Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Sappho Shtoltz Needs a Story

To tell her son. That she is not a blond beauty with black eyes is clear. That she does not shake hands like a man is too. That she is not a baroness or in any other way connected with the Russian or any other aristocracy is too. Nots, Sappho thinks, are easy.

She is stripping a king-sized bed. Its linen sheets are no dirtier than others, but they are more zigzaggy, as if the sleepers had tried to turn themselves into mummies.

She works in the grandest of the grand hotels in New Paltz, as a housekeeper. Her uniform is candy blue. The guests of this hotel, having a somewhat spiritual bent and liking to walk in the woods, tend to be decent tippers. Although many are not. The management of this hotel also having a somewhat spiritual bent (diluted by time and profit and, Sappho thinks, by the sheer cliffy gorgeousness of the view) tends to pay decent salaries although not the kind that keep up with inflation or with anything else.

“Morning,” Sappho sings in a voice she doesn’t recognize. Her son has kicked, one-two, in a diffident way. He’s due.

Liza and Dolly chatter and laugh in the hall. They’re younger than Sappho, slower, and take their time pouring the circus blue solvent from the main vat into their separate pails. The halls are carpeted here in Grandville but the rooms, the square and round and hexagonal rooms, are not. Sappho could tell Liza and Dolly her one story—they’re in it too, probably don’t realize—but she chooses not to. She keeps it to herself and hates it with a kind of steely fervor. Absent any others. Like the one she could tell her so-far unnamed son.

Dmitri? Stepan? Timothy, she ends with, always. She’s written it down on a legal pad that she keeps in her night table drawer for emergencies. The only name so honored.

The one story, she thinks, the one the one, is the one of her outlandish name and its aftermath. Her German father. Her literary mother. The collusion of the two in the naming of their only child after the most minor of the minor characters in Anna Karenina. Which has become, because of its length, because of her hunger during classes, because of her mistaking the father of her first child for sustenance, because of her “sheer obstinacy” (her mother’s words)—because she is “just as smart as anyone else but must stop consorting with garage mechanics with bad skin” (German father—cold—needs a word-transfusion from lit. mother)—the only book that Sappho has ever fully read.

“Done?” Trill Liza and Dolly from the hallway. They use her as a gauge of their own work. When she’s finished a king, they must be halfway through a queen or a turret room, or else they’ll fall behind. Falling behind leads to panic and docked wages. Then Liza sits at the edge of the town dump poking the refuse moodily for opals or worth-something paintings; Dolly cooks enough lentil soup for a week and heats it every night for supper for her parents, her daughter, and Treat and herself. It’s enough but not enough. The windowpanes take in the colors of ice: hard pink, frozen gold. Dolly’s parents thank her. Her daughter wants Milky Ways. Dolly takes the smallest portion for herself.

“Next up,” Sappho says. Together they roll the cleaning cart six inches down the carpet. They leave the wheels so that each is positioned in the middle of one of the rug’s diamond quincunxes in unspoken superstition.

“What can I tell him?” Sappho asks, gesturing with her chin at her stomach. Liza and Dolly, choosing new scrubbers, look at each other through the cart’s metal skeleton.

“I don’t have anything to tell him,” she says. Liza stands and turns towards number Four-Zero-Six, a hexagon covered in mahogany. Time.

“If you worked faster we could talk more,” Sappho says, and Dolly cups Sappho’s cheek in her dry hand for half a second. Maybe a quarter.

“I’ve never told my daughter anything.” Dolly calls across to Four-Zero-Five, where Sappho’s begun dusting the curtains.

“You have,” Sappho begins to say. Then she quiets herself. A guest is passing, stiff as a carousel horse and with the same blank gray eyes. She-guest sucks pictures in voraciously. Watching’s like men for me, Sappho thinks, for her. Three Maids in Blue, Sappho thinks. At Work. Fuzz forms long strings on the duster. Sappho picks them off, thinking of bait. When the guest reaches the end of the hall, Sappho calls to Dolly: “Yes you have.”

“Like what?” Dolly comes to the door. Her hair reaches her shoulders now, Sappho sees. Grown down from a spiky cut meant to induce self-confidence.

Sappho remembers her last time with Dolly’s daughter, Marina, at the playground. Marina picked up stones, bottle caps, goldenrod. She held it all on her palm.

“You’ve told her about mica,” Sappho says.

“What?” Dolly swings her hair back. She might want to fight.

“Mica.”

“Who are you talking about?” Liza yells. Four-Zero-Six turns glossy and deep when the cleanser is applied, but the corners hold old snow and dirt, crusts left from boots and lost mittens.

“She’s saying I told Marina about Micah,” Dolly says. Dolly’s rag twitches in her hand.

“Who?” Sappho comes to her door and stands in it. (Maid Resting, she thinks.)

“No one,” Dolly says; Liza goes to her far corner with assiduous attention.

“I said,” Sappho says, “That you told Marina about mica. What makes the stones glitter.”

“My-ka, Doll,” Liza says. Dolly rubs her face with her forearm.

“I think I taught her a few flowers too,” Dolly says turning. “Okay Sappho? Okay? You’re right.”

“Sappho,” Liza says. “No offense but what are you talking about?” They are all three in their doors now, leaning into the frames, wet rags hanging to the floor and dripping. Three Maids’ Symposium, Sappho thinks; as she does, she-guest reappears and glides back the way she’s come, walking gingerly, her mouth a little more open than during the first pass. Why aren’t they sharing a room? Sappho thinks. She-guest smiles at her—eyes snapping to like they’ve just remembered where they are—and flushes nicely.

Dmitri-Stepan-Timothy kicks hard. Sappho feels him turning over like an engine or a wheel. She feels the presence of him running along her arteries, stopping and blossoming behind her eyes and mouth as if he might be born from there, She smiles back at the guest.

“Oh God,” Liza says. “It’s so late. Are you answering me?” Sappho realizes that she wants to slap she-guest for looking so secret; she flicks her rag at Liza, says, “I’m worried about what kind of mother I’ll be in my ignorance.” Liza’s mouth closes into a colorless line. Sappho penetrates further than she’s gone before into Four-Zero-Five and in slow looping motions unwinds the vacuum’s cord. Then she remembers that the rooms have no carpets and rewinds the cord around the two metal hooks. Polishing, then: she uses an old-fashioned wax, rubs scraps of it over the pads of her fingers for their feel.

They drink together after work in the Beerga-ten. Every month Liza tells the owner to fix the sign—to take out one “e” and add new neon to the “r” tube. But the others like it. Sappho, Dolly, Treat (Dolly’s husband and Marina’s father), Josh (Liza’s cousin and the father of Sappho’s first child), and the Trainers, and Mitten Smith. Nursing seltzer with lime, admiring the amber way whiskey leaves glasses, Sappho plants her feet hard.

Gemma, her first, was born late. Now at two she has red curls and killer glances; she’s quiet, mostly, but given to outbursts of song. When she asks questions that Sappho can’t answer—is there water on the moon? Does everyone sing secretly? Sappho pretends not to have heard and begins a new game, one requiring no certainties. Soon Gemma will go to school. (“You can’t chew gum in school,” Sappho has said. Gemma loves Chiclets. “That,” Sappho added in a new smoother voice, “is a fact.”)

“Any day now.” Treat’s stopped in front of her.

“Any day,” Sappho says. Later, surrounded by the dusk warmth of Mitten’s car, she feels settled for the first time today. The green speedometer lights please her by their shining stillness. Outside, branches stream by. Live black lines on the glass.

The next day, she’s slow changing. Whims take her: for salt, for light. The uniform zipper sticks so that she needs Dolly’s help. Her friend’s cold fingers aren’t awake yet, she sees. Six in the morning. Pipes begin coming to life. The locker room, stuck at one end of the cavernous basement, fills with all their wakings. One by one the women turn into bright blue figures. To maintain singularity, one has substituted black laces for the standard white, one wears a necklace made of bird amulets. Sappho’s decided (as she did with Gemma) that third-term pregnancy is enough of a marker. “I’m the pregnant one,” she thinks.

Liza stumbles. She’s hung over and has circles like moth wings under her eyes. Dolly and Sappho help her find the second regulation shoe.

“Speed,” Liza says, looking straight at Sappho. “I can’t talk today.” Dolly with a tender dexterity ties the white laces.

“Let’s go,” she says.

“You go up,” Sappho says. “I’ll be right there.” She wants to sit a minute. Does so, as the woman with the bird necklace folds each piece of her street clothing into an excellent square. Liza and Dolly leave in silence, Dolly steering Liza a little with a hand at the small of her back. The bird woman stands before her open locker. The curve of her arms angular and vivid.

“I know,” Sappho wants to say but doesn’t. They’re strangers in the half-official locker room way: nod with averted eyes if they ever pass each other in a hotel hallway, smile with closed lips if they see each other outside. Corie? Katrin?

The room is filling, from the steamed-over windows, with day.

Sappho knows every step Liza and Dolly will take now: the laundry is next. They pick the best cart and fill it with linens and towels. They try to get the best of those too, so does the woman in the bird necklace, the one with black laces, so do they all. A little game. More strangers: the people who work in the laundry room, in their paper boat-shaped hats.

After that the supply room, guarded by a janitor who also maintains a stray cat. The solvents are here and the waxes and the pink silver polishes. (Sappho in her sixth month—both of them—wanted to eat some but didn’t. Pretty polish. “What’s wrong with dirt?” Dolly asked. “Minerals at least.”) The women refill their source pails and their atomizers and their small tubs. They wait in line, carts parked along the far asylum-green wall.

Only then, after they and their carts are dressed, do they have breakfast, sitting in ranks along the low benches in the staff dining room. They eat the same food as the guests but without a buffet: plates appear, of blueberry pancakes or apple-stuffed crepes.

Today Sappho picks at her roasted oranges.

“You done?” Liza asks. The wings fading. Sappho pushes the fruit onto Liza’s plate and sucks the syrup left on her fork.

“You,” Dolly tells Sappho, “should eat.”

Dolly was eating a Friendly’s peanut butter sundae when she went into labor with Marina. She believes in sundaes. She also, because she had just been buying a rocking chair to nurse in and Treat had made her test every chair, believes in rockers.

“Eat!” Dolly’s adamant. Sappho has not taken the oranges back. She’s slumped forward a little, as if to protect her son.

“Some people are hungry and others aren’t,” Liza hisses. Then she looks as if she’ll cry. Dolly and Sappho make sympathetic noises and touch Liza’s hands in little snatches. She’s on probation, having come to work drunk once before. When Liza picks up one orange and squeezes its pulp into her mouth, Sappho feels better. She can go back to her topic.

“So,” she says. “This—thing for my son?”

“Tell him your story.” Liza’s full now. “About your name.”

“Liza,” Dolly says.

“Liza,” Sappho’s tranquil. (“They know?” She thinks.) “The point is I need a new thing to tell him, I need an anecdote, everyone has an anecdote. Some funny or tender thing.” She must have told them once and forgotten. They’ve been working together for years.

“What Sappho’s trying to say,” Dolly picks up, “is that she wants to be able to teach her son but she feels inadequate because she dropped out, right Sappho?”

“Sort of.” Dolly’s meetings with a social worker lead to this kind of comment. Sappho regrets the lost breakfast—regret drops fast, like a curtain. She looks over her shoulder. Other people are already clearing their plates.

“What do you tell Gemma?” Dolly has assumed a helpful-friend air that makes her look queasy, like the fragile one on a Mexican soap.

“Gemma!” Liza squeals. “When is your next date?” Sometimes Liza babysits. When Sappho forgets to come home, Liza holds Gemma and they sleep together on the couch.

“Not to chew gum,” Sappho says, distracted, trying to score more food. She waves at a friend, Gabe, who works in the kitchen. The friend shakes his head: done.

“He’s cute,” Liza says. She waves. Sappho’s friend saw her give her food away and wonders what was wrong with the roasted oranges. He likes to try new recipes. “You’re cute,” Liza mouths, and Sappho and Dolly press their hands into their faces.

In the service elevator, Sappho whispers “it’s urgent” in Dolly’s ear. She doesn’t know what she wants. Should Dolly recommend a novel? Walk her to the community college and watch as she enrolls in a GED class? Clip book reviews for her, to be put in the browning envelope where she keeps similar clippings from her mother?

“Honey please,” Dolly says. On nine they push the cart out. Liza runs ahead to count the empties, checking open doors against a printed list. They clean those first.

“I want to live on light and salt,” Sappho says.

“Honey please please,” Dolly says. “Hon.”

Ice has grown thick on the lake. Sappho looks at it from the window of Nine-Ten as she sprays the glass. Wedged between two cliffs, left there by a receding glacier (like all of us, Sappho thinks), its perimeter turns jaggedly. Guests skate or gaze at the ice. Some do tricks; some spin in their winter layers like gaudy chrysalides. Some, Sappho thinks, are like Kitty and Levin. About to be.

Looking harder she sees a skater whom she thinks she knows, the gray-eyed horse guest. The woman is wearing fluffy earmuffs and swinging her arms in a near-Olympic way. Sappho wonders about the boyfriend-down-the-hall: is he licit? Is it a sexy game? Is he the one who leaves notes saying that fresh towels every day are not only not necessary but environmentally unsound? (“Am I the fucking founder?” Liza says, but Sappho and Dolly pocket the notes and leave extra peppermints.)

When her forehead touches cold, Sappho realizes she’s tired. It’s early still, eight-thirty or nine, but she will take a short break in the armchair. She will close her eyes. She imagines an ottoman with green cushions for her feet. Up they go, onto the great feathered pillow. She’s had the monster dreams, of the child born with a dog’s head or a dragon’s tail. She’s had the death ones too, the still fetus taken from her mouth by a Grace Kelly kind of nurse. Now she hopes for better—she’ll stay awake and so control the pictures. Here we are visiting the apple orchard, here the cider press smells of mash and honey. Here Gemma and Timothy jump from the old dock into Lake George and drops fly up full of rainbows. They wave for her and she swims too, three bright heads above the surface. The far shore is full of spruce.

How it happens is unclear, but she sleeps, she sleeps with abandon. A first. She knows because Dolly is shaking her shoulder saying Sappho Sappho Sappho.

“I fell asleep,” she says. Dolly’s done the room for her: mopped the floor, shaken the drapes. They’ll be on time for the occupieds. She has not dreamt. A single skater is still on the ice. It’s the horse woman, going round and round in long loops.

“Happens.” Dolly’s pensive. She seems to know something Sappho doesn’t. It’s in the way her eyes narrow and the irises’ color deepens.

“What,” Sappho says, but Dolly walks her out to the hall and to the next room in silence. By the time they move down a floor, to eight, Sappho’s awake. She notices everything. Liza’s skinny torso, the cut velvet scarf on a floor. They’re working in a good rhythm now, all three. No talk. The occasional slap of a rag on a writing table, the squeak of a wet mop on a board.

Sappho’s mouth tastes of metal. She wants to see the guest again, to speak to her. She wants, like a deer, to lick a salt block. In Eight-Two-Three, Liza’s on her knees dusting furniture legs. Her neck cambers—its curve reminiscent of a road. Dolly, sick of the season, keeps sticking her face into sun.

They work in silence for an hour.

At eleven, they get to the fourth floor. Without having planned to, Sappho looks for the skater. Timothy (he is only Timothy now, she thinks) gives a light tumble. Dolly takes check-on-Sappho breaks with some frequency, stopping and finding her, and appraising her, the way she does a piece of questionable meat. Liza swipes her furniture savagely. In spring, she will take the heads off dandelions. She will somersault from the cracked diving board into the lake.

Sappho begins to sing. Words and melody made up and inharmonic. There are bitter parts, she thinks. She sings through one room and then another.

Her back is to the door when the guest enters, but she knows at once, from the apologetic tread, that the room’s occupant is back. She imagines the stricken look, the sorries. Turning, balling the rag into her palm, she sees a man with adamant eyes that become more and more luminous. The skater’s lover, on his way to a tryst. Ice glitters along the black buttons of his coat and along his eyelashes there’s an iridescent wet fringe.

“Sorry,” the man says. With his raptured open look, one that wonders rather than hoarding pictures. Sappho relaxes her hand.

“I forgot my scarf.” This, though he can’t possibly be going back out, not after so much time.

Sappho turns back to her washing. They both know she can’t answer. Not done.

“Do you skate?” The man lifts a sweater from a rocking chair.

“I do.” Sappho tries to sound final. No more questions.

“Do you skate in rinks too?” Sappho has some questions of her own but she keeps them in. The man touches Sappho’s shoulder. A pitying kind of contact. Are you deaf? Do you know what a rink is?

“Rinks too,” Sappho says. She wants to go back to sleep. She wants to forget that she is over nine months pregnant. She wants to imagine what takes place in Four-Three-Three that makes the man so open and the woman so self-contained and rosy.

But as the guest’s hand stays on her shoulder, as Liza and Dolly have moved around the corner, as Timothy has started an unusual delicate kicking that matches her heartbeat, Sappho adheres to the moment. She turns around and feels the stretched polyester against her stomach. When she kisses the guest, the inside kicking stops. The smell of ice and light and sex steadies her.

I’m due, Sappho thinks. She stops running her tongue along the man’s palate.

“Now I’m sorry,” she says, and they both giggle. And she kisses the man’s neck below the ear and says “sorry” again and shakes out the rag as a sign.

“I saw you yesterday,” the guest says. “You and two others.” But Sappho doesn’t answer. She waves the rag—its blue and white wavy stripes should be a clear warning, the way a red flag on a beach is. She waves again. The flag isn’t working.

“When are you due?” The guest asks. Is he mad?

“Now,” Sappho says.

“No, I mean what day. I mean I can see.”

“I mean now,” Sappho says. “Can you call my co-worker?” The man pales and runs.

“Thank you,” Sappho calls. She sits in the armchair, her second that day.

“I faked,” she tells Dolly. “I’m not in labor.” They’ve moved together to the silk-covered settee that reminds Dolly of lungs, for which she loves them. “Fucking doll couches,” Liza calls them.

“I realize.”

“I might be in labor,” Sappho bristles. “What do you know?” But she doesn’t go on: Dolly’s leaned forward and rested her chin on the pommel of her two fists. They are all behind. They will go on being behind tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

“Okay,” Dolly says, “look.”

“I know,” Sappho says.

“I stopped in my seventh month,” Dolly says. “I know you don’t have Treat, I know you have Gemma and I know your parents aren’t around, but if you’re going to get so tired and sit in armchairs and kiss guests, Sappho, if you’re going to, because you’ve been pregnant before and you know it—.” The sad machine of Dolly’s voice goes on and on.

“And kiss guests?” Sappho says.

“Your mouth.” Dolly turns away politely.

“Dolly?” Sappho says. She’s hesitant; then, as if a shawl, fringed and bird-patterned, has been wrapped around her, becalmed.

Dolly stands up. Her hands still in fists.

“What.” Not a question any longer.

“My water broke,” Sappho says. For a second she worries that Dolly won’t believe her. “I’m the maid who cried wolf,” she thinks. But when she lifts her eyelids up and dares to face her friend, she relaxes. Dolly’s looking out the window and crying.

“This view,” she’s saying. “This view.” Mustering strength, Sappho stands and joins her, as Timothy’s former home drips down the insides of her legs. A gold blanket of sun floats on top of the lake ice; the trees’ shadows look black and stark.

“Dolly,” Sappho says.

“Let’s go.” Dolly takes her hand. “We’ll get Liza to do this.”

“We’ll take Gabe and his car,” Sappho says.

“We’ll make sure Liza picks Gemma up from day care,” Dolly says.

By the time they reach the elevator Sappho has resumed singing. Liza has been charged with hiding all evidence of Sappho’s improper use of hotel property. The man has been found and apologized to for the third time. He’s on his way back to the lake.

“Who can resist?” Sappho says hobbling down the grand square staircase. “Bye!”

Gabe’s car is known for its love of potholes but Sappho doesn’t care. She sits in the back seat chattering.

“Hey,” Gabe says. The breakfast misunderstanding has been cleared up. “Who’s going with you?”

“You are,” Sappho says. Dolly gets a stitch from laughing. Gabe gets a better grip on the wheel.

These trees—the ones rushing into the window and out again—are different from the ones by the lake. They’re knobbier and blemished, with old caterpillar tents, gashes, ringed scars. Sappho considers them.

“Are you feeling better about this story issue?” Dolly wonders. “This—this telling him something?”

Gabe wants to be caught up and Dolly explains in a don’t-wake-the-invalid whisper. “You’ve read Anna Karenina?” He says. “Wow.”

Sappho lifts a hand to her braided head. She hasn’t thought of it like that.