Pia Ehrhardt & Nina Temple ~ Four Excerpts from Now We Are Sixty

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?

~

Frisky

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.