more from jane bowles’ “everything is nice”

"Strange wit, thorny insights . . . one of the really original prose-stylists."
— Truman Capote

"One of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language."
— John Ashbery, New York Times

She said she would love to go to a wedding, and they started off down the crooked blue street, heading into the wind. As they passed a small shop Zodelia stopped. ‘Stand here,’ she said. ‘I want to buy something.’  

After studying the display for a minute or two Zodelia poked her and pointed to some cakes inside a square box with glass sides. ‘Nice?’ she asked her. ‘Or not nice?’

The cakes were dusty and coated with a thin, ugly-coloured icing. They were called Galletas Ortiz.

‘They are very nice,’ she replied, and bought her a dozen of them. Zodelia thanked her briefly and they walked on. Presently they turned off the street into a narrow alley and started downhill. Soon Zodelia stopped at a door on the right, and lifted the heavy brass knocker in the form of a fist.

‘The wedding is here?’ she said to her.

Zodelia shook her head and looked grave. ‘There is no wedding here,’ she said.

A child opened the door and quickly hid behind it, covering her face. She followed Zodelia across the black and white tile floor of the closed patio. The walls were washed in blue, and a cold light shone through the broken panes of glass far above their heads. There was a door on each side of the patio. Outside one of them, barring the threshold, was a row of pointed slippers. Zodelia stepped out of her own shoes and set them down near the others.

She stood behind Zodelia and began to take off her own shoes. It took her a long time because there was a knot in one of her laces. When she was ready, Zodelia took her hand and pulled her along with her into a dimly lit room, where she led her over to a mattress which lay against the wall.

‘Sit,’ she told her, and she obeyed. Then without further comment she walked off, heading for the far end of the room. Because her eyes had not grown used to the dimness, she had the impression of a figure disappearing down a long corridor. Then she began to see the brass bars of a bed, glowing weakly in the darkness.

Only a few feet away, in the middle of the carpet, sat an old lady in a dress made of green and purple curtain fabric. Through the many rents in the material she could see the printed cotton dress and the tan sweater underneath. Across the room several women sat along another mattress, and further along the mattress three babies were sleeping in a row, each one close against the wall with its head resting on a fancy cushion.

‘Is it nice here?’ It was Zodelia, who had returned without her haik. Her black crêpe European dress hung unbe1ted down to her ankles, almost grazing her bare feet. The hem was lopsided. ‘Is it nice here?’ she asked again, crouching on her haunches in front of her and pointing at the old woman. ‘That one is Tetum,’ she said. The old lady plunged both hands into a bowl of raw chopped meat and began shaping the stuff into little balls.

‘Tetum’ echoed the ladies on the mattress.

‘This Nazarene,’ said Zodelia, gesturing in her

direction, ‘spends half her time in a Moslem house with Moslem friends and the other half in a Nazarene hotel with other Nazarenes.’

‘That’s nice,’ said the women opposite. ‘Half with Moslem friends and half with Nazarenes.’

The old lady looked very stem. She noticed that her bony cheeks were tattoed with tiny blue crosses.

‘Why?’ asked the old lady abruptly in a deep voice. ‘Why does she spend half her time with Moslem friends and half with Nazarenes?’ She fixed her eye on Zodelia, never ceasing to shape the meat with her swift fingers. Now she saw that her knuckles were also tattooed with blue crosses.

Zodelia stared back at her stupidly. ‘I don’t know why,’ she said, shrugging one fat shoulder. It was clear that the picture she had been painting for them had suddenly lost all its charm for her.

‘Is she crazy?’ the old lady asked.

‘No,’ Zodelia answered listlessly. ‘She is not crazy.’ There were shrieks of laughter from the mattress.

The old lady fastened her sharp eyes on the visitor, and she saw that they were heavily outlined in black. ‘Where is your husband?’ she demanded.

‘He’s travelling in the desert.’

‘Selling things,’ Zodelia put in. This was the popular explanation for her husband’s trips; she did not try to contradict it.

‘Where is your mother?’ the old lady asked.

‘My mother is in our country in her own house.’

‘Why don’t you go and sit with your mother in her own house?’ she scolded. ‘The hotel costs a lot of money.’

‘In the city where I was born,’ she began, ‘there are many, many automobiles and many, many trucks.’

The women on the mattress were smiling pleasantly. ‘Is that true?’ remarked the one in the centre in a tone of polite interest.

‘I hate trucks,’ she told the woman with feeling. The old lady lifted the bowl of meat off her lap and set it down on the carpet. ‘Trucks are nice,’ she said severely.

‘That’s true,’ the women agreed, after only a moment’s hesitation. ‘Trucks are very nice.’

‘Do you like trucks?’ she asked Zodelia, thinking that because of their relatively greater intimacy she might perhaps agree with her.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They are nice. Trucks are very nice.’ She seemed lost in meditation, but only for an instant. ‘Everything is nice,’ she announced with a look of triumph.

‘It’s the truth,’ the women said from their mattress. ‘Everything is nice.’

They all looked happy, but the old lady was still frowning. ‘Aicha!’ she yelled, twisting her neck so that her voice could be heard in the patio. ‘Bring the tea!’ Several little girls came into the room carrying the tea things and a low round table.

‘Pass the cakes to the Nazarene,’ she told the smallest child, who was carrying a cut-glass dish piled with cakes. She saw that they were the ones she had bought for Zodelia; she did not want any of them. She wanted to go home.

‘Eat!’ the women called out from their mattress. ‘Eat the cakes.’

The child pushed the glass dish forward.

‘The dinner at the hotel is ready,’ she said, standing up.

‘Drink tea,’ said the old woman scornfully. ‘Later you will sit with the other Nazarenes and eat their food.’

‘The Nazarenes will be angry if I’m late.’ She realized that she was lying stupidly, but she could not stop. ‘They will hit me!’ She tried to look wild and frightened.

‘Drink tea. They will not hit you,’ the old woman told her. ‘Sit down and drink tea.’

The child was still offering her the glass dish as she backed away toward the door. Outside she sat down on the black and white tiles to lace her shoes. Only Zodelia followed her into the patio.

‘Come back,’ the others were calling. ‘Come back into the room.’

Then she noticed the porcupine basket standing nearby against the wall. ‘Is that old lady in the room your aunt? Is she the one you were bringing the porcupine to?’ she asked her.

‘No. She is not my aunt.’

‘Where is your aunt?’

‘My aunt is in her own house.’

‘When will you take the porcupine to her?’ She wanted to keep talking, so that Zodelia would be distracted and forget to fuss about her departure.

‘The porcupine sits here,’ she said firmly. ‘In my own house.’

She decided not to ask her again about the wedding. When they reached the door Zodelia opened it just enough to let her through. ‘Good-bye,’ she said behind her. ‘I shall see you tomorrow, if Allah wills it.’

‘When?’

‘Four o’clock.’ It was obvious that she had chosen the first figure that had come into her head. Before closing the door she reached out and pressed two of the dry Spanish cakes into her hand. ‘Eat them,’ she said graciously. ‘Eat them at the hotel with the other Nazarenes.’

She started up the steep alley, headed once again for the walk along the cliff. The houses on either side of her were so close that she could smell the dampness of the walls and feel it on her cheeks like a thicker air.

When she reached the place where she had met Zodelia she went over to the wall and leaned on it. Although the sun had sunk behind the houses, the sky was still luminous and the blue of the wall had deepened. She rubbed her fingers along it: the wash was fresh and a little of the powdery stuff came off. And she remembered how once she had reached out to touch the face of a clown because it had awakened some longing. It had happened at a little circus, but not when she was a child.

 

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