My daughter and I are stooping to inspect some carnivorous plants in the marshes out by Little River Airport when Blondie suddenly comes to mind.
Suddenly, unexpectedly. A moment ago, I never would've guessed this brassy woman with peroxide hair could emerge so vividly from the depths of my memory, that she could step into the light so full-blown, right down to the smudge of lipstick at the corner of her mouth the last time I saw her, the one I wanted to wipe off with my finger.
But that's how memory works. Every face you encounter, every scene, gets stored in your brain. During cranial surgery, for instance, certain cells in the patient's brain will be stimulated by an electrical impulse, and the patient will be able to describe a room he hasn't visited for two decades -- his grandmother's parlor, say. He'll describe it perfectly, even the most trivial details. He'll remember what he has no idea he remembers, things like the colors of the cuckoo that would spring out of the clock every hour. Not exactly on the hour, because there was something amiss with the mechanism, and the cuckoo would appear when the hands -- in the shape of arrows, they were -- would show that it was already a few minutes after the hour. The hours themselves were shiny Roman numerals made of brass. Same with the manufacturer. An arc of tiny brass letters at the bottom of the clock spelled out the name, father and sons, of a firm long since gone bankrupt. No wonder, if the faulty timepiece the patient's grandmother hung on the wall beside the mantel was an example of their craftsmanship.
At any rate, I'd utterly forgotten Blondie -- you can't remember everything you remember all the time, or you'd go crazy -- when my daughter tickles a Venus flytrap with a blade of grass. She'd like to do it with her finger, but she's not brave enough. In case you're not familiar with Venus flytraps, let me tell you that there really is something alien, almost nauseating, about these flat disks of glossy plant flesh rimmed by long, yellowish fangs.
She tickles the Venus flytrap. It snaps shut. Snaps may be a slight exaggeration. Let's just say it folds itself over quickly, along a seam that runs across the middle of the disk, the fangs forming the bars of a cage. If my daughter's blade of grass were an insect, it would no doubt be buzzing wildly, expending its energy in an attempt to beat its way out of the cage. Eventually the hapless bug would drop dead from sheer exhaustion, rot, and the plant would eat it, dissolve the carcass with corrosive juices, absorb it.
The moment it folds shut -- it reminds me of the mouth of a hand puppet -- I remember Blondie.
I use the name Blondie for the sake of convenience, since I can't recall her real name. She was one of the inhabitants of a pension on the island of Chios where I spent a few weeks several years ago. Eight years, to be exact. My daughter wasn't born yet. She made her entrance the following year, in a thunderstorm on the opposite side of the planet from Chios. A noisy entrance it was, too, as if she already understood a lot about this cooling ball of fire with its shaky crust we call home. She was only part way out -- from the shoulders down she was still inside the birth canal -- when she started howling.
I never saw Blondie by daylight. She worked nights, she and her sidekick, Nina. Cheerful, blowsy, soft, with a husky whisper of a voice, Nina was the opposite of Blondie. I often saw her in the afternoon. We would exchange smiles, sometimes even a few words. Usually she would park herself under a shady tree in a corner of the garden at the pension, her feet propped up on a chair, quite comfortable in her negligible peach negligee. She could sit there for hours, watching her laundered, frilly underwear dripping on the clothesline among the octopus the manager of the pension would hang in the sun to cure so the tough outer skin of the tentacles would be easier to peel.
If I could choose between the two, I'd rather spend time with Nina. But memory has its own zany laws and logic, and it's Blondie who comes to mind, with her heavy makeup and miniskirts, the tap of her high heels on the stairs of the pension, her shrill, icy laughter. How she managed to earn any money with that laugh of hers is a mystery. It would shrivel a man's genitals sure as a dip in Arctic waters, make them retreat for safety as far into his abdomen as they could go.
Were they prostitutes? Not in the usual sense. Blondie and Nina worked at a nearby bar, where they got paid a commission for the drinks they enticed customers to buy. Only on slow nights, I think, did they demand money from the drunks who staggered back to the pension with them, stumbling up the stairs in their work boots and tumbling into bed with a groan of weary springs or the bonk of a head banging against the iron bedframe.
You know how in dreams the face of a stranger can seem so familiar? It's because we really did see that person once -- at the drug store, stepping off a bus, feeding ducks at the pond -- and the image is fixed in our memory. Not that we can fish it out whenever it's convenient. The fact is, we don't remember what we remember until we actually remember it.
It reminds me of this old fellow with Alzheimer's disease at the bar the other evening. He was having a conversation with the piano player, who was on a break. At one point he stopped in the middle of what he was saying, moved closer to the piano player, and asked him, "Hey, are you somebody I used to know?"
I could've put the question to Blondie when the Venus flytrap closed and she appeared. At first, I didn't recognize her. We often don't recognize people out of their usual surroundings. The clerk in her grocery store uniform at the checkout counter, you put her in a slinky dress swinging her hips out on the dance floor and you'll likely have this feeling you know her, but you won't be able to remember how, or from where. She'll be familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
So it is with Blondie. Then things gradually come back to me. I recall the warmth of the night out in the garden of the pension, my insomnia, the tarry smell of the retsina I was drinking, the poem I happened to be writing.
It was my last night on Chios -- in the morning I planned to catch the ferry to another island -- and I was writing a poem about my first night there, the night I dreamed I was water. There were oceans of me to sail on in the dream, and a little puddle of me for the cricket who sings to the sorriest hour of the night. And the sky took me up and let me down, the sky took me up and let me down.
The poem was starting to jell when a car door slammed. Voices echoed out in the street. Another car door slammed, the car roared off into the distance, and one of those uncanny silences that follows a sudden noise descended upon the world.
A few minutes later, the woman I'm calling Blondie is standing in the circle of light around my table out in the garden, hips cocked, arms akimbo, body swaying. Or maybe not so much swaying as vibrating very slowly. She wants to know what I'm doing. I tell her I'm writing a poem.
She runs a hand through her blonde hair, exposing the dark roots. She tosses me a quick, crooked smile. She seems put together crooked. Her arms and legs, like the arms and legs of the stick people children draw, seem to be attached in odd places. Could be it's only the raffish tilt of her short red skirt. Or the fact that the few buttons on her blouse which happen to be buttoned are buttoned in the wrong holes.
She hovers in the harsh light. I notice the smudge of lipstick at the corner of her mouth, how the color almost matches the fingernail polish on the hand gripping my table. Her body is out of kilter, its curves suggesting possibilities I would quickly and eagerly grasp if I weren't so involved in this daffy poem.
There's a faint sound of tired wings beating in the air around us. It must be the sound of the minutes passing. Blondie grunts. Then she lets out a choked sigh, careens back inside the pension and taps her way upstairs to bed.
I feel as though I've been holding my breath the whole time. After she's gone, I breathe out and look around. The dance of moonlight is nearly over, the stars that play the music of the spheres at night packing up their horns as the first glow of day steals over the mountains to the east, across the choppy straits that separate Chios from the coast of Turkey.
Finally, what Blondie wanted dawns on me. My body was supposed to replace whoever was responsible for the second car door slamming.
The possibilities which eluded me earlier shimmer. Maybe I should go upstairs and crawl in bed with her. If the door to her room is open, or unlocked. If she's still awake. Even if she's not awake.
I get up and slip inside the pension, into the hallway at the foot of the staircase. I stand there, listening for any noise that might be coming from Blondie's room, for snoring, muttering, the rustle of clothes or sheets, the clunk of a high-heeled shoe dropped to the floor.
I'm frozen there in the hallway, hoping for a sign. Imagining things, the same way I imagine I can hear a smug chuckle from the lips of the Venus flytrap, still clenched on the blade of grass.
In the meantime, my daughter has moved on. She's checking out a different plant. It's also carnivorous, but larger. This one resembles a pitcher set upside-down on a long, hollow stalk. The pitcher is lime green and has little squares like windows where the flesh of the plant is so thin, it's translucent. Who can guess how many millions of years it took for the plant to evolve these cunning windows for a deluded insect to beat its brains out against in its frenzy to escape? You often find the corpses of flies on your windowsill. They mistook the light streaming through the panes for a way out. So, also, with the pitcher plant. If you peer down inside the stalk you'll see bugs held fast by sticky hairs, another ingenious device invented just in case there's any life left kicking in the bug when it finally falls, exhausted by its vain attempt to fly free, into the dark interior of the stalk.
I'm standing there listening, waiting to see whether or not I'll pad up the stairs to Blondie's room. I'm actually on the verge of probably going upstairs, when I notice something on the cushions of the settee in the hallway--a glistening blop of silvery-green vomit. It blends in so well with the floral pattern on the cushions, it's a miracle I spot it. The vomit is Blondie's; I know it's hers. I've rarely been more certain of anything.
A powerful wave of sadness rushes over me. It's as though the vomit is the reverse of Blondie's icy laughter, the true image reflected in the witch's mirror on the wall, the one that never lies, that contains the true meaning of all the icy laughter in the cosmos.
My daughter calls, and I walk over to look at the pitcher plant with her. She sees that my eyes are misty, confused, but she doesn't ask why. It's just as well. I don't believe I could explain how incredibly sad the little pool of vomit made me feel. And how lucky, because I knew beyond a doubt it was Blondie's, and I wouldn't be going upstairs into all that hot pain and sorrow.