Mamasans in the Mist, by Peter Smith

I lived like a monk back then. I slept with my face to the wall and the windows open in that cheap furnished room at the Who-Gives-A-Fuck Arms. My typewriter sat on a kitchen chair beside the bed. A ream and a half of false starts and dead ends lay scattered on the floor. Nothing.

I dreamed of mamasans in the mist — beautiful, delicate women in peach, yellow, and rose colored ao dais, black hair shining, Fuji hats hanging from ribbons at their backs, graceful as dawn, a soft apocalypse all my own. I had always thought that the lives normal people lived didn’t pertain to me because I was a writer. Now those lives didn’t pertain because I’d been to that war.

How facilely and absolutely normal people believed in God, the United States and happily-ever-after. Why shouldn’t they? Neither God nor the United States had fucked them as facilely and absolutely as God and the United States had fucked me. All the war had cost was everything. All I could write in its wake were vapid allusions and maudlin yearnings. Mamasans in ao dais in the mist.

What I wanted to write — the turd that wouldn’t mill through the typewriter — was an Orpheus story in which a writer comes home from the war, descends into the underworld, and leads the woman who hadn’t waited for him up out of mindless, happily-ever-after middle class hell. That wasn’t going to happen — not in the story, and not in real life. The woman who hadn’t waited for me really was living happily-ever-after. She had a husband, a baby and a three bedroom house in a post war subdivision. She still sent my mother K-Mart photo Christmas cards and newsy holiday letters (she got a new washer-dryer combo this year). What would she know about wars and flaccid, storyless writers living at the Who-Gives-A-Fuck Arms?

To make the turd in the typewriter that much harder to mill, I had not seen combat. It had not been that kind of war for me and I had no right to write that kind of story. I was, however, entitled to write with authority about suicides next door. And drugs and alcohol. And Dear John letters. And bar girls and cathouse gunfights and fraggings. And I could steep it all in the low-grade immorality that persisted everywhere and pervaded everything over there. The immorality of it all pertained.

So I sat on the edge of the bed in my faded green GI underwear in that dirty little room with its armchair and its carpet and its floor lamp and its sink and its table and its kitchen chair and its roaches. I stared at the notch in the typewriter and waited for the Orpheus story to come down and take me back up to a world where I could write. I tried to trick the story into showing itself. I tried writing it straight and flat. I tried writing it arty and ornate. I put my dog tags back on and wrote it like a buck sergeant on a whorehouse bender. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote. But I never wrote it right. Never. Not once. Ever.

Then, one night while I was working, someone knocked on the door. I opened it and there was a woman, fleshy, over forty, in a rumpled pink rayon peignoir, high-heeled slippers and not much more. She held a plastic cup of white wine offhanded. A lipstick-smeared cigarette hung from the corner of her mouth.

“Why’re ya typing so goddam loud?” she asked. “Jesus Christ. Pipe down, will ya?”

“Wasn’t trying to be noisy. Sorry.”

“Well ya are noisy and ya should be sorry. Pipe down and put on some pants…” She gave me the once-over. Her mood softened. “Got anything to drink?”

“A little Jack Daniels.”

“Gonna offer a lady a bump or what? Put on some pants and gimme a drink.”

I found a pair of jeans at the foot of the bed and pulled them on as she made an entrance and looked for someplace to sit. She tried the armchair, but the upholstery was itchy. She stood, told me I could sit there, and, stubbing her cigarette out in the sink, she went over and sat on the bed. I found a coffee cup and, while she finished her wine, I rinsed it out and poured her a drink. She said her name was Roberta and that she was a cashier at the A&P and she let her peignoir slip open a little further when I handed her drink to her.

If Roberta thought she had some allure left, who was I to tell her differently? I always give people the benefit of the doubt. I let them be who they think they are until they figure out they aren’t. Then I give them the benefit of the next doubt and the doubt after that. I found the other cup, poured a drink for myself and sat down in the armchair.

“What’re ya typing anyhow? College paper or something?” She nudged a crumpled false start on the floor with her foot.

“Just writing…”

“’Bout what?”

“You know… Stuff…”

“Stuff?”

“Stuff.”

“Well we all got stuff, kid. But we don’t sit up all night typewriting it.” She pointed to the dog tags hanging around my neck. “Soldier stuff, right?”

A seer. God had sent me a wrinkled seer, her pendulant parts spilling out of her all-but-transparent peignoir, cascading over one another in sallow, buttery, near-bovine abundance. A halo appeared around her. It was orange — the color of the carpeting in the hall outside.

“Kind of,” I said. “Just stuff.”

“Al said you can’t fix soldier stuff.”

“Al?”

“Second husband. A cook in Korea. He used to say the Army broke men. That, after they broke you, you couldn’t bullshit yourself any more. You came home and you tried to fix it, but you couldn’t. You can’t fix soldier stuff.”

She was resting on one elbow. She’d crossed her fat-dimpled legs and she was dangling a high heeled slipper off her toes. I turned and looked out the window.

“It’s all right. It’s just soldier stuff. Gimme another drink.”

I got up, got her another drink, sat down and looked out the window. Across the street, the dead drugstore where I’d worked as a kid was dark and empty. The guy I’d worked for had died and his widow had sold the store and the new owner had moved it to the south end of Main Street near the big new car dealerships. He thought he’d taken everything, but he’d left seven decades of stories laying around in the old space. Stories about people needing things. Stories full of delicate details and elegant little ironies and people caught in the act of living. I could see them over there. I could feel them. I’d known those stories what seemed to be my whole life. But the Army had broken me and I couldn’t bullshit myself any more and I had no right to the stories any more — not to the stories and not to the kind of life a normal person might live.

“Whudja do before the war?” asked Roberta.

I played the typewriter like a Happy Hour piano. I served up your favorite literary stylings and bullshitted myself about having something important to say. I believed in God and the United States and looked forward to a mindless happily-ever-after in a three bedroom house in a post war subdivision with the woman who hadn’t waited.

“Nothing.”

“Whuddya do now?”

“Nothing…”

“You get a VA crazy check or something? How you afford to do nothing?”

“I get by.”

I should put Orpheus and the war away, I thought. Write a drugstore story set in 1962 — before the world went to shit. Have somebody come in for a postage stamp, three condoms and a tin of aspirin. Start it:

“There were twelve aspirin to a tin and three condoms to a box, which worked out to four aspirin to a fuck — two for each of them. Charlie didn’t know what Marie wanted the postage stamp for…”

I should put Orpheus and the war away, but Orpheus was due to show up any day now. I was one half-assed not-quite-war-story away from being able to bullshit the world and myself again. What was so hard about writing one half-assed not-quite-war-story anyhow?

“You done typing for the night?” Roberta asked from the bed.

“Yeah.”

“Mind if I sleep here? Locked myself out. Don’t want to bother the caretaker this late.”

“Go ahead.”

She put the coffee cup in a nest of crumpled pages on the floor, pulled the dirty top sheet back, crawled into my bed and turned toward the wall.

“Plenty uh room,” she said sleepily over her shoulder. “Nothin’ to worry about. Nothin’ has to mean anything.”

I went over, locked the door and turned off the lights. Then I went back and sat in the chair and looked at the old drugstore for a long time, waiting for Orpheus and sleep and mamasans in the mist.

***

Peter Smith is the author of two books: “A Porch Sofa Almanac,” an anthology of essays written for Minnesota Public Radio, and “A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors,” a memoir. His short fiction has been recognized in both The Lorian Hemingway and Robert Olen Butler Short Story Competitions. He is a teaching artist at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

His most recent fiction, “Union Valley, 1962,” a book of short short stories set in a Chicago suburb is available via podcast, (search “Peter Smith’s Podcast” on iTunes or Google play). Or follow him at Peter Smith Writes on Facebook.

Peter Smith

Peter Smith

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