Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Hometown: The Most Feminine


I scan newspaper obituaries comparing the dates of birth and death with my own age. Sometimes, I recognize the names of people that I once knew. Recently I saw an obituary lodged next to a photograph of N.A.B. The picture was recent and I had not seen this woman for thirty years, and, therefore, didn’t recognize her. But the name was familiar and aroused my memories and, by squinting a little, at the small color photograph I could picture again the woman that it represented.

N.A.B. was ninety when she died. In the photo, a handsome-looking older woman with pale, smooth skin tilts her head inquisitively toward the camera. Her shoulders are only partially visible, clad in a leopard-skin print. N.A.B (I’ll call her Nadine) is wearing large pearls like Christmas tree ornaments under her ears. Her eyes are small and black and they have a mannequin-like aspect, dull buttons sewn to the face of a child’s toy replica of an adult woman, her features a bit caricatured, plastic, like a Barbie doll that has inexplicably aged. Most remarkably, however, Nadine looks out at the world from under a lavish crown of chemically blonde hair, a golden halo that entirely envelopes her face and extends upward to the very top of the picture frame. The hair is lustrous and artificial and invokes for me the smell of powerful reagents, sour acidic chemicals and bitter alkali bleaching agents, explosive peroxides that might be used to power a rocket into orbit.

I met Nadine when I was 24. She was the landlady of the apartment complex where I lived when I first came to Austin in 1979 to practice law It was never clear to me whether Nadine owned the long narrow structure fronting the campus of the Community College or whether she was merely an employee managing the property, but it was obvious that on this premises she exercised exclusive dominion and control. As it happened, I had been assigned the apartment immediately across the stagnant, malodorous corridor from the rooms that she occupied with her husband, Bob, and her daughter, Toni. Bob was a bulky, square-shaped mail-carrier. His face was red with booze and rage. In those days, Nadine was immensely fat, a great pillowy Hindenberg of a woman inflated to the point that neither seam nor crease was visible anywhere on face or exposed portions of her body. Jeweled rings were buried in her pneumatic paws and she moved with a stately waddling gait. Her vast crown of blonde hair overspread and shadowed her small eyes, displayed in the rhinestone-embedded frames of her glasses and she was immensely colorful – Nadine wore tent-like mumus printed with acres of pink and yellow and red flowers or bright orange frocks, cut like pajamas, that made her seem an improbable escapee from some small-town lock-up.

Nadine’s daughter, Toni, took after her father – the family resemblance was unfortunately obvious. She was a rectangular, hulking brick of a girl, like her father entirely without neck or waist. Toni glared out at the world with savage hostility. It seemed to me that her fists were always clenched. In this respect, she was similar to her father as well. Each night, he got drunk, quarreled loudly with Nadine, and, then, beat her. When she was punched, Nadine yowled like a cat. Toni went outside through the sliding door that opened onto the parking lot behind the apartments – although she was only 14 at the time, she stood by her father’s pickup truck morosely smoking a cigarette. After a while, Bob got tired of beating Nadine and passed-out. Then, Toni went inside the house and began shrieking at her mother who screamed back at her. A microwave hummed, although there was also the smell of fried food infiltrating the shabby hallway leading between doors opening into equally shabby apartments. Separate meals were being prepared to be eaten alone, in different rooms. In the summer, the sun set over the campus of the community college, a red ball of fire ensnared in the broadcasting towers standing out on the prairie between the buildings and the freeway. Open land, hissing with grasshoppers in the weeds and heavy with the colossal weight of row-crop corn and soybeans extended beyond the freeway to the small, sad villages, each fastened to the horizon by the white blunt spike of a grain elevator. Trucks shifted on the freeway with a sound like a dog howling at the moon. I came to Austin in July a week after taking the bar, a refugee from the big city where I had gone to college, had some unhappy love affairs, and been bullied out of a job as a law clerk. I was skeptical about my future as an attorney. My passion was literature and writing. In my memory, Nadine stands always in the humid summer, under a setting sun, embittered, bruised, and censorious, a sentinel protecting her long, white apartment building like a marooned and cut-rate cruise ship with its tiny terraces fenced with cast-iron, its sliding doors, its mingled smells of sweat and fried food and mildewed carpet suffused with cigarette smoke, the home of Arabian princelings come to the United States for an indifferent education at the College, recently divorced police officers and accountants and school teachers, working stiffs who drove truck or tried unsuccessfully to sell cars or appliances or musical instruments, and, of course, elderly widows or disabled couples whose rooms were always fluent with the sound of televisions tuned to game shows or nature documentaries.

During my increasingly hectic and frenzied studies for the Bar Exam, administered in late June at the hockey arena in St. Paul, my parents had gone to Austin and located the apartment for me, negotiated the transaction with Nadine, the landlady, and, then, driven the two hours back to Eden Prairie, the Twin Cities suburb where I lived with them. They brought with them several racks of ribs purchased at the Hy-Vee grocery store on the edge of town, a busy place next to a huge pitted parking lot that rolled out to the county highway and the farm land where thunderstorms were scouring the grey-green rim of the world. The ribs were very sweet and meaty, with just the right marbling of fat, and, when I think of my first summer in Austin and my loneliness and the strangeness of my new job, the resentful secretaries, my panic at appearing in Court for the first time, I recall Hy-Vee’s ribs and the fact that, once, a week, for a special treat I bought a rack for my supper with potato salad and baked beans and ate my supper on the formica table in my semi-furnished apartment, a sound like a cat in heat sobbing somewhere beyond the hallway and remote thunder pealing across the land, a faint roar that I could hear over the whisper of the window air conditioner.

Nadine perceived that I was arrogant and, possibly, considered myself superior to her and her mail carrier husband and the others at the apartment. Presumably, she longed for me to cross her formidable and cruel husband and suffer a beating at his hands. But, of course, I was polite, paid my rent on time, and rarely had female company spending the night in my rooms. When I saw Bob half-naked, grunting on his riding lawn mower as he mowed the apartment lawn – a narrow ribbon of green the length of a football field – I was cordial and nodded to him. He had no reason to assault me and, probably, like many wife-beaters, was a congenital coward. Nadine kept track of who was keeping company with whom, and. like all small-town people, she knew everyone and their families and the reputations of their families and disapproved of most of the single women remaining in town. The virtuous girls had been married immediately after High School and were now tending to their babies and the smarter, more ambitious ones had left for college in the Cities where, of course, they were now up to no good, although this was no longer Nadine’s concern since they no longer lived in Austin. She monitored those who came and went through the stale corridors of the apartment, threatened vagrant cars in the parking lot with towing, and, because she was a woman, and, indeed, the most feminine of all women in the town and, probably, the world, understood the seductions and guiles of women, knew them inside and out in all their deceit and filthy tricks. She patrolled her apartment looking for evidence of immorality, clawed up the used condoms that the college kids left on the asphalt behind the building, and haunted the corridors listening at doors. She knew everything about everyone and, although she didn’t like me, Nadine had no evidence on which to lodge any charges against me, no basis for her dislike, and so, from time to time, she would confront me in the parking lot and ask for free legal advice, probably hoping that I would turn away from her and decline to answer her questions and, thereby, put myself in the wrong. But, in fact, I assisted her on unlawful detainers against tenants who had to be evicted and filled out conciliation court forms for her when she had to sue for rent. Sometimes, she even asked me to represent her, or her daughter.

I can recall three cases. In the first, Nadine’s scalp had been scalded by caustic chemicals at a hair salon. Something had gone wrong during a perm, and the potion massaged into Nadine’s already chemically stressed hair had been left to set for too long. Upon returning home, Nadine’s hair fell out in clumps and her scalp was covered with red, weeping blisters. Nadine was a licensed beauty operator herself and, often, she fixed the hair of the old ladies residing in the apartment, no doubt charging them a hefty fee for the convenience of her ministrations and part of the intricate bad smell in the hallway outside her rooms was the stink of chemicals used in hairdressing. She was able to explain to me in exquisite detail the error made by the hapless hair stylist that had injured her and I made a claim against that stylist’s insurance and won for Nadine a few thousand dollars. She was a disgruntled, difficult, and unrewarding client – no settlement was ever enough for her and she regarded the errors of others as serious moral failings for which a reckoning had to be made and was never satisfied with the outcome.

A year later, Nadine’s daughter Toni was hit by a negligent motorist while riding her bicycle on some mysterious mission after dark. Toni was with a retarded boy named Willie, who was also on his bicycle, and, also, knocked to the ground by the errant car. The accident happened late at night and there was some question about where Toni and Willy were heading at the time that the car sideswiped them both and deposited them bloody and bruised in the ditch. Nadine wanted revenge against the driver who had injured her daughter, indeed, might have killed her but for sheer good luck, but, of course, the law provides compensation, not revenge, and pays for what actually happened, not what might have happened and Toni’s injuries were relatively slight. In Minnesota, as a matter of statutory law, injuries to a pedestrian or bicyclist trigger no-fault coverage in the insurance on the vehicle owned by the pedestrian or bicyclist or by their parents in the case of a minor. Accordingly, Toni’s medical charges had to be submitted for payment to Nadine’s insurance coverage on her own vehicle, a magnificent Lincoln Continental. This embittered Bob, the mail carrier, and he was so angry about having to submit the charges to his own insurance when, in his view, Toni as not at fault that he came to my office with Nadine and threatened me, albeit obliquely. It seemed that I might at last earn the beating at the hands of Bob that Nadine had long wished upon me. But Bob backed down when I explained the law to him. Later, at another meeting, a bad quarrel erupted when I suggested that the retarded boy, Willy, was Toni’s "friend."

"I don’t know what you mean by that," Nadine said angrily. "What are you implying?"

"He wasn’t my ‘friend,’ not at all," Toni snarled.

Toni had hurt her back and shoulder and said that she was in constant pain.

"I’m not implying anything," I said.

Willy was a debonair, suave retarded man and he was known to have many girlfriends. Indeed, he was the father of four or five children having impregnated most of the mentally ill women at the sheltered workshop where he labored. All of his children were retarded as well, developmentally delayed, and some of them were deformed.

"He’s never been my ‘friend,’ no way," Toni said again.

"Understood," I said.

Although Toni treated extensively with a chiropractor, she had no real objective symptoms of injury and the settlement that I negotiated for her was a disappointment to Nadine and her husband. Willy was also injured, a fractured fibula, and I got him more money than I could secure for Toni. This inequity also infuriated Nadine.

A few months later, one of the tenant princelings from the United Arab Emirates or, possibly, Qatar got drunk and lost control of his vehicle in the parking lot. The Princeling drove the front of his car right through the wall of the apartment so that the vehicle was embedded in the building, its engine and, even, front door inside someone’s apartment. I was called to investigate the loss and took many photographs. I was shocked to see that Nadine’s apartment building, where I had lived for eighteen months, was made of something like cardboard – the walls were fragile shells of drywall, brittle as glass, and where the projectile of the car was rammed through the building I saw the pink insulation like strips of fat furled around the battered chrome. Of course, I started a lawsuit against the Princeling, but he decamped back to the Arabian deserts whence he had come and, since the car was uninsured, there was nothing I could do to recover any money for the required repair of the building. Nadine’s only consolation was that the Princeling abandoned his Buick and, somehow, she seized it – the apartment walls were so insubstantial that the car was only slightly battered by the crash and she was able to have it repaired and, then, sold for twelve-thousand dollars at the auto auction in Shakopee.

Of course, after a couple years I moved out of the apartment that Nadine managed. After the disappointing outcome in the case involving the negligent Arabian prince, Nadine became even more disenchanted with my legal abilities and no longer sought my advice. Perhaps, I saw her shopping for groceries from time to time, but don’t recall any other encounters with my former landlady.

The old Hy-Vee moved to a new location, only a hundred yards from its old site. The supermarket deli no longer featured BBQ ribs – on most nights, you can’t buy them there any more, a shame, I think. I was married and divorced and married again. There were children. My children grew up. My youngest daughter now works at the only Hy-Vee that she has ever known, the business that I call the new Hy-Vee. In Austin, real estate costs very little and so we don’t tear down failed enterprises to build something in their place. Extinct businesses are simply left standing in their fractured and weed-overgrown parking lots, prey to vandals and an embarrassment to the city. The old Hy-Vee can still be seen, big black windows like the entrance to a cavern on the edge of the cratered parking lot.

About fifteen years after my last contact with Nadine, I pulled into town after a long drive and stopped at a gas station on the edge of the freeway. It was a raw, blustery day with a scrotum-tightening edge to the cold wind. After pumping gas into my car, I hustled into the service station. A fat man was sitting on metal stool behind the cash register. He looked at me with a dour, vacant expression. Something about the fat man seemed familiar to me. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. The man was probably about 35 and he had pale, almost opalescent skin pierced over his soft upperlip with a few bristly black whiskers. The fat man took my money and regarded me curiously, a faint glimmer of recognition showing in his eyes. At first, I couldn’t place the resemblance, but, then, I made the connection – the fat cashier looked very much like Nadine’s brutish husband, Bob. He was a bit more delicate and his hands, puffy with a ring or two embedded in them, were smaller and less suitable for wife-beating, but, nonetheless, there was a strong resemblance. I looked at the name sewn into the pocket above the cashier’s breasts – it said "Anthony". "Toni," I said. "I thought I recognized you," the man said to me. "You look –" I said, but didn’t know how to complete the sentence. "I’m a man now," Anthony said. "I changed my sex." "I see..." I said. "Good for you."

Tony shrugged.

"Has it been all okay?" I asked.

"I’m still not happy," Tony said.

"How are your parents?"

"I don’t see them any more," Tony told me.

"If there’s ever anything I can do for you..." I said.

"See you around," Tony said.

But I didn’t see him around. And a couple years later, I learned that Tony was dead.

Nadine’s obituary mentioned Tony and said that he was her son. In a way that is probably obsolescent today and, perhaps, even atavistic, Nadine was the most feminine woman that I have ever met. Her daughter was less successful, I suppose, as a man. But, then, we are all failures in one way or another with respect to the gender that we have selected.

In the obituary photograph, Nadine looked tiny. She had lost more than hundred pounds. If we live long enough, we all become skinny again in the end.

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