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Carol Novack Contact Sheet


Carol Novack


Eating Habits of the Poor

I knew when I brushed his lips with my heart and the startled lights went out. He’d only recently arrived, though I’d been watching him through windows for years, wondering. I wanted so much to feed him, did not realize that the shock of the move would misplace him. So clumsy I am, despite my ballerina limbs.

He was so light! When I overcame my initial mortification and laid him on the bed, his eyes refused to close, though I pulled on their lids as if they were window shades. There were lamps in his black eyes, orbs I would say—tiny suns refulgent in the darkness in which he resides. His skin was frigid, yet his eyes grew unbearably hot. I had to withdraw and watch from afar, waiting for his story to unfold, desperate for an explanation. So I sat on my rocking horse by the door of the room, obeying a directive that had never been made. I loved him. I hated him. I feared him. I sat waiting, chanting the last words he’d uttered: Beware the eating habits of the poor.

I was waiting on Sunday night when my annulled husband Gustav dropped by with a bouquet of loud calla lilies. The moment he arrived, Gustav asked about the scent, taunting. Was it his favorite perfume, Shalimar, which I loathed? He thrust his nose under my ear lobes: no aroma, as usual. Doglike, Gustav followed the scent all the way up the spiral staircase to the top floor. He stopped at the open doorway of the room in which he, the other, was lying. Naturally, Gustav couldn’t see him. Gustav was desperate to turn on the impotent lights to expose my secret. What are you hiding? he insisted. He repeated the question several times, his voice ascending. A mirror broke—no doubt a cheap government mirror in the low-low-income projects next door. I said nothing. Gustav shook me vehemently with his hyperbolic, ergonomanic hands, lifted me up high above him, twirled me round and round, threatening to drop me. No matter: I was already broken. Finally, Gustav stopped. He squinted, looking in the direction of the other. I could tell that Gustav’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness and he could see the two mini-suns. The estranged husband discarded me and proceeded in the other’s direction. I said nothing. I saw a sudden flame, heard Gustav scream, and smelled the acrid stench of burning hair and calla lilies.

I continued to wait for the rest of the story. I knew there was more; the other would tell me everything as long as I remained focused. I crossed my legs as I rocked, tried to vacate my overpopulated mind. I repeated his last words out loud. The Toucan mocked me: Beware the eating habits of the poor.

On Thursday, my mother arrived with a sponge birthday cake studded with silver minnows and topped with a frolicking golden starfish. I knew she wanted something in return, particularly as it wasn’t my birthday. No imagination, so tiresome. I realized it was the same story: Mother wanted my ears because she is lonely and desperate for an audience. She reached up to grab them, then halted abruptly. What is that unearthly smell? Mother queried. You know I can’t abide the aroma of dead fish and opium! Of course, it’s those vile projects. Homicidal maniacs drug addicts loathsome bêtes, immigrant swine foul roaches (and so on). So I said: Never mind, George was here a week ago, en route to visit you, Mother dear. That would get her goat! Mother screeched; she was always pretending that her only, horrible son was far away in Madagascar, shut up for life in an institution for the criminally insane. She was so perturbed, she nearly tripped on my pet Persian tortoise, which was chasing the starfish. For a while, Mother and I remained in the hallway. She was breathing heavily, repeatedly requesting smelling salts and her doctor. I repeatedly told her I believed in neither, and called her psychiatrist, Dr. Humphrey. Winded, Mother demanded no more of me, and left in histrionics as soon as he arrived.

I returned to the room of the other, to waiting. Unlike the estranged husband, I believed that Mother was not part of the other’s story, I surmised, merely an uncomfortable, short-lived distraction, a recurring deviation of genetic destiny. On the other hand, there could be some subtle relevance I wasn’t getting. I suspected that George was part of his history. Why else?

On Monday, I was asleep when I heard the French horns. I realized there were at least a dozen of them approaching fast from the southwest, with Hurricane Methuselah in tow. Soon they were blowing at the door, begging “Madame et Monsieur” for sanctuary, “Au secours!” You understand that I was compelled to invite them in and hope that they’d play Schubert. They knew I was not a cathedral. I was in no frame of mind to take chances; they could be part of the story, for all I knew. The French horns boomed Vivaldi, Sibelius, and Mahler in imperfect pitch. I resorted to earplugs. Finally, the four horses swallowed the horns. That was not my fault. More likely than not, the horns had been a digression.

Sooner or later or actually later than sooner, I came slowly to sense that the other would speak. I feared I would not necessarily hear what he had to say. Perhaps the Ginsu kitchen knife in his larynx was impeding him from vocal expression. No—the concept of knife was an optical illusion caused by an overdose of opaque dreams and inherited dread. I faced a dilemma of ontological proportions, or proportionately ontological: a choice between probable annihilation and the euphemistic “resolution,” dramatic denouement, even catharsis for which I longed for no apparent reason. There was the danger of the burning of his eyes, though I could no longer glimpse the whispers of light coming from the little suns, and indeed the room seemed to be darker than it had the night before. I could easily go the path of Gustav and his calla lilies.

I approached on tiptoe with trepidation, surprised to discover that the air was growing colder. I started to shiver as I reviewed his face. Two wan moons floated inside his eyes. I bent down to lay an ear on his lips, hoping that he’d finally speak. His mouth remained closed. I believe I remained in that position for weeks, leaving only to tend to necessities of maintenance.

My sister Clora arrived in May, a tasteful, lucid day, according to her weather report. She was horrified to find little sister in an “abject state.” She blamed my state on the “frightening projects,” and opened the windows to rid the mansion of the “stench.” She smelled death and poverty seeping through the floorboards, and complained of an odor of decay emanating from somewhere inside the house. At first she thought I’d murdered George, though she doubted (out loud) that I was capable of homicide, only homicidal thoughts like the rest of us. On the other hand, well, I’d always enjoyed novels about serial killers. Sometimes very sweet people—one would never guess. Then, there was George, with his history of unspeakable violence.

Clora told me she sensed a great presence in the house, intoxicating as a god. The sense was as strong as the odor of death and poverty. I burst into tears whenever she interrogated me, only admitting that I had a guest. Who is he? Where is he? she asked. I said simply the winds, hurricanes, suns and moons. He is everything in that room, and he is nothing anywhere. I had to be vigilant and claw Clora’s face whenever she started up the last flight of stairs. I had developed very long nails, like the Toucan’s.

For a spell, Clora became obsessed, surmising that the room at the top contained the answer to the issues she was facing, mundane ones such a nursing homes, finances, meaning, responsibilities, guilt, ill health, shame, pettiness and dementia. She concluded that I’d found a meaning beyond my self and feared that I was languishing as a result. She demanded that I dine with her, attempting to distract me from the other’s story by cooking pheasants stuffed with cherries and almonds, ordering the finest French cabernets and syrahs. I deduced she was plotting, the jealous old thing. Clora wanted his story all to herself; she thought I’d slip up after too much to imbibe and quaff.

Poor Clora had no idea that I was in full control of the situation, with the key in my hidden pocket. She “allowed” me to remain in that room, yet persisted in questioning me about the other, displaying a certain amount of irritating skepticism in an attempt to upset my balance. Existence is not the point! I responded. Sister dear, it’s time for you to configure your own future! The future is ours! I pointed out. Clora was growing as pale as I. I felt sorry for her, despite her irrelevance. Like Mother, her imagination had concise boundaries.

Clora was disturbing my focus, demanding constant attention. I suggested that she take an ocean liner around the world to find her future; evidently, the present was terrifying. Finally, she realized she wouldn’t have her way with me and booked a ticket, so she said. After her departure, I rummaged through her desk and found her diary. I wasn’t surprised that Clora had left it behind; I’d expected her to attempt a gauche power play over me by leaving some final words, which were:

Estelle is disturbingly demented, imagining she has a guest who’s the sun and moon, really everything but the kitchen sink. Dr. Humphrey says the situation is hopeless without years on the couch; he suspects she’s still a virgin, suffering from an acute Electra. I think it’s the rats coming from the projects, and of course the diseased animals the depraved creatures are eating. Last night, I saw a man on the sixth floor chewing on a small pig as if it were a turkey drumstick—the entire pig! On Tuesday, Fox News reported that at least 16 people had died from eating genetically modified pigs, that a pandemic is on its way and the President is about to declare another state of emergency. Well, I certainly hope he rounds up the poor and the immigrants, especially the Arabs and Jews, and quarantines them; that’s the only solution. So of course, it’s high time I flew the coop, so to speak. Home hasn’t been the same since the projects. The neighborhood’s deteriorated and absolument dégoutant. Mother says you can’t even take a walk in the sun these days. And Daddy would be appalled. There’s no help for Estelle, nothing I can do for her, though I’ve tried, Daddy, Lord knows I’ve tried!

In defense of my deluded, inane sister, I must say that on reflection, I do believe she was trying to tell me something to my benefit. What came as a shock was the realization that perhaps there was some connection between her little rant and the other’s last words.

I resumed my vigil with minimal distractions, killing the telephone when it screamed and refusing to answer the doorbell. Then, after a while, I began to lose both heart and patience. I ranted and raved at the other, accused him of conspiracies and sadistic intentions, taunted him for cowardice, blamed him for putrefying my environment and numbing my heart. Then I read poetry to him, particularly dear Rilke, hoping that the poet’s compassion would melt the walls of the chamber of silence in which he dwelled. I next attempted Brahms, Schubert and Mozart. Nothing opened his mouth, not even the prying of my mother’s sterling silver baby spoon, the aroma of the most exquisite of liqueurs, or the scents of roasting ducks and succulent mangos emanating from the kitchen.

Clora was right. I was languishing. And the intensity of my quest for his story was waning like the moons in his eyes. I would persist maybe three more days at most, cajoling, enticing, even belly dancing in the nude. I thought perhaps I had missed something seminal, or I had failed to connect dots.

Suddenly, an intense wind started up, upsetting my horse along with my not yet intricate plots. On all fours, I crept up to the bed, held onto its frame, I looked into his eyes. As expected, they were gray with clouds. Then there was a clap of thunder, followed by rivulets of tears rolling down his cheeks, onto the floor. Somewhere close by, I heard Ella Fitzgerald crooning “Cry Me a River.”

The water was rising rapidly, raising the specter of imminent death by drowning. I ran to open the window and was about to scream for help when I was swept out of the window, borne on the currents of his tears. The water flowed swiftly, depositing both of us in tandem, through an open window, into an apartment in the projects. As soon as we had landed, the water fled and I saw that he was no longer crying. We were on an orange and brown rug bearing an image of a sorrowful and anorectic Jesus on the crucifix, with two hooded and robed women kneeling before him. They all had beige halos. Two twin fat boys of sallow complexion bobbed up and down on a worn brown sofa, watching a boxing game on television. They wore boxing gloves and emulated the thrusts and jabs of the players with boisterous zeal, attempting to knock each other out. They took no notice of us, which was comforting as well as somewhat disconcerting. I entertained the possibility that I existed on another plane I could not name. On the other hand, the boys’ ignorance of us may have had more to do with their engrossment in the game. They were living in their moment, which had nothing to do with me or him.

There was an offensive, pungent smell of bad fish in the air, reminding me of Mother and George. It came from the half-consumed carcass of an odd looking sea creature with black and blue fins and homo sapient toes, obviously a mutant. The shredded and battered remains of the creature rested on a paper platter atop a large cardboard box in front of the sofa. When the boys laughed, I saw there were shards of bones in their teeth. I also noticed, with some alarm, that a fishy muddy gray eye was inching slowly in my direction. The snail-like eye was actually sliming toward me on a substance that resembled an oil slick. Fortunately, it ran out of steam and closed mid-distance between the cardboard coffee table and me. I was paralyzed with fear, breathing rapidly. I couldn’t seem to move my limbs.

A menacing whale of a woman with curlers in her hair swept into the room; she was garbed in a faded pink housedress and matching bunny slippers. The whale announced, very loudly, over the din, that dinner had arrived. Come and get it yourselves, you useless bits of blubber, she screamed. Your favorite, she added: Genetically Perfected Giant Guinea Pig Whoppers with Middle American fries. They was on sale, some kind of experiment. Thank the lord Daddy he has a job this week, the useless bastard. Thank the Lord he got Daddy that job.

The woman was about to leave the room when she noticed me. I was attempting to cringe behind a frayed brown easy chair. Squinting, she pointed a finger at me. I seen you in that fancy mansion next door, Estelle. I seen you looking out the windows at us and I seen you dancing like some Arab without no clothes. And I seen you with Bentley here watching him for hours. And those stupid chandeliers and that old lady with the face like it was crushed by a truck a few times and put together by doctors, and that sister of yours, looks like a pinched nerve, if you ask me. I seen a lot and I know a lot. Georgie came over here early this year, see. He was drinking whiskey with Daddy and that one. Big talker George—fat mouth. Had a go at my Bop over there, the sick bastard. Didn’t he say nothing about me, Gloria? That’s my name. Ring a bell? Hell, honey, we know all about you. Matter of fact, it was me that sent that one over to tickle your fancy and mine. And I seen him do that, seen it with my two far-sighted eyes.

Was this what it all boiled down to? Was this the story? The story of the other? A story of betrayal, his betrayal of me, his use of me? Or was I wearing the story backwards? Was he an allegory I needed for some reason I couldn’t quite locate? I willed myself out of my paralytic state and walked over to him, no longer afraid. He seemed very small, curled in a ball on the rug, like a newborn. There was nothing but hunger in his eyes; he started to make mewing sounds. He moved me, this dead god. I gently nudged him. Bentley, I cajoled. I know what you meant. Hunger is not your fault. I always knew that. Now I know what I know.

Go home and marry him, Gloria said. Save him. We are dying. So I did.

The four horses regurgitated the French horns, which played nocturnes at our wedding.

We keep our windows wide open in the warm seasons.


—originally appeared in New Dead Families

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