When I Met Eleanor

photo by Brian Merrill

      …Excerpt from a novel

                         by Brian Merrill

            Dolores the nun was pulling our teeth out to try the best carrot cakes in the city. She convinced us to stop with her at her favorite bakery on the way back to our hotel. When we arrived, Eleanor was sitting on the wooden bench just right of the door, with her back facing the window. She was looking down at a piece of paper and a cake, but at first I thought she was just gazing at her knees. I thought that was romantic. She was so beautiful – I thought I was just going to roll into the gutter with the last rain before summer. She had me pulling my hair out of its ends. Love only falls in your lap when you don’t know how to think of it yet, my dad said at the end of our storytelling phone conversation. Sometimes he would just scoop up a coy little moral as a joke, other times it would really hit home. Dolores got all excited when she saw her, I guess they had met in the lobby of that hotel once. She was asking Dolores about what it was like to be a nun, in all her curiosity. “That was years ago though,” Dolores had said. “She’s all grown up now!”

            “I thought you would be working on a weekend night,” I heard Dolores shout as she went up and greeted her.

            “Oh no,” I heard her reply but she went so quiet after that I couldn’t hear the rest of it.

            I turned over to my mother about to say something but she got to me first, “Pretty isn’t she.”

            Before I could grin or reply a photographer came up saying he was about to take Chelsea Tribune’s April calendar photo. The photos were never from the months they said they were, he told us. Always the last week before.

            “Shh, it’s a secret,” he joked.

            “We won’t tell anyone,” my mother and I laughed.

            He asked if we’d like to be birds in front of the window, meaning we would be natural and not pose. Sure, we said, and Eleanor, as if she was preparing the whole time for his entry just looked up from her paycheck, the cake cupped in her right hand, and gazed straight into the camera as we scavenged for natural space around her and the four of us were gulped down by the chards of light bolting over our eyes. That was the first time I’d ever wanted a copy of a photo I was in. My mother saw the same photo on a postcard in the hotel’s gift shop, and sent it to me a week later after I returned to Eugene.

            At first I thought it was a bad joke. I didn’t know old ladies to joke like this. I was scared and about ready to coil up within myself. Then Dolores and my mother started whispering and I thought the boat was going to leave me in the middle of the ocean to drown. I think ten drops of sweat came out of one pour in my forehead. An evil nun, I thought! Then Dolores said cheekily with a grin,

             “Well your mother and I are going back home down the street, it’s too late for us, but you know how to get back yourself Joseph, you kids have fun.”

             My mouth dropped to my shoes. I was a big empty attic, all my words had been organized back into my pockets, and I couldn’t move my hands.

            “Do you want coffee?” I said to her black and bland, in trying to conceal nervousness I’d accidentally repressed enthusiasm.

            “Oh no, not here,” she laughed.

            “It is ten thirty,” I said.

            “Whattya scared?” She was beaming now and continued, “I know a little French place a block away.”

            When we walked there I kept thinking she was going to start skipping. I laughed in my head but I was too nervous to make any noise come out of my throat so it sounded like I was huffing air.

            “You need a cigarette,” she said.

            “I don’t smoke,” I said.

            “Oh, but you will,” she said.

            I looked surprised.

            “Not now,” she said laughing. “It’s almost eleven!”

            The French place was closed. She said she could meet me there in the morning if I wanted, that they sold salmon crepes. I told her we had a tour of Harlem awaiting us at nine am sharp the next day, and the lady taking us was French.

            “How do you know Dolores?” I said.

            “Oh is that her name?” she replied, “I just call her Sister. It felt natural.”

            And that’s when she told me she had come to her for questions about the hotel nunnery life.

            I remembered Dolores’ brother Gerald and thought I could be a tortoise floating at the bottom of the sea eating the fish he caught. Gerald the underwater eagle had a lot to say about literature and New York art. He really knew Italian food.

            “Best bread at the bottom of the sea”, he’d say to me over the shelf rocks as he cracked an oyster in his beak and handed it to me.

            I didn’t know how to respond my smile was so big and bubbles surfaced up and out of my mind.

            “What’s your name,” I said before she left the outside of the hotel entrance.

            “Hell, you’re not gonna call me are you? A lot of these people I meet at the bakery end up calling me and damn, I’m Eleanor. Doesn’t anybody ever still write letters?”

            She said the word damn so cogently it struck me in the eye, like a punch. My left eye. But more so even, she said her own name as if there weren’t any syllables and the word bounced off four walls equally, so that it could never leave the room of my head. The clarity of her voice was ethereal. I couldn’t ever quite reform the pitch identically in my head after that evening. But her voice stunned me like the flame of a candle slapped out with two palms, the darkness halting all echo. Wax that would stick to my hands even after washing with soap. She had little white tennis shoes, with buckles on top instead of laces, so I could see the tops of her feet. For some reason, I realized then that I liked that. Never before had I thought of the tops of feet as cute. Never before had I allowed myself to think the word cute.

            “Goodnight,” I said.

            “See you tomorrow,” she replied already walking the other way down the street, never looking back. As she passed the last angle of light from the hotel entryway, I thought I could see a smile coming up from her jaw to her right ear, her head facing the cracks of the street below her.

            I only went to sleep because I knew if I didn’t I’d look half dead. Next thing I knew we were across a table from each other, myself in the chair, and her in the booth. It was like we hadn’t even met the night before, or it was like I’d been reading her poetry for the last month. She looked at me like I had all the anatomical faculties my pediatrician always told me I did when I was a kid, but never really believed. I thought for a second I could recognize the sound of my own voice. I breathed her as the custard mist that deserted itself between air and water – amidst waves. I’m kidding, reader. I’m a poet not a nutritionist. If someone writes you a love letter with prose like that, I’d be afraid they were going to eat me. “I vant to suck your blooooood,” Dracula screams!

            “Where are you headed in the years approaching?” She opened up her shoulders when she said it, as if the question mark was a tattoo that would hold onto you until the art wrinkled on your skin and aged like a prune in a jacuzzi. She had spoons for eyes, the silver faced me in a pond reflection, throwing bread afloat, I pecked it up, and my solitude sang within her. I thought of making love to her, and I knew exactly how I would.

            “How does anyone make love?” she said later when she paid a quarter for the paper.

            “Hey you stole that line,” I said.

            “Oh you wrote it did you?” She jeered.

            My body started humming with hers. Tuning forks. Then I started humming and she whistled a taxi. We’d only walked two blocks together. One at night and one in morning.

            “I’ll see you,” I said uncertain.

            “Tomorrow,” she said. “Don’t you leave town?”

            “Yes,” I said.

            “I’ll see you tonight then.”

            I trusted her.

            She came to the Leo house at eight and took me to an open stage in Greenwich Village. We promised to never repeat the name. After all, my mother was Catholic. It was the best, most rawly influential show I’d ever witnessed. I wrote poems for the next three years on that same inspiration I felt then. She showed me her apartment in the village. She didn’t introduce me to any of her friends.

            “I didn’t know it was possible to make love,” I said.

            “Me neither,” she sighed, laying her head in the cocoon of my chest. Her hair fell over me, covering all my senses with her warmth. My bottom lip nearly had a welt. I thought my smile would fall off my face. We didn’t sleep long enough to dream. My mother never called. My eyes in the morning were as bloodshot as my heart. I thought the sun rose from my feet to my nose.

            “You’re a star,” she said when I walked out of the hotel and called a taxi.

            “How do you know you’ve only –“

            “Trust me,” she laughed.

            That was the first time I thought a human being could carry their own light.

            She believed in me. It made me light.

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