The Edelweiss Pencil
by Sara Majka
Louise first sees him at the video store. He is yelling at the clerk while she waits in line behind him. Ri—dic—ulous! he shouts, his hand landing in a karate chop on the surface of the counter, a bit of spittle lit in the air. There is something lubricious in him though she can't quite place it. He has a small, stout body, but a large head, and perhaps it's the head that leaves an impression of excess oils. His face is shiny and his hair seems to have something of the old world in it, a fair bit of earth and cooking odors, something of potential life. The room smells of spoiled curry. She decides the smell is emanating from his pores. This is not exactly fair. There could be an old take out container stashed behind the counter, but, still, she can't separate him from the smell. In his manner is a sort of pitifulness that seems to attract all the area's calamities to his own being.She sees him often downtown and one Saturday morning points him out to her husband. Frederic Edelweiss, her husband tells her, saying the name with such weary familiarity that she is certain a story is forthcoming. Frederic is walking towards them in a red nylon windbreaker, the hood bunched around his face and a parcel wrapped in plastic under his arm. Her husband drops his shoulders and stoops his back so as to lower his height. He's in my department, he says, tagging behind the crowd of people that have been walking ahead of them. It is an unnecessary gesture. Frederic is walking as if he were alone on the sidewalk; he does not look right or left and, in this manner, passively forces others to move around him. Once Frederic has passed they slow their pace and walk alone again. He was brilliant when he was young, her husband says. At twenty-nine he proved a theorem and it was named after him. You can open any algebraic geometry book and there it is, the Edelweiss Pencil.
A pencil of all things!
Well, that's what they call it.
It is February. Rain pelts the snow banks and the sand encrusted sidewalk, leaving little doubt the night would freeze the water and the next day everything would be worse. Pittsfield has become this, ever since they moved, a progression of things getting worse, so they now take it as a matter of course. They do one side of Main Street and then cross at the intersection to do the other side. All the time her husband telling the story of Frederic, who, after his mathematical discovery, had stopped work entirely and had been pushed out of the University of Chicago and picked up by the small, bucolic college that had recently become their employer. It existed in a grassy cow field, a few miles removed from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a rundown old mill town near the New York border. The college had hoped Frederic's name would add luster to the campus. Finding that not to be the case, they had been nonetheless stuck with him. He has been there for fifteen years. Except for one or two basic textbooks, the bookshelves in his office are empty. The only thing hanging on his wall is a movie poster. This poster changes at times. The last time her husband looked there had been a poster of the English Patient. A rather overwrought movie, he says, adjusting his thin, pale fingers on the stem of the umbrella. He has never mastered the art of the umbrella and holds it in such a way that the rain spills down his wife's hair. After a time she makes an exclamation and walks out into the rain. They both stop on the sidewalk.
Take the umbrella, he says.
They are in the middle of Main Street, in front of an electrical store whose window is filled with old lamps (there is something about this town, she thinks, a decaying old mill town it shows its roots in the repetition of goods—a window full of old lamps, hordes of secondhand stores with lace tablecloths and old shoes—as if, like the people, all the products were somehow just stuck there). She is wearing a thick gray wool sweater that she has owned for ten years. The cuffs are falling off and she has hooked her fingers through the holes and balled up her hands. I hate it here, she says. You don't even know how to hold an umbrella.
The Bismarck Café is the only place she professes to like in town. It is below ground, at the bottom of a steep iron stairwell. Inside is a spectacle of lush, filthy fabrics in mustard and crimson and gold. A thin slant of light cuts down from the grate on Main Street and in back there is a door with a window that looks out onto a parking lot. It is a dirty place, with bric-a-brac laced with cobwebs, elaborate frames containing old photos from places she has never been and is certain no longer exists in this form (Krakow, Venice, someplace in the Riviera), and a statue of Jesus that has been placed in such a location—outside the bathroom—that the whole thing is a great comfort to her. Like her, Frederic goes to the café every day. He usually arrives at three and eats a bowl of soup and a plate of brown rice with a small ceramic dish of vinaigrette on the side. For a long time she watches him when he is not looking. One day they sit at adjoining tables and share the bench that runs the length of the wall. He stares at her until he gets her attention and then says, your husband is in my department. It is more a statement than a question.
Yes, she says, Chris.
And you are from New York? Yes?
Well, what do you think of it here?
She takes time to answer, measuring the gulf between the expected answer and what she perceives as the truth. I don't like it, she says at last. He lifts a pile of papers and begins to laugh. You don't like it, he repeats, as if it was a joke that she has made, and he continues to laugh while he draws his papers onto the table and bends over to study them.
The next day he asks if he might join her. He asks by mumbling and flipping his hand towards the empty chair. He is shyer this time, and more interested in her, as if he had not been overly struck by her the day before but woke with a memory and a particular question. In this way, they spend long afternoons at the café. Though he grades papers much of the time—idiots, simpletons, he mumbles to himself while he corrects with a red pen, sweating, visibly uncomfortable in his chair—he never talks about school, instead seems to exist entirely in the realm of the café and the movie store and the run down old independent theater down the alley, as if she is to believe his life was a sort of bohemian migration of amusements. She in turn doesn't talk about her mornings in the accounting office, the job that Chris managed to acquire for her, despite her complete lack of accounting experience.
Spread before her, taking up nearly the entire table, are her periodicals—her New Yorkers spitting out reply cards all over the floor (they come twice a week now, she says, every time I go to the mailbox there is a New Yorker. It has snowballed. It has gotten out of control. The more I read, the more New Yorkers there are. They are now composing issues only for me), style magazines from seasons ago, the travel pages from the New York Times containing a piece she has wanted to read on Romania and an article on making pierogies on Staten Island in a place that smells of cabbage and anise. What is this! he asked one time, losing patience with her papers that kept falling to the ground, thrusting a hand towards the piles, tell me what is the point in all of this?! He learned not to ask again, because she simply looked up, looked at the papers, and a great gulf was created, she could not retrieve an answer, her lips, dried and hard as an old fig, scrunched up, he grabbed a section from the pile, Romania! he said with enthusiasm, I have once been to Romania!
There are things in his past, her husband tells her one day. I don't know what the story is, but some scandal, something happened. Something with a student, perhaps. No nudity, nothing explicit. A massage? she asks. Sitting on a lap? What is it that happened? She thinks at first that this is what she will learn from Frederic, what has happened in his life, she will piece it together, turning over stones of himself, but she has let go of this notion. He teaches pre-calculus. It is a class of forty, most of the students working on crosswords and homework for other classes. She had passed by the room quite by accident, looking for her husband, but paused by the door unable to move. Frederic stood in the circle of light caused by the projector, and there was something in that light that made him ghoulish, that illuminated not him, but the water in him, as if he was wavering, a liquid body. It illuminated the little beads of sweat along his neck, the darts of saliva, the dark blooms of moisture in his shirt. Students started leaving, walking impervious past him, their backs to him, his head tilted downwards, towards the transparencies, unwilling to look up.
Frederic is always complaining about his antipasto salad, which every day comes out differently, a small comes out a large, a large a small, sometimes no olives, at other times no roasted peppers, today not the side of olive oil with the dried herbs, which are at times tasteless twigs and at other times a fine silt of seasoning. Still, he always orders the size according to his appetite and pays, notwithstanding. All along I say but it does not matter, he says, I should order the cheapest size, and yet I can not abide the thought. One must follow general guidelines, even if it is folly to do so. He moves to pick up a slice of bread from his plate and drags his shirt sleeves through the oil. He blots the oil with his napkin and then forgets what he has done and puts the napkin down and oils his pants. You must go on, he says, resuming the conversation they had begun earlier, go with a group of your friends, out to dinner in Lenox, there is a restaurant there, off a maple lined street, that serves a marvelous lamb chop. Wisteria Street. No, not wisteria. No, he says at last, lifting a forefinger in the air as if struck by inspiration, you are too young, you would not like lamb with mint at all. Well, it is, even heading towards North Adams, rather provincial in this part of the state, but there are enough young people there, I would say, for you to find happiness. (I don't like lamb, she says, flipping over the magazine, ripping out the dreaded reply cards, stuffing them into the satchel that is propped against her foot.) But I already said that you would not like lamb, he says, looking for a victory, a ridiculous moment amongst many.
She stands for another cup of coffee, but is back in a moment, sloshing the liquid onto the chipped saucer. There, look over there, she says, with such enthusiasm that he drops his papers on the ground. Her exclamations are entirely inconsistent with the material, and he does not know what it is that provokes her, at other times she sits quiet, unwilling to excite, her pallid face giving little response, her thin lips in a half frown over her articles. He bends to the ground and gathers his papers. No, no, she says, I'm serious this time. There's another table, there's another one of the small ones. That's four this week that have been replaced. She leans across the tabletop, her scarf brushing the newspapers, look, she says, look at that guy trying to balance his computer.
That is the same table as always, he says. I have myself tried to balance on that table.
That's not true at all.
You are imagining things now, he says. A loon. Crazy like a loon. You are making things up, he continues, speaking softer, more to himself, as he moves back to his paperwork, trying to deceive me, an old man.
It is late afternoon and the sun has moved low in the sky, cutting through the back door of the café, casting a golden light in the dust filled air and along the grimy floor. She feels happy, light. There is a long line of tables against the wall, each with one person sitting along the bench, facing forward, towards their work. With their heads slightly bowed they look as if they are praying. I am at church! she thinks. The crucified hand of Jesus is lit as well, the poorly painted blood running down his wrist. It is nearly Easter. The music reminds her of a modern art installation she had seen once in North Adams. That had felt like church also. And underneath the music is the new droning sound that she had heard for the first time that week. The droning sounds and the tables too small for notebooks and laptops and now the certain possibility that the draft is on purpose as well. It's no secret, she had told him, cafés have ways to turn over their tables. Not here, he had said, and yet she is certain it is so. People glance up, searching for the source of the draft, there starts a collective murmur, but maybe it is not the draft at all, maybe the collective murmur is just a growing restlessness, the remembrance that there were dinners to be made and people waiting at home. After a time (and no windows are checked, no one stands to push the door to be sure, each, the window and the door, with peeling paint, certain to be lead encased, it is only a matter of time before the health inspectors come, either way the place has an air of fragility, a little strip of land, losing on one side to erosion and the other side to storms) people settle back in. It begins to smell of cornbread. Fragrant and sweet.
The sunlight fades. It always takes them too long after the light fades to turn up the overheads. She bows her head, bearing against the intensity of will that is needed to bridge the moment. Frederic does not notice. He tells her about a leek and fennel pie he has made. He got the recipe from somewhere, some housewife in Brittany who still wears crinoline; he had to crimp the crust with tin foil to save it from burning. He lifts his thumb to show the blister obtained during this procedure. He is furious at his oven. He goes weeks without bothering with it, and then ten days in a row he takes its temperature to see if it is cheating him of degrees. When I open it, he says, a fireball of heat, other times, nothing. Tell me, why is that? At last they brighten the lights. She turns to look out the window. I don't at all, she says, still facing away from him, know what I'm doing here.
He attempts to speak but then stops, desperate for words that have ended in his throat. The sudden infliction of light doesn't suit her; it emphasizes the ashen tone of her skin and the small freckles of new rash along her nose ridge. She is wearing a sweater the color of persimmons and a bracelet woven like a Portuguese fishing net. What does she mean? Her with him does she mean? No, it is certainly something larger than that, but still, the confusion started he can not right himself, he takes the wrong track, he burrows himself into the abstract, philosophers, he says, Kant, no such man has been able to answer this question, he traces his musings to a friend in Chicago, some bar they went to, beer so burnt that it tasted of smoke. He is a futile, useless man, he knows that; he lifts his trousers at the knees to allow air to leak to his shins, where the dense hair is matted down by perspiration.
Louise is thirty-three and believes that she has a chin with a thousand rivets in it, so that it looks, when she scrunches her face, like a bit of armor. She stands in front of the mirror, scrunching and remembering another spring, ten years ago, when she had been in Rome with a lover. (Having no money for such a trip they nonetheless went and were rather wild, unleashed, the light was so golden it overwhelmed them. What should we do? they would ask before running to do something and then in another moment they would be asking all over again. They would race nearly always to the park, where they rented pedal carts and would lumber up the hills and then whoosh down, kicking over the ruts in their canopied jalopy. Afterwards they would lie in bed and eat pizza and she would tell him stories, trying always to make him laugh.)
Earlier in the week her husband came in during such a moment and she had no feeling for him, as if he were a perfect stranger. He sat in her seat and didn't notice her distraction. He confessed his fear that he wouldn't be given his renewal for the next year. The renewal had been all but guaranteed, but now he was certain that he wasn't going to get it. He was so gripped by the passion for the renewal (indeed, kept repeating the word as if it, in itself, conveyed meaning) of his contract at this small, provincial college on top of a hill that overlooked a dirty, impoverished city that she couldn't help but to feel the absurdity of it, that this thin, pale, red haired man on her plush, green chair might be linked to her for the rest of her life.
Frederic notices that she looks better, nearly pretty. He decides that it's the change in seasons that has relieved some of the harshness in her face, the slight blush of rosacea. She is wearing a lace shirt and a battered velvet coat; it is faintly Parisian and though he knows little of fashion he is certain he has never seen this look on her before. She keeps the coat on inside the caf� and stares about rather than pick up a section of her paper. There is something in her. He offers to get her a cup of coffee but she waves it off. A slice of pie? he asks. I don't at all want to be here, she says, and he is silent, wondering again, what does she mean? What is one to say to such a statement? He is already battering himself for his failures when she says that she would like, instead, to go out for a glass of wine.
Neither of them knows a bar in town and they end up at a place that is all wrong for the occasion, it is nearly empty and the two waitresses are overweight and crude, but still they sit at a booth and Louise orders a bottle of Tuscan wine. I will drink little, he says, watching the waitresses snicker at him from behind the register, their gaze passing between him and Louise; his face red and blotchy, no doubt, from this new exertion, his hair sticking to the oils of his forehead. Outside of an occasional sherry after a meal, he continues, what can I say except that I do not drink. Louise takes a pack of cigarettes from her purse and this action silences him. She lifts her bangs from her face; they are fine and straight and overwhelm her slight features, but without them on her forehead he does not recognize her and is relieved when she releases them. The waitress clanks an ashtray down in front of her, and Louise lights a cigarette. Well, she says, what should we talk about?
Flummoxed, he opens his hands and rests them on the table. His hands are thick, masculine, with hearty veins at the base of each finger. They had, when he was young and able to work, always been a source of pride, but now were turgid, as if in light of his character there was something obscene in their vigor. Why is it so impossible to imagine that he could be anything but repulsive? If he no longer produces, does that mean everything of value is gone from him; could not the intelligence still be there, lying submarine-like, lurking in the depths? He begins to tell her of Eliza. He can not help himself. Eliza might now be as old and futile as him, plump and tenured, still working on the same biography of some unknown Russian official, but at the time she had been lithe, energetic, with wild black hair, extraordinarily fair skin, and a deep desire for Russian vodka. Such things as that can not be taken away from him. He drinks too quickly and becomes certain he is shocking Louise with his stories. Had she imagined all along that he was nothing, a silly little man?
He orders another bottle of wine, and the waitress, ignorant as she is, splits the cork into the bottle. While he talks, Louise removes the cork from their glasses with the tines of her fork. Impossibly, the more she drinks the more coherent she becomes, it settles her, makes her purposeful. She is not a young woman, and might, if challenged, rise to some occasion in her life. Such knick-knacks you would not believe, he says, and then, by Saturday night, she would have broken half of them, though over what, I do not know, what did we argue about? What was there to care so much about? She was throwing knick knacks and I was upstairs, gluing them back together. . .he held out his hand and it glimmered in the little country lamp on the table. If possible, he hated his hand more than he had moments ago. He imagined dynamic punishments, slashing it with a broken wine bottle, Louise would hover beside him, little wisps of hair stuck at the corners of her mouth. . .no, it is all wrong, tortured gestures of youth become morbid on the old. . .I was once, he is telling Louise, while here, in this town, called into the President's office because of some scene I had made at the art museum. They had mistitled one of the paintings and the woman at the desk would not report it to the curator. It was not the painting that angered me. It was that I was there at all; the woman had a sweater with pumpkins on it. Pumpkins. They do not even know the titles of their own paintings here. They spent fifty thousand dollars to recess poems in a wall, and no one knows they are there because they are recessed.
After the second bottle of wine he begins to slur. Louise seems further away, as if she has sunken into the booth, with her pieces of cork drying on a napkin in front of her. The noises she would make, he says, that is the thing I always remember, not noble Louise, not a noble element of our character at all, but this is what life does to you, you will see, you are young, not noble, but something to remember nonetheless, like she were a pig in the mud, like she was a little weevil. The waitress comes over. He motions for another bottle of wine. The woman looks at Louise, who shakes her head in two quick motions. The woman walks away and Louise reaches for her coat. An ignorant little hag, he says, referring to the waitress, he is not at all talking about Louise. Not beautiful, unknowable Louise. Only about the ugly woman. Ugliness, there is no excuse for its existence. What is this? he asks himself as he trails Louise out of the bar. What country is this? Can a man not drink his wine?
They do not meet at the café for a number of days. When they do, they sit together as if nothing has happened. After a span of time, he looks around and says, I have decided you are right about the tables.
Of course I'm right.
It will, in time, overtake us.
Louise stares out the little square window over the door. It is raining, sheets of water pouring down from the fire escape. For a week it has rained into ground already soaked from the thaw of the snow. In the cracks of the cement floor, mold has begun to grow, the counter help has begun to wear saturated tank tops, little caring for the last vestiges of sanitation, both the men's and women's armpit hairs curl from under their arms, an explosion of fecundity. It is a sad sight. She thinks still of her lover and her past life as if it were a dream she has awoken from. She closes her eyes, one can still hear the chatter, the enthusiasms, the despair of life, the happiness. She opens her eyes again. It is intensely hot yet they refuse to open the door. Someone approaches the counter to make this request and the person behind—a very skinny man with a nose ring and tattoos—takes off his apron, places it on the counter, and walks daintily out the door, closing it behind him. He does not return. The two line chefs stay on the line and the dish washer stays with the dishes and all three periodically glance at the forming crowd but continue on with their work. At last one of the cooks begins to take orders. The other one goes on break. He is visible outside the door, smoking on the stoop amongst the glittering drops of water.
Louise and Frederic speak softly, under the clatter of the room. Yes, Louise says, it's final, he didn't get the renewal. She is quiet for some time. The rain is a pitiful thing. It is an ugly town made impossibly worse. She won't miss it when they are gone. She says to him, I have always hated it here.
Something painful stirs in him. He has worn his worst pair of socks; they aren't even content to swaddle around his ankles, they go lower than that, billowing around the tops of his shoes. His legs, planted on the poured concrete floor, feel large, solid, elephantine. That was not a gracious thing to say, she says at last. He passes his hand through the air as if it were a slight matter to him. As if to say, what is such a place? What is it to him? Of little thought at all, certainly. His hand, passing through the air, brushing away any consequence, as if it were possible to disappear even to himself.
They return to their work. Louise cuts articles from the Sunday paper while Frederic reads the travel section. As they work, a puddle forms around the back door; it increases in volume until it breaks its own surface and streaks towards them. Neither of them pays it any attention, when the water pools around his shoe he merely rearranges his feet in a gesture that implies original intention. The dish washer begins to mop the floor. The mopping achieves little more than pushing the water to and fro so it laps as the ocean laps against the shore. The puddle grows larger. The worker sits down as if suddenly fatigued and orders a cookie be brought out to eat. When the end comes there is such little resistance. Frederic sighs, massages his face. I am extremely uncomfortable in such humidity, he says, the bands of his underpants chafing his thighs. A thin man in spectacles at the table next to them lines biodegradable napkins on the floor; they disintegrate rapidly and the brown shreds lift and begin to float.
Sara Majka is currently an MFA student at the Bennington College Writing Seminars. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts and has had stories published in Zone 3 and in an anthology put out by the Cape Cod Literary Press.