What Would Marlene Do? by Laton Carter

It was raining, so everything was perfect. I am Marlene Dietrich said the man. He was standing next to the window, and the rain, as rain is supposed to do, slid down the pane like tears in a movie. It was a Tuesday and he was alone. Mondays were yoga. Wednesdays were community orchestra, Thursdays the soup kitchen, and Fridays were the rescue animal clinic. But Tuesday — the week had a noticeable hole in it. Into the hole, and again like tears in a movie, went all the sorrows a man with a glass of chablis standing next to a window with rain sliding down it could harbor. He clutched the stem of the glass, and with his free hand wiped his brow. He was sweating again. By himself and alone on Tuesday evenings, he sweat an individual sweat that meant his nervousness at being alone was really a reflection of his tendency toward reclusiveness. He regarded the glass with its contents — half full or half empty? Marlene wouldn’t care one way or the other. Another drink would be coming anyway. I am not Marlene said the man, and let out a sigh. He looked at his toes resting on the spongy platform of the flip-flops he’d purchased the week before. Underneath his arches were palm trees, tropical cocktails, and a girl dressed in a grass skirt. What would Marlene do?

It was his therapist who had recommended joining social groups. No matter how strongly a person felt a misfit in a community, humans were still social animals — they needed contact with their own species. Socializing was a way of acclimating to one’s species — a way of normalizing human engagement. The man had taken his therapist’s counsel to heart — joining groups, re-learning the oboe, participating in casual banter — all in the hope of remedying an awkwardness at feeling the perpetual stranger. At first, the socializing had been a success — he’d learned the downward facing dog, played fairly accurately for Tchaikovsky’s 4th, and given his undistracted attention to the concerns of the less fortunate. It was no mistake, however, that he felt most comfortable with the animals on Friday. And while he was constitutionally a cat person, it was the dogs whom he communed with most, their tails and sad eyes spelling out histories in a language not readable by humans. The man felt as if such a language was parcel to his being — it resided in him, though perhaps by accident — in the form of some ancient canine lexicon to which he was gifted an understanding but not the vocabulary to respond.

Surely Marlene was a cat person. But like the lonesome dogs at the clinic, she too seemed to look into people, through them, and out of them, her eyes and voice searching always for something slightly out of reach. Some forms of contact can only be achieved alone. This the man knew from experience. On Tuesdays while drinking chablis, he often felt a kinship with starlets from the past. Ava Gardner (“She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific!”), Lana Turner (destitute and fatherless in Modesto), Ann Sheridan (angling her mouth away from Ronald Reagan’s), or Norma Shearer (short legs, mis-aligned eyes, and unbreakable). Others too, but tonight he felt the intense pathos of Marlene. Inhabiting the lids of his eyes and pressed into the solitary ridges of his fingertips, Marlene Dietrich — her dolorous voice and languid screen movement — was the mythological Psyche of pre-code Hollywood.

It was true that he had learned the German lyrics to “Falling In Love Again” — Ich Bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe Eingestellt — which translated as I’m set on love from head to toe. What did it actually mean to be set on love, or to fall in to it? This made love sound as if it were something to hunt, or something that ambushed its victims by enticing them over a pit covered with palm fronds. The man supposed he was always in love. But, he knew without having to say it, it was the kind of love that precluded sustained human contact. He loved from afar. Or if he loved up close, it was love for the music from an Ethel Merman record, love of the morning air after the street cleaners, or love for his potted cacti and the way they held the same pose, day after day, ignoring time. His love was a broken kind, though not with the implication of damage, rather broken in that it had broken away and was other to the whole. Other to the whole. The phrase sounded contrived. Still, he understood what it meant. When something was broken, the whole was still there but its parts were divided, each part freed to take on its own character. It was geometry really, and he was simply one part, adrift and yet stable at the same time. This gave the man some reassurance, and he let go another sigh.

The neon light from Minute Market stretched across the street and placed its fingers on the man’s face. Practice optimism his therapist had said. Like practicing the oboe, optimism could be something to work on, something to drill and polish until it reached  a state of flawlessness. Then, in front of an audience, it could be performed. This is what Marlene had done. She’d cultivated a certain detached insouciance in the face of doubt. The corners of her mouth said it. The penciled right brow said it. The lazy sway of her trousers.

Laton Carter’s Leaving (University of Chicago) received the Oregon Book Award. Previous flash has appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Brooklyn Review, and Necessary Fiction. Carter teaches in the BFA program at Portland State University.

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