All My Days Would Be Skyward

by Elizabeth Paul Issue: Fall 2015

She is a Russian with a joke of a pension, for she spends hours selling chewing gum, cigarettes, and sunflower seeds from a small table on the side of the road.  She’s chosen a strategic spot between kiosks and bus stops, or maybe it’s simply close to home and she doesn’t have to carry her table too far. She is an exile, for she will never return to the Soviet Union, the great motherland of her youth and middle age.  What a work of sorcery to find oneself so far from home without ever having left it. How we used to travel, I think she would say, to the Black Sea, Georgia, and the Caucasus.  Of course now we’re allowed to go anywhere, but who has the money?

Her face is a red hot snarl.  For fifteen years, the price of bread never changed.  Her nose is a tuber, a lump of batter, a swollen, rogue growth my eyes are drawn to like an accident—an embarrassing instinct that makes me look away and confuses things even further than her gray-blue eyes daring me to buy something, demanding I look at her and shaming me for it at the same time.  She is an old woman with gray hair falling from a bun. She is a little girl in a flowered cotton house dress, white ankle socks, and rubber sandals. She sits in the sun and a begrudging faith in strangers, in her love of fresh pastries and salted fish, her intolerance for dirty shoes and scratchy sweaters.  She sits in forbearance or bewilderment before the modesty of her fare. For two soms she will scoop a shot glass—one of the six we bought our first New Year—of sunflower seeds into a newspaper cone.  

Chewing gum, cigarettes, and sunflower seeds.  She relies on others’ habits and the easy-bought pleasure of physical preoccupations—the small sensual distractions of the mouth that slow speech, free thought, and warrant rambling.  The careful, unconscious work of cracking seeds between teeth, separating kernel from hull, and spitting shells like shredded wings turns a walk into a stroll, idleness into leisure, transportation into meditation, and time into eternity.  She is a patron of perambulation. She lives by the city’s street life like a weed lives by the weather. She disappears for a season in winter, and I wonder how she gets the extra soms for which she sits street-side so many longsuffering hours the rest of the year.

Maybe she doesn’t need the money, and her business is foremost an excuse to participate in the pulsing life of the streets. Young women stroll arm in arm.  Mothers in bright robes chat on faded benches while children chase soccer balls in the pathed spaces between apartment blocks. Young men squat and talk in circles while older men gather around kiosks and cars.  Reports like gun shots echo in the courtyard where someone beats a rug slung over an empty swing set. Starlings and mourning doves scavenge sidewalks while dogs root through garbage piles extracting tin cans, potato skins, and bones.  I add my share of scraps to the heap as a white and caramel cow ambles by and a woman tows plastic bottles in plastic bags, singing, “Mi-ilk! Ke-e-fir! Yo-gurt!” Children run to the corner store with cash in hand and dart home with glistening rounds of amber bread.

I don’t crave chewing gum, cigarettes, or sunflower seeds, and she knows I won’t stop when she sees me coming.  She reads it in my mind or sees it in my gait. Maybe she’s a master of observation, cultivating a constant mindfulness.  If so, I’d take what she has, but I don’t crave what she offers. Yet I’m tempted to buy a cone of sunflower seeds and drop them behind me as I go, so when it’s time to return I might find my way.  That is, if the birds don’t get to them first. I don’t know where I’m going or when it will be time to turn around. And when the time comes I don’t know how I’ll know. Will someone send a telegram?  Should I be ready for a sign—an eclipse, an earthquake, an April snow storm? Or will it come to me like an instinct for migration? If I miss the moment without realizing it, might I recognize it years later—a tragic, too-late awareness?

If I held onto the seeds and carried them around in my pockets would they give me a sense of direction?  Sun tracking is a cyclical business but a beautiful orientation. I could do worse than such a steadfast revolution intent on brightness.  Maybe my head would droop as the sun went down, and I’d mutter into my chest through the night or drop into a deeper sleep than any I’ve ever known.  In the morning I would feel an irresistible wakefulness and ascendant aligning of my every cell. All my days would be skyward and my nights an inward turning.  My whole life would be a round of jubilance, a cadmium corolla. Where I was and how long I’d been there would drop like an empty hull from the kernel of my sun-struck existence charged with a pulse from within and above.

Her name could be Tanya or Nina, Victoria or Sveta, Vera or Nadezhda.  She could live in a one-bedroom apartment she’s had for decades. Ever since his mother died, and there was nothing to keep us in the village.  She could be a widow, for her occupation seems desperate.  She could have a grown daughter living in Ukraine with a family, or a son making truck parts in Yekaterinburg, but her pension won’t go as far in such places, so she stays where she’s lived most of her life.  Yet maybe she longs to wander like me. Like me she could be childless, as alone in the world as she is in her home. Or maybe she looks after a granddaughter, lives down the street from a sister, or keeps a black and tan terrier mix.  If she scowls on the street perhaps she smiles at home in the warmth of her kitchen or the illumined companionship of her TV. She relishes the pliancy of her couch after hours on a fold-out chair, relaxes in the dim stillness of enclosure, the contained, un-trafficked domestic spaces.  After her daily public endurance, she delights in the privacy that might otherwise be loneliness.

After a bowl of soup and a cup of tea, she tunes into Secrets of Investigation and tears up another newspaper, setting the column of jokes aside—they never get old.  Then she twists the pages into cones, folding up the pointed ends, and stacks them loosely like nesting dolls.  Though her supervisor is again threatening to close the case, Detective Shvetsova stays focused on solving the murder.  She’s so determined and has such a sharp eye.  Detective Shvetsova interviews her first witness, and she realizes she’s seen this episode before, but it doesn’t matter—this show never gets old.  Though she follows the case carefully, though her proficient fingers know what they’re doing, and though she isn’t even aware of it, from time to time her eyes scan the newspaper cones and take in words from their swirls of script: construction of substation; some details about the horse; voted world’s most beautiful girl; nine passengers remain unidentified; chicken-hearted president; moving under Arctic ice.  She carries the whorls of words inside her—the inked fingerprints of place.

I wonder if she buys newspapers expressly for her business, or if she buys them anyway—a modest enough luxury; a person needs something.  Or perhaps her husband had been a hoarder of headlines, and with each small sale she lets another page of him go.  To what world do those black and white stories belong? Maybe each time she hands off a printed cone another scrap of the Soviet Union sets sail until it’s empty again, cast to the gutters, and its journey ends as it began—street-side.  Does she ever alight from a trolley bus and spy one of her hand-wrought funnels flattened under foot? Is it like a wink in the dirt? A trace of her own existence? Or perhaps the crash site of expedience? Is it the evidence of a vicarious journey, or the sign of its end?  Does she wink back or just walk by, thinking Bumaga fsyo sterpit—paper will tolerate anything?

Elizabeth Paul is a writer and educator living in Arlington, Virginia.  She holds a BA from The Evergreen State College, an MA in English from the University of Virginia, and an MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Her work has appeared in River Teeth, Weave Magazine, and Writing from the Inside Out.  From 2004 to 2006, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic.