(Angel is an excerpt from the novel-in-progress, Cyberville.)
Osborne Village. A quaint district. Slightly decayed, frayed. Shops are lined in a row, above and below, hawking vintage clothing, aroma therapy, latté. The people mill about as if dazed. Eclectic people--beggars beside latter-day beatniks beside Italian grandmothers with their plastic rain caps and ragged fur coats. This was the Village--cliché, overdone, yet honest. New York it was not. But for Winnipeg, it was cool.
Down Osborne Street were things no one could find in the sterile suburban shopping malls and Wal-Marts. Here, shoppers could nibble on cheese perogies or buy tiny hemp handbags. They could get their hair clipped, pruned and shaved at Koil, a salon in a web-lined dungeon motif. They could find badly scratched Miles Davis or never-played Euro-pop at the cluttered used record stores. If drunk or masochistic, the diligent shopper could get "Mom" on an arm or a gold ring for each nipple. And apparently, money can buy love at The Love Shop, or at least a toy or tool to help shoppers on their way.
A bit further down Osborne was the Dutch Maid, a remnant of Sixties kitsch and Seventies color-uncoordination. Bold goldenrod swirled with rich purples on every wall, table and chair. Middle-class children giggle at the bums and the forgotten protecting their plates of 99¢ pancakes, while their well-bred mothers waited for their Cheeky Cherries or Gooey Goobers or Nutcracker Sweets.
In the far corner of the restaurant sat a young woman busily playing Ms. Pac-Man with one hand as she held a double-dipper with the other, not noticing the drips of chocolate, sugar and cream now splattering across the video screen and her shirt. She was dressed in black Lycra shorts beneath a gathered red drawstring skirt. It was a short, wrinkled skirt. Her blouse was black and lacy, similar to a slip or some other suggestive piece of lingerie, though now it hinted at her untidy eating habits as the ice cream droplets ran down it in streaming brown lines. Her hair was short and black, though dirty blond roots were beginning to show at her scalp. She reached down into the pocket of the black, thin-lapeled dinner jacket she had stolen from the Salvation Army, not to retrieve a handkerchief to mop up her dribbles but to get herself another cigarette. They were Eves, those long, slender cigarettes wrapped in paper covered with a lovely spring flower design, were her favorite brand of smokes smuggled straight up from North Dakota.
She liked black. She liked sweets. She liked to feel pretty. And she was very, very large.
This was Little Elena.
"Hey! Can I play ya? Or you just gonna hog the machine all to yourself?"
Now sitting across from Elena was a grungy guy of about nineteen. Goatee. No mustache. Ripped denim. Real fashion clone material.
He handed her a coin. Sliding her fingers through the smeared black grease on both sides of the coin, Elena gave a little huff. Even so, she inserted the quarter into the coin slot, adding one more play credit to the seven she had already paid for.
"As soon as I finish this game, Ill beat the farts right out of ya." Elena did not even look up from the video screen. "When I win, you have to buy me another ice cream cone."
"No deal. Anyway, you couldnt beat me if you had all the extra Pac-Men you could count, lady."
"A cocky one I see." Elena looked up and smiled. "I like that. I still get that cone if I win. Pistachio and Blue Licorice. Okay?"
"Okay, but itll never happen."
". . .On a waffle cone."
"Jesus! I just want to play Ms. Pac-Man. Okay. So what do I get if I win?"
"Like you said, itll never happen. Whats your name, anyway, kid?"
"Conrad. And you?"
"Conrad? Shit! What a wanker name! Im Little Elena."
The competition was fierce. The two faces grunted as the joysticks were twisted round and round. The Ms. Pac-Men spun around, up one corridor then the next, gobbling those little white dots as fast as they could. Young lovers gathered around the video battle in time to see Elenas yellow Pac-Man swallow that elusive banana for 5000 points as gasps arose all around. Conrad shook his head as Elena steered her character in and out of one precarious situation after another, dodging Blinky and sneaking around Moe as she lunged toward the big white power pellet, chomping it down whole. The encircling crowd cheered, "Get em! Get em!" as Elena attacked the now-vulnerable blue baddies. Crunch! 200 points. Slurp! 400 points. Munch! 800 points. Gulp! 1600 points! Elenas Ms. Pac-Man ate all four blue ghosts as the crowd buzzed with excitement. The high score was hers and she relished the licking she was giving the now confounded Conrad.
As her final turn came to an end, Conrad sighed as he looked at the final tally.
Player 1: 35,520 Player 2: 127,890
"Okay, Conrad. Time to pay up." Elena was grinning and clapping her hands. "That was Pistachio and Blue Licorice on a waffle cone."
"I aint buying you a cone."
"Yes, you are. That was the bet."
"No, that was your bet. I just wanted to play Ms. Pac-Man."
"Sorry, Conrad. You agreed to the bet. Dont you remember asking me what you would get if you won? Hmm? A bets a bet."
"Like I said, I aint buying you a cone."
Elena stood up.
"How many people in this room heard this boy agree that he would buy me an ice cream cone if I won?"
A drunk in tattered pants and a worn parka looked in Conrads direction. His mouth opened, his breath whistling through the gaps between his remaining teeth, gaps born from snuff and fruity, fortified wine.
"Ya friggin brat. Ya agreed to get her that goddam cone, eh. So quit yer jackin off and get her the cone. And get me one while yer at it!"
"See, little Conrad. You did agree. Weve got witnesses."
Now Conrad stood up.
"Listen up, everybody. My names Conrad, okay. And Conrads not going to buy this lady another ice cream cone. You got it? Okay? The reason I aint gonna honor this goddam bet is because she dont need no shitty ice cream cone. Im doin the heifer a favor. I mean just look at her. Fat as a sow. Shes even got her last ice cream cone all over her clothes and the goddam video game. Thats why I lost! I just aint used to playin Pac-Man with melted Rocky friggin Road all over the screen! Okay, so Conrad heres puttin the whiny fat bitch on a diet. Here and now. Someone else can clean up her goddam mess. Ive done my humanitarian deed for the day already."
As he headed towards the door, Elena could do nothing but sit there with her head down, watching the demonstrations roll by on the Ms. Pac-Man screen. She knew the suburban moms and their pampered and Pamper-ed children were staring at her. She had been in this position before. Everyone staring at the blimp, the whale, the cow. God! Again and again. Even so, it was still hard. She kept hoping that she would learn to ignore it, learn to feel sorry for them in their hateful ignorance. But it always hurt.
"Why dont all of you turn back around and eat your damn Morons Ecstasies and Cheeky Cherries! Just think, eat a few more bites and you might end up lookin like me, eh. Suck it all down and leave me the Hell alone."
Elena rose from her chair slowly and walked straight and erect towards the ice cream counter. She never turned her head, instead holding her chin high, leading her forward.
"A Pistachio and Blue Licorice on a waffle cone, please."
"Elena! Ive been so worried about you. Full Bloom called and said you hadnt made it to work today. I told them you had left for work right on time and that you should have been there hours ago. Then I called your friend Nina and your Aunt Rose and the Martellis down the street. No one had seen you! Elena, you need that job--"
"Just go eat a few more olives, Mother."
"Elena! Dont talk to your poor mother like that. I slave and sweat for you and Marcus to have a decent life and you have the gall to throw olives in my face? You know that Dr. Smith wants me to cut back on my triglycerides--"
"Call a spade a spade. Theyre little globules of fat."
"--Oh, yes. I know what youre thinking, Elena. Youre thinking that Dr. Smith doesnt know a thing since everyone knows my cholesterols fine. He says its not the cholesterol but the triglycerides. No more olives. No more gelato. No more Ziti Carbonara, and you know how much I love my Ziti--"
"Use Marinara sauce, Mother."
"I might as well just pour some tomato juice on my pasta! Marinara! No zesto! No body! How can you be so cruel to your poor moth--"
"If you werent so fat it wouldnt be an issue. Youve lived this long, eating pizza and linguini the whole way, tormenting us with all of your, like, weird notions and cravings. So go find a nice big jar of olives and spit the pits into the fire like you love to do. Go ahead!"
"Where were you today, Elena? You cant afford to get fired again, Angel."
"I call you fat and then you call me Angel?"
"You are my angel. No matter how misguided you become, youll always be my angel. And the only thing sweeter in the world than an angel is a working angel."
"Im gonna quit that job, Mother. I dont like it. It takes time away from my writing, ya know?"
"Your writing? What has your mother seen of this writing you always talk about? Does it pay your bills? I buy you that fancy computer and all I ever see you doing on it is wasting time with those lechers on that Internet thing. Writing? Ive seen no writing."
"Its not the Internet, its called CyberVille. And its the one place I can go and be free of these awful genes youve given me."
"I never gave you awful jeans. I have always said you would look better in a nice skirt, Elena. A nicer skirt than that wrinkled mess youre wearing. A mother knows what can make a daughter beautiful. But you dont listen."
"Whatre you talking about, Mother? I was referring to my screwed up DNA I got from you--fat genes and fat chromosomes and fat RNA. I thought youd been watching the O.J. trial. Ya know, about matching his genes. Oh, forget it, okay? Just know that its really all your fault Im made fun of all the time."
"Youre not fat, dear. Youre my pretty Elena. Youre just more healthy than those other girls. To have meat on your bones shows youre healthy. Ill gladly take the blame for my daughter being hearty and well nourished."
" Im fat. Not as huge as you, I admit. Marcus isnt fat. Neither was Papa. He was absolutely skinny. But I am fat, and its because of you!"
"All your father did was drink his whiskey and Valpolicella. I couldnt even get one forkful of Ziti down his throat some nights. And look, he died. 49 years old and he died. You cant tell me skinny is good."
"Why do people oink at me when they walk by Full Bloom? Thats why Im quitting. Its goddam fat ladies store. Full Bloom for full-figured fat girls. Jesus! Queen size means obese, for Gods sake!"
"Mother Mary, please forgive her. She knows not what she says."
"And on CyberVille I can be as skinny and beautiful as I want to be. It gives me the confidence to write. And I do write, Mother."
"What do you write, Elena?"
"Poetry. You wouldnt understand."
"Poetry? What is there not to understand? You think Im some kind of ignorant fool sometimes, dont you? Ill let you know Ive written a few sonnets in my day. Yes I have!"
"Youve written sonnets? No way!"
"And you say my jeans are bad! Your mother, if she did wear jeans, would wear beautiful ones as lovely as the love sonnets your father and I wrote for each other years ago."
"I, Im sorry, Mother. Ive been out-of-line."
"No, youve not. Youve just been my angel."
Elena sat in the middle of her bed, sorting through stacks of old notebooks and boxes of typed pages. The fuzzy pink bedspread was covered with these papers. The bedspread had not been her choice. No, she would have preferred something in cobalt blue and maroon, or maybe black with ivory and jade trim. Pink was her mothers idea, and right now she loved the bedspread. For once, she had forgotten it was a queen-size spread for a queen-size bed. She gathered the fabric and papers around her, deciding that the covering was not a spread at all, but a comforter. It was from her mother and the old woman wrote poetry.
She scanned the pages before her--some typed neatly, some scribbled out in smudged ink. Some were simply small scraps of paper or napkins from a restaurant. But no matter what form each had, they all contained Elenas treasures--her poetry. Which ones would she show her mother? Some were too dark. All the apocalyptic tirades went in the "No!" pile, as did the suicidal ranting, the angst-filled proclamations, and the dozens of satirical crucifixions of middle-class life. Her mother wouldnt appreciate these, of course. When she was done sorting the poems, she looked down at the piles. It was then she no longer felt very comforted. The "No!" pile was overflowing with pages of anger, denial and revenge. The "Yes!" pile looked pitiful by comparison. A total of four poems sat there. Four lonely poems about happiness and love.
She looked around her room. The walls and ceiling were mostly covered, adorned with posters and drawings and such. Promos for bands like Porno for Pyros, Nine Inch Nails, and the Tragically Hip. Posters from Interview With a Vampire, Blade Runner, and Star Trek Generations. Photos of Eastern European castles, of Egyptian antiquities, and of the hills and dales of the Scottish Highlands. There were drawings she had sketched over the years, too. From crude to finely detailed, images of Nordic gods, of Incan spirits, and of Pagan symbols filled in the gaps left by the larger pictures. She thought she saw all of these brooding tableaus untaping or untacking themselves from the walls, folding up and settling to rest atop the "No!" pile.
"Here I am, only 24 years old and Im already bitter and jaded." She looked across the room at the face in her dresser mirror. "Im a fat, hateful person. The fat came from Mother, I know that much. But where did all this contempt come from? Papa and his whiskey bottle? Conrad and all the Conrads before him? Maybe it came from Mothers Ziti. All I know is Im nothing but fat, ugly and hateful."
Turning from the mirror, her eyes again scanned the four pages of hope and caring. One she had written for her father after he died. She had hoped to read the poem at his funeral, but her mother and Aunt Rose had already planned the service with the funeral director. Ill Bottle Up All My Kisses seemed a bit maudlin now, but she had meant all those things when she had written it.
Ill Bottle Up All My Kisses
Ill bottle up all my kisses
That is what I am going to do
Ill bottle up all my kisses
And send them straight up to you
Ill bottle up all my kisses
So when you reach for a drink
Ill bottle up all my kisses
With each drop, of me youll think
Ill bottle up all my kisses
While my sorrow lies still unabated
Ill bottle up all my kisses
Yet with love, youll be intoxicated
Ill bottle up all my kisses
That is what I am going to do
Ill bottle up all my kisses
Before God, youll know I love you
Maybe the poem was maudlin because she really did feel that way about her father. Maybe Elena could be giddy or silly or loving with her father. Marco Sarna may have been a drunk, but she did love him. She used to tell her inquisitive friends that it was okay, that Papa was a happy drunk. He had always treated her to wondrous things when he was drinking. He would tell her fairy tales of the most fantastic nature, dark tales of European forests and witches and werewolves. He told her of rugged princes in black robes on steeds, stealing away with cloaked enchantresses weaving enraptured spells. He taught her about the Roman gods and their monstrous pets and nubile concubines. He showed her the passion and the joy of the dark worlds of old Europe. For years, Elena remained enthralled in these phantasmic tales of power and love, for these worlds were far more interesting than the frozen plains of Manitoba could ever be to this outcast, misplaced child. Her mother had never approved.
Marco understood his daughter. Even through the liquor draping his eyes to his wifes needs and concerns, Marco always knew where Elena was -- which worlds she was traversing, which realms she was escaping to. Marco gave his daughter a cynical view of the world, where justice rarely prevailed. The alcohol simply let him escape to the fantasies the two of them shared. He knew very well that the other children around Corydon Road didnt accept her. Fat girls with Italian parents rarely did. Yes, the Sarnas were one of many Italian families in this small enclave, but the schools Elena attended were full of kids that couldnt appreciate the smell of pure virgin olive oil saturated in the clothes or the skin. They were too interested in the grease of fast food, the lure of beef tallow and chicken fat. They would never see the beauty in her rich, brown skin and thick black hair, (he had forgotten over the years that Elenas real hair colour was blond and that the black was from a bottle.) "Too similar to the Indian bastards downtown beggin for money and booze," they would tell her at school. He wouldnt admit that by dying her hair, Elena contributed to this ill will. But she liked being an outcast, or so it seemed. It was her nature. It was her history.
Her mother did not noticed that Elena never fit into the cliques at school nor her clothes. Her mother never noticed much of anything. While her father would drink to keep reality away, he at least knew what reality was and how to avoid it. Her mother was oblivious to problems. She smiled constantly through life, except when she was worried about Elena being late for dinner, or Marco forgetting his tie on Sundays. What Marco drank to keep away, Maria Sarna simply ignored. She honestly thought her daughter was beautiful, that she was an angel. She told Elena constantly what a pretty girl she was becoming. As much as she wanted to believe in her mothers fantasies, her mirror told her the truth.
"God, that really sucks, Elena!" she exclaimed at the mirror. "How could you write something that sappy! Papa deserves better than that! Girl, just stick to depressing topics, they sound classier than that drivel."
Elena put the paper back down on the "Yes!" pile, then reconsidered and set it aside by itself. "This pile is the Yuk! pile."
She picked up the next poem. Again it was thrust onto the new "Yuk!" stack. It was a poem she wrote and gave to a boy back in high school on Valentines day. It went unrequited. This poem, too, dripped sap. She lifted the next poem up to read. Past Embraces. She smiled. It was somewhat better. But after the last two, better was not that difficult to achieve. She knew the poem seemed better since it was encased by loneliness. But for once, she had been able to slip a bit of hope in through the sides past her bogeyman-muse. She knew her mother would ask who it was she missed, who she had, gasp, embraced. Except for her mother and father, and yes, Uncle Cleo, too, no one had embraced her, at least not like the hugs in that poem. She had written the poem to the vampire Lestat, or maybe some made-up Prince-Not-So-Charming. But at this moment, she only wished for her father to return.
"Get a grip, Elena! You are a tough broad and crying just doesnt suit you. Twenty-four years old and crying over your dead father and brain-dead mother."
"Im not brain-dead, Elena." Her mother appeared in the doorway.
"Jeez, Im so sorry, Mother. I didnt mean it. Really."
"Its all right. There was a hint of truth in it. We never say things we dont mean whatsoever, Elena. Theres always some true feelings in there. But you better get used to this brain-dead mother of yours. Your fathers dead and I am all you and Marcus have left. Now, Angel, where is some of that poetry of yours. A mamas got to know whats in a daughters heart, and poetry is one sure way of finding out if her babys olive hides a pit or a pimento. Now wheres that poetry, child?"
Maria Sarna was smiling, as usual. Elena looked puzzled, embarrassed, for she could not understand how her mother could stay so calm. She had just insulted her pride, her existence, her respect as a mother.
"Elena, I know you are wondering why I never scold you or anger at your remarks. But a mother understands, you see? I can see the dried tears on your cheeks. Why would you cry if you didnt love your mother? Hmm? You DO love your mother, Elena, and that is why I could never scold you. You are my angel, my pretty little angel, and no one can take that away from me or from you. No one. Now show me one of your poems."
"For a brain-dead lady, how did you get so wise?"
"Lots of years, lots of love, and, especially, lots of Ziti!"
Elena got up from her fuzzy pink and paper cocoon. "Here, read this one, Mother. Its called Ill Bottle Up My Kisses."
"Elena, youve been bottling up you kisses and your hugs for too long. Its about time you uncorked that bottle and let some of that love out."
"No one would want my love, Mother. Just read the poem."
"No one? There is always someone, somewhere. A mother knows these things."
"Men dont give me the time of day, except on the Internet. They love me, or at least lust for me, there."
"Elena! Ill cover my ears! Lust and love are different issues."
"Im too fat. No one wants a fat woman."
"You said yourself that you are no where as huge as me. Ive been plump for years and your father loved me, didnt he? He always said there was so much more to snuggle into at night. There is a lot more to it than your size, Angel. You have to be nice and inviting to the men. Smile once in a while. Ive seen you crack a tiny grin out now and then and it becomes you."
"Right. The jolly fatso thing. No way. Didnt you read Dolores Claiborne?"
"Isnt she that clothes designer?"
"No, the Stephen King novel I gave you to read. It was a movie, too."
"Never saw it, honey. Was it G-rated?"
"No. Anyway, it said that sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold onto. I live by that motto, Mother."
"And youre alone, too. And what about this Dolores woman?"
"She murdered her husband."
"And you want to live by that philosophy?"
"She had a good reason. He drank too much for one thing."
"Again, you want to live by that philosophy? Are you saying I poisoned your poor fathers Ravioli?"
"No, Mother. I did it again, didnt I! Im sorry. I was out-of-line."
"And once again you are wrong, my sweet, sweet daughter. You were just being my angel."
Marcus and Elena hurried to the kitchen table. Their mother had called them to dinner and the scent of homemade ragout tingled their senses enough to rush them downstairs. Maria was setting down the last serving bowl on the table when her children sat down. In them was a thick, hearty ragout of lamb, parsnips, leeks and Roma tomatoes. With the stew she had added a side dish of Perciatelli noodles seasoned with a bit of olive oil, parmesan and basil. The light sauce was too thin to be called pesto. It surely was not green enough and the lack of even one pine nut ruled out pesto altogether.
Maria had noticed the proliferation of so-called pesto dishes in the new American restaurants moving to Winnipeg from the south. "Nary a pine nut to be found in those pestos!" she regularly exclaimed to the dumbfounded waiters. She continued to hold onto the belief that everyone in this isolated prairie town should know their ingredients. Pine nuts, Romano, balsamic vinegar, these were some of lifes necessities. If only Chef Boyardee had studied his ingredients harder. If only Franco-American had never invented Spaghetti-Os.
Elena quickly shoveled several helpings worth of the noodles onto her plate, as Marcus ripped into the loaf of French bread. If Elena ate enough for three men, then Marcus typical dinner could fill the stomachs of five. Yet, despite the food, Marcus remained slender, much to the chagrin of his sister.
Marcus was 22. He looked very much like his father, except for his fathers chronically wine-reddened nose. He was thin, yet muscular from several years of road repair. During the winters, Marcus attended Red River Community College studying automotive repair. But in the summer, he worked the streets of Winnipeg, filling potholes, repainting lane stripes and cleaning up the remains of salt and sand from the blizzards past. "Winterpeggers" often joked that the city had only two seasons -- winter and road repair -- and Marcus knew both well. He was younger than Elena. He was thinner than Elena. He was also prettier than Elena. And he got lots of dates with the men she couldnt have.
"Marcus, your sister let me read one of her poems today."
"I dont believe it, Mom. She keeps those precious little ditties locked away."
"God does grant miracles to the believers, son."
"Damn, here we go again!" It was Elena.
"Mom, Im not going to Mass with you, if thats what that comment was for." Marcus was squirming in his seat as Elena sucked a piece of the thick spaghetti into her mouth, splattering olive oil across her shirt in a nice contrast to the chocolate ice cream stains already there. "So what was her poem like? Any good?"
"Marcus, my child, if Elena will go to Mass once in awhile with her mother, then a son can easily do the same."
"But what about my poem?"
"Mom, Im not going to Mass with you. I wont go in a church that is so hypocritical. The very priests that preach out against adultery and homosexuality are probably diddling each other, or at least the alter boys, in the monastery afterwards."
"They arent monks, dufus!"
"Elena! Stay out of this. And Marcus, dont make such sacrilegious accusations! How would you know what the priests do in their spare time?"
"Mother, dont ask him questions you dont want to hear the answers to."
"Thats right, Mom. You were the one that wanted me to be an alter boy all those years. And it was a very enlightening experience."
"Marcus, Im closing my ears to this!"
"So what about my poem?"
"Elena, the poem was quite touching. Poorly written, but touching. I think your father would have liked the whole bottle motif, but it was a bit tacky. A mother has to tell the truth, you know."
"Poorly written? How would you know if a poem was poorly written?"
"Oh, I am so sorry, dear. I guess those words were a bit frank and insensitive. Would maudlin feel better to hear?"
"I cant believe my very own mother is giving me a thumbs down!"
"Well, what do you think of the poem, Sis? How would it rate with your other work?"
Elena was visibly flustered. How do you answer a question like that one? Critique your own work? Especially when you know your mother is telling the truth? Why hadnt she just given her Past Embraces? Why not give her one of the less awful, though depressing, poems? She knew the answer to the last question. No matter how low her life got, as a child, she had the responsibility to at least act like her olive was filled with that mild, bright strip of pimento.
"Marcus. Mother. Ill Bottle Up All My Kisses was a heartfelt, well-intentioned effort by a sad, hurt little girl--"
"Dont you mean not-so-little?"
"--Marcus, Ill ignore that last bit of nastiness. Anyway, from an artistic merit standpoint, the poem. . . sucked."
"--and your father would have loved it just the same, my angel."
© Chikara, 1996