The Idea of Permanence
Katherine Holmes

Somewhere between her car parked on West Bank and the studio arts building, Maureen’s blood seemed to pause and then maunder in its pathways. At her Honda Civic, she put her new Minolta camera and her film case in the back seat. Then she backtracked, walking under a twelve-story building towards the flat-topped one-story where she had been developing film. But then she paused again, looking back and beyond the vulgarly colored vehicles and then across the Mississippi that reflected the downtown ledges in a cold metallic mist. Maureen looked hard for the hunched old building where she had worked that day and then she turned towards the building where she could pick up an MFA application and where a man named Hank was still developing film.

Five or six more cars towards the studio arts building, Maureen remembered that she had forgotten to lock her car door. She about-faced, thinking that she should simply get into her car and drive to her duplex in St. Paul. Still she dawdled, delving for the keys in her shoulder bag. She was locking her car door and slinking along the row of cars again, drawn to something she feared. Disliking its vagueness, she decided that the fear was due to a Minneapolis vandal possibly seeing the photography equipment in the back seat of her car. She paced back, put her Minolta under the front seat of her car, locked up the car again, and then she glanced at the many windows above her where students of social science or philosophy might be observing her behavior.

Maureen felt like a two-dimensional metal carnival silhouette that turns abruptly every time a shot goes off, a target without volition.

* * *

Once inside the studio arts building, Maureen went straight to the bathroom. She looked at her dilated eyes, feeling like a mass of particles that had become unfixed from their usual aggregations around water. In the darkroom was a tub of water where she had contemplated approaching a man in the semi-darkness, something she had not thought of doing until recent years. After a hallway and two doors, she would stop thinking about a man who was not an artist. He was hovering under the hood of a photo enlarger and he would be happy to show her the lens he used when he took photographs with a microscope. He had already explained that he was getting a Ph.D. and that he worked part-time at the DNR. His brown hair was as rough as tree bark and his smile was boyish when he said goodbye.

“I just wanted to know. About the lens you used,” Maureen began.

This was easier than thinking about leaving her job at Schilling Publishing. Maureen was another person here, a woman who wore crocheted headbands and splashy scarves that held her hair up.

She admired the cellular design of orange cup fungi. The boyish smile didn’t have much zoom action and it had already encouraged her to tell about working in an office with photographs of good children.

“I’ve got a catalog at home. Would you like to go out to lunch sometime?”

This was not what she had vaguely feared, Maureen realized.

“How about East Bank on Saturday? The place with the ranch French toast lunches?” Hank said, as if he planned for this.

* * *

Months later, Maureen feels like the metal profile making about-faces as she walks along the aisle between desk quads at Schilling Publishing.

Once a week, her managing editor Inez asks her, “Where are you going with Hank this weekend?”

Every Friday, Maureen reports that the trustworthy and possibly brilliant student, as good a catch as a woman should expect, is taking her to an event where the program isn’t known because it is a runner-up on the weekend roster. On Monday, she will tell what she heard or saw. But she hasn’t told her co-workers about the unaccountable sense of sadness she has, smoking a cigarette and waiting for Hank to pick her up. Hank calls every Wednesday night, as regularly as Maureen had choir practice for the Sunday Lutheran church service when she was a little girl. Just as regularly and while Maureen’s parents were separating, her mother would put her cheek near her father’s as she put his dinner plate on the table. The year before her father moved to his apartment, he usually turned away.

* * *

“Do you like classical European songs?” Maureen asked Hank after she sat down at a concert.

“I don’t know. But they said there was a song about a trout in the music." Hank laughed. “I just wanted to relax.”

Another weekend, after attending an exhibit of robotic assistants at the Science Museum and being jostled by spontaneous juveniles, Hank dutifully walked Maureen to a watercolor exhibit in a nearby St. Paul building.

“I like this one,” Hank said, standing in front of one picture.


“I don’t know."

Either Hank's easiness made Maureen irritable or she didn’t like the watercolor for a multitude of reasons. She decided to keep her awful discovery, that Hank had no aesthetic sensibility whatsoever, to herself. Instead she visualized two photographs.

Blue ribbon: Maureen seems to be reclining in an almond, her feet stretching from a lady’s swimsuit and resting on the thigh of a man completely dressed in a shirt and jeans. The almond-shaped boat seesaws in the sun that spreads like the segments of a grapefruit. She and the man are holding wine glasses serenely, drinking the atmosphere.

Runner-up: Hank is hunkered over a slippery piece of spare ribs that has already made a mark on a picnic cloth. Opposite him are two people toasting with large plastic glasses above a jug of Gatorade. Maureen is in a nocturnal mist, troubled and rejecting the attentions of either mosquitoes or gnats. Out on the lake are limbs waving in the last gleams of dusk, limbs that seem to be a large mosquito’s because they are extending from a shadowy paddleboat.

* * *

One Friday, Maureen says to Inez, “I can’t see Hank this weekend. I have to start looking for an apartment.”

Inez looks as concerned as if Maureen will go out to her car and find her photography equipment missing from the back seat.

“Did Hank have plans for this weekend?” she pries, as if Hank is a set of page proofs that is behind schedule.

“Hank suggested a discotheque.” She has said this so loudly that the new editorial assistant in their desk quad, Jim, is sure to hear her. Jim is planning his wedding as long as the word “obey” is maintained in the vows. He is proud of bringing the basics back to a wedding.

Inez ponders the discotheque and then Maureen says, “I can’t afford my duplex on this salary after my roommate gets married. I don’t see why I have to go to a discotheque.”

Jim has found this conversation so disturbing that he is looking up from his work.

“I went from one food booth to another at ValleyFair and then Hank wanted to go on a rocket ride,” Maureen has decided to complain. “What if men don’t know how uncomfortable it is for women to obey sometimes?”

“I don’t think that the word obey in the wedding vows pertains to situations like that,” Jim has to counter.

“Eve didn’t have to obey Adam in the Garden of Eden,” Maureen states stubbornly, having opened up her Bible since Jim started this debate.

“Most people don’t live in a garden where God is walking around.” Jim is watching Inez retreat. She does this diffidently, as if to demonstrate how she retreated from her original marriage.

“That has to do with a person’s idea of God,” Maureen counters and then she says loud enough for Inez to hear as she makes her getaway, “Didn’t the standard marriage vows make the fallen world the ideal?”

* * *

Maureen still stands up to Jim because the problem is that she is not falling. She has actually tried to fall in love with Hank. But at the end of a night, Hank embraces her like a person who is trying on clothing that doesn’t fit or that isn’t flattering. When Maureen looks at Hank’s hands, she is perplexed. When she wants to fall for him, something in her pauses, perplexed.

It’s like knowing that if she went to the discotheque with Hank and they didn’t catch the beat or the strobe lights, it would be a relief to leave. When Hank suggests an excursion to North Dakota, what he hopes will turn into a hunt for a rumored albino wild turkey, Maureen says she needs to practice photographing Hank. Somehow the wild turkey hunting season passes. Perhaps if she creates a hiatus and has photographs of Hank, he would become familiar and then she will fall into his arms.

“Someone is claiming that there is an albino turkey near a certain farm. Other people think it’s a domesticated turkey or a mix,” Hank was saying.

Hank stands at the open back door of his car, wearing a t-shirt over tennis shorts and hiking boots. His hair gleams as if he has been in rain but the car hood is dusty. His legs are large and rounded like the fender from the last decade; the car across the street is newer and sleeker. Hank looks outdated and tidy, especially since the back seat of his car looks like underbrush that has endured a storm. Notebooks are strewn with bent paper cups, a duck decoy, notebooks, windbreaker strings, a box of cartridges carelessly perched near a magazine with Jimmy Carter on the cover.

* * *

Maureen’s father drank and divorced but his car was always vacuumed so that there was no evidence of dissolution. Roland Werff, her high school steady, kept a car as spare of extraneous objects as if it was a tractor. The other metropolitan men that Maureen dated could accommodate passengers in going-out clothing. And now, every time that Maureen gets into Hank’s car and looks at the back seat, she feels a disappointment akin to fear. Another woman might be thrilled at the prospect of putting Hank’s back seat in order.

The morning after a night with Hank, Maureen’s roommate, Kendra, casually asks, “How long did Hank stay?”

By this time, Maureen is looking for something wrong with Hank.

“He stayed through Mr. Bill on Saturday Night.”

Kendra had once witnessed how Hank laughed uncontrollably at the clay man being manipulated by the sadist hands. And now, Maureen has found out what is wrong with Hank. Hank’s friend from childhood was diagnosed as manic-depressive. When Maureen excused herself from another excursion into the woods, Hank told her how Duane had acted badly the last time they went duck hunting. He locked himself in a cabin with a gun and refused to leave the woods. Someone had called the sheriff because Duane was making wild statements about the land, threatening to move to Montana.

Maureen lies awake nights blaming Hank for her relapse into insomnia. At three o’clock one night, Maureen knows that she wants to stay in her duplex and that she wants to set up a darkroom there. She thinks a darkroom would solve her insomnia.

“There’s certainly free love in the animal world,” Hank says when Maureen tells him that her sister lives with a man in the San Francisco area. “But that’s what makes animals such easy prey. The irresponsibility of the male towards its young and the multiplicity of partners. The male competes with the family for food.”

Hank has never thought about living with a woman.

Maureen decides to have a party in honor of Kendra leaving the duplex for a house in the suburbs. For Maureen, the party is a disaster since she is looking for someone to share the duplex with her, someone who is not female. A typical Twin Cities party, people stand around holding tumblers of beer as if they are cocktails and they eat hors d’oeuvres as if they are potato chips. Roland Werff has managed to be in town and to arrive with Maureen’s hometown friends. And as Maureen promised to do someday, she has called a Minneapolis man she dated, Milt Blaisdell. Milt’s arrival is announced by too many people because they know who his father is, Dr. Mort Blaisdell from the Confound the Doctor program. Milt is annoyed, introduces his brother Mick, and then he becomes engrossed in talking with the only person who doesn’t seem to think that he has met Milt’s father.

“Have you ever been out to Montana?” Duane asks Milt, having broken the ice with everyone this way. Duane has started his own party game. Magazines are strewn on the coffee table and he challenges Milt Blaisdell to find in the photographs the little pictures that are hidden for subliminal persuasion. He says that slick propaganda and camera tricks are affecting the minds of America.

Having been warned about Duane, Kendra pulls every cat out of her California wedding bag. Her dress can be viewed in her bedroom and she has her cineraria flower arrangement near the cheese ball and the wine. The officiating priest is present in a stand-up photograph near the candles. Presents can be left on her bed and coats are going on Maureen’s.

Hank stands around like a human floor lamp, keeping Duane in observation. But then he tells Roland’s friend Cal about the albino turkey that was sited in North Dakota.

“No! They’re domestic!” Cal and Roland both protest. After they find out that Hank grew up in a suburb and tell him that they grew up in a town that processed turkey, Roland’s eyes, prominent because they can be seen above most party-goers, become unpleasantly glaring.

Maureen ducks around him as he gets another beer. She hears her women friends saying, “Hank seems like such a good man.”

“I don’t feel badly about leaving Maureen alone,” Kendra is saying.

Kendra is not pleased when Maureen is left alone with Roland at the end of the night. His arm is comfortably around her on the couch while Cal snoozes in a chair.

“Who’s Hank?” Roland says.

All Maureen can really say is that Hank is a friend. By now, Roland has become a first love twice-removed, an old friend now.

* * *

Maureen confronts her bed and her future alone, feeling that she is looking at an undeveloped roll of film and knowing how a woman can add subliminal persuasions to facts. Her stomach feels like a white emptiness. She puts a pillow on it, hoping to sleep, and admits that she couldn’t have a baby with anyone at the party. When she looks at the wall, she sees the flat profile of the carnival target that she can count on going across to the other side and abruptly turning around to march back again.

She must have fallen asleep for a minute. Someone gave her a large vase to hold. She could see crazing around the rim and small cracks on its sides. “Don’t drop it!” someone says. Maureen has laughed herself awake, looking at the vase again and seeing stretch marks obtained between 2:15 a.m. and 2:35 a.m.

The next night, Maureen is out west somewhere, probably Montana, and going too far with her camera, she is falling into a blackness for all the minutes between 1:35 and 1:55. When she wakes, she is terrified of falling out of her bed. She puts pillows and a throw blanket on the floor and tries to sleep there.

The lens is like an eye without another eye, a wink, a pirate eye, a person without a partner. The more Maureen thinks about it, the more she feels unbalanced and needful of the common cure. If Maureen just keeps going out with Hank, she should be able to marry him because Hank has such a righteous conscience. But Maureen can’t imagine being part of Hank. If she has children, she can’t imagine that they would be hers. Hank’s children will admire him. She will dutifully take care of Hank’s family. Since she is attractive enough, people won’t know that her relationship with Hank is really adulterous. She might be tempted to have an affair that she thinks is real marriage, an affair that would ruin her sleep. Then Hank might call someone, what he did with his manic-depressive friend. She will find herself in the fallen world, a bad woman married to a friend.

* * *

Sorrow is two o’clock when it is not two-thirty at Schilling Publishing. Maureen knows that she has no right to this sorrow. One day, Donald Dimester finds Maureen in the break room when it is only 1:45 p.m. She is reading a newspaper and drinking coffee as if she is an editorial director like Donald. Besides that, she has been persuading people to eat lunch with her at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune cafeteria. Twice in the last month, Maureen has returned late from lunch.

“I wanted to look at a photograph in the newspaper,” Maureen says lamely.

A child is living in a frost-white tent. The tent is in her bedroom for medical reasons, not because the child is in a tropical country. The child’s parents wave at their child through the tent where pure air is piped in. The tent is spacious, allowing the child to walk about her room and even through a large tubular area into the hallway. The child seems to be preparing for space travel.

“It’s because of a newly discovered disease.”

“Medical science. A wonderful thing,” Donald Dimester comments.

Maureen had wanted to deplore the tent and to feel sorrowful for the child. But she has strayed out of her walking perimeters at Schilling Publishing. She also suspects that the newspaper wants to convey another message.

For the next day or so, Maureen should emulate the behavior of the model employee in her department. Even though Maureen might be promoted to assistant editor in the next year, she has made jokes about the model employee who sits near a wall approximately thrity-five feet from Maureen. The model employee doesn’t seem to mind not having an office of her own. In her corner, she can dig into her manuscripts inconspicuously. The only person who approaches her casually is Donald Dimester and then he does this politely, saying, “Can you be disturbed?” Usually, he stands above a screen and raps loudly on the wood ledge if a person doesn’t feel his presence.

The model employee is not unattractive but she is as sensible as her Earth Shoes. At break time, she walks on her Earth Shoes for ten minutes and returns to her desk with a few minutes to spare. If she isn’t a saint already, she has an aura of urgency which reminds her colleagues that she worked overseas in the Peace Corps nine years ago.

“One of these days, that woman is going to stand up and scream,” Maureen projects. “How boring was her life when she was in the Peace Corps?”

Maureen’s cronies look around the hallway where the model employee might be walking quietly on her Earth Shoes. They are returning from the break room with Donald Dimester at their heels.

“She’s already at her desk,” Maureen assures them. “But how many years can she live this way? I’ll bet she even has legs.”

No one can say that they have seen the model employee’s legs. She wears pants suits, ten different ones to be exact, alternated in a two week period.

“She’s wearing her safari style pants suit today. What if they are actually a Yves St. Laurent design?”

The pants Maureen wears are usually a new style worn with India cotton blouses or crocheted vests that she made some time ago.

“Do you think she would scream if someone tried to look at the label on her jacket?” Maureen says.

“Maybe if you asked her,” Aggie suggests.

Still, no one has ever talked to the model employee about her clothing.

“I wonder if Schilling Publishing has a photograph in its files that could make her scream,” Maureen muses.

Donald walks ahead now, knowing that Maureen is afraid of standing up and screaming, apparently an unprecedented act at Schilling Publishing. When the office is an extension of a sleepless night, Maureen decides that her insomnia stems from permanence, the permanence of the job and the permanence of Hank. After a night when Maureen has begged for scraps of sleep, the permanence becomes distorted, impermanent.

And then, Maureen knows that she is becoming unpopular. When the most admired woman sails through the office, Maureen stays at her desk, puzzling about gut dislike. Nell is not much older than Maureen but she wears close-cut vivid suits that might be the office flag. She can sit for hours in her stiff suit and nylons. She seems to have the same barber as Jim, the man who wants to be obeyed, and that amazes men when she saunters to shake hands. Her forehead of bangs, her little sideburns, and her hair being slightly shaved up in back contrast with a figure very well-adapted for women’s suit styles.

* * *

Ostensibly, the men have made Nell the office star because she is editor of a new series about the modern family in various countries of the world.

One day Maureen blurts out, “I don’t think the multi-cultural queen trusts my sense of family. She’s rejected the photographs I sent her again.”

When Nell irradiates their department, sparkling her eyes at the men and sparkling her teeth at Maureen, Maureen stays at her desk, the familiar floozy now. Her co-workers have wondered aloud at her dating four or five men in her two years at Schilling Publishing. Judging from the way Maureen slinks into her chair on Monday morning, Hank might be another man that Maureen slept with instead of marrying. No one has ever seen Nell slink into a chair. And no one minds if she gets the photos from the New York photo service first.

* * *

One afternoon, a man named Cal comes into the office and asks for Maureen. Cal is obviously athletic, wears a zip-up jacket, and is in the habit of grinning at secretaries. Maureen is in Donald Dimester’s glassed-off office, watching Donald watch Cal as he stands six feet three inches high, looking for Maureen. After Cal gives Maureen a little wave with his long fingers, Donald looks at her grimly as if she is always running into men on the streets of Minneapolis.

“Cal is from my hometown.”

“This doesn’t mean that you can have a longer lunch,” Donald says and then he adds, snatching up some finished proofreading from his in-box. “There are new graduates who might treasure an opportunity like yours.”

Donald did not hire Maureen, she recalls.

Eating lunch with Cal revives a boldness and vitality that Maureen had in high school. She runs a folder of photographs up to Nell’s division instead of using inter-office mail. Nell sparkles her teeth from inside a large walled office that is decorated with framed illustrations. A textbook editor is basking beside her at a round table where manuscripts are spread thick as a mattress. This textbook editor is Schilling’s idea of intellectual; his eyes seem hollowed out and his body is lanky to the point of neglect. Once he smiled at Maureen and she saw that his teeth, like his hair, were a low priority.

It would never occur to Maureen that Nell could possibly want a man like that. It did occur to Maureen that Nell’s secretary had too much imagination for Schilling Publishing.

“I make a lot of noise when I enter that office. They work together at that table all day sometimes,” the secretary says, her eyebrows like hyphens. “I’m just putting my husband through school right now or I wouldn’t even sit here.”

“Under Nell?” Maureen conjectures with some satisfaction.

“I hear you lunch over at the Star and Tribune cafeteria. I haven’t been there yet,” the secretary rewards Maureen.

The next time Nell sails through the downstairs department as if the weather in her office is beautiful, Maureen knows how balmy, even sticky it must have become. Today she stands up to Nell, near the desk of a dark-haired secretary who might be the office beauty if she looks up from what seems to be a mini-model of skyscrapers and machinery.

“The blessed virgin,” Donald Dimester once said when a few other men were standing around her desk.

Maureen holds a photograph and she motions to Aggie, gathered in the circle of awe. Nell has just had a meeting about Book 7, Today’s Family in Portugal, with Mr. Manez, the writer who has put a big smile on her face.

“Did I show you this photograph that Cal gave me?” Maureen says to Aggie.

Aggie looks at the photograph and screams a laugh.

“It’s a domesticated turkey. So that if I ever think I see an albino turkey, I can compare it to this.”

Maureen has had the effect of a fan ruffling up Nell’s febrile calm and Donald’s eyebrows. Strangely enough, if Donald learns about Nell’s affair with a colleague closer to his age than hers, he won’t think she is hard up. She’ll probably get more respect than the secretary whose virginity has become an office issue. He probably won’t even think that Nell is a bad woman.

But if Maureen doesn’t settle down with Hank, she might go from bad to worse.

An excerpt from the calmer middle of a book manuscript, this was slated to be easier writing. But the everyday pettiness and the relationships that are more in limbo than in love made it difficult to know what to keep and what to skip. Writing this became verisimilitude since I had both a desire and a dislike for getting to work. Still, if I have a whole lot of fun with a draft, that isn’t the one that’s fun to read.

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