susan tepper
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Published in PURE SLUSH

Venezuela

A two-fisted monkey showed up at my back door screen. It was one of those early summer mornings, the air still a little cool. You could smell cut grass and new flowers. I was having my tea. Oh, did I mention that this monkey was particularly tall? It had a grin, too, that was practically heart stopping. I held my cup of tea midair and stared at it through the screen.
"Do you want to come in?" I said.
The monkey jerked its head up and down. Then before I could even rise from the chair, it pushed open the screen door stepping lightly into my kitchen.
I should mention I have an old kitchen. Dated from around 1940. It's big and square and some people have suggested I call in a kitchen remodeling service. Granite is a word that some people have suggested. Faded aqua tiles cover the walls part way up and surround the sink area. "This is a striking kitchen," the monkey said.
"You like it?"
"Indeed I do."
Well what do you know I was thinking. This monkey called my kitchen striking. I wouldn't have thought of calling it striking. Comfy, perhaps. Or, warm and cozy.
I regarded the monkey closely. "What is it you find striking about this kitchen?"
"The tiles," it answered right back. "Same color as the waters off the southern coast of Venezuela."
I found myself picturing those waters. Myself floating on my back in waters this color. I looked at the tiles and felt the water lapping my wrists. "Oh, my. Well would you like to sit down?"
"Don't mind if I do."
I watched the monkey get settled in a chair at the table. It had this way of wrapping its tail around the center slat of the wood chair. Smart. That way there was no chance of a second party tripping over the excess tail.
"I can't remember when I've spent a more pleasant summer morning," it said.
"Even in Venezuela?"
With that, the monkey furrowed its brow. "Hmm… Venezuela… altogether different. That was a love affair. You know how those things can go." It peered at me. "Well, I assume you know, since you're a grown woman."
I nodded and felt a bit sad. "I do know about love. My husband left me for a much younger woman."
Then it occurred to me. I had no idea if I were talking to a male or female monkey. "Pardon my asking, but are you male or a female?"
"Oh, my dear," said the monkey. Its big dark eyes pooling. It reached out and stroked the knuckles of my one hand that rested near the sugar bowl. After a moment I slowly removed my hand, putting it in my lap.
"Was I too forward?" it said.
"Would you care for some tea?"
"Tea would be excellent. And a slice of buttered toast if you can spare it."

un deux trois

This is an old game but let's play it anyway. In front of you on the screen are three doors. For the sake of keeping things fresh, let's call them door number un, deux, trois. Now picture me behind one of the doors. It will be up to you to choose correctly. I'll give clues. When the time comes to pick a door, you should be well schooled in the art of deception. Don't act childish or pout. That will count against you. Not by me. I reserve judgment. It will count as you against you.
Behind door number un: A huge, glittery ballroom. Couples are dancing the waltz. The room drips gold rococo from everywhere, as though the gold were liquefied into fountains, the light, or some libation that's impossible to refuse. What is not rococo is of marble, satin, tasseled, silver, velvet, plush, silken, candles, crystal. The women wear a stunning array of gowns in every shade. Accentuating their high rounded breasts, petal-soft shoulders. Perfume emanates from giant bouquets that adorn every surface. Heady like an early summer bloom. I am one of the twirling couples on the dance floor. My feet skip lightly, my hand rests weightless on my partner's arm. Upswept hair with wispy tendrils around my face. A necklace of diamonds and emeralds clutches my throat. With each twirl of the dance, I become more animated, flushed, wet.
Well, what do you think?
Behind door number deux: I dig with my hands for something to eat out of the war torn ground. When I don't find a potato, or root vegetable, I will eat the grubs. My clothes are ragged, filthy. I'm close to starvation. My husband was shot in the square. Other husbands went down the same way. One of my children ran for escape into the woods. Another was raped in front of me then dragged off. I was raped by- who could possibly say how many. I cannot remember my children's names. All I see is the school they attended. A damp place burned to its foundations. Walking has become a struggle. Two of my toes gone to frostbite. The wind and cold beat steady. I sleep where I find shelter. Under a bridge that remains; behind the train station; in a cellar once, a coal bin. There is nothing to reach for any longer. Even the horse was killed then left to rot.
Don't let sentimentality get in your way.
Behind door number troix: A wagon train carries us westward. Every wagon has one weapon at least. We sleep out under the stars. In rain and dust storms. Heat. After weeks I can find no beauty in the changing landscape. My eyes feel drained. The endless rocking wagon. Croak of wheels scraping. It makes a dent in my mind. Mornings I dread waking. Fear the Indian sightings. Boston was home. Never again to be seen. Our house held an aroma of wood smoke. Silver polish. Baking. Hand-made lace trimmed the canopy over the bed. A mirror told me who I was every day. One sister kept a kitten found near bushes banking the stream. We read by candlelight, in turns aloud. Dreamt of lovers like in books. Father said the world is a changing place. He boarded a ship not to return. Gold discovered in the western territories lured us from our rightful place.
One woman behind one door. Choose. I am the gift.

Ash

There was a hill and I stood at the bottom and he pulled me up by a long rope, the way a boat can be pulled to shore. This may have been a dream or some past remembrance. In actual time it's inconsequential, as I am here, now, he is here, the room is the room. He accepts beauty the way a bird accepts flight. It was a natural thing to bring the girl. We both need the girl. The girl will keep us both safe. He touches me first, of course. He knows the way it has to be. Then he touches the girl and the sweetness of him is pouring out onto the sheets, it spills amber colored as the girl writhes under him. She has a name but we don't use it. He calls her _ while I say nothing at all. He moves from her body back to mine fluid as the canal at midnight. Neither she nor I glance at the other. This is not out of jealousy or disrespect. The other doesn't exist, in and of itself. The other is a porcelain statue in an alcove in this room, a nude painting in pastels on the wall, some scratchy music that comes up as a death warble. Piaff. Or a strangulated sigh. When it's done the girl gets up and leaves quickly. Entangled in the sheets we watch the light outside turning the windows to ash.

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