the most harm she did her­self that night was a half-fin­ished Tom Collins tak­en alone at some oth­er bar, fol­lowed by a drunk­en patrolling of emp­ty streets in shoes that were ill-fash­ioned for walking.

Sometime before dawn, Veena found her­self in front of her hotel, strand­ed just out­side the reach of the light that leaked from its glass lob­by doors. Entering would mean accept­ing defeat. She’d begun this day expect­ing that it would bring her to an end. Something com­mon and cheap to undo the decades of respect and pro­fes­sion­al acco­lades that she’d accept­ed but maybe nev­er deserved, a scan­dal bound in a blood red rib­bon with a tag that read, ‘To Perry Bachman.’ Bachman was an idiot. But so to was Oscar. What she knew, in those final hours before dawn, was that some­where in her past Veena had sneezed and incit­ed a hur­ri­cane that now enveloped her from half a world away. Each of these idiot men judged her dif­fer­ent­ly for this, and it might be that one was as wrong as the oth­er. Maybe she was sim­ply fal­li­ble and right­ly sad for hav­ing inflict­ed the pain of her own imper­fec­tion on any­one any­where. Or, per­haps, she was a mon­ster. One who’d cor­rect­ly awok­en to see the dan­ger she posed, but who’d pre­dictably fucked up the res­o­lu­tion she’d intend­ed. It seemed rea­son­able to think that this feel­ing might pass, but also that it pos­si­bly nev­er would. She took a sin­gle step toward that lob­by door, her shoes hooked on two fin­gers like some girl in the movies, con­fused and look­ing for­ward to sleep. But look­ing for­ward, at least.


M.C. Schmidt is the author of two nov­els. His recent short fic­tion has appeared in Spectrum Literary Journal, BULL, Litro Online, Every Day Fiction, and Abstract Magazine, among oth­er publications.