Time, Signature

by Nancy Devine


Mannix is on. Its too jaunty theme song twists before playing in my bowels where I know everything these days: my first grade teacher striking in our school year’s eerie middle and a Nurse Ratched wretched stunt double her substitute.

She has a wandering wart on her chin and her skin’s the color of an Oompa Loompa fading. Once she banished me to one of many corners that kept popping up in our classroom because she appeared, spontaneous combustion of wall meeting wall. As I stood, each shoulder smashed against plaster, I imagined myself a sword thrower, my eyes hurling sharp at her, a woman flat on a target spinning and spinning, that hunk of herpes on her face, an insect swooping and soaring repeatedly, some halfwit mosquito riding flesh.

Anyhow, my babysitter is sweet, a neighbor. At home she penciled in the outline of flowers on the muslin bodice of a prom dress she’ll sew without a pattern, and tonight, she embroiders those flowers, small sprays of color beginning.  She’ll wear the dress soon. Saturday, date her future husband she’ll divorce years later.  

The Mannix music has one too many beats per measure or one less than it should. It moves and visits me in my shoulders as a premonition of something I won’t know until it happens. So I muster up a stomach ache that floats back and forth to my ribs, a symptom of some disease I’ve learned from TV, whatever could be the gravity to pull my parents home early from the Elks Club, its signature petite steak the 1089, named for the order of the club’s arrival in Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the size of a lady’s creamy fist.

My dad’s on the Elks entertainment committee; he’s got a short-sleeve-shirt with his name “Leo” on the pocket just below “B.P.O.E.” My mother’s worn my favorite dress of hers to Saturday night parties at the Elks: a purple and black geometric print, sleeveless, a bra sewn right in.

No TV theme song makes me feel unwell as much as Mannix. Except for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, though it’s a different kind of sickness . . . like someone’s demolishing the past, that it will broken in so many ways no one will ever want to put it back together. That sickness inhabits my hips as an uneasiness that keeps me from sitting still sometimes, my restlessness as nauseating as an old egg.

But I’ve got some useful ways of thinking about time. I picture the coming days of the week, each brush strokes of color on a white slide. Time passing means me passing, me walking through the course of slides a week makes . . . the deep blue of Wednesday, Thursday’s green.  And if I can pass through time like that, I can probably stop and let time move back through me, the future becoming the present, how I see Saturday night—almost-black blue—transformed into the airy yellow of a Sunday morning when I wake up, my parents home all day.

But the Mannix song, a disquieting jazz waltz with an urgent beat, seems like it’s going to run out of its own time signature, its familiar music from Saturday nights past, an agitated soundtrack that makes me second guess my time strategy.  What if the only way to control the future is to get to it?  And what if it moves faster than I can? All my thinking about time won’t work, if the future and I are both on the run.

Still I’ve got to try.  I want my babysitter to have my parents paged at the Elks, which is as good as scooped up by a huge silver ladle from the slippery asbestos tile upstairs dance floor or the main floor bar where patrons sip and pitch their heads back and joke. She should tell them I’m sick, that I need them, which is true. I want them to take only side roads to get to the front of our house. Home.

The withering voiced man who takes calls and calls cabs at the Elks can get them, say their names twice deep into the pink-bellied shell of the telephone intercom, his smooth companion most nights. I’ll hear their summons dimly, the last reverberation of an echo . . . please pick up a courtesy phone . . .

My babysitter says into the white mouthpiece of our phone something like “she says she’s got a stomach ache.” And then we wait; feeling better is interrupted by worrying about my parents and more waiting for them, imagining their path home: out of the parking lot onto Second Avenue to Main up the hill to Eighth Avenue to me. Even though I’m still waiting, Mannix is over, at least, the song that roils my insides stored on a reel somewhere far away. I can relax, a little, maybe for another week.

The front door’s got a characteristic bump, the seal going slack at the jam and the bottom skirting the metal threshold before the knob turns in its chamber. The screen door gets swung wide, the spring coming out of its cylinder like a prairie dog looking up over its hole. It’s arrival: my parents smell of cigarettes and aftershave and White Shoulders. Oh, they wear light coats and jackets, car keys still loose in the hand. What was going to be the future coming back into the present for me . . . some respite for me, some rest.