Winter 1993, Volume 10.1


F. R. Lewis


F. R. Lewis (M.L.S., University at Albany/SUNY) tutors eighth, ninth, and tenth grade students in expository writing for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. She also conducts private fiction-writing workshops and edits the literary journal Groundswell. Her stories have twice taken the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. In April 1991 she was a fellow at The Millay Colony for the Arts. While with the New York State Writers Institute, she helped to develop and coordinate NPR's "Public Radio Book Show." Her stories have recently appeared in The Alaska Quarterly Review, Ascent, Cottonwood, Negative Capability, The American Voice, The Chariton Review, Kalliope, Karamu, and others. Her first one-act play was published by the Alabama Literary Review.

For herself, the woman still in process chooses the name Leeaura. The name, she writes in her journal, the sound of the name, she writes, evokes the woman who will emerge when the process is complete.

The beginning of the process, the first step on the way to Leeaura, happened longer ago than anyone had noticed, with those who might have noticed, the ones in the bestif not onlypositions to have noticed, being the woman's mother and the woman's father (except, of course, back then she was still in school, still a school girl, not yet the woman who chose the name).

Somehow, the engineer knows. Somehow he knows to say, the engineer, that they had not noticed, the woman's mother and the woman's father. He says, at least, that if they had indeed noticed, they had not in fact said.

You were not there, the woman says. How could you know?

Ah, the engineer says. All our stories, you see, are the same.

No, the woman says, let me tell you mine.

Cat, the woman says. What I did to the cat.

What I did to the cat, the woman said, my mother and my father did not notice.

Yes, the engineer says.

An after-school job, the engineer says.

Telling your people you were going to the library, the engineer says. Telling your people that you needed to.

I did need to, the woman says.

To keep up, the woman says.

Part of what you earned, you saved, the engineer says. You began to bank. Here, at this Bank, your balance grew.

With the remainder, the engineer says. Cat. Modifying you thought of it as, what you were doing. Modifying the cat.

I adored the cat, the woman says. The family cat.

Of course, the engineer says. And how beautiful the family cat was when the modifying was complete: the copper of her coat, the thickness of it, the graceful length of tail. Extraordinary, you thought.

Tawny, the woman says. The cat was tawny.

A detail, the engineer says, moving arm and hand in a gesture the woman later practices in her changing room, studying her rendition of the gesture in the mirror, working until the gesture looks the way she has remembered.

And best of all, the engineer says, you think no one has found you out.

No one, the woman says.

How could they have not noticed? the woman says. Oh my, the cat was splendid.

And lucky, the engineer says. If the cheap pairs with which you modified the creature were not also good pairs . . . well . . . no one could have not noticed.

In any case, no ready-made pairs for you, the engineer says. Greatness does not result from using ready-made goods.

One of the woman's eyebrows lifts, as though it has a life independent of its mate's.

Listen, my dear, the receptionist had said, you are lucky to get an appointment. This engineer, he does no parties, no clothing or furniture, no wall-cover matching. No color coordinating whatsoever. Those are things of his past. This is a man who has arrived. There is a limit to the things he will now do, even for money.

Let me tell you, the receptionist had said, if you are not a start-over-from-scratch, you do not have a chance.

So the woman at their first meeting, hers with the engineer, does not speak finger nail moons or middle toe each foot to the engineer or the pair waiting at home that she discovered the day previous in a charming little boutique, the pair she has not had out of its container, the pair she has stored according to directions.

Most people can barely stand to wait until they get home, the proprietor had said, going sniffy when the woman still in process inquired storage.

In any case, she scratched that pair off the list she has kept in her journal for several years, if not from the beginning, sent them to the incinerator, expunged the boutique from the page headed "Resources." That she might have returned the pair, unopened, properly stored, does not occur.

In her journal, the journal on which the name "Leeaura" decorates the cover in gold letters, stamped, the woman still in process has recorded the process. Not starting from the cat, the cat was chronicled in another journal. This journal is dedicated to "Leeaura."

The woman's journal is orderly, contained. Assets and liabilities on facing pages, like to like, one to lengthen, the other diminish, expressions of movement, measurements of progress. All laid out, waiting the proper Bank balance. By the time the woman called the engineerthat is, the engineer's office, his secretaryher account, the would-be Leeaura's account at the Bank fairly bulged with savings, quite enough the woman still in process had noted in the journal, on a page headed "Notes," to complete "Leeaura," even if sheas she evidently mustcurtailed bargain-hunting, and with her salary, the woman who was not yet Leeaura's salary, a shield against contingency.

The engineer leans across the desk toward her, the woman still in process.

So, the engineer says. You want to be transformed?

Does she have the stamina, the engineer asks her. Does she have the money? Is her dedication such that it will carry her through to completion?

You must bring the fullness of your heart to the enterprise, the engineer says.

The woman still in process has not yet told the engineer "Leeaura."

There are questions, the engineer says. The Bank has questions. The Bank wants to know that you understand what you are doing. The Bank wants me to tell you that should you go forward with this, the possibility exists that not even your people will recognize you.

How can that be true? says the woman still in process. They are like the others, my people. Without hint of surface blemish. How could I look less like them than I do now?

There it is and there it is, the engineer says. If you are determined, you require my skills.

If you can afford me, no one else will do, the engineer says.

And there are conditions, the engineer says. You must listen closely when I speak, and when I give you reading matter, you must attend what is on the page. You must strive to understand my meanings, my tactics, and to adhere.

We will both learn, the engineer says. You must, however, not argue with me. Your argument, any argument you have, is never with me, only with yourself, with your commitment to the process.

I have a plan, the woman says. I have a journal. For her.

For whom? the engineer asks.

The woman, the woman says. Leeaura, I call her. My goal.

And you will be satisfied, the engineer says, when that goal is reached?

Of course, the woman says. How could I not be?

So, tell me, the engineer says, one true heart to another true heart.

High school, the woman says, biology class. That late. Doctor, always chin-chuck, cheek-pinch, the laugh like a bark. How is our little anomaly today? asked. Special, I thought he meant. That I was special. Then biology class. What they did, my mother, my father. Plunging on with it. Doing me the way they did. As though there were not choicesother choices than not choosing.

Right off the shelves of the Progeny Mart, Father said when I asked.

Laughing and hugging Mother, touching lips. He had made a joke. I had believed chosen.

Old-fashioned, the engineer says. Romantic. Extant romantics. Amazing.

Selfish, the woman says. Unthinking. Or worse.

One does not find as many . . . anomalies . . . as one did when the not-predicted could slip past the planners, the engineer says.

And were assigned to places like bookkeeper's desks, out-of-sight, the woman still in process says, unless, of course, one's gene map had been adequately modified.

Yes, yes, the engineer says. But somedaysoonthis Bank will guarantee that no one has to suffer being unique.

Meaning, of course, the engineer says, that I will be out of business.

Is the story not a different story, the woman says, when the bottom line is you?

No, not the eyes, the engineer says. Not yet.

The eyes are too special, too complex, too open to error, the engineer says. We must prepare. Is yours not a long list? Look at the thickness of your book. Be eager, the engineer says, not foolish.

The woman opens her book. She reads. The engineer tucks his chin in his hand and gazes toward the ceiling. He makes no notes.

Stop, the engineer says. Enough is enough.

We will begin with the ankles, the engineer says. We will work our way up. When you are ready, she will emerge.

Do you think you are god? the woman in process says to the engineer.

Do you? the engineer says to the woman.

The woman still in process writes in her journal, on the page headed "Notes," that she should have done her apartment in neutral colors, or, at least in colors more harmonious with the changes, especially when she had known all along what the general color-scheme for Leeaura was to be, had charted them, all the colors, all the changes. Like a blueprint. For the work. And the woman's journal has filled with the work, the molding of Leeaura. Altering. Refining.

I am looking forward to bragging about you, the engineer had said. You will be adorable.

The thought was so heady, the woman still in process could barely breathe. Tears sprang to her eyes. She admired the effect in the polished glass topping off the engineer's desk. How wonderful the effect will be, she wrote later in her journal on the page headed "Notes," when the eyes are the chosen color.

The woman still in process eats her breakfast slowly, taking time to chew each mouthful with what she has listed on the page headed "Assets" as her gloriously white, enchantingly straight and even teeth. The engineer has said never when hungry. The woman is filling herself, methodically, in the way she has developed.

The last crumb swallowed, the woman steps into her changing room, opens the package and, trying to avoid looking into the mirror before there is something new to see, follows the engineer's instructions.

Eyes the depth and radiance of fine emeralds look back at the woman who would be Leeaura. She leans closer to the mirror, moving her head this way, then that, studying the eyes. She telephones the engineer, as she has telephoned him every day since they began.

Oh, the woman says. Exquisite, the woman says. More than I hoped for. The clarity. The color. The brilliance.

You have out-shone even yourself, the woman says.

And you are satisfied? the engineer says. You have achieved your goal. You are Leeaura.

Well, yes, the woman says.

One thing, the woman says . . . .

The eyelashes, the woman says. They could be longer, I think. Denser, too. Just a bit.

Really, the woman says, just the slightest bit longer . . . .

I have done everything for you I can, the engineer says.

The woman still in process waits, listening for the engineer to say, However, . . . .

The phone line, distant, empty, begins to hum its hum in the woman's tinyand very nearly translucentear.

The woman sets the receiver on its hook and slowly lifts her head until her eyes look into the eyes of the woman in the mirror.

Who are you? she says. What do you want?