Ellipse Disturbed

My thanks to Justin Meckes and Sam Oches, editors of Scrutiny, for publishing my “Ellipse Disturbed” in their November 2016 issue. Below is the full text and a link to the magazine.

When the loud man with the ridiculous flag tattooed on his neck pulled out of John Feather’s Quality Pre-Owned Vehicles, Marcella knew he would be dead in thirty minutes. She congratulated herself for having paired the right man with the right car in the right place. Not that she wanted to violate what had been her crusty old Aunt Galena’s all-purpose rule: “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” But she just knew, and she was happy knowing. She’d gotten over her initial hesitancy about her abilities; why not use them to do some good in the world?

It was a high-mileage Mazda. It looked fast, and had a snappy electric blue paint job. Flag Man probably thought it would attract women. Well, thought Marcella, maybe it does, but not this time. This time, Flag Man would run a light at the intersection of Lincoln and Badwell and get t-boned by a truck. A big truck. Carrying lumber, or maybe something chemical, but Marcella found that possibility frightening because a chemical spill would endanger other people. She’d never had any collateral damage before, or none she knew of, and she didn’t want to start now. But that was much more difficult to control than the car she’d sold, and it often kept her up at night knowing that one day she might have innocents’ blood on her hands. She had no idea what she would do if that happened. The thought was like death itself: you know it will come, but you push it to the back of your mind until it looms up in front of you like a high, black wall.

Marcella put her hand to her mouth to stifle a laugh. Flag Man would have been a menace, sooner or later. She could tell by looking at him and hearing how he talked, all clichés and boastfulness. He kept checking her out, and being obvious about it too. Did he really ask her if she would “take a little spin” with him after she got off work? Maybe Flag Man had a criminal record. He looked the type. Smarmy. He should have been jailed for bad taste if nothing else. His stars-and-stripes tattoo, complete with orange flames that made it look like a comet, was over the top. Yet at the end of the day it wasn’t the orange flames that bothered her—people could do what they wanted with the flag, it was a free country—but that the man had to wear it at all. People who felt a need always to display the red-white-and-blue must suffer from amnesia. Had he forgotten where he lived?

Marcella calmed herself by lighting up a cigarette and taking a long drag. No need to get angry about something as silly as a tattoo. The man wouldn’t darken anyone’s door any longer, or terrorize people with his flaming flag tattoo—that was the important point. Marcella had proved once again that a fifty-something widow could still be a productive member of society; it was a deeply reassuring thought.

* * *

She couldn’t remember when the turning point was, or if there had been one. She didn’t understand how her power worked. Over the past twenty years, she had used her ability sparingly, usually for the good. Maybe it was her husband Terry’s death five years ago, maybe a midlife crisis (did you always know when you were going through one?) that made her increasingly aware of how much dread she could enable. Maybe it was getting laid off at the paper mill in Munising soon after Terry fell from two stories up during a construction job. She’d had to go around town for months scrounging for another job at a time when the economy had tanked and unemployment spiked throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Luckily, John Feathers had been looking for a salesperson. Marcella not only had varied work experiences, but also good legs, and she was willing to show them off in her shortest skirts. John told her she was perfect for the job after she’d crossed and uncrossed her legs several times during the interview.

Marcella often pondered her situation. Her means were inexplicable and her motives uncertain, but her new opportunity was stunningly clear: selling cars was like selling four-wheeled coffins. She started with fender benders and other minor accidents, harmless but still sufficiently annoying for those obnoxious or mean enough to deserve a little static in their lives. She was careful to enable accidents that could only be credited to driver’s error or chance, never a problem with one of John Feathers’s cars. Gradually the accidents became more serious—and more satisfying. No, satisfying was too mild a word. The big accidents became adrenaline. After a while, she felt irritable if six or eight weeks passed without an accident. John, an Anishinaabe who wore a white cowboy hat as big as his paunch, joked about “that time of the month.” One time after she’d snapped at him, he asked, through a whisky haze, how long it had been since she’d slept with a man. “None of your damned business, Chief,” she said gruffly, and stalked out onto the lot.

Not long after Flag Man met his Maker, Tina Beauchamp sauntered onto the lot on a spring afternoon. Tina had gone to school with Marcella from kindergarten through high school. She’d been blonde, pert, and a torturer. Marcella still remembered sitting on the bus in seventh grade when a slow, insistent chant started: “Wino, wino, wino.” The chant was for her, and Tina had instigated it. Kids had always made jokes and teased her about her port-wine stain, which slithered up her neck and chin and ended just below her left eye. But Tina had made it her specialty, turning it into a campaign against the nerdy, bespectacled girl with flaming red hair and a Merlot archipelago on her face. Her mother had always said she’d been kissed by angels, but as a middle-schooler, Marcella cursed the angels for not having left her alone. Worst of all, she thought the teasing was justified. Who wouldn’t think she was a freak?

Into the ninth grade and beyond, she heard the searing litany: “Wino, wino, wino.” She heard it whispered in the lavatory. Sometimes, several girls would chant it as she walked past them in the hallway. She would hear Tina’s allies muttering it under their breath in homeroom. Neither medical treatment nor heavy layers of makeup could ever fully hide the large stain. On and on went the torture until Marcella finally hit on a strategy for self-defense: she would match everyone’s opinion of her by becoming the school’s baddest bad girl. Drinking, smoking pot, sleeping around, a little meth here and there—she did it all. Marcella was the rebel with a cause, and her cause was to become the weirdo wino-girl everyone said she was.

So there was Tina, on the heavier side now, having weathered four kids and three divorces, still blond, thanks to modern chemistry, but not so pert. She wore blue jean shorts that were too tight and too short and a pink t-shirt that revealed more breast than it should have. She looked as if she was still trying to fit into a sixteen-year-old’s clothes.

“Marcella, my, my, haven’t seen you for the longest time, hon,” she said.

“It has been a while.”

“You work here?”

Marcella looked down at her nameplate, intending to say, “what does this tell you, hon?” Instead she said, “almost five years now.”

Tina nodded and coughed nervously. “And how’s every little thing with you?”

“Good,” said Marcella, determined not to respond with “and how are you?”

A few moments of thick silence. “Say, I’m in the market for a used car, and folks say John Feathers is always willing to deal.”

“John’s not on the lot this afternoon.”

“Oh, well, I…”

“But you can deal with me. What are you looking for?”

Marcella showed Tina several cars, and after test driving three, she chose a Chrysler Sebring convertible—lavender with a white leather interior—with 105,000 miles on it and a ding in the rear bumper. The driver’s side seat had a tear in the leather. Still, it wasn’t a bad car compared to some of the clunkers John sold. The license and loan work would take a day, said Marcella, and Tina said she’d be back the next afternoon to pick up the car. Marcella’s imagination was already churning.

Four in the afternoon the next day, and the sky was dense with blue-gray clouds that looked like refugees from January. A strong spring thunderstorm had skirted all along the Lake Superior shoreline overnight, drenching Marquette, Munising, and Grand Marais. The storm had brought cool weather behind it, and it was barely 60 degrees. Marcella loved the dry air, and it was always good to have strong northwest breezes that kept mosquitoes and deer flies in check. Tina arrived right on time to pick up her new car. “Enjoy!” said Marcella waving, as Tina drove the Chrysler out of the lot with the top down and her straight-from-the-bottle blonde hair blowing in the chilly breeze.

That evening, the newscaster broke into tears reporting the fatal car crash of long-time Munising resident Tina Beauchamp. Ms. Beauchamp, a former cheerleader and Homecoming Queen, was survived by four children, seven grandchildren, and two elderly parents, said the broadcaster.

It was Jimmy Stewart Night on Turner Classic Movies, and Marcella watched three movies in a row, finally falling asleep in her chair in the early morning hours. After dinner she’d had several beers, then fixed herself popcorn. She laughed when Jimmy Stewart told a joke, cried when he experienced heartache or tragedy. Jimmy Stewart always made her think of Terry.

* * *

“You don’t look like much of a wop, girl.”

The voice came from the past as Marcella sat at the breakfast table daydreaming. It was the morning after Tina Beauchamp’s demise, and the voice belonged to Lou, Marcella’s older brother. Lou and Marcella were biological brother and sister, and both had been adopted by Giuliana and Roberto Vitarelli, an Italian immigrant couple that had settled in Munising. Lou, as red-haired and freckled as his sister, had always teased Marcella about the contrast between her hair color and her Italian name. They’d speculated their natural parents had been Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, or German, but then Marcella read someplace that in certain parts of Italy red hair was not uncommon.

“Still, a redhead named Marcella Vitarelli. Seems odd to me,” said Lou, when Marcella had called him with the information.

Even more than Marcella, Lou was the black sheep of the family. The Vitarellis had two sons of their own before they’d adopted Lou and Marcella. One owned a trailer park, the other a string of Laundromats. Lou appeared never to have gainful employment. He drank heavily, smoked two packs of Lucky Strikes daily, charmed the pants off anyone who met him. He seemed to know a little about everything, but not enough about any one thing to make a living from it. He regularly vexed family members for loans—“just to see me through till next week, when I’ve got a little something coming in.” Next week never came. But Lou had one great talent: he could enable certain futures.

Her cornflakes already mushy, Marcella remembered how she found out about Lou’s strange ability, some twenty years before. The youngest Vitarelli brother, Mark, twenty-eight then and already the most successful Laundromat entrepreneur in and around Munising, was getting married. The bridesmaids had worn flowered dresses that Marcella thought looked like brocaded living room drapes. The men had adopted a Western theme and wore blue denim tuxedos with string ties. The reception was at the Elk’s Lodge and was packed with people—everyone wanted a piece of the Laundromat King. Marcella and Lou found themselves outside the hall standing alone smoking cigarettes under a large oak that shielded them from a light summer rain. Lou could drink and drink and never seem drunk. But Marcella had met and exceeded her limit, and she swayed as Lou lit his cigarette for her.

“Marcie, I’ve always liked you,” said Lou as he looked out at the parking lot and blew elliptical smoke rings.

Marcella’s beer-drenched mind was having trouble coming up with a context for her brother’s remark. She studied her brother’s handlebar mustache and red ponytail, which had grown to the middle of his broad back.

“You know, time is an ellipse,” said Lou.

Marcella sat on a wooden bench, feeling as humid as the summer air. She wished she’d not worn panty hose, and she worried she might sweat through her dress and leave a spot. “Yes?” she said, figuring Lou needed a prompt, which of course he didn’t.

“Most people don’t know that,” he said, looking at the rain. “Some folks think time is a straight line, heading off into the future. And in this country, hell, just about everyone thinks that arrow means progress, getting fatter, richer.”

Marcella nodded, but she was more concerned about the heat and her churning stomach.

“The people who think time is a circle, they’re a little closer to the truth. But even they don’t have it quite right. They forget that life sometimes moves along kind of easy. It moves along a relatively flat plane, like the elongated sides of an ellipse. ‘Course, an ellipse is actually a circle. It’s a plane intersecting a cone, forming a closed circle. But we see it from the edge, slightly turned, so it comes to us as an ellipse, like Saturn’s rings.”

He looked at his sister as he threw his Lucky Strike to the ground and put it out with his cowboy boot. “You following?”

“Think so.”

Lou lit another Lucky Strike, then held the pack out to Marcella. “Want another?”

Marcella was tempted but said no. She didn’t want to aggravate the nauseous feeling that seemed now to spread from her stomach to her entire body.

“Am I upsetting you, Marcie? You look a little green.”

“No, not at all, Louie. But I’m wondering why you’re telling me this.” Her tongue felt woolly, and she wasn’t sure all the words had come out in the right order.

“You’ll see, you’ll see. Hear me out. I’m almost done. This is the most important part.”

“Okay, I’m listening, but I’m not feeling too well.”

“You can upchuck in a minute,” said Lou impatiently. “It’s when we see life from that edge, okay, that ellipse, that we can affect it. This is what I’ve discovered. We can cause a little perturbation, or a big one, depending. You know what a perturbation is? ‘A disturbance of the regular elliptic or other motion of a celestial body produced by some force additional to that which causes its regular motion’—and that’s a direct quotation from Mr. Webster.”

“Louie, I really have no idea what you’re saying.”

“Sis, I’m saying I know how to cause a little jiggle in someone’s elliptical existence. How to enable this and not that. Because I know, I mean I really know, that a life is a circle tipped at an angle.”

“So what does this have to do with me? This sounds like drunk talk…” Marcella felt like she was talking through a muddy rag.

Lou looked hurt, like a teacher unable to get through to his thickheaded student. He shook his head and sighed. “You should know this. You’re the only one I’ve told. Because I think, if you worked at it, you could do the same thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if our natural parents had the ability, even though they may not have been aware of it. We’ll never know, will we?”

Marcella walked over to the shrubs behind the oak tree, got down on one knee, and heaved up three wrenching streams of partly digested steak, baked potato, and salad. Lou stood over her and gently cradled her forehead with his meaty hand. He patted her on the back, softly rubbed the nape of her neck.

“There you go, sis,” said Lou after he’d led Marcella back to the bench and helped her sit. “You’ll feel better now. Now you’re ready to hear the rest.”

Marcella nodded, but she was uncertain about both things—whether she would feel better and if she was ready to hear the rest of Lou’s tale.

“You have the power, living on the black-sheep edge, like me. You just don’t know you have it. You can, if you apply yourself, enable something for someone else. Not yourself, mind you, for reasons I don’t understand. But we can affect others’ lives. I’ve done it many times, for friends mainly. Helped to heal an injury, or smoothed the edges off a lovers’ spat. Never worked for a family member. Which is too bad, I’d liked to have helped you in the past. But I’ve learned not to question the power. Instead I just use it when and where it’s available to me. And it’s not always available. I’ve found the power to be a fickle thing, and a tease.”

Marcella was feeling better. “How’d you discover you could do this?”

“Oh, that’s irrelevant, finally. Let’s just say it has something to do with a night I spent in Taos, New Mexico, and some peyote and a lot of tequila, and this wise and attractive Hopi lady, probably a powaqa, a witch—no need to get into that.” Lou smiled and looked into the middle distance. It had stopped raining, sunlight edged out from behind thinning clouds, and the pavement steamed.

“So, you’re telling me you’re some kind of sorcerer?”

Lou smiled as his head cocked to the side. He said nothing. A long-haired sphinx in an ill-fitting sport coat.

“I think I will have another of your smokes, Lou.”

Lou took his pack from his inside pocket and handed it to Marcella. As Marcella lit up, Lou continued. “One thing you have to remember. You can’t let your dark feelings—your resentments, hatreds, jealousies, whatever—come into play when shaping someone’s future. Then you cause a horrible, negative perturbation, and everything goes to hell. You have to watch out for that. You could do some serious destruction, even to yourself, to your mind. A powaqa can go in a positive or negative direction.”

“Okay, I get that part. But how exactly do I do this, cause a perturbation in someone’s life, enable one thing and not another. I mean, it must be complicated. Won’t I need a broom and maybe one of those pointy hats? Or the blood of a chicken?”

Lou rolled his eyes, then smiled again as he bared a gold-capped crown. “It’s surprisingly uncomplicated,” he said. “You’ll see this is no bullshit once it works for you. But it does take concentration. Let me show you. First thing is, you have to reach a point of stasis…”

* * *

In the months after Tina Beauchamp’s fiery crash, life felt effortless for Marcella. She was selling more cars than John, and John was drinking more whisky in his back office than ever before. Which was okay for Marcella, since it gave her a more freedom to make deals and price cars. She’d always thought John was inconsistent with pricing, asking too little for better models and too much for lemons. Not that John had given her a blank check. He still wanted to sign off on each deal, but he seemed to have gained more trust in Marcella’s judgment.

She met a nice guy at the Castle Rock Roadhouse over in Wetmore, and even though the fling didn’t go anywhere, it was good to have several weeks of really loud sex, and it gave her confidence she was finally ready, after five long years, to go out and meet people, be sociable, maybe take a trip to Nashville, which she and Terry had always wanted to see. She decided to sell Terry’s truck and buy a Chevy Impala John had taken on a trade-in. It needed a little bodywork, but the engine was in good shape, the tires weren’t that old, the stereo was nice, and it had a dark blue finish Marcella thought looked sophisticated. She loved riding around in the car with the windows down and playing Bonnie Raitt CDs.

One afternoon, a young woman, twenty-something and very pregnant, came into the lot. Marcella had seen her get off the bus and waddle over, and her steps looked so awkward that Marcella almost walked across the street to help. She had spiked up hair, tattoos up and down her thin arms, and multiple piercings in her ears and nose. Marcella thought she looked familiar, and she was struck by the contrast between the young woman’s aggressive looks and her nervous, expectant-mother demeanor.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she said scratching her forearm as if it was covered in insect bites.

“What can I do for you?”

“Well, my mom, see—she just passed away, a few months ago I mean—she said to come here to look for a car.”

Then it hit her. Tina Beauchamp’s daughter. Her nose was pert (despite the rings), her hair blonde (also bottle-fed), her mannerisms similar to her mother’s. But this shy young woman was no bully, Marcella could tell, even through the ink and steel and barbed hair.

Marcella felt suddenly weak in the knees. Tina’s daughter had obviously been pregnant when the Chrysler Sebring convertible skidded into a ditch off M-28 after hitting a deer. She’d been showing quite a bit, judging from her appearance now. Marcella leaned against the dented fender of a Ford Fusion.

“You okay ma’am?” the woman said.

“I just feel a bit faint. I haven’t eaten today and…” Marcella didn’t bother to finish. “Would you please excuse me for a minute?”

She walked back to the main office to go the restroom. Inside, the fluorescent light made her port-wine stain look darker in the cracked mirror. She ran cold water through her shaking hands, splashed her face. Her skin felt flushed and dirty. She noticed her white blouse had big dark spots under the arms. She crossed herself and said a Hail Mary, something she hadn’t done since Terry’s death.

In the mirror an image appeared, just behind her right shoulder. It was the girl. “No,” said Marcella out loud as she squinted into the mirror. It wasn’t the girl, but her, Marcella, about the same age as Tina’s daughter, with a bloated belly, a waddle for a walk. She held up an appointment slip from a women’s health clinic. The doctor had said he could do the procedure quickly, not to worry, you’ll be home by early evening. Back at her dingy apartment, she had felt unburdened—and desperately alone.

She moved her face closer to the mirror. Behind young, scared Marcella were other figures. A long line of people, at least five, no many more, it was impossible to tell because the line faded off into shadows. Marcella recognized the ones at the front of the line. They were the people she’d chosen for car accidents. Then a searing light exterminated the shadows. Everything in the mirror was illuminated; the detail was excruciating. Disfigured torsos, bloodied faces, limbs twisted in crazy directions, some faces frozen in expressions of horror—all displayed as if under a bright noonday sun. “No!” said Marcella more loudly. She put her hands to her forehead, squeezed as hard as she could, closed her eyes. Was this what Lou had in mind when he warned her?

Once again she looked into the mirror and the brightly lit grotesques were gone. Marcella saw only a middle-aged woman with a red splatter across her face. Her mouth tasted like she’d been chewing aspirin. She turned, thankful to have wrested herself from the mirror’s cruel gaze. She took a long, deep breath, reached for the door handle.

She found the young woman scanning the car lot as if she’d just landed in a strange country. “Thanks for your understanding,” said Marcella. “I just needed a few minutes. So, you said you were looking for a car.”

“Yeah, I’m going to need one soon.” She placed both hands on her immense stomach and patted it gently. “And my mom says, or said, that you could get a good deal at John Feathers.”

Marcella nodded.

“She was so excited about buying her convertible here. It’s all she talked about the day after she found it. And then she only had a few hours to drive it, before, you know…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she looked out toward the bus stop. “She said to ask for Marcella.” Marcella’s body pulsed from a shudder, as strong and irreducible as Lake Superior tides.

They talked, and Marcella found out that Fiona knew nothing about cars. Marcella directed her to a little Subaru Forester, which had a lot of miles, but was safe and sturdy and had a set of new tires. “Mr. Feathers got it at an auction, and the first owner lived in North Carolina, so the underbody doesn’t have as much rust as you’d expect on a car this old in the UP.” Marcella opened the hood and back hatch, had her sit in the driver’s seat after moving it way back from the steering wheel, and asked her if she wanted to go for a test drive.

Fiona shook her head no, then said, “I’ll take it.” The conversation turned to money, about which Fiona knew even less than cars. After Marcella had walked her through down payment and loan options, Fiona looked stunned and on the verge of tears. She had only a few hundred dollars for a down payment and had never held a steady job. She’d probably have no credit report, and banks had gotten cautious about high-risk car loans, especially to young people.

Marcella frowned and bit the inside of her lip. “Can you come back tomorrow?” she asked. “I can probably work something out for you, but I need a day.”

In the back office, John had fallen asleep on the old cot where he napped when business was slack. He snored softly, with one booted foot on the cot and the other on the cracked linoleum floor. There was an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s on his desk. A single fly busied a wastepaper basket. Marcella roused her slumbering boss after some effort. John snuffed and snorted, said “Christ almighty, an Injun can’t get a little shut eye no more,” but was finally sitting up and nominally aware after a few minutes.

“This is the deal,” said Marcella, seated on the cot next to him.

Exactly twenty-four hours later, Fiona Beauchamp drove out of John Feather’s Quality Pre-Owned Vehicles in a green Subaru Forester. Marcella watched the car pull away, then closed her eyes, crossed herself, and said another Hail Mary.

Back at the office John waited for her. “Twenty percent off, and you’re the co-signer,” he said. He shook his head. The expression on his face—his eyes wide, a thin smile contorting his lips—hung somewhere between amusement and anger. “I told you to do what you wanted, but I never heard o’ that before. We runnin’ a branch a’ St. Vinnie’s here? Or you tryin’ to break me, lady?”

Marcella shrugged.

“I know what you been doin’,” said John matter-of-factly. “I seen the pattern. I watch the news too. Don’t know how you been doin’ it, or why, but I know.” He tapped his chest, then his forehead. “Injun intuition.”

Again a shrug.

“Don’t do it no more.”

Marcella turned and walked out. There was an elderly couple looking at a white Toyota Corolla at the front of the lot, and Marcella went over to greet them. Everything in the next hour was painful. The pitch, test drives, small talk about the old couple’s grandchildren. She didn’t care if they bought a car or not. When they said they would have to look around at other car lots, thank you, you’ve been so very helpful, Marcella was relieved to see them drive away.

Marcella stood in the spot where the old couple had left her and looked around the asphalt lot. It was unseasonably warm for late September, a blue sky and pleasant breezes. John’s cheap, multicolored plastic banners fluttered lazily. She smirked as she looked at one of the banners: No Finer Cars in the U.P. Glaring off windshields and fenders and side-view mirrors, sunlight shone like the truth, and Marcella had to shield her eyes.

Read Scrutiny here.