The Littleness of Susan Brauer
SUSAN BRAUER SLAPPED the steering wheel when the engine clicked and coughed. In the next space over, her neighbor Richard squeezed his linebacker body into a tiny sports car. She noticed its banged-up door, the frayed duct tape stretched across its convertible top.
When he leaned toward her and pushed his passenger side door open, she rolled down her window a stingy inch and cupped her hand around her ear.
“Can I drop you someplace warm?”
Susan gave him a “This? It’s nothing,” look, smiled and waved him off.
Cranking her window closed, she used the nail on her pinky to flick away a clump of lipstick from the corner of her mouth.
“In some other lifetime,” she whispered.
His aging chick-mobile accelerated into the street. He ignored a stop sign and the car peeled out around the corner; a cloud of oil smoke puffed and hung in the air.
Richard, her broken-down car, a forty-degree day in May, and to top it off—that morning’s dénouement—her wig was crooked. After so many years, she had a sense; a visceral connection to its levelness. She pulled down on both sides, looked up into the mirror, and evaluated her penciled-on eyebrows: whether they were the same size, on the correct angle.
I’d hate to look surprised or angry all day long, she thought—a long-standing joke she had with only herself.
She chewed her lip and looked up at her apartment building, the tilting gutter spout by her front door, the blackish water stain that grew larger every year.
The Betty-Two was a six-unit complex coated in beige stucco on a street lined with run-down Craftsman homes. There was no evidence of Betty-One, so its sequel was kitschy and incongruous. Susan had once described her two- bedroom rental as “Cottage Style,” although after twenty years, “Historic Neglect” was more fitting.
Susan slid out of the driver’s seat and sidestepped a puddle of oil that overran the lines of Richard’s parking space. A fifty-something divorcé, he had moved to the Betty-Two right before Christmas. His apartment was directly above Susan's, and the first time she heard his moaning, the accelerated thumping of the headboard against the wall, his inevitable cry of release, she sat up in bed and looked over at her cat, Clark, who stared back from the other pillow.
Clark meowed. Susan switched on her clock radio and turned up the volume, eventually falling asleep to Wynonna Judd singing Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me.
She and Richard had run into each other in the hallway in February, and Susan pawned off a plate of brownies made by one of her students. When it came to baked goods from elementary school children, there was a high probability that inexplicable ingredients had made their way into the mix—eggshells, paper clips, things that fall or are plucked from children's bodies. The school secretary put it succinctly: “Why risk it?”
“You could have tossed this,” Susan had said the next day and fanned the air with the paper plate Richard handed her.
“Really?” He eyed her with a bobble-headed smile, and Susan assumed he was trying to flirt. “The brownies were good, by the way.”
She knew better.
“At least not undercooked. So,” he continued without a breath, “what are you doing later?” His belly poured out over his belt and she had to force herself to look away.
Susan blinked. “I'm seeing someone right now,” she lied.
“Right now? This instant? Where is he?”
“He’s in my pocket. He’s extremely small.” She grinned and closed her door; pressed the wall with one hand and held the doorknob with the other until the sound of his footsteps faded away.
In twenty years at the Betty-Two, Susan had created a private landscape inside unit #101. Canyons and towers, boxes and shopping bags stacked and smashed by their own weight, heavy with forgotten purchases: plastic sandals, a tube of hand cream, a child’s sand bucket and shovel, oven cleaner, plastic tape, sunscreen. She managed to keep the kitchen and bedroom functional, but could only force open the door to the second bedroom a few inches. She'd moved a stack of boxes and blocked the door to prevent Clark from wandering in and never finding his way out.
Perhaps her therapist was right: the years of collecting “added substance to the trivial,” and “built something onto her self-admitted littleness.” She considered simplifying, but Susan’s connection to her things was inscrutable. Her home was comforting in its cave-likeness and she had made peace with that fact. The only result of twelve years of therapy was a Japanese-style screen she purchased as a backdrop for her front door appearances. After that, when she greeted the pizza deliveryman, apartment manager, or the occasional Seventh Day Adventist, they saw what Susan wanted them to see: an uncluttered entryway; red satin and gold bamboo; a shy Geisha holding a fan.
She called for a cab, walked to her bedroom and chose a wool turtleneck from the bottom drawer, removed her wig and placed it next to three others on the top of the dresser. Taped to the mirror at the edge of her reflection was tissue snowflake made by one of her first-graders, its edges flopped over as if reaching out to fall to the ground where it belonged. On it, “Merry Christmas, Miss Brauer” had been scrawled in black crayon. “Christmas” had been crossed out and replaced with “Holiday” by some well-meaning adult.
“It’s May,” Susan said to the snowflake. “Go away.”
She slid into her sweater, pulled the wig back onto her head, then walked to her kitchen and reached up into her cupboard, past mugs with “Lordy, Lordy! You’re Forty” and “Fifty is the New Thirty” in faded, dishwashered lettering. She chose the “I Heart My Music Teacher” mug and filled it with black coffee.
When the taxi arrived, she had to block Clark, who was trying to squeeze his way out as she opened the front door. She brushed her shoulder against the wall and bumped into a framed clipping from a newsletter her father had sent years before. An unremarkable quote, but because it was so wildly misattributed, Susan found it amusing.
“We may none of us be worthy, but we can at least fight to have a happy life.” — Frank Sinatra
Fighting for happiness? Maybe that’s what Clark was doing, asserting his independence, grabbing at the promise of something better. But as much as he fought to escape the life she had created for him, Susan knew better than Clark the way things worked. He wouldn't last a week in the brutal world of cars, dogs, and inclement weather.
Twenty minutes later, the taxi dropped Susan off in front of a private elementary with the promising name Shining Minds. Windows inside the double doors were crowded with signs like “Dollar Drive for Afghanistan” and “Advanced Japanese Cancelled Today.” The school was respected and wildly popular, but its rigid academic goals and structured programs had inspired Susan, on more than one occasion, to refer to it as Spotless Minds.
When she had chosen Music Education over Law, Susan had told her mother, “I am going to follow my bliss.” But after she earned her Masters, she worried that her idea of bliss had somehow shifted, that her allocation of happiness was being enjoyed by someone else in a well-paying corporate job.
Even her own sister, Camille, had enough disposable income to purchase a Steinway concert grand for her living room because “it would look great in that corner.”
“You don’t even play,” Susan had said into the phone and stared at her own piano with its claw-marked cabinet and mismatched bench.
“It’s an investment,” Camille had said.
“It’s just furniture to you.”
“If you’re unhappy, get another job.”
Camille could always be counted on to express every thought that skittered into her head—however awkward or cruel.
“Do you think it would be a turn-on for a guy if he knew you were hairless?” she had once asked at a Thanksgiving dinner, after her fourth glass of Chardonnay.
“For Christ’s sake,” Susan’s mother scolded Camille, and had tried to hide a smile with her hand.
“That,” Susan told her therapist, “is why I haven’t been back to Brooklyn in ten years.”
Susan stood by her mailbox in the school office and read a note from Debra. “Please stop by after the staff meeting for our Eval.” Susan pursed her lips and crumpled the lavender sticky into a ball.
Thirty-two, overpaid, and handsome, Shining Mind’s new principal packed herself into ill-fitting suits and wore loud shoes that made her sound like a Clydesdale in the hallway.
Clip, clop, clip, clop.
At the staff meeting in the library, Debra warned of state-wide budget cuts to art and music programs.
Susan raised her hand from her miniature chair. "How does physical education—running around the gym, throwing rubber balls at each other like monkeys in a sports equipment store—help achieve the school’ s academic goals?"
“If Miss Brauer has a real question,” Debra said, “I'd be happy to respond.”
An hour later at her yearly evaluation, Debra shared the news crisply. “I have to ask you to postpone your African concert. Science Night has been re-scheduled. Try as they might, the PTA could not identify an alternate date.” Her decision was final, delivered blandly, mayonnaise smooth.
“But my concert has been on the calendar since January. The fourth-graders made Djembe drums with their own little hands!”
Debra shook her head. “It’s a shame, but we don't want to be at cross-purposes, do we? It is science, after all.”
“I agree. It would be a catastrophe if one child opted to be a world-class musician and some pharmaceutical company had to make do with one less lab tech.”
Debra shifted forward in her chair, loomed. “Are you sure you’re happy here at Shining Minds? Lately, you seem—what’s the word?—recalcitrant.” She pushed her lips together and tapped the fingertips of both hands together. It reminded Susan of a little movement song she had once taught her first graders: a story of five pumpkins sitting on a fence. Something bad happens and then there are only four.
"I’m tickled to death.” Susan smiled. “I think we should build a huge bonfire on Science night.”
Debra pushed her glasses into her forehead. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“We can burn all the Djembe drums, line up the fourth graders, and record how long it takes for the color to drain out of their faces.”
Debra closed her planner, thanked her for her thoughts on the subject, and ended the meeting.
Susan trudged across the playfield on the way to her portable classroom and negotiated a muddy footpath she called The Moat. She opened the door and turned the heat knob all the way to the right.
She looked over at the stuffed monkey some child had impaled on a nail in a row of tambourines and other shakers. “Why does it have to be so cold in here, Mr. Bongo?” She patted the threadbare mascot on its head and lifted Bongo off the wood paneled wall. “I’m sure it’s practically tropical in the gym.”
With thirty minutes before her first class, she leaned for a moment out the window by her desk, breathing in the smell of a large Douglas fir that crowded the side of the portable. She studied a row of needles on one of the fir bows. Uniformity. It reminded her of an African finger keyboard. What are they called? Kalimbas, she thought. She was trying to remember the sound they made—like a toy piano, unearthly and frail—when Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King blasted out from the cell phone inside of her purse.
“Lon is sick," Camille said. "He found a spot on his forehead. They think it’s skin cancer.”
Susan wanted to say, “Why? It wasn’t cancer the last seven times.” But instead said, “Awful!”
“His boss,” Camille continued, “found a spot under his ear last Thanksgiving and was on chemo by Hanukkah. So much going on and work is preposterous. I need you to move back and take care of Mom.”
“Wait,” Susan said. “I thought Lon was the one who needed help? I live in Portland, if you hadn’t noticed.”
A second or two of silence, then a sigh that spanned the continent.
“You can teach preschool anywhere,” Camille said. “I promised Mom she’d never be alone.”
“That’s some promise,” Susan said.
“Susan,” Camille sounded depleted and put out. “I have a full-time law practice, mom feels abandoned, and now—” Her voice splintered. “—my husband has cancer.”
“It might be cancer. That's what you said.”
“Little Sister,” Camille said carefully. “You've always avoided complications because you knew this day would come.”
Had Susan understood that everything meaningful, every choice that planted you in place, connected you to another person, was just a complication? That, at some date and time, she would be asked to sacrifice her life's equity, move back into the pink room with the paisley curtains, sleep in one of the matching twin beds where she had laid awake as a teenager, convinced of unlimited possibilities and paths? Would she spend her evenings locating T.V. remotes, peeling plastic covers from microwave dinners or watching her mother eat applesauce?
“I have Clark.”
“Clark is a cat. We are your family. Think about it.” Like Debra, Camille ended the meeting: hung up without saying good-bye.
Clip, clop, clip, clop.
After the taxi dropped her off at the Betty-Two that evening, Susan remembered too late the box of broken maracas and wood glue in the taxi’s trunk.
“Stop!” She chased the cab to the end of the block. “They always drive so fast,” she panted and placed her palm on her chest. “Unless you’re in the car behind them.”
It started to rain and a gust of wind surprised her. Reflexively, she reached up and pressed down on the top of her wig.
Over the years, she'd felt an increasing need— overwhelming at times—to reveal her baldness to the world. But it seemed too much like losing her virginity, and she had come to believe that no one deserved that—what was the word?
She didn’t know, but it seemed closer to “horror” than “honor”.
She juggled her purse and a container of lentil soup she’d picked up on the way home and unlocked the front door. She blocked the path of Clark, then sidestepped through the labyrinth of boxes, stacks of folded fabric, and magazine-filled milk crates down the hall and into the kitchen. She chose the “Ask me about Amway” mug and unscrewed a bottle with the label:
Cheap White Wine A premium vintage
She considered the mug, then took a deep slug from the bottle and called the cab company.
Her apartment was dark and stuffy, and when she opened the bedroom curtains and tilted the window out and up, cool air flowed in.
Something chirped in a tree. She noted the pattern: fast- fast-fast, slow-slow-slow, fast-fast-fast.
“Dinner?” She looked at Clark, who sat frozen, fixated on the sound.
Susan removed her wig, placed it on the dresser alongside the three others, stood back and, for a second or two, studied the quartet of her.
Then she kicked off her shoes, pulled her sundress over her head and tossed it onto the bed. She unfastened her bra and let it slide off to allow her breasts to hang free; her sweat cooled in the breeze from the open window. She leaned forward, pulled down and stepped out of her underwear and faced the mirror.
Weak light from the hallway powdered the edges of her shoulders, her ball-like head, her legs and arms.
“I'm the Michelin Man,” she said to Clark, who had settled, kneading, on a pile of blankets.
She stared at the outline of her naked body: her wide midriff, her narrow, sloping shoulders, her knock-kneed stance. The dome of her smooth, oval head glowed yellowish-brown in the hallway light.
She thought about her young students, free of worries about Steinway pianos or hateful bosses. She wondered if their bodies would betray them as hers had. How many would find themselves at the age of fifty-four staring at
their reflections in a mirror, puzzled by almost every choice they had made.
She'd been sixteen when she’d practically lifted the first handful of hair from her head. A month later her eyebrows fell out, then her pubic hair. Then the morning she discovered she no longer had eyelashes.
Tears had rolled out of her snake-like eyes and down her pale, fleshy, ugly face.
She pinched every lash she could find from off of her pillow, put them in a jelly jar and screwed the cap on tightly.
A week later the jar with the eyelashes had disappeared.
“There are children with cancer who would gladly trade places with you,” her mother had said. “I won't have anyone feeling sorry for themselves. Not in this house.”
Susan reached over and gave the snowflake taped to the mirror an uncommitted tug.
“Be free little flake.”
It wiggled, but remained stuck in place.
“Fine. Be that way,” she said. In December, the snowflake seemed heartfelt and cheery. In May, its presence felt sarcastic.
The doorbell rang and Clark leapt off the bed, ran out of the room.
“My maracas!” Susan dressed hurriedly, ran through the tight maze in the hall to the entryway, bumped into her Japanese screen, and yanked open the front door.
Richard stood in the hallway, looking surprised.
“Oh,” he said.
“Oh!” Susan echoed. “I thought you were a box of maracas.”
“I could be,” he said. “But you’d have to tell me what that means.” He glanced at the floor, then up, beyond her, into the room for just an instant.
“I wanted to know how your car is, if you need a ride to work tomorrow.” He cocked his head quizzically. “And, how you are—just in general?”
“I'm okay,” Susan said. “I think.” There was a pause, as if she were, for the first time in her life, actually contemplating that question. “Okay. Just in general.”
“Yes,” she said. “Thanks—I suppose—for asking.” “Have you had dinner?”
Clark meowed and she remembered she’d forgotten to feed him.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, pointing over her shoulder to the container of lentil soup that sat sweating on the kitchen table. “I have. I will.”
The screen had tipped over. It leaned precariously and no longer concealed her lunatic hoard.
She felt her soul groan.
“Maybe another time then,” he said. “There’s this new Moroccan place and . . .” His voice trailed off into a mumble or a sigh. He turned and ambled back down the hallway, offered a half-hearted wave, and disappeared up the stairwell to his apartment.
She pushed the door closed. Clark followed her to the bedroom and leapt to the top of the dresser, tip-toed around the four wigs.
She slapped her smooth head. “Oh, God!”
Susan allowed her hand to remain on top of her head and began to let her fingertips explore the small bumps, crevices, and dry patches that had increased over the years.
Clark jumped to the floor and pushed up against her leg. She remembered the afternoon she'd found him under her portable classroom and called in sick the next day to feed him evaporated milk from a syringe.
“We may none of us be worthy, but we can at least fight to have a happy life.”
She started to unfasten her dress and looked over at Clark, still riveted on the sound outside. Was it a bird? An insect?
Susan crouched and the two listened to the source of the chirping camouflaged by the fading day.
“What's out there, Clark?"
The sound of rain changed from light pats to deep drumbeats on the window glass. The air smelled different. Electric. She slid her wig back onto her head, fastened the clasp on her dress, slipped into her shoes, and hurried to the front door and up to Richard's apartment, hoping she hadn’t waited too long, hoping she could catch him before he left.