Nov 142010

Perle Besserman

It was a windless New Year’s Day, and the cross streets along lower Fifth Avenue were heaped with stiff gray slush that had at first thawed with the false promise of rain and then just as suddenly hardened with unexpected frost that turned to ice.  Reminding him that the disc jockey on the radio had only a minute ago warned of “dangerous driving conditions,” Linda suggested Barney buckle his seat belt.  But Barney refused, saying he’d rather be thrown out of the car and die, than pinned down and boxed inside.  Didn’t she remember he had a phobia about being buried alive?  Linda stared out the snow-stained window on the passenger side, safe and snug with her seat belt fastened, thinking she no longer cared about Barney or his phobia.  If he wanted to be a schmuck and drive without a seatbelt, let him.

They’d spent a sour New Year’s Eve with people they knew only slightly through Barney’s brother Mike, a Libertarian smoker of little brown Dutch cigars that stained his teeth a matching shade of brown.  No matter how hard they avoided it their opposing politics always came up whenever Barney and his brother got together.  And New Year’s Eve was no different.  Except this time, Mike, surrounded by his friends, had the advantage.

“You could say everyone here, except for you guys, is slightly to the right of center.  Any problem with that?” one of Mike’s gray-suited cronies had leered at them, giggling like a serial killer.  Fortunately, the man’s mouse of a wife, also in gray, had defused the threat of an argument by passing around a plastic-covered sheaf of baby photos, so that when midnight struck, instead of kissing and toasting in the New Year with champagne, they were all looking at mouse babies and gurgling the way grownups feel they have to when confronted by other people’s ugly offspring.  Mike’s wife, Rita, managed to under-heat and over butter the casserole, and Linda had suffered from the runs all night, waking up grouchy, which, in addition to pissing off Barney, got them off to a late start for their New Year’s Day brunch date with his clients in Rye.

Barney woke up grouchy, too, asking her in a hostile tone of voice whether she had walked The Dog, and responding when she told him she had that he would gladly have given up the socializing and the icy drive for a comfortable day in long johns and a pair of woolen sweat socks watching football on the tube—that is, if the Pernals weren’t such important clients.

“The Dog was obnoxious,” Linda said, “The Dog” being the dog’s name.

Linda did not advise Barney to forget the Pernals and stay home, because he was touchy enough about being embroiled in a messy case involving a Hungarian musician who was breaking up with his wife on account of hashish, and she wanted to take his mind off 1) the questionable brief he’d written, and 2) the fact that he was on the verge of being investigated for it by the New York Bar Association.  It was all too complicated.  Better to go out even if she didn’t feel like it than sit around the house watching him brood all day.

“Barney doesn’t like for me to pester him about his practice,” she’d told her mother on the phone.  When her mother hadn’t left it at that but had tried forcing information from her, Linda snapped, “I’m just a hick from Colorado who designs jewelry, what do I know about briefs and slick New York law?  Besides, I’m barely hanging in as far as this marriage is concerned, so please bug off!”  After which, her mother had mumbled something about leaving a pot on the stove and hung up.

They were on the East River Drive when Linda, still ruminating on last night’s disaster, remembered Sheila, the woman in the shocking pink satin pants suit and triple animal cracker-shaped chain belts sitting next to her.  Hardly touching her food, Sheila had spent dinner silently studying Linda’s face.  Only when the tiramisu dessert arrived did she break her silence to comment on Linda’s “perfect skin” and ask if she used mudpacks and got regular facials.  Linda said no, she didn’t use anything on her face but Dr. Bronner’s castile soap, and Sheila had turned away to study the face of the redheaded woman to her left who’d been haranguing the publisher of New Age books sitting next to her.

“You’ll have to leave New York soon or you’ll die of emphysema,” the redhead was saying.

“We’re always a step ahead, the human race,” the publisher, who hadn’t been listening, addressed the table at large.  “Soon there’ll be transplants for everything.  No bodily death.  We’ll adapt ourselves to the changing environment, as always.  It’s cyclical.”

Linda was about to ask the publisher for specifics when she was hit by the first of the many stomach cramps awaiting her that night.

They left the Willis Avenue Bridge behind and traveled north on the Major Deegan Expressway, with Barney cursing the old man in the ’78 Pontiac in front of him for  taking up two lanes at once.  By the time he pulled their red Nissan into the Pernal’s frozen driveway, skidding wildly and almost tearing into the holly bushes lining the side of the house, the day had brightened somewhat.  Or was it that, in Rye, streets covered with powdery snow instead of gray slush made the day seem brighter than it did in the slag-heaped city?  That every mansion on the street signaled privilege also might have helped.  Thanks to Loretta Pernal, Linda knew, for example, that the huge Tudor with the two turrets on the southwest corner had been imported stone by stone from an English manor house in Suffolk (England, not Queens), and that the eighty-nine-year-old recluse who had once owned the now defunct Montgomery Ward roamed alone through the thirty-two rooms, which included a harem built in “the Turkish style” to accommodate the sexual eccentricities of the Jazz Age nouveau riche.

Nick and Loretta Pernal and their brood of four, a Venezuelan live-in maid named Manuela, and their Afghan hound Ludmilla had recently returned to the States from Japan.  Using only a meager portion of Nick’s vast trust fund, they’d bought a smaller version of the Tudor house on the southwest corner during a depressed market for “only” seven-hundred and sixty thousand dollars, though by now it was worth at least two million.  Theirs, with its yellow cross timbers, falling chimney, and un-renovated art nouveau kitchen, was, by the usual neighborhood standards, the most “modest” house on the block.  Loretta, a diehard city dweller who hated the suburbs, had confided that she’d let Nick have his way in exchange for a bargain: two years in a city abroad for five years in a suburb with good schools in the States, so the kids could at least learn to speak English without an accent, since, as far as Loretta was concerned, they were American after all.  Assuming a Spanish accent, Loretta had mimicked her husband’s umbrage.

“‘Norte Americano, you mean.  Colombians like me are Americano too, eh?’”

All in all, it was a tense household, and Linda never felt comfortable there.

She was about to pull on the door knocker, but Barney pushed ahead of her and rang the bell.  A woman called out that the door was open and they entered.  Inside, all was warmth and steaming coffee.  Seated at the table on the sun porch off the living room was a couple Linda didn’t know.  The four Pernal children had been dispersed for the holidays among aunts, uncles, and grandparents from both sides of the border eager to see them after their two-year absence.  Manuela was visiting a sister in Suffolk (Queens), and the house radiated suburban peace.  Ludmilla lay in front of the fireplace with her elegant muzzle tucked between her, disturbingly, for such a big dog, dainty paws.  Through the leaded windows a weak sun cast indecisive rays across a table heaped with pita bread, smoked fish, hummus, falafel, and a variety of Middle Eastern salads.

The couple on the sun porch was so soft-spoken that Linda had a hard time catching their names when the husband got up and introduced himself as Jorge and his wife as Dolores.  Moving in closer, she heard them tell Barney that they were Brazilian architects, longtime friends of Nick’s, and that they were planning the Pernals’ Carnival trip to Rio.  Apologizing for his friend, Jorge laughingly added that Nick was still upstairs nursing a New Year’s Eve hangover.

“Milk is on the table,” Dolores said, holding out two steaming mugs of coffee.

Linda thanked her, saying she’d take hers black, then, as an afterthought, asked if Brazil was like Mexico, where she’d had to take penicillin every day.  Still mindful of Rita’s casserole-induced bout of the runs, she put down the coffee and asked if there was tea.

“Over there, on the sideboard,” Dolores pointed to a jade-glazed Japanese teapot on a stone heater.

Just then, Loretta came in from the kitchen carrying a tray of hot scones.  She wore a black cashmere sweater and slacks, a thick medieval cross on a silver chain, and the whitest of tabi on her feet.  “What’s this about penicillin?”

Aware that Jorge was staring at her, Linda poured tea into one of the matching jade cups surrounding the pot.

“Probably not in Rio,” he murmured looking away, but we are also planning a trip into the Amazonian jungle, perhaps in time to study the initiation ceremonies of the few remaining tribes that still care to be studied.  We might need penicillin tablets there, what do you think, Dolores?”

“Cannibals?”  Barney intercepted, chomping on a fish sandwich, his eye on the massive television set in the den.

Ludmilla barked, announcing Nick’s entrance in a yellow turtle-neck sweater and yellow linen slacks.  Unlike Loretta, he was barefoot.

“You’ll catch cold,” Loretta said.

Nick smiled, placing his hands over his eyes.  When he took them away, Linda saw that his face was puffy and gray.

Loretta goaded Nick about his hangover, but before Linda could tell if the Pernals  were on the verge of a fight, Dolores had turned the conversation back to Brazil.  Nick suggested they all move into the living room but he and the other two men continued talking at the food table.  Linda lingered briefly over the teapot.  Then, accompanied by Ludmilla, she followed Loretta and Dolores into the living room.   The men joined them, and Nick put on a CD, and the sexy, muted tones of a samba seemed to calm everyone down.  Loretta briefly disappeared then came back into the room holding a floor-length golden kimono under her chin.

“I designed it on paper and the dressmaker carried out my instructions to the T.  It’s made of the finest Japanese silk,” she said.

“But this is absolutely magnificent,” Dolores approached her and pinched an edge of the kimono’s sleeve.

Loretta put on the kimono and modeled it for them, her hands fluttering across the silk.  Then taking it off with an impatient gesture, she carried it back upstairs.  Not wanting to appear envious, Linda hadn’t asked if she could try it on but now, seeing Loretta return without the kimono, wished she had.  Pretending to be interested in the numerous photographs of the Pernal children on the mantelpiece, Linda remarked on the resemblance between Loretta and a teenaged sylph in a string bikini.

Loretta said, “It’s nerve-shattering, having to be cooped up in one place for very long.  Even with Manuela, it’s a madhouse of kids and skates, and Nick’s high-strung, high-maintenance dog, subject to false pregnancies, and his daughter on weekends, who, by the way, is the double of his first wife.”  She glared at Linda for having picked the wrong child to admire then added, “Anything to keep Nick happy . . . just so he won’t fall back into the old well of nostalgic Latin despair.”  Her big turquoise eyes filled with tears.

Shocked by Loretta’s outburst, Linda changed the subject. “Have you met your neighbor in the turret house yet?”

“Not really; we see the maid come in at nine when the bus comes to pick up the kids.  He’s terribly old, I understand, and almost totally deaf.  Would you care for a Mexican beer?”

“I think I’d like one,” Dolores said.

The sun was shining in earnest now.  Nick opened the window to a gust of pine-smelling air.  The high flames in the fireplace faltered slightly.

“It’s too cold in here,” Loretta said.

Nick shut the window.  Jorge was sitting next to Barney on the sofa pontificating on the subject of drug-induced altered states of consciousness.  Taking a book off the shelf, Nick joined them.  Words like “peyote,” “spirit guide,” and “shaman” drifted across the room.  Loretta laughingly asked Dolores if Jorge had “gone native.” But Dolores merely shrugged and rolled her eyes.  Nick changed the CD, replacing the samba with Ravi Shankar.  Ludmilla jumped up and threw herself against the window with an eerily human-sounding sob.

“It’s the black dog,” Nick said.  “Let her out, Loretta, will you?”

As Loretta absently opened the door and Ludmilla galloped past her, Linda caught a quick glimpse of the long black coat and pointed muzzle of the intruder outside.  Loretta closed the door and walked back into the living room.  Saying he was not in the mood for Indian music, Jorge asked Nick to put on something by Mozart, then turning back to Barney, resumed his monologue, “It seems that this tribe in Malaysia has developed a very sophisticated form of dream analysis.”

“How do they do it?” Nick asked.

Struck by the lunacy of the conversation, and afraid she might fall into one of her laughing fits, Linda quickly turned to ask Loretta the first thing that came to mind. “Is it easy to hire maids in Japan?”

Giving her a quizzical look, Loretta said, “We had Manuela with us, so I didn’t have to find one.  But then, we’ve always been lucky that way.”

The unstoppable Jorge was still going at it.  “Apparently, the elders of the tribe sit with the children each morning, encouraging them to relate their dreams . . .”

“Nick, do you mind if I turn on the TV to get the score?” Barney interrupted.

“Not at all,” Nick said.

Linda focused her eyes on the stiff pleat in Loretta’s slacks as she followed her into the kitchen.  Stopped at the same time by a sudden loud noise outside, they almost banged into each other.  A man was screaming.  Linda heard him, too, but could not take her eyes off the infuriatingly perfect pleat in Loretta’s slacks or she might burst out laughing because Jorge was still blabbering about shamans though Barney, no longer pretending interest, had gotten up from the sofa and was now watching television in the den.

Loretta opened the kitchen door and hurried outside.

“Nick!  Nick!” she screamed.

Without stopping for their coats, the three men ran out through the open kitchen door.  Linda walked back to the front hall and found Dolores putting on Loretta’s mink coat.  It was too long for her, so long that she had to lift it as she stepped out the front door and daintily made her way down the ice-covered driveway.

For the second time that day, Linda wondered why Nick hadn’t strewn the driveway with salt or sand.  Someone could get hurt.  Then she remembered that Nick had a hangover.  She went upstairs.  The door to the master bedroom was open, and she walked in.  Immediately locating the kimono after opening the closet, she took it out and put it on.  As she was tying the silk cord on the inside of the kimono, she looked out the window and saw: Loretta, frozen in black against the snow, standing in the middle of the road; Barney, brown and drab in corduroy slacks and oatmeal-colored sweater, standing next to her with his hands in his pockets; Dolores, watching from the driveway; Jorge, halfway hidden behind two men in boots, lumber jackets, and plaid shirts, standing spread-legged behind a green pickup heaped with shrubs, “Hayden’s Nursery” painted on the door; Nick,  brilliantly illuminated in yellow, and still barefoot, staring down at Ludmilla lying in the road.

As Linda stood inhaling the kimono’s fragrant temple incense, she heard Dolores shriek, “Loretta!  What is it?”

Loretta didn’t answer her.  She was staring down at Nick, who’d fallen to his knees with his arms held out in front of him in the form of a cradle.

Linda looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the wall opposite Loretta and Nick’s bed.  Slipping off her shoes, she walked toward it with the doll-faced expression and mincing gait of a Japanese geisha.   But the mirror was right alongside the window, and no matter how intently she focused on her reflection, she could still see and hear what was going on outside.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” one of the booted men was saying over and over again.  He had a blonde pony tail sticking out the back of his navy ski cap.  “But there was the two of ‘em, tearing like mad around the corner . . . the big black one, and then this one.  The black one got away in time and ran off.  But this one—this one crashed right into the truck . . . at an angle, almost like on purpose . . .”

No one said anything after that.

Nick got up, holding Ludmilla’s limp, shaggy body in his arms, her too-dainty front paws aimed en point at the road.  He took one slow, barefoot Kabuki step toward the house, then another.  Linda slid her fists into the vast hanging sleeves of the kimono.  Loretta, Barney, the two nurserymen, Jorge, and Dolores looked like snow statues.  Linda pictured them all coming to life at her signal and the whole Kabuki play running backwards to the beginning.  In her version, the icy front path would be covered in cherry blossoms.  Inside, huddled around Ludmilla, snoring in front of the fireplace, they would talk about things that really mattered to them, make noble New Year’s resolutions they could not keep, but would forgive each other for it.  Loretta would give Linda the golden kimono.  Barney would take her to Japan, and she would be kind to him.

Linda slipped out of the kimono and hung it back in the closet.  She heard sparrows chirping.  Looking through the window, she saw the old man standing on the front steps of the mansion across the road tossing bread crumbs into the snow.

  3 Responses to “The Golden Kimono”

  1. I love this story–well done, Perle!

  2. Love this story. The contrasts are wonderfully rendered, both the external and internal ones. Full of humor including the rhyme of the maid and the dog’s name. But most of all the sensibility of the narrator is delightful, human and one, it seems, anyone might identify with. Fabulous!

  3. A totally intriguing story – very magical and yet it captures the feeling of everyday experience so well.