The Color of Hunger
It’s New Year’s Day and the streets look hungover. In the backseat, Malcolm and I have loaded in our French artist friends, Bullet and Stephen. They hold hands and mutter romantic bits we’d like to understand and mutter. Love talk in English sounds infantile. I hold Malcolm’s hand when I don’t need both of mine on the wheel. We’re on our way to Brighton Beach. It’s rare for us to travel through New York above ground.
We park under the subway trestle and zero in on Tashkent, an Uzbekestani grocery store with a block-long buffet: mountains of cold salads, vats of pink borscht, tender cheese blinchiki, coriander-scented Borodinsky bread, crispy chicken cutlets, dumplings bulging with lamb and onion. Our hunger explodes.
“Violet Bundle” — Ink on cold pressed paper — 22″ x 30″
The boardwalk is empty but for a few burly Russian men in thick leather jackets, talking on their phones. Puffy clouds put on a show. Near the water, wind pushes us around. We let the surf wash our hands before we hurry back to our mittens. Bullet is petite, with a pixie haircut. Her work deals with disappearance, what remains, seen or hidden. She looks like a French pop star and moves with the fresh-cut joy of a child. In the sand, she finds a lone red rose on a stem and waves it like a magic wand. A gust rips off petals and I capture them on my camera, blowing toward me. Stephen triple-wraps his neck in a long scarf, dashingly, and photographs Bullet, dancing.
At Coney Island, the Polar Bears will take a frigid, sobering dip into the new year. The roller coaster is braked; the Ferris wheel, a frozen circle. On the beach, all body types shiver. Many wear flannel bathrobes and fluffy slippers. Wrist-banded swimmers will be called in by color. “Blues! Walk, don’t run!” the emcee barks from his lifeguard chair. “Hit the water and exit right!” Stephen’s art deals with the immediacy of color. Last year, he’d filmed the Polar Bears with temperature-sensitive film, seen them enter green and emerge purple. But today we have only our naked eyes. We can tell the ones who’ve dunked by their laughter and high fives, their legs bright red as warm blood rushes to the surface.
For the Love of Squash
Did corduroy used to be spelled with an extra u? Malcolm considers it only a winter fabric, but I’m in it every season, the long corridors of pleasure, the rub-rub music of wale against wale, scraping my nails across my thigh like a washboard. Mustard yellow, burnt orange, olive, burgundy, the shades of falling leaves and homely delicious vegetables.
I’ve been dressing in soft sweatshirts to run errands, like my mom wears at the home. The fuzzy inside presses like a stuffed animal against my skin. Does this sensation comfort her, too? Because Alzheimer’s turns pleasure into dissonance: a knock on her door, a bright sunny day, the quench of raindrops hitting her window, the laughter of daughters. Did she have too many girls? The two older daughters took care of the two younger ones so she could hang around our father. We sisters were wrong to think that by pulling together, tighter, he’d need her more and we’d need her less.
“Babuschka” – Ink on cold pressed paper – 22″ x 30″
Does my mom remember if the scar on my upper haunch is from chicken pox? Because I’m about to stop putting off the shingles vaccine. I can’t trust her answer, and my own memory is getting cobwebby. Lots of silky connectors, but not the certainty of a younger person: This happened to me because I was there. Back when childhood was still close by.
Malcolm and I forgot our anniversary until our son sent in congratulations on thirty years. It was a big one! Some days my brain is a jungle, tangles and vines, strange birds calling from high branches. Did my mother say, You picked at your chicken pox scab and made a scar. How much mothering does she remember? Finish your plate. Unroll your skirt. Hem your jeans. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. My son’s chicken pox welted him with red dots, and we cancelled a trip to Disney World. He was four. How much about me is my mother forgetting? When she finds me at her door, her joy at the sight of me feels fresh and real, and I believe her all over again, but her interest fizzles after we hug. “I’m in the middle of something,” she says. Where did I go wrong? She’s like a cuttlefish who carries its hard shell on the inside, the outside, soft and edible as pie.
A World of Shoes
When I sold shoes in college, shoppers would sit in my department to rest their feet. The store owner walked the floor in his double-breasted cashmere blazer because he could afford everything he sold. He walked with his arms crossed over his chest, keeping an eye on us. My friends would stop in. They knew my hours. And I’d put them into shoes they didn’t ask for so the boss would see me work.
“Stuffed” – Ink on cold pressed watercolor paper — 22” x 30”
I needed my own money when my parents stopped paying. I still lived at home. Before classes, while my mother practiced her violin, I babysat my little sisters. We read about the unsinkable Pippi Longstocking, whose mother died at birth, whose father was lost at sea. And we watched Sesame Street, singing the jingly songs that taught us to be kind. I don’t know that my mother had much use for me by then. My father needed my company at the dinner table. I felt stuck in the mud of their marriage. In the back of the shoe store, I’d try on the world: platforms the color of robin’s eggs; Ferragamo flats with a bow; burgundy Aigner pumps; silver strappy sandals as light as butterflies. I got a 40% discount and acquired a closet-full that would one day walk me out of there into a rough first marriage, into my eventually happy second marriage.
My mother leaves a long message. She is angry about my last visit when I tossed a metropolis of dirty Styrofoam cups and got her room cleaned, her sheets washed. In the message, she tells me I treated the staff poorly, bossed them around, but she is confusing me with herself. I wish she’d confuse herself with me and be kind to others, whether they’re froggy green or human. When I was young, I wanted to be her, seductive, to dress in slim skirts and silk blouses, to swirl my hair and wear a kitten heel. And now at the end of her life, I can’t make comfortable the one who taught me to land on my feet. She phones back to say how much she enjoyed seeing Malcolm. Will I bring him back?
I’m on my way back up to Queens where Malcolm will join me in a few days. I hit TSA pre-check, where the guards admonish people about what not to take off or out or your bag. So many rules to remember to forget. The last time I flew, I confessed to having a Loop monitor in my chest, along with the other people admitting to pacemakers, metal hips and prosthetic legs. I got patted down by a woman in rubbery gloves, around my bra, the suspicious underwire, between my legs; the hibernating long-ago violations, reawakened by touch. I wanted to tell her to fuck off, get the fuck off of me. Words I didn’t think were mine to use in the 70s and 80s when I needed them. Using them now would get me arrested.
This time I take my chances in the scanner, strike my X pose, arms up, legs spread, a frisk with no touching. It’s always a small thrill to make it through, to see my bags roll out of the yaw, to ace the sharp objects-food-liquids test. In my purse, I keep a vial of primrose oil for hot flashes.
“Resolved” — Ink on cold pressed watercolor paper — 22″ x 30″
Airports remind me how good it is to be a grownup woman, married and moving through space, about to buy a black coffee, a muffin and the NYT before I board. With a tail wind, New Orleans to New York takes two hours and change. In the waiting area, toddlers bolt for their freedom; batches of athletes travel in school colors; a masked Chinese woman contains her cough; fearful fliers read bible verses. So often, the person I stand behind in security ends up on my airplane. What blind improbable luck to have contact twice, a near friendship, but on this trip, I’ll be flying with just strangers. As we push back, I text Malcolm: “Cross check, cabin door shut, on time arrival.”
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories and Now We Are Sixty, a collaborative art book with her sister. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Guernica, The Morning News, Virginia Quarterly Review and she’s a frequent contributor to Narrative Magazine. She is a recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and Queens, NY with her husband, Malcolm. Their son lives too far away in London.
Nina Z. Temple’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout California as well as in museums and art fairs. Professionally, Nina ran two graphic design studios in Monterey, California and Annapolis, Maryland, where her work received many awards. She continues to work in group collaborations in support of the arts, conducting artist talks and workshops for young children, and teaching and lecturing at colleges and universities. She and her husband, Paul, have two children and three grandchildren who all reside in California.