Jodi's Pottery

"Yes? Who is it?"

"Jodi?"

"Brandy? BRANDY!"

The women embraced, Jodi pressing her cheek to the visitor’s sweat-warmed shoulder while hugging with the crooks of her arms (to prevent her grimy fingers from soiling Brandy’s blouse).

"I thought you’d never get here."

On stepping back, Jodi combed (with her wrist) a dangling lock of hair.

"Ugh, look at me; I’m mud from head to foot. I’ve been working at my potter’s wheel ever since sunup."

She now acknowledged Simon.

"You brought a friend?"

"Jodi, this is Simon. Simon—Jodi."

"No! Don’t shake hands; I'm filthy. See?"

She raised her clay-caked fingers.

"Please, please come inside; make yourselves at home."

They stepped into the kitchen, a tiny room with propane appliances, kerosene lanterns, pots, pans, dishes piled high in a stainless steel sink, and an extended windowsill lined with egg-carton planters. Open-shelved cupboards revealed a substantial stock of can goods. A pantry housed two fifty-pound sacks of rice. The cramped environs were malodorous thanks to a chunk-filled box of kitty litter. Chairs constructed from fruit crates were arranged at a thigh-high table (formerly a telephone cable spool) part of its surface squared (to fit it against one wall), and covered with a tie-dyed drop cloth that quaintly matched the window’s home-made curtains.

"It seems we’ve caught you in the middle of something, Jodi."

"First things first; you must be thirsty. What can I offer you?"

"No, we’re fine; we just had tea with a fellow named Oscar Lavalieré."

"Oh, you’ve met our resident librarian? Isn’t he a lovely old coot? Just a sec; my clay is getting dry. I was working on a tea set—thanks for reminding me—when I heard your knock."

"Oh, can we come watch?"

"Sure, if you’d really like to."

Jodi led her guests down a narrow corridor (past what seemed to be the only other room in the house), out a back door, and into an equally cramped (if practical) work space.

"My studio."

Jodi seated herself at a clay-spattered kick-wheel, beside which half a dozen cups sat basking on a low wooden table.

"This won’t take long. Sure you don’t mind?"

On a tray that framed an enormous hump of clay sat one bowl of water, two elephant-ear sponges, a jar full of assorted trimming and scoring tools, and  a cutting wire next to a short-stemmed broad-bladed spatula. With a few hearty kicks, Jodi set the wheel in motion, squeezing drops of moisture onto the leaden-colored mass, then (as if performing magic) pulled a perfect cup from its spinning center. Deftly, she drew the cutting wire through the vessel's base, then slid in the spatula, and, lifting gently, shifted it onto the low wooden table, all the while maintaining the wheel's steady pace. She repeated this operation time and again, the clay giving birth to cups as if by itself, Jodi acting as midwife.

"I need a dozen. How many are there?"

Brandy counted.

"Eleven."

"I’ll pull a couple of extras to allow for casualties."

These came forth as effortlessly as had their predecessors.

"You’re really good at that. It’s wonderful watching them wiggle their way from that glob. Is it as fun to do as it looks?"

Jodi arched her eyebrow and smiled an invitation.

"Why don’t you see for yourself. There’s still enough clay for a few more."

"Do you really think I could?"

"If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty."

Brandy grinned at Simon.

"No, I’m getting used to it. So… what do I do?"

Jodi gave up her seat. Brandy sat at the wheel like a child with a brand new toy.

"Okay, kick the counterweight with your right foot to get the wheel going… That’s fast enough. Try to keep it at about that speed, but don’t kick when your hands are on the clay; that takes a lot of practice… Now, wet the top a little with your sponge. Not too much!"

The excess water whipped off onto Brandy’s clothes, speckling her blouse and pants with a shower of grayish-brown sludge. She laughed.

"Ah, well; they’ll wash. What’s next?"

"Rest your hands on either side, then press in lightly—equally—until you have a cylinder… That’s right… That’s it… Not too hard… There."

"It looks a bit like the nipple on a great big boob."

"Wet your hands a little… Now, find the center with your thumb… pressing down… and, slowly, let it sink, sink, sink into the middle."

"Ooo, that feels funny; it’s sucking my thumb!"

"Now pull it out, and, using three fingers—not the pinkie—press back in. Keep your hand steady… Okay, very gently, pull to widen the hole. Stop!… Fine. Now, with your other hand, touch the clay outside at the exact spot your fingers are inside—at the bottom. Got it?"

"Uh huh."

"Press both sides gently, evenly, as you pull your fingers up, up, up toward the top."

"It’s getting taller!"

"That was good. Wet your hands again; that’s important so the clay doesn’t get too dry, or it’ll grab. Okay, stick your hand back in and do exactly the same. Start at the bottom… Really try to feel the thickness… Easy does it."

"The wheel’s slowing down!"

"That’s okay. Finish the pass… Fine."

"Should I kick some more?"

"Some… Now, this time you’ll give the cup its shape. Hand in… Feel the wall… Press lightly… Now, as you come up, allow your inside fingers to press a little harder than your outside ones. Then, push more on the outside, as you get up near the rim… Excellent!"

"Look, Simon; I’m doing it!"

"Now you can flare the top a tad. Start where the form curves inward, and bend it outward as you come up. Gradually… That’s it… Good. Use your sponge to smooth the lip. Perfect! Do you want me to take it off for you, or would you like to try it yourself?"

"Talk me through."

"Okay. Kick… Enough. Now hold the wire taught between your thumbs. Start right here, and pull it through, in one level motion… Good. Now, ease in the spatula… Steady… Lift… Here, slide it off onto this board. Jiggle it a little… Careful… Wonderful, Brandy; you’re a natural!"

"Okay, Simon, your turn. Is that all right, Jodi? Can Simon have a go?"

"If he wants."

"Simon?… Oh, come on; it’s fun. We’ll have ourselves a pair of His and Her cups."

She grabbed at his hands playfully.

"There. You’re all muddy now; you might as well have something to show for it."

Simon shyly replaced her at the wheel. It had been a long time, but Jodi’s instructions had served to refresh his memory. When he felt the moist clay whirling under his fingers, the facility he had acquired sprang back to life. Without much trouble he produced a passable mate. Jodi looked impressed.

"You’ve done this before."

Simon made hand signals; Brandy interpreted.

"He means he did it a long, long time ago. At college?"

He nodded.

Jodi seemed to take Simon’s muteness in stride, and, if anything, warmed a little toward him.

"Where did you two meet?"

"I found him hitchhiking out in the middle of nowhere. And it’s a good thing I picked him up; if it hadn’t been for Simon, my car might still be stuck, half-buried in the Arizona desert. But that’s a long story. What about you? How’d you find this place? Do you like it? Can you really support yourself by selling pots? I have a thousand questions."

"How long can you stay?"

"Well, we only thought for the day."

"Oh, no; the day’s almost over! You have to stay longer, you… Can’t you spend one night, at the very least?"

Brandy looked to Simon. His outer impassivity was hard to read.

"We’ll see."

"Besides, if you do stay, you’ll both be able to fire your pots tomorrow morning."

Jodi carried their green-ware across the yard to a damp-cabinet, and, elbowing open its doors, placed the work inside. It must have been a day for cups; with this last set’s addition, there were four full shelves worth.

"If you stay a little bit longer, your pots can be glazed."

She dumped what was left of the clay lump into a slip barrel, sponged off the wheel, and proceeded with what appeared to be a day-to-day routine… one she obviously enjoyed… and one she seemed more than happy to be sharing with a friend (as Brandy recollected the dance club’s gaudy waitress costume, comparing it to Jodi’s mud-caked cut-offs, oversize shirt, and well-worn flip-flops—much more suitable attire, she decided, the smell of Mother Earth far superior to the stench of secondhand smoke and happy-hour beer).

"There, that’s done. Now, what I really need is a dunk in the tub."

"Good; I’ll come and scrub your back."

"No, no. You stay with your friend."

Simon signed to Brandy that he intended to take a stroll.

"See, Jodi? He’ll be all right by himself. Now's our chance to catch each other up on who, what, when, and where."

Simon took his leave.

"Really, Jodi, I’ve been dying to talk about lots of stuff to someone, anyone… (She noted Simon’s direction; he had headed out the back and was climbing toward the local water tower.)… especially about ‘Mister Chatterbox,’ yonder; in the last, what(?)—forty-eight hours(?)—we’ve been joined at the hip."

Jodi reserved comment. Instead, she seemed to be grappling with a difficult decision—her anxious state infectious; Brandy, of a sudden, felt likewise ill-at-ease.

"Are you alright?"

Jodi looked beseechingly into Brandy’s emerald eyes. Reassured by their kindness, she came to a resolution.

"Let’s wash off the worst of it out here; shall we?"

Holding a garden hose, Jodi rinsed off Brandy, then Brandy rinsed off Jodi. Both reentered the kitchen, dripping wet.

"Towels are in the bathroom, Brandy; you go ahead. I’ll find something you can wear so we can launder your clothes."

"Oh, they’re not that bad. A damp cloth should do. I’ll run your bath water."

The bathroom was even tinier than the kitchen. It had an old-style iron-legged tub, almost child-size, but nice and deep. Brandy turned on the taps, then looked overhead. The ceiling was painted a midnight-blue, with a yellow crescent moon and constellations of silver stick-on stars. The walls themselves depicted the Zodiac, all twelve signs, done in collage—photographs interspersed with pen and ink drawings (their naive style reminiscent of Esperanto’s entranceway—though sprightlier, more like doodles, than those upon the gate). As Brandy wetted a washcloth and rubbed at the spots on her clothes, she wondered what had prompted Jodi’s distress, until, that is, she recalled the rumored "deformity." Those few times Brandy and Jodi had shared the club’s dressing room (utilized by dancers and waitresses alike), Jodi always arrived with her outfit on already.

'Which doesn't prove by itself she had something to hide.'

Brandy tested the water—ice cold—as Jodi (in a long-sleeve night shirt) shyly padded in. She carried a white linen dressing gown draped over her shoulder, an unlit candle and matchbox held in either hand.

"This water’s absolutely arctic, Jodi."

"You might as well put the plug in; it never gets warmer. I don’t have a hot water heater."

"But it’s freezing."

"I’m used to it—and grateful, believe you me, to have running water period. I didn’t when I moved in."

Brandy noticed the candle.

"No electricity, either?"

"When your landlord doesn’t charge rent it’s hard to complain. Oscar’s trying to rig up an old generator for me. But that won’t be in service until he finds some missing parts."

"Jeezus, Jodi, this is what I call roughing it."

"Oh, it’s not so bad. It was at first. I didn’t know anybody, and the place needed a lot of work to make it even this livable. Summer was terrible. Winter was worse. I froze until I got my pot belly stove—which I found abandoned in the foothills near a broken-down shack. A neighbor helped me lug it here; Oscar did the installation. We’ll light a fire tonight, if you like. It makes the whole house warm and intimately cozy."

Eyes awash with melancholy, Jodi managed a smile.

"We were told you have someone staying with you?"

The smile went sour.

"I’m so glad you met Oscar. He’s really been… "

Tears choked off her voice.

"Jodi, what's wrong?"

"He’s gone. He left me."

She broke down. Brandy wrapped her arms around Jodi’s trembling shoulders, rocked her side to side, consoled her heartfelt sobs… as pink sky turned into gray beyond the bathroom’s solitary window (it would soon be dark)—while 'the other widespread rumor' came back to Brandy's mind.

"Is it the boy?"

Jodi nodded.

Brandy waited.

Jodi, her voice barely audible, ventured to explain.

"How much do you know?"

"Only what my roommate told me; that the boy’s father had made it pretty hard on you, and that, ultimately, you had to skip town."

"I’ll bet she told you more than that."

"Barbara's versions of anything are never all that reliable. Suppose you tell me what took place yourself."

"Thanks, Brandy."

Jodi took a breath, then—haltingly—told her tale.

"I met him one night… On the Boulevard… He was panhandling… Tried to hit me up for a quarter… I asked him how old he was, and he went into this hard-guy, man-of-the-streets routine… Brandy, it would have broken your heart to hear this little lost kid, barely thirteen years old, pretending to know what’s what in the big, bad world. I asked him if he had a place to stay. He wouldn’t give me a straight answer so I figured he hadn’t. I invited him to come home with me; I’d give him a hot meal, a bath, and a bed. He was suspicious, but I think mine was the first genuinely innocent offer anyone had made—and he was hungry, and scared, and just desperate enough, by then, to take me up on it.

"At that time I was working two jobs: waiting tables all day in a crummy restaurant, then, four nights a week—same deal—at Arnie’s grungy club. I had to leave the boy alone in my apartment next morning. I told him he could stay for a while if he wanted. Till then he’d volunteered zero in terms of useful information, nothing about where he lived, why he'd left home; he wouldn't even tell me his given name. I was supposed to call him 'Tramp.' I thought he was being a smart aleck, but he was dead serious. So that's what I called him—until a week and a half went by, when he confided that his real name was Eric. Tramp, it turned out, had been the name of his dog—which died the night that Eric ran away. His father had come home drunk, and accidentally run the dog over in their driveway.

"Brandy, every time this kid told a story about his home life I wanted to weep. By the time I’d coaxed enough out of him to piece together the whole picture, I knew I couldn’t let him go back to his former life. He refused to attend school, and I was away too much to be doing him much good, so I quit the club. I thought I maybe could give him lessons myself. Eric’s a bright boy, just all confused and needing someone to care. He started asking me if I loved him. He asked every day. I always said yes. I meant it, too. We were only six years apart, but I felt more like his mother, his teacher, his big sister and best friend, all wrapped into one. It was good for a while, pure and sweet… until, that is, Eric’s dear-ol’-dad tracked him down.

"I guess someone saw us together at a pizza parlor one evening and followed us home. The next day, when I got back from work, Eric was gone. I didn’t know what to do, so I just worried for five days. On the sixth, he was back. He told me that his father had been waiting for him out on the street in front of my apartment. When Eric went out that morning he was collared and dragged back home. He said his father beat him, then locked him in the basement for seventy-two hours, threatening to do worse if he ever caught him near ‘that pervert’ again. I’d become the scapegoat, you see. I would have gone to his mother except she, apparently, condoned whatever her husband did. There was nothing I could do. Eric begged me to let him spend the night. As I was struggling to decide, there came a furious knock on my door. Guess who(?)—yelling, swearing, making such a racket, I let the man in. He slapped me. Then he called me the filthiest names he could think of, grabbed Eric in a hammerlock, and left. I wanted to call the cops, but I was afraid dear-ol’-dad would accuse me of kidnapping—or worse.

"My neighbors started staring at me, after that, like I was some sort of pedophile. Eric, I felt sure, would try to come back. But I was really afraid of what his father might do, so I moved. I did try to see Eric once, out in front of his school; I wanted him to have my new address, and to know I hadn't abandoned him. I waited on my only day off, but he never showed. Finally, he turned up at the restaurant where I worked—fresh bruises and all. I gave him the keys, and, for just about a month, things were calm. We got to be very close. I think we were both even happy—until Eric started giving off sexual vibes. We had a heart-to-heart talk one night; the issue seemed resolved.

"But dear-ol’-dad, in the meantime, found out where I worked. He went there and caused a terrible scene, accusing me of all sorts of vulgar, untrue things, demanding that I tell him where I’d ‘hidden’ his ‘poor corrupted child.’ I wouldn’t tell; he wouldn’t leave; so my boss called the cops. I was forced to take the whole team home. When they led poor Eric away, he glared at me like I’d betrayed him. Next day I was fired from my daytime job.

"I thought of packing up and leaving town, taking Eric with me, but then I started asking myself how I really felt about our relationship. I’d never thought of it in man-woman terms before. Maybe I’d been kidding myself; I was lonely. Maybe Eric’s love, such as it was, fulfilled some need. Did I harbor sexual feelings for him? Such ugly accusations had been made, so often, I started to believe them. I decided it would be better—for all concerned—if I made myself scarce.

"I’d met Oscar once when I was a high-school student working in my parents’ book store back in San Francisco. He talked about this place; I guess I never forgot. It just sort of came to me when I was trying to decide where to go. I didn’t even write to him; I simply showed up. Oscar pretended to remember me, offered me this house, conceded it wasn’t much but said it was mine for the taking. He owns a little property and, I’ve heard since, has done the same for a few others. Anyway, I thought I’d forget the whole affair, admitting to myself I had been physically attracted to Eric; but always I behaved in a good and decent way. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I felt at peace. But, even so, my heart stayed ill-at-ease. Being so lonely here didn’t help. I’d avoided making friends—to punish myself, I suppose. Months passed. Oscar persisted in introducing me to people. Finally—as in very gradually—I started coming out of my shell. Then Eric arrived.

"I don’t know how he found me. I’d only written to three people back in LA; he didn’t know any of them. He’d hitchhiked all the way here—‘on a hunch,’ he claimed. I couldn’t help being happy, but… Brandy, I swear to God, he really had changed. You know how boys are at that age, their hormones all gone haywire. He was taller. His voice had gotten deeper. You could tell he was on the verge of sprouting a heavy beard. In fact, physically, he was a very handsome young man. Mentally, on the other hand… I don’t know; he’d gotten sort of… cruel. That hard-guy look he used to put on when he wanted me to take him seriously had become a permanent part of his street-wise face. It was as if all the hatred that once surrounded him had managed to creep inside; you could see it peeking out from his cold-blooded eyes. He claimed he loved me, just like before, but his face said otherwise. Whenever I tried to reach him—the little boy, that is—the juvenile shut me out. Unless he wanted something. Then he’d wear whatever kind of look would get him his way. He tried to manipulate me. If he hadn’t been so awkward about it, I might have been fooled. But it was obvious; from our very first night back together I knew exactly what Eric had in mind. His first attempt was pretty crude. I discouraged him—sharply. Not because of our age difference; I just didn’t find him attractive anymore. Maybe that sounds twisted—wanting him when he was a little boy, wanting him not at all as a full-grown young man. But the kind of man Eric was—or had become—just turned me off. I guess I don’t like men much anyway, but snickering, locker-room types I detest most of all. I still felt sorry for him. His accounts of how he’d spent the past eight months were as full of horror as ever: more beatings, fights, running away, shoplifting, dope peddling, hustling. He’d always finish by telling—by boasting—about 'fucking' some girl. Or about some ‘woman’ who 'fucked' him. I think his dirty talk was intended to arouse me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how offensive I thought it was. I know all about rejection; Eric had suffered more than his fair share. But I didn’t know what to do about him, either. He had only been here a week and already was having sex with two local teenagers. I didn’t blame them; from their perspective, Eric was a deep, dark stranger—a 'dangerous desperado.' Nonetheless, their attachment was doing him no-damn-good. And, instead of easing our sexual tension, matters got worse.

"Brandy, I wanted him to understand that touching isn’t fucking, that physical relations can show how two people care, that sex is more than 'kicks' when you have it with someone worth loving. How, though?"

Jodi faltered. She had spoken almost calmly (despite wringing her hands). Her continuing would depend, it appeared, on the room's growing darkness. 

Her pause lengthened.

Brandy waited, sensing they had come to the issue’s crux; the story told about Eric was doubtlessly a preamble.

Jodi lifted her head in the failing light.

"You see, Brandy, I'm different."

Having thus begun, the rest came forth more easily.

"It’s the way I was born. My parents were very religious; they didn’t believe God’s Will ought ever to be changed. I’m glad, in some ways. But I never could forgive them for keeping me so unaware; up until I was six years old I thought I was perfectly normal. Then, playing hospital with some girlfriends—it was my turn to be the patient—I could see, from the looks on their faces, that something was wrong. I ran home crying. The next day back at school, I knew they had blabbed. Everybody knew. All my classmates stared. When I stared back, they looked away. I remember thinking some of them even looked scared. No one would play with me anymore; I was ignored—which was a blessing in disguise; I wish it had lasted. But curiosity won out. Kids started asking me to show them. I wanted love and attention like any other child, so I gave in, reasoning that once they sneaked their peeks they’d go back to treating me like before.

"Well, they never did. There was always someone new who wanted to see. The kids in my class had older brothers and sisters; they wanted a turn, too. Brandy, it was a nightmare. Every time I saw someone pointing at me I hated myself a little more. Eventually the teacher found out what was going on and put an immediate stop to my private ‘show-and-tells.’ Word was out, however; Jodi Dawns was ‘deformed.’ My folks started getting phone calls from outraged parents. There were even threats. Finally, my father got permission to enroll me in a school outside our district. It meant driving me a long way there and back, but it was a fresh start. I learned to be shy and secretive. I kept to myself."

She reached for Brandy's hand and warmed to its sympathetic squeeze.

"I’ll bet you weren’t expecting to have to listen to my whole life’s story. Sorry, Brandy."

"I’m glad you’re telling me. Now I won’t feel guilty when I talk about me. Let’s light the candle."

"No! No, please. Not yet."

"Okay. Take it easy. The candle can wait. You still haven’t told me what became of the boy."

"Can’t you guess?"

Brandy waited.

"Eric didn’t suspect. There was no reason to tell him. And, up till then I’d never had sex with a man."

"Never?"

"I don’t know why, exactly. I find some men attractive. Whatever the reason, Eric became a sort of test. I didn’t want us to have sex, but, if it happened, I wanted it to be beautiful for him and me both. I know that sounds all confused. It was; I was. I couldn’t make up my mind; until Eric made it up for me."

She paused as if to rally her former resolve.

"I was always very careful about being dressed when Eric—or anyone, for that matter—was around. Then, five days ago, he caught me by surprise. I had taken a bath and had only a towel wrapped around me when he came in. His pupils were all dilated, so I knew he was on something. He grabbed me. I asked him, very calmly, to let me go. He wouldn’t. We struggled and the towel came undone. He had me pinned underneath him and was groping with his hand. Then he froze. He looked from my face to where he was touching, then jerked his hand away. I wrenched free and covered myself. He got up and stared… then backed his way to the door…then stopped to call me "FREAK!" He screamed it at me viciously, then turned-tail and ran."

Jodi was trembling. Cold night air had crept in through the open window. Brandy got up and closed it. She lit the candle, set it on the bathtub’s edge, then knelt beside her friend and gave her a hug.

"Come on, Sweetie, you’ll feel a whole lot better after a good soak n' scrub."

Jodi struggled to speak, her eyes full of tears.

"I haven't seen him  since... and probably never will."

*

*

Simon grew numb.

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