3:1: “The Nine-Patch Variation”, by Rob Hunter

3:1: “The Nine-Patch Variation”, by Rob Hunter

The Pease family hands are hands in motion. The Pease family mind likewise wanders and flutters, arranging things. Elizabeth Profitt Pease is standing on a chair; she has just wriggled out from under the piano, her mother’s piano.

“Anyone passing will see a placid old lady moving lamps and standing on the furniture and think what a life well lived,” says Libby Pease. “See that lady full in the comfort of her sunset years. A drowsy afternoon reverie, this placid creature is reliving lost moments standing on the furniture. God forbid they should catch me under the piano.”

Elizabeth Profitt Pease has grown through all and past most of the stages of life as demonstrated by an illustration in The Essential Shakespeare, her high school text, and she is wondering what will be next. At sixty-three, as she sees it, not much has thus far happened to Libby Pease. She has grown up, aged in place and hardly noticed it. Her days trail out behind her to an invisible vanishing point. “The place where I was conceived,” says Libby Pease, meaning a point in time, rather than the venue of conception itself. A well-plotted project, a nine-patch variation, is defying her. The furrow between her eyes appears and disappears like a flashing caution light, the only outward sign of a quilt gone wrong, a quilt ungratefully turned against its maker.

Geometric perfection and precision stitches are Libby’s gifts. She is a quilter much celebrated for her execution of traditional designs. But she has misplaced something.

“I have a cat,” says Libby Pease.

It is not the cat that is missing. Something smaller, something tantalizing is escaping her.

Libby Pease sets down her 27th quilt block. The planned effect — a velvety pastel wash as of petals falling in a spring garden — is an ugly smear. She pulls a squared-up stack of blocks from the window seat and picks off some cat hairs. Her connector blocks, the nine-patch variations as the pattern books called them, do not cascade with color no matter how she shifts their positions.

There was a war in Europe and the Pacific and Libby’s mother played the piano, her Chopin nocturne that she had by heart. Six-year-old Libby hides behind the pedals, a haven from Charles Wyndham Pease, her younger brother. Hoagy Carmichael sings Old Buttermilk Sky from the parlor radio. There had been a gentleman caller once when Libby was sixteen — a date for the movies at the Willipaq Cinema. Libby Pease still loves the movies as she loved them when she was a child.

“I should get out more often,” says Libby the grown-up.

Trotting like fuzzy yellow ducklings behind their mother, the Pease children, Elizabeth and Charles, arrange themselves into outings. Libby’s father does not really trust the big talking faces high up on the elevated screen; when he goes to the Willipaq Cinema it is for the buttery popcorn. They go to the movies as a family but eventually without their father. At first Profitt Pease tags along to the matinees but the big lips, big teeth make him uneasy, he says.

The Willipaq Cinema’s rich butter-slathered popcorn is what once brings Profitt Pease to an evening showing. “Get it wet,” he tells the concessionaire, meaning extra butter. He brings along his own shaker, the girl being known as stingy with the salt. The hulls get caught in the interstices of his long, brown teeth. He sucks at the hulls, usually during love scenes. Libby’s father does not trust ephemera in general and the movies in particular.

“Oh, Profitt Pease, please,” says Elizabeth Wyndham Pease, Libby’s mother.

“Profitt Pease does not please,” says Profitt Pease, chomping away. But after that Libby notices her father eats his popcorn during the battle scenes and cowboy gunfights. Profitt Pease is not a free spirit like his wife and children and takes his comfort from solid, tangible things. He gives up on the movies and simply stays home.

The traits of the father are passed along to his son who gets to watch the movies while staying at home.

“Charley loves the movies, too, on TV,” says Libby Pease, meaning her brother, now grown.

Libby recalls the label on a can of green peas high on her mother’s pantry shelf. On the label a pixie in a green tutu admires himself in retreating mirrors, the images gradually shrinking. Charley and Libby play grocery store with the cans, stacking them, putting her selections into her mother’s net shopping bag. Charley gets to be the grocer because he is the boy. Libby has to help him make change.

“But, I… what?” The elusive missing something is teasing her again. The pixie’s mirror reflects in a second mirror looking back at itself again and again in reflections running to a microscopic infinity, reflected tessellations cascading backward in time to, she supposes although she cannot see it, an invisible point. In a celebration of canned peas, the pixie holds his harvest high, one green pea the size of his head. Things becoming smaller, going backwards.

Growing up in a small town, bigness is where important things happen, meaning somewhere else. Movies are big — big heads, big bodies, grand gestures, finer nuances. Elizabeth Wyndham Pease, Libby’s mother — Charley’s too, though she has less enthusiasm for her younger child — with her fuzzy duckling children takes in the matinees at the Willipaq Cinema where, eight rows past the loge, William Powell as The Thin Man speaks directly to young Libby Pease, aged six. William Powell debonairly gestures, a long-stemmed martini glass casually depending from his sensitive artist’s fingers, never, never spilling a drop.

“Dry, dammit, dry dry dry. Nora my delirious cupcake, you are the most beautiful, charming, cosmopolitan woman in the world, the mother of my children-to-be and I love you passionately and as often as possible we can escape the servants; but in spite of all this my passion flower, my night-blooming cirrus, my succulent eucalypt of desire, why, why, why, are you the only woman in the so called civilized world who knows how to make a dry martini? It is not enough to tell Daisy the correct proportions; these things require the hand of the artist, finesse. Make a full silver shaker for us yourself for I feel a case coming on…”

The angle at which Libby the child holds her head is a posture of awe. The angle allows her jaw to gape unattended, but the theater is dark and after all, she is there to see the stars not they her. Libby the adult reflects on this. All great art was meant to be up there — up there with William Powell and Myrna Loy — not locked up in a fusty Vatican basement. The Church of Rome hoards art; Libby has heard this. Art is splendid and not for hiding in a crypt. Not as lying at her feet now in the form of a shabby, failed nine-patch. The Ohio Star was the nine-patch all beginners did.

———•———

It is Libby’s habit to watch the ongoing parade of Willipaq, Maine from her parlor windows. When Libby is six, peering on tiptoe for the iceman with his horse, her chin barely reaches the sill. The iceman feeds his horse what Libby figures are oats from a nosebag attached with leather loops behind the horse’s ears. The horse climbs the hill to the Pease house by memory. Libby runs to the door past the hall coat rack with the peg reserved for her mother’s net shopping bag. She waits as she will later wait for her cat’s announcement of self. There is no cat here today — this is the iceman’s door.

Libby the child holds the door for Vern Lightfoot and his billowing aura of horse and man smells, the huge square cake tight in his tongs high up on his stained shoulder apron.

“Iceman.” Big booted feet clump up the wooden steps. A whinny from the street. What was that horse’s name? What was the name on the can of peas with the pixie and his mirrors?

Libby remembers her girlhood as a litany of lost visitors. First the iceman stops his deliveries, then the coal truck stops coming to the Pease house. Profitt Pease, Libby’s father, owns a modest woodlot where he cuts and splits the winter wood. Her father puts in an oil tank and then there is a new visitor, the oil man come to fill it.

The cat interrupts Libby’s recasting of her quilt. He meows outside the door, his nose placed at the nick in the weather-stripping to make sure he is heard.

There is a dog once, and a father who does not go with his family to the movies. The dog and the father have been dead for years — Libby’s father, Profitt Pease, dead for twelve years, the dog for ten. The cat sleeps on the cushioned window seat. Brother Charley sleeps on the sofa in front of the television. The cat and Charley live on.

“Ladies and gentleman, the cat,” says Libby, holding the door.

“Maworr,” says the cat, stepping in.

This is to be expected from a cat: that he be on time for his appointments. Charley does not arrive early for anything, when he arrives at all.

Kneeling on the floor, Libby rolls back the Persian carpet and begins to set out her finished blocks. So sure was she of her design that she had done the sewing by hand. “I should have used my old Singer Featherweight and cut my time from weeks to days,” says Libby.

“Oh, Libby, dear, you don’t just sew, you make Art,” had been a pronouncement by a member of the quilters’ guild.

“Not this day.” Libby shuffles her squares, turns lamps on and off, stands again on the sofa to study her congeries of blocks, hoping for something wonderful.

“Oh, Libby, you can put anything together and make it sing,” said the sister quilter, “from yard sale rag bags to the blanket off the iceman’s horse.” The two were girls together and remembered Vern Lightfoot’s horse.

From behind a radiator, the cat strolls out into the center of her blocks, leaving disarray it its wake. “You, O cat, are offering me a fix, are you?” She cradles him in her arms.

Libby pulls in the halogen floor lamp from beside her sewing table and squints through a screen of eyelashes, then stands on the kitchen step stool for an elevated view. She has hoped for a miraculous intervention from some ancient well of cat wisdom. The cat’s quilt is no better than hers, only different. Perhaps from another angle.

“Pardon me, Mr. Cat.” Elizabeth Profitt Pease ducks her head and slides under the piano. From this oblique perspective Libby still has a plain old serviceable Ohio Star, very traditional, just as she had turned out forty years before. And the colors are still a smear, not a spring garden in bloom. The cat dives back under the radiator. Well, the damned thing was a quilt; that much she had gotten right.

———•———

Darwinism, as it is called in Willipaq High’s sophomore biology studies, teaches Libby that all creatures are preoccupied with sex. This is, after all, why the spring gardens bother to bloom. This is a survival mechanism. No love, no next generation. Love without passion creates no new life. All the movies, the songs are about love. The creatures that loved without sex never made any movies; they just had hobbies. They were extinct.

“Charley is extinct but there he is, walking around,” says Libby, sharing this joke with the cat. The cat understands Charley. Once Charley forgets and leaves the TV on to wander off with his friends. Caves of the Buddha, a pictorial exploration of religious art is playing. Yellow-robed shaven-headed monks are painting a holy picture by dribbling colored sand in intricate floral shapes. When they are through, they sweep it away.

“I am not quite ready to be swept away,” says Libby Pease. Libby worries about not remembering the name on the label of the can of peas, the can with the pixie and his retreating mirrors. In the sand paintings of the Buddha every grain demonstrating the evanescence of life, its transitoriness, was precious and without that single grain, all the myriads of others would remain meaningless.

“Libby,” says Libby addressing herself, “Have you ever felt you are preoccupied with the mechanics of sex? Just where thingies go?”

Or where the thingies went when they were no longer thingies. The Old Thingies Home? Libby is tickled at the thought; her question has surprised her. “Libby, dear,” Libby replies, “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way. It makes you sound so common.”

She surrenders as laughter starts someplace inadvisable, deep inside, below her diaphragm. Pain announces itself, much as the cat. Libby holds the door shut. She feels at the catch in her side but is by this time laughing so hard she doubles over with laughter and pain, holding onto the back of a chair until the spasm passes. Her eyes are wet and she is breathing in short gasps.

“I am the pain of annoyance, Elizabeth, not the Big One, only a minor agony. Pleased to meet you, roll with me and enjoy.”

“Well, Pain,” says Libby, pondering thingyhood, “the ‘place where the thingies go’ might well describe a saloon.” There are trendy watering holes where Willipaq’s summer people meet and mingle. If the summer folk asked her she would tell them, yes, I am aware of thingy placement strategies.

“Thank you Libby. My pleasure.” The pain withdraws.

The great screen stars of her girlhood, William Powell and Myrna Loy, do not have babies; they have love. They are The Thin Man and The Thin Lady; they solve mysteries together. The movies showed people who felt passion, Lust. Lust is a Deadly Sin. She is therefore curious about it.

Feelings of desire Libby Pease has come to associate with being in the theater, sometimes her favorite seat itself — eight rows back from in the loge at the start of the smoking section where a gentle slope inclines into the retreating thirty rows of plush seats. Velvet ropes, popcorn smells, and always a sore neck after the show.

Tickets for the section with the velvet seats cost a dime more. Libby pays the dime.

She turns off all the lamps but one and picks up her basket of redwork embroidery. Thirteen-year-old Libby buys the squares at McCrory’s Five and Dime fifty years before. Overall Sam and Sunbonnet Sue are red lines on yellowed muslin squares, twelve squares — a set for the months of the year. Sam pushes over a privy for October; Sue carries an umbrella for April.

With her hands in motion, Libby Pease feels anchored, safe to consider passion as spoken of by the big, fine-featured faces in the movies. The great shining faces on the tall silver screen could not know her yearnings; they speak to each other, not to Libby Pease. She feels her first passion in the seats beyond the velvet ropes.

———•———

There is a seasonal reverse entropy to the Pease house. Spring feels warmer than the spring of Willipaq really is. Windows and doors are propped open. Libby’s father’s coal stove, when it had heated the winter chimney’s bricks hot enough for a holding heat was, while never any more cool than the summer afternoons in the Pease parlor, cold in summer. After the war the new oil heat eats away at the coal suppliers. Coal becomes expensive and Vern Lightfoot retires from the ice and coal business. Vern’s horse dies. Her father’s concession to modernity is an oil furnace, new thirty years ago. Libby now augments with firewood to hold down costs. Vern Lightfoot’s son delivers.

After the war, the Thin Man movies likewise come to an end, William Powell and Myrna Loy grown old in the service of comedy and crime while Libby is still a girl. For years after the Willipaq Cinema still shows the Thin Man on the first Sunday of the month and Libby comes alone. Libby feels her first yearnings watching William Powell and Myrna Loy. She checks Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books out at the library but finds the prose clipped and arty. The movies are mellow and smooth, just like the Thin Man himself.

Libby recalls her single completed sexual adventure, writhing on Harry Trott’s beige velveteen Plymouth seat covers feeling the funny stubbly tickle of the upholstery material as she wriggles her panties down by rubbing her knees, calves and ankles about, freehandedly undressing, his hands in her blouse, their mouths sucking at each other in a tangle of tongues. Libby volunteers her maidenhead to her escort after an evening of mesmeric craning, her neck stiff with delight. They have seen Rebel Without A Cause. Libby’s soldier lover is posted to Germany where he is killed on maneuvers one afternoon at 2:30, crushed between a tank and a medieval city gate.

Pausing to adjust the embroidery hoop to center Sunbonnet Sue’s face — no, hat, for the charm of the Sunbonnet Sue is that she has no face — Libby wonders if Gilbert Roland, in The Desert Hawk, when the woman was finally in his tent and his burnoose flung to the carpeted sands, mounted his love slave in the scenes they must have filmed but somehow never included in the final film. Sand and sweat, implied and tasted but never projected. Had he mounted her with the same hand-to-hip elegance as he sat his horse? The practiced passing of hands over silk, over flesh and silk. The connoisseur’s hand weighs a tender virgin breast beneath the fabric; an extreme close-up fills the 40-foot high screen, full lips parted wordlessly in passion soon to be consummated. Small gestures magnified, little things mean a lot, a perceptible rising of a single eyebrow says, this is good, you are fine, I will have you now.

He mounts her in full stride, a galloping horse, laughing, his breath smelling of cloves. She surrenders her virgin bloom joyously, and unyielding rises to meet his thrust. He takes her like a walled city falling to a charge of gallant cavalry.

Actually, thinks Libby, it is artillery that takes walled cities, but artillery is so noisy. Sex is noisy, all lubricity and suction, gratification. But passion fulfilled remembers the susurrus of skin to skin to silken sheets and gasping breaths close to the ear. Libby Pease remembers the Plymouth seat covers.

“I have seen slides of great art. I have had a sample of life and read about the rest. I have lived sixty-three years. I have had all the experiences that make a person.”

Libby thinks — The past is rewritten daily by those who were not around at the time, sanitized by the growing feebleness of its surviving participants. Were you there? I was. Libby feels her mind picking up speed as her hands slow.

In the Book of Life, Libby realizes, the answers are not written in the back. She must make them up as she goes along. The past is not subject to change and therefore better organized than the present. She wishes Mister Lightfoot or somebody could be here to uncomplicate things.

———•———

Out of the Willipaq coastal fog a limousine, dark as lampblack, long and polished, pulls to a stop at the Pease house.

Libby’s caller is dressed for an evening at the theater. He is broad shouldered, slim waisted and his tailored jacket has silk lapels. Barbered and manicured, brilliantined and brushed, the man’s hair and hands gleam perfection. A scarf of spotless white silk is carelessly hung from about his throat.

“Hello, Elizabeth.” It is William Powell.

“You must be looking for my brother.” No one important ever calls on her; it must be for Charley. Charley is gone half the year, working on the boats of summer people. Crewing, he calls it. Charles Wyndham Pease knew people who had been places and done things. Libby Pease expects the unusual where Charley is concerned.

“I am Charley’s sister.”

“You are Charley’s sister.” The elegant man bows ever so slightly and holds out his hand, as though it were important to him to make a good first impression. “So happy — no, delighted — to catch you in, Elizabeth. You are all you are and Charley’s sister, too.”

“Yes I am. Elizabeth Pease, that is. And you are William Powell. And you are talking to me. That is rather nice. Won’t you come in?”

“Fabulous. I’d be delighted. It is you I am here to see, Elizabeth.”

On entering Libby’s front hall, the light goes away somewhere. Some is sucked into the floral print wallpaper. Dimmed by crocheted openwork curtains stretched drum tight onto brass rods anchored top and bottom, much more light stays outside on the porch, past the beveled lead glass in the century-old oak front door. The Pease house has the charm of an abandoned depot, lovingly restored.

“Hmmm, rather understated, don’t you think?” William Powell executes a half turn that accentuates his profile. He observes the concentric circles under a fluorescent ceiling ring. “I mean the 40 watt bulbs, the sepulchral darkness and the mustiness of storage? An interesting motif.”

Libby’s hands are never still, always moving to some good purpose. Gelatin dessert — red or green, diced chicken white meat embedded in a ring mold with green grapes and elbows with a whipped cream topping — is a Libby specialty bring-along for covered dish suppers.

Libby and William Powell are now in the kitchen. Libby tends her redwork. The Thin Man sits on the table, a long, thin cigarette between his fingers. He has declined the chicken-macaroni-fruit gelatin ring but looks hopefully at the oven where a scallop casserole is in progress.

Libby’s stitching picks up its pace, red satin thread doing a czardas through the hoop. She remembers all the movies she has ever seen and replays them in her mind, mingling the plots and inserting herself into places foreign and wonderful.

“Do you ever do that, Mister Powell?”

“All the time, Elizabeth, just like in the movies. We call it the dream sequence.” The debonair man is comforting. “Call me Bill.”

Libby pictures herself dressed in the high-waisted corded twill riding pants, the kind that show off a woman’s body while at the same time saying she means business. Jodhpurs, they are called, smelling of horses and desire. Libby dreams a life of danger and intrigue, awaking each dawn languorous and satisfied by the thrusts of a sloe-eyed, brown skinned, courtly lover — not Negro, surely, but foreign, manly and exotic. Arabian, perhaps, or Javanese — a shared cup of hot, sweet, aromatic tea, then off to explore some temple ruins.

A quirky native cab driver, just like in the movies, pulls up as she opens her tent flap for an amble out into the relentless noontime sun. The mezzogiorno the Italians called it, this relentless midday pounding of heat.

“Good guide, Sadiki Bin Amin is me.” A captive macaw screeches from Sadiki’s shoulder. “Nice lady see sights?”

Mezzogiorno. Temple ruins. Libby feels good knowing these things.

The parrot squawks, “Libby Pease, Libby Pease. Libby, please.”

“I should be most happy to,” says Libby. She climbs into the desert taxi. “Show me the sights.”

Open-throated silk shirt and a small automatic pistol in the glossy patent leather holster worn high up, she enters the whitewashed mud brick arches of the native quarter. In The Street of the Ostrich Plume Dyers a tall hooded figure who smells of cloves speaks to her.

“Hi, Lib. It’s me, Harry.” The cowl was brushed back with a careless gesture. The speaker is handsome, swarthy and the age Harry had been when he eloped alone to join the Army in Germany.

“Harry Trott, I had hoped you might be dead.”

“Tell me you still love me.”

“You look a lot better than I remembered. But I have a gentleman caller. You’ll have to go.”

“Stay with me. Surrender to me. Forget William Powell.”

“The Thin Man is a gentleman who appreciates a well-turned macaroni salad,” says Libby.

“Is he frisky with the waitress?” The stranger is amused.

“Harry? You ran off, and here you are finding fault with William Powell’s manners. And besides I haven’t asked him to stay for dinner yet.” Libby studies the handsome foreign features.

“I was stationed in Germany,” says Harry Trott. “I was killed. Would you have felt better if I had ‘run off’ with another woman?”

“You ran away. From me. That hurt me more than another woman. William Powell will do just fine.”

“So he will.” The odor of cloves grows close and intimate.

Libby Pease has been gradually leaning ever more forward. She catches herself up with the small snap of the daytime drowser. “I have been asleep. Harry was a dream,” thinks Libby Pease.

William Powell is speaking. “Libby dear, I believe you will find you have given Sunbonnet Sue a face. Sue does not have a face; she has a hat — the apotheosis of the low-maintenance debutante. You have surpassed the instructions in that magazine you have lying open on the table.”

He flips the page back to where Libby has marked her place with a paper clip.

“Sorry about reading ahead,” says The Thin Man. “I wanted to find out if Overall Bill and Sunbonnet Sue ever get together. I have an affinity for Bill — same name and all. I know all this sounds bizarre, but just look at the movies.”

“Try me out. You may be surprised by what I can accommodate.”

“All possibilities exist at the same time and all are equally real. Would you rather discuss quantum physics? Or wallow in your clove-scented nod-offs? Sorry, that was rude. Try the nine-patch again. Give it a chance. God, I miss Myrna Loy!”

“I thought she was only your wife in the movies.”

“She is a beautiful woman and I therefore miss her. Fix the quilt. The pattern you desire is there, you just don’t see it yet. Is that a scallop casserole?” The Thin Man sniffs, registers rapture and rises to check the oven.

“If Myrna Loy is thinking of you, you are bound to link up,” says Libby reassuringly. “Eventually.” Her needle is flashing again. Red embroidery thread bounces from its skein. Places too distant and glamorous to be visited by her in life dance behind the screen in a darkened movie theater.

The Thin Man delicately digs a little finger into his ear.

“When you have an itch it means someone is thinking of you.” Libby has heard this. “Myrna Loy, I mean. You will see her soon.”

“If somebody bites you on the ass it means they are thinking of you, too, dear Libby. Eventually the Earth will fall into the sun,” says The Thin Man.

“Forgive me for the greeting card sentiment; I was just trying to cheer you up.” Libby yawns. “Almost nap time. I have seen enough of life and art from my parlor window. I have been in love and made love. I would be happy to have you here if you cannot get back together with your wife. I realize you are not the usual thing in a middle-aged lady’s companion. You are different. It would have been ill bred to mention it.”

“Fix the nine-patch, Libby. Promise?”

“Well…”

“The Singer Featherweight can do it.” William Powell knows his classic sewing machines as well as his martinis.

“I will. I promise.” After all, William Powell had cared enough to spend an afternoon away from Myrna Loy. Libby packs the hoop with its redwork into her workbasket and curls up on the window seat. The cat jumps up beside her.

“Perhaps I am an old lady and not middle-aged after all. Excuse me for half an hour.” Something missing from her reverie slips from her mind at the moment of realization, that mote so irregularly shaped that without it being in place, she would lose her whole life. “The pixie and his pea? No, it is something else,” says Libby.

Hoagy Carmichael sings Old Buttermilk Sky from the parlor radio as Vern Lightfoot’s horse pauses unbidden at the Pease house. Libby catches a waft of heady horse smell with a touch of cloves.

“Pixies? Peas? Libby, dear, we were speaking of dreams and desire, I believe,” says the Thin Man.

“Ooh! There it is,” Libby exclaims.

More momentous than the itchy, salty butter-slathered hulls the popcorn left between her father’s teeth, the Thin Man or Harry Trott, her lost lover died too young, Libby has recovered that grain of sand without which the whole puzzle of her life is meaningless.

“Buttermilk — that was the name of Mr. Lightfoot’s horse.” She pulls an afghan up to her chin.

“Sweet dreams, Libby, dreams of horses and desire,” says William Powell, the Thin Man. “My God, how I miss Myrna Loy.”



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