by E. D. Watson
|On the streetcar I think I’m going to faint. My palms and underarms are damp, and each time the driver calls a stop my heart forgets to beat for an instant. Every inch of rail brings me an inch closer to my destiny: Marsha. She’s out there, somewhere. At this very moment her real, live legs are carrying her toward me, and in less than an hour we’ll be face to face. We’ve agreed to meet for coffee at four o’clock—a rendezvous that seems at once impossible and inevitable. I am overcome with a sense that all the seemingly random pieces of my existence have somehow been integral to this day. A poem I memorized in eighth grade. The tie I wore to my last job interview. It’s overwhelming. I turn to the window and unfocus my eyes. New Orleans dissolves into stripes of color and sound.
I’m so preoccupied that I almost miss my stop, but at the last moment I remember to get off at Royal Street. It’s only coffee, I tell myself. It’s not even a real date. The sky overhead is oystered with heavy clouds; the forecast is rain. I glom on to a group of jaywalkers and a taxi blares its horn. Inside the Quarter, the streets are crammed with every kind of person. A shoeshine man eyes the sky and slaps the footrest on his chair with a grubby towel. I check my watch and see that I have time.“Hello,” I say, approaching him. “I’d like a shine.” It’s an awkward opening, and the man refuses to meet my eyes. Instead, he sucks his teeth and looks at my shoes, estimating.
“Fifteen,” he says. I don’t know what the going rate for a shoeshine is, and I have a feeling I’m being swindled, but my shoes are scuffed and old and I’m nervous as hell so I agree and climb into the chair.
The man dips his towel into a tub of grease and goes to work without ever looking at my face. “You from outta town?” he asks, watching something down the street.
“No. I live here. I work for the paper,” I tell him. He’s not impressed and doesn’t say anything else.
Where is Marsha right now? I picture her tiny feet hurrying across the neutral grounds or skipping over a gutter full of paper cups. Of course, I don’t know if her feet are actually tiny. Everything about her appearance is still a mystery to me. In my imaginings, she looks like Emily Dickinson, dark-haired and spectral with tragic, penetrating eyes. But maybe she’ll be a blonde. All I know is what she’s told me, “I will be wearing a carnelian coat.” I was aroused by the word and by the careful way she’d selected it from numerous possible adjectives for red. Her choice demonstrated a fine sensibility. Crimson would have been lurid, rose sentimental, cerise coquettish. Carnelian, on the other hand, suggested something mineral and otherworldly, like the scales of a dragon.
My wingtips glow. The shoeshine man sits back and waits for me to pay. I want him to know what important thing he is part of.
“I—I’m meeting someone in a bit,” I say.
“That so?” His disinterest is apparent.
“She might be the love of my life.”
“Invite me to the wedding,” he says. And I think, wouldn’t it be funny if I did?
At three-thirty I open the door to the coffee shop where Marsha and I have agreed to meet. Behind me, the first drops of an afternoon rainstorm burst open on the street. People waylaid by the downpour hold newspapers over their heads or huddle beneath balconies. My poor Marsha’s out there in this weather, her dark hair being plastered to the pale oval of her face. At least the shine on my shoes has been saved.
I purchase a newspaper at the counter and select a table away from the windows so I won’t be tempted to look for the carnelian coat. My plan is to be reading the paper when she arrives, checking the obituaries for printing errors. I’ve told her about my olive cardigan; she’ll be able to pick me out and decide if she’d like to proceed with the meeting and I won’t have to watch her make up her mind.
For three weeks, Marsha and I have been corresponding through an online dating service for unattractive people, though it’s ostensibly for broad-minded, intellectual types. The name of the website is Truly.com, and there’s no space on its client profile pages for photographs. This allows members to establish connections based on shared values and interests without the superficial interference of a bald head or a lazy eye. I learned about the service from Stu, one of my coworkers. He came across the website’s ad several months ago while typesetting the Personals. Intrigued, he situated it between Missed Connections and Just For Fun, and signed up for an account during his lunch break.
Since then, Stu has been writing to a woman named Francine with whom he says he’s in love, though they have yet to meet. When challenged on this point, he says their love affair is of the mind, not the body. Checking his email is the best part of his day, he tells me, and that it’s enough for him just to know there’s someone out there who cares about him.
“She calls me her soul mate,” he told me. “Plus, I can imagine her however I want. Blonde one day, brunette the next.” What’s more important, probably, is that Stu’s not handicapped by his gut or his receding gums. “Just give it a try, Thom,” he urged me. “It’ll change your life.”
I’ve always felt that I’m better in print than in person. As silly and sexless as Stu’s love affair seemed to me, certain advantages were obvious. I’m a short man. My skin is perpetually clammy, and a thyroid disorder causes my eyes to bulge from their sockets. I’ve been resigned to bachelorhood for some time, and didn’t plan to take Stu’s suggestion seriously. When I did finally sign up for a Truly.com account, I told myself I was only joining so that Stu would stop pestering me. Nevertheless, I labored over my profile; the first draft took seven and a half hours to write.
And then I got my first email from Marsha. Wise, witty Marsha. Within days we’d established a splendid rapport. Like Stu, I now find my greatest pleasure in receiving email from a woman I’ve neither met nor spoken with by telephone. Elegantly composed and perfectly punctuated (her fondness for exclamation points notwithstanding), Marsha’s emails leave nothing to be desired. The promptness of her replies indicates that her enthusiasm for our correspondence matches my own. Only once has it taken her more than a day to respond. It was the worst day of my life.
At 3:45 I dry my palms with a paper napkin from the dispenser on my table. I’ve already examined the obituaries, pleased to have found no mistakes—there have only been one or two in my tenure. Some people think the obituary writer’s job is morbid, but I take great satisfaction in doing it well. Bereaved people cannot be expected to write tastefully about their dearly departed, and unless a deceased person is famous, his or her obituary is the last word. Distilling a person’s entire existence into a few sentences is an art form. My job is to craft elegant word-monuments from the jumble of facts and sentimentalities that arrive on my desk. Sometimes a little poetic license is necessary.
Marsha understands. When I told her in a recent email about the grave responsibility of my work, she wrote, “I can tell you’re a very passionate man—inspired, even! You’ve got the soul of an artist, Thomas! P.S. “Grave responsibility” – very punny! Haha!”
Over and over I have tried to imagine the sound of that “Haha!” Was it high and trembling, or bright as the notes of a clarinet? Did she throw her head back? Cover her mouth?
At 3:50 I realize my underarms are soaked. My left knee tattoos the underside of the table in nervous anticipation. I cup my hands over the lower half of my face and huff, checking my breath.
So much is at stake. Our meeting could spoil the chemistry that already exists between us. In my emails I have confessed a sincere fondness for her, but in truth it is nearer to longing. Until we meet face to face, the Marsha in my mind is an outline—nothing more than a collection of preferences and attributes. I want hands and feet, hair and eyes.
What I know is that she’s Irish-French-Polish by descent. As a high school English teacher, her dedication to language rivals my own. She was born on Mardi Gras day during a parade, but considers herself a serious person. Meaning a glass of Pinot Grigio from time to time, nothing stronger. She married young, but her husband—the pig—took up with another woman, abandoning his wife and infant son. She is thirty-eight now, and her son is in the Navy. Among various other pleasures, she’s confessed a passion for Byron, root beer, and cathedrals. She doesn’t drive, and is allergic to peanuts.
By drinking coffee together we will attempt a magic trick; the Marsha in my imagination and the Thomas within hers will either be realized or ruined. We could disappear before one another’s eyes.
At 3:58 my heart crashes around inside of me, flinging itself against my ribs. Rain roars over the roof. I force myself to breathe slowly, concentrating on the potent, earthy smell of coffee. I’ve imagined our initial meeting countless times over the last few days, and each time it unfolds differently in my mind. Sometimes I imagine that when she comes through the door, I’ll stand and smile and then she’ll collapse in a swoon. I will revive her by pressing a damp napkin to her brow. Sometimes I picture us stepping quickly into each other’s arms, embracing in front of the baked-goods case. Other times I imagine myself bending to kiss her hand. Always, we recognize each another instantly.
4:00. A string of brass bells clacks and jingles against the door. I look up in spite of my plan to be reading the paper, but it’s only two ragged gutter-punks who’ve panhandled enough change for a cup of coffee. They step inside and shake off the rain like dogs.
4:04. She isn’t really late, not yet. This weather would slow anyone down. If coffee goes well and the rain stops, we might walk beside the river and watch the cargo ships. She might put her hand in the bend of my arm. After the sun has set, we’ll have our palms read by one of the fortune tellers on Jackson Square.
4:07. A bearded man comes through the door, folding his umbrella. I despise him the way I despise all of the people who have come here and who are not Marsha.
4:11. She is a native of the city. Such people are never on time.
4:15. She is a woman. Isn’t lateness one of their tactics? I wouldn’t have thought her capable of coyness, but perhaps she’s succumbed to advice from a magazine column or one of her friends.
4:23. I order a biscotti and a glass of water from the young man behind the counter. I say, “Have you seen a woman in a carnelian coat?”
“A what kinda coat?” he asks. I return to my table.
4:30. The cathedral bells chime the half hour. Outside, the rain slows to a drizzle.
4:40. The biscotti and the water have formed a heavy, almond-studded ball of paste in my stomach. I check my phone. I included my number in my most recent email, just in case, but there are no voice messages, no texts, no missed calls. I do not have her number.
4:47. Daylight saving time ended weeks ago, but maybe she forgot to update all of her clocks. Or maybe she forgot her watch.
Or perhaps she saw me through the window and changed her mind.
At five o’clock, I stand. With all the dignity I can muster, I crumple my paper napkin and carry my empty water glass to the counter. I am a fool. Everyone in the coffee shop can see that I’ve been stood up. It’s why they won’t look at me now—they’re embarrassed on my behalf. I tuck my chin against my chest and hurry into the street.
The sun is out again. Puddles reflect blue sky, and in the windows of Royal Street’s many art boutiques are paintings of circus clowns and women whose dresses are slipping from their shoulders. A street corner musician plays “Hello, Dolly!” on his clarinet and rage heats my face. I am the world’s punch line: an ugly little man in an olive cardigan who never stood a chance.
The streetcar stop is crowded; I can’t even get underneath the covered area. A barefoot man is taking up more than his fair share of the bench by sleeping on it. Four small children are running around, chasing each other with ice cream in their hands and occasionally crashing into the legs of people waiting at the stop. One of them leaves a sticky handprint on my trousers. When this happens, a heavyset woman looks up from her cell phone and says, “Y’all stop messing around.” I can’t tell if she’s the children’s mother; in any case, they ignore her.
Where the hell is the streetcar? The people at the stop shuffle and sigh and look at their watches. An old man in a hat made of newspaper sticks his finger in the air and says to no one in particular, “Ol’ streetcar, she mus’ be broke down.” To hell with it, I think. I’ll walk. I’m in a punishing mood, and the gleam on my shoes offends me.
Within blocks I’ve got blisters, but I don’t care. Just before the highway overpass, a group of youths slouch against the old, boarded-up Woolworth’s store. They scowl at me from beneath the brims of their caps.
“Sssssst,” one of them hisses softly. A few hours ago, such a thing would’ve had me in a panic—I never walk through this part of town. Now the threat barely registers. I have been tortured, forsaken; there is nothing more anyone can do to me.
“Hey, Mister, nice sweater.” They snicker. Before I can stop myself, I whirl around and turn to face them.
“How dare you!” I bellow. Their eyes widen. Onlookers at a nearby bus stop feign disinterest, but their conversations quiet and I can feel them watching from the sides of their eyes.
I step toward the young men and address the tallest one. “Go ahead! Jump me! Stick a knife in me—you’d be doing me a favor! I know what you’re thinking—I’m just some nobody. I don’t have big muscles or snappy clothes so I don’t have feelings, right?” The closer I get to them, the clearer it is how young they are. The tall one is no older than twelve or thirteen, but my fury continues, unchecked. Curds of saliva fly from my mouth. “You think you can tease people, you think you can fill them up with false hope and humiliate them—well, I’ve got news for you, you’re a terrible person!” The youths exchange glances. “Shame on you!” I shout. “Shame, shame, shame!”
They don’t actually move their feet, but something in their posture changes, and the boys fall back a little inside their baggy clothes. The tall one holds his hands up on either side of his face.
“Mo’fucker crazy,” he says to his friends. An old lady at the bus stop applauds. Suddenly I feel empty, deflated. With nothing left to say, I turn and walk away. For a few minutes, I halfway expect to feel the boys’ rough hands on my shoulders, turning me, their knuckles smashing into my teeth. I’d welcome it. But bad luck is contagious in this city, and no one is going to touch me.
By the time I reach my apartment, my aftershave has soured on my skin. My feet are wet through, and there are patches of raw, pink flesh on both heels. While bandaging my feet, I try to decide whether I’ll even bother to check my email. To hell with Marsha and whatever excuses she offers. I’ve got better things to do.
In the kitchen, my laptop waits on the Formica tabletop between a canister of sharpened pencils and an old cork coaster. There is, I concede, some chance that a burst pipe flooded her apartment, or that she twisted her ankle on some rain-slick stairs. Perhaps a peanut somehow found its way into her breakfast cereal. It’s possible that I owe her sympathy instead of outrage. I press the power button.
The computer sighs as it boots up. It’s just after six-thirty—Marsha’s had two and a half hours to explain herself. My fingers hover momentarily over the keyboard, and then I log on to my email account, both eager for and dreading her explanation.
My inbox is empty.
No apology, no excuse. Not even a Dear John letter. I grip the edge of the table to keep from staggering backward. Who does she think she is?
“To hell with her,” I say. But my tone is weak and unconvincing. If she would only call or write I’d forgive her everything, instantly.
I spend the rest of the evening on the internet, testing its feeble distractions against my heartache, waiting for the red exclamation point to appear over the yellow envelope icon. Her email never comes. Desperate, I reread her old emails, looking for some clue that the whole thing was a prank. Though I find no indication of any mischief, it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been had. I mourn the lost Marsha of my mind, a woman incapable of such casual unkindness.
On Monday morning, I arrive at my office dejected and disheveled, but nobody with whom I work notices my condition. Stu in particular is horribly convivial. He settles his generous behind on my desk and tells me about the latest developments with Francine. Their relationship, as it turns out, is not so sexless after all. He recites for me some of the more licentious sections of an erotic email he received over the weekend, smacking his lips and rolling his eyes with relish. He asks how things are going with Marsha. I shrug and pick at a strip of the desk’s peeling veneer.
“I don’t think she’s that kind, Stu,” I say. Meaning, Marsha’s not ever going to write to me about her underwear or her nipples or what she likes done to her ass, because she’s the opposite of Francine; she lacks courtesy, not decency.
I write up four boilerplate obits—three elderly ladies in Metairie, and a nun from Laplace. My finer prose is reserved for a series of vituperative emails to Marsha, in which I call her a coward, accuse her of epic rudeness, and cast aspersions on her upbringing.
Late in the afternoon, one of the receptionists squeaks across the linoleum in her orthopedic shoes and arrives at my desk with a piece of paper in her hand.
“Mr. Trent,” she says, “can we get this in before deadline?” I hide the online crossword puzzle I’ve been doing and sigh.
There is a color photograph clipped to the paper she hands me. The woman in the picture is moonfaced, smiling crookedly. Her hair is a blaze of red frizz. Her eyes are small and close together. It is a professional portrait, the kind they take at schools. I lift the picture away from the page.
Marsha Claire Doucet, 38. My spine goes soft and my forehead crashes onto my keyboard.
“I know you hate to be rushed,” the receptionist says, “but it’s the obit for that woman got hit by the streetcar Saturday. We runnin’ the story and Brandt wants the obit in the same issue.”
Blackness swirls at the edges of my eyesight.
“I—didn’t know—anyone was killed. By a streetcar.”
“Aw, yeah, it was just awful. The streetcars were shut down for hours. They showed it on the TV an’ everything. . . . Hey, you alright, honey?”
“Tell Brandt I’ll get it in,” I say through clenched teeth. The receptionist beats a rubber-soled retreat.
My forehead is still pressed against my keyboard, and though my computer emits a series of plaintive beeps, I cannot bring myself to sit up. How did it happen? Was Marsha’s peripheral vision blocked by an umbrella, or was she in such a hurry to meet me that she rushed onto the tracks without looking? How, oh how could the operator have failed to see a woman in a carnelian coat?
All those nasty emails I sent to her! A surge of nausea overcomes me and I grab my wastebasket, gagging. My mind paints unwelcome pictures of Marsha lying on the tracks, and it is not the moonfaced woman but my Marsha with her long neck twisted unnaturally to the side. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to dab the blood from her lips, look into her eyes and say, I will never forget you!
Dizzy, I sit up and take a look at the obit I’ve been handed. It’s a generic account of Marsha’s teaching career, lives touched, et cetera. Survived and preceded by. In lieu of flowers. Nothing about how she could spend hours in a cathedral, not praying or even thinking about anything, just sitting quietly and smelling the perfumed wax. Nothing about how, for an entire semester of graduate school, she’d had amorous dreams about Lord Byron. Nothing really about Marsha, my Marsha.
I wipe the bile from my lips with the back of my hand, pull my keyboard toward me, and start typing.
Marsha Claire Doucet, 38, a native of New Orleans, passed away Saturday evening beneath a weeping, pearl-grey sky, her heart filled with poetry and possibility. For fifteen years, she inspired high school students in Orleans Parish to speak, write, and think eloquently. She wielded a semicolon like a scimitar, but her sentences were as delicate as the wings of moths. Her favorite month was April and her favorite song was “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” Though Ms. Doucet loved flowers, particularly lilies, the family asks that donations be made to the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans. Ms. Doucet is preceded in death by her father, Walter Doucet of New Orleans. She is survived by her mother, Pearline Sterhl Doucet of Biloxi, Mississippi, her son Eric Doucet LeBlanc, and her special friend, Thomas Trent of New Orleans.
And thou wert lovely to the last,
Extinguish’d, not decay’d;
As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.
When I finish typing, a shaft of sunlight bursts through the skylight above me, illuminating my hands and keyboard like a spotlight. The glare on my computer screen makes it impossible for me to reread what I have written, but I don’t need to read it again to be certain it’s the finest obituary I’ve ever composed. I press a key and the printer across the room hums and clacks. There is no one else in the room. On my way to Brandt’s inbox, I stop in front of the office’s paper shredder and slide the picture of the moonfaced woman—whoever she was—between the whirring blades.