Life Savings

With apologies to Adam Schleimer

Stella knew Wallace Marguerite when she was a child. Now he is full-grown, and handsome. Sometimes he has a lush beard, sometimes both a mustache and a beard, and sometimes he is clean-shaven. He is slender with finely muscled arms. His hair is combed back with a cream or gel that holds it smooth and high. His clothes are from any time: belted khaki pants, a white undershirt, a denim jacket and a red plaid button-down.

Yesterday, Wallace Marguerite told Stella a story about a place she is going tomorrow.

We had a strange night. We were going to Los Angeles from Portland. We were between rides. I was with three friends, a woman and two men. We had a tent but nowhere to stay.

Stella has seen blurry photographs of his friends: men Wallace’s shape but less handsome, women with perfect hair and hard faces.

We went to a bar. The bartender had a long red braid. Her name was Dee. She was Scottish but had been in America for a long time. She took us to her long low house. The only food she had was nori sheets and cheap red wine. She had spent her life savings on open-heart surgery for her rabbit.

Stella thinks of a woman on television who took out a bank loan to get breast implants. They cost five thousand seven hundred dollars. Would rabbit open heart surgery cost more? Less?

Dee lived one hundred yards from the ocean. She told us we could sleep in the meadow that separated her from the sea.

He showed Stella a picture of the shadow their tent had left on the grass, a rectangle of gray dirt lain low.

Stella waited to hear about the rabbit, white in a wire cage.

In the morning we showered. Left Dee’s keys under a rock next to the front door and took off.

That’s all? Stella doesn’t ask. Wallace is a busy man, and his story is unexpected. They haven’t said a thing to each other in sixteen years.

When they met, Stella was a child. Wallace was a child too.

He came on the first day of sixth grade, and at first Stella did not mark him past the fact of his newness. He was skinny, dressed as the other boys were: jeans, a T-shirt under an open flannel shirt. At lunch he played basketball with the other boys in the empty gym. For months all Stella knew about Wallace was his hair, two blond wings separated by a middle part. She took much notice of him, wondered why.

Then he began wearing pastel skateboarding-themed shirts. SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A CRIME, one said. Wallace Marguerite is not committing a crime, Stella thought. It was novel and thrilling, true whether or not he was a skateboarder. She never saw a skateboard.

That spring, Stella’s Language Arts teacher announced that the sixth grade would perform Hecuba on an outdoor stage in a park near the school. Stella wanted the lead but the teachers gave it to her loud friend Jessica.

“We had trouble hearing you, Stella,” Mrs. Braun squinted.

“OK,” Stella said. Bitch, Stella thought.

Stella was given the part of Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, the princess led to her death by Odysseus (Eddie D).

On the day of the performance, after a distracted tutorial from the music teacher, the children wove sheets into togas over their clothes and walked together to the park. Halfway there, Stella sneezed, tethering a dense green ribbon of snot from her nose to her left wrist. She tried to wipe up with a ficus leaf. When this failed, she had no choice but to use the interior of her sloppy toga. Why hadn’t they given them real costumes? She tucked the snotted fabric into her jeans.

In their abridged version of the play, Stella had only one scene. She entered stage right, waited for Jessica to stop blathering, took a deep breath, and delivered her lines, feeling Eddie behind her.

“Come veil my head, Odysseus, and take me hence; for now, ere falls the fatal blow, my heart is melted by my mother’s wailing, and hers no less by mine. O light of day! for still may I call thee by thy name, though now my share in thee is but the time I take to go ‘twixt this and the sword at Achilles’ tomb.”

She felt noble saying the words, funereal, elegant, the only one who didn’t butcher “‘twixt.’” When Eddie approached her, his hands wound in black net, Mrs. Braun would know her mistake. She and Eddie had been onstage together before, in a confusing fifth-grade play about a magic cabinet. He draped her in the sheer black shroud with convincing intimacy.

Stella can conjure Wallace standing at the edge of the stage, looking bored, the breeze moving his blond wings.

He was a member of the chorus. Like many of the boys, he made no effort to learn his lines, instead limply aping the good girls who manically enunciated and projected in a bid for approval. Although he didn’t care, his toga was perfect.

Wallace smiles sleepily as she passes, looks away. Stella is a basketball thrown against a polished wooden floor. Dribbled up, dribbled down.

But Stella did not meet Wallace and his wings in the wings of the stage. The moment is invented, hazy, drifting. A fantasy dreamt in the moment and transmuted to memory. Her actual memories of Wallace are round and heavy as fruit.

The week after Hecuba, their class went on a field trip to Pegasus, a restaurant in Greektown. The city had recently decided to “erect pavilions to demarcate the historic boundaries of Greektown,” a phrase Stella heard over and over one evening, drifting out from the television in the other room as she stared at a book or drew pictures of women’s sweatered breasts. She didn’t know what a pavilion was but had ideas: a ship, a grand tent, a dwelling for the very poor. When the bus parked Stella learned: four ionic columns and a slanted roof, like a child’s drawing of the Parthenon, or like Parthenon Mediterranean Cuisine across the street.

They were seated at long tables in Pegasus’s windowless “party room,” Wallace exactly across from Stella. His T-shirt was printed with an image of a tuxedo, complete with bowtie and boutonnière. He looked down into the chafing dish piled with thin lamb chops and smiled. He made a joke, rolled his eyes. He spoke to Stella as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

After that Wallace Marguerite came easily into her fantasies. He was with Stella in the idle dreams, dreamt while she read or floated in the town pool, and with her in the active dreams, dreamt on the floor, her heel pressed into her mons pubis, her sight steady on the horizontal line of her bed.

After Pegasus, Stella saw Wallace Marguerite only once more worth remembering, outside the bathrooms at her last prom. The gold beading on Stella’s dress picked up the mean hallway light. She said hello.

He was taller. The part in his hair had migrated to the left. Wallace introduced her to his date, a blonde in wire glasses and a blue gown. For years afterward Stella thought well of Wallace on these two memories alone: the tuxedo shirt, the bespectacled prom date.

Between these days she forgot him, or more accurately slotted him back, put him in reserve. Kept him without keeping him.

At 25, Stella became aware of adult Wallace. He lives in her old city. He is a man who grins in the surf or beside a prepared meal. He hangs photographs and clothes in a neat line. A man at Christmas in a collared shirt and a light blue sweater, wearing an old self to please someone he loves. A man photographed by people who love the way that he looks, right into the camera, with eyes that tell the seer what they want to hear. The sound of a beautiful old car turning onto a childhood street, or the spray released by a popped cork landing across the bridge of a nose like freckles, or the thick ruff of his beard against a hidden soft neck.

Again Stella wants Wallace to become something he’s not: gauzy, graphic. She squints at the photograph of the meadow where he slept, hearing the rabbit’s heart.

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