Harper’s Magazine, May, 2001
Ernie has been freelancing for two months and nine days when Kamal comes up to him in a bar and says “postage stamps” into his ear. Ernie had come to the bar in hopes of making eye contact with a particular kind of woman. Eye contact is generally more than Ernie can manage.
“Postage stamps?” Ernie says. The bar is crowded. In a few hours, its windows will fog with body heat. Ernie is not sure he heard Kamal correctly. Perhaps Kamal said “toasted pants.”
Ernie hasn’t seen Kamal in a while. Kamal does marketing at the children’s magazine for which Ernie is no longer an official illustrator of puppies, toys, and smiling children. It is a magazine that serves primarily as a tax write-off for the dentists and pediatricians who use it to stock their waiting rooms, a magazine to which no child in their right mind would subscribe due to its unpleasant medical/dental associations. Ernie left this magazine because he was sick of drawing puppies, toys, and smiling children, because he aspired to draw witty, incisive, interstitial doodles for the New Yorker, because the blank canvases stacked in the corner of his apartment were giving him nightmares. In the worst of these nightmares, the canvases became blind men led by blind dogs, the whites of their eyes shining like peeled lychee fruits. Paint my goddamn eyes, the blind dogs would say, the blind men growling and slobbering behind them. Ernie would wake up shivering, the canvases glowing accusingly in the moonlight.
“I know someone,” Kamal says. “An old friend. I think she’d give you the job.”
Ernie used to meet Kamal for drinks. Kamal rarely arrived alone. Ernie admired this about Kamal, the guileless smile and the Palm Pilot full of telephone numbers. Kamal dated only women as dark or darker than himself. When Kamal started arriving with two women, Ernie started leaving early, complaining of headache. He was sure Kamal was taunting him. Once Ernie had left the magazine, it was much easier to avoid Kamal and his invitations, which had grown oppressive in Ernie’s mind, which had become like vaguely veiled threats. Somehow, “Wanna hit Joe’s tonight?” became “Can’t you even look her in the eyes?” by the time it reached Ernie’s ear. It was hard for Ernie not to hold this transmutation against Kamal, innocent words turned injurious by a desire so powerful Ernie could not imagine ever speaking it aloud.
Edible is Ernie’s secret word for them, for women coffee- and chocolate- and honey-complected, women for whom Ernie typically feels uncomplicated, unadulterated lust. This attraction shamed him even before his pedigreed liberal arts education taught him words like fetishize and objectify, shamed him when he was only an uncomplicated, unadult, white mid-Western high schooler gawking at the black girls as they stepped off the bus.
“I don’t know,” Ernie tells Kamal. “I’ll have to think about it.”
The truth of the matter is that Ernie finds Kamal’s offer enticing. Postage stamps appeal to Ernie’s vanity at a higher level than interstitial New Yorker doodles, at a level to which even Ernie had not yet dared aspire. The universality of postage stamps. The timelessness. The millions upon millions of tongues, licking.
In the days preceding the job interview, Ernie racks his brain for the perfect stamp. The most banal day-to-day sights become ennobled by a projected frame of perforations. The old-lady-hailing-a-taxi stamp, the laundry-in-the-dryer stamp. Ernie wonders if his will be first class or a lesser denomination relegated to the backs of dusty drawers, only called upon for odd, bulky items or during those awkward transitional periods just after the price of postage has risen. Though he tells himself not to be nervous, Ernie knows this job could mark a turning point in his thus-far undistinguished career as illustrator and artist. This could be the job that allows him to say good-bye to puppies, toys, and smiling children forever.
The morning of the interview is unseasonably warm, throwing Ernie into a quandary. He had planned to wear his best and only suit, a three-piece woolen affair that, on a day like today, is guaranteed to make him sweat like warm cheese. And, yet, the suit is his best chance at a good impression. Stepping out of the shower, Ernie decides he must suffer for his art and rubs deodorant into his underarms until each pit is a frosted, seven-layer cake of Old Spice.
He eschews electric for safety razor, trims his nose hair, flosses, and leaves early enough to get his Loafers shined. On his way, Ernie is treated to the man-begging-for-change stamp, the commuter-asleep-holding-her-coffee stamp, and the egg-bacon-and-cheese-on-a-roll stamp. Ernie’s portfolio is full of pictures of puppies, toys, and smiling children. In his mind, his blank canvases have already been transformed, blind dogs and blind men banished by his newborn philatelic ambition. Years from now, Ernie will say at scotch-soaked dinner parties that his career really took off when his work started selling for thirty-three cents, causing sleek women in daring cocktail dresses to laugh appreciatively and touch his arm in subtly suggestive ways. As Ernie exits the subway onto the street, his pulse elevated due to a combination of excitement and nerves, he can already feel the first beads of sweat tickling his underarms and streaking his sides.
The building doesn’t even slightly resemble the kind of place where postage stamps should be conceived. Ernie had imagined something majestic, marble, and streamlined moderne — eagle-eyed security men fronting a desk in a lobby replete with burbling water, pampered plants, and historic murals; elevators practically floating their passengers to their desired floors. Postage stamps could not possibly originate from this: a small, dingy building, its six stories dwarfed by the fifteen- and twenty-story buildings around it, its foyer dusty and empty — no security desk, no water fountains, no plants or wall paintings, and an epileptic elevator. Surely Kamal made a mistake, Kamal who could not possibly have an in with the U.S.P.S. Kamal, who probably prefers self-adhesion to time-honored licking.
Third-floor reception does not ease Ernie’s mind. There are no postal trappings, no American flag, no blue eagle in sharp profile against a gold-bordered field of white. Instead, both entry door and office wall are emblazoned with the enigmatic letters, TGPA. When a fresh-faced girl offers Ernie coffee or water before inviting him to wait on a pleather chair, Ernie is too embarrassed to ask what the letters stand for. He decides to hedge his bets. The uninviting selection of Philatelic Quarterlys on the endtable beside him at least offer assurance that he hasn’t stumbled into a completely unrelated office. He flips through an issue, hoping to find within its pages the meaning of the mysterious initials. But there are no answers in PQ, only glossy color display-photos of stamps. The room is stuffy, the heat blasting in honor of the season despite the day’s intemperate warmness. From more casually-attired passers-by, Ernie infers too late that he has overdressed; the sweat soaking his sides from armpit to mid-torso has already transformed the corresponding portions of his dress shirt into a second skin. Removing his jacket now would be veritable philatelic suicide.
A smallish, youngish woman with gingerbread skin and almond-shaped eyes emerges from the adjoining hallway to shake his hand. Her palm is clammy and slightly greasy, as if she had applied moisturizer just prior to her appearance.
“I’m Gurdna Shagidi?” she says like she’s not quite sure. “Would you follow me please?” as if risking an invitation to a dance and not to a job interview for which Ernie is woefully overdressed.
Ms. Shagidi walks with the tell-tale slouch of the under-confident or under-endowed, her shapeless dress making it impossible for Ernie to decide which condition to blame. Ms. Shagidi has overplucked eyebrows and a too wide mouth. She may be the first edible woman to whom Ernie has not felt instantly attracted.
Ms. Shagidi appears even more nervous than Ernie, a fact which combines with her unattractiveness to put him at an unusual degree of ease for an interview-type situation. Her office is smallish and smells of the hand lotion Ernie suspects her of recently applying. The walls are blank except for a mass-produced Gauguin print behind her desk, where presumably a window would have been preferred. She offers him water or coffee in the same tentative tone with which she introduced herself, as if Ernie would be entirely justified in scorning her proffered beverages. Ernie is almost feeling relaxed enough to remove his suit jacket with the mental note to keep his arms at his sides as much as possible.
“I want you to know this is not standard procedure,” Ms. Shagidi says, her voice hushed though the door is closed and they are alone. “Generally we advertise for artists. But this project is special. Because of the recent unrest in the Malay Archipelago, we’ve gained several new and unexpected clients. It’s important for you to appreciate that this project caught me by surprise.”
Ernie looks at her the way he looked at Kamal in the bar after their initial mouth-to-ear interchange. “I thought Kamal said you did postage stamps.”
“Of course we do,” she says, looking at him with a slight frown. “We represent over 70 postal administrations worldwide. The Trans-Governmental Philatelic Agency oversees postage stamp administration, consultation, design, production and marketing.” Her voice has grown confident, her fricatives flush with intelligence. “We are the world’s largest philatelic agency.” When Ernie frowns, his brow creases at a comparable downward slant. He tries to recall something of the conversation in the bar. He had so clearly pictured promotional posters adorning post office walls, the actual stamp, perhaps, a little hazy but the words COMING SOON crisply legible. “I thought you designed American stamps.”
Ms. Shagidi laughs. It strikes Ernie as more of a dinner-party laugh than a job-interview laugh. “Oh, no,” she says, smiling as if he has said something witty. “The United States Postal Authority doesn’t need any help from us. We appeal mainly to smaller, emergent nations. The former Soviet republics, for example. Places like Azerbaijan never had to produce their own stamps before, whereas the TGPA has been doing it since 1957.”
“So, what you’re telling me is that a significant portion of the world’s postage originates from Tenth Avenue?”
Ms. Shagidi offers up another deep-throated chuckle. Apparently, she is charmed by Ernie’s philatelic naiveté. She’s leaning across her desk now, the kind of lean that would offer up cleavage if she were wearing a dress with a scoop or V neck, which she is not. The smell of hand lotion has grown stronger in the room’s heat. Ernie can feel his shirt sticking and peeling away from his skin as he breathes.
“As I said, it’s mostly the little guys who come to us.” Ms. Shagidi continues to lean, her voice lowered to throaty, conspiratorial levels. “The popular global identity for places like Micronesia and the Maldives is often established through their stamps. It’s a huge responsibility — not only for shaping international perception but for establishing a sense of domestic pride. A good stamp will give a nation a stronger sense of self, an ideal to strive towards. That’s why I need someone special for this assignment. I need to know if I can trust you. Perhaps we could have lunch?”
The offer takes Ernie by surprise. He inadvertently pushes himself back in his chair, causing the chair, which is wheeled, to move toward the center of the small room. Ms. Shagidi’s smile vanishes. She abandons her lean.
“Of course, if you don’t want to go...”
Ms. Shagidi isn’t looking at Ernie anymore. She is instead picking at her arm and blushing. Why does Ernie feel as if he is in his high school gym, bleachers and backboards cleared away to make room for a dance floor, a cup of punch in his hand?
“No, I’m sorry, you just surprised me,” he says. She hasn’t even asked to see his portfolio. Perhaps the TGPA just likes to wine and dine their illustrators. Perhaps it is because Kamal is a mutual friend. “Lunch would be fine.”
Ms. Shagidi sighs audibly, the sigh ending in a small, shy smile that barely clears the desk after being cast Ernie’s way. “I hope you don’t mind Japanese?” She gets up and then, still blushing, sits down again. “I’m sorry. You must think me very unprofessional. But, since you came with Kamal’s recommendation, I just assumed...Could I see your portfolio?”
The Japanese restaurant cultivates an atmosphere of cultural authenticity without actually inflicting it upon the customers. Shoes are optional. What, at first glance, appear to be low-lying tables in fact contain vertical recesses so that Western legs may dangle comfortably throughout the Eastern repast. The restaurant is filled with white businessmen enjoying the bento box lunch special. If the Koto music were turned down, the room would echo with the sound of shrimp tempura being confidently crunched between teeth maintained by generous corporate health plans.
They are seated toward the back, in what Ernie interprets to be a less businesslike and more intimate section of the restaurant. Ernie wonders if the hostess thought he and Gurdna are on a date, but then rejects the notion. After all, he is carrying his portfolio. It is not of the standard black-cardboard-textured-to-look-like-leather variety but genuine suede. As far as Ernie is concerned, it is the kind of portfolio that can not help but imbue its carrier with an air of importance and celebrity, making it worth the paycheck he spent on it. Gurdna’s hands are a few shades lighter than the suede, caramel versus mocha. Ernie realizes that he is very hungry.
She suggests they order drinks and requests a large sake. He orders a Sapporo but wonders, once the drinks arrive, if Gurdna meant for them to share. The sake decanter is accompanied two little ceramic sake cups. Ernie politely pushes the Sapporo aside, but it quickly becomes apparent that Gurdna is only pouring for one. Aside from the drink suggestion, she hasn’t spoken to him since entering the restaurant. Ernie pours his beer into a glass and takes a long, loud swallow.
“Do you enjoy working for the TGPA?” he finally says, a little resentful. She’s the one who’s supposed to be doing the interviewing.
“I didn’t at first,” she says, as if they’ve been talking all along, as if lunching at a Japanese restaurant is something they do all the time. “To tell you the truth, I’d never given stamps much thought. But if a stamp is good — I mean, really good — people remember it. They respect it. And once I realized that, the job became much more interesting.” Gurdna has taken a beer mug approach to her beverage, tossing her sake back like a frat boy with a Bud. Ernie thought sake was something you were supposed to sip. He is amazed by the number of refills the sake decanter provides, a seemingly endless stream of sake flowing from decanter to cup to Gurdna’s mouth.
By the time her tuna roll and Ernie’s bento box arrive, and despite his Sapporo, the nervousness that spared Ernie at the office has reasserted itself. Somehow, his innocent TGPA conversation-starter has gotten Gurdna talking about her arrival in the United States with a college scholarship and without her father’s blessing. This strikes Ernie as a date topic rather than a job interview topic, the thought of which is enough to make him order another Sapporo, an action Gurdna greets with a smile.
“And that’s what makes you different, isn’t it?” she says. At first he thinks she is talking about his beer order. “In America, a girl isn’t called a witch just because she has a brain. She doesn’t have tamarind seeds spit at her as she walks home from school.”
He decides he likes Gurdna’s approach to sake-drinking. Each backward tilt of her head reveals her throat, which seems slightly darker than the skin of her face and particularly soft and smooth.
“But how do you know Kamal?” he says louder than intended. He realizes too late that his question is irrelevant, that he hasn’t been listening to anything she’s been saying.
“We dated in college, only a few times,” Gurdna says, apparently not minding the non-sequitur. “We’ve stayed friends,” but now Ernie is picturing Gurdna next to Kamal in the bar, Kamal’s hand on Gurdna’s leg. It is an image that makes it difficult to hear anything. When Gurdna excuses herself to visit the ladies’ room, Ernie watches the folds of her dress as she stands, watches her hips move as she walks across the restaurant. He’s thankful he decided not to remove his jacket after all.
As they are leaving the restaurant, Gurdna leans slightly on Ernie’s arm.
“Would you like to see my apartment?” she asks once they are on the sidewalk, causing simultaneous surges of blood to Ernie’s upper and lower regions. He can feel his face flush. There is a slight buzzing sound in his ears.
Ernie looks to Gurdna, certain she can sense his internal disarray, but her edible face is only shy and hopeful. Her apartment is just blocks away. It has never been this easy, this comfortably within Ernie’s reach. There is the feeling of finality, of inevitability, of relief.
Gurdna walks quickly, her slouch more pronounced than before. Ernie trails a pace behind, head down. He is simultaneously blushing and grinning and chewing his lip, his nervous hands clasped together instead of swinging with his stride. To indifferent passers-by, this posture could be misconstrued as prayer.
Inside the apartment, Gurdna makes tea. As Ernie watches her fill the kettle, she becomes every woman he’s never had. Ernie is sweating even though the apartment is cool.
“I’ll get the tea,” she says, but she just stands there, looking at him.
Ernie’s feet have rooted to the floor. His arms have calcified. His lungs suck at the air like it is too thin, like he has climbed to a dizzying height far loftier than Gurdna’s second-story studio apartment.
It is Gurdna who finally traverses the space between them. At Gurdna’s touch, Ernie’s internal drawbridge lowers. He becomes the fox to her gingerbread woman, nibbling her fingers and arms. There is a moment of awkwardness when he takes off his jacket. His shirt is soaked with sweat.
“It’s okay,” she says. She lights a stick of incense while he unbuttons. He tosses the shirt behind the couch, out of view, before proceeding to her gingerbread legs. Beneath the smell of patchouli is a sharper, more vital scent. Ernie is no longer aware of his elbows pressing into the floor. A lifetime of anticipation abbreviates itself. Ernie cries out. From another room his voice is easily mistakable for a small animal’s —that of a puppy or kitten, perhaps squeezed unexpectedly.
“I’m sorry,” Ernie says, gasping.
“No, no,” she assures him. “That was fine.”
He reaches for her, but she is already getting up. Her body briefly hovers over him, an island of water-smoothed sand. He searches for signs of his brief anchorage.
“Take a good look,” she says. “So you’ll remember all the details.”
“Oh, I will,” he replies, unconvinced he hasn’t lapsed into a particularly lovely dream.
Ernie is to design a stamp for Kurami, an emergent island nation within the greater Malay Archipelago. Population: 10,000. Principal export: Peppercorns. These details are provided by a reference librarian, Gurdna merely having furnished him with the country’s name and her certainty that he will not let her down.
He is only supposed to generate a rough sketch, but is too filled with his own impending success to stop anything short of a completed canvas. To think he once aspired to New Yorker doodledom. When he thinks of Gurdna, he sees lithe, hazelnut bodies draped in bright sarongs. The canvas practically paints itself, a fragment culled from Ernie’s waking dream. It is a painting of a palu-palu, a bird found only on Kurami’s shores.
Ernie has never felt so vital, so powerful. He cringes to think of the years he wasted holding himself back. He now knows that an artist must never deny his heart’s desire. Each stroke of Ernie’s brush recalls a moment from Gurdna’s apartment, fancy enhancing memory’s slights. Time is stretched; features are softened. As Ernie paints breast and beak, his mind is aflame with images of an even rarer creature. Beer-slurred recollections are deftly retouched by an ideal a lifetime in construction. By the time of the canvas’ completion, Gurdna is perfect.
Upon Ernie’s return to the TGPA, bird in hand, a week’s worth of wishful thinking dissolves in the unforgiving light of Gurdna’s office. This is not the muse who inspired his palu-palu. He looks to his painting, half-expecting to find it, too, suddenly reduced. But the bird is unchanged.
“Oh, let me see!” Gurdna says reaching for his canvas, her voice giddy, her mouth too wide. Ernie is thankful for the shapeless dress, for the memories it allows him to keep.
He relinquishes the painting. Gurdna is too excited to notice the care he takes ensuring that their hands do not touch. He watches her expression fade.
“It’s very nice,” she says, her voice suddenly formal, her features carefully arranged.
“I thought you’d love it,” he says. She is at best a dismal, distant relation to the woman he remembers, a third cousin twice removed. “It’s a –“
“It’s a palu-palu,” she whispers, her eyebrows really way too thin. “It’s fine.” Her too-wide lower lip is trembling. Her neck is so much thicker, her nose so over-small.
He wants to snatch the canvas back. I did not paint this for you. He wants to say this so much he can feel his jaw tense.
“I’ll draw something else,” he says instead. “A sketch this time.”
He pauses, appalled, pretending distraction with the Gauguin. She is sitting very still behind her desk. She’s not looking at him or the bird. He can not believe this is happening. He can not believe she could be so unappreciative.
“A sketch,” he says. “Just give me a few days.” If she hates the painting, she should give it back. He deserves at least that much.
She arrives at his apartment door late that night, smelling of sake.
“Pretend I am a woman you met on the street,” she says, her words rushed. Ernie’s earlier flash-point anger is dulled by the unexpected arrival, by the lateness of the hour, by the sweetness of Gurdna’s breath and by a subtler, musky scent that erases his fatigue. She is standing quite close to him. “Pretend you wanted to sketch me so badly that you gave me your address.”
Gurdna thrusts her face at him, finding his mouth. He lets her in.
Underneath her coat, she is wearing a tailored women’s suit. Its pinstripes turn her curves into angles; she is all line and purpose. Slouch gone, she strides to the opposite corner of his living room.
“Draw me,” she commands in a voice he hasn’t heard before, a voice quite different from the one she used outside his door. He hasn’t drawn from life since college. He rifles his apartment for charcoal and a piece of paper large enough, is forced to settle for his sketch book and a 2B pencil.
She looks as though she has emerged from a WPA mural, one of those proud, blocky women who face down hardship by staring straight through it, looking resolutely toward a future that cannot possibly be worse than their present.
“Perhaps if you relaxed your shoulders a bit? If you unlocked your knees?” But she acts as though she doesn’t hear him. He begins to sketch. He is surprised at the unexpected beauty her stubbornness loans her face and body. Perhaps he was wrong to have judged her so harshly before. Features that previously seemed unbalanced now compel him: her strong mouth, her resolute shoulders. He feels clumsy behind his sketch pad; he is an adolescent all over again. He keeps rushing. He wants to be finished. He wants to tear off her hopeful suit and ravish her proud, imperfect body.
“Draw my arm like this,” she says, holding her arm at an angle that connotes forward momentum. “To show how far I’ve come.”
“Here,” he says when he is finished, tearing the sketch from the book.
“It’s perfect,” she murmurs, admiration in her eyes. She is all softness now, even her pinstripes curving, the antithesis of WPA refugee.
“You can have it,” he says, reaching for her hair. She swivels away.
“No,” she says, returning the sketch. “You need to keep this for your work.” Donning her coat she is brisk and matter-of-fact, a patient quitting a doctor’s office.
“Where are you going?” he asks a little too loudly.
“Wait,” he says. He blocks the door.
“It’s late,” she says, smiling. “I need to get my beauty rest. And you have a stamp to draw.” She angles around him.
He closes the door harder than necessary behind her. In her absence, the image he pictures as he touches himself quickly becomes someone else, culled from an edible world in which he is no longer mere spectator but prospector, determined to stake a claim.
Ernie decides upon a sketch of a peppercorn farmer. Unable to locate a Kuramian after hours sifting through the library’s picture files, he settles for a photo of a Nampayan, a vine of peppercorns winding through his hands like a green-beaded serpent. They are not paying him enough. He multiplies his situation by seventy. Seventy artists churning out stamps for seventy countries they have never seen. He works late into the night. Each time he thinks he is done, he finds one more thing to perfect. He tells himself he is doing it for the sake of his art, that it has nothing to do with wanting to be awake in case there is a knock on his door. If she returns, he swears to himself, he will not let her in.
When he next enters her office, she greets him with an effusive smile and holds his hand a moment longer than necessary. Her palm is cool and dry. In lieu of lotion, he smells perfume. She is wearing the suit she wore that night. Her stride is longer, her neck straighter, possibly thinner. She is beginning to let her eyebrows grow in.
“Do you have it?” she says, anticipation trilling her words.
“Of course,” he says, glancing at the sketch one last time. He is most proud of the face, of the aching softness in the eyes.
Her eyes dart down to the sketch and then quickly away.
“This is my fault,” she says, her lips pressed into a thin line.
“What?” he says.
“You drew a Nampayan,” she says. “Nampayans have narrower mouths and thinner eyebrows than Kuramians. These may seem like petty details to you, but Kuramians are a proud people. They will notice.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, but he isn’t. It is a good sketch. He has given her so much of himself that is good.
“No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I didn’t think you would take things this far.”
She shifts in her chair and gazes at her desk as if she could somehow see herself reflected in it.
“The first time, you were so sweaty,” she says. “I almost didn’t go through with it. I thought the incense would help. And then, after all that, you brought me your bird. I thought to myself, ‘Perhaps he just needs a little more encouragement,’ but once I got to your apartment...You are a slob, do you know that? I just couldn’t do it again. I thought once would be enough for you. I thought you would be grateful.”
Ernie can feel the blood pulsing in his neck. He has the same panicky feeling he gets when he misses something important — an appointment, a plane. He can picture her apartment, the two of them on the carpet. “That was fine,” she had said. He is sure she had been smiling.
“Bitch,” he whispers, the word leaving his mouth before he knows it is there.
“What did you just call me?”
He has never spoken harshly to a woman, never. Bile-tinged saliva fills his mouth, a strange sour taste. He forces himself to swallow it back down.
“I gave you something I’d never given anyone,” he says. “And now you tell me I’m the one who should be grateful?”
His voice sounds nothing like he wants it to sound. He should have known this would happen, should have known to walk away as soon as she invited him to lunch. He should have followed his mother’s advice and stuck to his pasty-faced girlfriends, the ones he could never date for more than a few months. The ones with whom he never went all the way.
She’s just staring at him now, staring at him like he’s some kind of museum specimen. Her voice is an icicle pressed against his spine.
“I suppose, then, that neither one of us got what we wanted,” she says.
“You got everything!” he says. It is all he can do not to yell.
Perhaps he is yelling after all. She tells him to quiet down. Her face is flushed. He suspects his is flushed as well. He can feel the sudden heat of his skin, his body a furnace fueled by desire and betrayal.
“I got nothing!” she says. He should have listened to his mother. “I put my job at risk, myself at risk, and for what? For a silly bird painting and a sketch of an ugly old man!” She shakes her head. “Mami would have been so pleased,” she says. “Papi would have pretended not to recognize me — after I left, he held a funeral, but even Papi could have held no power over a stamp.”
Ernie decides to return to the bar. Kamal will be there with a woman. Ernie will sit down at their table and look the woman in the eyes. He will focus his energy, his newfound artistic license, upon this woman. She will feel overwhelmed, will have no choice but to go home with him. Alone with his Palm Pilot, maybe Kamal will think twice before offering Ernie his left-overs again.
It is a good thirty blocks to the bar from the TGPA building, but Ernie has no interest in taking the subway. He needs to walk, needs to feel his muscles flexing, the sidewalk submitting to his tread. At first Gurdna inhabits every footfall, her scorn for Ernie reflected in the hardness of the pavement, the animosity of a car horn, the scowl of a passing bicyclist. With every step, her presence fades. By block fifteen, she is nowhere in the vibrant orange of a produce stand persimmon or the jingling bells of a child’s blue knit cap. Hers is not the voice of the taxis, buses and pedestrians jockeying for position. Ernie smiles. Gurdna was a mosquito at his ear, a fruit fly in his fruit salad, and now she has been shooed away, freeing him to reap life’s rich bounty. After all, he is an artist living in a city where women outnumber men by almost two to one. He can take his pick.
As Ernie nears the bar, he plans his entrance. He will open the door in a single, fluid motion. Looking neither left nor right, he will coolly saunter to a stool and sit. Let Kamal come to him. Kamal, who time and time again has watched Ernie retreat from opportunity with his tail between his legs; Kamal, who tonight will learn that Ernie is no longer a dog afraid of the smell of meat.
Thirty blocks of self-empowerment expire with Ernie’s masterful bar-entrance maneuver. It is a Wednesday. In the far right corner, a television Ernie never noticed before is tuned to a prime-time sitcom, the closed captioning option engaged. All six people in the bar have positioned themselves in relation to the television screen. The bar reverberates with television banter and the scripted laughter of a live studio audience. The closed captioning dutifully reports [Laughter].
Of the six people in the bar, four are men and two are women. The woman who catches Ernie’s eye has skin the color of perfectly toasted bread. Ernie sits a seat away and orders a beer. He looks straight ahead, certain of his magnetism.
Ernie darts a quick glance in the woman’s direction. She is still rapt in the TV. Ernie’s inner artist commands him to fill the seat between them and hand the golden-toast woman his beer, a smile on his face. His will be the suave smile no woman can resist, the smile that says, I know what you want, without actually saying a word.
Ernie fixes his eyes on the television screen. He waits for a commercial break.
“Hi,” he says once the image of a stylish urban apartment has been replaced by the image of a hamburger. Ernie is pleasantly surprised at his improvisation. “Hi” lacks the formality of “Hello,” which is what he had intended to say until “Hi” popped out, a small golden egg.
“Hi,” the woman replies, still facing the screen. The hamburger has been replaced by a luxury car, a commercial set solely to [Music].
“Can I buy you a drink?” Ernie says, his voice calm, assured, entirely squeakless. His stomach feels fluttery, but not unbearably so. It is actually rather pleasant, an excited flutter rather than the expected on-the-verge-of-illness flutter. Will she say yes or will she say no? It is a moment of infinite possibility that Ernie has single-handedly culled into being.
The woman turns toward Ernie. She looks at his shirt instead of his face. Ernie suddenly pictures Can I buy you a drink? appearing below him, the words small and vulnerable, blazing white.
“I’m not going to go home with you,” the woman says.
Ernie’s lips contract into a small, surprised O. [Music] is replaced by words. The light in the bar is dim. Ernie’s bar stool has an uneven leg. If he shifts his weight even a little, the stool tips. Down. Up. Down. Up. Ernie’s heart is beating very fast. The woman’s eyes are tired. Ernie could just push himself away from the bar. He could just grab the woman’s head and kiss her.
“That’s okay,” Ernie says, the words glowing strange and unexpected somewhere in the vicinity of his fourth button. “It’s just a drink.”
The woman shrugs. “Anything on draught is fine,” she says. She returns her attention to the prime-time comedy program.
Ernie orders Heinekens. He drinks his predominantly during commercial breaks. A few televised scenes are funny enough to make him laugh out loud. During one of the scenes — not the funniest, if you ask Ernie, but a pretty funny one — the woman laughs, too. By the end of the show, Ernie has drunk the last of his beer. He goes home.
The sketch is where Ernie dropped it the night Gurdna left, on the floor to the left of the front door. The air current created by Ernie’s reentry propels the sketch in a way that at first appears mouselike in Ernie’s peripheral vision. The drawing is already coated with a thin layer of dust, but this does not dull the vibrancy of the figure, an energy inadvertently captured by the impatience of Ernie’s pencil. There is such fierce determination in the figure’s stance, such unmistakable hopefulness in the forward-thrusting angle of the arm.
It only takes a few days: the transfer of sketch to canvas, the application of color. In the spirit of conciliation, Ernie paints perforations along the edges of the canvas. Just before he finishes, the TGPA check arrives with a letter thanking him for the palu-palu and promising further assignments as they arise. The letter is not signed by her. Ernie calls Gurdna’s office, but is informed that she is no longer with the firm.
Ernie calls Kamal. Kamal claims no knowledge of Gurdna’s home phone or address. Ernie doesn’t believe him, but knows it would be pointless to say so.
They hang up, promising far too earnestly to keep in touch.