the complete tales of ketzia gold
by Kate Bernheimer
© 1999
 

"The Saltmarsh Tale of Lies"

I want to tell you something, so listen. I saw two bathers flying. They flew with their breasts turned heavenward and their backs faced hellward. The first wore a striped bikini, the second a plain pair of trunks. Once I saw a bird in a shake at the boardwalk's fancy ice cream stand, and then an anchor and some dune grass swam across the bay just as gracefully as you please. The anchor was surprising but dune grass is more lovely. Four girls in eyeglasses tried to catch a rabbit that lived in the mansion lawn. The first girl was sad, the second girl was afraid, the third girl was insecure and the fourth girl was just plain mean. Do you want to know what happened? The first saw the animal and tearfully told the second, who ran away to tell the third, who tried in vain to catch the rabbit. Shut up if you don't believe me. This is all in the country by the sea where a lobster chased me to a field of windflowers enclosed by a wall. Inside I saw a cow, who had gotten there by leaping. There are greenflies and blackflies and dragonflies there. So open the window and let the lies out, I say.

 

* * *

 

Brown paneling and a low ceiling trapped darkness here. The bedroom's only window faced a dead-end street, lined with oaks and maples. The Golds had filled this unremarkable nursery with several fine items for their young girls: the wood rocker with scratchy red upholstery, the white crib painted with dancing elephants and monkeys, and the stiff fur plaything, a seal on wheels, larger than Ketzia at this age, that sat in the middle of the room, waiting to carry her through toddling days. It presided over a kidney-shaped brown shag rug.

Meredith-or, as the family called her, Merry-Ketzia's older sister, lay on her back in a small cot next to the crib. Above Merry's bed hung a monkey, suspended from the ceiling by a spring attached to its head. The monkey sprung toward the ceiling and down again as Merry kicked the bottom of its feet with the bottom of her own. "Monkee-kee, Monkee-kee," Merry said, "My Mon-kee." It had a rather sickly smile, giant ears and denim jeans.

Ketzia lay in the crib on her stomach, arms twisted, hands palm-down by her sides. Pressing a cheek into the pale pink blanket that would later be known as "Sniffy" due to an unfortunate "accident" with Mrs Gold's bottle of expensive perfume, Ketzia launched two green eyes about the room, noted the orange sheer curtains and the light coming through them-tossing shadows of suburban leaves on the wall-and perhaps, though we can't be certain, the stolid gaze of her sister Merry who looked away at once upon meeting Ketzia's eyes.

 

* * *

"The Star Pennies"

I'm going to tell you something. For a long time I was so poor that I only had one room to live in with a small cot to sleep on. This room was on the road of oracles. You could hear the cars go by through the thin motel door. I did have some real things in storage at my parents' house-a brass bed, an automatic drip coffee maker, a woolen pea coat-but I was too old to go home. And my husband and I were no longer together.

I was tired a lot of the time. I was in a warm place that on the map was always orange, sometimes lined in red. This is on the television, and in the paper. I spent my days walking the desert under the hot sun in a cowboy hat Adam had bought me downtown in another state. We saw the swans that day, and a pigeon ate peanuts off Adam's shoulder while I screeched with fake terror, nearby.

I managed to keep myself fed. I was too proud to ask Adam for money. Money should not pass hands that way, though one must give it to strangers. My parents had lent me so much over the years I was finally too embarrassed to ask them for more. I had learned my lesson well.

I walked down a hot, six-laned speedway every blazing morning to a shop where two teenage boys gave me a plastic bag full of bagels. They did not sell all the bagels every day, they said. "We have yesterday's bagels for you," they said. The boys wore shirts of many colors with bursts of white naked fabric throughout the colors.

Pumpernickel, garlic, sesame, raisin, a wondrous kind called everything.

I'd walk west on the speedway past the road of oracles to a red-rocked hilly place called the monument. Then I wandered up and down dried-out riverbeds. Thorny plants were all about and when the sun set and snakes came out onto the thin-shaded sand, I'd walk east to the road of oracles and leave the desert behind.

Back at the motel, I would pass by the office and lower my chin in a kind of greeting. I entered my small motel room through a door that was never locked and felt as though made of cardboard. The manager had given me a cheap monthly rate. He knew I got my money selling plasma. He mostly let rooms by the hour and had a place for me.

As part payment, the manager could see me through a glass window that was shady and grey, though I could only see myself. Inside, everything was dark and seemed like a photograph negative.

Each evening, I would strip and wash my body head to foot with soap the manager, with his biker's t-shirt and beautiful hair, left on the sink for me daily. This soap was wrapped in white paper and you could smell the soap through the paper when you entered the room from the road. I would hang my brown dress-so delicately flecked with tiny pink roses-in the bathroom, so the steam could straighten all the small wrinkles. I'd pull my hair back into a tight, wet ponytail and face the mirror, dimming my expression and shrinking into my body. Then, I lay on the bed in my pale slip and let hot tears burn lines on my cheeks. But only for a moment.

Taking a deep breath, I would try to imagine an erotic scene that might save me. I'd stretch my body out so my hands brushed the pressboard wall and my feet dangled in the hot desert air. Lying flat, I would wait for someone to come. I barely slept that entire year, there was so much to hear inside my head, and out. Inside was the waiting game. Outside, coyotes sang. At first, I thought I was hearing a gang of weeping children come to cover the earth. Soon their howls sent words and I knew what they meant.

I started to call Adam from the motel desk every morning to tell him. I knew we would not be together, which made me ashamed, so I'd hang up as soon as I heard his voice. Every day I did this, but by winter's end, that first season of no food or money and only me to walk and weep, I was so weak the telephone seemed too heavy for my hand. Yet still I would call. I'd go into the office where the manager would hand me the phone without a word, his head tilted back, mid-dream. I would dial the number and let the receiver thud down to the counter, then leave for my walk. I guess the manager hung it up later, upon waking.

In spring I called for the very last time. I was so hopeless I had decided the whole world had forsaken me and it was only a matter of time until the real end. An owl with a snake in its mouth had flown by my face one dawn, darkening my skin. Telling Adam of my troubles was beside the point, now the true end was on its way.

I continued to walk the desert floor daily. With my stale bagels and in my floral dress and western hat which I kept quite clean despite my despair, I made a pretty picture for many gaping tourists. "A native," I would occasionally hear one whisper. This struck me as hysterical, for it's all a terrible mistake. Still, I knew much about the desert and I tried to communicate all I knew with my eyes. The end is coming, my eyebrows warned them, heed the prickly pear. If the prickly pear has bloomed, find cover!

One pale day, I walked further than ever. It was the hottest time I had ever known in the desert. Even my bones felt the sun. Everything was dead, dried up in the vast oven of sky and earth. I came upon a man poorer than even myself. "I'm so hungry," he said. His skin looked made of wood. I let the plastic bag fall from my hand and watched as it landed and melted onto a rock. My head burned so, the burning felt cold, and I felt a solitary ice cube melt through my skull. I walked from the man and my bagels.

Soon I found a child resting near a spiny ocotillo. "My head is so cold," the child said. "Mine too," I answered, "My head is so hot, it's cold." She just stared. I took the leather hat Adam had given me and placed it on the child's head. She reached her hands up and felt along its band, patterned with colors and made of bird's feathers. The child leaned against the ocotillo. "No!" I cried, because the ocotillo is like nails. She fell asleep apparently unharmed. I bid farewell to the hat and the girl.

Farther along, I saw another child. He had no shirt and small circles under his eyes. "Take my dress," I told him. "It's made of rayon, a fabric they say is fine as silk. You can wash it when the monsoons come just by standing beneath a cloud." The dress swept the desert floor as the boy walked away, the dress covered his hands with its long flowing sleeves.

At last I came to the deep saguaro forest, with its angular cacti, tired and old. The sun no longer slapped my head. It was so dark that when the last child asked me for my under slip I thought, what does it matter, no one will see me in this dark. Stepping out of the pink slip I remembered how I used to vacuum in my underwear, while Adam slept. I said, "This slip is from a special shop. There they sell only lingerie. My husband bought it for me, he picked it out for me." This was a lie, since I'd bought it myself at Val-U-Village which was across from the motel. It cost one dollar.

As I stood there naked with nothing left, I looked toward the flickering lights of the desert city's limits. And I thought of the people who inhabited the place, in their kitchens and bathrooms and garages and yards. I didn't know what they were trying to tell me with the lights that turned on and turned off. They made a pattern I could not yet discern. Why were so many people flickering lights for me to read? All I could tell was that the end was surely imminent. As I lowered my body to sit on the ground and receive it, all the trailers and houses went dim. Then the dimmed lights became stars, and those dull amber stars rose to the sky and then fell. I crouched on the ground trying to gather the stars, which glittered darkly like jewels, or like pennies. I held some in my hands and found my way through the night.

Back at the motel, on the narrow but clean cot, I lay down for my first good sleep since winter. I put the star pennies under my pillow for luck.

When I woke what I believe now to have been many days and nights later, I did not understand where my dress was, and why my cheek was pressed into what seemed to be gravel. The manager stood above me, lifted my cageling arms into one of his grey-black t-shirts with an eagle on the back. He gave me some leather pants to wear. The pants were so heavy on my legs that I understood how we are all animals.

I let myself be sheparded into the motel office where I took the phone and called Adam. When I heard Adam's voice rise toward me, I wavered and almost fell down. The manager spoke into the phone for me then, eyeballing me kindly for the very last time.

In my room, I changed into a new pink dress which the manager bought me at Val-U-Village. It had an elastic waist and sleeves like wings and it opened between my legs when I walked. I peered into the one-way mirror.

Back in the office, I sat on the counter, and slung my legs toward the manager who stroked them. I turned myself toward the door. I fingered the money Adam had wired, and the dress, soft as light, and watched for the sunflower cab.

 

* * *

 

Mrs Gold readied the outfit for wearing: a velvet dress, cotton tights and patent leather shoes as shiny as beetles. Ketzia gazed upon the preparations which already found her in ruffled underpants. Downstairs on the kitchen counter sat a perfect birthday cake, marshmallow-frosted and topped with a single candle in the shape of a heart. "She hasn't stopped smiling since she was born," Mr Gold said to a figure in the hallway, invisible from the room, who cast a long female shadow over the changing table. "She smiles, but never talks." A woman's whisper: "Is there something wrong?"

As Mrs Gold wrestled a giggling Ketzia into the new rose-colored dress, Merry watched on, her mind on the presents downstairs at Ketzia's chair by the wooden kitchen table. She patted Ketzia's forehead with a heavy hand. "Little Ketzia," she said, putting her nose against Ketzia's own and pressing it down. "Little ugly baby," Merry said under her breath. Then, twisting thick braids onto her face like a mustache, she slipped out of the room. "Henry?" Mrs Gold called. But Mr Gold was gone from the scene. Ketzia stared at the ceiling, upon which shadows crossed.

Putting on a record of cartoon singing chipmunks, Mrs Gold spun Ketzia in circles. This was Ketzia's favorite game: when let go, she'd stagger toward the fancy wallpaper, recently installed by Mr Gold's confident hands. The paper featured ballerinas in pink gauze tutus that flared out from the wall-a brand new textile fashion. Looking closely, one could detect strands of gold and silver woven into the paper which made it sparkle in light.

Ketzia, aware of the special fabric of her rosy dress and especially excited, spun toward the dancers, brushing against the wall again and again sent careening by her mother. She fingered the pink tutus, touched them with awe and with fear, as she touched everything, and as she would later a thin sliver of cake, the only one salvaged from the garbage pail's bottom, where Merry's jealous tossing had put the confection.

Ketzia touched the girls on the wall without making a sound. "Good Ketzia," Mrs Gold said, watching with a distracted frown. "Good little one-year-old monkey." She took hold of Ketzia's arm and spun her again, spun her around pretty hard.

 

* * *

"A Riddling Tale"

For a short but rather confusing time when I was younger, my sisters and I turned into flowers. We were left to grow in a window box all day, and only my sister was allowed inside at night. She had strong leaves and many blooms, like us all then, but hers were stronger, and more many. My mother kept her by the bedside to sleep, and returned her to our box for day.

One morning, as my older sister fixed the crystals for my mother's coffee before going back to the box, she said "If you come pick me this morning, and let me inside for the day, I'll never leave home for some man."

And so later my mother went to the window box and pulled her from the roots. After that, my sister wasn't a portulaca.

Here is a riddle for you. How did my mother know which one was my older sister, if we were three identical ground roses among the wandering jew? That riddle is easy to answer. My older sister had been indoors all night and had no dew upon her. She stood out in matte red dullness.

An other riddle is harder to answer. My older sister married just one year later, leaving me and my little sister with my mother and her moods. Why?

 

* * *

 

You may think the life of a transcriptionist rather dull and small in this modern, visual time. But I find it leaves the mind free to roam hither and thither. Please, let me explain. After a string of troublingly 'social' office positions, I answered an ad for a typist for a group of private detectives. The ad described the opening in refreshingly simple terms: "Accurate, independent transcriptionist needed, good pay." They didn't want a "self-starting people-person." This wasn't a "challenging job with lots of potential." Fine with me. To be perfectly frank, my interest in office procedures has little to do with ambition.

This is why transcriptionist work at Triple D Co. has turned out to be perfect, with a perfect routine, perfect tone. The college-educated president founded the business after his wife left him for his father. The D's, he told me in my interview, stand for Depraved, Dishonest and Debauched, but my boss goes by Triple D because he always wanted to work in a factory. "Triple D has a factory feel," he acknowledged. When he told me about his factory-dream, I knew I had found a good home. Factories tend to be organized, and I like a routine.

I arrive at work every day with a steaming cup of coffee in a bright blue cardboard cup, bought from the Greek deli downstairs. I sit at my station, place on my headphones and boot up the system. Eventually the investigators trickle into the cement-walled room. They drop their tapes onto my grey metal desk for transcription-usually uneventful narrations chronicling the non-goings-on of suspected adulterers, poor things, caught in entirely natural acts. Occasionally, an investigator will leave a handgun at my desk, then pick it up on his way out. I suspect that these handguns are not real. I assume the clients are.

Even after a couple of years I find the drone of the detectives' voices a comfort in my ears as I pedal away on the Dictaphone. When I hit a good rhythm I can type without stopping for very long periods, gazing out the grimy window until the city sun goes down. There is a maple tree in the alley and I mark the passing of time by its changing colors. The light falling down through its leaves makes me sigh.

When the day is done, I shut down the system and go home on the trolley. I listen to my radio headphones then, turned onto the public broadcasts of news, their soothing tones. This suffices to remind me of my investigating men.

 

* * *

"A Confused Ketzia Helps Grandmother"

Once when I was younger I got home late from guitar and found my grandmother at the stove. "Grandmother," I said surprised. "Where's mom?" "She had a temple meeting," my grandmother answered. "She's bringing home pizza for supper." My grandmother never came over without my grandfather, so I was confused. I was also lightheaded from my music lesson. I often got overexcited and held my breath during it.

I sat at the counter and cupped my chin in what I considered a girlish, contemplative pose. I decided not to mention Grandfather because I was glad for his absence, but unsure about why. Watching Grandmother open the oven, I caught a whiff of chicken. She was preparing for Rosh Hoshana. "O," I exclaimed. "Is there any crackling?" I loved crackling. Forget the diet. I ate a piece off a greasy paper napkin. "Mm," I said to ask for more.

"Ketzala," she admonished. "Leave some for your sisters! And the flavor may be delicious, but you have to watch your figure. Otherwise, who else will?"

"I don't care," I said. "And Merry and Lucy don't know you're here." My siblings who socialized a lot with the boys were out. I resumed the girlish pose and continued to watch Grandmother. A hush took over as she basted the chicken.

"What are you wearing to temple?" I asked, interrupting the stillness. "The same," Grandmother answered, meaning beige suit, long pearls. "You should wear that dress you wore to the anniversary." She was talking about a pink dress I had with pictures of mice all over it. The mice on the bottom edge of the skirt had real bows sewn onto their little mice heads, and when I wore it I wore a bow in my hair that matched.

"It's ugly, Grandmother." The outfit made me look so fat that if I even saw it hanging in my closet I cried.

I stretched out my hand, palm up, for more crackling. Every piece my grandmother gave me I popped in my mouth while still hot. I liked the electric feel it gave my tongue. There was so much that I had to stop after a while because of illness. My mother came home around ten and drank beer with a lemon. She and my grandmother leaned their heads together and talked. I heard my grandfather's name. Stern looks were exchanged, and stern voices, ". . . not allowed over," and such. I kept a tiny grin on my face in case they thought I was listening, to prove that I wasn't. Then my sisters came home, aglow from their boys. I sat holding my stomach and watching.

My father didn't arrive until way after midnight. When he saw that the kitchen was full of people, fluorescence filling the hall, he got kind of mad. "Don't tire us out before the holidays," he admonished my mother. "The girls need their beauty sleep." He turned to me. "Don't eat so much, Ketzia." And to my grandmother, "Why are you fussing over chicken? What's the big deal?" He smelled of liquor, perfume. My mother looked grim and clenched her bottle of beer.

"Ach," Grandmother sighed, pouring some wine. "First you complain I never come over, then you get angry." "I'm not angry," said my father, taking a drink.

I just wanted everyone happy, in time for Rosh Hoshana. "It's a blessing!" I yelled, uncharacteristic for me. Everyone looked really startled. I rushed over to the stove and gestured toward the bird, to explain. "Look, Dad, the beautiful bird! Giving us so much crackling!" I was bent over a little because I was so full. He stared at me like I was insane. "You love crackling, don't you?" I implored. My voice raised tentatively at the end of the sentence. "Go to bed, Merry-Hansel-I mean Ketzia," he answered.

"Doesn't he love crackling?" I pleaded, turning to my mother who shrugged, taking another beer from the fridge. This kind of thing seemed to happen often. That is, sometimes I forgot what was true, and what was just a feeling.