Four Stories from The Quiet

By Robert Moulthrop

The Texture of White

I am still attracted to quiet. Even when Estelle was frenetic, I sensed an interior calm. She had combed her raven hair; her hands could sometimes be still. And her name held a promise: diamond pinpoints of light hanging still in a dark, black winter sky.

I see my mother sometimes in black, sitting far across a space of people, with folded hands and just beginning to smile at perhaps the sight of me coming across the room.

Oh she could skate. She would spin and push and glide and spin again.

But mostly I put my mother in white. She is in white, different white, different shades of white, some blinding my eyes with their sharpness and shimmer, some soothing my eyes with eggshell or cream or ivory or bone.

I used to ask my father, sometimes every day, after he was home and seated, gray chaired, slippered, with his second martini shining in his hand, ask him to tell me the two stories of my mother, times and things arranged in pictures, so I might later unfold them in the quiet of my bed. He gave me the pictures — in black in the store, turning to a high shelf; in white on the ice, turning flashing triumphant. Watching lights from cars cross my ceiling and fade, I’d put my mother with me in one of those cars, her fabric white carnation on her black lapel, her smell the thousand department store perfumes in that inside air. I’d drive us to the diner late at night where we’d sit in a booth, cool maroon vinyl against our arms and our calves, and order scrambled eggs with white toast. Across the coffee I would smell her perfume — lilac, rose, or velvet gardenia.

I sometimes go into the stores for the aromas of Joy or Evening in Paris, Shalimar or Chanel. Then I look at the women behind their glass sales cases. They wear their glasses on black cords around their necks, and pencils in their smoothly pulled back hair that rests on the napes of their necks. Their dresses and sweaters cling to their dear breasts, quiet mounds on which to lay my head and feel their yielding softness on my cheek.

Sometimes my father would tell me the black and white pictures. Well, he would say, always Well, I just saw her that’s all, in the store. And she was, you know, real cute.

And that would be all for a while. I would sit on the footstool just out of the lamplight and watch him lift the clear liquid up and back and up as the golden lemon peel floated and danced.

When the lemon peel came to rest in the glass — dry as dust, you could make me one more dry as dust like that — and then, well, you can get the steaks out, grind the pepper on mine and press it in, and did you get that blue cheese dressing like I told you and the cubes those toast cubes what the hell are those things called, right, croutons, croutons, did you …

Yes but, then, I’d say, it’s ready, just now ready, but just tell me first the rest.

The rest, he says, and drinks, well then, she turned around, see, and her front was twice as nice. She was dressed in that saleslady black suit. And she looked right back at me and smiled like I was the only man forever in her heart.

I used to like those words a lot. Forever in her heart, I’d say, and flip a pancake, wipe a dish, or turn a homework page. Forever in her heart.

He’d finish then his third or fourth in silence, eyes on something at the edge of light, and I would sit and watch and sometimes he would start again.

It was May, he’d say, and I was out to get a little thing for Nona, just for Mother’s Day. And she was there, your mother, back among the scarves, reaching down a flash of red from off a shelf, on tip-toe, and she turned around and I could see, I always liked, you know, cute with dark hair and blue eyes and that’s what she had. So then I asked her out, he’d say, and then the rest is history.

He would stop and sit, his arms at rest on the chair’s gray arms, and look right through me, past the lamplight edge. And sometimes after a silent while I’d say, The rest, or White, and then he might or just might sit. But if he did, he’d say, Oh she could skate. She’d studied it and practiced. She was good. She would spin and push and glide and spin again. And that first winter there she was, spinning, dressed in white with flashing silver at her feet. And then she crumpled down and lay still, lay quiet, just breathing on the ice.

For a while I tried telling the pictures to Nona. She would come after work, white dust on her shoes from the ce-ment she called it, it gets into ev‘rything kid, and she’d shake her head real quick so her bright blonde hair would catch the light. She’d pull out a Lucky and light it and leave it in the corner of her mouth, the white ash cylinder getting long while she fried the chops and watched the frozen peas begin to bounce around the boiling water in the pot. She didn’t like the pictures, though, and one day never came again.

I think I was glad. Nona moved too much. Even then I craved repose. And now I have Estelle, my tranquil, unfrenetic listener.

In a shoe box I have the white carnation, and a red scarf, too.

I can see my mother in a store better than anywhere else. So I go do stores and I walk down the aisles, mostly the main floors, where I can smell the leather from the handbags, smell the perfume and lotion, watch the ladies there behind the counters talk with customers or with one another, watch their animated hands and their sweet eyes beneath the bluish shadow, watch their lips beneath the red and their cheeks beneath the painted blush. Sometimes I will pretend to buy so I can smell what sort of mother she might be.

It was one-two-three, he would say. Simple numbers, direct. Summer, September, December, he would say. I hated this part of the story, but I liked the cadence of the words. Summer, he would say, was picnic dates and cool breezes on excursion boats. September was City Hall married and two days resting with room service at that downtown hotel (Where I got started, I’d say). Then pumpkins and leaves and Thanksgiving. Then December and ice, he would say. White frosted, slick as glass, dangerous, and cold.

I cannot picture my mother at home, at least not in the room where she lived. I try, but the bedroom just smells of my father and the perfume bottles are caked empty and brown. I said Why don’t you do something, fill them, or throw them away, but he just said, Yeah.

Her clothes were there when I was little, but now they’re someplace else, waiting. Except her shoes. Those are still there in the closet, in boxes with different colored shiny shoes inside. That’s where I got the shoe box, and left the shoes on the floor of the closet, shiny black and aligned, left and right, just ready for her to slip first a left then a right foot into a shoe, then turn to the mirror and look.

I remember my mother in darkness, in red. I remember the warmth and a seasound. I was part of her strength and was with her in safety, aligned with her between white sheets, before I was brought into the cold. And white.

Now I sometimes just sit and watch her face, look at her eyelids, and try to pierce them with my memories while I listen to her breathe.

In the car we always sing all the way over all his tunes like “Satisfaction” and “Waiting For The Sun” with only sometime words, and then we’re quiet all the way from the parking lot to the inside. Then out the elevator through the hospital smell, down the hall and straight across. Then all I have to say before I go in is White, and then I remember myself being pressed to the edge of the inside dark, and I say to her fierce words of prayer, keep spinning, there in flashing white on the ice, keep turning, twirling, there, forever, do not fall, never fall, skates keep flashing, there inside my head, where it is always, always, just before the fall.

My father, of course, takes his time. He sits in the next chair and, along with the hum of her breathing machine, I hear the soft crinkle of his brown paper bag, breathe its soft vanilla smell, watch him open the wax paper around his tuna fish sandwich. Then a bite, a smell of empty fish, and he begins.

Well, Evvie, this was a week all right, he might say. We had our ups and downs. The offset press broke twice, both times acourse right in the middle of a rush for Tru-Value. Al used all his cuss words just to make it go.

And all the time he’d look right at her always-sleeping face, reposed and serene. He was always watching closely for what finally never came.

Then would come my part.

And Billy’s doing just swell. Aren’t you, Bill? Tell your Mom about that test, son.

Then he would say, as if he were handing me the telephone during a long distance call, Evvie, now, here’s Bill.

And since I knew my turn would come, I always planned ahead what I would say. Looking out through the window while Dad hummed us along Route 9, I thought about my tests and bruises, tried to remember things my friends’ Moms liked, piano practice, brushing teeth. I told her everything, but almost always with my eyes closed, so I could talk to her in the store, behind her counter, where she wore her white carnation and her red scarf, and she smelled of everything wonderful, while I, who had just dropped by, was sitting on the high stool on the other side of the counter and looking right into her deep blue eyes.

Forever in her heart.

My Dad said deep blue.

By the time I was a sophomore, my eyes still closed, I could stand right across the counter, lean an elbow on the glass, and look like someone buying something for his Mom. Maybe I could even look down a little bit at her. Sometimes then I’d change her eyes to pale milky blue, the kind of faraway eyes people have who can look right through you to something else beyond. I thought by then, even though she still lay breathing under quiet sheets, that she had found some place and decided to rest, a place with yellow light filtered through the green leaves of summer trees, something better than us, with our careful tuna fish and news.

I think of her hands holding me, her belly draped in shining white upon the ice. I feel her slender fingers stroke me through the comfort of her skin. And then she only breathes.

And then I am not there for her. I must have left a pain of absence, a notice of void. At least she must have worried, since I wasn’t there inside her, contained and safe.

In the winter afternoons, gray light would bleed in through the window, move across the floor, then leave. I would sit and watch my mother breathe and watch her face for signs. In summer days, the room suffused in saffron light and cool in the air conditioned hum, I would regale her with every outside thing I learned: parties, picnics, lemonade; clams and hot dogs; baseball games and swims. In the autumn I would tell her all the TV shows, or else explain the colors of the leaves.

Now, within myself and for Estelle, I put my mother in another room. When I still played piano, feeling Mozart move from off the page and into life upon the cool white ivory keys and black, trying phrasings, keeping fingers curved just so, I would place my mother in the kitchen, stirring sweet vanilla custard pie, calmly, in an apron, head to one side for a moment, listening to the phrase.

That was lovely dear, I’d have her say. Just lovely. I would finish off my phrase and then I’d shout, Thanks, Mom, loud inside my head, and What’s for dinner? as I put Scriabin up against the rack. And I would hear her answer Cauliflower Soup, Vanilla Pie, or something white like that.

Now she listens to my plans in silence with Estelle.

Beyond The Arcs of Stars

It’s simple, every doctor said. Routine. We only make a little door of bone, just here. And then we’ll probe and see if something’s there. But nothing’s there, they said. You’ve seen the pictures. And when we know for sure, then he’ll know, too. And they were wrong and right.

I had seen the pictures clipped on the screen of light, dull shadows on the black. I had looked into the black to find my father’s mystery, to search out between the vein and bone an interstice of nerves that might hold answers. Surrounded then by black, a traveler within my father, I imagined webs of reasons, tracks of rationales, the substance of his pain.

I remember a walk, through the park and around, Come on kid, we’ll stop by the field with the kites, watch them fly. But he stopped at the corner, clutched the railing, and said Home, Get Me Home Dammit. I remember the sudden red lines — on his face, in his eyes — explosions of blood, like lace, like spiders, drawing me into his eyes.

His nails had grown by then, and the blue half-moons from the ink stains had grown away from his fingers.

Later, head bandaged in white, his eyes gray pools, I’d sit on the wooden chair with fingers pressed to fingers and watch while a doctor said Fine or Quite Fine. I’d watch my father from deep in his pillow hate the doctors with his eyes.

What do they know? he’d say. Do they have my pain? It’s still here. I heard it, he’d say. I can hear it grow.

Later, when my father left the gray chair for his bed — just resting, dammit, on top of the blue spread here, but you could fetch the patchwork and just float it over — I finally asked about the stars. From the bed at night his eyes would pierce straight through the window to the sky.

I’d watch his pupils, large within the darkened room, dance back the spark of light from off my lamp. I’d never look at the bandage round his head, not since the time when he was sitting in the chair and I was bringing in some Campbell’s Golden Mushroom soup, and I stopped and spilled a little when I saw that the hair hanging down from underneath the bandages had turned to white.

That bandage don’t mean shit, he said.

But aren’t you, don’t you, feel better? I said. And I put the tray across his knees. He wore gray flannel pants, but I could feel the tray was resting on his bones.

No, he said, and fixed me with his eyes behind the mist. It’s there, he said, only now it’s resting, and quiet.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Have some soup, I said. But he let the soup bowl slide across the tray and onto the floor.

When the bandages finally came off, he took his index finger and traced a line across his forehead to show me the equator of his pain.

His nails had grown by then, and the blue half-moons from the ink stains had grown away from his fingers. Sit up, I said, I’ll cut them. I held the nail scissors tight, the handles welting my flesh, and cradled, one after the other, the soft white fingers in my hand, caressing the whorls on each finger’s end. My thumb on each nail, holding fast, felt ridges valleys peaks of horn. The blue moon chips fell on the quilt.

But before I sat I went to Nona. She said she didn’t mind But gee, kid, I don’t want to hear no stories on your Dad, I just can’t take it. And she lit another Lucky off the first.

We sat across her kitchen table thick with blue paint, now damp from Nona’s sponge. The water drops were lined in arcs, sweeps of crystals, leaving traces on the blue. Nona pulled her chair over by the window. Her smoke whorled in the sun, moving slowly in the dust. She said, I’ll boil up some instant, won’t take a sec. You still take it black, right? Me, I need the sugar. She poured powder in my old blue mug, mixed her powder with two spoons of sugar. The kettle screamed into the quiet. Loud, huh? she said. I like it loud like that, hear it all the way outside if I’m up to something with the garden.

It’s Dad, I said, after the coffee had dissolved and I had stirred and stirred.

Well, yeah, she said, he’s better, right? I woulda’ come, but things just got away. And then you called and said there wasn’t, that the doctors hadn’t found

Well, that was true, but then, I said, since he’s your son I thought you’d know, could tell me why he’s packing up to leave.

Well, she said, wherever to?

Stars, I said, he’s talking about the stars. Maybe he just wants to see them. So maybe up to the lake where the sky gets dark at night.

Or off west, she said. We was out there once, just for a week or so, and I remember how he liked the sky.

If it was west or even up the lake, I said, I could pack up and go.

Well, you should go, she said. She stood and took the sponge and cups and went off to the sink. I think you better start to pack, she said, and turned the faucets both on full.

In the later quiet, after his soup, I asked him what about the stars and if it was the desert or the lake.

There are arcs of stars, he said, away beyond the galaxies. Perfect arcs, he said. We did a book last year and Dottie had a question on the proof, some damn caption on a picture, and I saw them. You know jet planes? You know you get those fighter jets at air shows, all turning in formation, wheeling round the sky? And they leave tracks? That’s what those star arcs look like, curves of light, like when you throw a stone into a pond. I’m going to see those arcs.

But what, I said, about the press? What about Dottie and Ed and all?

He took the question, held it for a moment, then said, Yours. Or Dot’s. Or Ed’s. I don’t need it any more.

I followed him into the bedroom, watching as the suitcase open on the bed filled with socks and underwear and shirts. I finally asked him why. He said, There are just things I have to do before

But, I said, the doctors, they all

I’m the one who knows, he said. I got a soft exploding star. Maybe wasn’t there before. Maybe it just came when they opened up that door of bone. Before it was straight pain in lines across. Now it’s pushing out. Remember the arcs of stars? They could be shockwaves from something way across the universe.

He looked at me. I got to get along, he said.

What about Mom? I said.

She don’t need me any more, he said. She don’t really need you either. You could just, well, see how it feels if you stop going to visit. I got to get along, he said again.

Later I sat in his chair, felt the fabric scratch my arms and wrists and neck, and watched the mirror.

Estelle In Bed

When Estelle first let me touch her, I would comb her dark black hair. Raven, I called it. Your hair is like a raven’s wing, I said, and gently smoothed my mother’s comb through the long, thick lines of hair, leaving tracks, in her hair, from my mother’s comb.

By the mirror, in the mirror light, I could see her hair lay gently on her shoulders and her breasts. I would lay my other hand upon her head and feel its warmth, and she would lean her body back against my own, her blueblack hair against my thighs.

I will wear my tux, and she, she will have glitter in her hair.

Between the linen sheets, within concentric rings of fire, without the light, among her mysteries of warmth, I cried for joy. She murmured into my tears.

When I was young, I had boxes of villages, towns, cities, buildings, and trees with sidewalks and streets, houses and parks and fountains where cellophane water supported ducks and the occasional swan. At night they would be unarranged, stacked in careful boxes on the highest shelf, ready to be arranged again. Oh, there were friends, of course, and ponies, cars, and parties. But I always liked the cities best, she said. I asked if I could see them. We kissed each other’s bodies in the twisted sheets. No, she said, I burned them all.

Later by the mirror, I watched her mirrored breasts rise and fall, watched her mirrored eyes be still, imagined how her hands and fingers on hardness and my hands inside her would create ecstatic novas.

Closer, not quite touching, standing at her back, eyes locked within the mirror, we breathed together in the rise and fall of tongues and lips. As we made love — kisses, tongues, then thrusts — she told me stories of the people in her cities.

John played baseball, a good right arm, was 10 and 2 against the Lone Stars. His wife, Lucinda, wore an apron to the games; knew her way around the park; was savaged — beaten, raped, and slashed — by Ted, the Lone Star manager. Not quite dead, she tied her apron round her wounds, but never left her house again. Her brother, Tom, was mayor, quite distinguished, with gray hair. His dynamic speeches, on the homeless, finally forced, a coalition, prostate cancer, spread into, his spine, and pressed, upon, the nerves. His legs, were, paralyzed. The nerves controlling speech went next. He died in twilight pain. Emily, his daughter, blonde, imperious, and alone, alone, alone, alone, enjoyed, the comfort, of, his, death.

Later, after the dance, we lay on separate edges of the bed, cleft now by tangled sheets, alone and spent in twilight sleep. Outside the trees were lace across the stars.

She said, I assented to your stillness for the quiet. I needed silence then. She paused.

You don’t know me, she said.

I know your skin, I said. I know your hair.

How did we meet? She asked, and looked, and waited.

In the store, I said, last week, by the handbags and scarves.

She had been poised for choice, her hand aloft between a lizard evening bag with golden accents and a sturdy alligator purse.  Lizard, I had said. A limo, I had thought, to take us to the clubs, and I will wear my tux, and she, she will have glitter in her hair.

I was stealing the bag, she said. I liked you then.

She put the coffee cup tight between her legs. Drink, she said, the coffee, and she pulled my head between her thighs. Drink my coffee with your tongue, she said.

Then she packed everything away — the books, the lotions, and the black and amber dress she wore the day we sat together at the hospital and watched my mother draw her slow and careful breaths, watched the sun decay across the room and fall on spiky daisies in the bowl, now gray from dust.

Now, said Estelle, you could give me that comb. I will use it well and you will remember me, because it’s gone.

I answered No, and hoped that she would stay.

But she just took the comb and walked out the door, across the lawn, to the sidewalk, and walked away.

Back inside I found a space upon the carpet, layed my knees, my chest, my arms and hands, my cheek upon the blood red and dark black patterns of remorse, and tried to sleep.


Nona, Nona. It isn’t really hard to tell. She smoked her Lucky Strikes and didn’t understand it either.

They was both mysteries to me, she’d say. My mother, she meant. And my father. Her all that quiet, she’d say.

And him, she’d say, never opened his mouth and when he finally did I never had a notion what he said. My father, she meant.

She’d shake a Lucky out of the pack, tap it hard then easy on the table — bang: taptaptap; bang: taptaptap — stick it in her mouth, light it one-handed — fold the cardboard match in half using nimble fingers, move it on the emery with her thumb the way the real one-armed bandit taught her up that time in Reno as she liked to tell — shake the fire out, then hold the smoke before she breathed it out, grey and white from nostrils, grey and white over yellow teeth between lips of ruby red.

I smashed my lips and teeth together, reached out farther with my finger’s ends…

I knew the sounds, so didn’t watch, just lay with arms outstretched across the carpet, body flat as I could make it, feeling carpet press on my chest and arms and legs and even toes, feeling carpet rough on my cheek. My eyes were dry from all the tears gone through. My eyes were open, though. I was surprised to see the sun upon the carpet.

You can stay here if you want, said Nona through her smoke.  But I am tired of just sitting watching dust.

I breathed some more and watched her boots, the creases where the leather was still fresh, away from all the ce-ment.

She said, I think I need a burger, and some kind of chocolate shake and maybe then some fries with extra salt and catsup. Bet you’d like some, too, know what I mean?

I didn’t move. I let my face go full upon the carpet. Let my lips press into tough wool loops, let my nose press down and breathe the smells of feet and shoes and dust and dirt, of mine, Estelle, my father’s, even Nona’s new ce-ment.

I can vanish now, I thought. I can breathe in all this house and vanish here inside.

But Nona moved.

I don’t know what you think you are, she said.

You know me, Nona.

What? she said. Speak up.

You know me, Nona.

No, she said, I don’t. You’re different on the floor. Up, you’re something like your Mom, at least you look a bit the way she did back in the store and on the ice. And something like your Dad around your hands. But down like that is like a frog or some old and ugly toad.

I tried hard not to smile, but she saw.

Hah, she said, exploding out a cloud of smoke. I heard her stub the Lucky out — thub, thub-thub, thub-thub. I closed my eyes and felt her stand; I felt her walk across the floor. I felt her walk inside my heart, and felt a scream come up inside. I smashed my lips and teeth together, reached out farther with my finger’s ends. Leave now, I screamed inside in silence. Leave you stinking rotten Nona bitch. Go Why Don’t You Go.

I waited for the door, for click of latch and turn of knob and wondered what would be the next.

I don’t know what to do, I finally said.

Do? said Nona. Doing’s nothing. Everyone can do. You just go out and there it is, there’s all this stuff to do. It’s being is the trick. Doing isn’t in it. Everybody does.

Being what? I said.

Just being, she said. Your father never got it. Never was. He just did. And then he met your Mom, in the store and on the ice. She knew how to be. But that time was too short. He almost got it, your Dad, but then she fell that time right on the ice with you inside her. Then she was quiet all those months and then they took you out, then there she is, with all the tubes, for all these years and years. And here you are.

I turned my head and looked at her and waited while she looked away and smoked. Then she squatted down and looked me in the eye. She looked so strong right at me that I couldn’t look away. Underneath her yellow curls her face had lines that crossed her forehead and then lines that ran down from her nose to where they fastened to the corners of her mouth.

What about being? I said. You said about being. She stood up and walked across the room.  You gonna make me get up? I hollered. She shook her yellow curls and kept right on and opened up the door. I thought of french fries, golden grease and salt with catsup red as blood. I closed my eyes and heard potatoes sizzle in their boiling oil, heard the thwack and hiss of burgers slapping on the grill, nestled up against transparent onions, heard the green milkshake machine make its loud insistent whirr.

Wait, I said to the still open door. Wait for me.

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About Robert Moulthrop

Robert Moulthrop, author and playwright, lives and works in New York City. A member of Paragraph, his stories have recently appeared in Confrontation, Berkeley Fiction Review, Eclipse,  Sou’Wester, Portland Review, Willard & Maple, and The MacGuffin. A New Jersey State Council on the Arts grant recipient, his play Half Life (about a pedophile returning to his community) won the ’05 New York Fringe Festival Outstanding Playwriting Award; at the ’06 Fringe, T. L. C. (about a mother fixated on her son) won the Outstanding Performance Award for its solo actress; Lecture, With Cello (’08 Fringe)—a one-man exploration of art, truth, love, and madness—was subsequently produced in ’10 at Spotlighters in Baltimore. At the ’09 Phoenix International Fringe Festival he performed Blood, Death, Drag & Mom: reading 17 original stories in 5 performances over 4 days.  “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

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