A Grey Plaque
Author’s note: I wrote this piece in response to Eudora Welty’s ‘Phoenix Rising’ short story. It was originally an extension of her work, but instead of focusing on Phoenix I focused on a side character: the Attendant. Later I went back and made it completely my own, but it’s purpose, through symbolism and repetition, has always been to point out our habitual and hypocritical ‘kindnesses’—the selfish actions we use to deceive ourselves into thinking we are kind.
The woman’s lips pursed into a thin bow as the stick of chalky lipstick went around, then around again. The air outside was droopy and grey. The woman inside was droopy and grey. Character seemed to have barely touched either, pieces of occasional red hanging from Christmas ornaments outside, and thin red lips hanging from the woman’s arid face. Upon her grey matte dresser sat a small bottle of perfume. Beside the perfume went the faux gold canister of lipstick. Then long bony fingers grasped the round shape of the perfume bottle, long grey fingernails clinking against the glass. One squeeze, then a squeeze again, and a mist of stale earthiness descended upon the tall gray form. Long, droopy eyelids drooped further in satisfaction as she pinned her character to her breast pocket. ‘Attendant’, it said, in thin and rigid lines.
The world lacked the Attendant. She knew it, and drew great satisfaction from it. Being so far removed from the normal realm of humanity gave the Attendant a feeling of power, of the right to manipulation. As she walked down the gray cement sidewalk, her thin lips led in unchallenged command, like the nose of a hunting bloodhound. Beside her as she passed, a small child reached up his chubby hand to touch the red bow hanging off a gray shop door. The lips arched, indignation pulling them taught even as the child’s innocent fingers pulled tight the crisp bow. Droopy eyes took in worn trousers and long fingers reached out, flicking the soft ones. The little hand was plucked away, returning to its owner in wounded astonishment. Click, click, clack, the gray heels on the thin gray legs snapped away in righteous judgement, a red mouth pursed. The world lacked the Attendant, and she knew it.
The Attendant enjoyed her occupation as much as she enjoyed anything. Sitting behind the desk in the gray doctor’s office, she fulfilled her kindness to mankind. Goodness was metered out precisely, measured and given for the deserving few. “Sir,” the Attendant said to the corpulent, well-fed mayor, “the doctor has cleared his schedule to see you”. To the limpid woman shaking with chills she merely glanced at, ascertaining the cheapness of dress, before returning with concentration to her negligible paperwork. Then, with longsuffering graciousness written upon her ashy face, “Name? Don’t dawdle, dear. We’re very busy”, all the while congratulating herself upon her common decency. Decency that was metered out in perfect rhythm, almost in sync with the red rimmed clock in far right corner of the room. Click click clack went it’s heavy arms, grey against the red, spitting out the time.
Droopy eyes drooped lower that evening. The Attendant’s shoulders hunched inwards, a protective shell against the last rays of golden sun. Pedestrians pushed and lurched by, upsetting the Attendant’s equilibrium. Long eyes took in the fellow gray pedestrians: the long gray bodies enclosing long gray organs. Who was to differentiate between one organ and another in these monochromatic citizens? The heart beat gray, shallow notes while the brain hummed gray, worthless tones. Doctors only treated the hearts instead of the brains by rote, by a memorization of location. The Attendant saw a gray shadow of this, and it displeased her. Click, click, clack, went her gray heels through the dark gray doors of her apartment. Around, and around again went the removal of her bright red mouth. Her gray form, indiscernible in the gray surroundings now, went unnoticed. Off came the gray plaque, called ‘Attendant’. The world suddenly didn’t lack plaqueless Attendants. In fact, it never did.