Alice, Seattle, Early 21st Century
Alice is awakened in the middle of the night
Awareness comes slowly:
the soft darkness,
the quilt on the bed, the stalking
shapes of furniture. My eyes
tunnel down to a pinprick of light.
My mother is there—
a small silhouette, growing larger.
“Alice, I need your help.”
I sit swiftly, slide my feet
onto the carpet, stand
with little notion what
she’s asking, but
I am needed.
My feet on the carpet–
A fluttering in my stomach,
A depth charge
in the sea of me.
My feet on the carpet
take me through the door,
are on my back,
my flannel nightgown
brushes my calves.
She stops me
behind the wingback chair,
rough fiber under my hands.
I hold on.
My father is by the last-check mirror,
the one you look in just before departure.
He has his jacket on.
knots a warning.
I keep my feet
on the carpet.
I will not take flight.
“Look,” says Mom.
“I want you to look
at your daughter
and tell me that you can do
what you just said you were going to do.”
I stare at the coffee table.
I am the Sphinx-
the riddle between my father
His eyes are on me.
He blows a held breath out his cheeks.
Not for her, the stopped train of him.
whatever it was,
with me here.
I didn’t even need to speak.
Alice sneaks into an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, and has a strange encounter
How can there be no guards?
But the gallery—at least this part of it—
The camera eye points slightly to the left.
I inch in, waiting for it to swing in my direction.
I break free of the door, and
bang! It shuts. I jump
swaying to regain my balance.
My heart pounds.
The lens stays put.
I glide toward a room with butter yellow walls,
On past the fire alarm,
Three chairs and a low table with art books.
Still no guards,
And still the camera doesn’t follow.
What is happening?
One, two, three more steps
Color! Light! Faces
I studied for so long
in the book that Colleen gave me.
They leap from the wall,
their hundred-fifty-year-old brushstrokes
singing and breathing:
Degas’ women with their
Monet’s Wave all froth and fire,
Renoir’s children with their full lips and soft eyes—
his Jean as a Huntsman looks a little bit
Why is the gallery so empty?
It makes no sense.
For that matter, why was that door even unlocked?
And the Manet? THE Manet? Where is it?
I circle the yellow room and move to the next,
This one is painted turquoise.
My heart quickens.
Boudin, Cezanne, Pissarro, Bazille:
These French rebels feel to me like allies–
People told them they couldn’t paint.
They painted anyway.
My grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother
left France to follow an American
who left her with a baby girl in Boston.
would she have left home if she’d known?
Would she have given up a street called “Elysian Fields,”
with its Triumphal Arch,
traded the Louvre and
traded the the “r” purred at the back of the throat
of her grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother?
I freeze when I hear
the click of shoe on tile.
I am so dead.
I try to drift
Back to the yellow room,
but she’s here
instead of where I thought.
A white-haired woman
stands framed by Luncheon in the Studio.
Her eyes are dark, her hair pulled up
in a knot.
A white smock with peasant sleeves
floats down to her shoes.
We stare at each other. Then she smiles
And slowly nods, as if to say I’ll do.
Alice sees someone in her room
Regardless of my mood, I really do have to face Napoleon III, who lost the Franco Prussian War to hemorrhoids and overconfidence. I’m haunted, not only by Dad’s racism, but by the shadows of the day layered one upon the other: Colleen’s disapproval, losing the mysterious package, the lady dying, and back to Dad. I throw open the door to my dark bedroom. Light from the hallway hits the cafetière and dances across its surface as the door swings inward. A faint, acrid smell hits my nose—like burning rocks. And someone is there. No. Yes. I feel it. My finger hovers over the light switch as my eyes adjust. A figure. In the center of the room. There, then not there, then there again, like an image projected into smoke. She is not five feet from me: a girl in long skirts, her hair swept up, her hands raised in front of her. The outline of a face, mouth open. She looks straight at me. I’m frozen to the knob, attached to this moment, tight silk bands around my chest. Her arms blur as she slams her hands against air, part of her moving, while the rest tries to catch up. From the kitchen, Mom says something to Bo about baseball practice. Dad closes the door to his study. Two worlds, and I am neither here nor there, but somewhere in between. Terror takes me by the throat, but not the way I’d have expected: I’m frightened for her more than of her: Her hands slap empty space as if it is a closed window. Her posture says, “trapped.” I hit the light. I didn’t mean to; I meant to try to talk to her. She’s gone. My lungs pull in a precarious breath. Esperanza would understand what just happened. She’d tell me what to do if I would let her. I shiver and shove the ghost out of my brain. She’s all made up of angst and I’m full up these days– can’t let another dark thing in. After the paper is done. I’ll text and see if Espi’s up. I open the window to the cold air as if it can draw the image out into the night. At one o’clock I crawl in bed. The Franco-Prussian War is still unfinished, but I’m drained enough for dreamless sleep.
Alice and Ty come to an understanding
From the hidden space where Ty and I still stand,
we can see Jason limping, head-down, to the escalator.
“You okay?” Ty hands me my hat.
“Thanks, I…was handling him.”
“I know you were,” says Ty.
“I just wanted to make sure we didn’t have a homicide back here.
Even off the clock, I feel a certain responsibility.”
He says it deadpan and it makes me feel kind of badass.
“So you’re here to save me from myself?”
“Something like that.” He holds out my canvas bag, heavy with the cafetiere and book. “You left this,” he says. “I picked it up before someone thought it was a bomb.”
I take it. “Oh!”
He scoots a second folding chair next to the first one, and sits down in it.
He’s wearing jeans and a plain black tee-shirt with a dark wool blazer.
Around his neck is a beaded necklace smiling with little half-moons made of bone.
I remember that Jason’s brother’s band is actually Ty’s band.
“Don’t you have to be at the Westin?”
“Not for another hour,” he says.
“The guys knew I had a shift. They’re setting up without me.”
I sit down in the first chair, facing him. We’re nearly knee to knee.
As awful as tonight has been, I am filled with gratitude to have him here,
to have him not mad at me,
to have him not be Jason.
“I apologize,” he says, “if I broke in on a lover’s quarrel.”
“You didn’t.” I say. “Jason’s not my boyfriend.”
Ty’s eyes widen.
I blush, remembering how I was kind of making out with Jason. Did Ty see that?
“I mean he’s not… we’re not friends with benefits, either.”
Is that true? I let Jason kiss me and touch me because it felt good.
Not because I wanted him for my boyfriend.
He looked genuinely sad when I turned down his offer.
Ty scrutinizes me. “You don’t owe him anything, Alice. Don’t think you do.”
“Well, I let him…” I stop. Why am I telling Ty this?
“Doesn’t matter what you let him or didn’t let him. You’re not his personal dessert tray.”
I stare at him.
He laughs. “I have sisters,” he says. “If I ever thought a woman owed me anything,
they set me straight. And if they hadn’t, my mama would’ve.”
Why is he being nice to me?
“Um,” I begin. “You don’t need to apologize for anything.
That’s me…who needs to do that.”
I stare out the window at the lights in the hotel across the street. Each window with its own story.
Ty is quiet.
“What I said yesterday. In the elevator. I don’t…
I don’t think that of you. That you’re…like…” I rub my palms on the satin folds of my skirt.
“The scary black dude?” he supplies.
Outside the ferris wheel is dipping down and around.
How cold it must be up there tonight!
But the view of the moon over the Sound would be spectacular.
“You get used to it,” he says.
“It’s weirder here than it was in Florida, where I grew up.”
“Seattle white people so sure they not racist—
they think that’s a Southern thing.
But it’s more what they don’t say. A look.
Or crossing the street when they see you coming.”
My cheeks go hot. I have done that.
The fact he’s telling me about this feels like a gift.
He takes the risk that I will close my ears,
and then the words will hang between us.
But he’s right about Seattle. About white people.
I’ve believed I’m not racist because I’m “against” Dad’s racism.
“They’re politely racist,” he says.
He’s saying “they,” not “you,” and that feels like a gift, too.
“I wasn’t very polite yesterday.” I look into his face.
He pauses. Licks his lips. “I shouldn’t have stopped the elevator,” he says.
“Look, Alice…” He lets out his breath
“I would never hurt you. You know that, right?”
I nod. The words sound different coming from him than they did from Jason.
“I hit the button
because that last line in the lady’s letter was…
well, it freaked me out.”
“The one about shards?”
“That one.” He nods, but does not smile.
He sticks his hands in his pockets
“She gave me that package, what?
In the fall?”
“It’s a line from a song.”
Ty folds his hands on his knees and leans forward.
“A song I wrote last week.”
I let this sink in. “That’s…not…possible.”
“No,” he says. “It’s not.”
After her father threatens suicide, Alice makes a snap decision
Dad swings around and barrels into the next gallery,
followed by three or four security guards,
While I stand stupidly, looking after him.
When I can move, I follow the trail of his fury,
a thing not visible, but felt in each room,
past Veuillard and Cassat,
diagonally through Renoir,
the patrons going silent as I pass.
I see Ty with Katy. “…out to the front,” she’s saying.
“He got on a bus.”
I race for the escalator.
“Alice!” Ty is behind me, but I round a corner,
dodge through a crowd of onlookers,
into the Manet gallery,
where’s the damned escalator?
How am I back in Manet?
Something bangs hard against my knees,
twists in my skirts,
My shoe catches on my hem and I’m down;
cafetiere skids across the floor,
I scramble after on my knees,
snatch it up,
at a sloped floor where the Arcachon painting was,
wood planks raked upward to a room with a round table,
two chairs, one facing away to an open balcony,
beyond which the sky meets the sea.
A sharp smell of ozone.
It’s happening again.
pressing the flesh of my arms against the cafetière’s silver ribs.
I step close.
Salt air brushes my cheek.
I am electric.
Do not go through a doorway
unless a life is at stake.
I’ve read the letter so many times I have it memorized.
Is this what the old woman meant?
Is this a doorway?
No. Mom needs me to go after Dad.
I abandoned her already once tonight;
if he jumps, she’ll blame herself.
But I’m the one to blame.
I turn away. The gallery is strangely empty,
the light a thick, amber wave.
Even if I figure out which bus he took,
I’ll never catch Dad now.
The realization is a stone in my throat.
I pivot back.
A life is at stake.
And it’s my fault.
I put my hand into the room.
It’s like walking through a curtain made of bees,
not so much a sting as a buzz.
The floorboards tip and level.
Light from the window dapples my arms.
the sharp smell of sea.
The walls go all the way around me
as if they have no memory
of the future.
Alice, Arcachon, Mid-19th Century
Alice meets an ancestor
Eating Oysters with Manet
I know it is Manet the instant I see him.
The rain has plastered auburn curls against his forehead.
His beard drips.
I shove the charcoal pencil under a napkin
as a waiter in a flat, brimmed cap glides over to my table.
“Mademoiselle?” The waiter looks questioningly at the empty seat.
“Ma…tante. Dans quatre heures.”
At his scandalized expression, I realize I’ve just told him it will be four hours before my aunt arrives, when I meant to say a quarter hour.
“Cinq minutes…,” I amend, getting it wrong again.
I now have five minutes acquire an aunt.
I scan the room, as if Willey will suddenly emerge from behind a potted plant.
The waiter departs and I realize that Manet has just been seated at the table next to mine and is staring at me unabashedly.
“Ah!” He smiles. “Mademoiselle Ferrier,
Tu n’as pas pris une ride.”
I haven’t taken a wrinkle?
I look down at my dress, which is decidedly worse for wear.
How on earth does he know my name?
“Mais bien sur! Of course! Of course! Surely I haven’t gotten that decrepit.
But what brings you to Arcachon, Mademoiselle?”
Damn! If I keep mentioning the aunt, I’ll eventually have to produce her.
“A bit of sea air, then? Good you could get out of Paris during this catastrophe.”
I must look utterly bewildered.
“Or did you go back to America? I always thought you had after…” His face darkens.
He gazes across my table and his eyes light on my sketch.
“Excellent!” His eyes crinkle. “C’est moi?” he points at my painter in the sand.
“I—I don’t know. He just appeared.”
He chuckles. “Lady artists!” He anchors the folded easel, now listing against his table like a tall, old man.
“Back in Couture’s studio, where, as you know, I spent my artistic infancy,
nothing was allowed to just ‘appear,’
be it nymph, goddess, or garden wall.”
He cocks his head. “It does look like me.” He grins.
“Though I daresay I had twice the admirers.”
The surreality of this moment wraps around me:
Edouard Manet—who thinks he knew me in Paris–just complimented my sketching.
“Thank you,” I manage.
He looks a little like Dad in the eyebrows.
The curly hair is more like Mémère’s.
Or am I just imposing a resemblance?
He scoots a little closer to my table and slides the sketch over to examine it.
“Hmm. That angle.” He searches the pockets of his damp frock coat, then spins around to his own table and unfastens the wooden box.
It opens out to reveal a small canvas secured in the lid, still wet with paint:
A flat-bottomed boat,
low, dark clouds.
A chill runs up my spine.
The compartments are loaded with oils, brushes, inks.
He twirls his finger over the lot, searching. “Leon…” he mutters, and I realize
that not Leon, but I have what he’s looking for. My hand perches protectively over the lumpy napkin, and I hope he can’t see the color rising in my cheeks.
He selects a length of charcoal from a drawer I didn’t see before, and, to my surprise,
begins adding lines to my sketch.
“You must deepen this, you see,” he says. “The light is all wrong.
You have forgotten what I told you about light.”
Do I have a doppelganger in Paris who has long talks with Manet about light?
He shapes the artist’s face, his coat, his canvas. Drops in another cloud.
He points to a small dune in the left corner. “This is very amateur.
Not at all what you want.”
A few strokes and the mound disappears,
then reappears with a different curve.
It changes the effect entirely.
“Your focal point was uncertain, you see?”
He points. “It could have been the pinasse—that’s what those flat boats are called.
Or this cloud.”
Now the focal point is unequivocally the artist.
And this is unequivocally no longer my sketch.
A hint of irritation pinches at my mouth.
He taps the side of his nose. “One has to know what one is doing.”
He leans back in his chair. “I’ve always thought it a pity you were not a man.”
I smile thinly. “A pity you are not more appreciated by the Salon.” I hope it will sting.
But Manet sits up eagerly. “You still follow my work?
You admire it?”
I search my memory. “Luncheon in the Grass, Olympia.”
For some reason, I don’t mention that other Luncheon—
the in the Studio one where I first saw him.
“Ah!” He says, clearly relishing that I’ve picked his two most infamous nudes.
“Did they not shock you? Why did your aunt not protect you from such profane images?”
“Monsieur.” It’s the waiter again, nodding his brimmed cap.
“Vous êtes ensembles?”
“Together? No,” I stammer. What if he wants me to order something?
“My aunt is upstairs resting. A rough voyage. She’ll be here soon.”
I realize he is ignoring me, directing his entire attention toward Manet.
“Oysters, I think,” says Manet. “A double order.”
He grins at my startled expression. “You’ll love them,” he says.
“About time you tried them!”
“We have oysters in America,” I retort,
though my only acquaintance with them is a camp song
about one who escapes from a stew.
It’s not long before the waiter sidles up with a silver platter piled high with oysters.
He sets them before Manet, along with two stacked plates.
It is clearly the man’s job to dole out the largesse.
But I am relieved to see Manet brighten.
He sets a plate in front of me as the waiter leaves
and slides five or six oysters onto it, then serves himself.
The oysters are raw and glistening.
I think of them in my mouth and my stomach somersaults.
“You, of course, know what to do.” His eyes twinkle.
I must look as if a tiny enemy legion is sitting on the table with their little muskets.
(Is that what they’d have? Muskets?)
I pick up the fork.
Trying for nonchalance, I spear the first oyster.
“No, no!” says Manet. You look as if you’re ready to gobble it.
Feast your eyes, first. Oysters are art!
See how plump these are! Irridescent like a pearl.
I’ve never had finer oysters than in Arcachon.”
I peer at the oysters, trying to imagine they are little edible art works.
“Now smell!” He lifts an oyster to his nose.
Delicately, I do the same.
“Inhale!” he says. “Ah! So fresh!
Picked just this morning. They still carry the sea!”
I sniff, and the oyster smells salty, briny, not a terrible smell.
“Now,” he says, “You will tip it into your mouth.
Chew it two or three times, then swallow. Thus.”
He demonstrates. Closes his eyes.
“Yes!” He says. “Buttery and sweet!
I wait a beat, but Manet is staring at me. He nods encouragement
And I tilt the creature onto my tongue, half afraid it will wriggle.
I chew once, twice, then swallow as quickly as I can.
It does not taste buttery, but it is somewhat sweet. A little like seaweed, which I had once
at a Japanese restaurant.
I feel victorious; I have accomplished an oyster!
“Now the next one,” he says.
Eventually, I finish six oysters, along with bread, butter and lemon,
And a glass of white wine.
I don’t know if I will ever attempt oysters again, but for now I feel surprisingly relaxed.
Unafraid, for the first time since I got here.
Manet, who I have only known in art books, seems like an indulgent uncle.
He’s too young to be my grandfather.
“Mademoiselle,” he turns to me. “I hope you have forgiven me for what happened.
It has…never left me.”
“I—” What is he talking about?
He shakes his head. “I understand if you cannot.
But it was so very good to see you once again.”
With a wave he is gone.