A Woman without Qualities
Stephanie Barbe Hammer

There once was a woman without qualities. First, she had been a little baby lying vacantly in her crib, and then a small girl with haunted hungry eyes, and then a teenager whose anger conveyed a certain lack. A lacuna. A void.

But when she grew up her blankness was perceived, not as emptiness, but as a pleasant openness. Such an agreeable person, people would say, particularly the difficult people in her highly cosmopolitan family: her mother was a ballet dancer who had broken both big toes in Italy from too much bravura ad hoc performing on the Spanish Steps; and her father was a Wall Street Man who lost his briefcase full of bonds and stocks on an ill-fated trip to the tundra north of Canada.

In other words, they were typical New Yorkers of a certain class and breed.

Here is what happened with the father: he had been sipping cocktails in a particularly attractive igloo when the briefcase slipped out of the entry hole and was promptly grabbed by an irate baby seal whose mother had just been cooked up and served to the father by eager-to-please Inuit chefs who understood that Wall Street Men needed a lot of meat.

The baby seal took the briefcase and swam off to his relatives above the polar ice cap in Norway. They became quite wealthy.

Subsequently, the girl without qualities and her family became, if not poor exactly, then incredibly anxious about what little money they had left. When they were rich they had lived off of Fifth Avenue in a beautiful townhouse with life-size Augustus Caesar statues guarding the entrance. The apartment inside was spacious and luxurious. There was a window seat in the bedroom and a lot of Louis the 16th French chairs and wall-to-wall leopard print wallpaper that covered even the ceiling.

When the girl without qualities became poorer she and her family moved to a small apartment with painted yellow walls on 3rd Avenue in a 5-floor walkup superintended by a friendly woman and her four dogs.

Through these ups and downs the girl without qualities passed. She meandered through white-gloved garden parties when she was rich, and then sat cross-legged and quiet, eating cold canned spaghetti in front of the television in the yellow living room, when she was not poor exactly. Her mother kept trying and failing to dance Coppelia on pointe, and her father embarked every day with a pith helmet and a large green umbrella in search of the missing briefcase. The girl looked at her dolls, and then at her thigh-high Hot Topic boots, and than at her Rose Book of Fairy Tales, and then at her marijuana cigarettes.

She often smoked a blunt and explained to an ugly red-haired doll that she called Carrots, how it is an advantage not to feel much, not to have a strong wish to do or be anything and to allow yourself to be merely and totally shaped by the wills, the fears and the dreams of others.

“I agree,” said Carrots, nodding her blood-orange tressed head. “More people than you would imagine do precisely as you propose, and it works out in a satisfactory manner most of the time.”

This seemed to be the case for the woman without qualities. She went to college in a lovely New England town because her parents told her to – though they could barely afford it – and she met an upper classman who said, “German shows you are smart and filled with qualities.” So she learned German. She read Hans Arp, Franz Kafka, Hesse, and Mann. She became quite fluent and quite educated.

But still, no qualities.

She drank wine with the upper classmen who were erudite and impressive and she met other men who were creative and energetic, and she drank with them too. One night the man who loved German touched her and she did not deny him further touches, because she figured that some experience in the sexual arena might be useful, qualitatively speaking.

She left the German loving student after graduation and got one of those indifferently paid but chic Manhattan jobs looking up words in the dictionary for an educational textbook company.
That was where she met the man who hides. The man who hides was a child genius who could play 6 simultaneous chess games in his head and calculate the age of the universe combined with the number of steps of the Vatican and at Bloomingdales divided by 8 to the 12th power. He ran the Math and Science department at the company.

One day the woman without qualities fell over the man who hides at the office, as he was making a dash for the copier room. Mostly, he concealed himself under the desk of the managing director who never came to work. But every once in a while he was obliged to emerge from his spot in order to make a copy of a complex equation he had been working on with another reclusive man who lived in China.

The woman tripped over the man as he crawled like a crocodile towards the copier. She stumbled over his elbow and fell right on top of him, knocking him flat on his face. He was very frightened. But when he rolled over and saw how pleasant she looked, he said, “will you?”

And she said “ok.” So they got married.

You might think that they would live happily ever after. The initial excitement of the nuptials was so great that the man who hides actually sat visibly on a lawn chair in Bora Bora for a whole 15 minutes in the daytime. At night, he would allow himself to be discovered by hiding under the suitcase in the hotel room closet and whispering “here” to his bride, as she walked past the closet door, toothbrush in her mouth.

But, when the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, the man who hides went back to concealing himself in ways that made him impossible to locate. The couple communicated by messages tacked on the mirror, stuck to the side of the wastebasket, or scattered like cookie crumbs on the floor of their loft in the now very gentrified district known as Alphabet City.

Soon thereafter, on the way to work, the woman without qualities saw a crazy man with thick glasses and a green t-shirt flailing his arms in the street. He jumped right in front of her in a scary way, shouting, “Are you alive or DEAD, girl?” Then he laughed so hard he fell onto the pavement, rolling over and over with hilarity.

“Perhaps I AM dead,” thought the woman. The doctor had recently pronounced her fit as fiddle. But somehow, she believed in the crazy man more.

That night she dreamt of Augustus Caesar and seals, of ballet music, burning bond notes, and black ballet shoes with high, punitive heels. Of marble steps and plains of snow. A decapitated orange haired dollhead shaking itself and screaming “EMPTY!”

The next day the woman without qualities decided to go to the land of the dead to see if she belonged there. After all, she said to herself, clutching her copy of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, it HAS been done. Since the gateway to the land of the dead is different for each person, she went to the deadest place she knew: the townhouse where she and her parents used to live. She approached one of the August Caesar statues and said “Vale”. He let her pass, and she walked down the stairs from the lobby in into cellar where three women were sewing on sewing machines, making dresses and suits and all manner of lovely pieces of apparel for the dead.

“Am I dead?” she asked the seamstresses. The one woman who was Japanese said “Iye,” and the other two who were Swedish, said “Ingen ahning — you’ll have to talk with the boss, the head designer for the dead, and he’s stepped out in the alley to speak with some customers.”

The three seamstresses pointed at a tall mirror sitting in the middle of the room. The woman walked through it and — there she was, outside on the cobbled back street. The designer for the dead was standing in a smoking jacket surrounded by a crowed of well-dressed shadows. But he turned his skull face to her and said what? Then he looked her over and said I see and took her down the alley past the rotting roses and garbage cans, to a table where her parents sitting, playing canasta.

“Heavens!” exclaimed her mother, raising one pink-shod slippered foot to her head. “What are you doing here?” The father seemed more pleased to see her and asked if the woman without qualities had perchance found the missing briefcase.

I do not think it’s findable, said the designer. Perhaps, he said putting a hand on each of their shoulders; you should concentrate on the game at hand.

As for you, said the designer for the dead, bringing his human looking eyes in the bright white face of bone quite close to the woman without qualities.

I think it fair to say that you aren’t dead yet.

“But,” said the woman without qualities. “I think I should prefer to be dead – I think it might be easier.”

Of that there can be no doubt, murmured the designer fuzzily. He was taking pins out of his mouth as he spoke and was adjusting the hem on the mother’s turquoise tutu.

Nevertheless life, nevertheless a possession.

“Humph,” said the mother. “I have no good cards today.”

The woman without qualities walked back through the mirror. Inside the workroom, the three seamstresses made a clackety clack on the old machines – the ones before electricity, when your feet pump them like an organ and the dresses billow out like sails filled with a laborious wind.

The woman without qualities stood and watched them.

On and on the women worked, wedded to the fabric as the needle plunged up and down, making minute punctures in the spaces between the threads. Relentless, determined, the women at the machines carved out sleeves, etched the edges of buttonholes, and sculpted pant legs – openings at once empty and present – waiting to be filled by those done with living.

At that moment the woman without qualities decided that she would not go home; she wouldn’t even pack a bag. She would just take the avenue that led out of town and keep walking over the bridge and past the warehouses till she got to grass and a smaller two-lane road.

She walked until seagulls flew over her head, crying in that strange sad way they have. She thought she could smell the sea.

Looking at them and listening, the woman without qualities – for the first time ever – squinted and doubled over in pain. Then she straightened and started walking again. Her feet felt the road rolling beneath them, and the feet sent a message to the woman without qualities’ brain, and that neural message became this idea: she was on the right track, and although she was nowhere near arriving at her destination, she was making progress.

And the sense of progress was not a passing sensation; it stayed with her.

It stayed.

Stephanie Barbe Hammer’s short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Pearl, and the Bacopa Review Stephanie is the author of a prose poem chapbook SEX WITH BUILDINGS, and her full length poetry collection HOW FORMAL? is forthcoming in 2014.