The Pristine

    by Barry Dinerman

    It was as though she’d been fed prenatally on fig leaf juice from the Garden, so innocent was her appetite. Vivienne Koval loved the sound of voices in crowded restaurants. Even as she guided coins to slots in the bygone Horn & Hardart Automat, subtleties in strangers’ voices held more magic for her than the tiny doors that opened to rice pudding. There was that couple: No, no, they sort of sang—newlyweds who flirted with each other teasing no into yes, here, now. It must’ve been the young man’s solid chin that freed him to cry no, the last time in falsetto. Vivienne remembered the purl of his voice as though he flirted today. She learned from every voice she heard, caressed sound as skin forbidden. Bone density dwindled and both breasts were gone but she wasn’t done. Not Vivienne Koval, widowed in 2004, all ears and still in the crowd.

    Tonight her table was uneven, needed cardboard under one leg. But the wobble at Café Bella was welcome. It jiggled the memory of seeing her husband Ernst for the first time and wondering how the world could contain him. She thought back to the deli at 54th and City Line and how she had just sat down at a wobbly table when a young man with curly hair rose from his chair, crossed to her and put two matchbooks under the offending leg. She thanked him and remembered the first words she heard him say: “I’m writing a paper. That noise is abominable.” And looking at her, mumbled “My God” and returned to work.

    Vivienne reached into her purse and felt the matchbooks Ernst used years ago to buffer. The fawns under each cover urged strikers to sketch them before the fires in ads for The Draw Me Correspondence School. She never could’ve abandoned them wedged between leg and floor after Ernst rushed from the deli paperwork in tow. During his graveside service, she had held the fawns in her fists as amulets against Laurel Hill’s audacious monuments. Who were these people, pharaohs? Caesars? Saints?

    She silently ordered the table at Bella’s to cease, desist. The wood snickered. Vivienne thought of Ernst’s scholarly work and the first comments from a peer reviewer that suggested cracks in his voice. She lost her coffee to the tabletop.

    Outside the café, a downpour. Slick cobblestones threatened to toss her, shatter her hip. She grabbed storefronts for support. Walked sideways grasping buildings. Passersby probably thought she was blind by the way she touched facades as though they were faces. A young man—no, middle-aged but boyish—stopped as she paused to steady herself. She studied him, ready to grab her mace. But from years teaching ESL in Chinatown, she recognized the Pacific in him mixed with ambiguous sand and momentarily felt safe.

    “You okay?” he asked.

    Vivienne reverted to her ESL voice, slow, reassuring. She used whatever body language possible—difficult while clinging to walls. “I’m fine, thank you.” Still, the hour and the sting of freezing rain and the rawness of tissue under her arms, even the memory of how lovely she’d once been, signaled time to flash her weapon.

    “What’re you doing?”

    “If you move an inch—” Before she finished warning him, Pacific slipped and fell on his face. Then exhaled the sigh of a conch shell as she dialed 9-1-1.

    She never expected him to look up again and ask again, “You okay?” Nor did she expect a young woman to strut by, glance knowingly at the fallen and laugh. Coat slung over one shoulder, her soaked blouse clung to her nipples with the hale of insatiable infant.

    Emergency lights morphed into uniforms that questioned the young man.

    He told them his address. Surprisingly, he lived in the same building as hers right off 3rd. “Olde View, apartment 201. Here’s identification.”

    Vivienne was disappointed that they’d never met before. But her thoughts flew to two minutes ago. How she could’ve stood there forever and watched him as he did a little push-up, righted himself. Back in the lobby, they laughed. Had their neighbors seen the flashing lights? And his name—had she heard right? David Plent?

    “Middle initial T.”

    “For?”

    “Tao.”

    “What do friends call you?”

    “Plent.”

    The next day Vivienne walked from Ernst’s small headstone to a spot that overlooked the Schuylkill. Here, facing away from her husband, she wouldn’t tug at him with superfluous thoughts. She had only one afterlife fantasy, and that involved Ernst’s need for silence. He had unfinished arguments and massive rage that he had to extract from his core. These were the things she tried to help him with in life. She knew his bite often troubled other scholars and she tried to teach him to weigh every word, place each delicately as a child sets chairs in a dollhouse. Now, regardless of stumbled spirituality, Vivienne wanted calm for Ernst’s thoughts. She stroked the fawns and watched water eddy while she told the swirls, “You wouldn’t believe what happened last night.” But a ripple—like the back of a hand—smacked a rock and raised muddy waters.

    ***

    The first scribble across one of Ernst’s paragraphs was signed Paul, that would be Dr. Chesborn, and read: Without an elegantly nuanced approach, readers are apt to recoil. Soon the department chair, a naïve Chesborn loyalist with glowing cheeks, became a fixture in Ernst’s class. Simon Einhauer offered encouraging looks throughout the Spring of ’71. Celebrated as a good man in a time of flag burnings and bullhorns, Einhauer was a campus beloved. He valued his status, though he was embarrassed by his selection as Mister Wonderful, wasn’t it a random wealth? And thought it ludicrous that he might be canonized once he obeyed the inevitable order from Chesborn and the dean to dismiss Dr. Koval.

    Scrawls earn their names with loops of fury. Vivienne never forgot the characters of a second, simpler, Chesborn smear that dislocated the first page of a paper and a hemisphere in Ernst’s brain. Vacuous. Shortly after came The Lecture, which was how she and Ernst referred to the event until the day he died. Students spilled into lecture hall pissed and antsy after reading symbolic analyses of the Garden myth. They claimed that out of the blue Dr. Koval warped—they used that word repeatedly, created a mantra—warped the intent and meaning of assigned readings and in doing so defiled the world’s religions. Hurt and confused every student present. Terrified the female students. Even wounded Dr. Einhauer.

    Vivienne asked Simon, “Did Ernst’s words hurt you, Simon?”

    Under a new kind of pressure applied by Chesborn and the dean and strengthened by the voices of students’ parents, generous alumni, Einhauer caved. Raised a fist he never knew he had. “Students must feel safe here. Monks are torching themselves on NBC. We’re seeing villages incinerating, children’s skin melting. This,” Einhauer raised his arms as though embracing and protecting the entire campus, “is not the University of Napalm.” Arms aloft and cheeks ablaze, Einhauer felt an untamed rush and loved it unashamedly. “Hurt? Yes.” His bottom lip took off like a missile. “Irreparably harmed.”

    And was. Three days after he fired Dr. Koval, Einhauer’s heart exploded. His out-of-control Ford Falcon—bereft—jumped the curb and smashed into the street-level entrance to the Temple University subway stop.

    The university mourned and elevated its beloved to a god.

    ***

    Museum day with Plent, a kind of date. First, a feast for both of them as they studied Modigliani’s women at the new Barnes. In the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Moorish Chief seemed to stun and unsettle Plent. And once back in the car (despite Vivienne’s objection), Plent drove to Springhouse and introduced her to a very different venue, The Stoogeum—dedicated to Larry, Moe, and Curly. Between yucks and hammers in the odd plush of the theater to which all exhibits led, Vivienne flashed to the lecture hall and Ernst’s “warped” words. But Moe poked Curly in the eyes, and Vivienne, a surprised marionette tugged by renegade string, slapped her palm to her mouth and laughed. Then came another burst as she defended her intelligence. “These guys aren’t funny.”

    A second later a man down front saluted the slap-happy trio, yelled “Conquistadores!” The audience peed.

    Vivienne nudged Plent. Whispered: “My husband claimed that God molested Eve.”

    A brush tarred Larry’s face. Laughs started in noses. Snorts cartwheeled nostril over nostril. Huge hook in hand, Curly caught Moe’s whitefish of a tongue, and as theatergoers exited many agreed, “That was REALLY good.”

    There was still daylight. Vivienne, dizzy, asked to visit a muddy museum.

    Mrs. Koval looked away from her husband’s stone as though a life-support plug still needed to be pulled. Nearby, a marble palace on a hill piggybacked a baby palace; with an alley-oop, both lifted another thrown. Vivienne shrugged the open palm of one hand. “So many Taj Mahals. Silly.”

    “But spectacular.”

    “See that mausoleum? Big as the Alamo. Bet the family inside’s still fighting.” Plent laughed. Vivienne adored his white teeth. She had something else to tell him, though his laugh might be lost to her forever. “I hate coming here. I chose this place because it’s close to home. What a misstep. I’m moving Ernst. Legal work’s done. He’ll be disinterred and reburied somewhere quieter, less ostentatious. He liked quiet.” She spotted a squirrel and watched it dig, afraid her news would bring horror to Plent’s face.

    “May I stay close to you whatever day you rebury?”

    Another push-up from him, another okay. Vivienne leaned against the marble base of a Laurel Hill angel.

    Over the next three days she tried to keep her mind busy. But the note Plent had slipped under her door saying he’d be away for a few days tortured her. After finding it she took a shower and began to rage. It was as though water penetrated her brain, celebrated some alchemic mass, transformed what little patience she had to fury. Later, she tried to read but rose from the sofa and threw down Pushkin’s The Bridegroom. She walked to her front door, pulled it open, then slammed it shut and screamed, “Where is he!” Vivienne opened the door again, moved into the hall, looked left, right, nearly screamed Bastard! She moved back inside and closed the door. Vivienne didn’t trust herself or Pushkin or her couch. The closet she trusted: tore it open: snatched afghans and tossed them to the floor—That’ll teach him! “Two days,” she whispered though she ached to howl. “We went places, I don’t know why. What’s he want with an old lady?” For her neighbors’ peace and her own, she thought she’d better shut up. But knocked-up tissue behind her eyes swelled. The way he looks at women, never misses a pair of tits, and-they-all-look-back-at-him. Vivienne’s scream was not okay. “WHERE IS HE!” Mid-shout she noticed a harpy in her living room mirror. This was not a woman she’d invite into her home, but she needed a closer look. There was a bigger mirror in the bedroom. The face she found there begged to be restrained. In the sick of the moment, Vivienne found a solution to killing the intruder. She peeled off her clothing and scrutinized her naked body. Until then she had not faced completely the ferocity of her torn-up chest. The reality shocked the hell out of her; cleared the room.

    Calmer, controlled, she met Plent at Café Bella after he called the next day. He looked mussed. “You seem uncomfortable. Want a beer?”

    “Just green tea.”

    She whittled every word to strategic indifference. “When you called you said you just got back from Harrisburg—what’s in Harrisburg?”

    He bit into the phrase: “The dog palace.”

    “Is that—what, another museum?”

    He laughed. “My mother’s home. I visit once a month, she’s a dog hoarder. The barking, the howling, the stink. Dogs are great, but eighty of them? They come at you from all directions and push at every part of you.”

    “I’m sorry.” And she was. And for a second she had never been angry with him, never could’ve been angry. “Do you stay with her?”

    “God, no. I drop in for a few hours a month. Out of duty. Every time I leave she says, ‘You dog, you’ and blows me a kiss.”

    Vivienne reached for something positive to say. “Sometimes a parent’s comments are—”

    “Apt.” Plent wrapped the string around the tea bag and pulled.

    Afterward, the cobblestones were easy. Vivienne understood the lay of the land as they walked back home together. And while she didn’t see any hotties with coats slung over their shoulders, she knew they were nearby. She sat in the lobby with him for no more than thirty seconds before his phone vibrated and he whispered “I’ll be up.” He kissed his forefinger, touched it to Vivienne’s cheek, pressed for the elevator—to her it all seemed like one movement. Vivienne stayed down. Looked through Vanity Fair on her tablet and tried to ignore the chuckle of water as it slipped through pipes in the lobby wall. Probably a bubble bath draining from Plent’s apartment, she thought. Then there was a clopping down steps (steps few people used)—she didn’t think it was him but there he was, one foot on the lobby floor, the other still on the bottom step, his left arm stretched behind him with his hand wrapped round the banister. She saw he had changed into flip-flops without socks, too young a look—at least to her.

                “I was rude just now. I’m sorry.”

                “You were hurried as you should’ve been.” She saw him cock his head and watched his eyes gain interest; and while it could have been her imagination, they flashed a bit as though creating a new portrait of her, and she liked the picture. “Just watch yourself on the stairs with those silly things on your feet.” She had picked up the smart-ass tone from some contributor to the magazine she skimmed. Though she tried to squelch the sound, condescension adhered to her tongue. “And Plent: I don’t require loyalty or apology. My years allow me to develop new character flaws as needed. Now get back upstairs while you’re relatively young. And enjoy her.”

                Alone in the lobby, Vivienne couldn’t help but admire the new tweak in her voice.

    ***

                “Ernst dear, what are you trying to say?” Two days; five more times to change the sheets and empty bedpans before the trap closed forever.

                His lips, bubbling popping quicksand, sucked up her face. It took him a minute to complete the wheeze, “What was I trying to say?”

                “Yes sweetheart, what are you trying to say?”

    The swamp triple-popped. “No! What was, was! I trying to say.” Bubble. “Goddamnit.”

                “The paper? The Lecture?”

                Ernst howled in relief at being understood.

                Now, for the thousandth time, Vivienne reviewed The Lecture. “If only you could’ve developed your thoughts without academia’s political bullshit.”

                Ernst blew her a kiss.

                “Without your anger.”

                More kisses.

    “You wanted to say God made a troubling mistake. Created woman, the most beautiful thing in the world. And then gave birth to naiveté by stupidly giving her away to Adam.”

                Ernst cried.

                “Eve was more perfect than anything, right? You told me she was ‘a burst of fire. The first volcano in the firmament.'” Vivienne interpreted a rush of air from Ernst’s lips as a gush of satisfaction. “No, God couldn’t give her up. Couldn’t sabotage himself. And as Eve took her second breath, the worst thing happened: God saw himself naked and felt ashamed; angry.”

    Ernst’s eyes rolled horizontally.

    “God tickled Eve until she giggled helplessly. And the Garden became an eatery filled with Eve’s childlike tee-hees and God’s ‘good, good’ pronouncements. So my Ernst. God created death and pain and blamed them on the temptations, weaknesses, hunger of his victims.”

    Then Mrs. Koval thought of Ernst’s wedding night surprise when he admitted that the fawns were his most treasured possessions. That he placed them under her table because he loved her instantly and was scared to do anything but run.

    ***

    She sat on a bench at the distant cemetery while they smoothed the soil above Ernst’s second grave. An absent Plent texted U OK? She’d return his communication when appropriate and in language that suited her aesthetics. But for the moment she remained unfazed, at least she told herself that. His absence didn’t surprise her. She knew what he was now, understood flip-flop escapades.

                She was about to tell him as much at Bella’s where he tracked her down next day. But he walked in with a long face, an affectation that didn’t suit him, no, not at all, and it pissed her off. Bad.

                “You okay?”

                “Ever get tired asking that? ‘You okay? Okay?'”

    “You’re not,” he shrank a bit, “feeling well.”

    She was not. Vertigo swiped her table’s legs. Everything swayed and she felt cut off at the knees. “I just buried my husband for the second time.”

    “I saw. I was there.”

    She squinted a suspicious where?

    “At George Washington Memorial. I started to walk toward you but turned away. Seeing the box lowered made me sick. Sorry.”

    Vivienne continued defiantly as though trying to read gospel to booing vaudeville crowds. “My husband, while alive and at the height—no, depth of his powers”—she started to cry but slapped the wet off her face and looked ferociously at the fluid on her finger. “Shit!”

    “Easy on yourself.”

    Now furious that Plent had walked away: “What’re you doing here? Go feed your Harrisburg dogs.”

    “They’re not my dogs.”

    “You sniff every ass in town.”

    “Where’s this coming from?”

    “I don’t know!” More tears.

    “Come on, we’ll get you home.”

    “My husband, my truly loving and brilliant husband was stupid beyond words.”

    “Don’t do this here.”

    She mimicked him. “Don’t do this here! Tell me, where’s the proper place to mourn?” She slammed her fist to the table. Voices hushed throughout the café. Then into a phone a young girl launched a nasal-superior, “Some old bitch. Whatever.”

    Oblivious, Vivienne continued. “He defied professors in every department when he knew—

    “Vivienne, please.”

    “—demonstrations against the war were all they wanted. Nobody gave a shit about insane explications of the Bible. Two Kennedys dead, King dead, four students massacred at Kent State. That naked little girl on fire! Her picture plastered all over The New York Times.

    Café Bella’s manager approached the table and knelt so he could whisper to her.

    Before he could make a sound, Vivienne’s face divorced itself from every trace of Mrs. Koval. “I’ve been a regular here since before you were born—now get away from me.”

    He moved backward a step, rose and disappeared.

    Plent, calmly: “You’re scaring me.”

    Actually, she had almost wet herself. But she found sincerity in Plent’s eyes. And once she was sure she could get to the bathroom in time, Vivienne chose to gather herself, gather her dignity and poise and acknowledge her bad conduct. “Wrong time, place.” Outside the restroom door she added, “How like my dead husband. He gets fired and compounds failure with more convolution.” Before she could reach for the knob the door swung open and smacked her face. The accidental smacker, a tiny woman with hair down to her waist got hysterical—thought she had killed Vivienne—screamed and grabbed her in an inverted Heimlich maneuver, tried to hold Vivienne up when Mrs. Koval needed no help at all. Vivienne turned her head and saw Plent running toward her. “I’m okay, okay.” And once the woman released her, Mrs. Koval turned to everyone in the café, held up two palms and said, “Everybody calm down.” She cocked her head and tightened her lips. Moved her eyes from table to table as though reprimanding children throughout some classroom. Then disappeared behind the door.

    Plent smiled when she returned to their table. He loved her pluck. “You’re squirrelly sometimes.”

    “That’s from burying the biggest crackpot in the Garden.” She sat. With her eyes she dared Plent to contradict her.

    “Ernst’s added convolution. What was it?”

    She pfffted an accidental laugh and then laughed again because of the sound she made. “I don’t know why I’m laughing like this.”

    “You’re exhausted.”

    “After being fired he did nothing but sit and think and shake his head for years. Collect disability checks. I taught, sold antiques. Suddenly he said he had ‘an announcement.'” Vivienne shook her head and whispered, “I should’ve killed him then and there.”

                 Plent laughed. She laughed because Plent laughed and because everything hurt so much, the little whack to her face; the sad corpse she had buried clutching his doctoral cap and gown then dug up and dropped down again. And the burning, the constant pain under her arms.

    Plent took her hand. “His announcement. Tell me.”

                “Ernst called the university. Said he had a lecture that’d put the school on the map. Attract the most respected scholars. Win Temple a famous, controversial president.”

                “He wasn’t well.”

                She squeezed Plent’s hand and tried to ignore how thin the skin on the back of her own hand had become; how her veins seemed engorged and reminded her of the elongated balloons clowns twist into animal shapes at children’s birthday parties. “Ernst presented his new lecture to me and me only. Hundreds of times. And I encouraged him, applauded him, what the hell was I to do?” An attractive woman brushed up against their table. “She’s sweet, isn’t that your expression? But you didn’t even look.”

                 “Get back to Ernst’s new lecture.”

                “Ernst took his old work. Injected steroids. Applied Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality to Eden. The creator, the land, earliest humanity all looked at through the prism of the infantile. Adam and Eve and God—incestuous Gerber babies in a pristine world. FREUD? At least Freud had the brains to retract, rewrite, sometimes repudiate his own work, acknowledge—”

    “Easy, easy.”

    Vivienne stopped and her face relaxed. After a moment she resumed in a whisper. “I buried Ernst farther away. Thought it’d help me stop thinking his thoughts. Create quiet for me, me, not him.”

                “Don’t cry.”

                “Okay.”

                “Calm down.”

                “Right.”

                “Walk with me.”

                Outside a breeze carried them along. No ghosts, no smacks. Vivienne felt lighter, not light in the head. Not dizzy. Free.

    They passed a framing shop. Plent tilted his head. “I own this store.”

    “This?”

    “Yeah.”

    “This one?”

    “This one, yes.”

    “Why do so many women want you?” There it was, flying unexpectantly out her mouth like a flock of crazed parakeets.

    “You’re not asking me this.”

    “Yes, from a safe distance in time—forty, fifty years, I ask.” Then a joke, a lone, lost budgie, flew: “But I’ve got mace—”

    “Vivienne, I’m never going to touch you. So forget the spray crap. And best not drive me away. I’m the only one who thinks you’re sane after that Café Bella exhibition. Jesus, you’re a handful.”

    Vivienne stared at him, surprised by how even-keeled his voice was.

    Plent sat on the curb. “Why do women want me. What kind of question is that? I don’t know what women want. I don’t know what’s in their heads when we first hook up. But after a couple dates, forget it, forget me. Maybe they just want to experiment. Or want some kind of fantasy. But the real me? No, no. They come back sometimes, once, twice. Grudgingly. Like they’re doing me a favor.” He shrugged. “I’m an afterthought.” Plent looked up at her, looked at her differently, like a lifelong friend who expected, needed you to understand no matter what. “I don’t like sex. In a lot of ways I hate it.”

     Vivienne didn’t believe this, couldn’t accept this; and tried to wash him with stricture. “Of course you like sex. You don’t hate sex.”

    “Just because I have a lot of it doesn’t mean I like it. I don’t like it. I don’t like sex. It’s just something I do. I never would’ve fit in your husband’s lunatic Garden.”

    “I never heard of anyone hating sex but to each his own.” She was surprised to find she had touched an ancient storefront. In the window was the going-out-of-business scrawl that had been there forever.

    “What I need—” He pulled his knees to his chest. Looked like he was fighting the impulse to run. “You wouldn’t have a thirty-year-old version of yourself stashed away?” He laughed at himself, and she liked it. “I lie. I’d prefer twenty-two.” A realization—possibly unrelated—crossed his face and left its footprint, aged him mercilessly. Made worn pavement of boyishness.

    Vivienne hoped what she saw was their side of the street losing late afternoon sun, but it was him as he was and would be until he cracked further. “What do you want with an old lady?”

     “Just a break from it all now and then.” He looked up at her, cheeks and eyes in need, knees pulled even tighter to his chest. “Some refuge.” Again he laughed at himself. Shrugged and laughed till it spun falsetto.

    Vivienne looked back toward Bella’s.

    “You won’t look at me now,” he complained.

    “Silly.”

    “Then look at me.”

     “Just thinking. I’m tired of Bella’s. We’re surrounded by cafés.” She freed herself from the storefront. Despite protests from her knees and back, she sat next to her friend and touched his shoulder. “You’re a child, Plent. But look at you. You’re screwing more women, like it or not, than most men your age.” She laughed sadly.

    Plent took a joint from his pocket. Lit it.

    “Are you crazy? Put it out—put—”

    “Just take a couple hits. It’ll relax you.”

    “No.”

    “C’mon.”

    “Oh God, oh God.”

    “It’ll ease your pain.”

     “It’s the Stoogeum all over.” But she took a hit, coughed, took another, coughed again. She laughed. “Here I am. Sitting with a slapped-sad Curly, smoking dope with him. I’m ashamed but shit it’s funny. And I’m so damn old!”

    “You are,” he roared.

    More laughter from the stoners.

    A car swung round the corner filled with teenagers. They lowered a window and tossed a firecracker that exploded near Vivienne’s foot and bubbled the sole of her shoe. Her necrotic screams all but shattered the cobblestone streets of Olde City. Plent scooped her up and without so much as a wobble, carried her home.

    Barry Dinerman’s fiction has appeared in Lullwater Review, Philadelphia Stories, and The Best of Philadelphia Stories Volume 2. He has worked with Edward Albee, Oscar Hijuelos, and Glyn O’Malley. Barry’s full-length plays have been produced by A Contemporary Theater in Seattle and The Quaigh in New York City. Staged readings of his work have been produced at Ensemble Studio Theater’s 14th Annual Conference, the Edward Albee Foundation, Avalanche Theater in Philadelphia, and GPC in Greenwich Village. Barry won first runner-up in The Squaw Valley Playwrights national competition and was awarded The Edward Albee Foundation Fellowship. In addition, his work was featured in The Best Plays of 1975–1976.

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