BY DIANE E. DEES
THEY COME HOME
The husband comes home at five. He opens the door, closes it behind him, steps into the hall, then falls flat on his face onto the wood floor.
The wife, who is about to make cornbread, hears a thud and a crash and goes running to the hallway, where she sees the husband on the floor, his thermos bottle beside him. She starts to bend over, then changes her mind. She already knows he will reek of Jim Beam, sweat, and week-old dirt. She steps over the khaki-clad body and goes back to her kitchen. She is glad that the child is away at camp.
She sits at the table and wonders if she should do something. Yesterday she found whiskey bottles between the sofa cushions and inside his toolbox. Last week he fell into the lake while fishing from the neighbor's pier.
She hopes he doesn't urinate on the floor. Lately, he has been urinating in the sink.What difference does it make?
She returns to the cornbread. She picks up her iron skillet and wonders, for just a moment, what it would feel like to knock him out, send him sprawling flat on the hallway floor, not wait for Jim Beam to do it for her. She remembers the Alfred Hitchcock TV show with the woman who kills her husband with a leg of lamb, then feeds the murder weapon to the investigating police. She catches herself smiling.
The wife gets a grip on herself and concentrates on the task at hand. She gets out the cornmeal, the milk, the salt, the sugar. The stifling house is revived by the scent of cornbread. She thinks about the husband on the floor and goes in to check on him. He is lying still. She kicks his shoulder but he doesn't move. She bends down and shakes him, calls his name, but he still doesn't move.
She calls an ambulance, and the paramedics come and take her and the horizontal husband to the hospital. She doesn't know how long she sits in the waiting room. A doctor comes out and tells her that it is an aneurysm. Of the brain. Burst. He is in a coma. Have to wait. Possible surgery. No one can say. The doctor tells her to go home and get some rest.
Three days and three visits later, the wife is at home trying to concentrate on cleaning the skillet. The phone rings, she answers it, and the doctor tells her the husband is dead. Nothing could be done. If he'd lived, there would have been an operation, but he would have never been the same again. She ponders this, thinking that anything he would have become would have been an improvement.
She knows she killed him, though the doctor tells her that nothing could have been done. The doctor says he is sorry and hangs up. The wife walks through the hallway and back into the kitchen, finds her address book and calls the camp. Now, she thinks, the child must come home.
SHE WAS BORN TO PLEASE
Jayne Mansfield had never looked so vulnerable. Her hair cascaded into a soft, uneven frame around her face like a platinum ocean washing up on a pearlescent shore. Her lips, second in fame to her breasts, were pale and full, as though she were about to tell a long-withheld secret, but was taking her tease to the limit.
She had been dead for only a few hours when Romy got the call. On the way to New Orleans from Biloxi, Jayne's car had collided with a truck, killing her instantly. The TV news reporters said she had been decapitated, but Romy knew better. Her head was intact-it was her wig that had blown out of the car and landed on the dark Louisiana highway.
Romy worshipped Jayne, and now he was alone with her, in a cold formal room in a New Orleans funeral home, where staff members came in only to gawk and to whisper. Romy lifted her eyelids, and she stared at the ornate medallions carved on the twelve-foot ceiling. Lying on pink satin, Jayne Mansfield floated like an angel on cotton candy while Romy applied foundation to her cheeks. In her white gown, she looked as though she might levitate.
The girl can't help it, she was born to please; that was the song from the movie that launched Romy's obsession with Jayne. He had sat in the back of the theater and struggled with conflicting desires: He burned with anger over the crude comments made by some of the men when Jayne appeared on the screen, and he longed to protect her, yet he also felt a primal craving he had never known before. Jayne was bursting with heat and helplessness; Romy sat in the dark and shuddered with febrile anticipation.
He had always wanted to meet her. He once saw her perform at The Blue Room, where she had come to his table and sung a few lines of some upbeat Broadway tune. But before he could speak to her, she had moved on, propelled by mermaid hips across foamy waves of applauding fans.
Now he was alone with her, and she needed him to work his magic on her face before her body was shipped home to Pennsylvania. She had a big scar on her upper forehead, where her scalp had been sliced, and Romy covered it carefully with a dab of theatrical makeup. He knew that someone would touch her up again, no matter how good a job he did, but he still wanted to make her look perfect.
Romy locked the door and stood away from the casket so that he could get a full view of his idol, whose physical perfection traversed the entire length of her emphatic flesh. How tragic, Romy thought, that a goddess like Jayne should perform her last show in Biloxi. It wasn't really her show-she was subbing for Mamie van Doren. Romy hated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with its cheap souvenir shops and gritty beaches. Now Jayne was dead, and the vulgar men who lusted after her would never know how talented, how poised, she really was. To them, she was just a dirty fantasy, an inflated sex doll.
Romy didn't know any glamorous women in real life. He didn't know any women at all, except for his mother and the secretaries at the funeral home, and they were provincial and detached, with lips stretched into frozen smiles of professional sympathy. Romy had no wife or girlfriend and he made up faces for a living, so everyone at his workplace assumed he was "one of those." He was sure he wasn't, but it didn't really make any difference. If that's what people thought, there was little he could do about it short of making a play at one of the women in the office, an option he declined.
Romy declined most options of a sexual nature, preferring to spend his nights in his room at his mother's house. There, he sat in semi-darkness, examining his collection of pictures from Photoplay. He liked Jane Russell and Marilyn, of course, but it was only Jayne who brought him total satisfaction. When he was in his room with images of Jayne, he could escape for a while from the understated but consuming demands of his lonely mother.
His father had died before Romy could even know him, and it had been just Romy and his mother for almost forty years. His mother was frail, always suffering from this fever or that ache. She saw doctors, but nothing they did appeared to bring her any relief. She seldom left the house, and spent most of the day planning the dinner she and Romy shared each evening. Romy liked to read about Hollywood, and he once considered moving to California. When he told his mother, she developed pneumonia, and was hospitalized for a week. Romy never mentioned California again, but stayed in his room, where he inhabited a world of effortless pleasure and devotion, made possible by Jayne Mansfield.
Looking at Jayne's larger-than-death body, Romy fantasized about what it might have been like to have been her husband or lover. The rumors were that she was drinking a lot at the time of her death, that she was unstable. No one understood her, Romy thought, and the men in her life were too selfish to realize that she had needs just like everyone else. There was no tenderness in her life, no understanding.
Romy closed Jayne's eyes and applied bronze shadow to them. He stroked her hair, then gently combed it out of her face. Most of the women whose faces Romy prepared looked much different in their caskets than they had in life, but not Jayne. Though she was no longer animated, her features retained their exaggerated size and prominence, and her celebrated body still looked more like a pinup calendar subject than the frame of a flesh-and-blood woman.
He brushed rouge onto her cheeks and smeared it with a sponge, then put another layer of foundation on her neck, rubbing it on with his fingers. His hand moved down, then rested for a long time where the bodice of her gown met the curve of her breasts. Romy touched the satin fabric with his finger, and traced it around Jayne's two most extraordinary features. It seemed to him that her breasts heaved, yet he knew that could not be so. Romy felt a sudden heat in his face, and he heard the ragged rhythm of his own breathing.
He examined several tubes of lipstick, and settled on a pearl pink with a hint of coral; she liked to wear colors that showed off the natural fullness of her lips. Romy moved the tube around Jayne's mouth until her lips were shining and moist. He continued moving the tube around the generous lips, bearing down so that they parted just enough for him to get a glimpse of the perfect teeth. The heavenly body that had once bathed in pink champagne yielded to his expert touch, and with a final gasp of breath, Romy covered the tube of lipstick and put it away.
He turned off the mirror lights and left Jayne, an innocent and serene goddess with shimmering pink lips, on her bed of satin
STEPPING BACK FROM THE ABYSS
Jonah Langley drew two thin crescent-shaped moons on the blackboard.
"One," he said, "is the crescent just before the new moon; the other, the crescent right after the new moon makes its appearance. You'll notice it is the shape of a fish."
"It is also the outline of the Great Mother Goddess's vulva. The fish represented female deity in all of the early religions, and became a Christian symbol much later."
He was far enough away from "vulva" to risk looking at the students again. And there, on the front row, was Ginny Spodle, a myth in fleece and snug denim.
All kinds of students took Comparative Religion-philosophy majors, art history majors, lost souls looking for a liberal arts elective. But Jonah had yet to figure out why Ginny was in his class. Adored leader of the university's Third Wave women's activist group, she was smarter, deeper, and more intense than anyone else on campus, including some of the faculty. Given her extraordinary attributes of wit and cognition, it seemed almost unfair that she would also have a tight body, long legs, and dark brown eyes that settled in her inquisitive face like lodestones drawn to the soul of the Great Mother Goddess herself.
"The moon, of course, has always been considered feminine, and the Greeks emphasized the feminine aspect of the fish with the word 'delphos', which means 'fish', but which also means 'womb'. Indeed, Isis was sometimes known as the Great Fish of the Abyss."
Jonah looked across the sea of faces to determine if any of them showed a hint of recognition, encouragement, anything. This wasn't the fun part of Comparative Religion-not your mother's church social, one of his colleagues called it-most of them were waiting to hear about the Buddha, or the Tao, or the lost Gospels. A few were there to find the evidence they needed to trash their inherited faith, and the art students just wanted to be able to identify 500 versions of the Annunciation and get on with it.
Ginny Spodle crossed her legs and turned the page of her textbook without looking at him.
"The people who visited the Oracle at Delphi worshipped the fish goddess, Themis, and later, Aphrodite Salacia."
"I'm not making this up, though I know you're thinking, "Didn't Marisa Tomei play her last year?"
More laughter. Ginny raised her head to look at him; her mouth barely turned up on the left side, and he thought she fluttered her lashes, but only for a split second.
"You've no doubt figured out that the word 'salacious' comes to us courtesy of Aphrodite. There were some great parties at the Oracle. And…followers of the goddess ate fish on Friday, a practice we generally associate with pre-Vatican II Catholicism."
The Greek word 'ichthus' means 'fish' too, and it's an acronym for 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior'-hence, the fish symbol that we see on the backs of cars.
Ginny's hand shot up.
"Professor Langley, what about all of the other New Testament fish symbolism?"
"Like 'fishers of men' and the loaves and fishes?"
"It's hard to say which fish symbol came first, Ms. Spodle. Historians aren't certain, but what's interesting is the number of fish metaphors and symbols in the New Testament. When an early Christian wanted to identify himself to another Christian, he had to be careful for his life, so he would use his toe to draw a fish in the sand. One can't help but wonder if there wasn't a certain thrill in being part of such a clandestine religion."
Ginny shifted her glance down, and he was sure she was looking at the tips of his shoes. Jonah didn't like his toes; he thought them misshapen afterthoughts on his feet, which he didn't like, either. His wife Hester had bought him several pairs of tipped socks: gray with navy toes and navy trim at the top, brown with blue tipping, beige with green tipping. He was wearing a pair of olive tipped with red. "Your secret socks," Hester had whispered to him, since no one could see the colors, and he was thrilled over their conspiracy.
The socks gave Jonah a feeling he thought must be common to women-the possession of a delicious and intimate personal secret about one's appearance, a little something extra to add to the fantasy, to reveal or to keep hidden.
Ginny turned around in her chair and dangled one foot so that the toe of her shoe was pointed toward Jonah's brown oxfords. He took what felt like an involuntary step closer to her chair.
"So Professor Langley," she asked, "why do you think people stopped worshipping goddesses?"
A couple of students rolled their eyes, as if to say, we knew this was coming. Jonah thought he might choke.
"There are a lot of theories. The hunters worshipped gods and the gatherers worshipped goddesses, and hunting, or hunting-archetype societies, became dominant.
"And some think that, over time, the left brain became more dominant, so the female became less important than the male."
"But what do you think?
"Aphrodite Salacia was good enough for me, Ms. Spodle."
Class was over. Jonah assigned three chapters, and watched the students rush out. Ginny gave him a half-smile as she passed his desk. Grabbing his briefcase, he followed her out the door, though he hadn't the faintest idea what he was going to do or say. A few steps into the hall, and he saw her leaning against the wall. A tall, thin bearded boy with little Lennon specs was talking to her, his hand on her shoulder. Her eyes said it all.
Jonah hurried down the hall, then walked out to the parking lot and climbed into his car. He turned the key in the ignition and glanced down at the splash of red bordering his trouser leg. Hester. Jonah felt suddenly light with relief. Happy to abandon the school, he put his foot on the gas pedal and floated rapidly to a safe harbor.