Around the Bend

About the Author
  SELECTED STORIES by Laura Beausoleil
The Fawn
Around the BendJessieA Happy ChildA Loss of Memory
Hair • A Deep Purple Beauty • Poor FrankMeeting Henry MillerLes Mutiles
What Can We Do For You, Mrs. Ross?I Was Here But Now I'm Not
The Moustache HouseMexico

A Deep Purple Beauty

He has an orchid around his eye, a tropical souvenir. Alex was 15 when it first appeared, and all he said was, “I have a deep purple beauty, don’t I?” That’s all. He would not say how it got there. It did not fade. And now, when he’s almost 40, it’s brighter than ever, more defined, a rare flower, a bruise splaying over his cheekbone like a mauve anenome, with a dark center.

When I see it I want to pull it off. But it has spread like anesthesia throughout his body. All day he sits by himself in a corner of the living roomm chain-smoking, saying nothing, or staring at his hands and rubbing his huge fingers together as if he were trying to kindle them. He is a big man with solid arms and legs and size 14 shoes. I want to somehow comfort him. But there is too much to hold and with his orchid there is more.

Mother asks constantly what did it. She weeps and puts her hands to her temple and asks what did it. “Did I do it? Did he?” meaning my father. “Did we both? It must be something we did.”

This is a monologue. And when I am there with her, about twice a year, it becomes a dialogue. I tell her,” It’s no one’s fault, it is just something that happens.”

“There isn’t anyone,” she confesses, “that I can talk to but you.” Dad, she says, is in no mood for dialogue, has become increasingly short-tempered and sure that he did not do it. "When did it begin?” she asks. “Can you remember anything, anything at all? If I just had a clue to what did it.”

I try to remember Alex as a boy. Together we have tried this remembering, retracing his steps, our steps. We begin with the most vivid memories, of islands, intense beauty, and constantly hot weather. That he was always big for his age. Of his sweetness and innocence, and an unobtrusiveness about him. That he did not talk much. “I was too busy with myself,” I answer, “and didn’t really notice.” For me he was just there, part of a tropical landscape, like an oak among banana trees.

“I only know of the orchid itself,” I say. “But, of course, this is just my own theory.” I tell her once more of the day he got it. “He picked me up with the car after school, it was the day he earned his driver’s license, remember, and when I saw him, there it was. He drew no attention to it, he said nothing, as if there was nothing different about him at all and he preferred it that way, I think, but I asked anyway what happened to him. And that’s when he named it his purple beauty. There was embracing in his voice, a fondling tone, almost as if he wanted it. He said it did not hurt. It was then, I figure, that he decided, the way people unconsciously decide these things, that he would never defend himself. Assuming that he had been in a fight, I said to him, ’It’s no shame that you lost.’ But it was obvious that it wasn’t shame that he was feeling, it was something else. I wanted to comfort and protect him as if I were the older and he the younger child, but he wouldn’t let me. He held onto his bruise as if it would seep into my own arms and I would take it from him.”

“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” she says. “Boys do get into fights.”

“None of us did,” I agree, “it just looked like a bruise.”

Mother has retraced differently. For her it began with the phone calls. That was her first warning that there was anything wrong. But that cannot be right, the phone calls began ten years after he received the orchid and they were merely a tendril of it. Things happened to him after he left home that I don’t know about though. What he did, where he went, who he met. He was living in California and had a long way to call. And what he said to our parents on the phone I have no idea of except that he was solicitous and warning. His was a suddenly quickened, angry voice that just seemed to come out of nowhere they could remember.

“We weren’t such bad parents, were we?” she asks. This is what she really wants to know.

“Of course not. We do the best we can,” I assure her, thinking of my own children, and my own mistakes with them. “You mustn’t blame yourself. It is his own recipe, a little of this, a little of that, his own recipe, not yours.”

She is fixing a ham for dinner, rhythmically criss-crossing it with a sharp knife and pushing cloves into the interstices. She is keeping herself busy, she must she says, so she won’t think too much.

As I watch her I try again to retrace. The years have left so little specific to memory. How life was managed each day has become amorphous. They have moved from the islands, this is a different house, and with it have changed all the past appurtenances of emotion. But she herself has changed little, only older, her hair almost white, and the lines in her face deeper, but if one looks at the map of them there is retrieval.

“What did you think of us?” she asks, hesitating. “I want to know. It matters to me.”

I can answer this. She was always a capable woman, able to do many things at once. Hand here, hand there, as if she had eight and were an energetic, harmonious octopus. There was grace in her hands. I used to watch them bend and move around me with awe and feel secure with them near me. They were always there. They dressed us. She worked in the garden, the kitchen. She gutted fish with them. They were lined like her face and the joints were large and knobby. Later they typed. They moved swiftly. She bit them often. They lived with my father. And he asked nothing of them that he didn’t ask of his own.

“I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone,” she says, leaning toward me confidentially. “Looking back, that was, I think, the most unhappy period of my life. Sometimes I would wake in the morning and wonder why and how we had gotten there. And it was, of course, because your father wanted it.”

A picture of my father and what he wanted. Some earth to tend. To see things grow, to make them grow. A picture of him as the manager of the plantation, the conductor of a vast symphony of growing. Never a supplicant or tender cajoler, he was a monarch of miles of soil, standing in front of his fields, his battalions of crowned pineapple, commanding them to grow. His tempo was the beat of his boots walking the rows, as he did each day, while the rain fell in with its sheath, the wind its hum, the machinery its muscle, humans their bend and pull. What he wanted was his work and when he looked on it, it was all good.

“Maybe we demanded too much of you children, were too hard on you?” she asks.

“That I can’t answer,” I tell her. “Some of the discipline has served me well and some of it has not.”

She is chopping vegetables and the house is quiet except for the hacking sound of her busyness. Outside like an echo my father is also chopping, a tidy cord of wood rising near the house in the bright snow. Seeing him look toward the kitchen, she says, “He is ready to come in. Let’s talk of this later, it upsets your father.”

Life must go on, he has insisted, and she is doing her best to make life go on. It is their unspoken agreement that life can go on if they somehow forget that the orchid is there, the elephant in the room that they must ignore.

“I’m so glad,” she says, hugging me, “that we’ve moved here so that we can all be closer together. Especially on holidays like this. And, of course, now Alex needs us and will unfortunately always need us. But I think that’s what bothers your father, that even when we’re old, we will never be alone.”

I am setting the table as my father comes in. Taking his coat and gloves off at the door, he hangs them on a hook, stamps his feet and swears at the cold, “This damn weather, I will never get used to this weather. It is so cold out there that the snowman on the lawn won’t melt.”

His is a curious complaint, as if the innocuous blob on the front lawn which the neighbors’ children made, all torso and barely a head on it with two sticks for arms and no rocks for features on its face, is a thermometer he has been watching, measuring the progress of its depletion. He glances around the room as if to note any change inside, then sits down at the head of the table, reading the newspaper, impatient to eat. In the corner where Alex sits, cigarette smoke rises like incense honoring intense inertia. Hating smoke, he mutters, “What does he think of, sitting there all day, so blank?”

Rather than being blank, to me Alex appears to be solving a problem or making a plan. He said so himself, calling his thoughts busy cyclists and hearing the click clack of their furious pedaling. He says he asks them to slow down but they are too involved in their confused race. They will neither slow down nor tell him where they are going or what they are doing with the others.

“Tell your brother it’s time to eat,” father says to me, not wanting to speak to Alex himself.

I touch the shoulder nearest the orchid. “Alex, it’s time to eat,” I say gently, like wakening a sleeper. Without looking at me he stands up stiffly and walks with halting steps toward the table. His orchid is never more apparent, deeply hued in the evening light and this call to normalcy. Around its edges where the senses react, it pulses to routine. Standing behind his chair he rocks from foot to foot before sitting down.

There is plenty to eat, there was always plenty. There is silence and there was always that. Fork to mouth, we move as frustrated dreamers in an frozen landscape where what refuses to melt is an inevitable corsage for anyone who thinks they did it.

  © Laura Beausoleil, 2010  

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