BARTHOLDI'S ELECTRIC LIGHT
When the seas stopped rolling, when they herded us from the bowels of La Veloce, a ship whose speed never lived up to its name, Sofia and I caught our first glimpse of liberty from the decks. Over my shoulders, made more narrow by the voyage, she pointed to the goddess in the harbor. She waved.
Samuel had written of the kissing post, the corner of a great hall where husbands and wives meet, swapping spit and love. Oh yes, people French kissed then, even fifteen years before. How do you think Sofia happened?
We waited, breathing in harbor air and hope. We waited on small boats and in lines. We held our breath as buttonhooks pried open our eyes, as chalk scratched the wool of our coats, as co-travelers left with their men. I learned names when we sailed. Helena. Julia. Ruth. Now they were Mrs. Kowal. Mrs. Novak. Mrs. Lis.
On some days, the sky glowed blue, a mother-of-God color. On others, rain seeped through our single window. A rotation of neighboring sounds kept us company. Fiddles. Russian lullabies. Weeping. That last might have been mine.
There were other methods, they said, if Samuel didn’t arrive. Other men. Yes, madam, the marriage could be performed here. When they spoke, their eyes tracked from my ring to my daughter. Only her, they smile.
Unanswered questions sang to me as we left the island: What if? Would Sofia have been better off? Mostly, I wondered why they had chosen a copper lady with a cast iron heart, a verdigris goddess with broken chains at her feet and a halo to illuminate the world, as a welcome symbol.
Sofia looked back once before we descended into the ship’s belly. And she waved goodbye.
IF YOU ADD AN S TO MOTHER
The wallpaper in the cloakroom will never be aligned, and the paint you chose for your dining room (Poinsettia) will always be too dark, too vampiric, wrong. Fashionably late (fifteen minutes) starts to rhyme with why can’t you be on time for once? Loaves of bread become cricket bats when they emerge from your oven; rolls morph into hockey pucks. You will be too skinny and too pale: darling, are you well? The twins’ colicky cries must be a sign of poor diet and your failure to regulate sleep schedules. Christmas gifts will not fit quite right, please take them back to the store this color is you not me. Your car what a waste of money needs washing and the tires look low on air and your job can’t possibly earn you enough to compensate for the daycare costs and your husband should really help out around the house more, is that another dust bunny I see in the corner? here let me run the vacuum for you. Most of your wardrobe needs to go, couldn’t you wear a bra the next time we take you out to dinner? You will be a workaholic and lazy at the same time, and not as thoughtful as your sister did you see the gorgeous flowers Annie sent for my birthday? One day, the boys are going to need braces and glasses you really should start saving more and tell that Tom to get off his ass and look for a better job. The lamb you roasted will be one degree overdone. The toilet paper is out again in the guest bath. You never should have married that man. And all of this will leave you quite breathless, smothered, so perhaps it’s better to call her ‘Mom.’
GIANTS AND DWARVES
She was plain and plump, curved where I was angles, not hard to look at, but nothing special. Not so different from me, when you scratched the skin. We worked dull factory jobs for the war effort and had boring names like Betty and Marge. We dreamt of glamor and glitz. Hop a bus to Hollywood. Get discovered, get pretty, get famous. You could say we had stars in our eyes.
That summer, Betty bought a couple of bus tickets. "Wanna come with?" she asked during our break, a cigarette dangling fashionably from rouged lips. I said I had cold feet; maybe next year. That was okay, she guessed. Hollywood's small, too small for two of us to make it big. We didn't know it would be too big for someone so small, a universe ever expanding.
At the depot, when that old gray dog full of promises rolled in, I kissed her goodbye and wished her luck. "Find yourself a good man," I said. "A Joe or a John. And if you see Clark Gable, give him a kiss from me, got that?"
She said she got it in that whisper of a voice that would never grow harsh with age.
A Joe or a John. Solid names, both, but Betty’s letters told me she’d found more of the second than the first. That was okay, too, she guessed. One of her regulars had an in with a gaffer; the gaffer had an in with a props guy, the props guy was in tight with a producer. Screen-test time for Betty. “It’s all acting,” she wrote. “On screen and off.”
I only ever saw her in the Saturday pictures; each time a little more bleach-brightened, always shining like a star swelling on the path to supernova. Could have been me, I thought. And I stopped writing. By the time Betty made her one-way trip back home, it was too late to apologize.
Hard to say whether I’d trade places, but when these old fingers manage to hit the right button on the remote, when I watch Betty’s skirts billow and see that silver screen smile through a cataract haze, when I wait by the phone for weekly calls from grandchildren who only repeat the same lines: What was she like? You really knew her? Was she as pretty in real life?—I wish I’d chosen immortality, even at the price.
About the Author: Christina Dalcher is a linguist from the Land of Styron and Barbecue, where she writes, teaches, and channels Shirley Jackson. Find her work in The Airgonaut, The Nottingham Review, and New South Journal, among others. Laura Bradford represents Christina’s novels. www.christinadalcher.com / @CVDalcher.