A Storyby Joyce Carol Oates
Or, she wants a man badly.
Or, she wants a man. Badly.
Casually he approaches her. Stands beside her, leaning his elbows on the railing above the embankment where seed-flecked waves slap against the concrete in harsh arrhythmic surges.
No threat or intimidation in the greeting, but she doesn’t reply for it is her prerogative not to acknowledge a stranger approaching her in this public place.
Though noting to her amusement that the man’s (bulky) shadow precedes him bent like a cubist artwork against the vertical bars of the railing above the river.
“Hey. Are you—alone?”
L. K. has not looked at him. She is a mature woman practiced in composure who will not betray the surprise, alarm, intrigue she feels at this intrusion.
Telling the intruder lightly, though with an air of finality: “No. Not really.”
This is meant as a rebuke. Cool, definitive. But the intruder laughs as if she has said something witty, and in these circumstances (public place, attractive woman) witty means girly, flirty.
“‘Not really’—what’s that mean?”
A smile baring damp chunky stained teeth. A smile inviting complicity.
Faint odor of clay, paint from his clothes. Turpentine?
Exactly what the words say—she considers telling him. But no, better not.
At least he isn’t standing too close. There’s a comfortable distance between them. And there are others on the embankment, and on the grass close by, adults who would come to her rescue if necessary.
He persists: “Well, you look alone. In the present moment.”
Laughs again, a sort of belly laugh, and in fact he is carrying a belly like a kangaroo pouch above a sagging belt, khaki work trousers splattered with paint stains.
Adding, in a rueful tone, “And me too.”
Meaning—he too is alone?
Something poignant in the admission, by so self-assured an individual. And in the formality of his speech, even as he is trying to be casual, relaxed—In the present moment.
Yes, that is not an ordinary way of speaking. That is a distinctive way of speaking. There is subtlety here, irony. An education. Character.
The way he glances at her, sidelong—quizzical, searching. He knows her, she thinks. Recognizes her.
Someone L. K. might have known, years ago in her former lifetime in this city . . .
Well, it’s her fault that a stranger has approached her. Standing in this public place on Belle Isle, conspicuously alone.
Indeed L. K. has fashioned herself into a presence: tall, poised, wearing a shift of a coarse nubby beige material that falls unevenly to her ankles, like sculpted drapery, and an antique satin jacket discolored with age; ivory bracelets clattering against her slender wrists, ivory beads the size of quarters around her neck. Hair loose to her shoulders glistening silvery-blond like metallic filaments.
On her pale narrow face, stylish dark-tinted glasses that give the impression of being opaque. Half her face hidden.
He, the intruder, the smiling man in paint-stained clothes, isn’t wearing dark glasses and so his (mud-brown) eyes are exposed, with a look of frankness, openness. (Eagerness?)
Coming up unobtrusively beside her on the walkway overlooking the Detroit River. A lone man seeking a casual conversation? A predator seeking prey? An artist seeking a subject? As Belle Isle is a public place it is the stranger’s prerogative to position himself casually beside her at the railing yet she feels a twinge of sexual vigilance.
This sensation, of sexual alertness, arousal or repugnance, interest or disdain, has become familiar to her as soft-wrinkly scar tissue on an obscure part of the body. Sizing up men whom she encounters, not usually in so public and random a way as she is doing now, though keeping a certain distance between herself and them, on guard. Positioning her chic canvas bag between them in a way that might be strategic, just in case.
He sees this. He is sharp-eyed.
(Is he annoyed, insulted? Wounded?)
He might be wondering (she supposes) who she is—what she is: visitor to Detroit? artist/photographer? (The bag is large enough to contain a sizable camera and in fact it often does. But not this afternoon.)
She has not responded to his overtures beyond vague murmurs, and yet she hasn’t moved perceptibly away from him.
Often men approach L. K. in public or quasi-public places. At social gatherings, certainly. She does appear (much) younger than her age. Some of this is natural, for she is, or was, naturally very beautiful in a wan blond way; and some of this is by design, for she has made up her face, especially her eyes, carefully outlined with black mascara, and shadowed with silvery blue, with the zest and cunning of an artist. Her eyebrows, so pale as to be invisible, she has darkened with pencil. Her long, exquisitely manicured fingernails are pearly, opalescent. She has subjected her drab graying hair to extensive treatments to achieve this striking look of liquid silver, and she has swathed her body in clothing and adornments that suggest a work of art. (L. K.’s actual body has become wraithlike to her. It is aging, inevitably. In mirrors her vision is deflected—she has learned to prefer steamy mirrors, after a shower. It has been some time since she has wished to see herself fully naked.)
Wanting a man badly does not mean wanting all men or any man badly or even mildly, for L. K. is selective, she is not (yet) desperate; or even if desperate, she is not (yet) willing to be reckless.
Well, yes—she is willing to be reckless. But selective.
In fact, for several minutes she’d been aware of the man at a little distance regarding her curiously, a vague figure, as in those old fake photographs of ectoplasm, hovering in the corner of her eye, which she might acknowledge or ignore. This figure, this person, staring toward her with a certain intensity—avidity, hunger—as she stood leaning her arms on the railing and gazing toward the farther shore (Windsor, Ontario: Canada). Listening to the sullied waves of the Detroit River lapping against the concrete embankment, loud and sharp like hands rudely clapped.
Not clear if the man in the stained clothing was looking at a (lone) woman on the walkway, who happened to be L. K., or if indeed he was looking specifically, with interest, at her.
Thinking—Does he know me? Do I know him? Please no.
Well, too late. Politely she finds herself smiling. Politely lifts her eyes toward his but takes care not to actually engage with him.
Her impression is: a genial creased face round as a sunflower.
Jaws covered in a coarse gray stubble. Deep lines bracketing his mouth from smiling too frequently.
And he is tall, looming. Might be a former athlete going soft in middle age. Still-muscled shoulders, upper arms. Reminds her of—who?—the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei? She smiles to think of Weiwei: a courageous artist whom she much admires.
On this man’s big head a soiled baseball cap, slouched sideways. Graying-brown hair straggling out from beneath. A glinting-gold stud the size of a dime in his left earlobe.
On his enormous (size 12) feet he is wearing hand-tooled leather sandals, of high quality but stained; sandals that betray big splayed naked toes, misshapen, and discolored toenails. If a husband or a lover of hers, she would wince to see such toes, such toenails, exposed in a public place.
A wave almost of faintness sweeps over her. Sees herself seated, and the thickset smiling man beside her in such a way that his feet, his big naked heavy feet, are in her lap. . . . Is she trimming the toenails? Is that a small nail clipper in her fingers?
Certainly, this man is a stranger. L. K. has never seen him before despite the air of familiarity about him. Unless . . .
She’d lived in Detroit for a tumultuous eleven years when she’d been a young woman and a young wife, and now she is returning after many years. How very many, she has not allowed herself to calculate.
Not a triumphant visit. Yet not an aggrieved or repentant visit.
Well, a necessary visit. An old, once-beloved friend who lives now in nearby Grosse Pointe, terminally ill.
She has seen her beautiful dying friend, Mia, in the hospice, that morning. She will see Mia again the next morning and then (she thinks) she will depart and return home (New York City) and again return in a week, or two weeks, or possibly sooner, for the funeral.
Blinking tears from her eyes as much of vexation as grief. Oh, how life has caught up with her, she who’d been fleet-footed as a gazelle, as a girl!
And her nostrils pinch against the smells of the river, a smell of rotted things blown in gusts against her face, and a smell of chemicals, repugnant yet in a way reassuring, familiar, unchanged over decades.
The intruder, her prospective companion, is peering at her beneath the rim of the soiled baseball cap, which she sees is a Detroit Tigers cap, white logo against dark blue.
She remembers: Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions. One is baseball, the other football.
He is smiling, the corners of his eyes creased. Perhaps he senses that she has returned to Detroit on an errand of mercy. Even if it is a futile errand.
Something catches in her throat, she is stirred, aroused.
She wonders where the smiling man has come from. Her impression is, he’d crossed the bridge on foot; he lives close by, or he parked a vehicle on the Detroit side of the bridge.
His clothes are work clothes, obviously. His khaki trousers have numerous pockets, such as a carpenter or a plumber might have; his shirt is a shapeless jersey pullover, stained and stretched at the neck.
When she first noticed him he’d been walking briskly. Like one accustomed to crossing the narrow bridge to Belle Isle. Until he’d sighted her on the embankment and paused.
Wind stirring her clothing, her hair. She is thrilled to imagine how she’d appeared to him, initially.
On the dark-green choppy water a cruise ship is passing. Festive sounds, music and laughter. At this distance L. K. can just make out the name on the white bow—Spirit of Belle Isle.
Often, years ago, she’d seen this boat on the river, or its predecessor. Making its festive way east from Belle Isle to the farther side of the Ambassador Bridge, and back again.
Who takes a cruise on the Detroit River? Presumably tourists—but who would come to the ravaged city of Detroit as a tourist?
The smiling man in the baseball cap comments on the Spirit of Belle Isle. Has she ever taken the cruise? No?
He tells her that he has lived most of his life in Detroit but never stepped foot on the Spirit of Belle Isle. Yet, a few nights ago he’d dreamt of the boat.
“But it was different from this one. And the river wasn’t the Detroit River but was meant to be the Niagara River. The fear on the boat was, we would be sucked by the current and plunge over the falls.”
Thoughtfully the man tells L. K. this dream fragment, as if it could be a matter of importance to her. She wonders at his audacity, his vanity. The vanity of the self-satisfied male! Or is it simply that this man wants to interest her, and is saying something he thinks will intrigue her?
Oddly, L. K. is intrigued. She has been fascinated by his thick lips, his big blunt stained teeth, something piratical about his manner, his swagger. The way he strokes his unshaven jaws as a man might stroke a beard.
She laughs. He sees that he is entertaining her. He will like her better, he will admire her more, if he believes that he is entertaining her.
“Are you a visitor here? You don’t look like you live here.”
“Yes. A visitor.”
She expects him to ask why she is visiting, whom she is visiting, but instead he asks if she has seen the Eastern Market murals painted by Detroit artists.
She tells him no, she doesn’t think so. She’d been aware of colorful murals on the walls of abandoned buildings she’d seen the previous day, but she hadn’t known what they were.
“Well. These are more than ‘colorful.’ If I had my vehicle with me we could . . .”
Vehicle. Odd choice of a word. There is this formality to the smiling man’s speech, somewhat at odds with the genial slovenliness of his appearance, that intrigues her.
And he has said we could.
How casually he has introduced we into his conversation. L. K. hears but does not reply.
At last he tells her what he has seemed to be preparing to tell her: his studio is in the Durant building.
A neutral statement—His studio is in the Durant building. Not an invitation exactly.
“D’you know where that is—the Durant?”
“I think so. The name is familiar. Yes.”
She isn’t sure. A center for young and emerging artists in a rundown section of Detroit near the waterfront. But she is pleased that her companion is an artist of some sort. Flattering to L. K., she’d sized him up almost at once.
A sort of Ai Weiwei, she thinks. Physically big, with a big head, large expressive features.
Such a man, sexually rapacious. A bull of a man. His weight on a woman would be crushing. L. K.’s breath is quickened.
He tells her that his studio is a fifteen-minute walk from where they are standing. Tells her that he hikes over to Belle Isle most afternoons, to alleviate stress. Flexing his stubby fingers as if they pain him.
Stress. L. K. smiles at the word. This man, with a gold stud winking in his ear and big splayed grimy toes! Not likely that such a man is vulnerable to stress.
Stress. More likely, a female malady.
L. K. has not thought of the Durant building in decades. It is something of a shock—not altogether a pleasurable shock—to hear the name spoken now.
“Yes. The Durant.”
Where she’d driven to interview a young artist in his studio, for the Detroit News Magazine. His name—she can’t recall his name. A handsome light-skinned Hispanic, or an African American . . . A Detroit version of the Haitian artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who’d become enormously famous before dying of a heroin overdose, still in his twenties.
The Detroit artist whose name L. K. has forgotten had enjoyed a vogue locally for a while. Taken up by well-to-do (white) women from suburban Grosse Pointe, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills; then, for some reason, whether because he’d committed a faux pas, or disappointed one of his patrons, or simply wore out his novelty as many of his kind did, shortly after the day of the interview his career had peaked and he’d lapsed back into the obscurity from which he’d emerged.
Almost, L. K. can remember the name. She feels a vise tighten around her chest.
This man, middle-aged, slovenly, so very different from the lean young artist L. K. had once known, is asking L. K. if she would like to walk over to the Durant? Across the bridge? “There are fantastic views of the river, from the Durant . . .” Hesitantly he issues the invitation for he is making himself vulnerable to L. K., to be rebuked if she wishes.
She will tell him, No thank you. Politely.
No—not just now.
Another time perhaps.
And yet: there is something about him. Indeed yes, she has been lonely.
If this man might love her, eventually. Adore her.
For he seems to L. K., by the look of yearning on his face, the sort of man searching for someone to adore. The avidity and hunger in his eyes, his frank and unassuming manner . . .
No one has adored L. K. in some time. Badly she yearns to be adored. Almost, she is willing to compromise: she will expend emotion of her own, in exchange for (male) adoration.
Yet: the thought is ridiculous. She knows.
If her beautiful friend from college were not dying less than ten miles away. If she were not in dread of visiting Mia again in the morning. If she were stronger willed, less lonely, she would not be vulnerable to such ridiculous thoughts.
Time for her to escape. Return to the safety of her hotel, where she will lie exhausted in a hot bath, drift off to sleep.
She has been on Belle Isle long enough. In dark glasses yet blinking in sunshine. (For her eyes are weak from crying. Bloodshot, she supposes. No one must know.) She has been here long enough in gusts of wind, hearing the slap slap slap of waves against the embankment.
Engaging in banter with a stranger, a thickset middle-aged artiste in a Detroit Tigers baseball cap.
Time to edge away with a polite murmured excuse.
Yet—somehow—L. K. hears herself say yes.
Impulsively, she would like very much to see her companion’s studio in the Durant. Yes!