by Louise S. Bierig
I moved to Oil City to get away from Sylvia.
But apparently, she found my address, because on December 28, 1928, she sent me a New Year’s card on her exquisite Japanese style stationery. The front of the card showed a sketch of a boat, which reminded me of a Japanese character. This type of art was all the rage in the salons Sylvia attended.
Inside I expected to find a haiku she had written, but instead she wrote a brief note saying how excited she was to have obtained my address. She encouraged me to write her back and promised more unsolicited letters soon.
I lay the card down on my rented table and let my breath out slowly.
No, Sylvia, no. Please leave me alone in Oil City where I can start my life over.
But Sylvia would not leave me alone. Ostensibly, I went to Oil City to take an electrical course. When the lakes froze in winter, the freighters stopped running, so it was a good time to study and learn some new skills. I wanted to advance from an oiler to an engineer, and an electrical license would help with that.
But Sylvia did not care about my career advancement. She wanted to domesticate me, keep me inside all winter, locked in her embrace. She wanted to feed me salt-glazed soft pretzels, and apricot tortes with thick crusts, and German butter cookies, until I gained weight. For despite her fascination with Japanese art, Sylvia was second generation German, a curvy woman, who loved nothing more than baking with flour and butter. At the very least, she wanted me to take my electrical course in Erie.
“That I cannot do,” I told her. “I must go south.”
I did not elaborate on how far south I needed to go. Let her think I went to Louisiana, or maybe, to Antarctica.
But now Sylvia had found me. And she would know I had gone sixty miles south to Pennsylvania’s oil capital. Surely, my sister had provided Sylvia with my address. And now she would be writing me all winter, trying to get me back to her apartment where she wanted to teach me how to put the toilet lid down without slamming and wash the dishes without banging.
“This is a house, Nathan,” Sylvia would admonish. “It is not an industrial environment. It is not the William Mather.”
Now when I worked on the SS William Mather—from late April through November—we would get a weekend’s leave in Erie once a fortnight, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Sylvia then. On a weekend, in spring, summer, or fall, with the windows open and the breeze flowing through, Sylvia was quite tolerable. Enjoyable even.
But not in the winter. I learned that lesson last year and decamped in January to my sister’s, but that was no good because Sylvia would come to visit me there and whine and pester and cajole to get me back over to her apartment.
So Oil City it was. The electrical course was all right. I’ve had plenty of time to explore the city where oil was first discovered, trek around the ghost town of Pithole, and make the rounds of the five bars. Many of these watering holes were popular with the other fellows from my course, so I often bump into familiar faces.
Last night when I returned home from a tour of The Moose and Bob’s Oil Gauge, I took out Sylvia’s New Year’s card again. Her stationary was very elegant, some kind of Japanese influence, as I’ve said before. The cover I now realized was an origami sailboat. Inside, she expressed her delight at finding my address and her intention to write more soon.
It was now a day into the New Year.
When I woke up, it was morning, pale light coming in the white curtains. I was lying on the davenport, Sylvia’s card on the floor. I picked it up and placed it on the buffet. My course wasn’t back in session until after the holidays, so I walked down the flight of stairs to the mailbox. From it, I pulled a letter from Sylvia.
I don’t know how to begin this letter. I am so glad to have found you, while simultaneously completely confused by you. At times I think you are a bad man. Sometimes I even say to myself, he is a bad, little, stiff man. I think of that night and how you kept shouting. But other times I remember all the good in you. I remember the sweetness in your voice, the deep look in your eyes when—
Sorry, Nate, I will try this letter again another day when my thoughts are clearer.
By the time I finished reading the letter, my hands were shaking. This was another thing that infuriated me about Sylvia. She had studied Jungian analysis in Paris and everything that happened had to be analyzed and reanalyzed and then triple analyzed. I never knew what she meant.
A bad, little, stiff man? I had never seen myself that way. And if I was that awful, why was she writing to me?
I did recall shouting at her, particularly last winter, when we were trapped in her rooms, two hundred inches of snow having fallen over the course of the winter. I knew that shouting made me a bad man. But at least I was honest with her. I didn’t keep my aggravation bottled up the way my father did, only to snap at my mother or my brothers or me with some sideways comment that no one understood. People always knew where they stood with me, and when I was angry, I made no bones about pretending otherwise.
Then I was struck with terror that Sylvia would find a way, between snowstorms, to come visit me. I could imagine returning home from my electrical course and finding my landlady had let my “wife” into my apartment. Sylvia would smile and say, “You didn’t come to me, so I came to you.” Then she would berate me for leaving her alone for Christmas and failing to celebrate the holiday with my sister.
Or worse, what if she staked out one of the bars, and I ran into her at The Sinkhole?
I had never forgotten that awful weekend when she’d turned up in Cleveland because I’d missed our rendez-vous in Erie the weekend before. There had been trouble with the prop, or something, but Sylvia had taken it personally. She’d shown up at the ship, pretending to be my wife. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that wives didn’t show up at ships and follow sailors around to bars. Wives waited at home. Instead, I’d booked her a hotel room with a view of Lake Erie and took her out for a sirloin steak.
Alone in my room in Oil City, I dropped to the floor for one hundred push-ups, followed by one hundred sit-ups. I felt better when I continued my William Mather routine as much as possible ashore. In Sylvia’s apartment, I had hung buckets filled with weights from a hook I installed in the ceiling, and lifted them all winter to keep up my strength.
Once I finished my exercise routine, I felt better. I crumpled Sylvia’s letter up into a ball and aimed it towards the waste basket. I missed. Then I regretted having crumpled the bizarre post and decided it would have been better as a paper airplane. I walked across the room to the waste bin and grabbed the ball and began smoothing the paper out. I lay it under the bulk of my electrical guide, hoping the heavy tome would smooth out some of the wrinkles. If that didn’t work, I would iron it. I had once dropped a school paper in a bucket of water, and my mother had helped me air dry the paper and taught me to iron it without scorching the paper.
Once Sylvia’s letter was creaseless, it would make a perfect paper airplane, and I would sail it right out the window of my apartment and let it fly over the snow blanketing Oil City.
Next winter I would have to go further south.
Louise Bierig grew up in the Northwestern corner of Pennsylvania and now lives in the Southeastern corner. In both corners, she has enjoyed writing, sailing, and growing native fruits and vegetables. Currently, she leads the Lansdowne Writers’ Workshop, grows a small garden, and, along with her husband, raises two sons. She has published her work in Philadelphia Stories, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Swarthmorean, Soul Source newsletter, and wrote a newsletter column titled The View from Lupine Valley for the Lansdowne Farmer’s Market newsletter.
Currently, she is at work on a novella set in a Californian mining town.