Women are more subtle creatures than men. For instance, men will usually cite "physical beauty" as the chief determinant in finding a woman attractive, whereas women will more often say they adore a man who can make them laugh. Presumably it’s a complete coincidence that women tend to find the greatest comedic ability embodied by bronze-muscled he-men who are firmly entrenched in the peerage and hung like Clydesdales.

- Conversations with Lauren
by Dina Gallagher

viii. the ghost of kelly mcdonald

A flurry of pigeons burst confetti-like from their nests in the rafters, scattering like feathers in a pillow-fight and momentarily obscuring the room with white noise. Long shafts of moonlight arced through the confusion of wing and feather, ricocheted gorgeously off the mish-mash of turn-of-the-century furniture, and rested finally on Patch.

Ensconced in her famous figure-enhancing faded yellow waitress uniform, she slowly looked up from whatever she was doing in a way too impossibly cinematic to be as spontaneous as it looked.

"Achk," she achked, nearly sacrificing a lung in a desperate bid for coherence, "I vas vonderink vhen Lauhren’s dhemiurja vuhd zhowe aup."

The last time anyone had confronted me with a word I didn’t know was in sixth grade, when Mrs. Tewiddler accused me of being facetious, and then gloatingly told me that if I wanted to know what it meant, I knew where the dictionary section of the school library was (our sole copy of Webster’s New Collegiate had in fact been the victim of a football-team prank several years previous and never been replaced, but it’s the condescension that counts). Since that time I had invested countless hours in bringing the English language into abeyance, and my ego was scratched raw by Patch’s casual (if garbled) use of the word "demiurge." I immediately shot a hostile index finger towards her, which put me in the awkward position of needing to justify having done so.

"You’re Dorea Beaudreaux," I said, voice weak, my accusatory finger dwarfed to impotence in the face of the terrible and awesome dignity possessed by all off-duty waitresses. "You wrote all those books."

"Achghk," she spat again, this time with a faintly rising lilt towards the end which I interpreted as agreement. "Zho, you haff cuhm to heuhr zah zheecrete auf yuhr frund, Kelly." (Steve-Allen-length pause) "Aey knew zis day vulhd cuhm."

Her kettle obligingly chose that moment to reach boil, shrieking like a ‘40s film heroine being murdered offstage.

"Kelly died in a car crash," Beth said hesitantly. She didn’t quite know what to make of her favorite author and hero, now that Patch inconveniently turned out to be more like what she imagined herself Fleeing From than Running Towards.

"Yeah, everyone knows that," Andrea said, unflappable. She grabbed a tchotchke off Patch’s desk, held it up to the light. "Say, you’ve got a lot of old junk here. Any of it valuable?"

"Auwnly tuh myself," Patch said, rescuing the little glass thing from Andrea. "Plis," she said, flapping one meaty paw towards the overstuffed antique chairs lolling in front of her desk, "Ayou seht."

If Patch was enjoying our impatient curiosity, declining to begin her story until the tea was poured and the lumps of sugar portioned out scrupulously, her face didn’t betray it.

I took advantage of the lull in conversation to survey the room. Patch had obviously been here for years. Some of the furniture looked antique, and exposure to the half-open ceiling hadn’t been kind to it. The rug was sumptuously opulent, if threadbare and rat-nibbled. Littering one wall was an elaborate network of index cards covered with chickscratch. I recognized some of the photos on the walls as having been taken by Kelly, mostly of Lauren and mostly in her school uniform. Others I didn’t recognize – they were mostly of Lauren out of her school uniform. The room’s centerpiece was a gorgeous old solid-oak desk, and smack in its center was a typewriter that looked about as old as its owner.

"Aye vaz naht awlvays vaitress," Patch confided, settling into her overstuffed easychair and lighting an ornate, delightfully unfeminine pipe. "Vunce aye vaz hkgo-hkgo hguwl."

"Hkgo-hkgo hguwl?" Andrea’s class-clown gift for mimicry perfectly matched Patch/Dorea’s F.A.I.O., but was hardly enlightening.

"Lowbrow seagull?" I ventured.

"Totally loveable?" offered Beth.

"Hkgo-hkgo hguwl!!" Patch repeated with emphatic desperation. "Hkgo-hkgo ghuwl!!!!"

She endured our blinking lack of comprehension for a tense eternity before jumping from her chair, shimmying her considerable bulk around the room with wide-eyed, epileptic fervor, and finally throwing her hands up as if to say, ‘well?!!?’"

I met Andrea and Beth’s eyes, looked back at Patch. "Go-go girl?"

"Hkgo-hkgo hguwl!!" she agreed excitedly, slumping back into her chair. "Aye vaz vunce vild vomin hkgo-hkgo hguwl eene Paris, eene bahr cuhlt ‘De Café des Coeurs Libres.’" I shot an inquisitive glance at Andrea, our sporadically reliable French expert, who sotto voced, "The cafe where homosexuals have books."

From there followed the most labored cross-cultural translation attempt of my young life, including the time I tried to explain to my parents why I read books other than for purposes of schoolwork. The evening became a makeshift hybrid of Charades and Pictionary, as Patch/Dorea scribbled, spat, pantomimed and all-too-often shimmied her life story at us.

As I understand it:

ONE: Patch is a go-go dancer at De Café des Coeurs Libres, a bar in Paris, where she meets her husband, settles down, yadda, yadda, yadda, until he passes away and she sets off to see the world.

TWO: ...eventually ending up in Connecticut, where she becomes Kelly’s nanny. When Kelly’s father brings the family out to Buffalo Creek Patch moves back to some we-never-establish-exactly-where part of Europe to be with her parents.

THREE: ...who (in the fullness of time) die, prompting Patch to plunge into a years-long depression (extracting the word "Prozac" through a gauze of F.A.I.O. consumed a good hour). Finally she moves out to Buffalo Creek at the invitation of Kelly. Our Favorite Redhead has an elaborate scheme involving the recreation of The Place Where Hearts Are Free in Madison, thus obtaining a green card for Patch and amassing enough money for Lauren and her to run away. When asked why Kelly would want to run away, Patch asked if we’d ever read Bastard Out of Carolina, and adamantly refused to allow further pursuit of that line of inquiry.

FOUR: During our senior year, while the rest of us think they’re taking a university-level French class in Madison, Kelly and Lauren are in fact running a bar (with Patch, from whom they also happen to pick up a smattering of French). The bar is a surprise hit and an offer to buy is eventually accepted from one Richard Donnevan.

FIVE: Contracts are drawn up, checks are written, hands are shook. The gang of three are celebrating their last evening of proprietorship when in walks a very drunk Kirk Donnevan and snidekick Bobby Drescher. Kirk expresses irate surprise that his father’s latest acquisition is covertly co-owned by the two women who have most pointedly declined his sexual advances. Allegedly to protect his father’s interests (due to possible illegitimacy of business dealings with minors) Kirk announces that his father will stop payment on the check until things can be sorted out. He then makes a disparaging comment concerning Lauren, in response to which Kelly punches his lights out.

SIX: As Kirk is herded into the ambulance, baffled sycophant in tow, the adrenaline wears off and panic descends – enough digging around will reveal that Patch doesn’t have a green card, contracts with minors aren’t valid, etc. Noting that "possession is nine tenths of the law," Kelly suggests that they figure out how to cash the check before Mr. Donnevan has a chance to put in a stop-payment. Boom!! Lauren flips open a road atlas and locates South Bend, Indiana – within one night’s driving distance and just over the Eastern Standard Timeline, for business purposes effectively existing one hour earlier in time.

SEVEN: Kelly hugs Patch, orders Lauren to pack their things, and grabs the check. Then, just as she’s leaving...

EIGHT: ...she pulls Lauren into her arms, says "I love you," and kisses her full on the lips. Lauren kisses her back, echoes her declaration, then waves goodbye as Kelly disappears into the slushy, unseasonably early first snow.

"Listen," I began, pulling Dorea aside while Andrea and Beth were gathering themselves to leave. "I have this bet with Lauren that all the seniors will wear a pin saying ‘I’m an idiot.’ But I’m kind of losing, and seeing as you’re on such chummy terms with The Adversary I thought you might have some easily-conveyed, no-shimmying-necessary advice for me."

"Zeniors must vear peens?" She asked, appraising me slowly.

"Yup."

"Anht you auhr zeenior, yis?"

"Yes...."

"You auhr plannink to vear peen?"

The place which had been The Place Where Hearts Are Free had under its new ownership become The Place That Someone Had Apparently Burned Down for the Insurance Money. Tattered posters played elaborate games of hide-and-seek underfoot as I checked and re-checked the locks on the Zep – I’d have a hard enough time explaining why I hotwired it in the middle of the night, to say nothing of the carnage I undoubtedly wreaked on the gearbox, my first time using a stick shift.

The damage to the bar’s facade was so bad it was a few minutes before I was able to pick out the remains of the front door and push my way inside.

Shadows danced and played on the tattered wallpaper, which even through the soot I could tell had been tastefully anachronistic and warm, like most things Kelly touched. Stains on the floor suggested that Madison bums had made at least a half-hearted attempt to repopularize the august Roman tradition of the vomitorium. The Place That Had Been The Back Office held a single candle, burning in its near-impotent vigil with the same fierce confidence Kelly had brought to the world. And huddled over the candle was a lone figure, weeping, with a familiar two-hundred dollar haircut.

"Dina," she said without turning around. She was scraping some ash from the fire into what looked like a glass vial.

"Hi. I thought maybe you could use some company."

I know for a fact that when I’ve been blubbering for hours I look like a baby’s backside. But when Lauren turned to face me in the half-light of the candle her face possessed a beauty it had never had before. I could feel myself slipping into the half-reality of Beth’s romantic daydreams.

"I loved her," she said simply.

"Yeah, I know," I answered. I racked my brains for an appropriately supportive thing to say, then gave up, opened my arms, and she fell in.

When Lauren finally spoke her voice had the same Arthurian mist of unreality to it as her face, as if it was gossamer supported by the thin light from the candle.

"Remember that storm last August? Her family was away, and the power was out. But there was moonlight, and that soft ambiant glow which comes with rain and fog, making everything magical and luminous. Kelly asked me to sit in her lap, and I remember the sudden fear that she was braver than me."

Against my cheek, the butterfly flutter of eyelashes closing tight.

"She rested her cello against my chest, placed my hand on hers and drew the bow. Then she performed Bach’s first suite for unaccompanied cello, all the way through. I could feel it through my skin. During the Menuett I could feel her breath on my neck."

I felt my shoulder dampening, the first time Lauren had allowed me to witness her tears since Kelly had died.

"’That’s how I know the world isn’t just shit,’ she told me. You know that light she would get in her eyes. ‘That’s how I know there’s something out there which deserves reverence.’"

Lauren produced a grainy old monochrome photo of Kelly, ran a slow finger down it. "She said that only in love can we find happiness. Only in our relationships with other people, and with something larger than ourselves."

"She was right," I said before I could consider my answer. I had never gone so long without making a snide remark before, and I felt a bit lost in uncharted territory.

"Oh, no, Dina – no, she was wrong. That’s why she died. Because she believed too much. Because she trusted other people too much; Trusted the world."

I opened my arms, let her pour out molasses-slow. "What are you saying...?"

"What do you think I’m saying, Dina?" The old hardness returned to Lauren’s face, like a shadow falling across a garden. "Why do you think I’m always trying to teach you how these things work? Because you’re too much like her. Like Kelly – you believe too much. And someone needs to teach you about the world or it’ll eat you alive. The way it ate her."

I backed away. "Lauren – no. Kelly was right. Her life was too short, but it was worth living. I’d give anything to be like her."

"Don’t say that!!" Lauren jumped to her feet. Then, her voice soft again, "Dina, don’t you understand? I’m teaching you how things really are so I can protect you. That’s why I do those things – so you’ll overcome your dangerous illusions."

Lauren paused for a moment, turned her attention back to the photograph.

"Because I love you."

I wanted to hold her again, but it was too late. Lauren’s shields had returned, and I could imagine her bristling at the suggestion that she needed comfort. Lauren was wrong, I knew. But how to convince her? I had never been as good with words as she was.

"Lauren, listen – the bet with the pins is to teach me a lesson or whatever, right? But what if I win? What if people can’t be manipulated the way you say they can? That would vindicate everything she believed. That will prove that Kelly’s way was right."

Lauren laughed. A low, bitter sound I’d never heard her make before. "You don’t understand, Dina. You can’t win. You just can’t."

"What if I do?"

Lauren extended both hands, cradling mine and looking soft for a moment again. "I wish you could, Dina. I wish with all my heart that you could win."

Then the candle blew out.



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