TV & Movies

Mireille Silcoff’s Chez l’Arabe: Fave Fall Book Excerpt

In Montreal journalist Mireille Silcoff’s debut collection of short stories, Chez l’Arabe (House of Anansi, $20), the best ones are semi-autobiographical, focusing on a 30-something woman in the throes of an excruciating spinal cord tissue disorder. Here, one of our favourites, in which her alter ego, convalescing after her eighth surgery, hatches a plan to ditch the confines of Montreal for the freedom of a rented bungalow in California


“Appalachian Spring”

There were seven failed surgeries and then there was one that was called a success. A neurosurgeon scooped flesh out of my left lateral dorsal muscle. He then pushed and sewed and stapled those corks into the places where my spinal cord had ripped, where the spinal fluid had been leaking, long depriving an increasingly sagging brain of its rightful waterbed. With these new dams in place, the surgeon said that for a few weeks I might even have a little too much spinal fluid, and that this would be a novel situation for my brain, which had become, as he’d put it, “used to living in the driest skull this side of the Mojave.”

Within a few days, I was wheeled out of hospital. It was the end of winter in Montreal, the sky the colour of overcooked veal, and I was encased in a zippered, full torso made of elastic and stamped BINDING COMPRESSION GIRDLE (POST-OP) across its side. There was a gusset bearing appropriate slits for elimination. I stayed in the guest bedroom of the house I shared with my husband, a terraced Edwardian on a cul-de-sac, which had, in my absence, turned on me with its multiple stair- cases and tapering horizon of neighbours with large windows. In the daytime, my father came over and sat in the den across from my bedroom, and nervously tapped on his laptop with his ears pricked. My husband was on night watch. In the evenings, the changing of the guard was ceremonialized with Bloody Caesars. I’d hear my husband and my dad talking in hushed tones about me over their drinks in the study downstairs. I heard my father weeping once. At first I thought it was because only a few months had passed since he’d lost his mother, my grandmother, but then I heard him saying, “It’s just, you know, when it’s your child . . .”

The surgeon said that, aside from a few fringed nerves and the possible intracranial fullness, I was to be good as new inside a few weeks. The baroque crotchless unit was soon replaced with a simpler corset, and I found that I no longer had the problems that had beleaguered me when I was leaking spinal fluid: the daily shutdown as my sagging, unsuspended cerebellum hit the hard saucer of my occipital bone. I was a woman alive. So there was frustration, in the family, that I still wasn’t bouncing back to normality as I should have. I would pre-empt efforts to foist guests on me by putting yellow Do Not Disturb notes on the bedroom door. When I did emerge from my room, clinging to the walls instead of using the metal cane assigned to me in hospital, I was observed so carefully that I came out increasingly rarely, and usually only to go to the bathroom.

The decision to leave came in mid-May. I know this from my credit card files. I had been in the bathroom, taking a bit longer than usual with a pee. “Everything under control?” asked my father through the door. I could hear him breathing in the hallway. Rigid on the toilet, I recalled a girl I had known in my late teens. One night she got so fucked up in a nightclub that she lifted up her skirt, pulled down her underwear, crouched in her high heels, and began peeing on the dance floor. When I first heard this story, I thought that I had never heard anything more humiliating. I touched the hard wall in the bathroom. I am in my house. I leaned over and locked the bathroom door. And when I leave this room, I will have a plan of escape.

Earlier that week, I had read what I can now assure you, because I have since looked it up, was an unremarkable 600-worder in the newspaper travel section, a story about Ojai, California. In the article, Ojai is described as a place with a marvellous climate, a free-spirited classical music festival, and an impressive pedigree among bohemian cognoscenti and various classes of seekers. The illustration is a photograph of the spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti, who, in the 1930s, shucked off his fusty East Coast patrons to become a freelance guru in Ojai. In the picture, Krishnamurti is wearing a suit and is sitting on a chair with one leg draped over the other. A few disciples are lounging on cushions at his feet, beatific in their peasant shirts and moccasins. The excellent Californian mountains make up the background. The Ojai Valley, reads the photo caption, a Shangri-La of West Coast Enlightenment.

Ojai instantly captured a singular spot in my mind’s geography. It wasn’t only that my brick house in Montreal instantly seemed the opposite of exotic in comparison, but also that Ojai was so different from the other parts of California I’d known. My father’s mother used to winter in Palm Springs. She had a stand-alone unit at the antisocial end of a faux pueblo condo complex where widows liked taking the sun together, playing pinochle by the pool. If there was an old lady who wintered in Ojai, I thought, she’d be of a different ilk. She’d be the type to wear a long grey braid and grow mums. You’d see her serenely comparing herbal tea boxes at the health food store. She’d have many friends and former lovers, she’d be an etcher, a potter, a weaver, or an expert in Japanese calligraphy, a woman with a well-worn meditation cushion and an intriguing education, somebody fascinating.

I took a metered cab the whole eighty miles from LAX to Ojai, fading in and out from the pharmacopoeia I’d ingested for the cause of flying across the continent. I was using medical-marijuana spray as if it were nothing more than a camphor inhaler. The blood vessels in my skull had begun feeling hotly blimped out, as if broiling calluses onto the edges of my brain. I could not feel the backs of my calves, and soon not my heels, and my left arm was like a phantom limb made flesh. The cab driver had a tattoo on his neck that looked like the sort of scripty thing you’d get in prison. He said he lived in Meiners Oaks, a less ritzy part of Ventura County. When he brought my bag into the house I’d rented, he peered into the hallway and said, “Sweet place.” I answered, with what I felt to be superb casualness, “Yes, we’ve always loved it here.” What royal “we” I had in mind I have no idea, but I didn’t want this prison-tattoo man getting the impression that I was to be a solitary presence in this little house in Ojai.

I had rented the house back in Montreal at Bloody Caesar hour, in a five-minute crapshoot of heroic financial recklessness and Internet faith. The rental ad had said, “Original 1930s California Bungalow,” and the pictures had been vague—a view through a window, a made bed. I was prepared for some seediness. But as the stone path leading to the house came into view, I was reminded of a feeling I’d had a few times, in what seemed a different life, when I’d been sent somewhere on a magazine assignment and the hotel responded with a room more lavish than anything ever expected. I remembered one overly modish hotel suite in Los Angeles. Entirely orange, with its own roof deck, it had a six-foot, slate-grey, plasticized foam sculpture of a foot in the middle of the bathroom. It was truly a design move for assholes—Darling, my bathroom is so insanely big it can fit a six-foot foot in it. On the hotel phone, I called the photographer who had flown in with me. “You have to come up and see this place,” I said. I needed him as witness. I’d return to Montreal and no one would believe me.

This Ojai house was impressive in a better way. A square single-storey villa of pristine wood shingle with a red-painted door hung with a ceramic knocker, it was bordered the whole way around by a stone verandah. The verandah led to an open, brushy field on one side, and on the opposite side to a garden whose main feature was a massive storybook tree with an octagonal bench circling its base and wind chimes hanging off a low branch. Out back was an orange grove hemmed by a white picket fence. The name of the hilltop street was Mountainview. The Topa Topa Mountains shone pink in the close distance.

The inside of the house had been redone entirely. The bathroom was in an almost veinless marble and the kitchen was a sanitized Provençal with plates in slots over a giant country sink. There was a fridge the size of a walk-in closet and floors in buffed wide hardwood. There were French doors leading from the dining room to the garden with the ancient tree.

How pristine it all was. So pristine that, after a few days, I was harbouring a persistent curiosity about the house’s usual resident, an Ojai real estate agent named Beth Dooney. I put her in her late forties. She had mentioned more than once in our brief email correspondence that she was “journeying” to Italy for the eight weeks I was occupying her house. She’d intimated that the trip was awfully well deserved, perhaps coming in the wake of personal crisis, by giving her emails headings such as “gelato for breakfast here i come.” The house’s interior certainly pointed to some kind of transition. It was full but still oddly blank as a place to call home, lined with the kind of mid-range, blackish-brown wood furniture that comes in collections called New Horizons or West Contemporary. Everything looked box-fresh. The plates were chipless white, the sheets and towels flawless white. There was no old, ugly crystal vase from a dead aunt or bowl of pennies silted with lint and paper clips. The closest thing to a standard junk drawer was one in the kitchen that slid open easily to display corks in a zippered plastic bag, a pair of binoculars in a black nylon case, and garden scissors in a spotless suede holster. There were no photos. On a sideboard I saw two New Horizons–ish picture frames, but they contained identical photos of sunsets.

I guessed that my lessor was doing Italia alone. I began forming a deeper backstory: the victim of a painfully dissolving marriage, her therapist told her to get out fast. Her energy healer concurred. Leave it all! So she walked out of her emotionally abusive husband’s life and straight into Pottery Barn.

The bookshelves also looked like they had been stocked on a single trip to the mall. There were mainly self-help books: The Power of Now; Your Life Now; The Present Is a Gift. A single row of CDs consisted almost entirely of the kind of music formerly known as “whale,” now rebranded as “spa.” The only tangent was a Boston Pops CD called American Visions. I looked at the track listing on the back. The disc contained what I remembered as my grandmother’s favourite piece of orchestral music, Aaron Copland’s paean to big, open- air America, Appalachian Spring. My grandmother first discovered it, I’m sure, because it’s what the Plattsburgh TV station that she watched in Montreal used to play after the national anthem when they stopped broadcasting at 3 a.m. When I was a kid, the music thrilled me as well because it contained a passage I recognized from a dog food commercial; terriers pulling Chihuahuas in chuckwagons.

I liked to put the Copland track on and stand on the verandah, looking out. I knew the Appalachians were not Californian mountains; still, the Topa Topas felt like a painted set for this exact piece of music. It did gnaw a little that I couldn’t remember where the Appalachians actually were. Virginia? Colorado? I hadn’t brought my computer with me and couldn’t very well ask anybody. There were acres buffering me from my neighbours, and you couldn’t see most of their houses from the road. Some properties had electric gates. There were never any strolling locals, just the occasional SUV whizzing by.

Before long, I was relieved by this. I had arranged for a human event every few days —a delivery guy who arrived with bags of food from a shop in town that I’d found in the Yellow Pages—and I was even uneasy with him in the house. In setting up my account with the store on the telephone, I’d said I was caring for an old woman, a completely spontaneous and unnecessary lie. When the delivery guy arrived, I had to keep the bedroom door portentously closed.

“She’s bedridden,” I explained, with the appropriate look of caregiving compassion on my face.

The delivery guy told me his wife also took work looking after the infirm, and I said, “Oh, I don’t do this for money.” Seeing the way my hand trembled when giving over bills, and then spotting the corset under my polo shirt, he said, “Well, you must be a very kind woman, helping someone when—” and he pointed his chin at my midriff. “Must get tough,” he said, “you guys up here by yourselves.”

My being alone seemed to be of universal concern to every person I had any contact with. When I spoke to anyone back home, they had words about it, so many words that I soon remedied the situation by unplugging the phone and putting it in a cupboard, its wire neatly coiled and secured with a twist-tie. The last person I’d spoken to had been one of my magazine editors. I had tried to sound like an adventurous woman on a fabbo mountaintop retreat. “Are those wind chimes?” he’d asked, having none of it. I imagined him looking out of his plate-glass window, onto the teeming street below, and thinking another one of his writers had lost the plot, or their mind, before managing to make anything big of themselves.

I was in no condition for any exploratory walkabouts in Ojai. I couldn’t really bring myself to step beyond that verandah. The plugs and staples sealing my spinal cord had definitely screwed up some nerves. Since arriving, I felt like I was wearing rocking Dutch clogs. My left arm was a bloodless husk and my right hand, a rusty lobster claw. With my spinal cord continuously overfilled, the pressure in my head was a new world of weird. Any exertion that made my heart beat quickly made one of those magician’s wiener balloons blow up around my brain, squeezing stars into my eyes, bells into my ears, and once or twice knocking me out from sheer excruciation.

The neurosurgeon had said I needed to be sensitive to what my body was telling me post-operation. One wrong move and I could pop his corks out, making bigger holes, worse leaks, geysers. But things were in such an uproar that I often couldn’t tell pain from tingling and tingling from numbness. I would close my eyes, touch body parts, and ask: Can I feel this? What is this?

Every so often a vision of my grandmother, a woman in nightclothes padding slowly through a condo, shouldering walls, teetering from too many pills, came into view. My grandmother died the same year my difficulties began. She’d been buried only three weeks when my spinal cord started ripping apart, three months by the time I was being wheeled into my first operating room, still with the impatience of the well, thinking vainly of scars and low-backed dresses. I had not properly mourned her, but I was not about to start right then, with my brain being squashed into crazy shapes.

For a few hours every evening, the spinal fluid pumped less, a small grace period from the bursting compression inside my head the rest of the day. I’d make a dinner of steak and drink a half bottle of wine and then I would sit in the dining room and keep company while eating by talking to myself. Sometimes I’d pretend I was being interviewed. “Loneliness,” I’d tell my interviewer, “is the most fleeting of emotions. It’s just a tunnel you need to get through, and if you make it through, you can find yourself somewhere quite sublime, like atop a mountain.” Other times I’d speak, brimming with generous wisdom, to friends who in the last year had disappeared in a miasma of transparent excuses: “I understand. You were so busy. You just didn’t know how to deal.” I’d convince myself of the power of these one-sided conversations to such an extent that I believed something about them was being transmitted. In Canada, ears were burning. Signals were felt. My husband and my father were looking into their Bloody Caesars with new understanding. After my meal, I’d have a nightcap of medical-marijuana spray and codeine with diazepam. I’d then listen to the Aaron Copland CD really, really loudly, thinking that my unseen neighbours would, from afar, admire my belief in the classic American dream. Oh, Copland, they’d whisper, getting up to gaze at the mountains that make such good sense with that music.

Most days, I busied myself with small, repetitive, contained tasks: folding and refolding my few T-shirts, arranging my comb and soap on one side of the sink and then putting them on the other side, wiping the table before my breakfast and again after it. I’d been annexed by the idea of keeping the house as neat as I’d found it, as if its owner could pop up at any moment from under the floorboards for a quick survey of its state.

I also spent a good deal of time in the shower. I liked showering because it felt progressive—a thing a normal person does before actually leaving a house—until the day I found that I was screaming, and quite loudly, under the water’s spray. I caught myself mid-action, although it seemed barely an action, more an incidental practice, like twirling your hair while you’re reading or tapping the steering wheel when stopped at a red light.

I removed myself from the bathroom wrapped in one of the house’s extremely large white towels. I forced my brain and my feet into a temporary peace pact, an entente that would last at least long enough to get me past the verandah. I had been in California for two weeks. The plan had not been to fly to the other side of the continent and act like a lunatic shut-in. The plan had been more along the lines of the Resurrection.

Outside, my feet were on a carpet of pine needles and dry brown earth, and my soles didn’t know the difference. It was like I was lugging myself around on medieval chopines, or those stilted geisha thongs, inches above the ground. I went as far as the storybook tree in the garden and sat on its bench. The tree was so old, its trunk so knobbly, it had an almost eccentric look to it. I let the towel I was wearing droop and my stitched back touch the corrugated bark of the oak. It was a California oak. I knew this because my grandmother had a tree in the back of her Palm Springs condo and she called it My Banyan Tree. One day her cleaning woman told her it was not a banyan, it was a California oak. My grandmother continued calling the tree her Banyan.

I surveyed the thirsty-looking earth. Near the tree was a patch of stalky flowers, skin-coloured things with thick stems, almost grotesque. Ojai has that smell that you can find only in the hottest and driest parts of America, a soapy deserty sagey smell, entirely mould-less, what might be the healthiest-smelling smell in the world. Leaning into these flowers offended that in an instant. I wondered if plants with such a harlot’s-panty aroma could possibly be indigenous.

I padded to the field at the opposite end of the property to inspect the ground there. I measured the distance in past life, belle vie terms: the equivalent to one downtown Montreal block in pinching platform stiletto sandals after a seriously abusive all-nighter.

I stood at the edge of the field. It had a trampled look to it, its covering a bramble of pine debris and earth balled into tarry mud pebbles. I pushed at a mud ball with one of my toes. It flattened satisfyingly into a disc. Holding my towel around me, I walked a couple of metres, watching my feet hitting the earth, squashing pebbles into discs, pebbles into discs. I felt something move in the corner of my eye and looked up to find the entire field streaming away from me. It was not just one brush-coloured rabbit but dozens of them, maybe hundreds. Stealth bunnies—bounding and twitching everywhere.

Panicked, I dropped the towel and left it on the field. The circles of tar on the soles of my feet were rabbit shit. I tottered in the direction of the orchard behind the house, where I’d noticed a garden hose looped through the white pickets, only to see a rat perched in profile on the fence, its rat’s tail sticking straight out. It was enough. I was naked, limping, and who knew what other wildness lurked on this property? Just the night before, I had been watching the mountains change colour from the dining room windows when a bird flew straight into the glass, splatting dead on the stone verandah. I hadn’t gone out to sweep it up, but now, entering the house through the dining room doors, I saw that the bird was gone, without a single smear on the stones. I was sure that the bird had not been a dream, but there was no way

I could be sure. I had not been keeping a diary. The only things I’d penned in days had been food lists and doodles, and one stoned midnight note that I’d found which read “fuck you motherfuckers,” which I have no memory of writing.

I had once asked my grandmother, who spent twenty-three out of twenty-four hours of every day alone on a bed clustered with television remote controls and tran- sistor radios and copies of TV Guide, why she bothered with her trip to Palm Springs every year if she barely went out of the condo when she got there. She didn’t play cards with the ladies at the pool and she didn’t like the couples who went for earlybird specials and “to die for” desserts in someone’s big white four-door. She was usually recovering from one surgery or another, being cantankerous or snooty to the unlucky person sent in to care for her. Her reply to my question was that she felt different in California, and that that was interesting to her. I held on to this answer because it was a rare sign of introspection in my grandmother. Even as a teenager, I wondered about what went on in her head, what her thoughts went into. She had no hobbies besides watching TV. She didn’t do her own housekeeping. She didn’t read; she never lasted with crafts. I used to swipe drugs from her bedside to use as comedown pills after club nights on coke and ecstasy, the joke being that my grandmother’s medicines were strong enough to pummel any street drug. Once, alone in my bedroom, I tried a neat double dose of her medications to see if one could possibly grow wings from the pills in those prescription bottles. Maybe my grandmother’s stonedness contained secret depths? But I just blacked out, waking up in my jeans the next morning with my lips glued whitely together.

The week after she died, I volunteered to clean out her Montreal apartment because my father was too broken up to do it. She left behind a mountain of junk. Mystery groupings of things: one thousand swizzle sticks; four cribbage boards; two decades’ worth of Red Cross greeting cards; shopping bags filled with insoles or balls of synthetic yarn; piles of jewellery bought from infomercials. There wasn’t a diary or a letter in my grandmother’s hand. There wasn’t an idea on a napkin or a line in a matchbook. There wasn’t a further word as to how she endured. Under her bathroom sink, behind the boxes of Fleet enemas and several sad flaking hairbrushes, and a secret ashtray that we all knew about, I found a stack of filled-in crossword digests, the easy kind that you can buy in an airport before your flight. I remembered my grandmother in the airport, crabbily directing the person pushing her wheelchair. She wanted some candy. A crossword. It was incredible that these were the only proof that my grandmother was a woman with handwriting. I threw them all away, along with everything else, including the metal filing cabinet packed with claims and records from clinics bearing names like the Desert Medical Center. I did it with no remorse, dumping fast, as if a spirit could live in any old thing, as if the best I could do for myself was get out cleanly and quickly.

The day after the bunny event, I spent most of the morning lying on the sofa in the living room, the house’s deepest middle. Whether the force rooting me there was physiological or psychological was impossible to know. My brain was a sizzling skillet, frying synapses like tiny shrivelling smelts. It was best to keep my eyes on the most inert things. On the ceiling, the central beam of the house ran parallel to my body. It was a nice beam; solid, dark oak. When the afternoon sun sent horizontal light into the living room, it revealed a long, almost elegant crack in the wood. I let my eyes follow the fissure. I stayed with it as it navigated knot and whorl until it reached the spot just above my head, where I saw what looked like an inscription. I got onto my knees and, steadying myself on the sofa back until a head rush cleared, saw that, no, this was not some primitive love scraping, the kind of thing you find filed into a tree. It may have been a stamp of some sort. Maybe a craftsman’s marking.

I went to the drawer in the kitchen where I’d noticed before the pair of mini binoculars. I focused the lenses and saw that there were two boxes of text. They were hand-carved and exquisitely executed in a squared-off, barely serifed lettering, and framed by graphic, trumpet-shaped flowers and twining branches and vines.

The first said:


And the second, just as ornate:


The “M” in “May” and the “1” in “1935” shared the same long vertical line, making me unsure as to whether the person who’d carved this had done so in May 1935, or if the linking was only decorative, which would make “May Wallace” the signature, a woman’s name. Lacking my laptop, I could only speculate. I might have been satisfied with “This is not a beam” as some builder’s joke if the carving wasn’t so beautiful and, in 1935, fashionably whimsical: Magritte’s pipe transposed onto a bungalow’s beam in the wilds of California. That connection excited me—Ceci n’est pas une pipe; this is not what you think — it explained a vibe that could be sensed in the house, coming up from between the perfect drywall and new floorboards, a seep of something scintillant but patched over.

I gave my curiosity time to settle, and when it didn’t, I located the phone book and found that Ojai did have a public library, and that it was less than a quarter of a mile away, in town. The idea of walking to an actual library in a genuine town that would contain real people landed like an epiphanic vision. I did not want to take a cab. I didn’t want to explain to any driver why I needed a car for the distance most eighty-year-olds could walk in a footloose ten minutes. I also didn’t want the connection between me and my purpose sullied. I trained for two days, walking slow laps along Mountainview. I found a good branch by the side of the road that I used as a walking stick. When I finally started into town, my feet didn’t feel like wooden flippers anymore, more like jelly in socks of pins and needles. It had occurred to me that this was not necessarily better, but moving down the mountain, it did feel like progress.

Ojai’s town centre surprised me by being not at all like Palm Springs’. Palm Springs had that resort-town peculiarity of being a magnet for both the very aged and the very gay. Ojai seemed more homogenous— full of people who cycled in head-to-toe cycling outfits and said boomerish things like “Let’s take a java break” and “Sixty is the new fifteen,” referring, with much double entendre, to sunscreen. There were some faux pueblo buildings, and many in that Californian Mexicasa style with the red tiles, but there were also hints of genteel Anglicism: wood filigree and small gardens of lavender; stained glass on the side of a tea house with tablecloths in chintz. My grandmother would never have gone to a place like that. In Palm Springs, once in a while she took me to an old deli on Indian Canyon called the Gaiety, which had pastel murals of highly erect cacti and eighty-five-year-old Litvak owners who, trust me, had no idea.

The library was made up of two low, butter-coloured buildings aproned by a courtyard full of yuccas and Saint Catherine’s lace. I admired the garden for a minute, leaning idly on my stick and fancying what it would be like to be a local; just a native using the local library. I had a quiet feeling, the kind you get when you are about to enter a magnificent cathedral; you steel yourself for an upsurge of spirit.

Inside the library it was dry and comfortable, with plain wood tables and padded chairs in worn eighties office shades of rose and teal. There were only two people in the main room: an old man in a bolo tie and slippers squinting at the Ventura County newspaper, and the librarian pushing a book cart.

“Can I help you?” she asked from behind her cart.

I wasn’t sure how to go about this May Wallace business. I’d begun to question whether I’d imagined the carving in the beam. I felt weirdly transparent. My teeth felt transparent. My legs were dissolving. “I’m looking for information,” I said. I could see my bangs separating at my eyelids, hairs shivering. I had no idea how I was coming across to this woman. Minutes before, approaching the glass doors of the library, I’d seen my reflection and thought, “Hey, that old lady is wearing the same striped T-shirt as me. I wonder if she also got it in…Oh. Right.”

The librarian dipped her neck to catch my eyes. “What kind of information?” she asked. She was wearing a T-shirt too. It read: Ojai Poetry Festival: Sounding the Conch. She spoke so gently it could only mean that I looked like I should be in hospital, or in some kind of home, or at the very least lying down.

“Well, I’m writing a history of Ojai,” I said, the first thing I could think of. “Maybe you won’t have what I’m looking for.” The librarian asked me if I planned on beginning with the Native Americans, and feeling so far from anything I actually needed, a fool on an idiot’s quest, I said that I’d find my own way around. “Okay,” she said. “Don’t get lost on us now.”

The stacks contained the sort of strangely balanced collection that might come by inheritance of dead people’s libraries rather than any great financial endowment: paperbacks, bestsellers in dust covers, suddenly a huge expanse on birds here, a section on Romania there, and evidence that at least three donors were really into Carl Jung. I found the Art area and, expecting little, looked down for “W.”

May Wallace, The Pot at the End of the Rainbow: An Ojai Memoir

Wallace, I’m Astonished! A Memoir

May Wallace, The Pottery of Love

Krishnamurti, Wallace, Conversations with My Guru

Jiesen Edwards, Radiant Palms: A Biography of May Wallace

Dennis, American Dada Ceramics

The librarian passed by again, pushing her trolley. “Sorry,” I said, “but do you know anything about this May Wallace?”

“Well, sure. Everyone around here knows a little about May,” she said. “She’s a famous artist. She lived just up the hill on Mountainview. Are you looking for stuff on her?”

The librarian motioned for me to come to her desk. “She only died a couple of years ago. The whole town went to her funeral.” Installing herself at her computer, the librarian said that, in addition to Wallace’s published books, the library was also in possession of Wallace’s private papers and handwritten diaries. It would be a few months until it was all organized enough to send off.

“Where’s it going?” I asked.

“The Smithsonian,” she said, her face beaming in the light of her monitor. “But right now it’s all in the resource room in the back. You interested in seeing it?” I nodded and the librarian seemed genuinely pleased. “I’ll sit you in the resource room, and you can have a look at everything nice and quiet. Now, I’ll need to see a card, do you have a card?”

I gave her one of my old business cards, from a well- known magazine. I still kept a few in my wallet for status emergencies. “Nope,” she said, pushing it back across the table. “I meant a library card. We’ll need to get you a library card. Do you have an Ojai address?”

“It’s 115 Mountainview.”

“Oh, so you are in May Wallace’s old house! Oh my goodness!” said the librarian.

“Tell Beth Dooney I say hi. Is she still remodelling?”

I spent what must have been several hours at the back of the library, immersed in May Wallace’s papers and books, all of it like pages out of a bohemian fairy tale. Wallace was among the first to follow the guru Krishnamurti when he moved west. She had a Whartonian New York family whom she passionately despised, a lucky inheritance that came early, and a certain aesthetic ease in re-establishing herself in Ojai as a potter—a woman open-legged at the wheel in twin turquoise cuffs and great Kahloesque circle skirts. For a time, her studio was in the dining room of her house. She described the pink of the Topa Topas exactly as I saw them from the windows.

The more I read, the more furious I became with Beth Dooney. What kind of person buys a house that could be transported whole to the Smithsonian and then decides to whitewash the lot, fill it with a ton of generic New Horizonism, and then abandon it to take up some depressingly middle-aged female villegiatura in Italy? It was entirely possible that her neurotic drywall had been standing between me and something approaching fate. Who knows what could have been inscribed on more reachable posts before the renovators arrived?

There were lots of pictures of May Wallace in and around the house, which she had packed with Navajo rugs, pictures floor to ceiling, and cushion-festooned rattan. The place seemed to operate as a luxuriant way station for passing fascinating people. There was a frilly-edged photo of Wallace breakfasting on the verandah in a kimono with a man who is definitely Dali and a woman who looks a lot like Anaïs Nin, and another of her coyly hugging the California oak while being hugged by Edgar Varese, who is identified on the picture’s back. The most striking photograph I found was one of Wallace and a different man, both of them draped like ancient Greeks for a costume party, and tented under a massive, sparkling night sky. It bore an inscription on its front, written in silvery ink with music hall humour: Dearest May! I’ll never forget the starry skies of “Oh, Hi!” Love, Double A.

I rested my forehead on my arm and listened to my heart shush. Books and papers and pictures surged out across the table. I hadn’t actually made great progress in getting through everything, but with this single picture bearing these two A’s, I had found what I needed. I could have sought proof with a bit more foraging, a mention of Aaron Copland by full name, but had come up against an almost transcendental exhaustion. I packed my bag and, pretending I had no idea what I was doing, slipped the “Double A” photo in with my own things, and then one of May Wallace’s handwritten diaries, too.

In the taxi back to the house, the cab swinging up the mountain under a sky like glitter-sprinkled velvet, I had the rare feeling that where I was and where I was supposed to be had merged. If I had suffered an ever-widening gulf between me and my best destiny, I could now feel the gap coming together, almost by magnetic force. There are no meaningless coincidences, I thought. I had zero guilt about my pilfering. I was sure that everything that was happening—that had happened — was part of a pattern, that something was happening through me, and happening for a reason, and it felt enveloping enough to contain the whole Ojai night—the stars under my skin, the moon glowing from inside my rib cage.

The next morning, I sat under the oak tree, reading. May’s handwriting was spiky and highly capitalized, the writing of a woman penning only ultimates. I’d scored well with the diary I’d stolen:

Aug 20, ’46. They say it is the “Hottest August On Record.” The ferocious heat made staying anywhere inside the House Intolerable. Night was welcome. As the Topas blushed pink, “AA” and I Made Love in the Garden, by the Tuberoses and carried their scent with us for the rest of the evening. The most Divine scent on Earth. L and K dined with us. L asked, “What per- fume are you wearing?” . . . A Delicious Secret!

I crouched to examine those skin-coloured flowers. I pulled one up by the stalk and inhaled its flower-bomb outrageousness. I carried the tuberose back to the house. From the dining room windows, the mountains were flashing pink and I took the fact as an opportunity. I sucked a few long drafts of my marijuana spray, the smell of the tuberose impregnating the mist. I put the tuberose under my left bra cup, over my heart, and, propelled by a sense of a big looming yes of the life- changing sort, didn’t care if I was acting like some nutso waif out of D. H. Lawrence. I put on Appalachian Spring, pulled a sofa cushion onto the dining room floor, and lay with it under my shoulder blades so that I could hang my head off it. Since the trip to the library, it was best to have nothing pressing against my skull.

I opened May’s diary to the page where she and Double A do it, and placed the Copland photo in its seam. I then flipped the book over and laid it across my chest, like a little house, and closed my eyes. I did not know how to meditate. I was thinking, rather, of osmosis, of absorption. I concentrated on vibrations. The bass was in the floorboards. The windows were open, and I heard the crunch of gravel outside, the patter of feet, but was not afraid of wildlife coming in.

My husband didn’t use the knocker on the front door. He just walked right in. “Hi,” he said. “Um, are you sleeping?”

The voice was coming from behind my head. I lifted the diary off my chest as my husband bent down to meet me. The pores on his nose were the size of tea saucers.

“No one could reach you,” he said, “and me and your father discussed it and—”

“How did you get here?” I asked, not knowing what else to say to this impossible vision.

“I flew,” he said. “How else? I took a morning flight.”

I was afraid to speak. The words were coming out and hanging in the air like a bizarre holiday garland. I wanted to stand up. I wanted to get the tuberose out of my bra.

“Are you stoned?” asked my husband, inspecting my eyes. He looked around and frowned. “Cowboy music?” he asked, heading to the stereo, turning the volume down, sniffing the air, wrinkling his nose. “You know,” he said, “it kind of stinks in here.”

Forty-eight hours later, I was back in my brick house in Montreal. Only hours after my husband arrived, the pain lining my brain had turned too much. I had to make him strip the bed of everything but its fitted sheet so that I could sprawl flat on my stomach with nothing touching me, my nose bearing into the mattress. He didn’t like seeing me so still and silent, like a corpse in a pool. He took a side table out of the living room, brought it into the bedroom, put the television on it, and laid the remote by my bedside. He left the TV on all night in my room while he slept on the couch. He packed my things, and when it was time to leave, he carried me to the car, his arms under my shoulders and knees. “We’ll get you a wheelchair at the airport,” he said.

On the darkening drive to LAX, I told him about the day with the brown bunnies and I told him about Beth Dooney. My husband just drove, silent. “Did you pack the diary?” I asked. I hadn’t said anything about May Wallace. I didn’t have the energy for my husband’s indifference. He nodded, not listening, but then caught himself. “Actually, no,” he said. “You mean that hand- written thing? I put it with the other books. In the house. It didn’t look like it was yours.”

The weight of anticlimax was heavy on my eyelids; I watched the black-and-silver California sky tenting the highway, a sky that would soon be lost to me. My chronically sick grandmother died; I became chronically ill: this would be my story, a plain one. I would live in a brick house in Montreal, and paradise would dwell beyond my personal horizon. My husband and I seldom spoke of Ojai after we’d left it, a chapter extracted. I still occasionally wonder if that diary stayed in that house, or if it made it to the Smithsonian, or got lost in the shuffle of Ojai real estate. Now and then I picture a lovely young biographer in a Washington library. She notices that in all of May Wallace’s passionately documented days, a block of time is missing, and for the life of her, she can’t imagine where it may have gone.

This excerpt is taken from Chez L’Arabe, © 2014 by Mireille Silcoff. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press.