Whimsy Rules the Plateau

Martha stood alone under the big tree and smoked with blue mittens on. She didn’t know the name of the tree, never thought of it as having a name, had trouble smoking with no fingers. Her ass leaned against the bark, and she crossed her legs at the ankles comfortably left over right – tall, muscular legs, but she didn’t think of them that way. And her hair fell down her back almost to her waist, a shock of coarse brown hair that came wildly off the top of her head and wouldn’t obey a brush. She inhaled and looked down at her lower half, at her faded blue jeans, unfaded in the seam of the crotch, and said (loudly for anyone to hear, but no one was there), “My hair is coarse down there, a lover would find me unlikable!” Then she exhaled a mouthful of white smoke from her blue mitten into the blackened air.

She had eaten quickly with her mother and her father, then she had escaped into the backyard (the family’s brick house behind her), her natural hideaway, where she could feel fully, without censorship, bad. But it was cold, and she knew she would have to go back in soon to greet them, mostly her parents’ friends. Martha wanted to feel awful, just terrible like she really felt, but tonight she doubted her strength.

A semi-circle of bare branches hung down like bangs silhouetting Martha’s view. For a hundred years the tree had sprawled, like her hair, she thought, in a thousand directions, always growing, never trimmed back, and it had done pretty well. She asked it, “Who am I?” No answer. “Who are you?” She looked up at the evening stars that were coming out (not to greet her, not a lucky one among them, no constellations she knew), and they failed to excite her, they failed even to bewilder her. “What have you got to do with me?” she asked them all, with a sweeping gesture of her cigaretted teenage blue paw, and she laughed.

Martha, the last and much younger of two children, lived with her parents at the top of the ridge that runs the length of Duluth. She knew that it was considered “exclusive,” but she wondered why, never having felt exclusive in the least. The tree was leafless, of course, so she could see into the lower heavens (the aura of the hockey field lights), and beyond that to Lake Superior, the very last of the sunset shining on it – also the tin roof of the neighbor’s shed close up (Martha loved the imperfection). She took the last drag on her one and only cigarette while looking off at nothing, as much as anything. Then she practiced smiling, said, “Thank you for coming.” She wished she could satisfy her parents, but she knew it was more important to satisfy herself, and that meant her fake smiles would always feel fake, so what was the use in smiling them? There would be so many eyes on her.

“I must have been happy once,” she thought. “How can I not have been? Aren’t children naturally happy? How could they not be?” Martha smiled genuinely. The kind of smile she wished she could flash at people whenever necessary, but real smiles come when they want to, she was learning. She leaned back. What was going to happen to her? Why and when had she begun to feel so confined? When had she wanted something new, but she had no idea what?  When had this trouble with her parents begun? What did she want? But she had to get out, now, it was so awful. That’s how she felt. Like nothingness, a horrible thing, was seeping into her. Dusk approaching fast. Good. Only the dusk, her favorite coming on (light dissolving into granular molecules). She hated the bright yellow lights that popped on automatically all over the neighborhoods below.

An ice-cold wind swept at Martha’s face, up from the lake. She buttoned her top button again, though it had not come unbuttoned. Tonight was not just any night. She could not be anonymous tonight. The wind now, combined with the below zero temperature, and the fact her blue mittens were cute but useless, made Martha’s body stiffen and say in effect, “Take me inside. I want to go inside. If you don’t take me inside then we’re going to do jumping jacks!” But Martha only buried her face further inside the big hood and sleeves of her father’s very old army parka. She even sat down on the snow in defiance, arms crossed, without moving. Only two, long, very white fingers poked out (she had found a flattened cigarette butt in her hip pocket). Every thirty seconds her mitten would come up and take the cigarette down, so she could breathe – then everything poked itself inside, and then only the orange, burning tip again. “Wind is beautiful,” she thought, “If you have protection. If you can turn their back. If you can run around in circles. If you have a heated brick house behind waiting to make you warm!”

Martha expected her father to pop out of the ground at any second and accuse her of  wrongful thoughts, not of smoking cigarettes. He didn’t care if she smoked cigarettes, he only wanted her to think better. “Get in here and prepare yourself!” she heard him say, but he wasn’t there. She looked around. It’s because he often hid (under the torn strip of linoleum at the foot of her bed, for instance) and popped up like a tin bear in a shooting gallery to give advice. Martha was used to this, though she thought his behavior was ridiculous. Besides, she wasn’t a prize – and pop-up tin bears are for shooting at. It was all very confusing.

“Come in, it’s cold.” her mother called out, “and the guests will be arriving any minute!” The door slammed shut behind her to keep the heat in, and Martha leaned forward and hunched even further inward. Her mother had no peripheral vision, and she was as thin as a rail, and she had an advanced case of Collapsed Olfactory Glands; that is, she saw only what talked or otherwise made noises, and what was directly in front of her. Martha could smoke in her mother’s presence if she talked in a normal tone and held her cigarette away from her body, with her arm out stiff, and when she wanted to puff she flung her mouth out toward the end of her hand before her mother could adjust. Her mother might sniff and complain about something burning, but that would be all.

The door opened again. “You’ll freeze to death!” her mother called out. Martha looked over her shoulder at the yellow light her mother stood in, and saw the family’s black cat hovering in space at the height of her belly. Her mother was so thin she carried a cat (or cats) in her arms to tell Martha where she was. Martha had bowled her cat-less mother over last week while coming down the stairs, and it had been very hard for both of them.

Martha’s mother turned and said into the house, “Martha is being disobedient. Something must be done.” And her father disappeared into the floorboards of the house he had built while working safely on the tenure track at the university where he also often disappeared when called upon to understand Martha. Her mother called out the door to Martha a third time, “Cocoa’s on, dear!” As if cocoa were a magic word that could draw Martha in like a three-year old.

Martha opened her mouth to say “No thank you” but the door had already slammed shut. Martha shut her mouth. Her toes were going numb, so she kicked the tree a couple of times and vowed to stick it out a little while longer. She wished she had borrowed more than one cigarette earlier in the day from her best friend. She didn’t even know her best friend’s name, that’s how bad things were. Well, she never even thought of her best friend as even having a name.

She stood up, leaned her ass against the bark again, crossed her tall legs, left over right at the ankles as before. Strong legs, but she didn’t see them that way. Hair she felt was coarse, not beautiful, flew all around her head and went down her back. She inhaled on the cold air for lack of cigarette, and looked between her legs. She imagined a woman holding a steaming cup of coffee up to her nose, her eyelids closed to the aroma (a TV commercial she had seen many times). It bothered her deeply. A woman, or even a man, can only drink a cup of coffee so long, then it’s over. “We are between cups for vast quantities of our lives,” she thought. “What a sad lie, stopping action like this, holding a cup up and photographing or filming it.”

That Martha was standing under the big tree in her backyard holding a cigarette up to her mouth with blue mittens on … Hey! She fumbled out of her mittens and laughed. There was a third cigarette, hidden well, buried deep inside the ripped lining of the old parka, just for the pleasure of finding it. Then the unexpected moment of lighting up, inhaling, forgetting all about herself for a second, and the obligations awaiting her inside.