She had seen Penny’s inside outside dual identity truck from the road, so finding the home of her first Ardensville encounter was no problem. Like many here, homes that is, there was a business in the front and a home in the back. Few people commuted to work much more than passing through a separating door or walking around to the other side of the building.
This is a curious thing. In N.Y.C. for instance, few would live that close to their business, and few own their business, and a 10 mile commute might bite an hour or 2 from their time-starved day.
Here in Ardensville, the aggregate opposite of hyper-urbanism, closeness is prioritized. Close to work, close to home, and close to neighbors.
Penny’s home was set back from the road where her mailbox was. A distance that might have qualified as exercise. Celia wondered if she drove to pick up the mail or walked. She did not appear to be someone who suffered the ravages of exercise. Most likely, she just stopped the truck on the way in or out.
The house was like most in Ardensville; 2or 3 stories with steep roofs, wood siding but expressively sturdy, and none would be seen in public without at least one proper porch. Some were maintained better than others, but none, none occupied were neglected.
There was a large circular rut out front where it was apparent vehicles came, stopped and ,left. In the axis center of that circle was a sign standing in a modest rock and flower arrangement.
Not as meticulous and fabulous as Miles’ flagpole, but well, content. The sign said:
Celia killed the engine and approached the house with the largest of the three boxes. No return address?
Penny’s exterior was definitely at the lower end of maintenance standards but by no means neglected. Her porch steps did creak, more than a little. The depression in the cushions of one of two large porch chairs informed how much it was habitually inhabited. Close by was a large flower pot with a large dead plant. Its death probably due to the wealth of cigarette butts, dead lighters, bottle caps, lemon rinds, matches and, spent cellophane snack packaging. Some folks will thrive in that environment but not plants and definitely not that plant.
Celia put down the package and peered in the screen door. Looked like a cluttered old tailor shop. Dim, dusty boxes of things and racks with dresses and forms and stuff. She looked for a bell or a buzzer and finding neither just called in and knocked on the screen door. In that moment of interruption, the shop and the house, seemed to gasp and hold its breath.
“I’m comin’ out darlin,” a voice cried out from the interior wilderness.
Celia commenced to lean on the house and survey the landscape.
This is why people paint landscapes. Huh.
She heard steps and stood erect. Penny appeared through the screen door.
“There you are,” while she unhooked the door hook at eye height on the screen door. “Come on eein.”
Inside the shop now was as if Dorothy had turned and gone back into the black and white house. There were patches of light from windows but mostly there was dimness. You could not really discern the dimensions of the room as the dimness obscured where objects ended and walls began. Shreds and cuttings of material covered the floor like eastern leaves in autumn. Jars of buttons and boxes of zippers and all manner of things attached and now unattached to Penny’s craft were everywhere.
Celia did not know where was a good spot to put down the box let alone the other two.
“Well what were you expectin’, a Christian Dior runaway?”
“Don’t you mean, runway?” quizzed Celia.
“That’s what I said, runway. Well those postal blues are a real fashion upgrade for you. Keep it up cowgirl.” Penny smiled broadly. “When you get tired a’them postal blues and ya startin’ to think you’re turning into Miles, promise me you’ll come and get fitted for some duds you want to get into on any given morning.”
“Someday, when I grow up, I hope to dress myself. And yes, I promise.“
Penny studied this answer unsure of its depth.
“Well just drop that over there and stay still. I’ve got something for ya I‘ll have to dig out.”
Penny disappeared into the dimness and boxes and racks. She could be heard now but not entirely seen. She asked polite questions about the progress of Celia’s acclimation into Ardensville culture and geography.
“Gotcha ol buddy!!” Penny reappeared with a garment under arm. “Let’s look at’er outside in the light.” The women stepped out onto the porch.
Penny shook out and presented to Celia a jacket. A jacket of Josephian gravity. In form it was only a varsity jacket sort of thing but Penny had thoroughly refaced the outside and inside, so that it was an impossibly beautiful patchwork of materials and colors and shapes. After a pause, Celia picked up her jaw and spoke.
“Penny! Are you a good witch or a bad witch? That’s the most beautiful garment I’ve ever seen. You can’t give that to me. I’m not worthy,” gasped Celia.
“I ain’t no witch at all ya damn mailman. Try’er on. If’n it stay in that box the bugs’ll have at’er and that will be the end of it. We all need to see the light’a day every now and then. See if’n it fits while I get us some refreshments.” Penny again vanished into the abyss.
Once alone, Celia put it on. The experience was more like getting naked than dressed. This is what a beloved garment does. It was her. All over. It was still a warm day and Celia would have no sooner taken off her jacket than she might have torn out her own fingernails. She did not think to ask for a mirror. In fact, she closed her eyes.
“Second I saw you, I said, you two were meant for each other.” Penny had returned with a tray holding two highball glasses, an insulated ice bucket, most of a quart of Jim Beam and a big bag of big pretzel stix. “I got us a three course meal here with all the fixins ’n most of the food groups but I’m a country girl and don’t know no better, nor do I care to. Well I’d say you two were already ole friends. Fits ya real good cowgirl.”
“Penny, I don’t know what to say. This should be in a museum, not on me.”
“I make clothes for living bodies, not mannequins,” Penny said putting ice cubes in the glasses. “Sometimes the mannequins move a lil and I get throwed off. Not this time,” now pouring big boy drinks and busting open the pretzels. “Come’on now, sit ’n visit a while.”
Celia and her jacket parked it in the big patio chair that most likely was not where Penny sat and the tray was between them. Penny handed her a glass. They clinked, sipped, and Penny took her seat.
“So where ya from? Who’s yer people and what in the world brings an eastern flower like yourself out to farm country like this?”
Celia sipped and spun her ice. With her eyes on the sunset horizon, and thinking through a fleeting moment of compressed time, Celia considered the theatrical situation she was in. If she got over now, with this woman, nothing else could go wrong.
“Well, I was working at a P.O. outside of Litchfield Connecticut where I was being stalked by a sorter who…..”
“Sort a what?” Penny interrupted.
“Not what, who. Someone who sorts mail. A sorter.”
“Oh, right. Please continue.”
“So the stalker who was sorting me……”
“The sorter who was stalking me wasn’t getting fired by the manager who was harassing me. So it’s my day off and Jimmy Earl the stalker comes into the P.O. to shoot the place up, only no one’s there on account of everybody went to see a lumber yard burn, so he settled for shooting up the office, himself, and the goldfish I kept on my desk.” Celia stopped and sipped.
“Whew ! I’d say you dodged a bullet right there cowgirl,” Penny exclaimed raising her near empty glass.
“Goldfish was the last straw. I put in for a transfer, and your town seemed far enough. While we’re on the subject, why would a magnolia like yourself be out here with the cottonwoods? If’n ya don’t mind me asking?” Celia drained her cocktail and Penny prepared the next round.
“I do love them cottonwoods, such elegant and noble plants. Now you are a bit young to remember it but whatever, and all you learned about the civil rights years was not even half the story. The further out into hill country, for me, Alabama hills, the more vicious and personal it got. For my family, it was like losing the war all over again. I never shared their philosophies and I just left first chance I had and never went back. My kin forgot about me and me them. Sometimes gets lonely out here, but then there’s now.
“There’s a good spirit in Ardensville. Can’t say what it is. I don’t question it and I love my neighbors. That’s a good life in my book cowgirl.”
Clink! The girls sat, sipped and chewed pretzel stix while the sun kissed the horizon in red and blue and gold.
Right on time.
“Gods bless a cast iron tub.”
Must have been a hundred years old. Celia had a shower in New York, just a shower. Her entire bathroom in NYC was a little bit bigger than the tub she vacationed in now.
Porching with Penny left Celia just a bit too relaxed to actually fill out her Network reports, but she could think about them. Big ole’ hot bath was indeed the ideal place to do just that.
She thought about civility and what that meant. The city had all the civilization that was the other air primary for Celia, and you paid for that divine resource in no small part by conceding that to pursue your muse you will either endure and ignore massive incivility or, through force of wealth, insulate yourself from it. That’s the deal.
On the other hand, where there is no struggle, no drama. The will that smells like stubborn, that’s the thing. Art that comes like sweat. A resting body doesn’t sweat, though it might start to smell bad.
Celia’s desire to investigate all she was thinking and all she could not make sense of flew off in all directions.
What was it about this place? The urban/rural comparisons did not hold up to scrutiny. Life was good, unstressed and marvelously civil and yet, there was a kind of drama. Sometimes it breathed beneath the covers like some Kafkaesque dreamscape, and at other times it flowed, as in the improbable chatter of a completely acclimated Penny.
How could Celia produce substantive reports for the Network, when with every advance in familiarity came greater enigma? Anyway, it was a good day. Shouldn’t ask for too much more than that.
Celia was not one to suffer having drank enough the night before. It felt like having taken a hot bath. Same for her mother, but this was not something they might ever have discussed on the porch.
Up. Had her coffee, got to the P.O., loaded, chewed it with Miles a bit and hit the road. Did the poetic soul of Miles accidentally say things that sounded like Keats, or had he taken long hot baths in the mineral rich hot springs of John Keats?
What is going on here?
In her few days on the job now, which hummed along with legato ease, she had seen nearly every address in the county, almost.
It was past noon on a particularly hot day. Not yet having tried Mr Stephens with the rag top on yet, she was parched due to sun on her face and dust in her mouth. She pulled into Torado’s for something cold to drink. She was familiar with the place now, and went directly to the line of refrigerators that housed the soda and beer and milk and everything like that.
There was a woman in the aisle, muttering as she scanned the variety through the glass doors. She wore her hair a little higher than most in Ardensville, and she wore a little more blush than most women in Ardensville, and the sunglasses were decidedly not local. And in typical irony, she was no more or less regular irregular than anyone else here. Little agitated though.
“C’mon, c’mon. Gimmeaspecial, gimmeaspecial. Shit,shit,shit. Cmon, boysgetstinkingcubansandIcan’tgetaspecilal, fachrissake, shitpopandpopandpop pop pop jesusmaryn’joseph.”
On and on. Celia kept a distance, did not stare but listened hard. Eventually she grabbed a couple of bottles of tonic, picked up some wrapped packages at the service counter, handed off by the big bear sort of a man and headed for the cashier. Grabbed from behind by her curiosity, Celia followed. She did not wait for her change at the cashier and kept pace with the mysterious woman in the parking lot. Celia caught up with her as she was putting the key in her locked car door (?).
“Excuse me but I couldn’t help but notice you seemed to think out loud in fluent New Yaghkkkkkkk…”
Grabbed from behind again though this time by Mike the bear from the counter. He held the back of her neck in a paralyzing grip. Additionally, there was something poking in her back which Celia soon surmised was the barrel of a pistol.
“Aw right Barbie, where ya from an’ who sent cha or ya gonna be participating in a huntin’ accident. Maybe you’d like to see how da inside of a wood chipper works?”
Mike’s grip eased off enough to allow Celia the air required to breathe.
“Do I know Brooklyn or do I know Brooklyn, gahkkk?”
“In the car Mike, let’s drive.” Mike responded silent and obedient. Both doors, driver’s and the one behind opened and closed. Celia was in the back with Mike and his apron and his pistol, and the woman drove like a demon swearing in thick Brooklyn all the way home.
Home was a comparatively dingy house though like so many others might appear from the road. She had noticed this house before, but had not delivered any mail, which she thought anomalous.
The woman came to a skidding stop right in front of the porch steps. They left the car and Celia just sorta floated up the steps with Mike’s arresting assistance. In yet another strange reversal, going into this house was like leaving a full color outside world and into an Oz-like black and white interior. Check that, white mostly.
Suddenly, with a shattering slap to her consciousness, Celia saw behind the curtain. There was a whole lot of white. White carpet, white Venus d’ Milo, white furniture etc. There was a small shrine to Saint Ursula with fresh flowers and scented candles, and there was a larger shrine to Connie Francis with fresh flowers and scented candles surrounding an album cover signed,
“Sit, ahh, an wipe ya feet! I just shampooed that carpet. Mike, you step off that mat I’ll cut ya fuggin heart out.”
With Mike’s prodigious paw around most of her neck, obedience came easily, but he did let go, she did wipe her feet, and he did stay on the welcome mat.
“Okay Clavin, you will tell us who you are with an’ who you’re workin’ for or you will be goin tru da wood chipper. Clear?” Mary pronounced pacing slightly with her arms crossed.
“The Network,” Celia answered drinking in every second of this cinematic moment.
“Who’s at? Some new Jersey family? Are you wit’ Mendel Pannetone? Tell me, c’mon. We should’a shmeared that kosher salami before we left Mike, when we still had FBI protection,” she finished, speaking to Mike.
“I wanted to do it Mary, but Phil said he was tryin’ to get us a spot in da Virgin Islands. Did’n wanna piss off da Feds.”
“Yeah, fuggin’ idiot. Fuggin’ Feds. Fuggin’ Mendel. Fuggin Network? Who the fuck is the Network? Colombians?”
“Nope,” Celia shook her head.
“Who den?” Mary demanded.
“Mike! Go warm up the wood chipper and not too close ta da house. You’ll bring every crow in the county.” Mike dutifully left the house.
“I’m tellin’ ya da trut. I’m like ahhh, location scout for Network TV. My mutha sent me out heah and I got no fuggin idea who you are.”
“T.V.?” Mary akst.
“Yeah, T.V.” Celia answered.
“How’s home ?” Mary inquired in a changed tone.
“San Genaro is wall to wall tourists and Arthur Ave is all Albanese. And the mayor, oye, don’t get me started.” Celia heard Mike trying to chain start the wood chipper.
“Fuggin Albanese.” Mary lit a cigarette.
A large man in farming sort of clothes burst in the door carrying a baseball bat and went for Celia. Now, unlike before, Celia was truly scared.
Mary screamed! “Ya walkin on my carpet ya fuggin moron! I just shampooed that carpet! What’s ya problem?!” Mary was irate.
“Aw jeez Mary, I’m sorry, I’ll take her out back n’ cave her head in.” Phil was contrite.
“It’s okay, Phil Celia, Celia Phil. Celia’s with some TV show or something. They wanna shoot a soap in Ardensville or something like that. That about right Cel?”
“Yeah, bout right,” Celia was breathing again. “What are you guys doin’ out here?”
“The Feds are hidin us. Phil ova heah decided to drop a dime on some of our business associates back in Brooklyn. Our kids are okay, out of the business, so we went on a long vacation. The boys make salami n’ cheese like when they were kids and the wives we got a hair and nail salon which don’t do too much business but it’s okay. Kinda like home only no family, no track, no Broadway, no trips to Vegas, and no restaurants.” Mary lamented.
“The food at that café is pretty damn good I’d say,” Celia piped in.
“The good thing out here is, there’s no freakin’ opera. Too much Christian radio but no opera thank God.”
“Aye la Donna Mobile! Marone, Babby can cook but she thinks we’re Mexicans, so when we come in we always get mole’, which I’ve grown to like but I wish she would make some pasta faggiolle sometime.” Phil lamented.
Mike came back in, and staying on the welcome mat explained the chipper was low on gas so he needed to get started if that was alright. He also had biscotti in the oven and needed to get back to the store.
“Fagetta bout it Mike, I think we’ll keep’er. Go on back. Phil’ll drive us back in a lil’, and take off that apron if you’re driving my car.”
“Yeah sure, Mary.” Mike smiled, waved, said ciao and left. He turned off the chipper before pulling away.
“How about a Cinzano, Celia?” Phil proposed not really waiting for an answer.
“How do you get good booze out here?” Celia asked now, cruising the remarkable collection of photos on the fireplace mantle.
“The Feds take care of us pretty good. Good liquor, good cigars, sometimes fresh fish, but what we really need is a good opera company!” Phil handed around the Cinzanos with ice.
“We’re in the west ya fuggin moron. There’s no god damn opera. Horses, soybeans, and flat. No opera fa chrise sake!”
“Cent’ann,” Celia toasted.
“Glad to hear it, Cent’ann,” Phil repeated.
“Cent’ann,” Mary concurred. “And please Saint Ursula, let it be in Brooklyn!”
“So no one out here knows who you are?” asked Celia twirling her ice.
“Nope,” answered Mary, “They think we’re Mexicans. We’re polite, they’re polite, everybody’s polite, we mind our business, they mind theirs and that’s it. Fuggin yahoos in overalls.”
“Well then, how come everybody knows my business?”
“Oh yeah,” Phil remembered, “how’s it goin at Irma’s? She’s good people, don fahgget’t.”
“Yeah, like that.” Celia rolled her eyes and drained her beverage.
“Tsa small town sistah, get used to it, you betcha.” Mary drained hers and winked.