Zoe Randall

 Winter 2001

Street Fair

"Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"

--Lewis Carroll

Rae stood in the doorway of the Radio Shack, arms folded against her small body, her back turned to the panoply of electronic devices. In the stratosphere, gray clouds hard-packed into wave patterns, like damp sand beds. It wasn't summer, yet.

The 3" X 6" Psion personal digital assistant was too small for Rick's unsupple hands, his fingers like winter branches. "Come on, Rae. Try it," he said.

"Then can we go?" asked Rae.

The man behind the counter slid the Lilliputian machine in Rae's direction, his eyes fixed to the wall of sixteen television screens--sixteen virile bodies in red silk gym shorts and red boxing gloves, bouncing on the balls of their feet...Cut to sixteen contenders, avid as wild jackals, ready to pounce.

Rae typed.

"frayy"

She tried again, scrunching up her tiny fingers and carefully pecking "gray."

Memmmmmmmmorrial Weekenddddd. Any chancee og sunshine, diessarpearing by late morruning.

"I can't write on this thing." She turned to the television wall--a multitude of grimacing, sallow little men in inky rectangular glasses and white shirt sleeves standing between boxers, keeping them at arm's length until the sound of the bell. Rae tried to focus on only one screen--single out just one little man. A silly exercise. But the man looked rather silly, too, his power to restrain derived from rulebooks.

"Rule Forty-two. All persons more than a mile high to leave the court."

"Nothing to do with the biosphere," thought Rae, imagining what would happen if the sluggers decided to take over the ring.

Rick effortlessly passed the Psion from one hand to the other. "I bet this weighs less than half a pound. And it's got LCD screen."

Liquid Crystal. Cascades of words.

"But I can't write on it," said Rae.

Spit filled mouthpiece adjustments and ice "cool downs" filled the screens. The salesman turned to Rae. "You're a writer? What kinda stuff you write?"

"Lately she doesn't write much of anything," said Rick, poising the Psion on the tips of his fingers, flashing a Cheshire cat grin in Rae's direction.

"Fiction," she said, ignoring Rick's pomp. He spoke for her too often. He edited her work, rewrote passages.

Rick turned the machine, like a little acrobat, in his fingers. It was his screen writing, not Rae's stories that paid the rent. He fumbled the Psion on to the glass counter top. Rae flinched.

"Not to worry," said the salesman, "That little thing's tough."

"Good to know," said Rick.

* * *

The street fair was Rae's idea. She missed hiking with Rick up in Woodstock--poking around antique shops.

King Kong Master Blaster...Z 100 New York

They stopped at the police barricades; at the giant blow-up gorilla--baring his teeth, like white steel ingots stripped of their molds--and the red Nissan Pathfinder, "Flamethrower."

Rick dove deep into the pockets of his linen trousers. He jangled a hand full of coins, a bulk of keys. Rae never knew anyone who had so many locks and keys--even for his hard drive. Rick tried his back pockets--the kind that button. "Shit. I forgot my notebook."

Two little blond boys in Khaki shorts posed on the toes of the gorilla, smiling for Dad's Sure Shot. The smoky smell of lemon chicken--spiced and blackened--rose from the Philippine Delights stand. A myriad of folding tables and bright colored kiosks--food vendors, junk dealers, and small time designers of summer habiliments--had surmounted Broadway, rerouting traffic--even the big city busses. Rae, standing on the tips of her toes, tried to discern the stretch of the fair.

"I thought we could just walk," she said, taking Rick's arm. The smoke from the Island grill curled into the gray sky. Rae wished that the sun would come out; she gave Rick a small tug. "We could get something to eat."

Rick knew she never ate much after breakfast. He would eat. She'd buy him an ear of roasted corn, a pickle on a stick. She'd get herself a beer. "Wait here," said Rick, disengaging his arm. "I'll get you a little notebook, too." He gave Rae a quick kiss on her forehead. "We can collaborate," he said vaguely.

Rae bought a Pina Colada frappe and waited by the tethered gorilla. She remembered the last time she collaborated with Rick--sitting up at the computer until 4:00 a.m. writing the trial scene. She'd caught a few hours of sleep, then went back to the computer and found that her words had been changed--her testimony deleted.

"Okay, we're all set." Rick handed her a 2" X 4" Mighty Morphin Power Rangers notebook. "I got the same kind for me," he said, waving his own little book under her nose. "What are you drinking?"

"Virgin Pina. Want some?" The sun strained and, for a brief moment, broke through the clouds, hurting Rae's eyes.

"How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!"

Rick drank the liquefied fruit as Rae looked down at her mighty amphibian Power Rangers. She flipped to the first page. Empty blue lines on white paper. Blank pages always made her nervous. "I don't have a pen," she said. Rick had two.

* * *

Rick sits at his desk. He looks over the dark Hudson--steady bridge lights, bobbing boat lights, tall dark elms. Soon an incessant clicking of keys whirs through the apartment, words bursting on to a black screen like stars, thick, on a moonless night. Rae sits at the kitchen table, in front of a vacuous laptop, immersed in the smell of banana bread baking in the oven--the sweet sticky taste of Madeira on her lips. The sink drips.

"Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words EAT ME were beautifully marked in currants."

Rae climbs up on the step stool and reaches for the bottle of Madeira that she had tucked back up into the cabinet, so not to be tempted. "Drink me," it seemed to say. Rae poured. She couldn't remember "Which way? Which way?" she would grow.

Dandelions grew rampant in her grandmother's backyard in Eatontown. Rae imagines them, gone to seed, stemmed white globes popping up on the fuzzy green, under C:\WP. She would pick them, one by one, blow away their feathery tops, and make wishes.

* * *

"How should we do this?" Rick didn't wait for an answer. "You take one side and I'll take the other?" He stood, feet apart, clicking his pen, appraising the street emporium. "The juxtaposition might be nice though. Move from left to right. Just make sure you note which side you're on."

Rae wondered what difference it made--left or right--unless they were drafting a literal map. "What's the premise of this piece?" she asked.

"I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie...'"

Rick was already jotting something down in his notebook. "Don't worry about that, yet," he said. "Just look for detail."

Rae began noting.

R: Betty Boop Harley Davidson Tees and Merry Melodies jacket on a rack.

L: Break Your Own Geode!

Rae sifted through agate slabs and slices--traced rings of aquamarine and copper color with her fingertips. She chose a slice of periwinkle grays, nebulous bands of pearly silvers.

Music blared from the gorilla's stadium-sized speakers. Disco Beat. "Nothin' I can do with a total eclipse of the heart...."

Rick jotted rapaciously. Genuine Ammonite Fossil--Morocco. Pyrite and Arrowheads. Orange Stalactite. Green lace agate key chains in a basket. He looked up as Rae paid for the periwinkle slice. "You're not supposed to be shopping," said Rick. "You're supposed to be taking notes."

"I can do both," said Rae.

Rae watched an old woman sift through the tumble stones. She wrote: Brittle and bent white haired woman in navy raincoat and black floppy hat fingers/tumbles blue, green, purple tumble stones...lingers like a child in a candy dish, searching for the biggest, the best....

The woman stepped around the booth. The hem of her coat grazed Rae's knees, and Rae got a whiff of stale urine and low-grade gin.

A girl raised the "Brake Your Own Geode" mallet high over her head and brought it down hard. A small cavern of quartz--splinters of amethyst--was hers. She impulsively turned to Rae, her closest witness. "Look! I did it!" Then, more deliberately, the child asked, pivoting on one white Ked and swishing her fine lemony hair, exhibiting her crystals and concentric rings, "Isn't it positively gorgeous?"

The preciosity, the precocious ness of children...[It took her a while to get the spelling of precocious ness right, omit the "s"]...I used to win Spelling B's. Gram said my mother would have been proud. I wish I could remember what she looked like.

Rae wanted to try. She fumbled in her bag for her wallet.

"What are you doing?" asked Rick.

"I want to break a geode."

"Why?" he asked.

* * *

Rae wanted a child. "What if we don't like it after a while?" asked Rick. "What about your writing?"

Rae was almost forty. Her mother died in a car accident when she was forty-three.

"Birth a book, darling," Rick said.

Rae wrote. Forty-three pages of a novel sit in her drawer. Rick calls it melodrama. Rae wishes she could push it to forty-four; maybe throw ten away...enlarge or reduce the margins. Not to be forty-three.

Page 5...My Grandma and I laid our picnic blanket on the hill. We ate pears and stinky cheeses, licking the sweet rankness from our fingers while we watched Daddy and his friends play in the field...Baci between hits...passing flasks...flickers of sun struck silver. I'd settle my head in Grandma's lap...curl up my toes...white laced anklets...dig them deep in the center of the blanket--the old powdered blue bedspread that had been my mother's....

Rick had suggested that she try the piece in the third person. "Abate the self-conscious romanticism."

* * *

Rick pointed his pen toward what seemed to be an impenetrable mass ahead. "What a barrage of materialism. Try to capture the capitalistic fervor of the fair, Rae. The mindless exchange of goods."

R: Woman in straw hat and silver hoops, leopard unitard and black money belt--selling small vinyl pocketbooks--mounts the cement median. "Check it out! Check it out! Only "fi dolla."

L: Chiropractor gives sample adjustments. Just sign up and wait your turn. He's got you on his mailing list.

A woman in white anklets, Dr. Scholl's comfort shoes, and a white baseball cap, anchored in the stream of pedestrian traffic--Reeboks pushing baby strollers, sailors in full uniform--shouted "SIGN THE PETITION...OUR TAX DOLLARS...A LIVABLE WESTSIDE." People pushed past her.

Rae signed her full name--Rachel Leigh Giambattista-Montgomery. "So many letters," she thought. She signs her credit cards "R. Montgomery"; her stories--"Rae Battista"; her letters to her grandmother--"Rachel." Her father used to call her "Layla."

...and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself....

R: Velvet jester; Mad Hatter; Scholar; Wizard--Hats

Rae tried on a scholar's cap; regal wine, medieval-like floral band of rich blues and golds. She raised the mirror-- lifted her chin, wondering if Rick was watching her--and found Rick's reflection in the mirror. He was busy writing.

"It fits you perfectly," said the woman behind the table. She wore a brilliant pink wizard's hat, a two-foot cone, decorated with moons and stars.

Later Rae snuck a peak at Rick's notebook. Hats...Woman with fiery red hair and a pink dunce cap....

Rick liked paying the rent--being the "paid" writer, natural born, politically bent. He never finished college. Five years ago, Rae had been at Columbia, studying for orals she never took. "Forget the degree. I'll teach you what you need to know," Rick had told her. "What are you going to do? Leave New York for some little academic job in Middle America? You don't think you'll get a job here, do you? Too much competition. And what about your writing?"

Imperious, condescending, patronizing...[Rae crossed it out; it wasn't true...He tried to help. Once he went to ALANON.]

Two clean cut men with tiny tasteful earrings shared a Mozzarepa Jumbo, guardedly passing the hot corn pancake back and forth between bites, dabbing excess oil from the corners of their mouths, resisting the urge to wipe their hands on their pants. Rae bought a Brooklyn Brown Ale. The two men finished their pancake and stopped to rummage through Frank Sinatra tapes--sneak a small kiss. Rae watched them, thinking that they probably haven't been together very long. "I bet they don't even fart in front of each other yet," she thought, smiling to herself and swallowing a mouthful of beer.

Page 19...There were two thickset posts at the entrance to the playfield. On each one sat a stone child, pimpled with pebbles and sand, muffled and mittened in cement. They faced Mother Goose, frozen in flight, her granitoid cape and pointed shoes. But they only saw each other, out of the corner of one eye, toying innocent glances...["This isn't going anywhere!" said Rick.]

"Someone suggested to me that I begin like this," one man said to the other, "I'm an alcoholic and I don't want to die."

The affected nature of rehearsed confessions.

The couple moved on. Rae bought some Bessie Smith. She bought another Brooklyn Brown. She felt bigger. Jotted more notes.

Links of Italian sausages blanketed with black onions, black black onions, jumbo sausages spitting hot fat. Hot black, billowing black smoke from the gyro stand--the smell of charred lamb, burning animal flesh--lambs, once fleecy soft--smack me in the face.

Rae downed the brown ale. She remembered her father's black liver that burst like a poison embolus. Rae kept moving. Another beer.

"Let's goooooooo," whined a fat girl at the Sand Art Table, corking a squat bottle of colored sand, impatient with her tiny sister who was still lingering over colors. Rae watched the small girl discriminately pour ribbon-like bands of neon orange, blood red, and azure blue into a long necked bottle.

Psychedelic Maypole ribbons.

Rae paid $5.00 for a heart shaped plastic cruet and poised a small funnel at the top.

Cinnabar. Octavio's Paz's blood orange--can't remember the poem--sand.

Tiny vermilion grains of sand--alternated with indigo, orange, and violet--gushed through the tiny conduit, settled in skewed layers, and spilled over the top of the bottle, forming gem-colored piles on the hard wood table. Rae corked her sand-filled heart. The young woman who worked the table swept the leftover colored granules into one large carafe of murky sand.

Rae held the bottle in the crook of her arm. The already lopsided bands of color gnarled together as she walked. She hadn't packed the sand tightly enough. "Bras for less!" shouted a man with big ears and buckteeth, wearing white shirtsleeves. He looked like a donkey.

Rae spilled beer on her T-shirt, between her too tiny? breasts. She remembered that, once--in jest?--Rick had suggested silicone. Rae had bought a bottle of mescal, eaten the worm.

"Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope! I think I could, if I only knew how to begin."

"Come over here, little lady," called a gray haired man with a hooked nose. Rae joined the small crowd, gathered for his demonstration. "By golly," the man began his spiel, "the water doesn't leave the sink." He swiveled and sprayed his Aqua-Jet. "...Everybody loves them!"

"By golly!" mimicked Rae, watching a small torrent of water shower into a portable stainless steel basin--rush down the drain--without a single splash. Rae raised her plastic cup and toasted the nozzle. A middle aged couple in matching sweats smiled smiles that seemed as broad as their spreading hips--the wife, enchanted by the spigot; the husband, amused by Rae.

"Take one home, little lady," said the hook nosed man.

Rae tried the spigot for herself. It was such a small domestic thing. She wondered how it worked, tamed a gush of water. Her belly always got wet when she did the dishes. "I'll ask my husband," she said, playing the role that the vender had presumed for her.

"How surprised he'll be when he finds out who I am! But I better take him his fan and gloves--that is, if I can find them."

Rae backtracked through the crowd, anxious to show Rick her sand heart. She got a whiff of fried green tomatoes. She thought that maybe she'd get some for Rick--maybe she should eat something, herself....

She picked up her grandmother's scent: stale lilacs and musty antimacassars. Rae pivoted on her heels to see from where the scent came. She wheeled on a slick of ice cream and crumpled into a heap. The scent disappeared. The sand was in the street. Steady white pants legs stood in her face. "You alright?" asked a sailor, offering Rae his hand.

"`Will you walk a little faster?' said the

whiting to the snail. `There's a porpoise close

behind me, and he's treading on my tail."

Rae tripped down Broadway, passed tables of English teacups and water goblets; tents filled with wicker baskets and dried flowers, three-legged tables and jars of marmalade. The sun broke through the clouds. Glints of sunlight skipped across Plexiglas cases of silver serving pieces and trays of Bakelite bangles--shimmied down trees of Austrian crystal earrings.

Hairbands of Trouble Dolls, whisper my secrets...I can't write...I shouldn't drink...my Daddy drank....carnival doctors raise the dead...hidden amulets....Where did the water go?...Aqua aqua aqua-Jet...The street was dry.

She gave up jostling through the thickening crowd, let it sweep her along. The sun was getting warmer, casting a heavy haze.

Rae drifted passed a pickle stand, "Freeeeshhh Roasted Corn," and aluminum slabs studded with refrigerator magnets--Budweiser cans, jalapeno peppers, grapes, stingrays, and pea pods. A pig-faced woman, in bell-bottom jeans and a bandanna, pulled cold hot chili beers from a red and white cooler. Rae veered out of the crowd to try one. She was a discriminating drinker--"Would rather drink water than Budweiser," she had told Rick. He said that, soon, she'd be drinking anything she could get her hands on.

A petty pirate with an eye patch, salon tan, and imposing biceps sneered through gold teeth as Rae choked on the peppery beer, hot hops saliva dribbling from the corner of her mouth.

"The only things in the kitchen that did not sneeze were the cook, and the large cat which was sitting on the hearth and grinning ear to ear."

Down for the count.

"I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth...come out among people that walk with their heads downwards!"

R, L, R: Vendor with a watch for an eye selling Betty Page pin up bracelets. Mona Lisa necklaces and Christ in thorns on sterling silver pierced ear wires.

Rae's grandmother used to take her to church every Friday to light candles for her dead mother. Rae wanted to light them for her father, but she was afraid to ask. "The dirty drunken Guinea," her grandmother had said.

Rae felt small again.

And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle is like after it is blown out, for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.

"Eat me," Sarabeth's raisin scones seemed to say. Rae bought one.

"Hey, how about me?" said Rick from behind her. Rae turned to Rick like a lost tot who's just been found. Rick looked from the beer, to the scone, to Rae's flushed face--her water filled eyes. "Where's your notebook?" he asked.

Rae checked her back pockets. It wasn't there. Maybe she had left it at the chili beer stand. They went back to look. It wasn't there. "Good thing we didn't get the Psion," said Rick, walking away.

Rick got an ear of Roasted Corn.

"Alice crouched down among the trees as well as she could, for her neck kept getting entangled in the branches...."

* * *

The room smelled of stale coffee and sweet buns. Rae stood by her chair, almost tall in her platform shoes. She uncrumpled a small piece of white lined notebook paper and read to a sea of gloomy faces--some twitching with d.t.'s, some complacent in their sobriety, some impotent--"I want to write."

"Stuff and nonsense...The idea of having the sentence first."

"So you wanna be a contender?" said a man sitting in the first row, his elbows propped on his knees, hands clasped. "Is that it, little lady?" Rae could smell the grease in his slick black hair.

"One day at a time, honey. One day at a time," called up a woman from the rear. She hadn’t sat down the whole morning, paced back and forth in her too tight pumps.

"Thank you for sharing, Rae," said the meeting facilitator.

Rae couldn’t look at any of them. She crumpled the paper tight into her fist, digging her nails into the palm of her hand.

The pause hung in the air, thick like late August. Then, throughout the room, hands cupped hollow approbation. The pacing woman clapped time to her steps, her fingers stiff and knobby like shards of peanut brittle. The facilitator drew a long silver chain from his trousers and checked the time on his pocket watch. He placed his hand on Rae’s left shoulder.

Rae ran.

* * *

Later that afternoon, Rae called Rick from Pete's Tavern. He collected her from the bar, brought her home, and tucked her into bed. She asked him for a note pad. He set an 8 1/2" X 11" spiral notebook, a box of pencils, and a thimble full of port--neat, in a small, emerald-colored crystal tumbler that they had found in a little shop in Soho--on the night table.

"What's this?" asked Rae, reaching for warmth and sweetness. "Do you remember where we bought this glass, Rick?"

"Just drink up," he said, brusquely. "It'll help you sleep."

* * *

Rae drank the port. After days of gray, sunlight wafted through the bedroom windows, glittered on the green crystal glass. The notebook fell to the floor.

Rick drew the blinds.

"So she sat on with closed eyes...though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality...."

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