"The Last Maharajan," by Susan Wingate

Susan Wingate

Susan Wingate

Susan Wingate is a novelist, poet, journalist, essayist and playwright. She lives in Washington state with her husband, Bob, and writes full time. Wingate teaches writing classes at the community college level at workshops around the country and online. Since the 2007 publication of her first novel, OF THE LAW, she keeps busy teaching writing workshops, speaking at libraries and bookstores, and traveling throughout the northwestern states. Her poems have received awards and her short stories and articles can be found in many magazines, journals and reviews. Currently, Wingate is writing her third novel and is a contributing writer for The Builder's Journal.

The Last Maharajan

Her days felt numbered. Under the quiet blanket of early morning, visions of Euly's past reeled up in foggy fragments from some dusty pigeonhole in her mind. On mornings like these she allowed ghosts to float in and summon up distant scenes. This morning's scene, from some forty years before, was one she'd pressed into a scrapbook—a dried—out rose of a vague history she'd long ago ironed and stowed away, banished, for her own sanity.

Euly sat snugged into the den's fleecy sofa hugging her first cup of tea, her ritual. She sat like this often since she'd moved to the small northwest island, when dull hours hid her and morning hadn't fully burned through the veil of the waning night.

Euly felt at times the bungalow outside called to her. Merely a place set aside for house guests, the cottage stood alone and empty. Before, however, it was filled with life, art and music, tangled together in a gorge of fantasy. Euly remembered her mother's home before the hospice. Nowadays only a husk remained—a locust shell. Belle, her mother, was now deposited in a place, a terminus, for the sick and dying. These days the cottage sat dark and barren on their property like a sore thumb reminding Euly that time was not in her mother's favor.

With her legs crooked to her chest, Euly kept her feet warm by pulling on the knobby pair of woolen socks she'd left on the ottoman the night before. While she sat in the corner of the sofa next to the red-hot fireplace she remembered, not too long ago the fireplace would've needed a cedar log and stoking but now a simple remote controller kept the gas on and a fire glowing hot. She gazed into the flame and seemed to melt into the moment with her dog and cat nestled close by.

Outside, birds beckoned to each other in a scurry within the woods. She turned her head from the glow and gazed through the French door's mullioned window to see if she could spot the noisy culprits but the gunmetal gray morning made silhouettes splinter into colorless shards when she tried to focus her eyes. The indigenous birds residing on the northwest islet where she now lived, seemed fewer in number than in Phoenix. With a spotlight shining on those living under the bell jar of her island, Euly existed within the finite walls of a snow globe—that maddening sense of claustrophobia. Water surrounded the lone island and no bridge long enough could connect people to those on the mainland. Euly felt trapped. But, why it mattered to her she wasn't sure since she rarely left anymore. She landed on the tiny isle ten years ago in 1997 when she ran away from the city and her ex-husband. The trade-off had good and bad points.

Since the break-up with her first husband, she'd remarried Geoff Winger and Euly wondered why she had done it. She wondered about it the day of their wedding and now, five years later, their relationship suffered all on its own. Fearing the marriage would crumble, Geoff had planned a stay for them in Paris the coming spring. The thought of it caused Euly hope and concern all at the same time. The trip, intended to spark some renewed sense of romance, zigzagged between euphoria and dread for her. She loved to say she was going to Paris again but, in the quiet of the morning like now, a dense numbing hobbled her.

When she turned her head back from the chatter of birds she caught a faint dank smell emanate from around her. The couch was damp to the touch. One of autumn's generous rains, dragged into the house this morning by the animals, had been tracked onto the sofa's jade upholstery and smelled something between a mixture of wet fur and moldy earth. In spite of it, the load tumbling in the dryer wafted in and balanced out the sofa's bawdy tang. The sofa could wait for cleaning after her morning routine and certainly until the light of day.

Lately, Geoff had taken to complaining about her sloppy habits, the books piled on the wooden floor, the heap of newspapers a foot high on top her desk, and the mountain of laundry waiting to be washed, dried, folded, and put away. Even her library wall looked disheveled. Books she'd read were replaced in careless disarray on shelves, and not properly slotted into each author's spot. After looking around the room, she realized she'd chewed her thumbnail down to a jagged quick—a nasty habit she could barely abide in herself. She shoved her hand under her arm to stop.

With fall well underway, she made a silent promise to spend the season becoming more organized, more thoughtful about her husband's wishes. That, of course, meant taking time out of her busy workda—writing obituaries for a mid-size newspaper's online service—to do household chores. Her anger flared when she considered Geoff's ability to make cleaning and cooking her responsibility and not his own. She rolled her eyes and let the steaming thought subside into a simmer. Anyway, writing obits wasn't exactly what she'd intended when she set off on a career as a writer. The book she'd embarked upon at forty came to a cold stop before it ever got off the ground. Still the idea of writing something longer like a novel tugged at her. And, since her mother's illness turned critical, she contemplated writing a memoir. Although she wasn't clear her motives were pure. If she wanted to write a memoir simply because her mother's coming death would allow her to include stories she might not if Belle were still alive. Even so, she figured the story could be truthful without being cruel and so resolved that now was as good a time as any. She could squeeze the memoir into her workday even if it meant forgoing that extra load of laundry.

Christ! How did housekeeping become more important than her own work?

She realized she'd flitted from Paris to the laundry within a matter of seconds. Maybe hormones were controlling her thoughts this morning. Then again, maybe her mood was from the rumbling of some old history giving way to her emotional unrest.

In a matter of minutes, the day had turned a grizzled haze. She watched a flurry of soft winds sway the trees and imagined herself rocking in a cradle. A remembered dream snuck into her mind from the night before and muzzled Euly's swelling animosity to those things, those people, outside her control. In the dream, her ex-mother in-law, Sharice and she were locked in an embrace and profoundly happy to see one another after so many years. The mirage slid from a dream into a nightmare when she considered that her subconscious was creating the vision—perhaps some hidden meaning about Belle's deteriorating health. She'd always gotten along well with Sharice but after the divorce from her first husband, she'd lost track of her. So, why then would she let this memory crop up now? Guilt socked her in the gut and shuddered through her body. Then Euly let herself slip fully into a jarring memory of one particular Christmas party, one which Belle and Sharice both attended.

Each woman was vastly different from the other, a Mutt and Jeff of mothers. Euly remembered how they talked together at the function. Sharice sat nervously next to Belle who seemed to be conducting her own version of a cross-examination. The only things missing were a hard wooden stool and a flashlight. She also remembered how when she approached the women, Belle's smile seemed trite and fake and how Sharice turned her head away. Euly knew by her mother's pinched face, she didn't approve of Sharice. Then, Euly pinpointed what was out of place. When Belle did smile, she smiled only with her mouth and not her eyes.

Euly's tea was still searing hot. She blew on the brew before each sip, trying to divert a sting on her tongue and sucked in cool air along with each thorny snap of bergamot. Her cat, Raz, jumped onto the arm of the couch and Euly stretched out her legs crossing them over the ottoman. She patted her lap to welcome the cat and Raz coyly placed a single paw on one of her spreading thighs. This time of the day was one of the few times Euly didn't mind her recent weight-gain—in the dark, and for the cat. Menopause, so far, had been kind to her. Anyway, she decided, she could use a pound here and there, for the cat, if nothing else. It wasn't that she was overweight. She just wasn't her prime weight any longer. Her dog, Jonathan, lie quietly next to her and didn't stir, not through the shift of their positions nor through the cat's motor-like-purr drumming like a soft muffled alarm clock stuffed into a drawer.

As Euly sat alone in a fog of morning she thought about growing up. She posited if she could ever remember back on a time when things were happy in her small family. She desperately flipped through pages of her history trying to remember happy moments, if only just one. Her heart pounded in her chest as page after troubled page elicited heartache, bitter scenes of accusation, threats and crying.

She rubbed her eyes to thwart an onset of tears but already felt a dewy film under her fingertips. What brought her to this point, returned her yet again when she remembered another childhood memory—a party and how that party was the last one ever.

Her father's family was of Arabic descent and it was this side of the family with whom Euly most identified. A Maharajan was an annual bash. Euly remembered going to a couple when she was young, but that was a good forty years before. That's when the parties ended too. Euly was a younger version of herself then, an innocent version—lost and forgotten—and maybe it was that girl's voice when she heard herself utter, Jesus.

She guessed the day was a Saturday, a morning one summer during the middle 1960s. At these Maharajans, people of Middle Eastern descent—and for Euly, Lebanese people—reconnected, caught up on lives, and felt some sense of unanimity in their heritage. People met, laughed, sang, danced, and gossiped. Belle, fair-skinned and blonde, went along to these parties out of marital obligation. Others thrilled to join in the times meant for heritable camaraderie. Everyone drank punch or beer, if old enough, and ate by a deep winking pool that seemed to laugh. Euly shook her head in an attempt to derail the memory and where it was leading her, but it didn't work. She understood the early morning hours were saved for past acquaintances, those tortured visions of life we stuff under a rug and then shake out when the filth reaches a critical point. Euly winced at the metaphor, how a dirty rug might relate to her past. Still, once again she let the vision of the pool drift back.

The offender, adorned with sapphirine tiles trimming the water's line and ochre-stained cool deck from years of dirty feet on it, summoned its visitors. Her cousin was there, Micaiah. Euly remembered how he showed her to roll her towel in order to carry it under one arm instead of holding it awkwardly in front of her like a doll at her chest while she walked. He was the closest thing she had to a brother. Anyway, he felt like a brother. She was only six-years-old at the time and small for her age. She remembered bouts with allergies and a variety of illnesses that kept her body from growing. Like that old cartoon character she recalled, an alligator—a sadly distorted fellow—only its large head scene above the water line swimming across a river. He crawls out and reveals a comparatively tiny body. The alligator then looks straight into the camera to explain his odd shape and says I've been sick. Somehow Euly identified with the sickly alligator but Micaiah did a great thing when he showed her how to roll her towel. He made her feel normal.

Euly staved off the memory again when she looked out toward the lighting sky, a thin line in the East's horizon meant only minutes until dawn. When she turned her head back, however, she was with Micaiah again. He was about ten, a year older than Enaya, Euly's sister. He was a big brown boy with thick black whorls of hair. The smell of tea taunted her senses and helped yank her back into the present. She dragged in another deep breath and held it for a second before shooing Micaiah out of her mind. Yet, Euly couldn't help going back to that day long ago at the Maharajan.

The day sweltered. Micaiah, Enaya, and Euly ran eagerly from the sizzling car toward the coolness of the hall inside where the party was already under way. A sense of great promise boiled in her, especially when she considered the crystalline water of the pool. Ready for a swim, she and her sister donned bathing suits showing-off shapeless fledgling bodies—tube-like figures of childhood, lean legs prickled with blonde peach—soft hair, red and tanned skin, and Micaiah in his boy swim trunks and round barrel chest. She supposed they all wore those faded, yellow rubber thongs on their small feet. Euly snorted a silent puff of air and laughed at a thought that carried her to the exact point in time, when thongs were made of flimsy rubber, when the Beatles and Frank Sinatra mixed into a medley of songs, when vendors drove lazily through the neighborhoods playing plunky ice cream tunes, and when a quarter bought a 50-50 bar.

Euly's dad and Uncle Teddy must've hurried into the party before the kids because she didn't remember them in the parking lot at the car where mother and Aunt Moon lagged behind gathering up picnic items they'd brought along for the family. Euly remembered fumbling with the towel and that's when Micaiah helped her.

She stared in awe at the beauty of the resort. With its yucca framed gardens, saguaro cactus and bright berried prickly-pear, the peppery fragrance of mesquite trees intermixed with pungent chaparral, and rosy bougainvillea dripping from a high white jagged stucco wall, a wall that surrounded the resort's Olympic-size pool where the festivities would take place, by the edge, just a toe—in away. Then, Euly couldn't remember much after that, all the fun, the singing, the laughter, the swimming. She didn't remember the lemony tabouli she must've eaten or the chalky paste of chickpeas in the hummus. She didn't remember the boozy licorice nip of Arak her father, Ray, always slipped her, or dancing with him. She didn't remember laughing faces or jokes, or the music blaring over a clamor of voices. She didn't even remember the smell of chlorine that must have choked through the air. What she remembered was the keen sense of panic and sudden quiet. All laughter and joy halted when a woman screamed her daughter's name—the scream that ended the morning. Time staggered like a skip in an old scratched record. Sound faded into beats, a muffled footfall of bare feet coming to a standstill. Then, there was no sound, only a poisoned hush—the kind of hush when a cuckoo strikes one—when movement and breathing altogether stop. And, it all takes place in the time it takes a hummingbird wing to flutter just once. Then, a slow rumble buoyed up in a swell flowing up and over the crowd watching—a rumble of whispers. She's only five someone said. As if five had some special meaning connected with her discovery. As if five was the determining point of swimming or drowning. As if five meant she shouldn't die.

Then, Euly heard someone saying the girl was her cousin and while she struggled to, she couldn't remember her eyes or smile. She couldn't remember running fast with her on slippery concrete that hemmed the pool's water or running by signs that warned NO RUNNING. She couldn't remember slapping patty-cake—hands with mirrored faces beating out the words to Baker Man. What she remembered was the slow-motion turn of heads and wet hair slapping faces in quick snaps when time sped up again, when people finally looked to see what all the fuss was. And the girl's body undulating below the water—as if on a magic carpet ride—her arms and legs splayed as the water rocked her and moved her softly along the bottom of the pool.