The Purple List

This room is not neutral. Cold light falls from low undressed tubes. Dark slate hangs heavy from the whole front wall, dull, absorbing. Chalk soot lingers and stucco sponge walls blot up mood. Four could-be buffet tables are awry and bare. Separate places to sit are askew, in corners: fixed horizontal arms as hard as the small, unyielding seats.

A woman knows all this at once, not knowing how and chooses a position for advantage. Seats fill in around her. The clock hands straighten up to vertical, the door opens again; a man's entry hushes the sounds.

"What's so grim about this room?" He lowers into the center place left for him by unspoken consensus. The woman receives the question, directs attention to the input, urges herself to refine the most acute sensation.

She scans, matching her short gray unmanageable hair with colors and curls, ranks herself for age and skin tone. She is perhaps third oldest of the 57 here, one head more frosty even than her own, several faces more creased. Sitting and squatting, pushing against the walls, they are being writers. She has her own chair with an extra large arm.

She also has with her (but does not yet hand in) an essay to submit for The Review. This course section is short fiction. Word is he's good is why she's here, not for stories as her practice. Her consciousness is confusion now of writings, thought and form. He speaks of dew; she thinks of dust. She yearns for discipline and craft and hopes she'll be accepted into the group.

Not chosen, she registers as auditor, promising no submissions: she breaks her word. "Please read this." She hopes to immediately hook his fancy and regard for The Review. He takes the pages, her most bold presentation, blue-bound with plastic clip. He will not promise.

The woman is at risk and now will wait. Not chosen, she works on the assignment, feeling like a chimp scratching in wonder as fiction's forms are now found within her skills.

She recollects herself, logician, so proud of having studied, by a symbolic name, the Boolean basis of digital computers in philosophy that junior year when also wedding bells tolled.

Next pregnant, house proud, mommy, she used a generic efficiency to beat depression until she lost. There was the first significant chasm, the first soaring, heaving, crawling across. Good mommies don't abandon their young. She must be someone else.

She sold her house and silver: pride gone, she moved; bought her very own, very first contrary Volkswagen; fell in love; was abandoned; and lingered -- weary, willing.

Despite her Seven Sisters Baccalaureate, key to cultured pearls and cashmere, only the Internal Revenue wanted to hire her. In five years she was vested, inherited some money, and retired. She had health insurance, reinstatement rights, and Birkenstocks, and now wanted to look for herself internationally.

She told the English Buddhist monk who lectured at the Bangkok City Museum's morning talk that she felt firm in practicing rightly, but she didn't desire or believe in another turn. He rested her spirit by offering many chances within one mortal life.

The orphans at Darjeeling's shelter sang her happy birthday and didn't know their own. Left-overs, dates not recorded, a Calcutta orphan clung. To detach his heat from her icy-for-survival heart she had to wound herself. Her surface was torn. She couldn't fold another blouse, seal one more see-through bag. This travel-self was no longer hot.

Choosing a stay-at-home hobby, she shopped for displays, keyboards, traded software. For three years she edited, organized, and saved. The woman was closing in on fifty and delighted in not being afraid of data processing.

When she arrived, she hired a cafe, wore her Varanasi sari, invited her children and friends and beamed at crossing over to a more blatant style.

Seeking still, skilled now at processing words, not hindered by her unreadable hand, delegating to WordPerfect (her internal editor), the woman, briefly, sweetly, begins to compose and to reveal.

She has been the only one to listen to herself. She does not want a diary, a journal, not even a data directory. She hankers for an equal reader to batter with and test her forming strength.

A simple thank you, conceived in proper New England manner, is misfiled only to appear in print as Letter to an Editor. Oh my is she amazed. Is this the righteous path?

Fueled by a local natural event she deliberately, carefully, non-antagonistically slides print-outs into the space between the locked glass doors of the daily paper's office, at night. Words spill out as rubble tumbles and rifts open wide.

She buys a subscription and reads her words, her name. She is stopped in her walks. Her UPS man scrawls on a package "Great Letter." She withdraws. The newspaper changes its publishing policy. She stops.

A few bursts remain, a few letters still to county boards and city chairs. A political leader knows her name despite no Hello tag. She is ashamed.

And still the words spew out. She leaves a second keyboard in the other room for catching the wonder. She thinks it an odd mate in her queen foam bed and wishes just once more for kiss and afterwards, assurance.

Chris calls, anesthesiologist and kindred. "I've been meaning to tell you how much I liked your ideas that drew the parallel between chaos theory and mania. I don't know as much math as you; I find the medical model valid. There's been some interesting work on restoring brain chaos in connection with several neurological disorders." The woman inflates and tears with the relief of being heard, understood and counted. She's already archived the paper, unsure of her soundness when not one of four requests-for-comments is returned.

So then, not fact or opinion or poetry class, is Wednesday: she has meetings; then, this -- fiction. She thinks the teacher avoids the connection of madness and creation. She brings him an inventory of thirty well-known authors labeled nuts by doctors, some who have taken their own lives. She prints her list with a purple ribbon, making purple names.

At the end of the second class meeting, she asks him to read her newspaper writing. She rehearses a good response to the question she expects. He doesn't ask why. He doesn't ask; she cannot remark to him. She groans to bring out her purpose. "I want my name, my name, purple on that list."

8 Sylvia Caras, 1991

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