Talisman

 

 

Talisman

By Sara Lippmann

 

 

 

I am out with the stroller again.
            “Angel,” I hear on Seventh Avenue. There’s a sanitation worker in a pack of four twenty feet down the block. Royal blue jumpsuit, sleeves rolled to his biceps, velvet yarmulke strung like a birthday cone to his head. He’s wheeling a gray plastic bin. This is New York. I keep pushing.
            “Hey, Angel,” he says. His co-workers jump the truck. We’re alone with the smell of garbage. “You missing something.” He says it matter-of-fact, trying to be helpful. As if my shoes were untied. I steady on his blues and wonder how he feels – if he feels anything – about sanitation. It probably offers a better severance package than mine.
            We meet halfway. His tattoos curl like vines from Wyckoff Gardens to Lansing, a father in Attica, a brother buried in Michigan, a longstanding Florida dream. I know these men. Every semester they slide into my classroom, extend long legs beneath tablet desks and sit through lectures on Night and Lord of the Flies, scratched recordings of Miles Davis’ “So What.” Their syllabi rolled like telescopes. Never Angel, they call me: Yo. Miss. Lady. Adjunk. Sometimes they earn their GEDs. Often they’re gone before I get to my unit on persuasion. Or else, The Things They Carried. Once they leave that’s it. I never see them again.
            This man is in no rush.
            “Angel,” he says, soft as a kiss, and I know what comes next. “Where your baby?”
            “Practicing,” I say. “Gearing up for the big day,” because I can tell he means well. Sometimes I say just going for a test drive, rescued from a stoop sale, mind your own fucking business, on my way to pick up the terrors, the little shits.
            He gives my flat stomach the once-over.
            “Don’t jinx yourself,” he says as I pick up down the sidewalk, rattling past the cracks. My tires catch an edge, causing me to jerk, so I lift my front wheels over the spot where the roots from a planted maple have broken through the concrete, and I thump along, this man chanting after me, “Have a nice day, a nice day.”
 
*
 
            Passengers I’ve tried: sock monkeys and puppets and teddy bears, hand-stuffed and stitched in tap shoes; cloth dolls and vinyl dolls, battery-operated and bonafide wetters. American Girls, Madame Alexanders, matryoshkas, sleeping dolls, blinking dolls, dolls plugged with pacifiers and bottles. For my birthday Jeff blew a thousand bucks on one of those real-life babies he saw tended by grieving mothers on 60 Minutes, varnished nails and imported mohair rooted one strand at a time. I tore open the box and saw a garter belt secured to a newborn scalp and shut it. Once I took around the cat.
            Empty is better. Empty is what I know best.
 
*
 
When I get home Jeff says, Sit, tell me something.
            This has become a nightly ritual: I talk and he tries to console me. Half the time I make up crap to feed his need for purpose. Tonight I tell him my student Kiara wanted to know if I was expecting again because she always gets lousy skin when she is and she should know, she said, indicating the spray along my hairline where grays have nudged through, rubbing at the open clasp of her jeans, she is on number three. Here, here, Jeff says, following me around the apartment like a toddler as I pee, pull on sweats, check in the fridge. I leave out the parts about school shutting down, losing my job, the building getting condemned, my students once more flung to the curb. Asbestos! he’d say, clapping hands in discovery. That explains it! Call the doctor; let’s sue the city; we can recoup some of our loss.
 
            I check my stroller for loose leaves and fold it up in the closet. During the day the sidewalks are jammed with singles, twins, double-deckers, triple-tandems, travel-systems, Snap-n-Go’s, Sit-n-Stands, back-facers and front-facers and ergonomic swivelers, light-weight umbrellas, scooters from four to two wheels, metal or plastic, Radio Flyer wagons, tricycles, bicycles with and without training wheels. The array is endless. I yield to them all, children breaking free, maternal flip-flops smacking the pavement as they trail after offspring. You’d think Jeff would be onto me but he’s clueless. My stroller is a dime a dozen. Mothers do not look up when they pass me.
 
            Later, over take-out sushi, Jeff asks if I have been taking my temperature and using the sticks, if I think I can predict my next surge. I swallow a bolus of rice.
            He reaches.
            “Of course,” I say, getting off the couch. “I have papers to grade.”
 
*
 
The next time I see him tzitzit are swinging from the sides of his pants, straggly and gray as old shoelaces. You read about this stuff – only he’s not even Ethiopian. The trash man spears a condom wrapper with his pitchfork.
            “Angel,” he says, nodding at my plush, padded interior as if we hadn’t been through it.
            I peek over the sun hood.
            “I knew I forgot something,” I say, swerving sharply in an about-face, almost slicing the toes of a speed-walking mommy with one in a jogger and another in a sling.
            “Watch it,” she hisses before I get to “excuse me.”
“You could have run us all over,” she says, but I am back in the game with my stranger, rolling eyes, tired of apologies.
“Thanks for the reminder,” I tell him.
            He laughs. “Angel, baby. Come back.”
 
            His name is Levi. He wants to know my story. Teachers are not supposed to get personal. What do I know from suffering? Young mothers, new immigrants, baby daddies – these are ones who struggle. Stories need conflict, I stammer, a traceable arc, but he isn’t fooled. He points with a nail the size of a horse pill, so pink it looks artificial. Your history, he says. I deflect. Not mine. Theirs. As if my students were bumbling chicks in need of a mother hen, their souls that were lost, and our shoddy school a last-ditch chance at salvation. What are you afraid of, he says, and he is right, I have lost already my painter from Ukraine, my Dominican home-health aide, my security management major from Rikers. Loss compiles. What will become of their grammar? Levi says there’s more to education.
            He steers me back to my stroller.
            “You old,” he starts. I raise my brow. He shakes his head, tefillin box fixed to his brow like a unicorn cone. True, I am no longer nineteen. “No offense, Angel, but you old to start playing with babies.” The baggy seat flaps unoccupied and I concede, there is no real danger of that.
 
            “What’s with the bells and whistles,” I say. I circle him like a bride at a wedding, filling up on his cologne, half-checking for wings. Lubavitchers stop strangers off the subway all the time, lulavs flapping tall as Nile reeds, etrogs with stems like distended belly-buttons, their props changing with the seasons but their voices always hopeful, shameless, intrusive:            
“Are you Jewish?”
            “Lord, no. Angel, please.” He worked for a guy once who owned a shop on Avenue J, the place stuffed full with things: books and scrolls and silver cups and rams’ horns and candelabras, all of which could be put to real use. When the owner retired he invited Levi to reap; recycle. Renew. Embroidered challah covers became placemats. Prayer shawls, woolly and striped, were reborn as winter scarves. Black hats, it turned out, were the perfect size for storing that extra roll of toilet paper. And those fancy fur shtreimels? Steering wheel covers.
            I examine the cracked leather strap wound seven times around his forearm.
            I am not a religious person.
            “Talismans,” he says, taking my wrist.
            No one’s ever looked at me like this.
            “Angel,” he says. “They everywhere.”
 
*
 
            Jeff and I watch a documentary series called “Taboo.” Tonight’s episode is on love dolls. For $5,000 a man can buy one over the Internet, complete with free shipping, wallet-sized photo and starter outfit. The dolls come equipped with simulated sex organs, interchangeable faces, heads that rotate 180 degrees so you can kiss and fuck from any position. Penis attachments cost extra.
            On camera the men call themselves “idollators.”
            “She’s a real giver,” one says, applying a candy gloss to his mannequin’s pout, frozen mid-yawn as if she’s been jumped from behind.
            “With smart fashion sense,” another adds, sliding knee-highs up silicone calves.
            “We’ve been in a loving, monogamous relationship for ten years,” a third man says of his G.I. Love Doll, who has a banner of bullets strung across her naked chest.
            “Past girlfriends would talk, talk, talk. Now I can enjoy my quiet without strings attached,” says a guy from Indiana.
            A man with a strawberry splotch on his cheek leads the interviewer into his harem where an easy dozen slump against the closet walls. I remember the resuscitation dummies we performed CPR on in First Aid, my first summer kiss, lips stinging from ethyl alcohol.
            “You know, it’s not the least exploitative,” he says.
            Jeff kills the program and leads me to the bedroom. I wonder who cleans those girls out.
 
*
 
“Cooking tonight,” Levi says.
            I am pushing a load of groceries. There is no way around it. He lands in my path. I squeeze the foam handles of my stroller and his palms cup over my grip. He stands so close I smell his scalp.
            A bulb of garlic spills out of my bag.
            I bend down, my underwear is entirely wrong, and the garlic rolls into his dustpan. When he returns it to me I finger its brittle exterior.
            He lifts my chin and asks what’s on the menu.
            I admit I could use some inspiration.
            He’s holding my face like a chalice.
            “Angel,” he sighs.
My nose drips.
            “What done happened to your baby?”
            Which baby, I think, as if it were simple. The babies I wanted or those Jeff didn’t or the love we’d both lost and ruined. A mistake in high school, another my thesis year, the people who said once – at least you have each other. The baby I carried for twenty weeks until he fled in such a rush he didn’t realize there was no need to hurry, we could wait, we waited; still we are waiting. For what? Misplaced keys, lone socks from the dryer, overdue books, an engagement ring slipped down the drain. Life has its flukes. There are statistics, friends say; see a penny pick it up, as if a child were a fish won at a fair.
            It is one thing to rescue a glove from a puddle.
            I am nobody’s Angel.
            He tries again: “Seriously, why you still pushing that thing?”
            Stores graciously took back all tagged items: sleepers and onesies and swings and mats and bouncers and snowsuits and bibs. Presents were exchanged or re-gifted. The only thing left was the stroller, unpacked and already assembled, its gingham print a cursed cheerful yellow and blue. That stayed. 
            I place my bundle of cloves in a bag.
            My stroller can carry a week’s worth of shopping.
            “It’s practical,” I manage to say.
 
*
 
            That night, I make spatch-cooked chicken with potatoes.
            Jeff looks at the plate, the bird prostrate and splayed, backbone removed. I read in a food magazine that it decreases roasting time.
            Jeff smiles at me, as if there’s something different.
            I lean forward.
            With a mouthful he asks, Did you color your hair?
 
*
 
            I pack up my classroom. Textbooks, anthologies, reams of paper. A poster of a hedgehog in a hardhat: Build Character, another of Langston Hughes. Unused blue books. Pens, hole punchers, staplers. Nubs of chalk. An eraser. All these objects. The blind slats are crooked and bent, as if shot clean with a pinky ball. The floor is a mess. There are half-sucked lollipops, wrappers, broken cell phone charms. Gum on chairs. A smudged thank-you note in my desk: for believing when no one else did. The halls are already deserted.
            I throw out what I cannot carry.
 
*
 
Jeff walks in the door arms full of pamphlets.
“Where were you?” he says. His pant leg is caught in his shoe. He puffs. “The elevator’s out. I waited by the Weill/Cornell booth for thirty minutes.”
I was supposed to meet him at another fertility expo during lunch. Like a zealot he foists options on me: IUI, IVF, surrogacy, adoption. Each glossy fold features a photo of a beaming, red-cheeked baby.
I drop the rag from my hand.
 
*
 
The last time I see Levi I assume he’ll hand me a laminated card of the Kaddish, the kind transliterated in large print and kept in wicker baskets at the doors of funeral parlors. But when I get close I see he’s traded his trimmings for new sneakers; there’s nothing Jew left on him.          
            “Angel,” he says, leaning on his push broom. I lean into him. His chest is firm as a pew. My fingers maneuver his belt loops. Teratomas, I tell him. You cannot imagine. Try to picture. Monstrous. Freak. Tumors. Like a video game nobody wins. In dreams teratomas are all I see. Bulbous skeins of hair teeth and skin devouring pale limbs of children, bluish ghosts and bobbing cherries, children I’ve already used up.
He pulls me off like suction.
“Lady, what you want from me?”
He catches my carriage before it veers into a pedestrian. 
I grab his broom handle and sweep.
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Sara Lippmann 2011
 
 
 
Sara Lippmann is a freelance writer and editor. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from places like PANK, Our Stories, Slice, Potomac Review, Big Muddy, Metazen among others. It has been included in Sex Scene: An Anthology, Mamas & Papas (City Works Press) and two other anthologies from Wising Up Press. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.

 

 


 

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