05 April 2012

Excerpt from THE BERZERKLEY BLUES, a short story inspired by actual unconscionable events

(For the full story, buy the ebook here)

No matter what she did, Maime couldn’t stop sewing. If she was cooking a boiled dinner, she’d take up a hem between checking the corned beef and peeling the potatoes. If she was on a phone call with her brother, she was replacing buttons on a blazer. When the mailman came to her door, he’d find her draped in fabrics, flustered by the interruption of her choice between brushed denim and seersucker. The tips of her fingers were always pricked and a little bloody, to the dismay of the friends with whom she played bingo, discomforted by the red stains she left on the cards and markers.
On sunny Berkeley days, she’d set up the card table in her tiny backyard. She’d drag a length of extension cords from her house to the circa-1954 Singer sewing machine that chewed and spat cloth as fast as she could feed it, as if it were starved for corduroy and silk. It whirred and chugged, stopping only when a snag made the machine moan like a child who’d gobbled one too many Snickers.
Surrounded by neighbors on all sides, she’d sometimes hear a slightly off-key aria sung by her operatic northern neighbor across the street; or silly, loving arguments from the 40-something couple behind her to the south; or the constant, unintelligible mumble of television from the single guy to the west. Maime enjoyed the gentle community cacophony; it reminded her she wasn’t entirely alone.
Sewing allowed her to think of other things: of the days when her late husband stopped off at the corner candy store on his way home from work to buy her a sack of peppermint candy stars; of her little niece’s first steps; of the family puppy that used to pee under the piano, leaving chartreuse spots in the navy carpet. She’d drift away to family dinners, weddings and christenings, church socials and weekend trips up the coast, and funerals for friends.
When she wasn’t sewing or mending or appliqueing, she was sleeping. But she wasn’t sleeping all that much, lately, owing to -- well, owing. Prices were high as the proverbial elephant’s eye, and her fixed income of $993 a month couldn’t reach the top of the pachyderm’s hoof, let alone its ocular orb. Bills were scattered like eucalyptus leaves on tables and chairs and the mantel. She’d open one while embroidering a daisy around a hole in her sweater, and it would slip to the floor unnoticed, until she dropped a needle in its approximate location. She’d snatch up needle and envelope in one swoop, pop the thimble back on her finger while clucking at the exorbitant amount of her utility bill.
It wasn’t that she was irresponsible about her finances; Maime had always enjoyed the satisfaction of paying her bills before they were due. It was the right, the adult, thing to do. But the country’s struggling economy was taking her back to her parents’ woes in the Great Depression, never having enough, never quite knowing where the next quart of milk would come from. It always showed up, as an offering from a neighbor’s cow or a gift from a visiting uncle. But now, at her grandmother’s age, she felt less like a self-assured grownup and more like the fretful child in 1935, when a penny was precious, and a dime -- well, a dime bought an entire afternoon with Shirley Temple on the silver screen.
Maime’s second favorite pastime was walking up to the farmers’ market every Thursday morning. It reminded her of her happiest childhood days, the vibrant and luscious colors of squashes and strawberries, row upon neat row of romaine and celery, chard and broccoli, bundles of kale and kohlrabi, bushels of fresh beets with their greens, and yellow wax beans. She’d wander through the crowded aisles and pick from the best of the bunch, judiciously harvesting her meals for the week while kibitzing with the farmers she’d come to know. Some of them were of Mexican or Guatemalan descent, but only a few had crossed the border; the rest were born and raised in the Bay Area. Some were san-sei, Japanese-Americans whose parents and grandparents had been interned during World War II. No matter their origins, they were all in similar straits; every day was an anxious parry with financial conditions, weather conditions, or (very often) both. Maime tried to buy something from each of them every week -- a couple of peaches from Melina, a pound of brown rice from Kimiko, a sack of russets from Jorge. She’d even taken in a couple of dresses for the wife of her organic farmer friend Miguel, in exchange for the week’s carrots and parsnips. One of Miguel’s regular customers admired her work and asked if Maime could mend a hole in her linen jacket, and maybe let out a few pair of her husband’s slacks. “He likes his beer,” the woman muttered as she placed the shopping bag of pants at Maime’s feet.
The next week, Maime drove her card table and the Singer to the market, setting up shop in the back of Miguel’s booth, and stitched to her heart’s -- and her purse’s -- content. She’d earned $97 when the day was through -- and a bartered bushel of nectarines from the woman who owned an orchard in Brentwood! And five more clients for the seamstress with the cotton-white hair and the furrow in her forehead.

Every Farmers’ Market Thursday, she’d collect more customers, who’d pile their needy clothing in a huge wicker basket set out by her table. Each piece was tagged with a safety-pinned name and phone number. She’d lug the heap to her house and sort through the clothing, prioritizing her work in order of time required to complete: hems for pants and skirts, new zippers, button reinforcement or replacement, darning of holes and tears, stitching patches on elbows and/or knees...or just for decoration.
She particularly enjoyed the more decorative requests. “Do you do sequins?” one 16-year-old post-modern hippie grandchild asked as she unfurled a long pink tie-dyed cotton skirt, letting it wave like a flag in the summer breeze. “I want this to sparkle on the beach when we go to Half Moon Bay next Saturday night.” Giving a girl a chance to shimmer in the moonlight made Maime smile, transporting her to the few times in her life when she’d believed in magic. She had no children of her own, so any opportunity to quench that long-held desire was welcome.
When the girl -- named Cinnamon by her mother, a longtime Neil Young fan -- returned from her weekend, she was well-tanned and bubbling with teenaged bliss. Maime couldn’t help but wonder if the sequins had caused a stir on the shore, and in some young man’s heart -- or, more likely, groin. She didn’t wish to be even remotely responsible for a young girl’s deflowering! If her adornments had been a catalyst to potentially life-altering events...
Cinnamon interrupted Maime’s worried reverie. “Maime!  Do you paint?” Instant visions of canvas propped on easel, tubes and tubes of gesso, cerulean and crimson, pallets and brushes, smock and beret, dashed her concern and caused her to drop the spool of thread she was replacing on the Singer. Her brow furrow deepened, and the girl leapt to clarify. “Not like walls or houses,” which hadn’t even crossed Maime’s mind. “You know, like t-shirts and shit, uh, stuff,” as if her mother had poked her from behind in absentia.
Maime knew shit. She wasn’t liberal with the word (the latest utterance came when she’d inadvertently sliced a hole in her apron while cutting slippery satin), but she was well-acquainted with the term and its various applications. After all, she’d become an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley right at the end of World War II, years before the campus would crawl with the anti-Vietnam War crowd. She’d smoked and drank and cursed with the best and brightest, honing her sophistication along with her knowledge. She came out into the world with degrees in art and anthropology, had curated for several galleries and gone on a few digs before life made other demands on her time and intelligence.
Maime had enjoyed painting, but it had been years since she’d been so inspired. She definitely hadn’t considered taking brush to cloth; she liked to sew. But she did have a painterly eye when plying her visions for clothing embellishment. Sometimes, she’d rip a swatch from a tropical print, cut it into the shape of a fish, and stitch it onto the front of the garment. Maybe take some ric-rac and sew a water trail from its mouth. She saw as much movement in the appliqued design as she had in any brushstroke. At an age when most of her peers were unconcerned about style, Maime was reinventing hers, and it kept her awake at night as much as the looming due date for the mortgage.
Other pressing issues kept Maime distracted from the things that made sense to her. Her occasional insomnia was fed by things that had no sense at their core, things that charged Maime with an unproductive energy, things over which she had no control. When sleep eluded, she adjusted her habits to mitigate the effect of outside influences. She stopped watching CNN into the wee hours, believing it bored bad news into her psyche. She eschewed, unlike her fellow octogenarians, the habitual watching of game shows, soap operas and reality television. They only served to remind her of what she didn’t need, who she didn’t know, and what she didn’t respect. She knew what was going on out there, but she maintained a small and manageable world; at her age, only good humor, kindness and simplicity kept her sane.
Two other “things” had freshly cropped up in her little world: two people, to be exact, a man and a woman in their mid-30’s who had recently purchased the house east of Maime’s property.
No one on the street had any intel on them; oddly, there had been no open houses or private showings when the house went on the market. The “For Sale” sign had not been plastered with “Sold” -- one day, it was just gone. The Monday before Memorial Day, the mystery began to unravel.
Hints at the buyers’ collective character were offered the morning they moved into the boxy mid-century post-and-beam Craftsman just up the hill from Maime’s eggnog Victorian gingerbread. It had been vacant for 18 months, left behind by a lovely gay couple, successful furniture designers who decided to take their earnings to Bali for an early retirement. Maime often missed “the boys.” They called her “Miss Maime,” regularly checked in on her needs, and treated her to Dim Sum Sundays in Chinatown.
Not one, not two, but three moving vans lined Maime’s narrow street, one of them blocking the driveway of her media-dependent neighbor, who bounded out of his California ranch, calling to the driver to back up the truck a few feet. New Neighbor Male, whose head was the shape of the boxes he carried in each of his muscled arms, shouted at the driver to ignore the request. “Stay right there! I hired you, you’ll park where I tell you!” Media Geek shouted back, “I gotta get to work, move your damn van!” New Neighbor Female, having just pulled up in her blood-red gas-guzzling tank, shook her fist and screamed out the window, “Money talks!” Media Geek pulled his cellphone from his pants pocket and waved it at the behemoth, “Fuck your money! I’m calling the cops! Move your fucking truck!” Maime filled her coffee mug while peering through her window at the ugly scene with slack-jawed amazement. Impression #1: Uh oh.
Maime decided against baking the blueberry cobbler she’d planned as a welcome, instead laying low and carefully observing the new additions to her peaceful Berkeley enclave. If they are who they seem to be, she mused while exchanging snaps for eye hooks on a vintage organza blouse, now might be a good time to put up that cinderblock wall she’d promised herself. A nice, properly anchored, opaque barrier for an elderly woman living alone. A solid perimeter to protect her while sewing al fresco, weather permitting. Bricks and mortar between Her and Them. Now that Maime was making a little extra cash, and since her brother was a newly-promoted manager at the local Home Depot, she decided it was time to afford herself the security. 
In the interest of eliminating property disputes -- as any good neighbor would want to do -- she enlisted the skills of a local surveyor, who would, at additional expense, install metal stakes at the property lines. Each of the neighbors living on the three adjoining properties were duly contacted, and asked if they’d consider making a financial contribution to the community effort, depending on the proportion of the joint property lines. As any good neighbor might well want to do.
Everyone agreed to kick in a fair share; everyone but New Neighbors Male & Female. Maime’s surveyor was advised via a tersely-written note that they’d spent quite enough on the house and the move. No, they would definitely not be making any contribution to someone else’s home improvements. Maime sighed as she wrote the check.
It was 4:34 on a Monday morning when the earth under Berkeley decided, as it will without warning, to rumble, rattle and roll Maime out of her bed, amidst the crash of breaking milk bottles she’d collected since she was 17. Slipping into her pink bedside Crocs, she tiptoed through the crunchy damage to check on the condition of the rest of the house. This was a sizable quake -- not big enough to crack her home in half, but it prompted her to call her brother, who’d promised to someday build her a small backyard structure, a storage shed-cum-emergency shelter, should her home turn to rubble in a major temblor.
As is common practice in earthquake country, everyone spilled out of their respective homes to survey the damage and check in on their neighbors. The would-be Maria Callas, The Bickersons, and Media Geek met Maime in the street. New Neighbors were nowhere in sight.
“They’re a pair of attorneys,” Maria Callas shared as they shivered in the early-morning mist. “Married attorneys! What could be more odious?” Maime got a kick out of the obvious reference to the unkind stereotype assigned to lawyers. Later, as she swept the glass from her kitchen floor, one of the hundred or so lawyer jokes she’d heard over the years entered her mind:
Q: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
A: One is a slimy, bottom-dwelling scum sucker.  The other is a fish.
Maime laughed to herself, visualizing the duo in scaly skin, wriggling along the bottom of a muddy pond. Scooping shards into a bucket, she hadn’t heard her brother pull into the driveway, and jumped a foot when his gentle moon-shaped face popped up at her window. “Charlie! You scared the bejeepers out of me!” Charlie, a stocky redhead 18 years younger than his sister, had come straight from work, still wearing his bright orange Home Depot coveralls, pencil tucked behind his ear, lugging a tool chest and waving a drawing. “I’ve got it all planned out, Mames, we’ll put up the shed first, tackle the wall later. Don’t wanna be playing with concrete blocks in aftershocks!” Charlie guffawed at his intended rhyme, grabbed a soda from the fridge, and hopped down the steps to the backyard.
A shipment of lumber arrived the next day in a Home Depot van, as Maime was taking final stitches to the sunburst applique on a turquoise tank dress for one of Cinnamon’s school chums. She slung the dress over her shoulder and waved young delivery men Ollie and Stan around the east side of the house. She could have sworn she saw peek-and-duck activity in her uphill neighbors’ window, but she shrugged it off, knowing that, after hours of close work, her 83-year-old eyes liked to play tricks on her.
Ollie and Stan -- their real names, much to Maime’s delight as, true to their predecessors, Ollie was corpulent and bombastic and Stan was willowy and wimpy -- dragged and clattered pile after pile of 2x4s into the back yard, incessantly whistling in unison a dissonant tune Maime didn’t recognize. It sounded to her like a dirge, and its ghost annoyed her for hours after Ollie and Stan had driven away. Charlie would later identify it as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” “It’s the only song they can whistle,” Charlie chortled as he divided nails from screws. “At first, I wanted to throttle ‘em, but the irony won me over.” Maime didn’t get the joke, and made a mental note to stop by the Amoeba record store on Telegraph to listen to the original, for a little musical education...and a possible aural exorcism.
Before the commencement of sawing and hammering, Maime took it upon herself to compose an apologetic note to her neighbors, assuring them that the bangs and buzzes would only last about 10 days, begin after 11am and end by 3pm, and they’d suffer no construction noise at all on Sundays. She tucked her handwritten cards in the mailboxes of all concerned, and headed off to the farmer’s market for the day, secure in the knowledge she’d done the right thing by her little community.
Several hours later, lugging a healthy armful of new projects from her car, Maime was delighted to find on her porch a milk bottle vase full of fresh-cut circus roses. She recognized the flowers as being from The Bickersons’ yard -- she’d even spotted one of the fuller bi-color blooms that morning while it was still attached to the bush -- and buried her nose in the blossom as she unlocked her front door. An unaddressed envelope had been stuck in the doorjamb, containing a calligraphed note from Maria Callas on fine, cream-colored Crane stationery. “I will enjoy the sounds of your new creation just as you so graciously enjoy mine,” it read. Maime clapped her hand over her mouth to prevent an explosive laugh from being heard across the street, having no desire to hurt artistic feelings. Then Media Geek, plugged with earbuds, ran past Maime’s house and jammed both of his thumbs in the air, a neighborly approval on the fly.
“Three out of four,” Maime shrugged as she dumped her pile of work on the sofa. She could hear Charlie in the back yard, rhythmically tapping away at a nail head, preventing her from hearing the matched rhythm of knocking on her front door. Maime waved at the very focused Charlie as she passed the rear window, on her way to the bathroom for a private moment of solitude and reflection.
Just as Maime took her seat, Charlie stopped tapping -- but the knocking persisted. She paused before pulling up her cotton Fruit-of-the-Looms, and called out to Charlie, who was wired in with an iPod mix of pre-psychedelic Beatles and pre-obese Elvis. Maime got to the front door just as an escalated pounding started, and opened it to find a petite, short-haired blonde woman in riding clothes holding a crop in her tightly-folded arms. Maime recognized her as New Neighbor Female, and braced herself as best she could with a full bladder. It occurred to her that bringing a crop to a neighborly conversation made it anything but.
The icy blonde’s scowl was calibrated to melt flesh, but Maime had not completed her desired bathroom activities, so was armed with a biological defiance. “Yes?” Maime’s tone was urgent for any number of reasons. The blonde’s shrill voice julienned Maime’s ears. “Your workmen are disturbing my nap.” Maime squinted to imagine what napping in skin-tight jodhpurs and leather boots might look like. “I’m sorry,” Maime squirmed, thankful she’d been practicing her kegel exercises, “but I did leave a note of warning in your mailbox.”
The crop wriggled in the woman’s arms, seemingly of its own accord, and Maime took a step back from what could only be the threat of a whipping. She fixed her gaze on the object and followed its every twitch; in this woman’s severe hand, it had a life of its own. “It wasn’t an official notification,” the crop hissed, its leather strap fluttering from the crook in the woman’s elbow and flapping dangerously close to Maime’s nose. “There are noise ordinances, you know. Laws. AND,” the crop hastened to add, “your structure is obviously larger than codes allow. We’ll be filing a complaint with the city tomorrow morning!”
Maime took one more step back from the crop and its owner, reached for the knob, and tucked herself halfway behind the door, blurting, “I’ll check with the city and make sure I comply. Sorry you’re disturbed. Nice to meet you.” Maime shut the door and trotted back to the bathroom. Heavy boot heels clomped on her porch, down her driveway and up the sidewalk. Maime knew in her heart they were Boot Heels from Hell...