My Home Town

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Napoleon's Giraffe

            The giraffe’s neck was the only section submerged in soy sauce.  The legs, belly, hooves and head remained visible unless Suzanne pushed the end of the celery through the dark liquid like an earthmover, which she was now doing.  It was not possible to keep the ears and the neck covered at the same time because the celery was narrow and it couldn’t scoop enough volume from the warped depression in the child’s plastic plate that ran under the length of the neck, and although the celery was not a good shape or design for her activity it was serving the purpose of distracting her from everything else. The green scoop struggled to do more than make a brief impression as the soy would quickly fill in the lines immediately after they were rearranged.  Straight lines up to the horn and back down to the hooves and then her technique would change and she’d make circles on the plate on top of the not-quite circles drawn on the belly yellowed with age, but still discernible. Then she’d start over, perhaps endlessly, as preferable to any of the activities she’d imagined doing her first night in New York, but the stains on the street, and grime laced over the glass entrance of this apartment she’d sublet scared her.  Nowhere did it look like the pictures she’d formed in her mind.

            Suzanne shouldn’t have been surprised.  Paris was ugly in the same stained way, so was Berlin.  By now she should know that she’d fall in love with an idea, or an ideal, and the reality rarely matched her twenty-seven-year-old view of the way things were supposed to be.  Her eyes waged war with the accidents of all those dropped lattes, gas spills, spit from young boys and men from parts of the world where they still did that, dog pee, people pee, and rinse water from the florist daring to brandish color against the degenerate iron cage they sold flowers from in these cities that made history and still sold yesterday’s fish as fresh despite the sickening smell. But she’d forget and imagine another reason for a new place and fly off with her youth, her hope and enough money for two months rent to now spend that time doodling in her soy and self-pity.

            It was the second set of insistent rapping that made her realize the sound was her responsibility, and not one of the unnamed, un-faced, anonymous neighbors surrounding her. Startled, she splashed soy off the end of the plate onto the only white surface in the apartment’s retro hot pink, brown, orange, black and avocado green décor.  “Damn,” she thought, wondering what to do.  Answer?  Call the friend of the friend of the friend whom she did have the phone number for? Ignore the knocking? Shout, “Go away”?  Email Eddy whom she’d rented the place from, or keep doodling?  Keep doodling was the obvious and safe choice she’d made when the third set of knocking sounded from the hallway and a voice more old than young, more female than male joined the banging.

            “Eddy?  Eddy?  You in there?  I got your cabbage Eddy!”

“Shit,” Suzanne thought.  Some woman has Eddy’s cabbage and Eddy’s not here. He’s in Alabama for a semester teaching geography at a community college, or at least that’s what he’d told her in an email, and it seemed to be likely as large stones, almost small boulders, sat where plants should have been.

            “Eddy,” the voice called again.  “Eddy.  You owe me three dollars and forty-two cents.”  Suzanne pushed back from the table, and let the giraffe’s neck fill over completely.   She stopped to pull five dollars from her wallet certain she could make the shrill echo of Eddys stop with payment for the cabbage.  She snapped back the three deadbolts, each one letting down the siege against the unknown with a distinctive bark or clank of metal chambers exchanging parts.  Had Suzanne known the stranger was not much more than four feet tall with gray hairs packed tight next to a matte of black ones, pushed together tighter and sticking straight up like a dorsal fin so she was almost five feet tall, Suzanne would have opened the door after the first set of Eddys. But as the woman lifted black eyes to fasten their voodoo attention on Suzanne, and not the Eddy the woman expected, Suzanne wished she’d never opened the door.

            “Eddy’s not here.”

            “I see that.”

            “He didn’t tell me about the cabbage.”

            “He couldn’t.”  She tilted her head to the side. “I didn’t have it yet.  I wanted to surprise him. Who are you?  Eddy didn’t tell me about you.”

            “I’m a surprise.”  Suzanne watched the shoulders pinched beneath the too-tight pumpkin orange coat with a fake-fur collar squeeze closer. The cabbage in the brown paper bag shifted and rolled forward. The woman, maybe seventy, leaned hardly at all to the side and set the bag down.  The cabbage was the size of a soccer ball and nothing that was going to fit through the door unless Suzanne unlatched the safety chain and really opened it.

            “Eddy said if I saw a cabbage good for cabbage rolls I was to bring it to him and I saw one.”  She stopped, out of breath, like the sentence was too long, or too complicated.  “The cabbage cost three dollars and forty-two cents.”

            “Here.”  Suzanne thrust through the opening the five-dollar bill and the dragons tattooed on her forearm. “Take this.  Keep the cabbage. I don’t want it.”  The woman’s eyes snapped like a snare and Suzanne withdrew the dragons and the money.  She assumed she’d said something wrong in a conversation that she didn’t even want.  “I don’t eat cabbage. I don’t like cabbage. I don’t want cabbage.”

            “Neither do I, but I told Eddy I’d bring one if I saw one, and I saw one.”  Age spots decorated the small golden brown hands clasped together across her girth pushing out against black buttons hardly big enough for the task.  Suzanne wondered if the woman smelled. Did she live downstairs, or across the hall, or across the street?

            “I live across the street.”  Her head titled further back from the scythe of her hunched shoulders so she could clearly see Suzanne’s long black hair swept across her face and one shoulder exposing the ear she’d pierced the least and covering the other.

            “Eddy will be back in two months.”

            “Two months?”

            “Yes.” Suzanne said.

            “The cabbage won’t last that long.”

            “Not likely,” Suzanne agreed.

            “Maybe?”

            “Not likely.” 

            The old woman’s gray, black, spiked, frizzled head dropped forward. Suzanne stared at the peak of the hair mountain. The head stayed bowed as the pained shoulders lifted up and down, up and down with each labored breath. 

            “Did Eddy go to Oregon again?”  Her head bounced back up.

            “No. Here, take the money,” and Suzanne tried to hand it to her again.

            “I don’t want your money. I want to give Eddy his cabbage.” 

            “I understand, ” Suzanne said because she did know all about wanting things to be different than they were, but neither of them were going to make Eddy appear.

            “I’ll keep it,” the old woman said and tilted back over, not very far, to grab the handle on the paper bag while a black purse banged across one breast. “You can carry it home.”

            “Pardon?”

            “It’s not far. It’s heavy.  It cost three dollars and forty-two cents.”  Suzanne’s green eyes locked on the black ones and they shared the same stubborn stare, still like stubble in a field. 

            “It’s across the street.”

            Across the street.  Across the world, another world, across an amazon, across Suzanne’s carefully worked out plans, across another set of rules broken.  Don’t talk to strangers.  Don’t help odd, old ladies into the six-story walk ups on 12th Street in New York.  What would her mother say?  The same thing she always said, “Suzanne?!”  She looked over to where the giraffe lay half submerged, and where it would continue to lay in a pond of soy sauce as she calculated that this would not take long, and how bad could it be?

“Wait a minute.” Suzanne shut the door, but not with the finality she was craving.  Her jean jacket was crammed in the hall closet next to all the jackets Eddy had not thought to move out.  And then moments later old, young, fat, slow, legs, arms, bags and breathing they went down the stairs together, pumpkin orange and blue to reach the opening in the grime-covered glass foyer to break out onto the sidewalk. 

            “There,” she pointed, committed to her story of the apartment across the street. Suzanne lassoed her impressions of too much noise, too many cars, too many risks into one more big breath and followed as the old woman briefly considered the rude traffic, made herself more so and stepped into it with her flat black old lady shoes. Suzanne held in tears because she wanted to be back in Saskatoon where strange old ladies stayed home or only went to the mall, not to her sublet apartment with a cabbage for Eddy whom she didn’t even know and wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t in Oregon, rather than in Alabama like he said in his email.  How could she be sure?  The internet was full of lies.  His might be just one more.

            Three stories up her pumpkin arm motioned to the door numbered thirty-four. “Here. I live here.”

            “Good.” Suzanne waited as the door opened to reveal the swatch of a lifetime collected at the entryway, and on the wall a large portrait of Napoleon who looked straight at Suzanne from within an ornate gilt frame wedged around the standard caricature of his likeness, no more or less accurate than any attempt at rendering the arrogance as honor, and his carnage as bravery. 

            “I’m Josephine.”  Suzanne started as the woman revealed her name, “and this is my son Napoleon.” A man much taller and more golden than his mother, with no gray in his black hair appeared in the doorway.

            “Oh, I see,” Suzanne said without meaning it because really she didn’t, but there was nothing else to say standing in a hallway with humans who were named after a historical tyrant and his wife.  Suzanne leaned forward to hand Napoleon the cabbage, but Josephine quickly turned and waved the gesture away and said,

            “Stay for dinner.” Napoleon smiled.  Suzanne could feel it, as much as she could see it while Josephine tucked her self into the reach of Napoleon’s outstretched arm so he could help her shrug out of the coat.  Suzanne stood alone in the hallway holding the cabbage she didn’t want staring at two Napoleons while Josephine disappeared behind both of them into the apartment. 

            “She doesn’t bring strangers home. Stay for dinner.” 

            “I can’t stay for dinner. I have,” and Suzanne stopped. She couldn’t say that she had a giraffe to look after, but in one way she did.  The soy would eventually solidify and suffocate the giraffe in a dried skin that Eddy would never get clean if she accepted this invitation and what if they ate her for dinner? Her aspirations had really been quite benign: come to New York, see some art, make some art, try to sell some art, maybe get some more tattoos.  Not to be eaten by Josephine and Napoleon.

            “I can’t. I’m sorry. Really I can’t,” and at that moment she couldn’t.  She couldn’t close herself into an apartment with strangers who even if they didn’t eat her might serve something that would kill her, like hotdogs or melted Velveeta cheese on macaroni. Napoleon’s smile retreated but not entirely as he said,  

            “We’re having pancakes.”

            “For dinner?” 

            “For breakfast.”

Suzanne leaned back with surprise and looked directly at him.

            “I work at the post office.  Night shift. This is breakfast.”

            “Maybe another time,” she lied and reached forward determined to unload the cabbage. “Thank you though,” which wasn’t entirely untrue. It was always nice to be asked. It just wasn’t nice to be eaten.

            “We won’t eat you.” 

            “I didn’t think you would,” adding another lie to the conversation.

            “In fact it’s extremely unusual Mama brought you here. She must like you.”

            “Like me?” She doesn’t know me.  All we’ve done is argue about cabbage.”

            “She doesn’t need to know you to like you.  If she didn’t like you she wouldn’t want to know you.”

            “How’s that?”

            “It’s the way she is.”

            “What do you put on the pancakes?”

            “Yogurt.”

            “Not syrup?”

            “Mama’s diabetic.”

            “Peanut butter?”

            “What?”

            “Do you have peanut butter?”

            “Of course.”

            “Organic?”

            “Skippy.”

            “Skippy? Promise? Not Jiffy?”

            “Skippy.” Napoleon’s original smile returned. And so it started to seem possible to go inside and put Skippy peanut butter on pancakes and hear more clearly the music playing on the radio, but Suzanne had nearly tapped out the vein of her capacity for adventure even if she was commonly known among all her friends and family as fearless.  What they didn’t understand was she carefully sorted through and categorized what was worth being afraid for.  Pancakes with strangers who might eat her was not on the list.

            “Napoleon, come!” Josephine called from inside.  “We’re ready for you.”

            “We?” Suzanne said, immediately suspicious.

            “The cat,” Napoleon answered.

            “Persian?”

            “Of course.”

And with those two words Napoleon and Josephine became a family with a cat like Suzanne’s so she released her vision of the reign of terror and nodded toward the cabbage. “Should this go in the kitchen?”

            “Please.” Napoleon threaded Suzanne through the rectangle of the door that exchanged its anonymity for the intimacy of a home. Josephine now seemed tamed by the normalcy of an apron over a yellow polyester blouse that wanted to be silk and she smiled with a version of Napoleon’s smile, but smaller.  An invisible radio shared a version of Big Band sounds. Their gray cat had slung itself over a grass-green chair that was too small in every direction while Josephine moved about the kitchen humming. They invited Suzanne to sit in a chair facing a faded reproduction of Napoleon pinned to the wall.  

            Suzanne wanted to ask then and all through dinner why there were so many Napoleons but instead she found out about the neighbor who had cancer, that Eddy often went to Oregon to visit his sister, and that he and Napoleon had grown up together. Suzanne, by then feeling almost comfortable, commented on Eddy’s unusual décor and antique children’s melamine dinnerware, and in particular the giraffe plate she’d been using when Josephine came to the door. Napoleon recounted how he had often taken one of his animal plates with him for the afternoons he’d spend at Eddy’s when Josephine had to work and Eddy’s mother didn’t. He’d obviously forgotten the giraffe and come home without it, on one of the afternoon’s he’d used for growing up.  And recalling the plate after all these years his laughter challenged the darkness outside.

            By the third helping of pancakes Suzanne had found that Napoleon cared deeply for his mother, that he had benevolence and tenderness towards her that was typically reserved for the very young or the very old.  Josephine was neither, but Napoleon seemed to see her as one or the other.  Perhaps both.  Napoleon had never married, had never left the apartment and Suzanne would normally have thought this odd, or weak, or him a worthy subject for Freudian psychotherapy, but their bond was palpable and yet not claustrophobic, or pathological.  Suzanne watched them and wondered how this could be, as all of her relationships with adults, in particular her mother were plagued by unease, which was in part an extension of how all her life felt: slightly bruised, slightly wounded, emotional sores festering, but she assumed, or at least hoped, her bravado hid the suffering.  She realized this arrangement between mother and son was no more unusual than her traveling from city to city financing the journey by arranging hair for overstuffed woman in upscale salons.  By the last pancake she expected to leave with not knowing about the Napoleons when Josephine asked Napoleon to move Tahiti and he reached over to push the chair and cat  — not the country — closer to the shelves with the assorted but not matching imitation crystal goblets.

            “Oh how interesting,” Suzanne exhaled relieved to find an appropriate place to ask a question. ”Why is your cat named Tahiti?”

            “My papa was from there.” Josephine sucked in her breath. Suzanne waited for her to blow it out, and she did, with the rest of the answer.  “That’s what my mama said. That’s all she said.  We didn’t know him.”

            “Where was your mother from?”

            “Louisiana.” Josephine’s shoulders now clenched with another sharp intake of breath. Suzanne looked in the black eyes no longer dark, now mirrors, now reflecting the kitchen lights overhead and Suzanne deciphered that Josephine had been born through the casual acquaintance of two people who’d come to New York in the 1940’s looking for everyone else or maybe themselves and they’d died never having lived together, but they shared a French language and one night to make a human being. The old woman in front of Suzanne remained as the record of them both.

            “And this.  This we have of him,” and like a bucket in a well Josephine pulled up from within the yellow blouse a locket.  She leaned forward and opened it to reveal another Napoleon, yet clearly this was what remained of an old cigar band.  “We don’t know my papa’s name. My mother would not say it.  We have no photo.  We have only this that he left behind.” She closed the locket and sent it back down the blouse. “And these.”  Josephine stood and gestured to the entire pantheon of Napoleon’s that to her painted a portrait of the father she’d never known.  Her shoulders released for a moment. She gathered dishes with a clatter and then more loudly with soap and water at the sink.

            “Napoleon, is that true?” Suzanne blurted out, not really meaning to, but she’d been polite for almost an hour. Napoleon considered Suzanne, her jean jacket, tunic and cowboy boots over yoga leggings.  He considered the remaining round innocence of her cheeks beneath the premature furrow in her brow. From behind his smooth skin, wrinkled only slightly by his forty years of smiling he said,

            “Yes,” like he’d carefully said “yes” to his father dying of cancer when he was twelve, and he’d said “yes” to not going to college when Eddy did, so he could work at the post office to make money and educated himself with the hundreds of books Suzanne passed on her way to the kitchen. He’d gone on saying “yes,” to every sorrow of a life and never minding.

            “Yes? Really!?” Suzanne demanded, left uncertain by her youthful experience harvested largely by her voyeurism of mass media that trowelled a narrow range of feelings: lust as love, anger as righteousness, exam scores as intelligence, art shows as a means to affirming she really was an artist.

            “Really.”

            “Didn’t anyone try to find him?”

            “It was a different time.  A different world.  As Mama said, they knew very little, and finding him would not have answered for her who she is.  Unlike a fruit tree we don’t grow grafted. Once born we’re free from any biological need of a parent ­­­­­— a caregiver, yes, for food, for warmth, but the actual parent, no.”

            “So he never even knew she existed?”

            “Correct.”

            “That’s bizarre,” Suzanne said. “That this sperm can go out and build a limb on a family tree and the trunk doesn’t even know it exists.”

            “But the root does.”

‘           “What does that mean?”

            “Life.”

            “Life? That’s a cheap answer,” Suzanne’s youthful all-knowing arrogance spoke loudly.  “Of course it’s life.  That’s why we can have this conversation. Life is life, and it should know what it begets, or this is all slave labor.”

            “And in most cases it does,” Napoleon said patiently.  “In most cases a child does know its parent, but in every case the child is not the parent.  The child is itself.  My mother’s Napoleonic fiction has saved her, as all our fictions do, but the story isn’t her, it’s only kept her from knowing that.  That’s the tragedy, not the missing father.  It’s the missing Josephine.”

            “I see,” said Suzanne, and this time she did.