The country was at war again. Or should she say still? Andrea listened to the soft drone of the news announcer describing grim events in another far-off misunderstood country, while she washed strawberries, blueberries, and green grapes. Behind his voice, missiles whined and exploded.
Outside it was still dark. Amber streetlights illuminated the streets below her window where houses clung to the hillside. Beyond were the sparkling city, the arching spans of the bridge, and the East Bay. The sky was just purple enough to make the outline of mountains beyond visible.
Flicking off the radio, she pushed open the deck doors and let in the chilly morning air. The birds were beginning to wake up. First one, then another, then several began to sing. Andrea stood in the doorway a few minutes, letting the air seep through her nightgown to her body. Then she went back to her work.
She was making a salad for a party at the publishing house where she worked – a retirement party for the editor who had been her mentor and nemesis for the past five years.
As she cut up kiwis, apricots, and plums she remembered all the hours that she had spent seated at Kenneth’s side trying to master his meticulous style of work. Andrea was not careless; she could handle detail – but she liked best to envision the whole, sweep in, and do whatever rewriting she thought was needed. Kenneth had patiently corrected her until she learned to restrain these impulses.
“You’re an editor now,” he would say, touching his bow tie apologetically. “The editor’s job is to serve the writer. Not be the writer.”
It wasn’t easy, but she had been willing to learn. Her income as a writer had been erratic at best, and she and her husband hoped to buy a house. So there it was. Five years later she was an expert on punctuation, and they had their own home.
As she carefully mixed the fruits, Andrea admired their colors. She didn’t know if Kenneth would notice, but it gave her pleasure to have made something pretty for him. All that was needed was a good color to set it off:
Her purple bowl.
This was a bowl, much deeper than it was round, made of a soft smooth plastic that was pleasant to hold. The color was a blue purple that gave off a soft glow like the sheen of an eggplant.
It had been a gift from her first husband, many years ago.
She liked to say she had run away from home to live with him, but the facts were not that dramatic. She’d told her parents that she was going to stay with a group of artist friends – one of whom happened to be Andrew – and left with a suitcase full of books and a few clothes.
Within a week she and Andrew had taken their own place, a room in the upper story of an old house. The hallways had been dingy and dark, but once inside, they had their own small, but perfect, world.
They decorated the room to look like a Calder painting: white walls with flat black trim and all the furniture in combinations of cadmium orange, yellow, and royal blue. The kitchen was in a big closet. Andrea cooked on a hotplate and served up concoctions of brown rice and whatever else they had, which they ate from bright-colored enameled plates, sitting on their mattress on the floor. After dinner, they would drink wine, read aloud, and draw pictures of each other, whispering and laughing until it was nearly dawn.
There were two shops nearby that they liked to visit – one selling toys and the other, fancy cookware. On Saturdays, they wandered through these shops winding up plastic robots and fingering copper pans, delicate crystal.
One night, when Andrea came home from work, she found the purple bowl standing on the orange and yellow dresser. It was, she thought, the first time in her life that she’d gotten something perfect. Exactly what she wanted.
The memory made her smile as she opened her tidy cupboard full of saucepans and casseroles, mixing bowls and frying pans. She took out the purple bowl and wiped it clean. The edges were a little battered now, but when she put the salad in it, the colors of the fruit glowed against the color of the bowl, just as she hoped.
Andrea patted the bowl’s smooth flank with pleasure.
Kenneth was retiring and she would have a new boss with a different style, new demands, but today there would be the party and everyone in the office would do their best to be cheerful.
The sound of exploding bombs came from the bedroom, alerting Andrea that John was up. She stretched and looked at the clock. It was getting late. Outside the sky had turned red along the horizon and brightened to a cool blue. Hurriedly she put the dishes in the dishwasher, wiped down the counter, and went to get ready for work.
There was no more time to think until John had dropped her at the BART station and she was seated on the train with the bowl next to her, her briefcase full of galleys at her feet, and a manuscript on her lap.
The project she was working on was a book on third world economics. Andrea tried to concentrate, but her mind jerked and pulled like a tethered horse. After changing the same comma three times, she gave up and bent down to put the manuscript back into her briefcase.
On the floor under the seat in front of her was a newspaper lurid with big black type.
She thought it was disgusting the way each new war was now packaged, with PR men working double time to make sure everyone understood: America was not making a mistake this time. Not like back then, back when she was young.
That war – the wrong war – had been going on when she moved in with Andrew. They had gone together to protest, waving flags and shouting fierce slogans. At the time she had imagined the Vietnamese when she cried out “Hey, Hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
Now she knew they had all been children.
Andrea kicked the paper out of sight and turned to look at her own insubstantial face reflected in the window as the train passed through a tunnel.
Andrew had once told her “You can never get through life clean.” He had been referring to the way he got out of serving in the Army, but it seemed to describe much more than that – the messy way they had ended their marriage, ripping and tugging each other apart – and even the saner, quieter life she had tried to create with John.
From the change in the pitch and motion of the train, Andrea knew it was approaching her station, but she was still struggling into her coat when the doors opened, and people began to pour out. She hurried after them onto the platform and turned back, startled as the doors slid shut, realizing that she held only her briefcase. The purple bowl was still on the train.
She banged on the door, but the cars had already begun to move. Against her will, the train picked up speed, and then, in a rush, was gone.
For a long time she stood looking after it – astonished and bereft over how much could be lost through a moment’s inattention, leaving behind only a memory of color and a soft weight in her hands.
Alice K. Boatwright’s stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, Amarillo Bay, Beloit Fiction Journal, and Stone Canoe, with new work in CALYX. Her first book was the award-winning Collateral Damage; and Sea, Sky, Islands will be published in 2019. She currently lives in Seattle, but writing about education and public health has taken her around the world. http://alicekboatwright.com