George, Louise ... Elsa

It's another year and another nycmidnight.com short story contest... Here is my first round entry:

Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: A Street Vendor

George, Louise ... Elsa

George sat in the aisle seat, his back stiff, afraid to move because he hated the sound the medals made on his lapel. The stewardess had continued to offer him cocktails and food throughout the flight from New York, because, she had reasoned, heroes deserved everything the airline could offer. He held up his hand in protest, the brief movement jangling the stars, like a church tower in his ears, painful as a migraine.
The boy sitting next to George kicked his legs into the seat in front of him as his mother smoked a cigarette and gazed out the window. The boy stared at George for a moment, the medals hanging in the air. “Have you been on an airplane before?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” said George.
“How come?”
“Because I had to.”
“Were you ever in an airplane that crashed?”
“No, but I have friends who were.”
“How come?”
“I suppose they didn’t have a choice.”
“No, I mean how come your plane didn’t crash?”
“I guess because I made sure that they were fixed.”
“If I was in the army, I would want to be the one who shot people from the back of the airplane.”
“Yeah. Did you ever get a turn to do that?”
“They asked me to fix things. That was it.”
“What’re those medals for then?”
“Nothing.” George unpinned the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He handed the scrap metal to the boy and the boy’s mouth formed a little “o,” as he fingered the grooves and ridges in the bronze and silver. The boy’s hands trembled with excitement.
“I can have them?”
“You can have them.”
“Thank you, mister!”
“You bet.”

Louise and Elsa waited for George. Louise’s forearms were used to Elsa’s weight—she could hold her all day if she needed to. She almost forgot to breathe when she first saw him step off the plane, the pocket lapel on his shirt dark and naked, like a shadow. He kissed the daughter he had never seen, and then Louise, full, on the lips like he was supposed to, and she searched his mouth for those two brief seconds. Something about him tasted unfamiliar, and she touched his chest, trying to find what had not come back from the war.

George lay in bed and couldn’t remember if he had given Louise a kiss first or the baby girl he had never met except in pictures. He put his hand over Louise’s, which was flat and heavy on his abdomen, and tried to say something, but found that his words evaporated as soon as they formed in his lungs. He closed his eyes and when he woke up in the morning he couldn’t remember if they had made love or if they had just drifted off to sleep, their cheeks pressed against each other like flypaper.

In the morning, they discovered how to make breakfast together again—which of them filled the percolator and which of them grabbed the frying pan from the top shelf. They ate first and then fed Elsa, alternating spoons, quietly remembering the steps they took to get to where they were.

These were some of the steps:
  1. George bought a sandwich and coffee from Louise’s cart outside the Ford plant for five straight days before he asked for a name on a Friday. She gave it to him on a Monday.
  2. Louise knew he was something different when he paid full price for his egg salad sandwiches even after he had seen her undressed, the three freckles like Orion’s belt on her abdomen.
  3. George started going to church because Louise made him believe there was a God. He sat next to her mother, holding her swollen hands, and his heart filled with something like helium.
  4. Louise quit work as a sandwich girl when George finished night school and got a modest raise. She found a rust-colored brick house and a mailbox she loved, so they bought them.
  5. George noticed that a kitten in a box was Louise’s spitting image from a picture taken of her in 1931—not the face so much, but the floppy white fur hat, the gray wool scarf and the patched plaid coat. He took the kitten home, rooted through an old shoebox, and then placed both kitten and picture in the fruit bowl on the table. When Louise saw what he had done, a little noise came from the place in the back of her throat that he knew only he could hear.
  6. Louise’s mother died. George held her hand as men and women smelling of cabbage and beef in their dark suits touched her other hand, and she felt the warmth from his palm, the good intentions vibrating from his fingers to the pit of her stomach.
  7. Bombs went off. Many boys went and most died, and then George’s name was called and he had to go.
  8. ...
  9. Louise went back to work selling sandwiches, stashing Elsa in a small compartment under the cart, feeding her ice cubes in the summertime and packing her in with warm hot dog buns in the wintertime. Louise wrote letters in her head to George that she would never send—secret thoughts, darker than the compartment Elsa napped in—as she took nickels from the men who came back day after day from where George was stationed, fingers, arms, and ears missing.

The cat—the cat who had looked like Louise when she was a kitten—ran away the day after he came back. George frowned when Louise told him this, and couldn’t recall what the cat had looked like, even when Louise showed him the photograph of her from 1931. “That’s you,” George said, “but what does that have to do with our cat?”

After his first day back at work, George came home, took off his shoes, put Elsa on his lap, and read the Detroit Free Press. He opened the obituary section and patiently scanned the lines even when Elsa batted the paper with newsprint stained fists. When Louise called them for dinner, George took Elsa to wash their hands in the bathroom sink, leaving charcoal fingerprints on the bar of soap.

It was the great Hank Greenberg’s first ballgame back from the war and Louise had never been to Tiger Stadium before—she was startled by the sheer greenness of the park, and the humidity that stuck her thighs to her garter and her garter to her dress. She held Elsa in her arms and studied George awkwardly interacting with other servicemen, all in uniform. His eyes, maybe it was something in his eyes that was missing, or was it his speech—he never seemed to finish a sentence, not since he had come home.
The crowd fell silent as Greenberg came to the plate, forearms bulging, his jaw twitching as he waited for the pitcher to contort and hurl the ball. The crack of his bat seemed to vacuum the air out of the ballpark and they all watched the ball sail out and out… Louise watched George watch the ball and she could see that he was not seeing what they all could see, that he was watching something else play out, something that she knew he could not talk about. The crowd roared as Greenberg trotted around the diamond and Louise cried hot tears.

The oscillating fan that no longer oscillated blew beads of sweat across George and Louise’s collarbones while Elsa slept quietly in her room. “Can’t you fix it?” Louise asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re an engineer.”
“Junior engineer.”
“Even so…”
“Why can’t you fix it?”
“It’s too much to think about, Louise.”
George’s fingernails dug crescents into his palms, slipping slightly in the humidity. He thought he might cry, but his tear-ducts felt fire-blasted.
Again, he woke up in the morning, and couldn’t remember if he had fallen asleep silently or told Louise he was scared because he couldn’t remember if he killed seven men or zero, or if he had friends who died in the war, or if the great Hank Greenberg had hit any home runs that summer. He wanted to ask her if she thought if he was still alive, if they had made love at least once since he got back, if Elsa looked like him—but when he went into the kitchen, he just grabbed the frying pan from the top shelf and she filled the percolator and they fed their daughter together, alternating spoons.

She saw him reading the obituary section every day. “Are you looking for your friends?” she wanted to ask.
“No,” she wanted him to say. “I’m looking for myself.”
“Because I think I died over there. Because, God, Louise, I killed seven men—boys—and with those odds, I bet one of them got me before I got them.”
She wanted him to start crying so she could hold him so tight that she dug into his shoulder and could feel its ball and socket, like one of the Fords he helped design that held onto the road on a sharp turn, the front wheels connected to the axle, his shoulder connected to his collarbone, his collarbone connected to the missing piece she could fix, that she could solder—a fix that would let her talk to him again, that would mend his torn soul, that would suck up the pieces he left airborne in Germany— like a magnet—and let her put them back together on an assembly line in Detroit.

He took Elsa door-to-door, asking about the cat, mixing up the cat’s name door-after-door until he had to sit down on the curb, his T-shirt soaked in sweat and covering his thin ribcage, like lines in the desert. He sat his daughter on his knees and looked into her eyes, trying to remember how she had came about.

This was how the idea of Elsa was conceived:
  1. George was not religious in any sense of the word, Louise knew, but when he held her mother’s hand, she knew he was looking for God, even if God was between Orion’s belt and her garters.
  2. George had been with one woman—a girl—his second cousin. She was three years older and told him, sort of, what he was supposed to be doing, but he didn’t do it so well, or so she told him afterward.
  3. Louise had been with three men, and she was surprised to learn that none of that mattered when she met George. He was painfully self-conscious at the start, always holding doors and stealing little glances at her chest. They played many games of Parcheesi while drinking root beers and he always smiled when she beat him. He managed to flatter her in unexpected ways, and so six months and three days after she told him her name, she tugged down his pants and made him promise not to be so shy ever again. She giggled at his feet—the hair on his arches—and his concentrated effort to compliment her at least once before he fell asleep, fly-papered to her abdomen, her thigh, her cheek…
  4. …And so Elsa became tangible in her mother’s womb, right before they bought the brick house and the damned mailbox that would soon deliver George’s summons to war.

Louise woke up from a nightmare she could not place, a fleeting sinking feeling in her stomach. She sat up in bed, her chin on her knees, the non-oscillating fan whirring in the corner. “Where did you go to, George?” she asked aloud, speaking into her kneecaps. “Come back come back come back come back…” she chanted under her breath. She turned to look at him, and his eyes were open. She stopped for a moment and then breathed again: “Come back come back come back…”
She whispered for what may have been hours, her words sometimes merging with the fan blades, coasting through their hair, the sheets, the gaps in their toes… and he looked at her, eyes dilated, as she prayed verses that only they could hear.

George found Elsa under the kitchen table, playing with two crayons, one in each smudged fist. He scooted under next to her and sat cross-legged, his head brushing the underside of the table. Elsa handed George one of the crayons, and he smiled at her expectant gaze. George sniffed the crayon and this made Elsa giggle. He took a deep breath, letting the small notes from her laugh sink into his eardrums. In small block letters, he printed a note on the wall, in the shadow behind the far table leg.

This was what the note said:


Elsa had oatmeal on her chin, but she didn’t fuss because what was happening in the kitchen kept her attention. Her mother talked, words Elsa had never heard, her red lips moving in directions that Elsa did not know were possible. And then there was an unfamiliar sound, from her father, words that had beginnings and ends. He spoke for what seemed like forever, his voice clear and cloudless. Elsa looked away only when she heard a scratching on the kitchen window—and there was the cat, batting at the glass— waiting to be let back inside.


jessica lee said...

i love this.

Anonymous said...

wow. i want more.