The Walrus


Yolanda walked unsteadily down Madison Avenue, watching her red, kid-leather boots with golden buckles plow through thick snow. Ken called them her fancy-pants boots. Her feet were soaked through and so cold she could hardly feel them. There was something she was trying to remember. What was it? A smell of some kind. She might have walked this way earlier. The snow had been whiter the first time, she was pretty sure, though not totally sure. Now it was mostly smashed down and dirty and wet. A cab shot in front of her—toast! That was it: the smell of burnt toast. Getting a fix on that forgotten smell was one tiny thing she could hold in place on this out-of-place Christmas Eve Day.

She watched with mild surprise as her waterlogged boots veered to the right, then headed rapidly down a side street. She’d known Ken’s toast was going to burn when she put it in the toaster and stomped out of the apartment. They had one of those toasters from the twenties, the kind where you have to open the shiny tin door, let the toast flip over by itself, and then you have to lift and hook the little door again to get the other side of the bread done. There was no popping up on that toaster. The bread would go up in flames if Ken didn’t get up to turn it. She’d put a slice in anyway, then went to the corner store to get milk so the burning smell would force him to get up. She hated Ken when he was depressed. Dull blue eyes and empty face—a car honked and skidded to a stop a few inches away from her. She hurried across the intersection. The driver gave her the finger. Now she couldn’t get the smell of burnt toast out of her nose.

When they’d met at the dancers’ party five years ago, Ken couldn’t stop talking about her hair. “Like golden waves of grain,” he said with a silly grin. He’d just arrived from Iowa, and his hillbilly smile and corny clichés held such an innocent intensity, her toes tingled when he talked to her. At first she thought it was the dance reviews that made her fall for a hick like that. Maybe she was just light-headed from all the praise. The Times said she was one of the most versatile modern dancers in New York City. Cornboy Ken was a furniture-maker, a carpenter who shared a flat with three men, one of them a dancer in her company who’d invited both of his roommates to the opening party. Ken was so new to Manhattan, he stuck out like corn-on-the-cob at a sushi bar.

Around dawn they ditched the party and went out for coffee. She managed to keep her feelings under control for nearly an hour, but when Ken stared at her with those cornflower-blue eyes and those freckles and that short, bright-red hair and a sunshine-over-Oklahoma smile, she pushed aside the plates of pancakes and crawled like a monkey on top of the table to get to his lips. It wasn’t an easy thing to do since she was wearing the long, loose-knit ragamuffin dress of multicolored yarn that had cost her mother $2,000. It came down to one inch lower than her crotch, and her black wool stockings came up three inches short of the dress. It was her favorite outfit. She sat square in his lap, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him. Then she placed one of his hands on each of her buttocks and said,“You’re so corny, country boy. I remind you of wheat? So make me into bread, honey: knead me.”

The waitress whizzed by with plates piled high, glanced at them, and beamed. Ken went perfectly pink, his ears nearly purple. He swiftly took his hands off her and glanced at all the people in the coffee shop—who weren’t even looking, of course. She kissed his nose and went for his lips, but he nearly dumped her on the floor, he slid out from under her so fast. She had to lead him by the hand back to her apartment, he was so flustered. “That’s a PDOA,” she coolly informed him. “Public Display of Affection. No one really notices anything in New York. We’re all on our cell phones.”

The following afternoon, over one dry piece of toast—all she allowed herself before rehearsal—she said, “Talk about golden waves of grain! Last night you made me into a sea to shining sea. Talk about a corn on the cob!”

“I’m your purple mountain majesty,” he said. He tried to smile at his own joke but swallowed awkwardly, choked on his toast, and turned a perfect pink all over again. When he stopped sputtering, he said, “Will you marry me, Yolanda?”

What? she yelled in her head. Maybe he was hungry and confused. She got that way a lot. She wanted to feed him something besides toast, but all she had in the apartment was yogurt and bread. She liked her cupboards empty. It reminded her of how serious she was about dance. He was still beaming at her. Oh no! He really thinks he’s serious. She tried to be polite and looked away. It’s obviously ridiculous to propose after one night…maybe that’s what people do in Iowa. On the other hand, it’s the first proposal I’ve ever gotten in my life—he couldn’t possibly be serious—I am, after all, twenty-nine. Why am I thinking about my age? She stared at his wide-open, innocent face. Oh my God! He’s serious!

She firmly stood up from the table—her legs gave out. She sat down suddenly on the linoleum floor and arranged herself into an attractive position as if she’d planned it. How am I going to dance if I keep on having orgasms like this? I had three full-body orgasms with this man. She was suddenly so hungry she thought she was going to faint. But she didn’t get yogurt until the two-hour break. Her diet was an exact science. Today was fourth level ballet for modern dancers, and no one wanted to have anything in their stomach during fourth level ballet. Especially not me. After those reviews everybody in the company will be looking at me. Just as she realized she was still sitting on the floor, he got up from the table, bent down, and picked her up like a calf—three, then four, then five feet off the floor—and wrapped her body around his head like a scarf. This was the kind of strength you wanted in a male dancer. She was about to ask him to come to rehearsal when a wild and improbable Yes! to his marriage proposal surged out of her heart like a tsunami.

“Let me down,” she said sternly. “I must leave for rehearsal immediately.”

Yolanda’s days were spent at yoga, Pilates, rehearsal, being a waitress, and being the star of the show, but somehow she and Ken managed to see each other nearly every day for three months. Whenever they got together, he’d find a different way to say how she was the partner he’d always dreamed of when he was driving the combine in Iowa, harvesting the wheat as honey-blonde as her hair.

“I’m going to shave my head, corn pone, then we’ll see how much you like me.”

“I will keep the hair you cut off. I’ll make it into juggling balls so I can do to it what it does to my heart—all tossed up in the air.”

That’s when she agreed to live with him. She had no roommates, so he moved in with her. Good food started appearing in her bare cupboards. It turned out he liked to cook. It felt like a violation of her integrity when he’d say, “Just a little taste,” and come toward her with a spoonful. That little taste would come loaded so high with love, it was tantamount to surrendering her entire self just to open her mouth. But he didn’t seem to mind it when she refused. He ate comfortably in front of her, not noticing how tortured she was by the smells of food and the sight of him eating. After a few months went by, she started eating a little, now and then. But it was the first anniversary of their meeting before she went all the way and regularly ate a small portion of his food. It felt a lot more serious than sex, eating his food. That night, on her insistence, after another successful opening night and all-night party, she dragged him out to a 24-hour deli and ate an ice cream cone for the first time in eight years. As she licked a taste of heaven, she realized her love for him was just as strong and deep as his was for her. She turned to him and said, “Yes, Ken, I will marry you.” He radiated a joy so incandescent, she nearly vomited her mint-chocolate-chip ice cream. It was the first time in her life that she had done what anyone else had wanted her to do.

Her mother was absolutely furious to meet a blushing, blue-eyed, high-school graduate from Iowa or Ohio or Idaho—or wherever—who could only be a carpenter for a living, especially considering Yolanda’s master’s thesis in dance and the class of people her daughter belonged with. Her mother sneered at the laughable amount he called his wages, but then she’d also sneered at Yolanda when she’d refused to use her trust fund so she could wait tables like all the other dancers. She knew Ken was only after her daughter’s money, but she also knew better than to tell Yolanda that. For her part Yolanda knew she had to give her wedding to her mother or face the wrath of a scorned goddess for the rest of her life. Yolanda spent most of the reception apologizing to her friends for her mother’s egregious display of wealth.

She plowed on through the dirty slush. The wedding felt so long ago. His first depression took both of them completely by surprise. A few months after they were married, Ken sort of fell down the stairs for six months. He couldn’t even work. For months he claimed this sort of thing didn’t happen in Iowa. She stopped and looked around. She was somewhere near Wall Street by the look of things. They put Ken on a variety of medications but nothing seemed to work. This winter’s depression was the worst so far. He hadn’t touched her hair in a very long time, and except for the last surprise! it was three or four months since they’d had sex. He said he couldn’t cope with the double-condom thing anymore so why bother fucking? He never said that word. When he did, it wounded her.

Her legs and feet ached from weariness, which confused her. She was the dancer who could come off the stage after two hours on top of the world and then party all night without a flicker of pain. She couldn’t feel her toes. Either it was getting dark or she was going to faint. No, this is dark. Fainting is faster. That meant she’d been walking since she came home with the milk to the burnt toast smell. About ten hours, she thought, surprised. Where have I been?

She was staring at a coffee shop. She jerked her eyes away. The thought of food made her want to throw up. She blinked a few times, looked around. The streets shimmered and moved on the edges of her vision as if shifting out of a dream—she looked up. She was standing right in front of Lily’s building! How did I get here? Oh, I have to tell Lily about the smell! She rang the buzzer a few times, then found her cell phone.

“Please leave a message after a series of beeps,” said Lily’s deadpan, Wall-Street-broker voice. She tried to remember why they’d laughed about that, the “series of beeps.” Then thirteen beeps went off in her ear, one after the other, and she nearly forgot what she wanted to say. “Lily, this is Yolanda,” she began. Her voice sounded wheedling so she hurried on, trying to sound robust. “It’s about the toast. I shouldn’t have gone out to get the milk. I thought it would serve him right or wake him up, you know? He wasn’t even—”

Beep! Click! Lily didn’t like long messages.

She stood in the snow, holding the phone. After a while she noticed her hand hurt from the cold. Her mother always said she was too dumb to wear gloves. Yolanda put away the phone and groped in her coat pockets. Gloves and boots and hats wandered away from her like cats. She found a thin leather glove, black and expensive. She put it on and examined it. It fits like a glove! She nearly laughed. That was one of Ken’s stupid jokes. She took off the glove and tossed it on the sidewalk, then tried Lily again. There was only the series of beeps.

She teetered over to the brick wall and leaned on it, then slowly slumped down to the sidewalk. She couldn’t stand up anymore. Snow seeped, cold and wet, into her bottom. Suddenly she was terrified someone might shove money at her and yell, “Merry Christmas!” If Ken were here, he’d plop right down in the snow next to her and loudly ask people for money. He’d make her laugh. He always could. Well, when he wasn’t being depressed about not being pregnant. It was outrageous how babies were practically all he could talk about when he was—now there’s that smell again, she thought, marveling at its persistence.

She was cold and getting colder. She remembered, in the beginning, how she always felt she gave him nothing, but when she’d tell him that, he’d stop what he was doing, pull her into his lap, and patiently list all the things she gave him. It was a different list every time, except her honey-blond hair was always at the top of the list. She’d start kissing him long before he reached the end of his list, and the kissing would lead to other things. She realized she was holding one hand closely in front of her nose to keep out the burnt-toast smell. She quickly moved her hand away, then checked to see if people were watching her for signs of insanity. Pedestrians trudged past her, doing the New York City cell phone walk, eyes on the sidewalk. She was invisible.

She held up her hands and looked through her ice-cold fingers at Lily’s second-floor window. Long skinnies, Ken called her fingers. Skin so thin the blue veins showed through. Five years is a long time for someone to love these unlovable fingers. Her butt was losing feeling. She abruptly stood up and got dizzy. I have to go. I have to leave. Anywhere. Away. Away-away. Iowa! That’s it. I have to go to Iowa! With a rush of determination, she oriented herself: first the subway, then the bus station. She blinked away the sudden tears, then looked at her boots in order to force her frozen feet to move.

“Yolanda! What are you doing here?” Lily was right in front of her, so close their noses were almost touching. In the dimness of early evening, Lily’s bright red-orange hair splayed around her white, freckled face like crooked medieval lightning. Yolanda couldn’t speak. “Are you okay? I haven’t seen you in months. Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal now?…Oh boy, that bad, huh? Listen, I have to go get bread right now, but I’ll let you in and you can wait for me.”

Numbly Yolanda let herself be led across the street and up the stairs. She waited patiently while Lily undid the three locks on the door, then let her in. She huddled, feeling even colder now that she was in a warm place. Lily shut the door, then took her by the shoulders.

“All right,” she said gently, “the first thing is boots off.” Yolanda haltingly obeyed. “That’s right, now the coat. Okay, go make yourself some tea. You know where everything is. I’ll be right back.”

The door clicked loudly shut. Yolanda stood in the small living room and shivered. The couch had a blanket. With freezing fingers she got it around her shoulders, then curled up at one end of the couch and looked out the second-story window. Gloom thickened outside like soup. For some reason it reminded her of why she’d dropped out of medical school. It was so rude to treat a corpse that way, by dissecting it. Her first piece as a dancer-choreographer had been a duet of a cadaver coming to life to fight the scalpel, then dying again, un-cut. Her second piece was about dropping out of med school. It called for eight dancers in those naked-back smocks, eight in lab coats, and eight I.V. trolleys. It was a smash hit.

Suddenly she was horribly cold. Her long-fingered hand, clutching the blanket, looked like a claw. The dimness in the unlit living room flickered, then grew round and empty. All the buildings she could see outside looked abandoned. After a while she became aware of Lily standing in front of the couch, holding two steaming cups. She put the cups down on the coffee table, then shut the heavy, gray drapes with a brisk swish.

“Yolanda. Sit up. Talk.”

Sitting up was like moving through peanut butter. When she was finally vertical, she picked up the cup of tea and looked through the tendrils of steam at Lily. The heat of the cup loved her long, cold fingers. No man ever would again. Lily’s bright-green leg warmers, hanging over the other chair, stretched out toward her like empty legs. She’d met Lily at a dance workshop when she was still in med school and Lily was getting her MBA. They’d been fast friends ever since.

“It’s about Ken, isn’t it?”

Yolanda startled and carefully balanced her cup on her knees. Lily’s words were unbearably loud and fast.

“He always wanted to have a baby,” she answered carefully.

“I know. You told me. More than once.”

“Ever since he was little. He said he needed to be a father in order to survive as a person. Remember? You called it womb envy.”

“Yol, did he leave you?”

“Sometimes I’d catch him looking at my belly when he thought I didn’t know he was looking, with such a glow on his face I knew he was imagining it round and full. He used to stroke it round and round when I was asleep, but his energy always woke me up. Finally I said I’d sleep on the couch if he ever did that again, and he never did. And the way he’d look at babies or pregnant women on the street…you know, they still say I’m the most versatile modern dancer in the world—I mean, the city—oops.” Her voice trailed off. She felt old, too old.

“Where is Ken now?”

“It’s an antique toaster, you have to watch it. I thought the burning smell would get him out of bed, that’s all. And it’s true I was mad at him for being depressed! It’s been months, again! And mad at him about the baby thing. We never talk about it anymore but it’s always there. I was going to tell him, though. Really. Really I was.”

“Tell him what?”

“We didn’t really need milk this morning, like I said we did. I only went out in the first place because I hadn’t decided for sure if I’d keep it! I only found out in the middle of the night, for crying out loud, it’s not like I was stalling!”

Lily’s blue eyes went big.

“Those stupid little one-stop-shopping tests. One drop of pee, wait ten minutes, and then they turn blue. Or pink. Whatever. I was up half the night. I couldn’t believe it. The one time I let him use only one condom, just to get him not depressed, it has to go and break! I couldn’t even yell at him! He was sound asleep. I could smell it, Lily, I could. It was him coming out of me. So two weeks later I’m late, and it’s the first thing I think of. I had to keep trying to make it not come out blue. Or pink. Whatever! I tried drinking a lot of water to make it come out right! And I mean a lot of water!” She stopped, exhausted from her speech.

“Are you going to keep it? What did he say?”

“He…won’t be—I mean, he…wouldn’t have been—”

“—wouldn’t have been what?”

“God, now I can’t get that smell out of my nose. I have to go to Iowa. I have to go away away.”

“Yol, you’re driving me nuts!”

“The smell was all through the apartment when I got back with the…”


“No, the baby, I’d decided to—Oh my God! I left the milk out!” She leapt to her feet and started for the door, then stopped, so dizzy she could hardly stand up.

“Yolanda, where’s Ken?” Lily’s voice was heavy with concern.

Yolanda slowly turned around, dazed. “Your drapes are really walrus-colored, you know? They’re not just gray, are they?”

“They’re pumice-colored, and velour, so they look like sealskin. But they’re just cloth, Yolanda. Now come sit down on the couch, and I’ll get you some yogurt.”

“But the walrus—what did the walrus say?”

“Yolanda. Go slow now. Come back here. Sit down.”

She swayed on her feet as she turned around, but she made it back to the couch. She sat down and forgot who she was. Lily waited patiently.

“Lily. I have to tell you. Where he is. Ken. Where Ken is. Ken’s in the bathtub, he’s looking up at the sky. No, silly Lily, there’s no sky in the bathroom, there’s not even a window. I mean his eyes are open too wide, too too wide, so blue and so so wide. He’s looking straight up at the sky that isn’t there…Lily…Ken was the kindness in my life…and when I got back with the milk and his baby, the bathtub was full of that awful red because I was mad at him about the…you see, but he filled it all the way up with water first…drowning…and the butcher knife—he stopped cooking months ago, you know—but about the—Lily, what’s the part about the walrus? I mean, how does it go? You know? What did the walrus say? What did the walrus say?” Suddenly she had to know. It was unbearable, not knowing what the walrus had said.

“Oh, Yolanda,” Lily said, tears falling down her face. “Come on now, you lie down here and cover up, I’ll take care of everything.”

“But, Lily, I can’t—Ken. He—he—he—”

“Yolanda. Rest now. I’ll take care of everything.”

“I remember it now,” she said suddenly. She spoke slowly as if in a dream, her lips thick with sorrow. “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘To talk of many things: /Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—/Of cabbages— and kings—/And why the sea is boiling hot—/And whether pigs have wings.’”*


Photography Credit: Jason Rice


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Daniel John’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Amherst Review, The Comstock Review, Drumvoices Review, Mindprints, North Dakota Quarterly, The Owen Wister Review, Phantasmagoria, Rio Grande Review, Soundings East, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Thin Air, and Valdosta State University Voice, among others. His essay “Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes” won third place in the 2001 Campbell Corner Essay Competition. He was also a finalist in the Hunger Mountain Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and the Comstock Review Annual Poetry Contest. By trade, he is a garden and landscape designer, but he can also be described as a dancer, massage therapist, writer, actor, and playwright. [/author_info] [/author]



* Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,”Through the Looking Glass, Dec. 1871.