EDITOR’S NOTE by Lynne Tillman
To some of us writers, Jane Bowles walks on water.
Jane Bowles performed miracles in writing. For instance, she never wrote an unnecessary word. Jane Bowles’ writing is unique to English and American letters, and I do mean one of a kind and original. Start reading “Everything Is Nice,” and, instantly, Reader, you will be someplace else, an odd atmosphere, an altered frame of mind.
“The highest street in the blue Moslem town skirted the edge of a cliff.”
Do I think of a street as “highest?” No, unless I’m in London looking for a “High Street.” Highest suggests lofty, up above, far from the ground, or foundation. The street might be floating in the sky or perilously situated. Maybe not even in this world — so very high up.
“The blue Moslem town.” The joining of blue and Moslem colors everything. A whole town is blue, and it is Moslem. A blue Moslem town must be different, very different, from what I know. Is everyone and everything in it blue? The mood and emotions, blue.
The verb “skirted:” A narrow strip lies around this blue town. Maybe female territory. There’s something insubstantial, barely touching, off to the side. “Skirted” is the action that motors to the sentence’s predicate: “the edge of a cliff.” More danger. An edge. Worse, a cliff. The story starts at a precipice. It could fall into…
Bowles entraps dreams, fantasies, waking life, conscious and unconscious thoughts in one sentence, one net, say. She fuses these realms in her stories, and presents them fluidly, as a matter of fact. Her very short puppet play about two American sisters, “A Quarreling Pair” (performed 1945; before Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” 1953), turns on a glass of milk.
I have read and reread Jane Bowles’ writing, and contemplated her masterwork, Two Serious Ladies, her one novel, many times (I wrote a film script based on it, hoping to direct it). Still, I remain surprised, even dumbfounded, by how she does it — I don’t know how to name what she does. There is no magic act, even if she has performed a sleight of hand. Unexpected encounters are ordinary and also peerless. The expected is both usual and unusual. Jane Bowles’s writing dispatches you, Reader, to a place of otherness. You may sense being an other to yourself. Once inside one of her tales, there is no outside.
Jane Bowles might have felt a stranger to herself. She knew, intimately, that life was very weird and often painful. It was also frightening to her. That’s what she represented in her writing: all existence is absurd, and all societies unforgiving and alienating. This is life, she tells us, this is how life goes. Existence is mean and absurd, but there can be beauty and even joy, if only for a moment that will pass by like a glance or a hand brushing a cheek. So, in “Everything Is Nice,” her protagonist Jeannie (genie) rushes out, anyway, into the strange, harsh world, to find it and feel it before it goes.
Everything is Nice
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THE HIGHEST STREET IN THE BLUE MOSLEM TOWN skirted the edge of a cliff. She walked over to the thick protecting wall and looked down. The tide was out, and the flat dirty rocks below were swarming with skinny boys. A Moslem woman came up to the blue wall and stood next to her, grazing her hip with the basket she was carrying. She pretended not to notice her, and kept her eyes fixed on a white dog that had just slipped down the side of a rock and plunged into a crater of sea water. The sound of its bark was earsplitting. Then the woman jabbed the basket firmly into her ribs, and she looked up.
“That one is a porcupine,” said the woman, pointing a henna-stained finger into the basket.
This was true. A large dead porcupine lay there, with a pair of new yellow socks folded on top of it.
She looked again at the woman. She was dressed in a haik, and the white cloth covering the lower half of her face was loose, about to fall down.
“I am Zodelia,” she announced in a high voice. “And you are Betsoul’s friend.” The loose cloth slipped below her chin and hung there like a bib. She did not pull it up.
“You sit in her house and you sleep in her house and you eat in her house,” the woman went on, and she nodded in agreement. “Your name is Jeanie and you live in a hotel with other Nazarenes. How much does the hotel cost you?”
A loaf of bread shaped like a disc flopped on to the ground from inside the folds of the woman’s haik, and she did not have to answer her question. With some difficulty the woman picked the loaf up and stuffed it in between the quills of the porcupine and the basket handle. Then she set the basket down on the top of the blue wall and turned to her with bright eyes.
“I am the people in the hotel,“ she said. “Watch me.”
She was pleased because she knew that the woman who called herself Zodelia was about to present her with a little skit. It would be delightful to watch, since all the people of the town spoke and gesticulated as though they had studied at the Comédie Française.
“The people in the hotel,” Zodelia announce, formally beginning her skit. “I am the people in the hotel.”
“‘Good-bye, Jeanie, good-bye. Where are you going?’
“‘I am going to the Moslem house to visit my Moslem friends, Betsoul and her family. I will sit in a Moslem room and eat Moslem food and sleep on a Moslem bed.’
“‘Jeanie, Jeanie, when will you come back to us in the hotel and sleep in your own room?’
“‘I will come back to you in three days. I will come back and sit in a Nazarene room and eat Nazarene food and sleep on a Nazarene bed. I will spend half the week with the Moslem friends and half with the Nazarenes.’”
The woman’s voice had a triumphant ring as she finished the sentence; then, without announcing the end of the sketch, she walked over to the wall and put one arm around her basket.
Down below, just at the edge of the cliff’s shadow, a Moslem woman was seated on a rock, washing her legs in one of the holes filled with sea water. Her haik was piled on her lap and she was huddled over it, examining her feet.
“She is looking at the ocean,” said Zodelia.
She was not looking at the ocean; with her head down and the mass of cloth in her lap she could not possibly have seen it; she would have had to straighten up and turn around.
“She is not looking at the ocean,” she said.
“She is looking at the ocean,” Zodelia repeated, as if she had not spoken.
She decided to change the subject. “Why do you have a porcupine with you?” she asked her, although she knew that some of the Moslems, particularly the country people, enjoyed eating them.
“It is a present for my aunt. Do you like it?”
“Yes,” she said. “I like porcupines. I like big porcupines and little ones, too.”
Zodelia seemed bewildered, and then bored, and she decided she had somehow ruined the conversation by mentioning small porcupines.
“Where is your mother?” Zodelia said at length.
“My mother is in the country in her own house,” she said automatically; she had answered the question a hundred times.
“Why don’t you write her a letter and tell her to come here? You can take her on a promenade and show her the ocean. After that she can go back to her own country and sit in her house.” She picked up her basket and adjusted the strip of cloth over her mouth. “Would you like to go to a wedding?” she asked her.
She said she would love to go to a wedding, and they started off down the crooked blue street, heading into the wind. As they passed a small shop Zodelia stopped. “Stand here,” she said. “I want to buy something.”
After studying the display for a minute or two Zodelia poked her and pointed to some cakes inside a square box with glass sides. “Nice?” she asked her. “Or not nice?”
The cakes were dusty and coated with a thin, ugly-colored icing. They were called Galletas Ortiz.
“They are very nice,” she replied, and bought her a dozen of them. Zodelia thanked her briefly and they walked on. Presently they turned off the street into a narrow alley and started downhill. Soon Zodelia stopped at a door on the right, and lifted the heavy brass knocker in the form of a fist.
“The wedding is here?” she said to her.
Zodelia shook her head and looked grave. “There is no wedding here,” she said.
A child opened the door and quickly hid behind it, covering her face. She followed Zodelia across the black and white tile floor of the closed patio. The walls were washed in blue, and a cold light shone through the broken panes of glass far above their heads. There was a door on each side of the patio. Outside one of them, barring the threshold, was a row of pointed slippers. Zodelia stepped out of her own shoes and set them down near the others.
She stood behind Zodelia and began to take off her own shoes. It took her a long time because there was a knot in one of her laces. When she was ready, Zodelia took her hand and pulled her along with her into a dimly lit room, where she led her over to a mattress which lay against the wall.
“Sit,” she told her, and she obeyed. Then, without further comment she walked off, heading for the far end of the room. Because her eyes had not grown used to the dimness, she had the impression of a figure disappearing down a long corridor. Then she began to see the brass bars of a bed, glowing weakly in the darkness.
Only a few feet away, in the middle of the carpet, sat an old lady in a dress made of green and purple curtain fabric. Through the many rents in the material she could see the printed cotton dress and the tan sweater underneath. Across the room several women sat along another mattress, and further along the mattress three babies were sleeping in a row, each one close against the wall with its head resting on a fancy cushion.
“Is it nice here?” It was Zodelia, who had returned without her haik. Her black crepe European dress hung unbelted down to her ankles, almost grazing her bare feet. The hem was lopsided. “It is nice here?” she asked again, crouching on her haunches in front of her and pointing at the old woman. “That one is Tetum,” she said. The old lady plunged both hands into a bowl of raw chopped meat and began shaping the stuff into balls.
“Tetum,” echoed the ladies on the mattress.
“This Nazarene,” said Zoldelia, gesturing in her direction, “spends half her time in a Moslem house with Moslem friends and the other half in a Nazarene hotel with other Nazarenes.”
“That’s nice,” said the woman opposite. “Half with Moslem friends and half with Nazarenes.”
The old lady looked very stern. She noticed that her bony cheeks were tattooed with tiny blue crosses.
Zodelia stared back at her stupidly. “I don’t know why,” she said, shrugging one fat shoulder. It was clear that the picture she had been painting for them had suddenly lost all its charm for her.
“Is she crazy?” the old lady asked.
“No,” Zodelia answered listlessly. “She is not crazy.” There were shrieks of laughter from the mattress.
The old lady fastened her sharp eyes on the visitor, and she saw that they were heavily outlined in black.“Where is your husband?” she demanded.
“He’s traveling in the desert.”
“Selling things,” Zodelia put in. This was the popular explanation for her husband’s trips; she did not try to contradict it.
“Where is your mother?” the old lady asked.
“My mother is in our country in her own house.”
“Why don’t you go and sit with your mother in her own house?” she scolded. “The hotel costs a lot of money.”
“In the city where I was born,” she began, “there are many, many automobiles and many, many trucks.”
The women on the mattress were smiling pleasantly. “Is that true?” remarked the one in the center in a tone of polite interest.
“I hate trucks,” she told the woman with feeling.
The old lady lifted the bowl of meat off her lap and set it down on the carpet. “Trucks are nice,” she said severely
“That’s true,” the woman agreed, after only a moment’s hesitation. “Trucks are very nice.”
“Do you like trucks?” she asked Zodelia, thinking that because of their relatively greater intimacy she might perhaps agree with her.
“Yes,” she said. “They are nice. Trucks are very nice.” She seemed lost in meditation, but only for an instant. “Everything is nice,” she announced, with a look of triumph.
“It’s the truth,” the women said from their mattress. “Everything is nice.”
They all looked happy, but the old lady was still frowning. “Aicha!” she yelled, twisting her neck so that her voice could be heard in the patio. “Bring the tea!”
Several little girls came into the room carrying the tea things and a low round table.
“Pass the cakes to the Nazarene,” she told the smallest child, who was carrying a cut-glass dish piled with cakes. She saw that they were the ones she had bought for Zodelia; she did not want any of them. She wanted to go home.
“Eat!” the woman called out from their mattress. “Eat the cakes.”
The child pushed the glass dish forward.
“The dinner at the hotel is ready,” she said, standing up.
“Drink tea,” said the old woman scornfully. “Later you will sit with the other Nazarenes and eat their food.”
“The Nazarenes will be angry if I’m late.” She realized that she was lying stupidly, but she could not stop. “They will hit me!” She tried to look wild and frightened.
“Drink tea. They will not hit you,” the old woman told her. “Sit down and drink tea.”
The child was still offering the glass dish as she backed away toward the door. Outside she sat down on the black and white tiles to lace her shoes. Only Zodelia followed her into the patio.
“Come back,” the others were calling. “Come back into the room.”
Then she noticed the porcupine basket standing nearby against the wall. “Is that old lady in the room your aunt? Is she the one you were bringing the porcupine to?” she asked her.
“No. She is not my aunt.”
“Where is your aunt?”
“My aunt is in her own house.”
“When will you take the porcupine to her?” She wanted to keep talking, so that Zodelia would be distracted and forget to fuss about her departure.
“The porcupine sits here,” she said firmly. “In my own house.”
She decided not to ask her again about the wedding.
When they reached the door Zodelia opened it just enough to let her through. “Good-bye,” she said behind her. “I shall see you tomorrow, if Allah wills it.”
“Four o’clock.” It was obvious that she had chosen the first figure that had some into her head. Before closing the door she reached out and pressed two of the dry Spanish cakes into her hand. “Eat them,” she said graciously. “Eat them at the hotel with the Nazarenes.”
She started up the steep alley, headed once again for the walk along the cliff. The houses on either side of her were so close that she could smell the dampness of the walls and feel it on her cheeks like a thicker air.
When she reached the place where she had met Zodelia she went over to the wall and leaned on it. Although the sun had sunk behind the houses, the sky was still luminous and the blue of the wall had deepened. She rubbed her fingers along it: the wash was fresh and a little of the powdery stuff came off. And she remembered how once she had reached out to touch the face of a clown because it had awakened some longing. It had happened at a little circus, but not when she was a child.